A Question of Belonging: Imagining Mutual Aid


As the Covid-19 crisis wears on in Britain, people have sought out ways to support each other despite social isolation and self-quarantine. The biggest outlet for feelings of solidarity may be the government’s NHS volunteer scheme - 750,000 people signed up - but many members of the general public have also found their way into community organising for the first time.

Thousands of autonomous, horizontal and hyper-localised Mutual Aid groups have formed since the pandemic reached the UK. Through delivering food and medicine, Mutual Aid groups are helping the most vulnerable shield from the virus. It’s estimated that they are connecting some three million people, with tens of thousands actively involved in giving and receiving assistance. For many, this is their first contact with the guiding principle of anarchism, Mutual Aid.

Such efforts appear to offer a hopeful picture of greater inclusivity and willingness to organise for equality. But can Covid-19 collectivism inspire a lasting loyalty towards each other, and particularly the most vulnerable?

While community organising has sparked discussions about collective support during Covid-19, policy-makers have also been encouraging community cohesion since the start of the lockdown. This second sort of community-building can be described as "Covid-nationalism" because it invokes the nation and Britishness, rather than solidarity and care. Even though these perspectives legitimise completely different sorts of responses to Covid-19, they are not a simple binary; top-down narratives can become entwined with ordinary people’s day-by-day experiences of extraordinary yet acute suffering. The danger is that today’s feelings of compassion might produce only short-term voluntarism, not sustained solidarity.

Mutual Aid and Covid-nationalism’s contradictory notions of affinity are both imagined and discursive. In itself, this is not new: as Benedict Anderson argued, every community is constructed through an imaginative process. Indeed, distinct “communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined”. He showed that communities are always imagined because the feelings of commonality which can sustain networks need the individual to have an “image of community” in their mind’s eye. Today, Anderson’s understanding of the political work which the imagination performs is useful, given the power which ambivalent and largely oppositional narratives of "community" wield.

Concern for the most vulnerable is at the heart of both Covid-19 Mutual Aid organising and the other volunteering. For Mutual Aid groups, the desire to re-imagine belonging is implicit in their egalitarian vision of connected living. Activists have attempted to list the countless hyper-local autonomous groups on a Covid-19 Mutual Aid website, which emphasises horizontalism in practical rather than abstract terms: “Mutual Aid isn’t about ‘saving’ anyone; it’s about people coming together, in a spirit of solidarity, to support and look out for one another”.

Similarly, the anarchist intention to work outside of formal and powerful structures which entrench inequality is articulated through the centrality of “care and compassion” for the most vulnerable: collaboration with the police, for instance, “may prevent vulnerable people [such as undocumented migrants] from accessing your support”. These groups have the potential to act as laboratories for grassroots narratives of belonging and solidarity, where care for the vulnerable is prioritised.

However, in practice, sustaining autonomous organising during lockdown is challenging. Mutual aid work has usually thrived through sustained personal relationships, but now only fleeting socially-distanced encounters are possible. Out of necessity, these networks have been built and maintained online. Beyond simple sign-up forms which you fill out with contact details and your availability to run errands, Facebook and WhatsApp groups are the chief ways people interact with Mutual Aid networks. These groups seem to be developing in various distinct directions simultaneously.

My own hyper-local WhatsApp Mutual Aid group is a useful example of this, and shows how people’s vernacular uses of “community” are associated with a number of these directions. Some members have written messages to the group as a whole, expressing gratitude for how it makes them feel as well as the tangible support individuals within it have provided. One thanked the group as a whole “your generosity of spirit, community spirit and positivity” while another said “it’s kept me going not just in practical help and support but [through] a feeling of connection and community and not having to face difficult times alone”.

The majority of messages are requests for general advice about supermarket stocks and queues (and I have joined in, asking a somewhat frivolous question about compost). The remainder of exchanges are the simple, transactional messages which arrange food and medicine drops: the backbone of Covid-19 Mutual Aid. In the case of this group, some requests come directly from the person in need while others come through Lambeth Mutual Aid volunteer organisers.

Notably, the Lambeth-wide organising group points interested readers to Kropotkin’s writing on Mutual Aid, but largely focuses on the practicalities of organising during the pandemic. They are attuned to the heightened need for accountability and have worked to monitor lockdown policing in Lambeth, where 60% of the population is BAME and thus more likely to be targeted.

Despite the tangible ability of groups like this one to encourage care and compassion, and despite social media groups’ ability to go some way towards virtually sustaining feelings of affinity, individuals’ desire to organise beyond their most immediate circumstances is clearly not guaranteed. How can feelings of compassion and solidarity today be translated into sustained and organised collective care?

Until recently, it was commonplace for UK policymakers, especially on the right, to talk of the ‘decline of community’. The lack of “community spirit” gained such credence that it has contributed to the tragically high number of Coronavirus victims in this country. Boris Johnson’s delay in implementing lockdown was caused - at least in part - by scientific advisors initially ruling out the lockdown measures other countries were implementing, seemingly because of the assumption that British people would reject stringent limitations of personal freedom.

The idea seems to reflect, somewhat troublingly, a vision of British exceptionalism where “individual liberty”, freedom and democracy are inalienable “British values”. These attributes are hardly exclusive to British identity - and certainly, individuals rarely take on such top-down narratives wholesale - but it is striking that both inclusion in and exclusion from collective “Britishness” have been articulated in relation to “individual liberty”.

Those who prioritise their personal freedom over others’ health have consistently been a small minority. Having to keep one’s distance from others may be a paradoxical expression of communitarian sentiment, but the sheer number of people volunteering with Mutual Aid groups, the NHS and charities is testament to the strength of the desire to help each other.

Those who lament the “decline of community” all too often look back nostalgically to Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, seeing a time when kinship and local ties were stronger. In practice, individualism and communitarian sentiment were often messily and ambivalently interwoven - as they continue to be today. However, invocations of community sentiment also served to bolster the postwar reconstruction’s focus on welfare, security and prosperity. However, in her analysis of post-war attitudes towards class, historian Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite found vernacular language which predated neoliberalism but was similar to the Thatcherite talk of individualism. Equally, although the very real damage wrought by under-funding public services and weakening labour rights must not be under-estimated, feelings of affinity and organised solidarity have both persisted. It seems that “community” has changed rather than “declined”. Increased affluence and technological advances like mobile phones, email and social media have allowed bonds to become increasingly non-geographic and, therefore, elective (Lawrence, 2019).

Today, lockdown means social circles are being re-drawn with a greater localised focus. Although social distancing makes all physical contact impossible and has made friendships more reliant on technology than ever, the urge to check on neighbours and help the vulnerable locally has re-emphasised place-based communities. A common feeling of affinity underlies the will to support the vulnerable and the desire to arrange localised communal activities like socially-distanced street parties (and individual actions like dropping off a home-cooked meal or organising a book swap).

After the government u-turn, when lockdown was finally imposed in late March, it began to encourage community feeling through Covid-nationalism. Various top-down narratives have since been invoked to curb individualist tendencies among the general public, all too often also being based on nationalist conceptualisations of British character. In the Queen’s speech before the Easter bank holiday, the isolation and separation of lockdown was paired with the experiences of child evacuees during the Blitz. Her speech encouraged “pride in who we are” as a nation through the “attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling [which] still characterise this country”. This is strikingly similar to the mythologising, patriotic work ordinary people’s perceived stoicism and “good humour” performed in discourses of the “Blitz spirit”.

However, in reality the least tenuous parallels between the ongoing global pandemic and the bombing of London’s civilians during the Second World War are class divisions, and have nothing to do with the romanticised national character: then as now, the elite sought to shelter themselves while the working class had to fight for rights to safety and shelter. During the Blitz, working class Londoners had little choice but to occupy tube stations in their thousands to shelter during air raids. Today, people experiencing homelessness have resorted to opening squats so they can safely self-isolate.

“Clap for Our Carers” may be one of the clearest examples of socially-distanced events which bring neighbours face-to-face at a safe distance, but it has also become troublingly entangled in the complex top-down expressions of apparent compassion and affinity. Although campaigner Annemarie Plas started the weekly event in response to citizens’ actions in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, the celebration of “NHS heroes” gained additional meanings when it was championed by the government. As an expression of support, it went some way towards obscuring governmental neglect for key workers’ safety without requiring the tangible, meaningful support the government owes NHS staff and other key workers - chiefly PPE and tests. Neoliberal politics has attempted to foster community feeling before - both Tony Blair’s “Third Way” and, later, David Cameron’s failed Coalition-era “Big Society” sought to heal what governments and think tanks increasingly called the “broken society” resulting from the “decline of community”. However, fostering cooperation and social bonds on a local scale didn’t necessarily mean tackling structural inequality.

In addition, the community sentiment supposedly stimulated by “Clap for Our Carers” has prompted BAME British and immigrant key workers to draw attention to the violent ways they are habitually excluded: through racism, xenophobia, nativism and the hostile environment. This is an expression of a broader issue with top-down narratives of belonging: inequalities of race and class, and their impact, run the risk of being obscured. Anderson observed that conceptualisations of “the nation” intertwine emotion and politics in such a way that the act of imagining may obscure the very real divisions of inequality:

[The nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship

This is the sort of sentiment which has been stoked by notions of coronavirus as “the great leveller”. It grew particularly pointed in the UK in mid-April when the Prime Minister was hospitalised with coronavirus and the government emphasised that we are “all in this together”. In reality, inequalities are being replicated in the risks of Coronavirus contagion, spread - and even the extent to which they benefit from government measures introduced to help.

It’s clear there is no de-facto equality in the face of Covid-19; but through ongoing, organised solidarity networks, a level of it can be created. However, Bordieu’s thoughts on collective choice might serve as a spark for further ideas about the meanings of solidarity and belonging during the pandemic and its aftermath. Individual interest, reading Bordieu reminds us, is historically arbitrary rather than a constant. We must not return to the same society after this crisis.

Today - in a world which is suddenly no longer so globalised and where unprecedented state intervention is undeniably needed to weather the economic crash - his criticism of the neoliberal “tyranny” of supposedly-inevitable individualism is more pressing than ever. As we imagine the ways we will relate to each other after the virus and consider the collective demands to be made about how we should live, it is worth thinking, as Bordieu did, about the ways pre-existing structures - the education system, the political system, etc - need to be continually transformed as people make sense of their everyday lives, build solidarities and those previously shut out take over the resources.

 Freya Marshall Payne is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her writing has also appeared in Vice, Prospect and The Guardian among other publications. She is currently completing a Master's in History at the University of Oxford, where she will begin doctoral research into women's experiences of homelessness this autumn.