Mutual aid and consumer society

With the start to the season of consumer culture’s favourite pastime — frenzied shopping — we are constantly reminded of the ill-willed nature of the holidays. Instead of focusing on the violence that we have seen with Black Friday and subsequently losing hope in humanity, let us celebrate the times where people have rejected capitalism’s individualism in favour of collective mutual aid and how we can apply that to our everyday relationships.

Reflecting on the spirit of the holidays, I have come to understand it as well-intentioned, but very much disconnected to what a true gift-giving society means. Gift-giving to me is rooted in the idea that we support each other outside our immediate circle of friends and family to make sure that anyones basic needs are met. The “spirit of giving” is very much connected to how we form relationships that are based on mutual aid.

Mutual aid is defined as a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit – each according to their needs. It can be seen in many different cultures, from the dawn of humanity until today; we often forget about the cooperation that exists when we are overwhelmed with the competition that is normalized through cut-throat capitalism.

Instead of stampeding over someone who has fallen in order to get that cheaper TV, there are people out there who do simple mutual aid every day. Mutual “boosting” of vehicles in winter is common in Canada, and so is giving a hitch hiker a ride, organizing a ride-share, or stopping at the side of the road if there is a stalled vehicle.

These everyday examples tell of individual mutual aid, but what about entire societies based on these behaviours?

Volunteering and donating to charity are also important, but I have come to understand solidarity is much stronger than charity.


Historically, the Taborites, deemed heretics by the Catholic Church, hdeclared there would be no more servants and masters. They promised people would return to a state of pristine innocence. They rejected the façade of the corrupted church and insisted on the normativeness of biblical authority. During WWI, there was a movement towards a socialist view for national health care. There was a mutual aid order called the Taborites formed by African Americans that sought to provide well-equipped and fully staffed hospitals in the Southern U.S. This can be also seen with groups arising in the ‘60s and ‘70s facing racial exclusion and discrimination and creating communities where everyone has access to childcare, education, healthy food and other basic needs when the state failed to provide support.

Solidarity Cities

Today a Solidarity City is based on mutual aid and is a model that seeks to build communities to reject a system that exacerbates and normalizes poverty, not solely for immigrants and refugees, but also for Indigenous folks and Canadians. The needs that the Taborites were addressing are present in campaigns like Solidarity City and other communities based on mutual aid. Community organizations and centres, collectives, trade unions, healthcare providers, educational institutions, food banks, shelters, housing co-ops and everyone else can mutually benefit if they also commit to providing services equally to all, regardless of immigration status.

In The Legacy of the Lodges: Mutual Aid and Consumer Society, Eric Laursen writes “African Americans formed their own mutual aid societies, and in fact a greater proportion of black working males than whites belonged to a lodge. Immigrants — Jews, Irish, Hispanic and many others — formed lodges as well, often with a more politically radical ideology. Women had their own orders, which not only provided the usual benefits but sometimes offered training in marketable business skills as well. Like the larger ‘mainstream’ orders, all made a strong distinction between mutual aid and ‘charity’, which American workers feared would make them dependent on the government or on rich benefactors.”

David Garrioch, in the article Mutual Aid Societies in Eighteenth-Century Paris, writes that “Mutual aid societies have been strangely neglected by historians. Although hundreds were formed in France in the first half of the 19th century, and in Britain their membership vastly exceeded that of trade unions, they have been little studied”.

Instead, knowledge is concentrated on capitalist societies, not on those who are organized outside of the dominant model. Friendly societies, trade unions, housing associations, people’s banks and cooperatives are overlooked. This is perhaps relevant to reflect on during the holidays because mutual aid values are often replaced by a charity model connected to a consumer holiday.

Relationships once trumped consumer goods, but mutual aid societies slowly transformed into the consumer society that we see today. The new model of single-family, suburban home equipped with electric refrigerators, toasters and lawn sprinklers along with the dream machine — the automobile — helped facilitate a new landscape of shopping malls, movie theatres – the manufacturing of individual desire. Instead of a collective identity that many mutual aid societies were forming, new individual identities were forming.

Meaningful relationships are based on compassion, dignity and an understanding that we are in this together. How can we spread the holiday cheer when we decide to spend our money on items like Play Stations, chocolate and clothing that are made in oppressive circumstances? Sure, random act of kindness and donations to the Salvation Army may seem like good ideas, but can we go deeper and start forming more meaningful relationships?

This holiday season, while quality time with family and friends strengthens our bonds, also remember to look outside your immediate bubble and ask yourself if the holiday spirit means meaningful social change or empty rituals.

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