Propaganda and Mutual Aid in the time of COVID-19
A double sentiment is overwhelming: intense connectivity on one hand and dislocation on the other.1 The expropriation of our attention and social reproduction by techno finance and surveillance apparatuses was already pervasive prior to the pandemic, but it has become yet more palpable—if not even palatable to some segments of the population who face little financial or medical threat. That said, accepting the imperative to socially distance from one another and thus the greater (physical and psychic) separation that it compels needn’t oblige us to accept heightened alienation and fragmentation as inevitable consequences, or to put aside struggles for greater collective control of our lives (and our labor power).2 Increased online connectivity with those in our immediate geographic communities can be utilized to build local, extra-parliamentary power rooted in local concerns. For those workers deemed “non-essential,” for example, time away from the workplace may allow for greater connection with neighbors: talking about withholding rent if one can pay in solidarity with those who can’t, organizing to deliver food to older and immunocompromised people nearby, building new community gardens to compost food waste given the shutdown of municipal collection in New York City on May 4th, and so on—not to mention talking about what constitutes “essential” work and thus obliges greater risk. (Are call center workers really essential, as has been legislated in parts of the country?) Furthermore, if our production continues undisturbed, in half the time, when we don’t have to go to the office, why should we continue to venerate the current logics of work?3
In short, social distancing doesn’t mean we must distance from or abandon the prospects of “the social.” Rather, the responsibility to stay at home, and the greater imbrication of our everyday activities within a local geographic position that comes with it, can be—and has already been—mobilized by autonomous groups across the country to invite the retooling of isolation into a collective refusal of the injustices and violence of neoliberalism. This essay looks specifically at a number of examples underway in New York City.
By “local,” I refer to already-existing geographies that gain much more relevance to everyday life under quarantine: areas constituted by the apartment buildings, parks, and bodegas within walking distance. This understanding must, however, incorporate the economic and social disparities of different workers that have delineated neighborhoods especially susceptible or protected from the virus, and to the increased policing that has accompanied the declared “state of exception,” such as the 1,000 more cops added to the train system to displace unhoused people. The privileges or burdens of mobility have been flipped by the stay at home orders. There are those who had the privilege of mobility before quarantine, and those who have the privilege of immobility now: those who can tele-work, who can survive without working, and so on. It’s telling of capital’s hierarchizing that those two segments of the workforce are almost the same. “Essential” workers who were already precarious before the virus are now tasked with remaining mobile: delivering food, riding an unsanitary public transit system, caring for the ill if one works as a home attendant, as well as the emergency medical workers.4
Questions of how to reconcile local, immediate concerns (gentrification, displacement, community resource-sharing) with larger internationalist aspirations (against militarism, anti-statism, climate justice struggles) have been crucial to anti-capitalist thought and practice at least since the First International; they have even more relevance now. Long-standing questions on the Left have become more urgent: How do we do community outreach beyond mere clicktivism if sequestered in our homes? Where can popular power be located if not in the street, and can the street be an active stage for struggle while following social distancing regulations? With respect to mutual aid, how do we connect the surplus population who need assistance with those who are (for now) able to provide it—not in order to fill the gaps in the state’s paltry attempts at propping up the costs of social reproduction through dilapidated (and debt-dependent) welfare models, but with the goal of creating structures of aid and care that will surpass this one crisis in the durational crisis of neoliberal capitalism as it burns and doubles down on its violence?
This crisis has produced a unique set of conditions with potential for collective action, configuring the possibility for what could be conceptualized as a general strike. As the authors of an article in the journal Chuǎng wrote almost two months ago, the quarantine “is like a strike hollowed of its communal features but nonetheless capable of delivering a deep shock to both psyche and economy.”5 We can look at those who have lost work or are unable to pay rent as acting out the motions of a general strike, but without the intent and popular power that would make it a wide act of refusal. On May 1, around 12,000 people signed a pledge to go on rent strike, but estimates say that close to 44 percent of New Yorkers would not be able to pay. In The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks asked: “How might we conceive the content and parameters of our obligations to one another outside the currency of work?”6 Now is the time to answer this question. A legitimation crisis of waged work is in the cards, one that will untether the imperative of working from the possibility of life, dignity, and community. Property has been synonymous with theft since the development of capitalism, before and since neoliberal metropoles made privatization and violent displacement their modi operandi. But there is an argument to be made that the equivalence between rent and extortion has never been clearer when millions cannot work but are still expected to pay their landlords. The goal of outreach and community involvement today must be to aggregate intent, to build collective consensus. Tenants organizations, community organizations, and mutual aid networks—those at the forefront of reconceiving what is meant by the local and poised to collectivize intent through shared experience—are absolutely crucial to providing those avenues of discussion. This text will focus on examples of the latter as they grow around the city.
In NYC, many recall the response of those organizing around Occupy Wall Street in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, who shifted gears to mutual aid and reconstruction efforts. This was a show of how networks built through struggle can be quickly repurposed to address emergent crises; what Catherine Malabou has recently termed the “plasticity” of anarchism. As the Woodbine collective describe it [italics are mine]:
Some suggested [Occupy Sandy] offered a prefigurative glimpse of “disaster communism.” However, it could also be argued that the primary function of Occupy Sandy was that of a supplementary service provider within the void left by the state, and that it was never able to become a sustained political formation capable of forcing concessions from the ruling class. At its best, it demonstrated collective capacity to directly confront catastrophe, and served as a crucible for relationships, projects and spaces in the subsequent decade—including Woodbine itself.7
We have learned over the last decade that today’s efforts must consider how to remain viable after one crisis is over and others continue: how to become a sustained political formation, one that is less susceptible to recuperation by electoralism and that can forge permanence to transcend the “return to normalcy” prescribed by capital after catastrophe, such as what followed the 2008 crash. Woodbine’s current efforts may serve as the beginnings of an exemplar. They have partnered with Hungry Monk Rescue Truck, a New York City-based Homeless Outreach and Community Response Vehicle, to distribute food, and have turned their Ridgewood space into what is essentially a food pantry. As they describe their current mutual aid work: “What we want is to turn this shared experience into a process of collective self-organization in the face of intensifying crisis,” clarifying that “[m]utual aid means not just responding to crises, but creating the conditions to respond.”8 From the networks their food distribution will utilize and build, all person to person and tied to a physical neighborhood, the seeds of the other elements of a newly-constructed local food system could be grown, for example, one that would incorporate farming, procurement, and distribution, as it collaborates with other contingents on different scales.9
The current “void left by the state,” as Woodbine phrases it, invites us to reconcile a dilemma: the need for widespread state aid and the violence, inscribed in relief, of that same state. The term “economic relief” has been erroneously used to describe statist reactions to the crisis like universal basic income schemes meant to outlast the crisis, for one example. Economic crisis policy in the US—and in European states with prominent left parliamentary contingents—is far from relief when there are federal proposals to lower wages for agricultural workers, when rent is not cancelled altogether, when millions remain unhoused and food insecure, and millions more without adequate medical care. Furthermore, as techno-finance is asked to help develop surveillance apparatuses in cooperation with policing tools—with the applause of those on the left and the right who now picture elements of authoritarian statism as prophylactics against viruses—we see the full picture of neoliberalism come into view: divest from communities and privatize infrastructure, provide mitigated welfare to ensure minimal social reproduction, and violently surveille and police all but the white middle/upper classes—today’s crisis economics have not paused this process.
A first step then, as we organize within our communities, is to delegitimize the call for “disaster relief” with a set of conditions that could allow us to build a veritable disaster communism in its place, or what Woodbine have proposed be called disaster confederalism: “the conditions for a kind of infinite strike in which communized resources and infrastructures have a crucial role to play, not only in immediate material survival but in building bases of autonomy for a citywide network of dual power.”10 Inevitably this would involve creating local bases for collectivity from the structures of aid that we are building now: community gardens, pantries, shared living spaces, and so on. The prediction of current reactionary responses by neoliberal states is what informed Giorgio Agamben’s widely shared critique of “states of exception”11 in the early weeks of the pandemic. It has been roundly deemed too simplistic in its disregard of the need to save lives, even if with the state’s help for now—an argument that becomes “recognisably unhinged,” as Eli Lichtenstein puts it in Salvage, given the scale of suffering. But, the situation is tricky: there is the trap of legitimizing the state’s modes of control through expanded—ifinsufficient— economic aid, rather than demanding the outright cancellation of debt, for instance. Lichtenstein continues:
How, then, to comprehend a situation in which the state that we all hate—for its cops, its borders, its endless violence—is, one of the key lifelines for much of the world? [...] It is a recognition that sometimes, we are alive because capital wants us to be alive, at least for now. It is a recognition that we cannot step out of the value relation by ourselves, as individuals, and that until we do so collectively, we will—at least sometimes—be forced to play by its rules. […] Until we abolish capitalism, the need for these sorts of emergency measures will be constantly regenerated.13
In fact, we must not only clamor for greater government support for workers and communities, but also shift to supporting each other wherever possible. Food pantries can later be supplanted with larger community-based and owned agriculture systems; hotel rooms given to (only 6,000) unhoused folks can be made permanent, expropriated to house the tens of thousands of unhoused in NYC. My thoughts go to the Bronx, where autonomous groups like Take Back the Bronx and NYC Shut It Down have shown the plasticity of extra-parliamentary community work by gearing up their continuous “Feed the People” program (FTP, doubling for Fuck the Police) towards immunocompromised and unhoused people. Or contingents of artists across the city that have re-purposed their skills and networks to organize the delivery of masks to essential workers, raise money for hospitals, or to 3-D print shields for medical front liners. (The latter example is particularly interesting in how it rewrites the historical, Marxist sense of autonomous aesthetic production). Unlike Woodbine, which has access to a space and shifted the function of that space, Take Back the Bronx and NYC Shut It Down had access to shared experiences and community, and mobilized them. Access to space, the creation of shared experience, and the retooling of skills will all have to be brought together to create the conditions for responding to future crises. If the wide inability to pay rent is in fact something like a general strike, let’s imagine our mutual aid funds as the type of building-wide escrow accounts set up when a single building organizes, or better yet, as a strike fund.
My partner and I, thinking through the above conditions while distancing in our home, have been considering how political engagement, solidarity, and mutual aid—in the historically anarchist sense of the word, rather than in the NGO-ized sense—can be retooled to act locally. One response we came up with was to create a hyper-local fund for small businesses and their workers that would be paid into by a sizable, local middle class population. The fund set out from the understanding that this sort of redistribution on a micro-scale is not the end of struggle but a means of forming a network between different small businesses in the neighborhood, while perhaps helping with minimal running costs and helping pay workers who were let go, but do not necessarily live close by. We didn’t start the fund by collecting donations, but rather by reaching out to small businesses first, asking them how many workers they were unable to pay, how much revenue they had lost, and whether they had to shut their doors. After a small, autonomous network was set up we began to collect donations, flyering, sharing a document online, and so on. So far, given that close to 40 businesses—barbershops, cafes, dog walkers—have signed on, the cuts of the pie have been small, but that’s not the point, or at least not the whole point.
A central goal of the fund is to disseminate information, both to donors and recipients of funds. Those who will donate—predominantly middle-class and housing-secure—may start to see how fragile their neighbors’ economic positions are beyond the rhetorics of philanthropy capitalism or welfare, when those they see struggling live around the block, or in their building. The other goal is to create a network between the businesses. So far email threads among members and ourselves have included frustration with the convoluted loan schemes offered by the city, information on how to organize a rent strike (particularly, a stellar toolkit put together by the Met Council), and putting different people in the network in touch. The fund is the beginning of a formation that could reconstitute itself along different parameters when future crises emerge.
It’s time to talk to neighbors, to refuse to pay our rent regardless of whether or not we can pay, to rephrase our isolation as refusal. It’s also time to create forms of communication between different mutual aid networks and other autonomous groups around the city. Per Woodbine:
This is where we can imagine such hubs forming the basis for a new disaster confederalism. The first revolutionary measure is to form immediate links with each other in the midst of a survival crisis. Then comes the longer-term strategy that builds autonomy and solidarity through citywide and regional networks, while pushing the limits of the state’s capacity for redistribution, until its hold is broken. Survival pending revolution.
Engaging in small-scale political education through mutual aid networks is a great place to begin.
Thank you to Elvia Wilk for her tireless edits of this text, and for her insights shared in conversation as we think through the conditions described below. Thanks as well to Jose Rosales and Paul Mattick for their helpful comments. This text was first written in April 2020, and thus does not reflect developments in the conditions engendered by the pandemic and the breadth of popular responses to them, nor the continued reactionary violence by governments in NYC and elsewhere since then. However, the call for autonomous mutual aid groups and greater coordination between them remains vital.
In fact, in a recent conversation I conducted with Franco “Bifo” Berardi, he mentioned that some Italian psychiatrists are imagining this to be a time of mandatory, self-reflection and self-psychoanalysis. See: Andreas Petrossiants and Franco Berardi, “Social Distancing and the Global Reset to Follow,” Fall Semester, Spring Break, April 7, 2020, https://fallsemester.org/2020-1/2020/4/8/franco-berardi-andreas-petrossiants-social-distancing-and-the-global-reset-to-follow.
For the current discourses in liberal mass media, see this New York Times alarm ringing about the “end of the open-floor office”: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/04/health/coronavirus-office-makeover.html, and this piece that speculates on the seismic changes to real estate that a shift to teleworking would catalyze for Manhattan real estate: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/nyregion/coronavirus-work-from-home.html. Robert Fitch’s The Assassination of New York (Verso, 1993), described the displacement and violence that allowed for those offices to dominate the metropolitan landscape with planned de-industrialization in the first half of the twentieth century. Their closure now, it’s not hard to imagine, will continue the violence that guarantees increasing property values. However, it can also create the conditions for mass squatting, popular expropriation of newly-vacant office buildings, and so on.
The Ain’t I A Woman Campaign, a grassroots mobilization of home attendants, have brought attention to the lack of protections they have received from the state. See: https://www.aintiawoman.org/.
“Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China,” Chuang, http://chuangcn.org/2020/02/social-contagion/.
Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
Woodbine, “Mutual Aid, Social Distancing, and Dual Power in the State of Emergency,” e-flux conversations, March 23, 2020, https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/mutual-aid-social-distancing-and-dual-power-in-the-state-of-emergency/9686, emphasis mine.
Woodbine, “Organizing For Survival in New York City,” Commune, April 24, 2020.
Woodbine discusses the nature of their geographic specificity in Ridgewood, Queens, as well as their attempt at forging connections with autonomous formations across the country and the world in a recent interview with Rouen dans la Rue, “Solidarity and Collective Autonomy,” Mute, April 20, 2020, https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/solidarity-and-collective-autonomy-interview-woodbine.
Woodbine, “Organizing For Survival in New York City,” Commune, April 24, 2020.
Giorgio Agamben, “The Invention of an epidemic,” originally published in Italian on Quodlibet, February 26, 2020; available in English here: https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/.
Eli B. Lichtenstein, “Agamben’s Polemic: On Biopolitics, State, and Capital,” Salvage, April 15, 2020, https://salvage.zone/articles/agambens-polemic-on-biopolitics-state-and-capital/.