Point/Counterpoint: NYC-DSA and Mutual Aid
by Mike S
All of us want DSA to become a mass organization capable of reaching the broadest layers of the working class. The question is how to achieve that goal.
Since DSA’s recent resurgence, many members have argued that “mutual aid” activities should play a central role in this process. While I respect this point of view, I do not share it. To begin with, discussions of mutual aid in DSA often blur the distinctions between this form of activity and direct service work, and typically amount to the latter in practice. This raises fundamental questions about the purpose of a political organization like ours: is our task to do things for people or to fight together with them in common struggles that benefit the working class as a whole?
Mutual aid can play an important role in building those common struggles, but a secondary and supporting one. Our path to becoming a mass working class organization runs primarily through election campaigns, rebuilding the labor movement, organizing tenants, and spreading the good word of democratic socialism face-to-face and through our own media.
Mutual aid or service work?
The most prominent example of “mutual aid” in DSA is the brake light clinics that many chapters have taken up around the country. These clinics have likely helped some people avoid costly and dangerous run-ins with the police, while raising DSA’s profile through positive media coverage. This is a good thing, but these clinics are not mutual aid. They are a form of direct service and their contribution to building ongoing political relationships with working class communities is limited at best.
Mutual aid implies reciprocity – a relationship in which all parties involved benefit to a similar degree. This was the guiding principle of the various fraternal organizations and benefit societies that workers built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to meet the costs of healthcare, education, and recreation. They played an important role in the working-class movements of the time, but their importance has faded as those movements forced the state to construct modern welfare states.
The most important element of mutual aid and direct service activities is their ability to expose failures of the political system and then pressure the government, employers, or landlords to address them. In 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit, Occupy Sandy, in which I participated, came together to meet people’s needs. We did an excellent job of politicizing the inadequate response to the storm, but the focus was on cleaning homes and sending supplies. As a result, we were unable to organize effectively enough to win the massive resources necessary to truly rebuild the city. It was helpful in the way that charity is helpful, but it did not build sustainable working class power. Instead of trying to build parallel institutions, we should fight to expand and democratize the existing welfare state that our predecessors fought so hard to achieve.
The purpose of political organization
This debate is about a more fundamental question facing DSA: what is the purpose of a socialist organization?
Proposals to devote significant time and attention to mutual aid make it suggest that the purpose of a socialist organization is to do things for people rather than fight together with them in common struggles that benefit the working class as a whole. From there, it is very easy to lapse into client-provider relationships with the people we serve. This is not the approach a socialist organization should take to building relationships with working class communities. It is difficult to turn clients into political actors, and attempts to do so can often seem inauthentic or manipulative, regardless of our good intentions.
Instead of doing work that religious organizations and nonprofits can already do (most of which have far more funding), we should focus on what they can’t or won’t do: name a class enemy, develop a strategy to defeat it, and recruit people to join us in that fight.
This means making demands on those in power — demands that will make things better for the whole working class, not just the small section of it we might provide a service to — while building a broad movement that can ultimately take power away from those who currently wield it.
Effectively distributing goods and services on the level our city needs would require a massive bureaucracy and a lot of money. We don’t have these resources — political and business elites do. When we try to provide services directly instead of fighting them to give up their wealth and power, we simply let them off the hook.
Our own political experiences over the last three years point in this direction. NYC-DSA has made its biggest impact and reached our broadest audiences through the election campaigns of Khader El-Yateem, Jabari Brisport, Julia Salazar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, canvassing for the New York Health Act, working for the passage of the Right to Know Act, helping to revitalize our unions, and fighting for universal rent control in New York State.
These are the kinds of fights that will build credibility and trust in working class communities while spreading a political message of class struggle and multiracial solidarity. Direct services and mutual aid can play a useful role in supporting these kinds of fights, but they should not take precedence over them. We want to bring masses of people into motion on issues where they’re willing to fight against the ruling class, and through those fights deepen their understanding of the issues and how they connect to the system as a whole.
The socialist movements of the past achieved their scale and power through mass action. They prioritized election campaigns, mass demonstrations, labor movement work, issue-based fights, and the development of independent mass media because they knew these were the most effective means to reach the broadest possible layers of the working class. These are precisely the activities that DSA should prioritize today in order to increase the level of social struggle in this country, and to organize the many against the few.