LAURA LOVES, LAURA LOATHES
Laura Graham gives a personal perspective on the news, trends, people and events she encounters as she travels across the country. She loves mutual aid – while alerting us to beware of “wealthy peasants” – but loathes power struggles in some services.
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Laura Loves… Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin.
This book was originally published 111 years ago: in 1902 (republished by Dover in 2006), in response to Darwinian theorists’ beliefs that individualism was a natural development in ensuring the survival of the human race.
Kropotkin posited that too much was made of Darwin’s original scientific work and the emphasis on competition among people and the struggle for existence. He highlighted that Darwin included reference to survival of the fittest happening only within principles of mutual aid – this is the focus of Kropotkin’s work.
While not focusing specifically on recovery, this work shows how mutual aid is part of nature – from pond life, animal, primitive man through to modernity, survival is dependent on mutual aid and support. As Kropotkin says, mutual aid is “an instinct wider than love or personal sympathy – an instinct slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution, and which has taught animals and men alike the force they can borrow from the practice of mutual aid and support, and the joys they can find in social life”.
For Kropotkin, mutual aid is not based in love, sympathy or self-sacrifice, although he believes that they play an immense part in the progressive development of our moral feelings. He believes that mutual aid is embedded in the conscience – at the level of instinct – of human solidarity. “It is the unconscious recognition of the force borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; the close dependence of everyone’s happiness on the happiness of all; the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own,” he wrote.
Kropotkin takes the reader on a journey through history to demonstrate his theory. He explains how mutual aid was organised via tribes, clans, the village community, guilds, the mediaeval city, unions and brotherhoods and how, in all these instances, the instinct to support rather than compete dominated. This became even stronger when institutions tried to break down the protective walls of mutual aid with no other purpose than to increase their own wealth and power.
And this was written in 1902!
Kropotkin explains common features of mutual aid which he found in every brotherhood formed for any possible purpose. He states that “in each case, the members treated each other as, and named each other, brother and sister; all were equal before the guild”. Additionally, they were all independent of the State.
Even when the ideals of society have been moulded by a dominant power, so that atrocities inflicted on people can be justified as “for public safety” or in their best interests, the principles of instinctive mutual aid remain.
Indeed, as Kropotkin notes, dominant classes have attempted to dismiss mutual aid as sentimental nonsense and tried to destroy mutual-aid institutions for hundreds of years. As far back as 1787 – and similarly today – the State has attempted to control instinctive mutual aid by appointing high-profile roles to individuals as a façade of representing the community (be that geographical, trade or affinity such as the recovery community) and uniting them. Kropotkin highlights that, far from being representative or valid in their roles, these people have only ever been “wealthy peasants” and usually rewarded as individuals rather than of being benefit to the wider people they claim to represent.
The wealthy peasants’ egos are inflated in this practice and they are happy to misrepresent their people in return for a promised or an expectation of reward. We all know them. Some of us take time to see through them. Kropotkin says that these people are “simply looked upon as unpaid functionaries of the State machinery”. Basically, they are doing what they are told by the State and not what is best for the people they claim to represent.
This book is a wonderful and fascinating read. Written over a century ago, the central themes are as relevant today as when they were to its author. Mutual aid is instinctive and necessary for our development, and when individuals try to deny this, they risk decay. Competition and misrepresentation driven by ambition, power and wealth sit with individualism and have no place in mutual aid.
So, brothers and sisters, beware of the wealthy peasants: they are not well!