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Mutual aid is a term in political economy used to signify the economic concept of voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. The concept is central to libertarian socialist and anarchist thought.


Human origins

Mutual aid is arguably as ancient as human culture; an intrinsic part of the small, communal societies universal to humanity's ancient past. From the dawn of humanity, until far beyond the invention of agriculture, humans were foragers, exchanging labor and resources for the benefit of group and individual alike.

Intellectual origins

As an intellectual abstraction, mutual aid was developed and advanced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and also by the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. Mutualism was a fundamental concept in the invention of labor insurance systems and thus trade unions, and has been also used in cooperatives.

The work of Kropotkin

In his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Kropotkin explored the utility of cooperation as a survival mechanism for animals, in order to counteract the conception of evolution as a fierce competition for survival between individuals that provided a rationalization for the theories of social Darwinism. His observations of indigenous peoples in Siberia guided him to conclude that not all human societies were so competitive as those of industrialized Europe.

In another of his books, The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin proposed a system of economics based on mutual exchanges made in a system of voluntary cooperation. Kropotkin's thesis was based on the premise that scarcity was unnecessary, and it was possible to produce enough wealth to satisfy the needs of everybody by working only five hours a day during adult life (leaving the rest of the day to satisfy desires for luxuries, if so desired). He argued that flawed economic systems prevented this bounty from being achieved and had led to a socially inefficient allocation of resources. When integrated into an industrial economy the principles of mutual aid, Kropotkin posited, would produce more fruits for all. He further developed these ideas in Fields, Factories and Workshops. However, Kropotkin never fully outlined how such a system would be achieved, nor did he answer the questions of how such a system would be structured or make decisions, other than to make broad pronouncements about mutual exchanges. For example he gives the examples of farmers in the countryside producing grain for the city based on the understanding that workers in the city will then provide them with finished goods.

See also

Further reading

  • For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, PM Press, by John Curl, 2009


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