Mutual Aid: An Alternative to Power

By Tom Pewton


Michel Foucault claimed that “power is everywhere”. It underlies our society and can be seen as the major driving force behind our social institutions and relationships. The novelty of Foucault’s work is that he makes power ‘active’, it is no longer an entity that is possessed by a person or groups but it “traverses the entire social body” and “comes from below”. We are all involved in ‘power relations’ to which we reinforce, resist or submit. Consequently, he argues that we must study where it is exercised, whom it is exercised over, as well as its techniques, aims and effects. In his genealogy of power, these will be revealed in the societal ‘blocks’ that he studies; medicine, military, education, sexuality and the penal system. The study of power relations, evident in these blocks, reveals key characteristics; repression, domination, authority and ‘normalisation’. 

Despite agreeing with Foucault that power plays a major role, the concern I address here is that it cannot explain all facets of society. Alongside power relations we also find ‘mutual aid’. Petr Kropotkin gave a history of this relation and the characteristics he identifies as belonging to this are cooperation, support, sacrifice and solidarity. He writes; “it is a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy. An instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution.” Reflecting on Foucault’s illustration of power, even here we find mutual aid. Within the penal system is the idea of justice and morality; in sexuality is love, kinship and the continuation of the species. Just as power is ‘active’, traverses the social body and is a relationship that we all find ourselves involved in, likewise is mutual aid. 

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