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. 

Genealogy of Power

Foucault began his genealogy of power in the 15th century with what he calls ‘pastoral’ power. This particular form was evident in the religious institutions of the time. It’s relationship was between God, represented by the church, and the individual with the ultimate aim of salvation. Confession is an example of a power relation in that it produces behaviour, knowledge, and societal effects. Foucault notes that power will change with society’s needs and throughout his genealogy we continue to see power grow, expand and infiltrate the whole social body. From pastoral power evolves two more forms; ‘sovereign’ and ‘disciplinary’ power which are illustrated via the penal system. Through torture and the creation of judicial law the sovereign family protected its bloodline and showed its strength which quelled revolt. When the bourgeois came to replace the monarchy it’s main concern became economic efficiency which depended upon the social body and the labour force this created. Torture and the taking of life would harm the population that this rests upon so this technique is replaced by the prison system. Far from the supposed aim of ‘rehabilitation’, the prison kept criminals, and ‘others’, under control and on the outer edges of society where their damage is minimised. Anything that strays from this norm is disciplined and controlled with the aim of ‘normalisation’. Finally, in the 20th century, Foucault argues we see the appearance of ‘biopower’. This sees power grow once again and become concerned with the population as a whole in the attempt for political and economic efficiency. This is evident through the criminalisation of homosexuality which protects and guarantees the need for an ever-growing labour force. Or in the ‘medicalisation’ of madness which, like the prison system, kept under control ‘others’ who would damage the aim of these power relations. Knowledge and control is no longer sought only over those who would harm the sovereign or economy, but over the whole population. Here we see the growth and expansion of power relations from the individual to the entire social body.

A problem with Foucault’s genealogy is that he only traces it back to the 15th century, the only inkling we have of power before this is the link he establishes with evolutionism. As Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid is a direct response to Darwinism, we have another clear link between the two.

History of Mutual Aid

Petr Kropotkn gives a historical account of mutual aid from the animal kingdom, to our earliest human ancestors, into the village and city, before what would have been modern examples. To begin, he notes that the vast majority of species live in societies based upon mutual aid. This being the best tool for the advancement of knowledge, continuation of species, rearing of children, enjoyment, safety and provision of food. This is evident in such animals as kites and ants who repel attacks from bigger, stronger and more powerful animals. From these and other animals that Kropotkin studied during expeditions through Siberia he concluded that; “it can safely be said that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but that, as a factor of evolution, it most probably has a far greater importance.” Moving onto our earliest human ancestors, Kropotkin notes that many similarities can be found. Humans are never isolated, we depend on others for our own survival, most evident in parental care. From this we see the significant role that mutual aid played in our evolution, the development of society, and how it continues to do so in everyday life.

With the formation of villages and towns, we see mutual aid apparent in the development of social institutions; morality, trade, military, education, medicine etc. While we also see the development of canals, roads, fortifications, agriculture, etc. Such progression played a huge role in the forming of society and would not have been possible if we were isolated or our relations were based on a ‘war of all against all’. Kropotkin notes that it is in the city when we begin to see the mutual aid tendency diminish and the role of power came to play a more influential role in social relations. This was evident in the centralisation of laws, resources and knowledge; individualism replaced altruism. But, as Kropotkin stated, the mutual aid tendency is so deeply inherent in our nature it can never disappear and can still be found in the old city guilds, friendship and parental care. As modern examples, these are included alongside the English Lifeboat Association and hobbyist associations. These groups comfortably display such traits key to mutual aid; cooperation, free from state intervention, sacrifice and so on.

Relationship of Power and Mutual Aid

From both writers’ studies of their respective factors, it is now possible to view the relationship of the two over our history. We can conclude that in the animal kingdom, mutual aid plays a necessary and more fundamental role than power, but the latter is still evident in competition. Again, in our distant ancestors and with the formation of the first villages we see mutual aid continues to play the most prominent role, with this tendency being the major driving force behind the foundation of social institutions, fortifications and knowledge. The utilisation of mutual aid was such a success that there was a population explosion. An effect of this is that we began to see the growth of power in the migratory wars that this produced. Both Foucault and Kroptokin note that it is around the 15th century when we begin to see power become more prominent and play a greater role in our social institutions and relations. No longer are resources, institutions and laws there for the benefit of the community but we see a process of centralisation which benefits a minority instead of the community. 

An Illustration of Power

Abiding by Foucault’s framework, to reveal power relations we will have to study the actions, relationships and effects evident in one of societies ‘blocks’. We must look at how they achieve the aim of power, which he argued was economic and political efficiency. I will focus upon what I consider to be the most important of our blocks; the food industry. Here, our relationship is that of consumer and customer, while the mechanisms at play would be the production and sales of the food. I believe two parts of our food system that can be used to illustrate these are livestock and waste. These are the norm of the industry and can comfortably show traits and mechanisms of power which result in its specific aim. The majority of diets around the world include livestock, while the abundance and cheapness of this produces consumer happiness which in turn fuels economic growth and political satisfaction. Our treatment of livestock also displays traits of the varying forms of power; laws are created, control over bodies, production of knowledge, etc. We find similarities with the waste that our food industry creates. Tristam Stuart revealed that between 30-50% of all food produced is wasted and this can therefore be seen as being the norm. Such mass waste is once again the result of abundance, choice, the demand for aesthetically pleasing food, laws, concentration upon profit, all of which help towards economic growth and political satisfaction.

Foucault sought to question why the prison system failed so badly in its original aim of rehabilitation. He realised that beneath this apparent aim of the penal system was a much more sinister one. Instead of rehabiliation, it sought the control of bodies so they would abide by powers central aim of protecting the economic and political powers. Power is concerned with individualism, it is the domination and control of others for benefit. By applying Foucault’s theory of power to the role of food in our society we now realise that the role of food is not, as is thought, and was the case when mutual aid was the dominant driving force, to feed this society. It is instead to comply with power relations in seeking economic and political efficiency. We grow more than enough, enough to feed 10 billion according to some researchers, but still we have hunger and malnourishment. Some of this food is fed to livestock in ‘developing’ countries, while more is wasted as it does not provide profit. Power relations have infiltrated and come to dominate all parts of the social body, where even something as primary as feeding people is replaced by the concern for profit. Such dominance has led to some devastating effects.

Gaia: An Effect of Power

The demand for specific and abundant food, which must abide by political and economic aims, takes up land and resources, which in turn destroys ecosystems, biodiversity, and creates hunger in other societies. Livestock can be seen as one of, if not the major causes of climate change, with the demand for food also a significant contributor. Our actions on earth are resulting in an ecological crisis which is all the more powerful than ourselves. An effect of the power relations evident in our block of food is the awakening of Gaia. This being the personification of earth, made up of myth and science, awakening because of our destruction of it, and the view that it cannot sustain this damage much longer.

We see power grow and expand once more to include the earth itself. We now seek to control the earth’s natural resources, its oceans, forests, soil, atmosphere, environment and even the living beings that we find upon it. Our relationship is one of power; destruction, domination and attempted control, with the majority of society partaking in this. Laws are introduced so we can keep on dominating it, knowledge is sought about productivity, longevity, lifespan, fertility. After the “biopolitics of the human race” in seeking knowledge and control over bodies and society, we now see a biopolitics of the earth. The exercise of power has grown from the individual to the body, to society and now over the earth. Although it is claimed that overpopulation is a factor behind the awakening of Gaia, I abide by Kropotkin’s thoughts that we need to view these people as contributors, not solely consumers. If our social relations were guided by mutual aid we would work together for the benefit of this population and the environment which this rests upon. With the dominance of power, the war of all against all is apparent, a war that wages within this population and now against the earth itself.

Mutual Aid as a Resistance to Power

How to solve the problems created by the emergence and domination of power, such as hunger and Gaia? For an answer, we may turn to an important feature of Foucault’s power that we are yet to mention; its productivity. He notes that power is “productive” and that wherever “there is a power relation, there is the possibility of resistance”. We can see how this is possible through such organisations as ASEED, Guerilla Kitchen Amsterdam and Bentley Urban Farm. These organisations, and countless others, can be seen to align to mutual aid practices and traits we discussed above in their cooperation, sacrifice and being free from state intervention. They have as their main aim not political and economic efficiency but, as when mutual aid was the major driving force in the village, tribe and town, they are concerned with feeding people. For example, Guerilla Kitchen Amsterdam concerns itself with saving and redistributing the wasted food to those who need it most. Food that was no longer deemed profitable and was therefore discarded. Bentley Urban Farm grows food for, and with, local residents, while at the same time focusing upon protecting the local environment. ASEED constantly campaigns against the destruction of the food industry on the environment while showcasing alternative methods. These organisations offer resistance to the dominant power relations in our food industry by spreading knowledge about the damage it creates, fighting the waste, feeding the ‘others’ the norm leaves behind, and offering an alternative way to shape this ‘block’. With this we can also see how they are produced by power relations, whether that be in the waste or damage created, in a similarity to how the domination of mutual aid led to an increase in migratory wars and techniques of power. Both factors are inherent in our society and nature, we see the relationship between them, but now becomes apparent, with the awakening of Gaia, a need to return to social relations based around mutual aid and the possibility and existence of such an alternative.

Mutual Aid Between Ourselves and Gaia

Foucault notes that power relations always have the possibility to reverse. This was seen through the changes in society which led to changes in power; the sovereign reversing the power of religious institutions, who in turn would have power relations reversed by the bourgeois. Or, even the reverse that happened between the dominance of mutual aid and power in the 15th century. Does this not reveal the possibility that power relations could reverse between us and the earth? Many claim that such a reversal is happening; we have awakened Gaia. Such a reversal we would never recover from and we realise the need to escape power relations. How is this possible? Revolution? Crisis? Ourselves? Foucault would later develop power into ‘power-as-governmentality’ and argued that it was possible to resist power through “the art of not being governed as much”. He states that we, as “members of the community of the governed”, are “obliged to show mutual solidarity” with the aim of not being governed as much. We, as a ‘community’, must show ‘mutual solidarity’ and try to escape the power relations that permeate through our society. Now, with mutual aid, we realise another possible basis of social relations, an alternative that Foucault always sought but never realised. We are expressing power over the earth but this can only lead to our destruction of it and therefore of ourselves. We need to change the dominative social relation of power and let mutual aid reemerge. Mutual aid between ourselves and the earth can already be found; in our history and in our every breath. It can be found in all of our blocks no matter how much it has been repressed by the growth of power. It is time to reawaken the mutual aid tendency that lies within all of us and let it grow and expand throughout our relationships, institutions, society, and finally, to Gaia herself.



Further Reading

Foucault, M, Disciple and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Foucault, M, History of Sexuality: An Introduction

Kropotkin, P, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

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