Belief in a “social safety-net” is usually connected to progressivism or Scandinavian-style social democracy, so it’s understandable that the concept is usually linked to a state function, and the concept of “Big Government”(even though it’s not necessarily so). The concept has been tried and has under periods of time worked (see my home-country Sweden for example). Whenever, though, the inevitable dip in the corporate economy occurs the social safety-net (see: the poor), is falsely blamed, even though the culprits usually are the capitalists and the monopoly privilege they get from the state.
Mutualists, while anarchists, also believe in a social safety net. We believe that for reasons of reciprocity and progress, it is good that we take care about those worse off in society. Our social safety net is different, though. I’ll attempt to explain the social safety-net mutualists prefer and how it is different(and preferable) over the welfare state.
The mutualist social safety-net: Mutual Aid
Mutual Aid is an organization or network in which goods and services are voluntarily and reciprocally exchanged between the members for mutual benefit. It is a system of cooperation to meet needs and take care of people. This form of organization has existed for as long as we know, and it definitely exists today. But mutualists don’t just want a few of these organizations. Mutualists seek to build this form of organization, network and associate it over larger geographical areas through federation, gradually replacing the existing state functions. After the fall of present day voucher-feudalism, they will be the fundamental cornerstone of the mutual society.
Privileged charitably vs reciprocal solidarity
Oscar Wilde, in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, pointed out the following about welfare and charity:
They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.
(….) It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.
While he wasn’t a mutualist, we agree with him that charity isn’t the goal of society, but solidarity. Welfare is privilege trying to justify itself by spending parts of what it looted from the poor on keeping those poor people from dying. Solidarity, in form of mutual aid organizations, is a system of equal agents acting together to promote reciprocity and mutuality.
Furthermore, the state is an inherently anti-social organization. As Mao put it, it’s political authority comes from the barrel of a gun. It’s job is to mandate or prohibit. How absurd is it to assume such an institution would solve the problems of inequality? Social equality cannot be mandated from above by a state, because the state is an inherent inequality, just like anti-racism cannot be mandated by a “master race”. If we want equality, we must create institutions that are equal. A core part of mutualist political strategy is doing so: creating networks of free mutual aid structures to gradually replace the old, failing, attempts by the status quo to clean up it’s own mess.
Free association vs forced dependence
The social safety-net, in order to stay true to it’s name, must give people the right to freely associate and disassociate with it. How “social” is it to force people to partake in your organization? In order for the structure to remain social, it must also be voluntary. The welfare-state is not, but mutual aid is. There may be many different mutual aid-networks overlapping, and people who feel dissatisfied with a particular mutual aid network can switch to one that satisfies their needs. Another benefit of free association is that if the structure is failing, everybody can quickly disassociate and re-associate without the tedious processes that the bureaucratic welfare-state brings with it.
Accountability vs Bureaucracy
Hierarchy entails bureaucracy, and this is true for the hierarchical welfare state too. When people in need turn to the state for care, they are usually met with a cold, faceless bureaucracy, difficult to understand paper-work, questions about your personal habits and character you’d rather keep to yourself etc… It is hard to imagine the centralized, top-down structure could ever possess the magical altruism the social progressives attribute to it, and it doesn’t. Hierarchy, bureaucracy and centralism makes the supposed egalitarianism of welfare-states a perverse joke. Hierarchy, as Kevin Carson points out, is incapable of properly processing the information necessary to serve it’s function:
No matter how insightful and resourceful they are, no matter how prudent, as human beings in dealing with actual reality, nevertheless by their very nature hierarchies insulate those at the top from the reality of what’s going on below, and force them to operate in imaginary worlds where all their intelligence becomes useless. No matter how intelligent managers are as individuals, a bureaucratic hierarchy makes their intelligence less usable.
In a mutual aid-society, concerns are handled in a localized face-to-face democratic structure. Information about the available resources and the needs of every member is open to all. Individuals are more respectful toward each-other, since all of them are mutually indebted to one another, as opposed to the debt a welfare recipient has to the welfare worker. Concerns that demand communication and decision-making over a larger geographical area would be handled through a loose, free federation between the local organizations, meaning that power comes from bottom-up as opposed to top-down. Bottom-up organization starts with the individual, and interlocks into a more complex federation of individuals and groups based on the choices of these individuals. This means a degree of accountability unprecedented in the cold bureaucracy of the welfare state.
Welfare is privilege softening the edges of it’s tyranny through charity, mutual aid dismantles privilege and replaces it with reciprocal solidarity.
Welfare destroys the social aspect of the safety-net by pointing a gun at the neck of everyone, mutual aid becomes the full realization of the social aspect by making it voluntary and humane.
Welfare uses the means of less freedom, mutual aid uses the means of more freedom.
Welfare creates dependence of most to a few, mutual aid creates mutual interdependence of all involved.
Welfare attempts to reach the end of a social safety-net by the means of a cold, hierarchical bureaucracy, mutual aid attempts to reach the same end through a horizontal, humane, and accountable democracy.
Welfare is the adolescence of socioeconomic justice, and mutual aid is it’s manhood.