There is a power to mutual aid, as community responses to the lockdown have shown (‘The way we get through this is together’: the rise of mutual aid under coronavirus, 14 May). But while past waves of self-help and mutual aid led to the formation of large-scale co-operative and mutual enterprises, with 1 billion members worldwide, the obstacles to people moving from informal mutuality to a formal mutual body are now considerable.
The earliest mutual aid bodies, from burial societies in Rome to cow societies in England, were formed around common needs such as insurance, housing or credit. Today these tend to be regulated sectors with rules, such as initial capital requirements, that only work for new ventures if they are investor-owned.
Our leaders need to let go of the idea that everything should be organised through the state or the market, with philanthropy left to clean up after. The more that people can self-organise, from community services to social care, with tools such as community buyouts of local business and employee ownership in strategic sectors such as manufacturing, the more we will all benefit; we will be better placed not just for the recovery but also for the next time we face a crisis.
Secretary general, Co-operatives UK
• Rebecca Solnit reports a range of activities that she describes as mutual aid, set up by ordinary people to help ordinary people during the Covid-19 crisis. It struck me that this was the kind of action in which many women were engaged throughout the last century in this country, particularly those who gave up paid work on marriage or when they started a family.
My mother won one of the coveted scholarships to grammar school in 1919 and then worked in an insurance office in the City of London for eight years. She gave it up when she married. Later, bringing up a family in Lancashire, she made an immense contribution to the local Women’s Institute, whose members performed important community support functions within and beyond its membership. In my generation, women who had young children and who were not working in the 1970s often became involved in local play groups, schools and neighbourhoods, and in wider social campaigns.
But today many young women seem to be working such long hours that they have no spare time for anything outside the family. This is not an argument for confining them to full-time domesticity – far from it! Rather, we need to discover a way of organising things that enables both women and men to use their talents in paid and unpaid activity, and to have both equally valued.
Dunnington, North Yorkshire
• Rebecca Solnit makes a powerful argument that our experience of the crisis will lead to permanent changes in society. She concludes by saying that we need to tell each other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible. A model for these stories already exists in William Morris’s socialist masterpiece News from Nowhere, in which he describes a society some time in the future, where we live in harmony with each other and with nature.
Morris paints a powerful picture of how society can change, once freed from the clutches of capitalism. Perhaps just as sales of Albert Camus’s The Plague increased as we entered the crisis, News from Nowhere will be the novel that we read as we emerge into the new normal and strive to build a better world.
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