Here’s a revolutionary idea for a post-Covid-19 America: neighbors helping neighbors, delivering meals to shut-ins, and strengthening common bonds. According to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this voluntarism—called “mutual aid”—would represent a stunning break from American tradition. “There are two ways this can go for us,” Ocasio-Cortez recently told The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino. “We can buy into the old frameworks of, when a disaster hits, it’s every person for themselves. Or we can affirmatively choose a different path. And we can build a different world, even if it’s just in our neighborhood, even if it’s just on our block.”
Though it may come as news to Ocasio-Cortez—an avowed democratic socialist—and her progressive supporters, “the old frameworks” in America included precisely the kinds of assistance she’s touting. The tradition of American mutual aid long predates the welfare state championed by the Left. The choice that she maps out reflects the decidedly nonsocialist views of none other than Alexis de Tocqueville, who celebrated America’s capacity for spontaneous association to address local problems nearly 200 years ago. Any progressive celebration of mutual-aid networks is a welcome, if ironic, acknowledgement of America’s self-help muscle memory.
This doesn’t mean that the groups spotlighted in Tolentino’s essay are unworthy of celebration. She rightly profiles Invisible Hands, the New York group founded by Yale Junior Liam Elkin to deliver food to the doorsteps of those at risk of contracting Covid-19. Tolentino also notes the work of Brooklyn’s Maggie Connolly, whose efforts to help elderly neighbors get groceries turned into an organized push to deliver medicine. She correctly points out that “people throughout the country began establishing informal networks to meet the new needs of those around them.” What’s striking, however, is the historical naivete of Tolentino’s observations.
As historian David Beito has noted, in the pre-welfare-state era, fraternal organizations—the Masons, Knights of Columbus, Odd Fellows, Woodmen, and others—provided a combination of camaraderie and insurance. Religious groups, in particular, excelled at such assistance. Many Jewish burial societies, for example, evolved into small banks that served community needs.
The decline of fraternal organizations has been well documented, but a few groups—including the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary—have survived. In my own community, post-pandemic, the Lions have organized a drive to support struggling local businesses. Such efforts are now widespread and follow a long tradition of community-mindedness, particularly in immigrant neighborhoods.
Consider the New York Times’s recent obituary of Edith Richemond, who died of Covid-19. A Haitian immigrant who lived in Flatbush, Richemond owned a local laundromat, where she had “a kitchen in which she would prepare Haitian meals every day and offer them to her neighbors free of charge.” Her niece remembered that she “would do laundry for single moms and other people down on their luck in the neighborhood without charging them.” Richemond’s laundromat “became a community hub, where Haitian expatriates would gather to reminisce, debate politics, and play cards or dominoes.” It sounds like old-fashioned mutual aid.
There is also, however, a long history of believing that an expanded state could effectively replace such efforts—and that it should. Theorist I. M. Rubinow—author of the landmark 1913 book Social Insurance, which proposed what would become the New Deal—argued that the need for a welfare state would “meet its strongest opponent in the fetishism for self-help.” This view, typically found in social-work textbooks, casts pre-welfare-state mutual aid as an antecedent to centralized state services. In Social Insurance and Allied Services—a blueprint for the British welfare state issued in 1942—economist William Beveridge, proposing ideas like the National Health Service, cast the expanded state as a proper successor to traditional “friendly societies.”
Yet even the welfare state’s architects had some skepticism about its limits. It’s one thing to envision government providing old-age pensions and health insurance and another to believe that it can provide the sorts of community assistance that a healthy society needs. Even Beveridge acknowledged that mutual-aid organizations provided “conviviality” and “fellowship,” which he doubted the state could replace. He even doubted whether the state could effectively manage the sorts of services that he proposed.
Contemporary progressives have proposed ever-more welfare-state expansions based on the assumption that the public sector could substitute for private and voluntary action. Their hostility to the mutual-aid and character-building roles of religious institutions, for example, brings to mind the contempt with which the Chinese Communist Party views civil society in any form. To the extent that government is considered a provider of vast, multibillion-dollar social services, it has risked convincing citizens that their personal efforts are superfluous. Just pay your taxes.
Whether accidentally or not, Ocasio-Cortez’s recent comments suggest a rediscovery of the limits of the welfare state and of government. But don’t expect her to acknowledge that such views reflect those of millions of ordinary Americans—let alone that these ideas go back to our country’s earliest days.
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