Public Comment

New: Mutual Aid Communities: A Must

By Harry Brill
Tuesday July 24, 2012 - 11:13:00 PM


We are becoming increasingly aware of the dismal condition of the economy and its adverse consequences on our quality of life. Particularly important the long run prognosis for the economy is very bleak for the following reasons: consumers are experiencing declining purchase power, business has been disinvesting in the domestic economy, and imports continue to appreciably exceed exports. 

Only huge increases in government spending can possibly offset the dismal situation. But governments at all levels are instead reducing their budgets and the size of work force. So ALL the major stimuli that drive our economy are contracting. And even if governments find a way to increase spending, you can predict that it will not be adequate. Although we will continue to experience short term business cycles, that is, ups and downs, we will see in the long run a growth in unemployment, underemployment, and poverty. 

Of course we must continue our effort to turn things around. That is certainly our long term agenda. But meanwhile a growing percentage of the population already need or will soon need immediate relief. So we must also prepare for hard times by developing mutual aid programs. We need food on our table right now, and we need adequate housing and clothing right now. A highly reputable poll tells us that 28 percent of our population have no resources at all if they lose their income. Two thirds could not sustain themselves more than six months. Clearly, most people will not be able to survive on their own. Instead, we must build communities whose members help each other stay afloat. I am writing to suggest that we engage in an open discussion of the possibilities. 

Among the options is to participate in urban gardening, that is, to collectively grow our food supply in our own backyards and also in large public spaces. Drop by Peralta near Hopkins in Berkeley to see the wonderful organic community garden. It has been around for a long while. These efforts deserve applause. 

But we need to develop these gardens on a larger scale. Crops were planted by Occupy farm activists on the ten acre Gill Tract, which is a large open space owned by the University of California. Just a few days ago about 60 of these activists broke a lock on the gate to weed and harvest crops that they had planted earlier this spring. The vegetables and herbs will be donated to local food banks. This time, incidentally, there were no interference from the police. Although using public space presents formidable political challenges, we need to take that on. Also, there is a body of knowledge required to figure out what to plant and how to care for gardens. But there are always people, including teachers in any community and beyond who have that experience and are willing to share it. In turn, we can pass the knowledge and experience we obtain to others. 

It is also important to engage in what is called time banking, in which we bypass to a considerable extent the money economy in favor of providing each other with reciprocal services. So if one person contributes an hour of service, that individual is entitled to receive from another member of the "bank" an hour of service. Several highly successful time banking systems are now operating in Pasadena, Echo Park, and elsewhere. We should talk to people in these communities and learn from their experience. 

What I am suggesting hardly exhausts the possibilities. For example, as a community we could negotiate prices with many business establishments, such as automobile repair shops. In fact, communities might even develop worker owned and operated businesses and consumer co-ops as well. A related issue is that we could organize buying clubs. By pooling some of our resources we can buy large quantities of what we need from wholesalers at tremendously reduced costs. The very process of working to achieve our objectives is itself community-building because its success depends upon considerable coordination and cooperation. 

Keep in mind that the projects suggested in this commentary are not utopian dreams. The historical record shows that they are achievable but only if people work together. By starting small and growing gradually we don't have the front-end capitalization costs to worry about. 

Not least, we need to develop a culture that challenges the dominant consumerism which says you are what you buy. Accompanying this, we can challenge the stigma of 'second hand' and make use of the often high quality goods that are available at various "next to new stores". Let us then begin the task of building a healthy counterculture that allows us to create mutually essential economic institutions along with a different and better quality of life.