With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe, there has been an uptick in the amount of people looking to provide relief beyond the established medical and social service provided by the state. These systems have been gutted for decades by neoliberal austerity measures, and were already inadequate before this crisis hit. In the first few weeks of this crisis, which is predicted to last up to eighteen months, around 20% of American households have already lost work. These numbers will only increase in the coming weeks and months. The meager social safety net and charity initiatives that do exist are likely to be overwhelmed in the face of an unprecedented surge in the number of people seeking assistance.

In the face of this situation, mutual aid and neighborhood assistance efforts have sprung up across the country. This itself is a great thing. It shows how people are coming together to support each other in a difficult time, when the government is more concerned with narrative control and bailing out the banks than the welfare of the people. However, many of these support efforts are actually quite similar to existing charities and disaster relief efforts. While they provide material assistance to those in need, they do little to question the system which left people so vulnerable to a disaster of this magnitude in the first place.

There is a real need to get beyond this sort of politics. It is possible and necessary to both help people during this crisis and provide a clear political analysis of how the negligent and irresponsible actions of the government and major corporations created this crisis in the first place. This approach is necessary if people are serious about mobilizing the masses to bring about systematic changes to prevent another such disaster, and to overcome capitalism itself. In order to better understand this, it is important to recognize how, without organizing the masses, mutual aid and neighborhood assistance efforts become little more than grassroots charity efforts that 
do not challenge the capitalist system. It is also important to see how larger charity foundations, non-profits, NGOs, and other philanthropic organizations work to serve the capitalist system.

Mutual aid is a framework where two or more people work collectively to help each other meet their own goals. This usually consists of smaller scale efforts which view material support initiatives like providing food, water, and other essential resources as sufficient political engagement. It is necessary to do these types of things as more and more people are pushed into poverty and are facing hunger or unable to afford basic living expenses for housing, health care, child care, or transportation. The problem is that mutual aid can be extremely limited by liberal conceptions of seeking solutions in individual, volunteer type engagement. This approach can lack a serious political understanding of why people are forced to live in terrible conditions and how the people can mount a resistance to the system which creates them. This type of politics ultimately serves the interests of capitalism because it offers no path towards revolutionary change.

Philanthropic and charitable organizations also work to curtail revolution. In fact, philanthropy and charity are necessary pieces of the capitalist system. Serving as practical and ideological aspects of the capitalist system, charities, non-profits, NGOs, and other organizations based in philanthropy are directly funded by the wealthy and do little to help people. While they do offer material aid, less than 10% of all charities in the United States address basic human needs and they are limited to strategies that do not promote revolutionary change but instead push forth market-based solutions that further the status quo while undermining the social wealth of society at the expense of the people.

Charitable organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation invest millions of dollars in efforts like “fighting hunger” to promote capitalist “solutions” to poverty. Even if wealthy people involved in “charitable giving” do push for some reforms that seem beneficial to poor people, if particular reforms are ultimately unfavorable to the interests of the capitalist class then they will fight against them. Furthermore, these massive foundations don’t just give money away out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so because there is a lot of money to be made through investing capital in poor countries that are in crisis. For example, after the tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Clinton Foundation in collaboration with USAID capitalized on the situation in order to enforce the U.S.’ neoliberal agenda under the guise of foreign economic aid and disaster relief. Of the $2.3 billion spent in Haiti, 3% went to Haitian organizations while 55% went to American companies. This is just one example of how philanthropic ventures allow the wealthy and powerful to present their charity efforts as a solution to social problems when in fact they use philanthropy as a way to create social and economic conditions for further capital accumulation.

Philanthropy and massive charity foundations are popularly viewed as being noble organizations formed by the wealthy so they can redistribute their wealth, but this is just simply not true. By donating a portion of their money to those in need, the ruling class reinforce an individualistic and liberal ideology that suggests a few wealthy people can solve the world’s problems, and that if you get wealthy, you can help save the world too! Mutual aid often follows a similar ideology that suggests that the best way to help the poor comes down to a few well-intentioned individuals. Both promote the belief that social, economic, and ecological problems can be solved through individual goodwill, undermining the need for systemic transformation.

In order to combat these tendencies and push for revolutionary organizing efforts, it is important to go beyond simply listening to what poor and working-class people’s basic material needs are and meeting them. There is a need to go deeper than taking a couple of hours per week to feed people or hoping that a big philanthropic foundation will throw some money and resources at a problem and fix everything. While it is good for people to help each other out in a time of crisis, there is no way for mutual aid by itself to replace the capitalist system. Instead it amounts to putting a band aid on a stab wound. If this can slow the bleeding, good. But we need to ultimately eradicate the source of these wounds: capitalism. This has to be done through revolutionary organizing that not only meets people’s basic material needs and improves their conditions of life, but also organizes them into a powerful force capable of overthrowing the elite and creating a new society in the interests of the people.