The Limits of Mutual Aid and the Promise of Liberation
within Radical Politics of Care
Rhiannon Lindgren
Social Reproduction Theory, Politics of Care,
Feminist Historical Materialism, Black Panther Party,
Wages for Housework
Krisis 42 (1): 3-17.
The present COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated conditions for continued survival,
and community-based mutual aid networks have appeared seemingly organically to
address such conditions. I argue these networks often fail to recognize capitalism’s
mediation of caring labor, namely, the processes of survival and reproduction which are
consistently undermined and demanded by capital’s accumulation. Instead, I propose
a politics of care built on insights from the Black Panther Party’s and the Wages for
Housework campaign’s respective responses to a lack of reproductive resources, which
emphasize the position of survival struggles as a primary site of anti-capitalist political
agitation and mobilization.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
The Limits of Mutual Aid and the Promise of Liberation
within Radical Politics of Care
Rhiannon Lindgren
Ⅰ. COVID-19andtheCategoryofCare:AnIntroduction
In 2020, the so-called “Crisis of Care” came to a deadly breaking point with the spread
of the novel COVID-19 upper respiratory virus, which at the time of writing has
claimed 4.3 million lives globally out of over 203 million conrmed cases (Fraser 2017,
21: Worldometer 2021). In the continuing struggle against COVID-19, the question of
care has once again come to the fore of political discussions, arguments, and disagree-
ments about the distribution of resources worldwide. The workers of the world found
their basic reproductive necessities, such as food, PPE, hygiene products, and shelter,
once again in false scarcity due to capitalism’s mismanagement of a crisis. To combat the
lack of universal and accessible social services in the United States and many parts of the
world, regular people were called to action and worked to establish networks of mutual
aid on social media and collaborative virtual platforms such as Facebook, Instagram,
Twitter, and Slack. These networks came together to provide the very reproductive
resources in scarcity, like masks, groceries, money for utility bills, etc. through commu-
nity fundraising and donations.
This is neither the rst nor the last time in history that one’s very survival has
become a process of political contestation. Consequently, it is no longer tenable to con-
tinue to ignore the centrality of care within the larger project of political economy and
its resulting strategies of political mobilization. While I acknowledge the tremendous
impacts of mutual aid on local communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, this
paper seeks to produce a structural assessment regarding the viability of these newly
formed networks to contain within them the possibility of a direct, coordinated attack
on capital. To do this, I turn to two dierent historical political movements, which
also responded to a lack of reproductive resources and used basic processes of survival
as primary sites of political agitation and mobilization. In surveying the activities of
the Black Panther Party and the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1960s and
‘70s, I elucidate histories of survival struggles in order to recontextualize their insights
about the possibility of mutual aid as a primary tactic for anti-racist, anti-imperialist,
anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and feminist political organizing. Ultimately, while sur-
vival is a struggle worth politicizing, it would seem that there is not always a guarantee
that struggles to survive yield a revolutionary political consciousness. After a brief
examination of the continuities and discrepancies between the Black Panther Party
(BPP) and the Wages for Housework (WfH) movements,1 I conclude that only when
combined with sustained and multifaceted political education, which intentionally
seeks to produce a shared analysis of the current state of our world, does struggling to
survive create a shared horizon of revolutionary praxis. Consequently, mutual aid as it
appeared during the COVID-19 pandemic is critiqued for its inability to continuously
produce such a shared political analysis grounded in a capacious and complex account
of class as determined by race, gender, and geographical location. Ultimately, I argue
that to create a radical politic of care incapable of being co-opted into further securing
the conditions for capital’s domination, community care needs to be rooted in political
education with a multidimensional class analysis in order to transform survival into
Ⅱ. CaringLaborandAmbiguity:ATheoreticalNote
Sites of life-making can become integral to collective projects of survival under con-
ditions of dehumanization, extraordinary violence, and psychological warfare. Black
feminists from within the U.S. context have pointed toward the home and familial
relationships as an incredibly powerful site of resistance through which Black people
are able to reproduce their own lives in the face of insurmountable odds (Davis 1981;
hooks 1990; Threadcraft 2016). In these and many other Black feminist works, the rela-
tionship among practices of care, survival, and resistance become articulated as nascent
political projects. Yet, the family unit itself is often a primary site of the reproduction
of compulsory heterosexuality and hierarchical gender roles which are deeply reliant
on gendered divisions of labor, and can itself be a site of acute violence. Consequently,
securing survival through the family unit is ambiguous in terms of the scope and the
objective of its resistance. The ambiguity of this survival as resistance both within and
outside the family unit and its relationship to political praxis is the primary inquiry I
make in this paper.
In order to better articulate the framework through which I investigate these
terms within the histories of the BPP and the WfH movements, it is essential to
connect the ambiguity of survival as resistance to the wider processes of life-making
and life-maintenance which could be loosely called social reproduction. The work it
takes to create human life, and to protect and nurture that life, whether it be your
own life or that of a loved one, is an unending and often thankless “job. Questions
regarding the structural relationship between capitalism and human reproduction have
been prominent at dierent points throughout the histories of socialist and feminist
critique (Ferguson 2020, 41). According to Sue Ferguson (2020) in Women and Work:
Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction, it was intervention of Lise Vogel’s Marxism
and the Oppression of Women in 1983 which proposed a more robust notion of social
reproduction as not solely dependent on the universalization of the housewife gure
(111). Current Social Reproduction feminists often take up Vogel’s underappreciated
work in order to reformulate processes of social reproduction as sites of anti-capitalist,
anti-racist, and feminist struggle (Bhattacharya 2017).
Tithi Bhattcharya states that Marxism makes a claim that workers who
produce the commodities are the “beating heart” of the capitalist system, but Social
Reproduction feminists want to ask, “who produces the worker?” (Pluto Press 2017).
I might suggest taking Bhattacharya’s question further, by claiming a need to evaluate
the processes which produce the working class as a whole. Given practical limitations,
I cannot unpack the intricacies of who does or does not belong to the working class;
however, it is worth emphasizing at the outset that for Social Reproduction feminists
generally, and for my project of articulating a politics of care in particular, class is one
part of the matrix of our social order mediated by capital for its continued accumu-
lation. Part of the value of structurally linking the realm of reproduction to that of
production is that it produces an analysis of capitalist logic which no longer reduces all
forms of oppression to its “base” economic form. As Nancy Fraser has articulated in her
exchange with Michael Dawson on expropriation, we can think of capitalism as “…
not an economy but a social system of domination”(Fraser 2016, 165). Even though Marx
himself underemphasized this reality by focusing primarily on wage-labor exploitation,
both Fraser and Dawson argue that the notion of expropriation is particularly essential
to understanding capitalism’s deep entanglement with racial and gender oppression.
While I cannot elaborate the powerful and productive nuances and debates
within the strands of feminist theory Ferguson calls Social Reproduction feminism, it is
essential to note two primary contributions which underlie this paper: 1) Reproductive
labor, and consequently the survival which it procures, is ambiguous because global
capitalism thrives on, and in fact requires, human capacity to labor. When we reproduce
ourselves, and by that I mean when we survive even in order to resist, we are also
providing capital the means for its continued accumulation. 2) This understanding of
class analysis and political economy is inherently multidimensional in order to account
for the ways wider social orders impact, and are impacted by, the social and economic
order of global capitalism. There are internal debates about the theoretical value of
the approach labeled “intersectionality” (McNally 2017; Ferguson 2016), but when
evaluating the histories of the BPP and WfH political perspectives, we can think of class
as fundamentally constituted by processes of racialization and patriarchal norms about
gender and sexuality. The impact of race on the project of survival was a central concern
for the BPP organizing eorts toward which we now turn.
Ⅲ. TheBlackPantherParty:Survival,Revolution,andRevolt
In her insightful retelling of the history of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, Robyn
Spencer’s (2016) The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther
Party in Oakland oers an organizational analysis of the BPP’s development. Spencer’s
extensive archival research supports a close reading of the Party’s survival programs and
how they were key to the overall Party platform, which guided the political objec-
tives and activities of the BPP. Well-known historian and former Party member, Paul
Alkebulan (2007), argues the Party’s founding members, Huey P. Newton and Bobby
Seale, “were searching for answers to America’s seemingly intractable racial problems”
(4). Unlike the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and popular Civil Rights
leaders, Seale and Newton were uninterested in nonviolent or non-confrontational
solutions. In 1966, the Black Panther Party was ocially born with the express aim
of ending political brutality and the creation of a ten-point program which sought to
ameliorate the conditions in which Black communities were suering (Alkebulan 2007,
5). After a couple years of armed demonstrations emphasizing the necessity of Black
self-defense, armed police patrols, and a few violent interactions with the police which
left some Party members killed by cops, Newton was arrested in 1967. The national
campaign to “Free Huey” followed, mobilizing hundreds of new members, with BPP
branches popping up all over the U.S. (Spencer 2016, 56-60). Thereafter, the Party faced
a slew of obstacles challenging the ecacy of their organizational practices and tactics.
Spencer presents the tumultuous period of brutal state repression at the hands
of the FBI’s counterintelligence program COINTELPRO through an emphasis on
its eects for the women Party members (2016, 89). She notes that as radical Black
leaders and members were arrested or targeted with unprecedented and intrusive sur-
veillance techniques, women became the foundation of the Party. An informal survey
conducted by Bobby Seale stated that in 1969 women made up two-thirds of the Party
at the time (Cleaver 2001, 125). When Newton’s conviction for killing an Oakland
police ocer was overturned in 1970, he was released on bail and circulated an open
letter formally commenting on the necessity of support for both the Women’s and Gay
Liberation Movements (Spencer 2016, 96). Given the nancial pressures of consistently
rotating bail funds needed to get their comrades out of prison, Spencer notes that
many Panthers lived collectively and divisions of labor around housework were often
contested andcontradicted Newton’s claim of formal gender equality (105). She care-
fully concludes that, “[i]nternal debates around sexuality, gender politics, and leadership
simmered under the surface because many [Party members] viewed them as deferrable
at a time of political instability” (105). Alternatively, the internal debates which took
center stage within the Party revolved around leadership, militarism, and Party loyalty.
In the period of restructuring between 1971 and 1974, the Party’s survival pro-
grams became an “organizational priority” around which the Panthers rebuilt themselves
in the wake of continued state repression (Spencer 2016, 116). While the Free Breakfast
for Children Program has received a lot of mainstream attention, one of the most
successful and longest running BPP survival programs was the Oakland Community
Learning Center (OCLC) which began in 1971. Spencer claims that having such a
solid program grounded in the community actually opened the doors for new survival
programs to emerge when specic needs were identied. Quoting a taped interview
with Ericka Huggins, Huggins recalls, “a number of new programs have developed just
by having the school here…” and then goes on to link the Seniors against a Fearful
Environment program with the creation of a welfare referral system. This demonstrates
the wholistic and intergenerational organizing that was able to happen because of the
Center (119). The OCLC was completely tuition free until 1977 after a failed campaign
to elect Bobby Seale as Mayor and Elaine Brown on City Council left the Party in
nancial decits, and participants were asked to pay up to $35 a month (Spencer 2016,
186). Internal Party reports from this time indicate that the level of “political work,
such as door-to-door organizing and follow-up with participants in the survival pro-
grams, was signicantly decreased. The Oakland BPP chapter found it dicult to do
“any of the other activities that are done to hold the previously established networks
and to build new face to face relationships with people on the precinct level” (156).
To highlight some of the radical political theory which might have undergirded
or resulted from engagement with Party’s politics, I now turn to the work of two inu-
ential political prisoners associated with the BPP and the struggle for Black liberation:
Assata Shakur and George Jackson. It is clear that big names in the BPP leadership such
as Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Elaine Brown, and David Hillard deeply determined
the principles and frameworks under which the Party operated. In highlighting a per-
spective from below, that of rank-and-le members and former members, I seek to
highlight “imprisoned intellectuals” who represent the eects of a critical engagement
with the BPP’s revolutionary framework (James 2003, xiv). Firstly, in reviewing George
Jackson and his understanding of the development of political consciousness, struggles
to survive are sutured to a revolutionary project and politic. Secondly, Assata Shakur’s
autobiography reveals some notable limitations of the BPP around political education
from the perspective of a Black revolutionary woman who decided to leave the Party
to pursue a dierent path toward Black liberation.
George Jackson’s (1972) Blood in My Eye, is a collection of essays and letters
written during his incarceration and nished mere days before his murder in August of
1971. It oers a searing critique of the fascistic “Amerikan”2 state while simultaneously
producing a wealth of concrete suggestions regarding political, organizational tactics
and frameworks through which Black people can ght against the State (ix). Jackson’s
reections on the dialectical movement between survival, or meeting “on the ground
needs”, and a revolutionary political education, highlight some of the aspects of political
organizing that the BPP struggled with in the latter part of the Party’s existence. His
writings identify the need for “dual power, which seeks to create a sustainable alter-
native for community control within Black communities (113). Before creating the
autonomous infrastructure necessary for community control, it is important to create
a more livable life for working class Black communities. For Jackson, the conditions of
revolutionary consciousness are crucially proceeded by the condition of a full stomach,
free medical care, and a safe place for children and adults to rest their heads. He quotes
Newton on the survival programs in a “Letter to a Comrade*”, stating that, “the sur-
vival programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to
our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending
revolution” (Jackson 1972, 70). Jackson goes onto claim that the survival programs
“ll a very real vacuum” already existing within Black communities where people are
living in appalling conditions without having basic bodily needs met, such as food and
shelter (70). He argues that this will demonstrate to working class Black people what
it means to organize around their needs, calling this the introduction of the “people’s
government” (71-72). For Jackson at the time of his writing, the BPP was the strongest
political apparatus which existed outside of the liberal façade of electoral politics.
Jackson (1972) contends that the subsequent step to meeting the needs of the
people is having the vanguard lead the people in the construction of its own auton-
omous people’s government – a vanguard Jackson explicitly states will be the Black
Panther Party (74). Jackson writes that:
Consciousness grows in spirals. Growth implies feeding and being fed. We feed
consciousness by feeding people, addressing ourselves to their needs, the basic
and social needs, working, organizing toward a united national left. After the
people have created something that they are willing to defend, a wealth of new ideals
and an autonomous subsistence infrastructure, then they are ready to be brought
into “open” conict with the ruling class and its supports (84).
The key of Jackson’s call to “feed” our consciousness is not only to nourish the phys-
ical body, but to then put that nourished body to work. Work in this context cannot
mean wage labor for the capitalist, but instead refers to the creation of the autonomous
infrastructure which seeks rstly to meet unmet needs, and secondly to build a political
consciousness within Black communities through creating alternatives together (76-
77). Although Jackson does not clearly enumerate what the people’s government will
look like, or under which guiding principles it will operate, he juxtaposes it against
the process of withdrawal. He argues that after the revolution has “failed, retreat is
not a practical way to rebuild resistance. Instead, Jackson uplifts Newton’s concept of
the Black commune, which he sees as one way the revolutionary class could construct
“a political, social, and economic infrastructure, capable of lling the vacuum that has
been left by the establishment ruling class…” (122). Clearly, the people’s government is
intended to meet unmet needs “on at least a subsistence level, but it also involves cre-
ating conditions for autonomy from within the contradictory position of what Jackson
calls the “Black Colony” (122).
When the bulk of the money made through the Party became directed toward
electoral campaigns and the security for high-ranking ocials, the survival programs
lost the emphasis of building face-to-face relationships with the people. The clinics still
oered free medical and dental services, but there was no follow-up or invitation for
further Party involvement after the services were procured (Spencer 2016, 159). While
stomachs might have been fed and illnesses abated, the construction of autonomous
community structures waned. This is particularly evident when the main Party activities
were voters’ registration drives during the 1977 Brown/Seale election campaign. Is elec-
toral politics an infrastructure of Black autonomy that people will be, as Jackson notes,
willing to defend? The BPP’s relationship to the people in Black communities is not static
throughout its history. On my reading, the ultimate downfall of the BPP came largely
in part from the highly successful counterrevolutionary campaign of COINTELPRO
that separated the BPP from the people it sought to serve out of security concerns.
Additionally, the focus on political projects of legitimacy, such as electoral politics, threat-
ened to institutionalize and de-fang a revolutionary force whose original intension was
to jeopardize the stability of the Amerikan empire. This tension appears in Assata Shakur’s
autobiography ASSATA. In it, she recalls a riveting personal history of her involvement
with the Black Liberation Movement which led to her capture and imprisonment by the
state for seven years before escaping to Cuba (Davis 2003, 64). Her favorite time in the
BPP was spent working with the Free Breakfast Program as she described the work to
be an “absolute delight” (Shakur 1987, 219). Alternatively, Shakur found the education
requirements for building the internal Party consciousness to be incomplete.
Although the major reasons for Shakur’s departure from the Party were due to
internal conicts between Newton and other longtime members, she found the political
education program to be inadequate to its task. She describes the political education (or
PE) program as having three levels: one for community members, one for ocial BPP
members of a cadre, and one for the highest level of leadership in the Party (Shakur
1987, 232). Interestingly enough, the community classes which focused on the Party’s
ten-point program and “general objectives and philosophies of the BPP” were the most
engaging (221). Her experience with the cadre PE classes was noticeably worse. She
recalls that, “[m]ost of the time whoever was giving the class discussed what we were
studying and explained it, but without giving the underlying issues or putting it in any
historical context” (221). Shakur bemoans the fact that even though they could recite
quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book, many cadre members still thought the US Civil War
was fought to free the slaves. She notes that, “to a lot of Panthers, however, struggle
consisted of only two aspects: picking up the gun and serving the people” (221). To be
clear, Shakur was not principally opposed to the use of armed force in revolutionary
struggle, which is attested by her connection to the Black Liberation Army, but that for
her the picking up of the gun is part of a history of Black peoples struggling within the
U.S. and around the world to liberate themselves and their people. Contextualizing that
history and one’s place within it is of the upmost importance.
Without centering the construction of multifaceted political analyses, dier-
ent BPP chapters sometimes found diculty sustaining the growth of the political
consciousness of the wider Black community in which they were embedded. Despite
having known several members with keen political insight, Shakur observes that there
was not an organized attempt to spread that consciousness throughout the Party in
general. Additionally, those best at organizing were often the busiest and had little time
to teach their prowess to comrades. Shakur hypothesizes this deciency was bred simul-
taneously from exponential Party growth in a short period of time, combined with
the brutal state repression which was a feature of the BPP’s existence “almost from its
inception” (Shakur 1987, 222). Understandably, it would be dicult for the vanguard
elements, as Jackson suggests, to feed a political consciousness to the people that the
Party has not suciently fed to its members. There is, again, an unfortunate separation
between the important work of meeting unmet needs, and the growth of a wide and
complex shared political analysis necessary to unite a group of people constantly under
attack from capital and its agents of safeguard within the State.
The activities of the Black Panther Party impacted a whole generation of young
people, especially young Black people, in their struggle for Black liberation. The history of
the BPP demonstrates an unwavering commitment to its community and the transforma-
tion of their daily experiences. To politicize the very survival of marginalized populations,
which capital seeks to simultaneously exploit and destroy, makes the maintenance of such
lives – the caring labors that one’s community performs to ensure their existence in a
world determined to obliterate them – a revolutionary act. And yet, bare survival, with
only a daily reproduction of our bodily and human needs, is not enough to levy a strong
opposition to the capitalist, and perhaps following Jackson’s analysis, fascist Amerikan
state. When survival is politicized, there are important and sometimes unspoken gendered
divisions of labor which become exacerbated, and the BPP encountered diculty appro-
priately integrating an account of such divisions into their political activities. In order to
unpack the political consequences of these sexual and gendered divisions of labor, I turn
toward the international Wages for Housework movement of the 1970s which sought to
politicize “women’s work” as an integral part of a feminist class politic.
Ⅳ. WagesAgainstHousework:“WeCan’tAffordtoWorkforLove”
In the 2017 volume, The New York Wages for Housework Committee: History, Theory, and
Documents, Silvia Federici and co-editor Arlene Austin, reprint key documents, posters,
and internal memos from the New York Wages for Housework Committee based on
Federici’s personal archive. The book is thus an incomplete history with many pieces of
documentation missing (Federici 2017, 11). Even with this lacuna, the archival material
which details the demands and political framework of the Committee combined with
Federici’s retrospective commentaries oer a unique glimpse into a highly marginalized
and vilied movement within the larger Women’s Liberation Movement during the
1960s & ‘70s. After outlining both its theoretical foundation and the resulting tactics,
I consider more specically the appearance and activities of the autonomous Black
Women for Wages for Housework group. This group’s activities, as well as Selma James’s
work, the leader in the WfH London chapter, emphasizes the dierential impact of
race, class, and sex on women’s work. Not only did WfH politicize the monotonous
and daily reproductive labor of millions of women, but they saw refusal of this labor as a
key to any winning strategy toward an anti-capitalist and feminist revolutionary project.
The international movement for Wages for Housework began in 1972 in
Padova, Italy at a not-so-serendipitous meeting of four women all hailing from dierent
countries. This meeting was partially due to the recent publication and circulation of an
essay “Women and the Subversion of the Community”, as well as the lived experiences
of frustration with developing radical and feminist alternatives to more “traditional
communist parties” (Federici 2017, 18). Foundational documents such as the 1972
“Statement of the International Feminist Collective” and the 1974 “Theses on Wages
for Housework”, detail arguments about the marginalization of the wageless worker.
Such arguments were in eorts against the inclination of other socialist feminists
who argue that women formed a “sex class” of their own outside of socioeconomic
status. Instead, WfH feminists claimed that what divides unwaged workers from waged
workers is “power, not class” (Federici 2017, 31). Instead of abandoning class analysis,
the WfH feminists openly called for a redenition of “class” itself since the traditional
Marxian denition seemed to elide not only wageless women workers, but those col-
onized peoples in the capitalist periphery. The WfH collective writes, “[c]lass struggle
and feminism for us are one and the same thing, feminism expressing the rebellion
of that section of the class without whom the class struggle cannot be generalised,
broadened, and deepened” (30). Accordingly, a class struggle which chooses to forgo
agitating around the struggles of women, actually undermines itself since the struggle
cannot be universalized nor expanded without radicalizing and incorporating women’s
paid and unpaid labor.
In their landmark 1972 essay “Women and the Subversion of the Community,
Dalla Costa and James (2019) articulate housework, or the unwaged caring labor
unevenly foisted upon women, as the hidden basis through which the exploitation of
the wage is secured.3 The primary method of this obfuscation includes rendering the
work being done by women in the household a “personal service outside of capital,
(Dalla Costa and James 2019, 23) or, as much of the WfH pamphlets and posters allege,
“a labor of love” (Federici 2017, 43). The authors detail the ways in which women
are bereaved of what small pleasures may be aorded under the capitalist mode of
organization: their sexuality is co-opted to ensure the reproduction of labor power
broadly; they are isolated in their homes and share no space with other houseworkers
with whom they may at least commiserate; their children are being indoctrinated and
subjugated by the educational system; and any bargaining power that the waged worker
may gain from technological innovations is lost on the housewife as her work, even
with a dishwasher, never seems to be complete (Dalla Costa and James 2019, 20-26).
By arguing that the unwaged work of the housewife – and the authors emphasize that
the working-class housewife is the gure under investigation at present (18) – actually
secures the “freedom” of the waged worker, Dalla Costa and James are able to impor-
tantly argue that the exploitation of women is conditioned not merely by individual
men, i.e. their husbands, but the entire capitalist class as a whole.
Additionally, the authors challenge Marxian political economy even further by
claiming that the unwaged work which secures the freedom of the waged worker is in
fact productive, which is to say, it creates surplus value.4 The authors argue that given
the historical institutionalization of familial relations under developing capitalism, it is
clear that the only person “liberated” from reproductive work within the unit of the
hetero-nuclear family is the man. This is not because he does not need to be clothed,
fed, washed, and emotionally engaged, but because he is not structurally coerced to
perform such labor on himself or anyone else. Instead, Dalla Costa and James (2019)
state that unwaged housework is not a superstructural phenomenon, meaning histor-
ically contingent and malleable to capital’s accumulation, but in fact represents a key
dependency within the base structure of capitalistic exploitation (30). If we fail to grasp
the family unit as an elemental unit for the creation of surplus value, “then we will be
moving in a limping [sic] revolution – one that will always perpetuate and aggravate a
basic contradiction in the class struggle, and a contradiction that is functional to capitalist devel-
opment” (Dalla Costa and James 2019, 20). Instead of agitating this division against the
ruling class, the male-dominated left exacerbates this unequal internal division of labor
as non-essential and secondary to wage-labor exploitation, which actually prevents class
struggle from broader realization.
Given this account of the labor women perform and the explicit theorization of
class as a majorly inuential but not completely reductive aspect of woman’s oppression,
WfH’s political framework was perhaps rather unique at the time of their organizing.
Even though they were a small group, they faced immense backlash from both within
and outside of the feminist movement. Both the “white male left” and the liberal fem-
inist movement saw the demand for wages as deterrent to the kind of “equality” they
sought, i.e. equal opportunity employment and exploitation (Lopez 2012, 8). However,
naming wages as the primary goal of the movement was certainly limiting. Instead of
creating a process in which women struggle against the conditions of their care work,
the understanding of their struggle became entangled with ideological valuations of
time and money. Such capitalist ideology is central to the false narrative that wage-labor
occurs on the “free” market as an exchange between “equals. It was unclear to those
outside of the movement that WfH sought to abolish the conditions under which such
work is performed, as opposed to (the ultimately futile task of) making women’s work
valuable under the rubric of capitalism.
Aiming to unmask the material distinctions from the ideological functions
behind so-called “cultural” dierences, Selma James (2012) contends that the inner-
class divisions are conditioned by capitalist organization, which is to say that the internal
dynamics of homophobia, racism, and sexism within the working class fundamentally
benet capital’s continued accumulation (95). As stated in “Women and the Subversion
of the Community, there is a structural and not contingent relationship between such
systems of domination and capital’s social organization. For James (2012), the “White
left” claims that cultural dierences, or identarian distinctions, should be worked out
separately from class struggle, as if trying to think them through a class analytic creates
confusion (95-96). But in fact, those very “cultural” dierences which make material
impacts in our daily lives are actually how a class is dis-unied, disorganized, but also
reproduced. The very process of reproduction demanded by capital relies upon sexism,
homophobia, and racism and then in turn reies those logics of oppression. James argues
that “[t]hese power relations within the working class weaken us in the power struggle
between the classes. They are the particularized forms of indirect rule, one section of
the class colonizing another and through capital imposing its will on us all” (James 2012,
96-97). From this view, the cultural dierences which beget actual material dierences
in living conditions, divisions of labor, length and viability of life become recognized
not as a struggle of one “culture” over another, but as a struggle of all exploited and
dominated members of the “world proletariat” against the ruling classes (Federici 2020,
111). In this process, James and her comrades internationally hoped that taking class
struggle out of the factory into the home would not make class struggle obsolete, but
widen and multiply it.
In 1975, a group of Black women led by Margaret Prescod and Wilmette Brown
created an autonomous group within the WfH global campaign entitled Black Women
for Wages for Housework (BWfWfH). They were inspired both by the WfH political
position and the immense government budget cuts to crucial social services in New York
City during 1975. Excerpts of their literature are reprinted in Federici’s collection and
a (1980) Falling Wall Press pamphlet entitled Black Women: Bringing it All Home which
reprints a speech Margaret Prescod gave during a 1977 WfH meeting. These sources
show the particularity of Black women’s reproductive struggles against the State and its
determinant qualities of racism, surveillance, and sexual violence. In the inaugural issue
of their journal, Sare, BWfWfH defends the rights of French sex workers on strike by
rallying against their vilication for “demanding money for the work that all women
are expected to do for free” (Federici 2017, 122). Unsurprisingly, this is not only a
nuanced and pro-worker account of sex workers at a time when mainstream feminism
was having so-called “Porn Wars” (Salucci, 2021), but also a link to the disproportionate
exploitation of Black women’s sexual labor during chattel slavery. The BWfWfH group
become integral in identifying the ways in which Black and white women’s sexual and
domestic labor have historically been unequal, and the group emphasized the important
racial dimensions to the struggle for Welfare Rights during the 1970s.
In a 1997 speech, Prescod highlights the gure of the mammy during chattel
slavery and the double function of her labor to both secure the reproduction of the
master and his white family, while also using this position of proximity to pilfer the
masters’ resources and struggle against the very reproductive work being imposed. Using
examples of the mammy “taking wages” from her master in the form of food, clothing,
or books to help educate herself and other slaves, Prescod (1980) contends that “we can
see that within the housework of the Black woman in the time of slavery two things
were going on: the utilization of that woman to reproduce the master and his family, and
at the same time that woman making a struggle against that work, to destroy that work”
(16). The service of so-called sexual favors is also central to Prescod’s analysis of all the
dierent sites at which the mammy’s reproductive labor is exploited, even “[…] labor is
exploited, even after the formal abolition […]” after the formal abolition of slavery in
the West Indies (16). She then powerfully argues that the reproductive labor which was
forced upon the mammy was used as the basis for an incredible accumulation of wealth
in the U.S., concluding that Black women in particular are owed a renumeration for
the generations of their unfree and coerced labor, both agricultural and reproductive.
Ⅴ. Congruencies,Discontinues,andaRadicalRe-readingofMutualAid
The double function of the Black woman’s labor during chattel slavery denotes an
important structural element to reproductive or care labor in general. The ambiguity
of reproductive labor, that is its both generative and restrictive features, can make it a
site of both resistance and domination. If one is interested in mobilizing reproductive
labor within a larger emancipatory politics to create care work as a site of anti-capi-
talist struggle, how can we tell when survival is oppositional to capital and when it is
compliant? This question orients the nal section of this paper, which seeks to integrate
the insights oered from the WfH and BPP histories of struggle toward an analysis of
the proliferation of mutual aid projects during COVID-19. Both of these movements
oered a clear evaluation that the wider social conditions under racialized and patriarchal
capitalism were the causes of their suering while simultaneously politicizing everyday
eorts to survive. During COVID-19, eorts to survive became increasingly dicult
and as a response practices of mutual aid emerged, including food and clothing drives,
grocery deliveries, community fundraising for bills or rent on the internet using Venmo,
CashApp, or GoFundMe, and many other online platforms. It would be impractical to
attempt to survey all these practices in detail. Instead, I focus on the seemingly organic
and non-governmental organizations which were created largely from online commu-
nities such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Through referral to a brief study done
on thirty-two mutual aid organizers who used these methods in the United Kingdom
during the height of the COVID-19 governmental lockdown orders, and Dean Spade’s
book (2020), Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (And the Next), I consider
the value of mutual aid as an organizing strategy for a radical politics of care.
Dean Spade is an organizer, academic, and lawyer whose lifework has been
dedicated to building a movement for “queer and trans liberation based in racial and
economic justice” (Spade, 2021). As a committed abolitionist and anarchist, he has
been deeply involved in anti-racist prison activism which includes collaboration with
Critical Resistance, an organization working to facilitate political organizing inside
and outside the prison walls. Spade is committed to anti-capitalist and anti-colonial
organizing as a foundational aspect of community members meeting unmet needs.
While the book builds upon previously published work, it specically caters to the
increased development of such networks in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spade
argues that mutual aid both meets unmet needs while mobilizing people to ght back
against the social and political conditions which create and perpetuate such dangerous
living environments. Spade (2020) claims that, “[g]etting support at a place that sees the
systems, not the people suering in them, as the problem can help people move from
shame to anger and deance. Mutual aid exposes the failures of the current system and
shows an alternative” (13). He is clear that the target of the mutual aid organizer is not
the individual in need, but instead the systems of domination which maintain untenable
living and working conditions (12). Spade argues that community members engaged
in mutual aid are able to reject the liberal charity model through which individuals are
evaluated as worthy or unworthy of assistance (47-38).
The emphasis on the institutions which create and sustain unsafe living and
working conditions for a large portion of the world’s population makes mutual aid an
integral part of revolutionary resistance for Spade. Moving people out of the shroud of
shame caused by increased precarity also means moving them from a feeling of isolation
to a feeling of mutual recognition or collectivity. Even though Spade sees mutual aid
as one tactic among many that we can use to combat these systems of exploitation
and domination, he nds it to be a particularly useful tactic because it “brings people
into coordinated actions right now (42). Some textual examples of strong mutual aid
programs include Mutual Aid Disaster Relief which sought to provide mutual aid to
Puerto Rico after 2018 Hurricane Maria and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project which
provides free legal advice to trans and gender nonconforming people (Spade 2020, 18).
The urgency and practicality of getting the resources to people immediately helps to
combat “the false separation of politics and injustice from ordinary life” (27).
In the article (2021) “More Than a COVID-19 Response: Sustaining Mutual Aid
Groups During and Beyond the Pandemic” in Frontiers in Psychology, Maria Fernandes-
Jesus et al. interviewed thirty-two organizers about their experiences creating mutual
aid projects during the pandemic. These interviews took place over several months with
interviewees from England, Wales, Scotland, and North Ireland. Overall, the authors
found the following themes most common among the interviewees: a sense of com-
munity-building through meeting localized needs over time, building trust through
connections to individual and collective organizations, and collective coping strategies
which lead to feelings of hope and ecacy (Fernandes-Jesus, et al 2021, 6). Noting
that creating trust between the mutual aid group and the community was essential, the
authors report that generally there were no criteria of eligibility needed in order to
request aid. The authors dene this as operating in what Spade calls the “solidarity and
not charity” model (8). Even though the participants reported a high hourly commit-
ment – one participant stating to have organized seven days a week for six weeks straight
– they also reported a sense of shared identity and supported other organizers with
coping strategies (9). There were both positive and negative reviews from participants
about working with local governmental institutions. Though the authors highlight the
anarchist roots of mutual aid through reference to Spade and Peter Kropotkin, there was
no mention of shared political perspective or analyses from the interviews.
It is clear that some of the community projects which Spade calls mutual aid,
most notability the Free Breakfast for Children program by the BPP, did actively reject
the larger social conditions which produced abject poverty in Black neighborhoods.