Mutual Aid Societies

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

All excerpts from Anya Kamenetz at



"Mutual aid societies prefigure most functions of the modern state. They're at least as old as armies, but their mission is life, not death. For millennia, people have banded together to provide each other with health care, pensions, unemployment aid, investment capital, buying power, aid to the poor, disaster relief, old age care, child care, culture, entertainment, political efficacy, education, food, shelter and livelihoods. They have also leveraged their numbers to elicit some of these same benefits from those other two institutions, business and the government. Mutual aid extends the bonds of kinship and makes individuals into citizens." (

2. Jassmin Poyaoan:

"A mutual aid society is an organization formed to provide mutual aid, benefit, and/or insurance among its members. Benefits are not necessarily monetary and may include services and social activities. Members of mutual aid societies have a democratic voice in the organization and have an equal opportunity to receive benefits, depending on their needs and the needs of others.

Some of the first mutual aid societies in the U.S. were formed out of necessity by groups with limited access to mainstream services and support. In 1787, the Free African Society was formed to provide aid to newly freed blacks, so that they could develop leaders in the largely exclusionary community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants from various ethnic and national origins formed mutual aid societies to serve as social support groups, extending financial support to each member during illness and unemployment, as well as emotional support during times of loss. Italian-American mutual aid societies were referred to as Societa di Mutuo Soccorso and Mexican-American societies were called Sociedades Mutualistas.

Today, many services provided by mutual aid societies have been assimilated into private and public institutions such as insurance companies and social welfare services. Although they are not as prevalent as in they were in the past, mutual aid societies still exist today and are formally recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a category of organizations known as Fraternal Beneficiary Societies." (


"Beginning in southern India around 800 AD, a network of merchants' societies known as the Ayyavole 500 spread as far as Sri Lanka, Burma and Sumatra. The merchants agreed to cooperate and abide by a dharma, or code of conduct, ensuring honor both within the group and with outsiders. They sponsored trade fairs and maintained good relations with their local communities through philanthropic activities and tribute. The Ayyavole name was adopted far and wide for over 500 years; it became a "brand" associated with high quality products and fair dealings.

In the 1891 history Two Thousand Years of Gild Life, the social reformer Rev. Joseph Malet Lambert described the rules of guilds in ancient Rome, Anglo-Saxon England, and medieval Persia. Many of these societies united people by livelihood, some were religious cults, and others were locality-based, but they had common characteristics: regular contributions by members; bonds of fellowship confirmed by an oath or promise and reinforced by regular feasts and drinking parties; rules for preserving courtesy and order; and interestingly, most often, burial assistance. Beyond these basic attributes, the "gilds" were flexible, allowing for "the application of the fellowship or association to the most pressing need of the society of the day, whether mutual insurance against theft or fire, facilitation of trade, or in an imperfectly organized society, for purposes of police." (

In the U.S.A

"In American society, these ultimately flexible institutions found a new place and purpose. The rise of America's unprecedented multicultural democracy, middle class, and global economic power is directly tied to the rise of intermediary institutions, most famously but not only the labor union. The first labor action in America was a strike among Maine fishermen in 1636. In Northeastern cities during colonial times, master craftsmen and journeymen of many different trades formed "friendly societies," which became politically active in the fight for independence. During the Jeffersonian era these organizations grew and provided a full range of social benefits to their members, including death benefits to widows, assistance to the ill and unemployed, loans and credits, and libraries. They also helped establish a high standard of craftsmanship, a minimum wage for their work, and settle disputes among members.

As America industrialized and urbanized, mutual aid helped maintain our humanity. Historian Richard Morris writes, "Workers created a wide variety of institutions, all of them infused with a spirit of mutuality. Through their fraternal orders, cooperatives, reform clubs, political parties, and trade unions, American workers shaped a collectivist counter-culture in the midst of the growing factory system."

The phrase "labor history" invokes sepia-toned images of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – sitdown strikes, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the successful fights against child labor and for the eight-hour day. If we hold up a vanished past as the paragon of what can be accomplished by mutual aid institutions, it will prevent us from seeing what is possible in the future. In fact, the heroic image is true to a point, but the facts are far from an unbroken march to victory. Three separate times in the 19th century, national unions built hundreds of thousands of members only to be quashed by economic panics and political repression. Two of the most significant national organizations, the Knights of Labor (which claimed as many members as all of America's churches in the 1880s) and the Industrial Workers of the World, were put down with the help of federal action. Just as they are today, the haves were always ready to scorn the "levellers, mob, dirty-shirt party, tag, rag, and bobtail, and ringstreaked speckled rabble."

Ironically, the collectivist counterculture met its match for good in the New Deal. The leaders of the biggest unions, representing mainly skilled, industrial, white, native-born, male workers, agreed to establishment status in exchange for pulling up the ladder for all who came after then. The "tuxedo unionist" was born along with the corrupt image that dogs unions to this day. More fundamentally, the New Deal transferred many large social functions from the old mutual aid institutions to the federal government, usurping power from the grassroots. The War on Poverty with the creation of Medicare in the 1960s accelerated the process, the closest that America has ever come to a true social welfare state. Overnight, America's workers, poor and elderly received more money and assistance, but in exchange they became clients of the government rather than true agents of their own and their fellows' destinies.

For a variety of well-documented reasons, participation in mutual social institutions of all types has been in a slide since the 1960s, and union memberships' slide has been uninterrupted. However, it was not until the Reagan years that labor began to be methodically forced away from the policy table. By no means coincidentally, our social safety net has also disintegrated since then. The health care system and private pensions; Social Security and Medicare; K-12 and higher education; even infrastructure and credit; if it's a social benefit it's in an economic and political crisis right now. With the collapse of labor as a wielder of meaningful power, our economy has reverted to a model not seen since the Gilded Age. The only type of mutual benefit association currently enjoying decided government favor, the corporation, is the winner that takes all." (


Freelancers Union

"For the past year I have been working with an organization that points the way toward a new future of mutual benefit. Sara Horowitz was raised in the traditional left – her grandfather was vice president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, and she and her father were both labor lawyers. But she grew impatient with the old categories and old ways of thinking. In 1995 she founded Working Today, now known as the Freelancers Union. She won a 1999 MacArthur Genius Grant for her work with the organization, which was conceived as the first step toward a "New New Deal," or new social safety net, that fits the way Americans live and work today. They currently have 52,000 members and provide health care at group rates to 17,000 freelancers in New York City. Freelancers Union members are also eligible for life, dental, and disability insurance, discounts, and connect online to exchange referrals, tricks of the trade and job opportunities. They are beginning to have meet-ups nationwide to encourage political participation and the all-important value of fellowship. Currently the Freelancers Union is expanding health insurance to members in 30 states. Plans for providing more benefits like unemployment and retirement are underway." (

Mission Asset Fund

Jassmin Poyaoan:

"Mission Asset Fund (MAF) is a non-profit organization that facilitates and formalizes lending circles in immigrant and low-income communities. MAF observed the prevalence of check cashing facilities and payday loan providers in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood and sought to serve as an alternative.

MAF has created a system to ensure that payments and loans are made to lending circles on time and that members can build their credit by reporting timely payments to two of the major credit bureau agencies. Loans are zero-fee, zero-interest and relatively small — a typical loan is $1,000 on a 10-month period. At the beginning of the loan period, lending circle members determine the loan schedule by pulling numbers out of a hat. Each member signs a promissory note and sets up automatic withdrawals from their bank account to MAF’s account so MAF can then distribute the loans according to schedule. Loans are used for things ranging from educational expenses to security deposits. MAF also facilitates lending circles for legal fees associated with Deferred Action and citizenship applications.

MAF has made a substantial impact in immigrant and low-income communities despite only being around five years. Its lending circles boast a 99 percent repayment rate and a 1 percent default rate. Lending circle members have experienced a 168-point average increase in their credit score and an average of $1,051 reduction in debt. By participating in lending circles with the help of MAF, low-income individuals are building credit, escaping expensive debt, starting businesses, buying homes, and saving for college." (

Bay Area Mutual Aid

Jassmin Poyaoan:

"Bay Area Mutual Aid (BAMA) is a mutual aid society comprised of social workers living in the Bay Area who share a common vision of social work and community organizing. Members meet monthly to provide each other mutual aid including education and emotional support. For example, members are encouraged to contribute to the group’s skill share, where they are given the opportunity to share helpful skills, knowledge, and ideas with one another." (


Jassmin Poyaoan:

"There are many similarities between social conditions today and those that existed during mutual aid’s heyday. Today, the immigrant population makes up 13 percent of the U.S. population, which is not far from its peak of 14.9 percent in 1890. Five years after the peak of the recent Great Recession, many Americans are still struggling to make ends meet. Cuts to public spending have slowed the U.S. economy’s growth and have disproportionately affected middle to low-income families. Long-term unemployment remains on the rise especially in communities of color, while wages for average Americans have dipped to a forty-year low.

Mutual aid practices can assist low- and middle-income communities alike. Mutual aid societies can lend support during unemployment and offer health and life insurance to its members. Lending circles offer fair and accessible means of borrowing money, and both giving circles and gift circles allow individuals to collectively address their community’s under-resourced needs.

Underserved Communities: Many low-income communities in the U.S. are home to predatory lending services such as pawnshops, check cashing facilities, and payday loan providers. Payday loans, in particular, charge crippling fees and interest rates as high as 400 percent. Many individuals are drawn to these services because of the difficulty of obtaining credit from banks, which has worsened due to the financial crisis and staggering unemployment. Undocumented immigrants often face a steeper uphill battle in accessing credit, as most banks require their customers to provide Social Security numbers or specific forms of identification.

Middle-Income Families: Long-term unemployment and falling wages have devastated middle-income families facing the rising cost of health insurance, higher education, and housing. Following the housing crisis, many middle-income families have found it increasingly difficult to access credit. Others saw their pensions disappear when the stock market crashed, and companies are even encouraging their employees to not rely on pensions to fund their retirements." (

More Information