The Sharing Economy and the Radical Practice of Mutual Aid

I moved across town last week. The love and care I received on moving day seemed akin to a to barn raising. Family and friends gathered. We worked hard in the hot sun together. At the end of the day a table was spread with a deliciously hearty feast prepared by dear friends from church.

Before there was Uber or Airbnb, there was this sort of mutual aid. Mutual aid is a fancy way of saying “when you need help, I’ll help you out and I know you’ll help me too when the tables turn.” The radical practice of mutual aid.

This may or may not sound like a radical practice to you. I talked to someone from the PiE community about this last week, and she said: “that’s just what you do. If you can, you show up, in whatever ways you can. It’s just how community works.” 

Mutual aid certainly was radical when the first Anabaptists came on the scene, though. They were inspired by reading about the early followers of Jesus in the book of Acts where it says:

Those who believed lived together, shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, sharing the proceeds with one another as each had need. They met in the Temple and they broke bread together in their homes everyday. With joyful and sincere hearts they took their meals in common, praising God and winning the approval of all the people.

(-The Inclusive Bible -Acts 2:44-47A)

By the 16th century, when Anabaptists were living this out, they certainly didn’t win the approval of the authorities. In that time and place (is it really so different today?) society “worked” because a few people had lots of power and money and all others were dependent on them in every way for their survival. When the Anabaptists removed themselves from this hierarchical system through the practice of mutual aid, this was majorly threatening to those in power.

When we remove ourselves from the system through mutual aid today, it’s just as threatening to those in power, except this time it’s not churches or governments who are threatened, but corporations.

The rise of the sharing economy over the last decade has been exciting to see. People are choosing to consume less because they are finding ways to share what’s already out there rather than putting more stuff into circulation. That’s good news for this tired planet.

But I don’t think the sharing economy goes far enough towards embodying the sort of radical mutual aid that the early Jesus followers or the early Anabaptists were living out.If you look behind the scenes, services where we pay to borrow something are still designed to give a large cut to a corporation, and they still assume that users have the means to pay for these services. These models can be helpful, but they aren’t mutual aid.

So what might it look like to engage in the radical practice of mutual aid in 2016 here in Waterloo Region? I’ve got a few ideas about that.

  1. Share with your neighbours. Does every household really need it’s own lawn mower and waffle iron?
  2. Join a co-operative. Whether it’s a co-op credit union, apartment building or grocery store, no one is making a profit and the purpose is for all members to benefit.
  3. Think beyond moving day. When else might it make sense to gather people to do together what seems impossible alone?
  4. Ask for help. In our society we sometimes worry we will look weak and vulnerable if we ask for help, but asking for help when we need it is an important step to transforming the communities around us into hotbeds of radical mutual aid.
  5. Give generously. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help. If you know someone is having a rough week, offer help without being asked. They can always say no. Personally, I’ve often felt most loved in difficult times by people who brought me food or did my dishes.

How do you embody the radical practice of mutual aid? Do you have any stories of mutual aid in action? Please share in the comments section!




One response to “The Sharing Economy and the Radical Practice of Mutual Aid

  1. It is easy to simply say a person should ask for help. Overcoming shame, vulnerability, feelings of weakness and possible humiliation can be an immense hurdle. It appears to me that in our own Mennonite communities, it has become the default mechanism to recognize wealth. When a husband and wife miss three choir practices in a row our first thoughts are not whether there is an illness but wondering what resort destination they have chosen. There are oohs and ahs if a church member drives up on the church parking lot in a new Lexus but no one questions why the other church member has been driving the same run down beater for several years.
    This also is becoming more evident in our private institutions (schools, seniors homes etc) where it is not unusual to see platinum/gold/silver contributer plaques prominently displayed or as in our seniors home names on bricks of building fund contributers (larger brick/more bricks=larger contribution) or plaques “this room furnished by…”

    I know a retired gentleman who regularly donates anonymously and generously to our local Menno high school. When there was a particular building project, I spoke to him about the project and casually mentioned that I was certain that he had also donated generously. I was shocked at the look of shame that came over him. Not because he had not donated but that through an administrative oversight he and his wifes’ name had been prominently sewn into the commemoration quilt.

    Another fellow who has been going through some very tough financial times is asked by a pastor at choir practice “how are you” and he responds “fine I guess, about 5/10.” To which the pastor responds “yes the recent heat and humidity is getting to a lot of people.” Say WHAT?!?!

    My question is this. Why have we gotten to the point where a person who has come into financial duress feels like they have to humble themselves to ask for help when the best off of our fellowship seems to feel no compunction to humble themselves for their wealthy excess.
    We need to turn this default thinking around.


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