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Mutual aid is a term used in a number of areas of life including biology, social relations, economics, and politics. It refers to help that is given by one party to another. The party may be nonhuman or it may be human. In the case of humans, it is usually aid given according to prior agreements. In biology, mutual aid is termed mutualism. It describes the mutual benefit and the interactions that take place between two or more species. The mutualism between two species can be lifelong contact that is physical or chemical. If the mutualism between them is lifelong, it is referred to as symbiosis. Clown fish live in symbiotic relationship with sea anemones. On the other hand, pollinators such as bees that interact with flowering plants have a nonsymbiotic relationship.
The mutual relationship may be obligate (necessary for both to live). Legumes such as alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, lupins, and peanuts are nitrogenfixing plants that produce nodules rich in nitrogen with the mutual aid of rhizobia bacteria. The relationship is also of mutual aid to gardeners and farmers whose land is enriched with nitrogen in a second mutual benefit. Facultative (either partner can live alone) relationships are nonobligate. The relationship between people and pets is nonobligatory. However, in the case of a seeing eye dog that aids a blind person, the relationship is obligatory. The development of mutual aid relationships between species has been a subject of concern to biologists who specialize in evolutionary developments. One set of relationships that is not mutual aid is parasitism, because the benefit for one is at the expense of the other.
In politics mutual defense pacts are a form of mutual aid. The Constitution of the United States is a mutual defense pact between the states where an attack upon one is an attack upon them all. Historically, all of the American states have had militias that could be called upon to repel an invasion. The principle of mutual aid has guided their organization. Mutual defense can also mean responding to disasters or emergencies. Fire departments in rural areas often have mutual response agreements.
Numerous mutual aid societies have been formed over the years that are aimed at helping people who belong to the group. Insurance is a form of mutual aid. Participants are aiding those who need help while guarding themselves from the risk against which they are insured. Mutual aid groups are often sponsored by social workers to help people who are oppressed, vulnerable, or in need of help to overcome social, economic, or ecological ills. For example, when the Japanese town of Minamata suffered from Minamata disease, many residents and other sympathizers formed a mutual aid society to comfort, aid, and advocate for the redress of grievances of the victims.
Politically, mutual aid has been a principle idea of anarchism and libertarian socialism. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a French anarchist and an advocate of mutualism. Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin advocated the development of mutual aid societies. He believed that government was the cause of all social ills. The solution was the abolition of all government. In his anarchistic “state of nature” people would voluntarily join together for mutual benefits and then would trade their products for those of other people in other groups. Kropotkin’s vision of a system of voluntary associations that would create an economy where mutual exchanges took place was described in his book The Conquest of Bread. He was influenced in his thinking by Darwin’s theory of evolution and by the development of mutualism in biology.
- David T. Beito, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Sciences (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000);
- Douglas Boucher, ed., Biology of Mutualism: Ecology and Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1988);
- Alex Gitterman and Lawrence Shulman, eds., Mutual Aid Groups (Columbia University Press, 2005);
- Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (Porter Sargent Publishers, 1888);
- Dominique Moyse Steinberg, The MutualAid Approach to Working with Groups: Helping People Help Each Other (The Haworth Press, 2004).