July 26 2021
Working conditions under late capitalism have only worsened over the past twenty years, with worker precarity, stagnating wages and overwork now increasingly the norm. Recently, the journalist Sarah Jaffe has explored the decreasing sense of control felt by workers over the their jobs – even as they’re encouraged to ‘love’ what they’re doing.
These dynamics have hit care work and creative work in particular. The former, which can refer to anything from domestic labour to teaching, elder care to working for non-profits, is frequently devalued and underpaid as a feminised “labour of love”. The latter, comprising artists and academics alike, may be valuable and coveted, but often relies on low or unpaid labour, viewed – as it often is – as a domain for “passion” not “pay”. Workers in both sectors often “love” what they do, but as Jaffe notes, ‘the simple reality of work under capitalism is that the worker doesn’t control much of anything on the job. That fact doesn’t change if the job is more or less pleasant’.
But what about the working conditions of those outside formal economic structures, such as activists challenging the political status quo? The organising of volunteer-led mutual aid groups can be seen as a form of both caring and creative work – but, for many of these groups, putting in place proper structures for working practices is often a low priority, which can lead to high rates of burnout and conflict.
As writer and activist Dean Spade suggests, it is just as important for organisers to investigate how things are working “in here” – in organising spaces – as they might not be “out there” in society. As such, in this blog post, I focus on the importance of recognising political organising as a distinct and challenging form of labour. I ask the question: what practices outside of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy can be adopted in mutual aid work that acknowledges the labour needs and practices of those involved? Drawing on research and interviews I’ve undertaken with organisers of mutual aid groups, I suggest such organisations need to prioritise transparent working practices, not only to avoid and mitigate burnout, but also to embed forms of prefigurative collective care that might radically reshape working conditions outside of capitalism.
Mutual aid as work
Productivity and competitiveness featured much more heavily in interviews I’ve undertaken with mutual aid organisers than you might think, especially considering the anti-capitalist ethos espoused by many of those in these movements. Mutual aid groups usually organise through ‘non-hierarchical’ or ‘horizontal structures’ which, in principle, are opposed to manager/employee dynamics, a single leader ‘calling the shots’, or one person being nominated to delegate work.
However, in practice, mutual aid spaces can often replicate many of the same competitive structures found elsewhere. Activist Nicole Rose, in her book Overcoming Burnout reflects on the ‘productivity paradigm’ that took hold in her own activist work. She writes that capitalism can ‘reproduce oppressive logics about our body and actions’ in which ‘those who are unproductive are lazy and worthless’. Unlearning these productivity narratives is therefore often understood as a key struggle for the organisers who are embedded in trying to challenge them.
Organisers that I spoke to, referred to here by their anonymised first names, regularly described struggling with guilt when they’ve not been able to commit as much time as they’d like. This focus on productivity and competition often means that organisers struggle with how much they feel they have contributed to their group. Lisa acknowledged that there seemed to be certain people ‘carrying the load’ of activist work. Some organisers said that they felt like they were never doing ‘enough’ and experienced guilt if they missed meetings or actions. Chipo joked that people were often concerned with ‘who can flyer in the rain the most?’
Most organisers reflected on periods of burnout, usually associated with physical and/or mental illness, in which they needed a significant amount of space for reflection and insight into how to make the work more sustainable. Burnout in mutual aid groups is defined by Spade as ‘the combination of resentment, exhaustion, shame, and frustration that make us lose connection to pleasure and passion in the work and instead counter difficult feelings like avoidance, compulsion, control, and anxiety’. The sense of anxiety produced by feelings of competition and productivity is particularly difficult when working practices are not transparent, or what needs to be done is unclear. This is especially the case in mutual aid work where work is rarely pre-defined and roles are fluid, with frequently very long-term political aims.
This poses a problem in that people may feel unsure about how they can best contribute, or how to go about changing group practices if they aren’t currently working. The next section looks at possible solutions to these ongoing issues with burnout and transparency: how do we create working conditions in activist spaces that don’t just replicate the competitive, capitalist structures of most paid work? More specifically, how might mutual aid groups: 1) better acknowledge their organising as work (requiring structure and support) and, 2) be organised differently to minimise burnout and conflict?
Responding to burnout: transparency and collective care
Many of the activists I spoke to had identified their own solutions to burnout, such as managing guilt and embedding self-criticality and transparency in group work. Organiser Lisa commented that she had found ways to manage the guilt when she acknowledged that a break was necessary, both in terms of her own wellbeing and in enabling the work to continue. Amara agreed: ‘It’s just getting to that place where you can contribute, and you feel like you have something to contribute, but you don’t take all the weight on your shoulders, and you don’t feel guilty if you take some time off.’ Embedding what organiser Erin calls a ‘self-critical process’ where these spaces’ working practices are being reflected upon is vital or, as she states, mutual aid groups ‘just start being the rest of society’.
Part of that self-criticality therefore comes in making a group’s working processes more transparent. Spade outlines that making internal problems a top priority is one of the key solutions to managing burnout. This can include collective planning of the group’s work, conflict mediation, building transparency, and regularly scheduled conversations about what is going well and what needs work in group dynamics. Elements of reflexivity and transparency should be central to any organising work, in which the internal dynamics of the group can be a place where post- and anti-capitalist praxis is explored.
Alongside transparent working practices, it is important that political organising be recognised as a form of labour that is frequently very demanding, with prefigurative collective care embedded in mutual aid groups from the outsight. For organiser Lewis, the work of activism was acknowledged as very challenging, both in relation to individual struggles and in struggles against state and corporate forces.
Centring disability justice, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has elsewhere challenged an individualistic focus on self-care under capitalism. ‘It’s not about self-care—it’s about collective care’, she writes. ‘Collective care means shifting our organizations to be ones where people feel fine if they get sick, cry, have needs, start late because the bus broke down, move slower, ones where there’s food at meetings, people work from home—and these aren’t things we apologize for. It’s the way we do the work, which centers disabled-femme-of-color ways of being in the world’.
Spade also identifies the centrality of a ‘culture of connection’ in which people are seen as fully human and not merely people who can produce work. Although the work can be challenging in many ways, Lewis comments that it can also feel ‘totally amazing’ when you are ‘working with people where things are going pretty smoothly and people are on the same page and supporting each other…or just caring and taking care of each other when things aren’t great.’ Amara similarly indicates that forming relationships was the main thing that helps to sustain her organising, in which work did not feel ‘abstract’ to her.
Incorporating and practicing collective care in these spaces is one of the clearest ways in which capitalist structures can be challenged and prefigurative practices of care can be enacted in the present. Giving and receiving care when the work (and the world) feels impossible alongside giving, and receiving feedback when things aren’t working are two of the most important ways in which political communities can grow and flourish. Re-evaluating mutual aid labour conditions, transparent working practices and collective care are the founding principles to avoiding burnout and enacting radically different ways of relating to one another.
Kate Meakin is a doctoral researcher studying Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. Their research considers the ways in which feminist utopian and dystopian fiction is used by UK-based activists. During a recent partnership with Autonomy, Kate researched worker centers, focusing on questions of demography, the services they provide and their role in the local economy.