Coronavirus demands justice, not charity

Coronavirus demands justice, not charity
Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

‘North West London – COVID-19 Support For The Vulnerable’, one of the roughly 1,500 mutual aid groups established around the UK in the past fortnight, already has over 7,000 members. Each day, dozens offer and request alleviation of life under lockdown, with varying degrees of Jewishness. “My near 90 year old grandma lives in Golders Green and is self isolating,” wrote one member. “Is anyone local able to take her 3 boxes of matza?” Another member asked the group to pray for a sick friend, supplying her Hebrew name. A third offered to deliver challot to “people that need refua”.

The speed and enthusiasm with which our community has joined the popular response to coronavirus has been heartening, if unsurprising. British Jewry is highly charitable: the Institute for Jewish Policy Research counts over 2,300 Jewish charities in Britain generating £1.1bn a year. 0.5% of the UK population is Jewish; 1.4% of its charities are. From the inward-focused (Norwood) to the outward (Tzedek), the local (Jewish Volunteering Network) to the global (World Jewish Relief), charity sustains our communal ecology. Tzedakah is a reflex, and coronavirus has triggered it.

Like the mutual aid groups that have proliferated during the pandemic, Jewish charities excel at “stopping the bleeding”, a term used in political organising to describe the practical mitigation of immediate harm. Domestic abuse helplines, refugee drop-in centres, ambulance services – they provide critical care to those in need. Yet rarely do Jewish (or indeed most) charities seek to cure the sickness whose symptoms they palliate. When they do, it is usually in a localised fashion: a refugee charity might lobby the Home Office to reunite unaccompanied minors with their families, but not to end the hostile environment; a synagogue might run homeless shelters, but not a campaign for social housing; a care charity might provide assisted living, without calling on its donors to question why the government cannot.

This is partly a legal constraint; under UK law, charities can only undertake political activity if it supports its charitable aims, and many err on the side of caution. It may also be a communal constraint. As the December election painfully demonstrated, politics is perilous in the Jewish community. In the interests of remaining a broad shul, charities often avoid it.

Covid-19 invites a similarly depoliticised response – after all, it’s a virus. In the recent LRB, David Runciman notes that the 1918 flu pandemic had little effect on the US or UK elections that followed. Quoting Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (2016), the reason Runciman supplies is that “electoral retribution requires voters to imagine […] that incumbent leaders could have prevented or ameliorated their pain. In the case of the flu pandemic, that crucial attribution of political responsibility was lacking.” Pandemics resist politicisation. Unlike other crises (financial, for example), their origins appear organic, their effects undiscriminating. Coronavirus is not a political problem, but rather a pathogenic one: unpredictable, spontaneous, blameless. Containing it requires a war effort, one in which we put aside our political differences to join forces against a common enemy.

Yet more than any other event in living memory, coronavirus has exposed the fissures in our political settlement: the rampant individualism that has inspired panic-buying and lockdown non-compliance; the evisceration of the welfare state, labour laws and unions that’s forced workers to choose between their lives and livelihoods; the rentier capitalism that’s encouraged landlords to continue demanding payment from laid-off tenants. Equally, coronavirus has revealed the extent to which these problems were a political choice; how just like that, homeless people could be housed, low-skilled workers promoted to key, perma-austerity thawed. As our material needs and capitalism’s inability to meet them become starkly apparent, forms of democratic socialism recently dismissed as fanciful – universal basic income, renationalised railways, rent controls – now seem eminently practical. Coronavirus has provided both the strongest repudiation of a politics that has rent the social fabric, and the clearest manual for how to repair it.

Perhaps more than anything, the virus – which has set in motion the greatest popular mobilisation since the Second World War – has given the lie to Margaret Thatcher’s haunting assertion that “there is no such thing as society”. At a moment when people might more easily have turned inward, many are doing the opposite. Thousands of us who have grown up barely knowing our neighbours are now risking our health to help them; the NHS has been inundated with applications from volunteers. Many of those participating in this mutual aid effort do not think that they are “doing politics” – simply what needs to be done. Yet as its history attests, mutual aid is – or at least, can be – a step towards reconfiguring our society.

The Russian anarcho-communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin coined the term “mutual aid” in his 1902 book of the same name. Contesting Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection, Kropotkin argued that “the best guarantee of existence” was not competition, but cooperation. In Kropotkin’s theory, mutual aid was to form the basis of anarcho-communism, a decentralised, rulerless model of society. Many political movements have since recognised the radical potential in simple acts of reciprocal support. In 1969, the Black Panther Party (BPP) started giving black schoolchildren free breakfast. Dubbed “one of the biggest and baddest things we ever did” by ex-Panther Billy X Jennings, “potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP” by ex-FBI chief Edgar Hoover, the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children Program – mutual aid, in essence – addressed a basic need. However, it also laid the groundwork for structural transformation, by recruiting young African-Americans into an organisation that sought to emancipate them. Mutual aid stopped the bleeding, so that the movement could start healing the wound.

The danger now is that coronavirus mutual aid groups will focus on the first part, but forget the second. If our charitable action remains unmoored from structural critique, if we lack a plan for what comes after mutual aid, we risk collecting our neighbours’ prescriptions, walking their dogs, delivering their groceries, before resuming our regularly scheduled programming. This pandemic has proven that free market orthodoxies fail us in a crisis; if we continue to espouse them, such crises will become routine. Thankfully, whether we recognise it or not, our mutual aid work is the strongest antidote to “capitalism as usual”. When this fever passes, when the government begins stripping away remedial socialism and restoring extractive capitalism, we must activate our newly-forged communal networks to resist this regression with all we have; to demand that our government show us the same care we have shown one another.

The Jewish community has risen admirably to the challenge of Covid-19. We cannot now fail to let it radicalise us. Uncritical charity – the kind that volunteers with asylum seekers, while voting for the hostile environment; that claps for the NHS on one night, for those privatising it another – will no longer suffice. It’s time to politicise our philanthropy, to reject the purity of universalist principles for the grubbiness of political change.

Mutual aid, Kropotkin argued, is borne of “a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy”: a “sense of justice”. For Kropotkin, justice was not distinct from love, but incorporative of it. Cornel West put it otherwise: “Justice is what love looks like in public”. To extend charity to others is a love of sorts, but to struggle for a world in which others do not need our charity is the truest love of all. Currently, we prefer to interpret tzedakah narrowly, as “charity”. Now’s the time to widen our love to an ambitious understanding of the word, as “justice”. ▼