It’s a classic recruiting tactic. The Black Panther Party in the U.S. would give out free lunches to poor kids and as a result built considerable community support. Hezbollah, too, clearly gained popular sympathy through their welfare-type services in the South of Lebanon. And here in New Zealand Destiny Church has been using the provision of similar services to bolster their position and recruit new members.

The provision of social services has even found support amongst anarchists in Aotearoa. At the 2004 anarchist conference in Christchurch there was much talk about providing social services for poor areas of New Zealand in an effort to compete with the likes of Destiny Church. The expansion of Food Not Bombs, especially, was discussed.

Anarcho-charity“, however, is not the same as mutual aid. Mutual aid is a form of social organisation whereby people voluntarily come together to meet their own individual and collective needs based upon reciprocity. This last aspect is critical. Reciprocity encourages egalitarian relations, self-acitivity and genuine solidarity. Charity, on the other hand, creates relationships akin to that of a child to its parents, based on dependency at the expense of their own self-organisation, self-activity and solidarity.

The welfare state is a classic example of this and is renowned for smothering or integrating grassroots forms of mutual aid organisation within its State institutions, whether these be health co-ops, unions, or workers education associations. In New Zealand and elsewhere this top-down provision of services has worked to destabilise and dismantle anarchistic initiatives.

The widespread advocacy of initiatives like Food not Bombs is a curious development and needs to be properly examined. Food not Bombs arose in the early 1980s in the U.S. as part of a rejection of corporate and State spending on military expenses rather than social services. They began handing out free vegan food to the homeless and poor made from dumpstered food from around the city. In addition to the anti-militaristic and pro-welfare perspective, the tactic went onto also illustrate the waste involved in normal capitalist relations.

The rhetoric sounds painfully social democratic but it varies greatly depending on the local Food Not Bombs chapter. Here in New Zealand I’ve never seen any literature like this so painfully social democratic at an FnB stall; instead they are usually used for general anti-war literature.

But it isn’t the literature that makes FnB a poor tactic. It’s the form of this tactic in itself. Principally, it isn’t based on mutual aid. While there are occasional efforts to get those who are eating to help out, it is mostly a one-sided exchange: take your food and take your literature. It isn’t essentially different to the Christian stall that was in town yesterday: free bibles with your free hot dog.

FnB is not based on reciprocity, self-organisation or self-activity. Rather it maintains the split between organisers and eaters and does not encourage solidarity or the collective action of those receiving the free food. It is largely a charitable service whose apparent radical-ness is derived from the fact that it survives off the waste of Western capitalism and distributes radical literature.

Perhaps most importantly, while as a survival tactic it is necessary, it exists within the cracks of capitalism and hardly works to challenge the property relations that are the cause of the poverty we find ourselves in today. Distributing dumpstered food is a far cry from organising against slum lords, self-reduction campaigns or proletarian shopping, for example. As far as I can see, it offers no scope for revolutionary change.

“Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification.

Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others – even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.”
As We See It

I should stress that there is a world of difference between State welfare/services and services provided by members of one class to members of that same class. Nonetheless, I do believe this does not encourage revolutionary tendencies when it is organised in a service model, rather than a participatory model.