Dirty Work: Chuang on China, Communism, and Social Contagion

This is an excerpt of an interview with members of Chuang conducted as a collaboration among Cinder Bloc, History Against Misery, and The Antifada podcasts. The full interview is available here.

Question: A lot of people in the US think that China’s state control and authoritarianism gave them an advantage in controlling the virus in relation to other “democracies.” How accurate are these accounts?

Chuang: Our book addresses this in detail, so we won’t spend too much time on it here. But, basically, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s wrong in two key respects. First: it’s hard to see how the emergence of a global pandemic, that could have been limited to a local epidemic if only authorities had taken seriously the reports from healthcare workers on the ground, can be portrayed as having been “successfully” controlled. It was the on-the-ground failure of the political system and the higher-level public health apparatus in China in the early months of the epidemic that transformed the outbreak into a global pandemic. This was then followed by a similar and even more spectacular failure in the US.

Second: the local containment of the pandemic in China in the months that followed had as much or more to do with the vast volunteer mobilization of the Chinese population as it did with the official response on the part of the central state. Moreover, this mobilization occurred not because people had faith in the government’s response and sought to support it but precisely because people didn’t trust the government to effectively organize the lockdown. They were often responding to abject failures, such as the fact that healthcare workers who were dependent on public transport had no way to get to work in the middle of the lockdown—so volunteer driver services emerged, and many of these heroic volunteers actually contracted the virus and died.

Overall, this is just another iteration of how people used to say that “at least Mussolini made the trains run on time,” as if more authoritarian regimes are, despite their failings, ultimately more efficient. But it’s a complete myth: Mussolini didn’t make the trains run on time. Whatever advantages an authoritarian political regime has in accelerating capital accumulation—usually only in the short-term—don’t actually make it better or more efficient at the sort of administration that helps everyday people. Obviously, China isn’t a fascist regime and most of the portrayals of it as “totalitarian” are nothing but socially acceptable forms of orientalism. But the political system certainly has that authoritarian rigidity that most late-developers have adopted to compete with the leading factions of capitalists in the most powerful countries.

And, if anything, this rigidity actually hurt the Chinese response—as when local officials engaged in widespread media suppression early on in the epidemic and were backed up by the central state, all at precisely the time that widespread media attention would have been most helpful. Again, the book covers all of this in quite a bit more detail. We base the argument on the experience of our members who were in China at the time and on interviews with friends across the country, including in Wuhan.

Q: So, ultimately, what does your analysis tell us about the relationship between mutual aid and the state in times of social and ecological crisis?

C: This is something that’s a bit hard to address, simply because the meaning of the term “mutual aid” has been changing so rapidly. Today, it seems that the word has lost some of the radical edge it had in the older anarchist usage, where it both emphasized a general political philosophy rooted in the natural sciences (as in Kropotkin’s formulation, which was very popular in China in the early 20th century) and referred to autonomous co-organizing among proletarians as a tactic in long-run political struggles, which was especially important in moments of deep crisis or among the segments of the

class at the bottom of the racial hierarchy who are exposed to the worst brutalities of the system and suffer long-term unemployment. This latter sense was particularly salient for thinkers like Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, who categorized mutual aid as one of many tactics in the anarchist “survival program” that could be applied to poor areas across the US—and this is still a meaning that some mutual aid programs invoke today.

On average, however, it seems like mutual aid has been reverting to something like the even older usage it once had among utopian socialists and religious associations in the 19th century, where it effectively just designated a vaguely political form of charity, in which better-off progressives would organize through church groups to support those in need. In the west, this change in meaning can be attributed, at least in part, to the rising prominence of NGO-style organizations that clothe themselves in radical language and consider “civil society” to be a major site of political struggle. These organizations are often even staffed by former anarchists or other fellow-travelers of the defunct anti-globalization left and they represent the unfortunate conclusion of that era for most participants—even while some emerged from that movement on a more radical trajectory. Many of the new “mutual aid” societies set up in the course of the pandemic in the West are essentially a repeat of this experiment at a larger scale, even if they’ve been more wary of reliance on federal grants and philanthropic donations from the wealthy and are outwardly critical of the “non-profit industrial complex.” Frequently, this tension develops into a political struggle within these organizations over the meaning and function of mutual aid.

In the larger sense, this is all obviously an artifact of receding state capacity in Europe and the US. In China, the situation is very different. On the one hand, state capacity is increasing rapidly and there is an active state-building project underway. On the other, the term “mutual aid” lost its anarchistic connotations over a hundred years ago—in fact, it arguably never had the exact same connotation, since Kropotkin was being read within the context of Chinese political philosophy, where local self-organization and a seemingly anarchistic reliance on informal convention rather than the rule of law were both components of good imperial governance and were not understood as standing in opposition to the state. The socialist developmental regime used similar language, via things like “mutual aid teams” in the countryside. So instead of a “radical” mutual aid geared toward survival, we see a domesticated form of mutual aid that’s part and parcel of the ongoing state-building project.

That said, we have little sympathy for the critiques of mutual aid that we heard in parts of the left during the past few years from various people who have underestimated the scale, potential and, most importantly, necessity of autonomous action in the face of catastrophic circumstances. This is especially true when these critiques then morph into calls for a more vigorous state response, contrasted with what they call “neoliberal” autonomous organizing.

But the same holds for those who are simply bemoaning the reality that mutual aid organizing has little radical edge and advocate instead for some sort of truly autonomous “international working class movement” that obviously doesn’t exist. This sort of critique ignores our basic political reality. Ultimately, all sorts of “mutual aid” are going to happen anyway. The longed-for state response will not materialize, there is no international communist movement that offers any better alternative, and people will go on helping each other all the same. Mutual aid should be seen as part of the terrain on which organizing takes place and communists should participate in those projects, amplifying their antagonistic edge where possible.

At the same time, we do not naively believe that the kinds of disaster communism that sprout up around major crises are in and of themselves a tool for permanently overcoming the current state of things. Mutual aid is not a premonition of communism. It’s a meager survival strategy.

There are symmetrical errors here: those who critique mutual aid as nothing more than “neoliberal” charity, and those who praise mutual aid and “autonomy” as if they are the new world in the shell of the old. Both these positions are utterly wrong. Their critiques also tend to talk past each other. The term mutual aid is so broad that it’s easy for each party to cherry-pick an example that makes their case. In contrast, we emphasize that mutual aid is simply a tactical factor in the political struggles that already exist. The current political trajectory seems to suggest that this particular tactic, in all its variations, will persist for some time—even though it will evolve in different directions in different places. There’s not really any choice about whether or not you have to engage with it. But it certainly shouldn’t be idealized and the goal for communists is ultimately to overcome mutual aid, building more expansive forms of political power and preparing for fully social, rather than merely local, reproduction and collective flourishing.

In entering this already-existing terrain, the first step for communists should be to critically distinguish between many different concrete activities that have taken on the name “mutual aid” in particular places. In China, as elsewhere, elements of the local and central state react to breakdowns in their ability to keep up with developing events in a variety of ways, with violent repression playing a role alongside softer elements of counterinsurgency and cooptation. What we want to emphasize is that the relationship between the repressive tools of the state and the mobilization of various volunteer efforts in the early period of the COVID pandemic in China was neither a totalitarian aberration, totally separate from the responses of “western” states, nor a direct mirror of all capitalist disaster response worldwide. In the Chinese context, where state capacity is increasing, what we see as “mutual aid” is just as often the rationalization of local mechanisms of governance. This is particularly true in conditions where the capitalist class leading the state-building effort is explicitly drawing from the Chinese philosophical tradition, which places a special importance on seemingly “informal” mechanisms of statecraft.

Q: And what about globally?

C: In repeated climate disasters worldwide, from hurricane Katrina in the US to responses to the Covid pandemic worldwide, we’ve seen preexisting or spontaneously organized mutual aid networks function to meet pressing needs that local or national states are unable to. Often, as was the case with mutual aid efforts during the early pandemic period in China, these networks are most effective precisely in the places where the people active in them do not trust the state to provide for their needs. At the same time, autonomous organization for mutual aid can threaten either the public legitimacy of the state or the role it plays in maintaining property relations, as people make do for themselves and others around them. But this only really happens if mutual aid is accompanied by a sort of antagonistic autonomy. If this is the case, then these efforts might be met with real or threatened repression. At the same time, such projects are rarely antagonistic to the state—at least in the present moment—and this makes them fairly easy to co-opt. While mutual aid networks in the early pandemic period in China were not violently suppressed, they were eventually asked to hand over their roles to the state and they almost universally did so.

This is somewhat similar to events in the wake of disasters elsewhere: Where crises have not completely collapsed the feasibility of the status quo, it has been difficult for mutual aid projects to transform into long-term outposts for political struggle. In Wuhan and other Chinese cities where volunteer organizations were a key part of the early response to the coronavirus outbreak, these groups essentially dissolved after the first few months of crisis. At the same time, we saw the retooling of local groups such as residents’ committees for more effective management. In this way, the opening created by mutual aid groups was more or less effectively co-opted, and current propaganda efforts emphasize the role the party-state has played in ridding the country of coronavirus.