Mutual Aid and the Enjoyment of Life

“Life in North Beach was the closest thing to marvelous anarchy it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy. Despite battles with landlords, harassment by tourists, and mounting police terror, the Beats and their allies – old time hoboes, jazz musicians, oyster pirates, prostitutes, drug addicts, winos, homosexuals, bums and other outcasts – maintained a vital community based on mutual aid, and in which being different was an asset rather than a liability. In this community made up of people of many different races and nationalities, the practice of equality and solidarity was second nature. Almost everyone was poor, but no one went hungry, and newcomers had no trouble finding places to stay. In North Beach, 1960, what mattered most was poetry, freedom, creativity and having a good time.”Franklin Rosemont, Dancing in the Streets


    I do not believe that there is any inherent purpose to the universe or to life. Rather I see them as accidents, potentially delightful accidents. With that in mind, the only reason I see for living is to enjoy life to the fullest extent possible. Yet I think we would all agree that there is much in this world that gets in the way of enjoying life. Among other things, there is a social reality that imposes prohibits many enjoyments and tries to put price-tags on the rest. An individual can only live a life of full enjoyment in opposition to such a world. This is why I am an anarchist and have been one for more than thirty years.

    In pursuing the enjoyment of life against this world of proscriptions and imposed price-tags, I have lived on the margins of society, as an outsider. It has often not been easy. But at various times I have found others with whom to share my ongoing battle to create my life on my own terms. Friends, comrades, accomplices pursuing our dreams together, finding ways to make them interweave, what we created, how consciously we created and how far it went in creating our dreams and desires has varied, but if others surrendered their dreams over time, I have never given up my pursuit of a life on enjoyment and rebellion. One of the most outstanding periods of my life happened in Portland in the early 1990s. In many ways, what I experienced with specific friends and the networks we developed is reminiscent of Rosemont’s description of North Beach in 1960.

     I moved to Portland at the end of 1991. There I met several people who were to be my closest companions and accomplices for the next few years. A few of them continue to be among my best friends to this day. While each of us had various ways of bringing in the money that we needed to get by, this aspect of our lives was always kept subordinate to our enjoyment, our revolt and our projects. Not everyone among our little group of friends was an anarchist, but everyone, at least for the time, had an irrepressible lust for life that couldn’t help but express itself in rebellious way in this society. Our life together involved endless adventures: theft, travels, small attacks against various manifestations of the world we hated, public playful disruptions of daily life. We had time for all of this, because without thought we simply shared the necessities of life. Our friendship and shared adventures created a spontaneous mutuality.

     A typical adventure happened one May Day. We wandered around downtown Portland through the business district playing improvised noise on various instruments, handing out flyers inviting people to come join us for an afternoon picnic rather than going back to work. We had stolen a fairly good supply of food and beer – quite a bit more than we ourselves needed. We had a delightful time and received many positive responses (from smiles to “thumbs-up” gestures to encouraging comments), but I don’t recall anyone else having the courage to take the afternoon off and join our picnic. Still we had a delightful time, and this event is reflective of the sort of life we chose to live together.

     Activities of this sort, a short-lived anarchist coffeehouse in our house and our constant posting of poetic messages of revolt on telephone poles and other places helped us develop a network of connections that kept a fairly decent flow of all the material pleasures of life available. This network, which extended far outside specifically anarchist milieus, provided much of the material basis for how we chose to live. If in North Beach, “what mattered most was poetry, freedom, creativity and having a good time”, for us it was rebellion, living poetically, creativity and having a good time. Some of us had an explicitly revolutionary perspective that was lacking in the North Beach scene Rosemont describes. If we also had illusions, nonetheless, I can say that at that time, I experienced a kind of semi-conscious utopian practice acting against this world which made life a delight and creating some of my closest friendships. That practice involved a completely spontaneous form of mutual aid.

     I have continued to pursue such a practice to the extent that I can since that time. If that particular situation dissolved, my own experiments and explorations have continued in a more diffuse way, and several of my friends and accomplices from that time continue to be involved on many occasions. These are the others who consciously embraced anarchist and revolutionary perspectives.

     The conception of revolution that I share with some of these friends differs from typical (mostly marxist) conceptions. Vaneigem’s idea of a “revolution of every day life” has influenced this conception. Revolution in this sense is not merely a future apocalyptic event brought about by abstract historically events. It is a way of confronting life here and now. Such a revolution is not a bunch of atomized ciphers suddenly deciding to throw themselves against the walls of society. Rather it is individuals, discovering themselves as such, coming together to create their lives against a common enemy, finding ways to intertwine their ongoing struggles and their projects of enjoyment. Thus, the ways we relate are an essential aspect of our revolution. Those of us with a conscious desire for a different world need to be willing to make an effort to relate differently now. This means developing practical relationships of affinity. Affinity is too often looked upon as something abstract: we have similar ideas, therefore we have affinity. But if we cannot transform these shared ideas into concrete projects, into a real intertwining of lives and struggles in a focused manner, then our supposed affinity is just another meaningless spook haunting our heads. Thus, we need to recognize our strength in each other, and put effort into each other for mutual strengthening, rather than offering charity to each other and nurturing weakness. This is where Stirner’s union of egoists and Kropotkin’s mutual aid come together. Mutuality based in a respect for the uniqueness of each one of us, the difference between us, is essential to a revolution that can overcome the domination of survival over life and make enjoyment of life our central practice and pursuit.

     But what is mutuality? It can be describes as a reciprocity that does not weigh or measure, in which everyone involved recognizes each other as a source of strength, enjoyment, and the only kind of wealth that matters – the fullness of life. Brought down to the practical level, those of us who want to make the free creation and enjoyment of our lives our main project need to ask ourselves: Are our relationships our own creation, or the product of unconscious habits instilled by this society? Are they really mutually strengthening and expanding each of us? Are we creating and enhancing the wealth of life and joy in each other? Are we multiplying our ferocity against this authoritarian, money-based civilization by intertwining our lives and struggles? If not, we should question why we have any sort of relationship. Because the point is not that we owe something to each other. We don’t. The idea of debt is part of the economic framework of this society. The point is that the best way to fully enjoy and grasp our lives and to fight against this society is to make every moment, every activity and every relationship significant in the creation of a unitary life to the extent that we are able. And until we destroy the society that imposes its reality on us at every moment, this will be a constant struggle and challenge, requiring a high level of awareness and mutual effort and aid.