Friday, February 25, 2011

A Sociology of Mutual Aid

People are social beings and they have shared needs. Throughout recorded (and likely non-recorded) history, people have associated with and helped others in a non-exchange and non-coercive fashion. This sociability or mutual aid—as Kropotkin called it—is the basis of both human and animal societies. Sustaining a community is good for everyone, not just certain individuals. Even though this is a “natural” human impulse—helping people out for group benefit, not just individual benefit—certain things (namely hierarchy) can get in the way of the social inclination towards mutual aid. Anarchist-sociologists might generally define all manner of hierarchical institutions as leading to this unfortunate end, and Kropotkin (2006) was specific in assigning blame to governments and bureaucracies:

In the guild -- and in medieval times every man belonged to some guild or fraternity [and] two “brothers” were bound to watch in turns a brother who had fallen ill; it would be sufficient now to give one’s neighbour the address of the next paupers’ hospital. In barbarian society, to assist at a fight between two men, arisen from a quarrel, and not to prevent it from taking a fatal issue, meant to be oneself treated as a murderer; but under the theory of the all-protecting State the bystander need not intrude: it is the policeman’s business to interfere, or not. And while in a savage land, among the Hottentots, it would be scandalous to eat without having loudly called out thrice whether there is not somebody wanting to share the food[…] all that a respectable citizen has to do now is to pay the poor tax and to let the starving starve. (p. 188)

Rational choice theorists (e.g. Olson 1965) have countered the sociology of mutual aid by proposing the so-called “free-rider problem”, in which it is contrary to one's individual interests to do something that contributes to the greater good if there is no requirement or immediate incentive to do so. While this purports to demonstrate the reasons for incomplete participation in societal activities and human selfishness, it actually ignores the many instances in which people are selfless. The free-rider problem turns every situation into a calculated, rational-choice scenario, even though most people do not conceive of situations as such. In order to presume that people want to slack-off and take advantage of other people's labor, one must studiously ignore the many instances—in fact the vast majority of time—in which people cooperate and participate in society without hope for reward or status. For example, people regularly join voluntary associations, help strangers by lending their know-how and resources, donate money or time to local charities, and help each other freely in the aftermath of natural and social disasters.

It would not be difficult to promote a sociology of mutual aid within the academy. It is important to allow and encourage researchers to regularly collaborate with each other, especially in respect to problem-solving. Beyond the constraints of professional sociologists, anarchist-sociology would compel those within universities and colleges to work with communities outside the academy, in particular the most disadvantaged and dominated within those communities. This collaborative, outside-facing orientation is often called “service” with the academy—reading others' research, doing peer reviews, helping to provide information and data, and so on. Certain types of research are even more important to communities, sometimes called “participant action research” or projects that lend their services to social movements to better understand their own conditions and potentials (like Howard Ehrlich's Research Group One). To anarchize the discipline of sociology, this type of community “service” would need to be evaluated and prioritized, on par with research published in peer-reviewed journals or classes taught.


Kropotkin, Peter. 2006. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Olson, Mancur. 1965. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sociology of Direct Action

People typically do not channel their behavior through intermediaries, especially political elites. People self-organize themselves all the time to immediately address their collective needs and desires. Direct action is often as seen as more efficient, nuanced (i.e. it can allow for localized variation), and empowering. For example, many large protests today involve collections of “affinity groups”, who are all individually involved in carrying out their own self-determined and self-managed plans. They sometimes coordinate with each other ahead of time through “spokescouncil” meetings, where participants directly solve problems. Activists also act directly within the protest context itself, making decisions within affinity groups and addressing short-term tactical problems themselves—filtering-out undercover police officers, debating the efficacy of property destruction, protecting each other from attacks by external forces (like police or fascists), and of course successfully executing protest plans. In no instance do activists turn to authority figures for “help” in solving these problems. Police are not appealed to for security, city governments are not needed to provide logistical coordination for march routes, and the corporate media need not be relied upon to correctly transmit the ideas and message of protesters. These tasks are all accomplished internally, by participants themselves.

Direct action subject matter is readily found in society by anarchist-sociologists. For example, all types of do-it-yourself activities could fall under this research program. The activities of community organizations, mutual aid and self-help groups, neighborhood watch groups or assemblies, or hobby clubs take care of their own business themselves, without appeals to authority. Or, consider the multitude of friendly societies, traditional unions, work guilds, and mutual aid societies from the not-to-distant past: they provided health care, pensions, educational and cultural activities to their members, long before the social-welfare state had launched its own bureaucratic, partial answer to these needs (e.g. Cordery 2003).

A sociology of direct action would seek out answers to questions directly, without going through bureaucracies, foundations, or governments first. While resources are always an important concern, anarchist-sociologists should not rely upon funding and paternalism from such dominant and hierarchical institutions. Instead, anarchist-sociologists should interview people directly and involve these people immediately in research that benefits them (see Martin 1998). Ordinary people, the disadvantaged, and communities should set the terms of scholarship that affect and involve them. Then, as opposed to filtering empirical findings through traditional channels—the stodgy peer-review process that is more concerned with theory-creation as opposed to problem-solving—a true sociology of direct action would share research with other relevant public(s) first and foremost.


Cordery, Simon. 2003. British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Martin, Brian. 1998. Information Liberation. London: Freedom Press.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Sociology of Anti-Authoritarianism

Public opinion polls have noted for decades a general lack of confidence in major institutions throughout the West.[1] This vague anti-authoritarianism could easily serve as an organizing principle for a new anarchist-sociology. Many people regularly find various “legitimate” forms of authority to be meaningless, detrimental, corrupt, or simply illegitimate—consequently, they choose to not respect them (while often giving them subtle endorsement through a lack of visible opposition). Symbols of hierarchical authority implicitly invite acts of rebellion, while horizontal authority is embodied with agreements and understandings (e.g. cultural norms and mores) that do not require external enforcement by hierarchical institutions (e.g. laws and the state). Instead, many agreements are regularly based upon respect, trust, handshakes, and the like—or what some scholars might call positive deviance that is anti-authoritarian in character (see Williams forthcoming).

Anti-authoritarianism keeps people independent from the control of others through opposition to various forms of domination and hierarchical institutions. To the extent that such anti-authoritarianism accurately represents broad sectors, an anarchist-sociology could seek to understand how these processes function. For example, Max Weber considered three principle forms of legitimate authority that allowed some to wield power over others (Weber 1958). Is there not, logically, some type of anti-authoritarian authority type that Weber overlooked? Perhaps some form of trusted, non-hierarchical power? If so, this type of legitimacy is de-centered from any institution, office, or single person. It rejects the legitimacy derived from other varieties of authority. Anarchists would do well to take note of Weber's observations: authority's strength resides in its legitimacy. For those wishing to eliminate hierarchical authority and its corresponding power over others, then it is crucial to destroy the legitimacy that accompanies that authority.

Anarchist-sociologists could research the ways in which people self-organize sans authority. How do people deliberately avoid discrimination and domination? Is it through heightened tolerance and egalitarianism? Maybe through the creation of new, radically democratic social norms? I suspect we will find that people employ both passive and aggressive strategies that avoid, subvert, confront, and overthrow so-called “legitimate” authority. Evidence will not be hard to come by. Historical and contemporary examples will likely demonstrate many strategies and tactics, whether via cynicism in large bureaucracies or distrust of politicians, or through slave resistance, worker sick-ins and wildcat strikes, or the refusal to participate in mass consumer culture. Ample evidence will also emerge from observing the collective behavior of crowds involved in resisting authority. How do resisters identify authority figures and structures? Can they see past baton-wielding riot police to the sometimes faceless institutions the police protect? How do crowds of people manifest action with or without new authority internal to their groups and organizations? Anti-authoritarianism does not just suggest resistance to long-established, status quo authority figures, but also incipient and informal authority that may evolve within movements and social change networks themselves, regardless of how professedly radical they may be.

A consistent anti-authoritarian sociology would act to remove titles, statuses, and ranks between people interested in studying and transforming society (for example, the varied distinctions between “assistant professor”, “full professor”, “instructor”, “student”, “non-academic”, and so on). A truly egalitarian learning environment requires breaking down the walls between the “learner” and the already “learned”. Also, a reflexive anarchist-sociology needs to encourage a critique—and attack!!—upon privileged, powerful, dominating, and elite persons, organizations, institutions, and practices. It is not enough to profess opposition. One must help to further its ends, through resistance to hierarchy and through the positive creation of alternatives.


[1] Note that this opposition is not just expressed towards specific individuals, but to institutions generally.


Weber, Max. 1958. “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule”. Berkeley Publications in Society and Institutions, 4 (1): 1-11.

Williams, Dana M. Forthcoming. “Why Revolution Ain't Easy: Violating Norms, Re-Socializing Society”. Contemporary Justice Review.

Monday, February 7, 2011

We Are Everywhere (Introduction)

[Co-authored with Matthew Lee, published in Humanity & Society in 2008]

The past decade has seen a pronounced resurgence in anarchist movement activity throughout the world (Gordon 2007). This increase activity can be witnessed by large-scale protests featuring sizable (and organized) anarchist contingents, focused media attention on anarchists active in social movements, and the expressed concerns and accusations made by politicians of a new anarchist menace. Still, even though this resurgence is clearly factual, it is unclear why anarchism has reappeared now, to what extent it exists, and where it is most active.

There has also been a resurgence of interest in anarchism—both academically and in popular media—but very little of this treatment has offered a comparative examination of the international anarchist movement as it has been differentially shaped across geo-political contexts. Specifically, research has not comprehensively assessed the factors that influence where anarchism thrives and its particular domains of activity. For example, are anarchist media organizations more prevalent in countries with strong press rights, or do such organizations flourish in the absence of these rights? Most recent studies have been theoretical (Day 2004, Shantz 2002a, 2003), anecdotal (Katz 1981, Graeber 2002), or qualitative and focus on only one organization (Blickstein & Hanson 2001, Boehrer 2000, 2003, Ingalsbee 1996, Luke 1994, Maiba 2005, O'Brien 1999, O'Connor 1999, Roy 2003, Shantz 2002b, Shantz & Adam 1999).[1] Yet, there is very little organizational consistency in anarchist organizations, particularly when surveying their distribution across the world. These organizations may focus on local, national, and/or global struggles; address political, cultural, and economic concerns; and target government, corporate, religious, or cultural authorities. Some members of such organizations may perceive their involvement as contributing to a larger anarchist social movement with the explicit goal of fundamental societal transformation; others may have become involved for more prosaic reasons and share the anarchist ideology to a lesser degree, if at all. Regardless, anarchist organizations are “everywhere,” as a movement slogan argues. But, few attempts have been made to disaggregate their content across national boundaries. Even less research has sought to account for the appearance of particular types of anarchist organizations in specific social and political contexts.

A central problem associated with attempts to understand anarchist organizations is that they are, by their very nature, decentralized so no master source of information on anarchist organizations exists. The best existing resource available to researchers is the Anarchist Yellow Pages (AYP). This paper analyzes the AYP to build upon the empirical knowledge of anarchist social movement organizations. This paper offers an initial descriptive and analytical account of the geographic clustering of types of anarchist organizations, with special emphasis on the role of political opportunities in shaping this distribution. As such, our approach contributes to the study of anarchism by exploring the macro-level forces that shape the characteristics of populations of organizations (c.f., Hannan and Freeman 1989; Friedland and Alford 1991), as well as the political opportunity variant of social movement theory (McAdam 1996). We begin by offering a brief description of anarchism and anarchist organizations.

Anarchism is surely one of the most misunderstood political and social philosophies of the modern era. Any discussion of anarchism requires a preface that distinguishes fact from fiction and between what anarchists say about themselves and what others say about them. First, anarchism is not about chaos, violence, terrorism, or disorganization. Anarchism does not advocate a dog-eat-dog world or a nihilist future of an uncaring society (Zinn 1997). Concerted media propaganda campaigns have been waged against anarchists, both in the past (Cobb-Reiley 1988 and Hong 1992) and the recent present (McLeod & Detenber 1999), campaigns that have strongly influenced this popular misperception. Thus, it is unsurprising that most people today expect an image of anarchists that reflects a Walt Whitman-esque male draped in black cape, clutching lit bomb, ready to hurl it wherever his glee suits, or the image of a young person—surely White and over-privileged—wearing a black hooded-sweatshirt, face covered with a bandanna, and intentionally antagonizing police officers. However, these two stereotypes—mad bomber or violent street fighter—do not represent the wide range of tactical repertoires, nor the aspirations or goals of modern-day anarchists.

Second, anarchism can be defined by what it is for and what it is against. Anarchism opposes hierarchy, authority structures, and domination, which are embodied in various institutions: capitalism, the state, patriarchy, heterosexism, White supremacy, militarism, fundamentalist religion, and bureaucracy (Berkman 2003, Ehrlich 1996). Anarchism supports freedom, cooperation, decentralization, and horizontal relationships (Goldman 1969, Rocker 1990, Ward 1996). The whole of society's dominant institutions and power structures need to be, according to anarchists, radically restructured. Through a complete transformation of society and its power relationships, a more just, peaceful, egalitarian, and humanist world will emerge.

Third, anarchism has almost always been part of the broader socialist movement (with the exception of some individualist or post-leftist tendencies that have occasionally emerged). It constitutes a libertarian, non-state, and non-vanguardist alternative to Marxism (Chomsky 1973). As such, anarchists have always found common cause with the general ends of socialists, but have disagreed with the means suggested to achieve those ends, primarily the need of a centralized leadership or state apparatus (Berkman 2003). Fourth, anarchism is both a theoretical and applied ideology—there is a tight link between putting values into action. It is within this point that anarchists find their sharpest critique of Marxists, who anarchists argue, “talk the talk” but are incapable of moving to a more liberated future because they wish to control the process toward socialism.

Fifth, social relationships in anarchist organizations exist on a smaller scale than dominant society: organizations tend to be deliberately small (cooperatives, collectives, and affinity groups being the typical organizations of choice); if there are many members in an organization, it tends to be a federation of smaller groups participating in an equal fashion (Martin 1990). Simpler and smaller structures are desirable because anarchism values direct action as opposed to representative action (Polletta 2002). Whereas many conventional definitions of “organization” include components such as a chain of command and a relatively permanent formal structure, Ehrlich (1977:6) argues that this excludes “virtually all organizational forms that an anarchist would take to be central to community life.” Some anarchist organizations have no membership roster or formal procedures because anarchist thought suggests that decision-making is more democratic, empowering, and easier with fewer involved constituents, less structure, and minimal standard operating procedures. This aspect does not mean to imply that industrial society is incapable of becoming more liberating, but that social relationships must be made as horizontal as possible.

Finally, some organizations and people are either openly anarchist or have anarchistic tendencies. Sympathizers with anarchism occasionally shy away from labeling themselves as “anarchists” due to the stigma attached to the label. Although there has been no “purely” anarchist revolution, anarchist influences may be seen throughout various movements, events, and cultures in recent history: syndicalism (Rocker 1990), the Spanish Civil War (Bookchin 1998), the New Left (Brienes 1982), the American anti-nuclear movement (Epstein 1991, Katz 1981), punk rock (O'Connor 1999, O'Hara 1999), European squatters and anti-fascists (Katsiaficas 2006), the Zapatistas of Mexico (Albertani 2002), and the global justice movement (Epstein 2001).

This paper has two goals, which should be viewed as small steps toward a more quantitative and theory-grounded critique of the modern anarchist movement. First, using the AYP directory, we offer the first systematic description of the types of organizations that comprise the contemporary anarchist movement, as well as the geographic patterns that the movement assumes internationally. To our knowledge, no previous study has explored the contours of the distribution of anarchist organizations across countries. This gap in the literature becomes especially problematic when trying to account for the ecological features of countries that might be shaping the births, longevity, and deaths of anarchist organizations in specific environments. Our second goal is to begin to understand this “population ecology” of anarchist organizations at the national level (c.f. Hannan and Freeman 1989), through the initial step of looking at anarchism through the lens of political opportunity theory. In order to do this, we utilize additional international data sources that address issues raised by the political opportunities variant of social movement theory (McAdam 1996). We argue that political opportunities theory is particularly relevant for understanding how features of country-specific ecological environments might facilitate or inhibit the development of certain kinds of anarchist organizations.

Because we are breaking new ground with our focus on anarchist organizations, and because our data are cross-sectional, we do not push the “natural selection” metaphor too far. But we believe that the patterns that we have uncovered are highly suggestive with regard to the environmental pressures that shape the preponderance of types of organizations in specific countries. We have no doubt that political opportunity theory does not capture all of the myriad forces impinging on the development of anarchist organizations. However, the historical record on the repression of anarchists by various political regimes suggests to us that the political rights available at the beginning of the 21st century may be providing new opportunities in some nations for the development and growth of some, but not all, types of anarchist organizations.

Generating specific research expectations is difficult given the lack of prior studies on the topic. But given the history of anarchism we do anticipate that the majority of the world’s anarchist organizations will be located in European countries (Hypothesis 1). And we do expect that greater political freedom and democratic governance will be associated with higher levels of anarchist organizing (Hypothesis 2). For example, at the country level, freedom of the press will encourage the development of anarchist media organizations, trade union rights will facilitate class-based organizations, and rights related to political participation will foster anarchist community spaces and social centers. These kinds of logical speculations were used simply to help guide the selection of appropriate variables; we would not be surprised if contradictory or otherwise unexpected findings emerged from the analysis.


[1] In disciplines beyond sociology and the field of social movements, “anarchism” usually refers to conceptions that are entirely theoretical, thus uncoupling anarchist movements from their historical and contemporary context, and ignoring the usage of the term “anarchism” by the very activists who call themselves anarchists. Political Science uses the phrase to reference international politics sans a global system of governance, Philosophy usually treats it as an abstraction for chaos or statelessness, Economics usually means “free-market capitalism” when it speaks of anarchism, and History rarely studies anarchists or anarchist movements after WWI.


Albertani, Claudio. 2002. “Paint It Black: Black Blocs, Tute Biance and Zapatistas in the Anti-Globalization Movement.” New Political Science 24 (4): 579-595.

Berkman, Alexander. 2003. What is Anarchism? Edinburgh: AK Press.

Blickstein, Susan & Susan Hanson. 2001. “Critical Mass: Forging a Politics of Sustainable Mobility in the Information Age.” Transportation 28: 347-362.

Boehrer, Fred. 2000. “The Principle of Subsidiarity as the Basis for a Just Community.” Contemporary Justice Review 3 (2): 213-224.

Boehrer, Fred. 2003. “Anarchism and Downward Mobility: Is Finishing Last the Least We Can Do?” Contemporary Justice Review 6 (1): 37-45.

Bookchin, Murray. 1998. The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years, 1868-1936. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Brieines, Wini. 1982. Community and Organization in the New Left: 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. South Hadley, MA: J. F. Bergin Publishers.

Chomsky, Noam. 1973. For Reasons of State. New York: Pantheon.

Cobb-Reiley, Linda. 1988. “Aliens and Alien Ideas: The Suppression of Anarchists and the Anarchist Press in America, 1901-1914.” Journalism History 15 (2-3), Summer/Autumn: 50-59.

Day, Richard J. F. 2004. “From Hegemony to Affinity: The Political Logic of the Newest Social Movements.” Cultural Studies 18 (5), September: 716-748.

Ehrlich, Howard J. 1977. “Anarchism and Formal Organizations.” Pp. 1-2 in Research Group One Report Number 23. Baltimore: Vacant Lots Press.

Ehrlich, Howard J. [ed]. 1996. Reinventing Anarchism, Again. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Epstein, Barbara. 1991. Political Protest and Cultural Revolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Epstein, Barbara. 2001. “Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement.” Monthly Review 53 (4), September: 1-14.

Friedland, Roger and Robert R. Alford. 1991. “Bringing Society Back In: Symbols, Practices, and Institutional Contradictions.” Pp. 232-263 in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, edited by W. Powell and P. DiMaggio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goldman, Emma. 1969. Anarchism and Other Essays. New York: Dover.

Gordon, Uri. 2007. “Anarchism Reloaded.” Journal of Political Ideologies, 12 (1), February: 29-48.

Graeber, David. 2002. “The New Anarchists.” New Left Review 13, Jan/Feb: 61-73.

Hannan, Michael T. and John Freeman. 1989. Organizational Ecology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hong, Nathaniel. 1992. “Constructing the Anarchist Beast in American Periodical Literature, 1880-1903.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 9: 110-130.

Ingalsbee, Timothy. 1996. “Earth First! Activism: Ecological Postmodern Praxis in Radical Environmentalist Identities.” Sociological Perspectives 39 (2): 263-276.

Katsiaficas, Georgy. 2006. The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements And The Decolonization Of Everyday Life. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Katz, Neil H. and David C. List. 1981. “Seabrook: A Profile of Anti-Nuclear Activists, June 1978.” Peace and Change 7 (3), Spring: 59-70.

Luke, Timothy W. 1994. “Ecological Politics and Local Struggles: Earth First! As An Environmental Resistance Movement.” Current Perspectives in Social Theory 14: 241-267.

Maiba, Hermann. 2005. “Grassroots Transnational Social Movement Activism: The Case of Peoples' Global Action.” Sociological Focus 38 (1) February: 41-63.

Martin, Brian. 1990. “Democracy Without Elections.” Social Alternatives 8 (4), January: 13-18.

McAdam, Doug. 1996. “Conceptual Origins, Current Problems, Future Directions.” Pp. 23-40 in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, edited by D. McAdam, J. D. McCarthy, and M. N. Zald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLeod, Douglas M. and Benjamin H. Detenber. 1999. “Framing Effects of Television News Coverage of Social Protest.” Journal of Communication 49 (3): 3-23.

O'Brien, Eileen. 1999. “Mind, Heart and Action: Understanding the Dimensions of Antiracism.” Research in Politics and Society 6: 305-321.

O'Connor, Alan. 1999. “Whos Emma and the Limits of Cultural Studies.” Cultural Studies 13 (4): 691-702.

O'Hara, Craig. 1999. The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise. San Francisco: AK Press.

Polletta, Francseca. 2002. Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rocker, Rudolf. 1990. Anarcho-Syndicalism. London: Pheonix Press.

Roy, Ananya. 2003. “Paradigms of Propertied Citizenship: Transnational Techniques of Analysis.” Urban Affairs Review 38 (4), March: 463-491.

Shantz, Jeff. 2002a. “Green Syndicalism: An Alternative Red-Green Vision.” Environmental Politics 11 (4), Winter: 21-41.

Shantz, Jeffrey. 2002b. “Judi Bari and 'the Feminization of Earth First!': The Convergence of Class, Gender and Radical Environmentalism.” Feminist Review 70: 105-122.

Shantz, Jeff. 2003. “Beyond the State: The Return to Anarchy.” disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory 12: 87-103.

Shantz, Jeffrey A. and Barry D. Adam. 1999. “Ecology and Class: The Green Syndicalism of IWW/Earth First Local 1.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 19 (7/8): 43-72.

Ward, Colin. 1996. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press.

Zinn, Howard. 1997. “Anarchism.” Pp 644-655 in The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, edited by H. Zinn. New York: Seven Stories.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Poverty of the Charitable Celebrity

[From the Akron Food Not Bombs occasional newsletter Free Soup, volume 2, issue 2, April/May 2007.]

Just recently, a billionaire named Warren Buffet gave all his fortune away. Well, not directly to poor people hanging out on the streets, of course! That would too dramatically upset the class system we live in. No, he gave it to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where the money would be doled out on the basis of well-crafted grant proposals, distributed to well-intentioned but well-paid non-profit executives, and eventually those who could better use the money.

Then there was a Newsweek magazine cover which featured a story about charitable celebrities—with movie star Brad Pitt in the middle of the photo. Just what Brad Pitt needs... Another magazine bearing his photo! Poor guy, we should all feel sorry for him and thank him for all that he does. Right?

Our culture is obsessed with famous, wealthy people like Buffet and Pitt (as well as those celebrities who don't give a penny to anyone else). We shower them with praise for their selfless charity, their ego-less giving, their unending caring for the less fortunate. You’ve probably heard countless liberals speak praises for these people, as if they and they alone will save us from our downward trajectory as a society. Angelina Jolie cares for the children of poor countries! Bono wants to relieve poor country's debt! Pamela Anderson wants to save the tortured animals!

There is, as always, some merit in otherwise misdirected sentiments like these. For our hero/heroine-worshiping culture, celebrities can serve as a “gateway” for people's activism. Perhaps by Bono discussing the debt which the World Bank and IMF have strapped the Global South with will lead a few hundred—or perhaps more—people into campaigning to drop the debt (and maybe even pay reparations!). How many young activists today had their eyes opened by the music of Rage Against the Machine, Against Me!, and Fugazi or hip-hop groups like Public Enemy, The Coup, or dead prez? These musicians not only speak about their politics, but also lived them (unlike many liberals who just talk a lot, but don't walk the walk).

Famous celebrities talking about issues can bring greater attention to them. Bono is a good example of this. Also, celebrities sometimes use their popularity (however fleeting) to engage such issues. For example, the British band Chumbawamba was perceived by many as “one hit wonders” although they'd been around for years engaging in anarchist politics and music. Their popular song “Tub Thumping” made them famous overnight and thrust them onto talk shows, where they debated important issues, argued for anarchism, and even ended a live TV performance chanting “Free Mumia!”

And, of course, when celebrities donate money, especially rich celebrities, it is a form of wealth-redistribution. And that's a good thing. More rich people (in fact all of them) should give most of their money away, all the time. That's a grand idea!

So, it’s easy to sympathize with all who want to make the world a better place. We do too. We also sympathize with those who feel that giving money to charity organizations will help to do this. It sometimes can. Many celebrities who give money (whether in large or small sums) actually do care about the causes they support. Yet, just because we can sympathize with the sentiment and the motivation, does not mean this is the best way to create positive social change.

Celebrity charity is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the only reason why any of this is note-worthy is because they're famous. So what? If Susan Sarandon gives a thousand dollars to a charity is that more meaningful than anyone else giving the same amount? (By the way, Sarandon is a lot more humble about this kind of thing and wouldn't use it to further her career; she puts her body into action more than her pocketbook.) When we talk about them, we're just reinforcing this cult of personality. We affirm that the lives of the famous are more noteworthy than our own.

Second, rich people can give so much more than the rest of us—does that make them more worthy of praise and respect? If any of us had more money, we could also easily give comparable amounts. So, what's the big deal? They can only give such large newsworthy sums because they've reaped such incredible salaries, proceeds, sponsorships in the past. In fact, their wealth is itself suspect—most large salaries are made in ways that exploit not only less powerful people working to support them, but also the consumers of pop culture who pay through the nose to be “entertained”.

Third, by worshiping celebrity charity, we neglect the day-to-day heroes in our midst. Many people who will probably never receive wide spread recognition for the unending work they do to transform society (even on a small, local level) into a better place for all. Think about all the time your peers spend talking about TV shows they've seen—that's time wasted they could spend talking about stuff that's happening in their backyard. There's likely a toxic landfill, heaps of political corruption, a war profiteering corporation, and underfunded education somewhere in your community. Why don't we take note of all the real things going on that are good and the normal everyday people doing them, and stop distracting ourselves with crap that ain't real?!

Fourth, contributing to large, wealthy, (even if liberal) charities ain't gonna solve any problems. When Buffet gave his billions to Bill Gates' foundation, he gave it to an organization with incredible fiscal overhead. It's got its own building, paid staff persons, millions at its disposal for propaganda, errr, “public relations”, and so forth.

A rule of thumb to follow: if a “charity” is rich enough (or perhaps misdirected enough) to send glossy full-color brochures and books in the mail to attract us, or can afford teams of call centers to solicit donations over the phone, then they're wasting their money. If you give $10 to an organization that spent as much money on literature and envelopes mailed out (most of which will not result in a donation, by the way), then all the donation goes for is to reimburse that organization for its marketing costs. The best, most efficient and effective organizations are the ones who don't have the time to be soliciting donations. They deserve our money (and more importantly, our time)!

Lastly, its important to repeat the works of Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano: “I don't believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it's humiliating. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other and learns from the other. I have a lot to learn from other people.” To extend Galeano's sentiment, charity is selective, solidarity is inclusive. Anyone can give solidarity, only the well-off can give charity. Solidarity emphasizes achieving a better future together, whereas charity is soaked in the language of self-righteousness.

We are an organization called Food Not Bombs, which once a week gives away free food to whomever is hungry as a (small) statement calling attention to society's misplaced priorities of militarism and greed over social need. For us, the work that FNB does not stem from a sense of guilt (whether middle-class, white, or otherwise). Nor do we share food with others because we're directed by a religion or dogma to do it. It does not help us to feel morally superior to those who “receive” or those who do nothing. FNB shares food with other out of sense of collective humanity, because we have just as much to learn from the “less fortunate” who eat with us (perhaps more) than they from us. Unlike some churches who serve food to the homeless to convert them or rich celebrities who give money (for more fame or tax write-offs), all we assume to receive in turn is the knowledge that our deeds may eventually, karmatically, come back around to benefit us in the future. We call this mutual aid.

Mutual aid is giving to others without the guarantee of receiving something in return. The gift or assistance is given with implicit assumption that the community of people you reside in will, in-turn, help you in times of need. Aid is given without strings attached. Even if, sometimes, help is asked for in return, it is never demanded. There are no signed contracts or legally-binding agreements. Helping your fellow humans is the right thing to do in any given situation. And if everyone else thought this way, and didn't just strategically donate money to promote their new movie or to avoid an indictment, we'd be in a better, more caring world.