Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

In social media, “SKL” means “share ko lang,” or “let me just share”—be it a life event, an opinion, or anything that one thinks might be of value if sent out into the (virtual) world.

Lately, sharing has also been on people’s minds because of “community pantries.” These do-it-yourself, publicly-accessible way-points of sharing goods have been mushrooming across the country, and what these pantries mean, what they do, and what they imply is the talk of the town.

While the point, indeed, is to change an unjust world, it remains immensely helpful to be able to grasp conceptually, as best we can, what is happening in order to build upon it and move it forward into future settings. So, “SKL” how the community pantry phenomenon has been thought of in these last few days.

When the pantries first came out, it was easy to call them charity because of their no-strings-attached giving away to those most in need. But many countered by casting this (approvingly, too) more properly as socialism. The easiest connection to make in this regard was the emplacement in the original Maginhawa Street community pantry of the slogan “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan,” a Filipino translation of the Marxist maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In this school of thought, this maxim describes life in a truly equal, communist society: labor and technology had been released from the demands of capitalism, allowing technology to provide us with what we need, and people to work freely for the common good.

Though this idea had been around for quite some time before, Marx was the one who clearly integrated it into a political program of revolution led by the working class. This strategy was necessary to firmly address the root causes of social problems, as well as to ensure that there is a body that ably governs the transition toward a classless society.

A few years ago at the height of the NutriAsia strike, I was chided by a fellow activist for a social media comment of mine that agreed with community farms producing their own condiments. “That won’t solve the root cause of the strike,” I was told. She wasn’t wrong, but it does indicate at the zealousness by which keeping an eye on the prize (so to speak) is held by activists—perhaps to the point that even the founder of the original Maginhawa Street community pantry Ana Patricia Non honestly acknowledged that the pantry wasn’t envisioned to address the root causes of this crisis.

Another interesting thing about these current community pantries is that (as far as I can tell) they seemed to have popped up organically out of autonomous initiatives with little or no centralized conduct. In this sense, these pantries can also be construed as close to the tenet of “mutual aid,” a concept most clearly laid out by Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin in the early twentieth century.

Kropotkin was an avid social thinker, but his thoughts on mutual aid were first primarily shaped not by observations of human behaviour, but that of animals. His book “Mutual aid” was mainly a response to Darwin—whose thoughts had by then gained traction and was beginning to be interpreted in multiple ways—by arguing that not only was mutually-beneficial cooperation present among animal species, but that this was just as important (if not more so) in evolution and survival as was Darwinian “competition.” Kropotkin extended this view to human societies, and says that this indeed had always been in operation throughout human history.

Today mutual aid is a key principle in anarchic self-organization: the fulfillment of one another’s needs can create enduring and meaningful relationships, even without authority figures doing the planning. This is where it diverges from conventional Marxist thought in that it eschews hierarchical structures (be it a political party, private benefactors, local officials, etc.) in favor of horizontal relationships, consensus, and volunteerism.

It is this refreshing dose of spontaneity, volunteerism, and altruism that seems to have really caught people’s imaginations with these community pantries. It seems unheard of, if not quixotic. Conversely, this also seems to be the source of some people’s cynicism about the community pantries: it isn’t sustainable, people will end up hoarding or stealing, or (my personal favorite as an anthropologist), that it will fail because that’s “human nature.”

It’s pretty hard to believe that people can just share with each other. Sure, we share with our relatives and friends, but based upon our experience, this isn’t the primary way by which society-at-large gets its daily needs. In modern economies we work for pay, and when we need a little bit more we go into debt. However, for most of human history, sharing was the main way by which people subsisted—and more importantly, the way by which people formed themselves into actual communities beyond the domestic family unit.

This isn’t just a past phenomenon, too. Modern life notwithstanding, there still exists communities where sharing occupies a central role not just for mere survival, but for promoting social solidarity. Some anthropologists, like Robert Dentan (studying the Semai of Malaysia) and Thomas Gibson (studying the Buid Mangyan of Mindoro) view such strategies as active ways by which these historically marginalized groups refused or resisted becoming like their neighboring dominant groups who have historically exploited them slave-raiding, tribute extraction, or other similar means. In this sense, “sharing” among these groups are similar to what have been mentioned about community pantries: they are acts of resistance that (wittingly or not) underscore the moral difference between two opposing parties.

Be that as it may, communities certainly do not only hold sharing as an ethos just so they can resist an enemy. As anthropologist Charles MacDonald (who studied the Palawan—note that several such groups are in the Philippines) pointed out, some people may just “prefer something rather than just refusing something, something supremely precious in their way of life rather than something they dislike in others.”

For example, the Pantaron Manobo have an activity called “tamuk,” which is a way of transferring valued objects (also called tamuk) that doesn’t quite fit classic definitions of reciprocal exchange, debt, or barter. To describe it briefly, tamuk happens when either a datu gives directly, or finds a way to acquire needed goods when an urgent necessity arises, such as paying a fine for interpersonal conflict or fulfilling bridewealth obligations when a son gets married. Tamuk is described by the oldest leaders among them as an altruistic imparting of “goynawa,” which literally means “breath,” but also “love” and “deep feeling” in Manobo. Tamuk does not just have the material effect of circulating valued goods between people, but more importantly, it also fosters interdependence among the communities to which they belong, helping form a basis for being a “Manobo society.”

Why do I belabor this final point? Viewing community pantries as acts of resistance is indeed valid at this particular moment when there is a clear crisis and a clear malfeasant figure that must be opposed. The only thing that I wish to add here is that when we engage in political projects seeking victory (however defined) in the end, there must also be the conceptual readiness to build a way of life that is not primarily founded with opposition/resistance as one’s centering point.

Even Marx recognized this in the complete paragraph where the maxim above is located, where he envisions a society where “labor has become … life’s prime want”: we work not because we are compelled to, not in order to oppose an enemy, but simply because we want to, it is something that brings us joy and fulfillment. Community pantries, the Manobo tamuk, and many other social phenomena are conceptual wellsprings from which we can re-imagine our lives.

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