[Apologies if you found this through a Facebook/Twitter/RSS feed – it’s a repost of an old post from my previous blog and I forgot to turn off the feeds for it]
In the rather broad and straggly family tree of the children of liberty, I have come to describe myself as being on the “Mutualist” branch. In fact I really married, or perhaps was adopted, into the Mutualists somehow, having started out as one of its first cousins, a “Georgist“. Hence my use of that slightly affected double barreled description on this blog – a “Geo-Mutualist”. But, apart from the vague notion that this denotes a position somewhere on the spectrum of views variously described as “classical liberal”, “radical liberal”, “libertarian” or “anarchist” – or simply “liberal” by those brave enough to face down the howls of derision from some people in certain modern soi-dissant liberal political parties not so far from here – most people react somewhat quizzically to the term “Geo-Mutualist”, if at all.
So it’s about time I think I tried to explain it a little. Indeed, the name having been suggested to me a couple of years ago following a previous attempt on here to put a label on my political position, it is probably only now anyway that I capable of beginning to tell you what it all means. And even now my thoughts are continually developing and changing: which is, of course, a jolly good reason for insisting on the freest of free markets in which we can express our millions of daily changes of mind every time we need to trade with someone, rather than the once every four years or so we might get to change our minds about our elected dictators.
Mutualism is, most simply, a form of anarchism. We want no political state. Not a small state, a minimal state, a night-watchman state. Just no state. It is no exaggeration to say that we believe that the state is the root cause of all inequity in the world and all coercion in an unfree market. We believe that the truly free market – all the voluntary, non-coercive, co-operative, mutually beneficial transactions between free individuals – delivers the maximum and most just distribution of economic benefits to all its participants. We believe that it is the state that by its interventions (often, admittedly, with the best of intentions but always inept at best and downright, deliberately and inhumanely destructive at worst) makes markets unfree and unable to deliver a just outcome for all its participants. That in the language of the factors of economic production “capital” and “land” can only exploit “labour” by “harnessing the power of the state in their interests” (Carson, ibid., Preface).
Put more simply it is because of state favours on their behalf that capitalists and landowners get disproportionately rich and workers remain disproportionately poor. We note that this has been the case throughout the history of the state and in all types of state, notwithstanding that some of them, such as contemporary “liberal democracies” profess to act, because elected by them, in the interests of all “the people”. And, partly at least, precisely because it has this observably inevitable tendency, whichever type of state or epoch of state one looks at, we believe the state has, ultimately, no possibility of rehabilitation – and because those who set themselves up for positions of power in those states, so obviously also personally benefit from their ineptness and downright criminality.
Now most of this creed could be cut and pasted into that of most libertarians and anarchists I have come across. Hell, even Kevin himself said that he thought the major strands of the anarchist-libertarian family were often quite “porous”. I have spent more time reading and listening to Austrian school thinkers over the last year and othre than emphasis, there’s little, at least in the “ends” of what I have written here that they could not subscribe to, even if they differ in approach and emphasis. Mutualism’s pedigree, for sure, would be described as the “left” wing of the family tree:
In the mid-nineteenth century, a vibrant native American school of anarchism, known as individualist anarchism, existed alongside the other varieties. Like most other contemporary socialist thought, it was based on a radical interpretation of Ricardian economics. The classical individualist anarchism of Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner was both a socialist movement and a subcurrent of classical liberalism. It agreed with the rest of the socialist movement that labor was the source of exchange-value, and that labor was entitled to its full product. Unlike the rest of the socialist movement, the individualist anarchists believed that the natural wage of labor in a free market was its product, and that economic exploitation could only take place when capitalists and landlords harnessed the power of the state in their interests. Thus, individualist anarchism was an alternative both to the increasing statism of the mainstream socialist movement, and to a classical liberal movement that was moving toward a mere apologetic for the power of big business. (Carson, ibid., Preface)
But Mutualism is also a mechanism by which we hope to reach our ideal society. Like the nineteenth century radicals – both liberal and later in the labour movement – we want to do something about it. We want to build alternative, voluntary, non-coercive, institutions which can then be shown to produce the sort of “public goods” people currently seem to believe only the state can provide. We also want to build and encourage alternatives to the corporate hierarchical system to show that a multitude of different types of economic actors can compete in that ultimate free market – after all, there must also be a free market in the types of organization that operate in the free market!
So in my case, this may be grand objectives, such as Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts, aiming to develop affordable housing without state subsidy, controlled by the communities they are part of and the occupants who will be buying a stake in them. Or Community Finance Partnerships attempting to reduce the relaince of local businesses and households on the mainstream state-capitalist banking sector. It may also mean things like the recently reported idea of an estate in Portsmouth (a copy of which I cannot now find) to hire its own private security force, exasperated by the lack of performance of the state police. But it is certainly also applicable to small initiatives such as the Braziers Park community in Oxfordshire. And obviously this goes hand in hand with campaigning for the state to stop doing things that simply do not need doing too – pursuing the war on drugs, erecting artificial borders and so on.
So that is my quick and dirty introduction to Mutualism. I can hardly do better though than Kevin Carson’s own introduction at the Mutualist website:
Mutualism, as a variety of anarchism, goes back to P.J. Proudhon in France and Josiah Warren in the U.S. It favors, to the extent possible, an evolutionary approach to creating a new society. It emphasizes the importance of peaceful activity in building alternative social institutions within the existing society, and strengthening those institutions until they finally replace the existing statist system. As Paul Goodman put it, “A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life.”
Other anarchist subgroups, and the libertarian left generally, share these ideas to some extent. Whether known as “dual power” or “social counterpower,” or “counter-economics,” alternative social institutions are part of our common vision. But they are especially central to mutualists’ evolutionary understanding.
Mutualists belong to a non-collectivist segment of anarchists. Although we favor democratic control when collective action is required by the nature of production and other cooperative endeavors, we do not favor collectivism as an ideal in itself. We are not opposed to money or exchange. We believe in private property, so long as it is based on personal occupancy and use. We favor a society in which all relationships and transactions are non-coercive, and based on voluntary cooperation, free exchange, or mutual aid. The “market,” in the sense of exchanges of labor between producers, is a profoundly humanizing and liberating concept. What we oppose is the conventional understanding of markets, as the idea has been coopted and corrupted by state capitalism.
Our ultimate vision is of a society in which the economy is organized around free market exchange between producers, and production is carried out mainly by self-employed artisans and farmers, small producers’ cooperatives, worker-controlled large enterprises, and consumers’ cooperatives. To the extent that wage labor still exists (which is likely, if we do not coercively suppress it), the removal of statist privileges will result in the worker’s natural wage, as Benjamin Tucker put it, being his full product.
Because of our fondness for free markets, mutualists sometimes fall afoul of those who have an aesthetic affinity for collectivism, or those for whom “petty bourgeois” is a swear word. But it is our petty bourgeois tendencies that put us in the mainstream of the American populist/radical tradition, and make us relevant to the needs of average working Americans. Most people distrust the bureaucratic organizations that control their communities and working lives, and want more control over the decisions that affect them. They are open to the possibility of decentralist, bottom-up alternatives to the present system. But they do not want an America remade in the image of orthodox, CNT-style syndicalism.
Mutualism is not “reformist,” as that term is used pejoratively by more militant anarchists. Nor is it necessarily pacifistic, although many mutualists are indeed pacifists. The proper definition of reformism should hinge, not on the means we use to build a new society or on the speed with which we move, but on the nature of our final goal. A person who is satisfied with a kinder, gentler version of capitalism or statism, that is still recognizable as state capitalism, is a reformist. A person who seeks to eliminate state capitalism and replace it with something entirely different, no matter how gradually, is not a reformist.
“Peaceful action” simply means not deliberately provoking the state to repression, but rather doing whatever is possible (in the words of the Wobbly slogan) to “build the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” before we try to break the shell. There is nothing wrong with resisting the state if it tries, through repression, to reverse our progress in building the institutions of the new society. But revolutionary action should meet two criteria: 1) it should have strong popular support; and 2) it should not take place until we have reached the point where peaceful construction of the new society has reached its limits within existing society.
And finally, a note on the “Georgist” side of my political family tree. As I said, I came to Mutualism through Georgism. I saw that Henry George’s “Single Tax” was a way, not least for George himself, of significantly reducing the size and reach of the state. Ultimately I got to the position where the state might only collect and redistribute land rent as a community dividend.
Obviously within the Mutualist ancestry with Proudhon and Tucker there are strident views also of the place of land in creating and perpetuating an inequitable society. Tucker and George indeed had a long running correspondence and though they disagreed on George’s remedy to the “land question” there can be no doubt that all the main stream branches of libertarianism put addressing this “land question” as a high priority until the second third of the twentieth century.
As I mentioned, I have been reading a lot more Austrian school stuff lately and am gaining an appreciation of their logic for a strong ethos of private property, and whilst I can see that some of the measures the Austrians would implement would reduce the inequities in land ownership substantially (different means and emphasis to similar ends again) I still think there will always be a “scarcity rent” to land that deserves a system such as Henry George’s to mitigate it best.
It’s a matter of emphasis really: if one day I am persuaded that the biggest economic hurdle we face is the fiat money system, perhaps my more strident Georgism would recede a little, but for the moment I certainly still believe that these problems are at least as important as each other, and because land is something over which we have ultimately less control – we have one planet after all, for now and we cannot base economic policy on the possibility that we will one day find another one suitable – I tend to say that the land issue is the more important one to solve. So to that end, I still maintain the moniker “Geo-Mutualist”.