What Is Mutualism?

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To be honest, while mutualism is a term that I’ve come to adopt for myself, it isn’t entirely clear to me what mutualism is. What I mean by this is that it seems hard to identify an essential feature that all of the people who call themselves mutualists share in common. The positions currently being advocated under the title of mutualism seem to run the gamut from modified or modernized individualist anarchism (Kevin Carson) to a subtle neo-Proudhonian notion and “the anarchism of approximations” (Shawn Wilbur) to a more hardcore kind of libertarian socialism that thinks the other mutualists largely sound like anarcho-capitalists or make too many concessions to property (Francios Tremblay).There certainly is a history of mutualism going back to classic thinkers such as P.J. Proudhon and W.B. Greene, but no self-proclaimed mutualist that I know of really is a strict adherent to the ideas of such people (and I don’t mean to imply that one necessarily should be). The meaning attached to mutualism seems to be at least somewhat different for many people in a contemporary context, in contrast with its 19th century roots. This may partially be due to changes in economic theory. It also may be a matter of the ideological background or history of the people that have become interested in mutualism, which causes there to be market and social anarchist spins on mutualism and interpretations of Proudhon.It is true that there are certain reoccurring themes that tend to be associated with mutualism, such as an occupation and use standard of ownership, the cost principle, reciprocity, a focus on synthesizing equality and liberty, the antinomy of the individual and society, and so on. Yet some of these themes seem to fall under the general umbrella of the libertarian left, and one would think that mutualism is more specific than that. Is mutualism “free market anti-capitalism”? Well, there seems to be a spectrum of positions among the people adopting that kind of rhetoric, some of which are more substantive than others. Is mutualism a form of libertarian socialism? Well, some of the libertarian socialists I’ve encountered would scoff at the more market-oriented ideas that are called mutualism.

One thing that does seem to at least vaguely be common to people that consider themselves mutualists is that they have a sort of nuanced position or even a synthesis that has the feeling of being neither anarcho-capitalism or something that would be acceptable in the more hardcore platforms of social anarchism, as a sort of middle ground that doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes of various party lines or dogmas. There does appear to be certain themes of irreducible complexity and plays of apparent opposites that resolve or dissolve at some point in the play of concepts. The term mutualism itself seems to suggest synthesis, although this may be a superficial mental association on my part.

I suppose part of the confusion revolves around conflict between different interpretations. Mutualism has been portrayed as anything from fairly standard free market libertarianism with somewhat softened property norms and a different take on the implications of Austrian economics to an explicitly libertarian socialist creed with a prescriptive labor theory of value that calls for the absolute abolition of all profit, rent, and interest. This gets into tensions between descriptive and prescriptive formulations, different ideas on property, and varying degrees of emphasis on markets. With such considerations in mind, it should be no wonder that mutualism doesn’t necessarily have a completely clear identity.

When I advocate my own ideas, I generally do not express them as being “the mutualist creed”. They are the ideas of me as an individual, and they may or may not have anything explicitly to do with mutualism qua mutualism. But what does tend to bind me to the term, to the extent that could be said to be bound by it, is simply the extent to which I have ideas in common with other people who are called mutualists. I also adopt the term in the context of resonations with P.J. Proudhon. I have no particular problem using the term for myself, despite what seems to be the somewhat fragmented and approximate meanings that it conjures. I would just avoid reducing myself to it, which meshes with my opposition to reductionism in general.

Ultimately, I guess I would like to highlight the ambiguity that sometimes lurks behind rather obscure political labels such as “mutualism”. From a certain perspective, this could be portrayed as a good thing in the sense that it stops it from hardening into a dogma. At the same time, the desire for clarity is understandable and perhaps contemporary mutualists should do a better job of hashing out exactly what it is that makes mutualism unique. Mutualism certainly seems to be unique, and that’s part of the value I see in it. I’d be interested to see what various self-proclaimed mutualists have to say about this.

Posted by Brainpolice at 5:36 PM 

15 comments:

Chris George said…

I have the same problem with the term. It’s probably a decent way to describe myself though some of its classical connotations (opposition to “rent,” “interest,” and “profit” without a great degree of definitional qualification) and association to those like Tremblay.I sort view it though as the flipside of anarchism without adjectives. Where as AWA is inclusive of all the schools, mutualism is, as you said, the synthesis.There are good things from each school that should be considered and adopted so mutualism appeals to me.
May 15, 2010 11:00 PM

Anonymous said…

Adam Smith’s vague conception of capital stirred up alot of future confusion, and I see it no different for any other hypernym. Ambiguous terms are the jack of trades, master of none. Keep it concrete.
May 16, 2010 4:06 PM

Anonymous said…

I haven’t noticed that it has become such an umbrella term. For a long time I have called myself a libertarian socialist and when i learnt a bit about mutualism i declared my sympathy because it seemed like a market aproach to the same values that i held. In particular, I’m a big fan of Kevin Carson. I think, the reason why it doesn’t qualify as a school “social anarchism” is it’s openness to markets. I think this should tell you a lot about (what is essentially) the beaurocracy that devides collectivists and individualists within anarchism.
May 16, 2010 10:24 PM

Tom said…

Right on Anon – “openness to markets” … Adam Smith would be a free trader, but he worked in tariffs. And so with the critics of Capitalism who always spout the ills of a rampant free market, yet it has never existed (and likely never will). Cheers anyway.
May 17, 2010 5:38 AM

Marja E said…

I think a definition of mutualism should focus on:1. A preference for egalitarian, consensual, reciprocal relationships in all aspects of life.2. A general sense that it is better to create alternatives than to remove them.3. A general skepticism towards the idea that one economic or social model can work for all people in all circumstances.

4. A general sense that reasonable economic and social models, which address each person’s rights to her proper projects, can emerge, and that these may not be identical.

In my opinion, these principles tend to lead to market-oriented anarchism. They would probably lead to anarchism in almost any conditions, but they could lead toward communist or collectivist anarchism in different economic and/or technological conditions.

-Marja Erwin

May 17, 2010 1:21 PM

Marja E said…

P.S. I think that mutualism shares most of the same ethical grounds as social anarchism; it comes close to anarchism-without-economic-adjectives. It also shares some ethical grounds with wrong-libertarianism, but values egalitarianism, and may build egalitarian values into the concepts of consent and reciprocity in ways other libertarians might not. The meaning of concepts like voluntarism and non-aggression depends on whether consent requires equality.
May 17, 2010 1:33 PM

Anonymous said…

“(opposition to “rent,” “interest,” and “profit” without a great degree of definitional qualification}”That’s the sort of crank shit that’s churned out, when one denies that economics is purely descriptive.
May 17, 2010 2:33 PM

Brainpolice said…

“That’s the sort of crank shit that’s churned out, when one denies that economics is purely descriptive.”Actually it isn’t necessary for someone to take those positions on the basis of an LTV. It could be based on ethical premises that don’t refer to economics.In either case, economics (and any field for that matter) isn’t functionally purely descriptive even if it is in spirit, in spite of the claims of economists to disinterested value-neutrality.
May 17, 2010 3:24 PM

Brainpolice said…

Marja,”I think a definition of mutualism should focus on:1. A preference for egalitarian, consensual, reciprocal relationships in all aspects of life.”This definitely seems to be an aspect of mutualism, but then again it sounds like something that any social anarchist worth their salt would agree to.

“2. A general sense that it is better to create alternatives than to remove them.”

True that.

“3. A general skepticism towards the idea that one economic or social model can work for all people in all circumstances.

4. A general sense that reasonable economic and social models, which address each person’s rights to her proper projects, can emerge, and that these may not be identical.”

Yea, there is a certain sort of economic pluralist strain. I’m not entirely sure if this is essential to mutualism though, as it seems to be more of a contemporary view and some self-proclaimed mutualists do exclude certain economic and social models on ethical grounds.

I suppose part of what I want to say is that mutualism isn’t necessarily the same thing as anarchism without adjectives. While it might involve some reconciliation, I don’t think it could be entirely reconciliatory to the extent that it is really a distinct position.

I want to push this question: How tolerant of propertarianism and capitalism is mutualism *really*? Does this economic pluralism represent an all-inclusiveness towards property norms and organizational arrangements based on certain property? Or is mutualism more concretely non-propertarian?

May 17, 2010 3:35 PM

Shawn P. Wilbur said…

Marja’s definition seems fairly inclusive, though my own sense is that mutualist concerns probably lead through market- and contract-oriented anarchisms towards something much less mediated by the cash nexus.Mutualism isn’t ultimately any more ambiguous than any of the other labels floating around out there. A lot of the lack of “definitional qualification” comes from treating off-the-cuff sloganeering with the same seriousness as more developed explanations. The “classical” sources are pretty clear, though not all in agreement. Francois gets clearer gradually, though he always expresses himself in strong terms.
May 17, 2010 3:41 PM

Brainpolice said…

Shawn,I hope I didn’t come off as accusing mutualism of being super-ambiguous while other labels aren’t. I’m refering more to what seems to be a certain contemporary discourse in which there are some conflicting interpretations at the margins of what we might call mutualism, particularly between a very strong if not absolute anti-propertarianism (which Tremblay seems to be the most vocal proponent of) and a more inclusive idea.What I’ve gathered from some of your posts on the matter is that you think of mutualism as not being as simple as either Tremblay or the more property-tolerant folks want it to be, and that there are unresolved tensions in Proudhon’s works that can make appeals to the “classic foundations” a bit irksome. Yet I don’t necessarily see you as promoting something all-inclusive.
May 17, 2010 3:55 PM

Marja E said…

“I want to push this question: How tolerant of propertarianism and capitalism is mutualism *really*? Does this economic pluralism represent an all-inclusiveness towards property norms and organizational arrangements based on certain property? Or is mutualism more concretely non-propertarian?”I’m not entirely sure. I think any mutualism worthy of the name has to oppose deprivation and dependency. That puts it at odds with concentrated power and concentrated land-ownership, if not concentrated wealth in general. That doesn’t imply that arrangements have to favor occupancy-and-use standards over improvement standards or over geolibertarian ones. The question is whether they respect everyone’s autonomy.I also think that communist and collectivist arrangements can be special cases within nonspecific mutualism as well as alternatives to market-oriented mutualism. The degree to which these alternative arrangements are mutualist is the degree to which they respect mutualist considerations in theory and practice. An anarchism which elevates communalism as an independent value, I think, goes in a direction which can still be anarchist but is no longer mutualist.
May 17, 2010 5:38 PM

Shawn P. Wilbur said…

“How tolerant of propertarianism and capitalism is mutualism *really*? Does this economic pluralism represent an all-inclusiveness towards property norms and organizational arrangements based on certain property? Or is mutualism more concretely non-propertarian?”I don’t know what “propertarianism” is. Mutualism pluralism is obviously not going to include anything characterized by non-reciprocity. That was the grounds on which Proudhon initially damned both domain and community of holdings. But what Proudhon began to experiment with by 1842 (and arguably even in the pages of “What is Property?) was the organization of reciprocity out of potentially non-reciprocal elements. The more he concerned himself with maximizing liberty and allowing the free development of individuality, which is a necessary condition for social progress, the more he found himself putting absolutisms into play with and against one another.The result, as I’ve noted so many times now, was that Proudhon kept thinking of domain (naked or simple property) as robbery, but very quickly started seeing the remedy for property’s innate defects in its generalization, rather than its abolition. In fact, where the defects were concerned, he explicitly considered the two outcomes to be equivalent.The experimental nature of mutualism has implicit in Proudhon’s earliest works, clear by “Philosophy of Progress” and explicit in “Theory of Property.” The “anarchism of approximations” approach is as classical as you’re going to get. Mutualism isn’t anarchism without adjectives primarily because most anarchism has chosen to emphasize some part of the mutualist project, usually by pitting it against some other element that classical mutualism considered equally essential. The debates about “social anarchism” don’t seem terribly helpful: mutualism is included or not included according to generally opportunistic criteria. From the mutualist perspective, to reduce mutualism to any of the partial schools is to miss the point.

I think property theory assumes too much importance—but also gets too little serious analysis—in our circles. Francois (whose “hard-core” lib-soc credentials also include absolute opposition to unions and some curious deviations) has drawn his line against property a couple of different places, always on the basis of outcomes that might or might not depend on his particular boundaries. I’ve been really enjoying the recent exchange on his blog, but he seems to share with db0 a rather limited sense of the possible outcomes of various property systems.

“Anything goes” can’t be a mutualist principle, but “anything + reciprocity-as-key-condition” might almost cut it. The most antagonistic property systems are going to face the same problems as the most seemingly benign ones, in the context of an anarchist society: either they will be adapted to accommodate some some sort of rough-and-ready reciprocity and equality, or the society will fail to remain anarchist. Highly individualistic systems, which allow unequal accumulation, will find their equivalent of potlatch, or they will fail. There are obviously more and less stable ways to achieve mutualist association, but there are unquestionably a lot of ways.

The strength of mutualism is in its joining of the best elements of individualist and collectivist social philosophy, and in its traditionally progressive approach. Because mutualism has been reborn out of the partial forms which splintered off from it, it has ended up with at least twice as many things to stress over: all the bugaboos of individualism with regard to the collective + all the fears of communism about rampant individuality. Should contemporary mutualism ever really assume its own classical mantle, its could at least reduce its anxieties to those associated with the specific, real problems of making a society out of truly free people.

May 18, 2010 1:50 PM

Francois Tremblay said…

Trivial, but my name is Francois, not Francios.
May 19, 2010 3:52 PM

Francois Tremblay said…

“That’s the sort of crank shit that’s churned out, when one denies that economics is purely descriptive.”Your belief that economics is more than pure nonsense is the only real “crank shit” here.
May 19, 2010 3:53 PM

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