Saturday, July 7, 2012

The "FAQs"

One of the basic assumptions driving this blog is that we're not really in a position for definitive answers to a lot of the most important, and frequently asked questions about mutualism. We can say a lot of true things about a lot of mutualist tendencies, but MUTUALISM as such, only has had, or will have, the sort of unity which allows us to simply explain or define it at a few moment in the past and perhaps in some more orderly future—provided we can do the work now of getting a handle on the current, rather far-flung debate. So I've been using loaded language like interventions and triage list to talk about what we might otherwise be tempted to treat in the tradition of frequently asked questions, because I don't want anyone to imagine that we're going to simply clear up in bite-sized pieces here what we're still in the process of exploring in depth elsewhere.

Hopefully, however, we'll be able to clarify what needs to be done and what's at stake in those more ambitious endeavors.

For example, I've suggested that mutualism as such is more usefully understood as a theory of interpersonal relations—an ethical theory, essentially—than as a collection of particular economic theories or practices. Let's also drag practical mutualism back to its roots in a "socialism" that was heavier on social science than it was on ideology, and tailor our expectations more to the sort we might have for any ongoing field of inquiry, rather than those we might logically expect from some ideological code. The "incompleteness" of contemporary mutualism does not, after all, just spring from diversity, confusion, or the interruption of the tradition. As a tradition that went from moribund to trending in a very short time, it suffers from all of that. But as a tradition that is at least in part a project of social science, when those other issues are dealt with it will be—and should be—a current of thought always flowing on towards more complete versions of itself.

All of that said, there are a certain number of topics which are most problematic for those who identify as mutualists, those who oppose one or another of the mutualist currents, and those who are trying to figure out what all the rest of us are going on about anyway. Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, those most central and frequently debated topics are not going to be the ones we can easily address in one blog post. There are theoretical complexities to be explained, historical developments to be traced, and present positions to be reconciled or contrasted. But let's get this thing off on the right foot by at least sketching out a few of the most obvious areas of concern that come with the label "mutualism:"
  • PROPERTY—The whole anarchist tradition is haunted by Proudhon's claim that "property is theft," and the responses to it, including his own subsequent treatment of the ways in which simple property could also contribute to liberty. Proudhon never backed down from that initial statement, and never abandoned a personal preference for the vague "possession" which appears as the alternative to private property in his early works. So it will be useful to clarify terms and trace the development of Proudhon's argument (many of the details of which I've already addressed in piece-meal fashion over at the Two-Gun Mutualism blog.)
  • COMMUNITY / COMMUNISM—Proudhon proposed a "synthesis of community and property" as the formula for liberty, while he waged war in the realm of ideas against existing forms of communism and property. Proudhon died too early to have any very useful opinions about anarchist-communism, and the responses from the anarchist-communist side have not always involved a lot of comprehension of the finer points of mutualism. So there are two connected problems for contemporary anarchists: What specifically was the "community" which Proudhon considered a key element to the creation of liberty, and how would the mutualist treatment of it differ from anarchist-communism? 
  • OCCUPANCY AND USE—As Proudhon's practical proposals for just lend-tenure systems shifted from simple possession to simple property, he never shifted from an emphasis on respect for the occupancy of those who actually labor on the land and a concern that access to the land not be withheld arbitrarily from those who desired to labor on it. Again, clarifying what we now talk about as "occupancy and use" land-tenure will require a bit of theoretical explanation of Proudhon's understanding of economic and monopoly rents, and the reasons for his rethinking of the comparative advantages of simple property and simple possession in the early 1860s. And it will also take a bit of practical talk about why mutualists wouldn't simply squat a house when the occupants go out for a quart of milk, whether there will be hotels or other sorts of rented domiciles in mutualism, etc. 
  • MUTUAL BANKING / CURRENCY REFORM—The most famous of mutualist institutions, which was designed to provide a low-cost circulating medium to its members, bears a name which is almost certain to lead contemporary students of mutualism astray at first glance, and was perhaps best adapted to conditions that no longer apply to most of us. So it will be helpful to clarify the original proposals, explore their present utility, and perhaps talk about alternatives better adapted to contemporary conditions—as well as the advantages and disadvantages of using this style of mutual currency "after the revolution."
  • MARKETS—Mutualism is frequently considered "market anarchism," and the truth is that most forms of mutualism have been open to some kinds of markets. But it will probably be useful to look at the notion of "market" a bit and clarify the differences between simply not being dead-set against such things and defining one's anarchism by it.
  • USURY / AUBAINES / THE RIGHT OF INCREASE / RENT, PROFIT, & INTEREST / ANTI-CAPITALISM—Whether we're talking about Carsonian "free-market anti-capitalism" or the neo-Proudhonian mutualisms, the hottest topic is probably that business of the relationship to capitalism. Some other social anarchists are concerned that the very acceptance of any form of market amounts to, or will lead to, capitalism. Some capitalists, whether they consider themselves anarchists or not, think that mutualism will prevent economic relations which are vital to freedom—while others wonder what the big deal is, since mutualism seems like what they call "capitalism" with weird rules about land, and funny definitions of "rent," "interest," and "profit." Arguably, beneath the divergent definitions, there really is one key issue—what we frequently refer to as "the right of increase," the general belief that having wealth gives one a right to accumulate more wealth, provided you can do so without engaging in actions recognized by those who accept the basic premise (partisans of "increase") as overt "force or fraud"—which is not recognized by social anarchists, including many if not most of those who call themselves mutualists. 
  • MUTUALITY VS. VOLUNTARITY—One of the most common responses to mutualism, particularly from the capitalist side of the debate, is that free market capitalism is already as mutual as it gets, and without people doing messy stuff like "social engineering," trying to make people into "angels," or really worrying too much about anything but whether or not there are guns aimed at heads. And there are things that no doubt need to be said about why it doesn't take "angels" to recognize the value in the Golden Rule. 
  • THE GENERAL MAGNIFICENCE OF THE MUTUALIST PROJECT: Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't spend some time clarifying the breadth, ambition, and general awesomeness of the tradition that modern mutualists have inherited. Even when addressing thorny issues like Proudhon's bad behavior towards women and Jews, the complexities of his theory of force, etc., I think most readers will find that the mutualist project, which was never entirely Proudhon's and which escaped his worst inclinations quite rapidly, shows a surprising power, diversity of participants, etc. Rather than being something cobbled together from modern scraps, it's a long-hidden gold mine for anarchism. 
If these basic issues can be clarified, then many other things are possible, perhaps even a real "FAQ" one of these days.

And if you think of other issues that seem to come up over and over again, that don't seem to be covered, please leave suggestions in the comments.

4 comments:

  1. One issue that I think does not come up enough is federation, both political and economic. This would be important for a neo-Proudhonian mutualism, at least, but it may not necessarily be so for a Carsonian mutualism. Now, maybe this could simply fall under a discussion of community but it seems to be a significant piece of the puzzle related to most, if not all, of the central concerns of mutualism that you have listed here.

    Secondly, there needs to be developed an explicit ecological dimension to mutualist thought, which I know you are interested in. I don't think this was completely absent in "classical" mutualism but it is of greater priority to us now. Is there a mutualist environmental ethic? How would this compare to other anarchist approaches to ecology, like Bookchin's social ecology? How would adding an ecological dimension to mutualism affect its economic thought in particular? We should be asking questions like these.

    - Derek S.

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  2. Thanks, Derek. The list of questions that don't come up is obviously a lot longer than the one of questions which always come up. The road in Proudhon to a general theory of federation and probably to a specifically mutualist theory of ecology is through his discussion of how liberty is created by the dynamic between individualities and collectivities. Maybe this has something at least provocative for now.

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  3. Hi Shawn,

    i couldn't parse this part:

    "Arguably, beneath the divergent definitions, there really is a key issue—what we frequently refer to as 'the right of increase,' the general belief that having wealth gives one a right to accumulate more wealth, if you can without actions recognized by those who accept the basic premise as overt 'force or fraud'—which is not recognized by social anarchists, including many if not most of those who call themselves mutualists."

    .... at least not from "if you can" onwards. Would you be able to rephrase this for me, please?

    -- Alexis.

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  4. I tweaked that a little in the post, but the point is that there is one issue—"the right of increase"—which we have addressed under a variety of names (aubaine, usury, rent, profit, interest, etc.) And that "right of increase" is essentially the belief that you can use existing wealth to increase wealth, provided you don't engage in overt, personal, direct force and fraud. Critics of the right of increase tend to recognize all sorts of systematic and structural factors which might call the right into question—because there are systematic and structural forms of abuse—while it's proponents generally don't recognize those forms.

    Hope that helps.

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