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.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Mutualism at the Owenite High Tide

For a look at the concerns of the Owenite current at the moment, in the 1820s, when some members were trying on the label "mutualist" and Josiah Warren was taking the steps that would lead him to individualist anarchism, I've assembled a collection of texts in the first volume of a Documentary History of Mutualism: Mutualism at the Owenite High Tide. In it: 
The letters of the “1826 Mutualist” are followed by Josiah Warren’s “The Motives for Communism,”—an account of his involvement with the Owenite movement,—a speech given at New Harmony by communist Paul Brown,—author of Twelve Months in New Harmony,—“How I Became a Shaker,”—by one of the young men involved in the Owenite colony at Valley Forge,—and a short account the trial of one of John Adolphus Etzler’s “Satellites,”—sent by Andrew Smolnikar to William Henry Channing, for inclusion in The Present. This odd assortment of texts form part the skeleton around which we may eventually be able to flesh out a more complete history. We have tantalizing details to work with, such as an account of Warren and Brown travelling together to visit the Owenite community at Kendal, and ultimately there doesn’t seem to be more than a degree or two of separation between any of these figures—or between these figures and others we know from other segments of radical history. For now, it’s probably enough to keep those potential histories in mind as you encounter some of the most interesting figures of the Owenite “high tide.”

Notes on the origins of the term "mutualism" (1822-1850)

I contributed most of the following to Wikipedia, so we can just make use of it here to get started on a bit of basic mutualist history:
Mutualism, as a term, has seen a variety of related uses. Charles Fourier first used the French term "mutualisme" in 1822, although the reference was not to an economic system. The first use of the noun "mutualist" was in the New-Harmony Gazette by an American Owenite in 1826. In the early 1830s, a labor organization in Lyons, France, called themselves the "Mutuellists."
Pierre Joseph Proudhon was involved with the Lyons mutualists and later adopted the name to describe his own teachings. In What Is Mutualism? Clarence Lee Swartz gives his own account of the origin of the term, claiming that "[t]he word "mutualism" seems to have been first used by John Gray, an English writer, in 1832." When John Gray's 1825 Lecture on Human Happiness was first published in the United States in 1826, the publishers appended the Preamble and constitution of the Friendly Association for Mutual Interests, located at Valley Forge. 1826 also saw the publication of the Constitution of the Friendly Association for Mutual Interests at Kendal, Ohio.
By 1846, Pierre Joseph Proudhon was speaking of "mutualité" in his writings, and he used the term "mutuellisme," at least as early as 1848, in his "Programme Révolutionnaire." William B. Greene, in 1850, used the term "mutualism" to describe a mutual credit system similar to that of Proudhon. In 1850, the American newspaper The Spirit of the Age, edited by William Henry Channing, published proposals for a "mutualist township" by Joshua King Ingalls and Albert Brisbane, together with works by Proudhon, William B. Greene, Pierre Leroux, and others.
What the rules of play at Wikipedia didn't allow me to say, except on the Talk page, was that the oft-repeated account of John Gray using the term is probably incorrect. Let me include the full note, just to indicate some of the difficulties and possible pitfalls involved in tracking this sort of information down.
Swartz' reference to John Gray in What Is Mutualism? is puzzling. He says mutualism "seems to have been first used by John Gray, an English writer, in 1832," but does not name the work. The only book or pamphlet from 1832 is Production the cause of demand being a brief analysis of a work entitled "The social system, a treatise on the principle of exchange, by John Gray : with a short illustration of the principles of equitable labour exchange," which probably isn't by Gray at all, although it relies on long passages from The Social System. It appears to have been assembled by "an Association for the Dissemination of the Knowledge of the Principles of Equitable Labour Exchange." (More than one of the pamphlets listed in OCLC under Gray's name is actually a response to Gray.) In any event, it does not appear to have been the book in which the word mutualism was used, and it seems a strange title to cite in preference to the 1831 book from which it was drawn. Looking for the source of Swartz' reference, the logical choice is Max Nettlau's "Anarchism in England Fifty Years Ago," which contains the line: "The mutualism of John Gray (1832, 1842, 1848) is logical, but dry, uninspiring, and anything but revolutionary." Note the dates. Nettlau skips the influencial Lecture on Human Happiness, and references, if only by date, An efficient remedy for the distress of nations (1842), Lectures on the nature and use of money (1848), and probably The Social System, but missing the date by one year. If Swartz (who, as a contributor to Liberty in the same years, certainly would have had access to Tucker's reprint of the Nettlau essay) simply relied on Nettlau as a source, it is understable how he might have written that mutualism "seems" to have been used in 1832.
In any event, setting aside the use by Fourier, we have two early traditions that used words like "mutualism"—the Owenites from England, starting in the 1820s, and the French workers in Lyon in the 1830s. The first tradition influenced Josiah Warren, who never called himself a mutualist, but became one of the chief influences on those who used the term in the late 19th century. The second directly influenced Proudhon, who adopted the term to describe his anarchism.

Prior to the period when Benjamin R. Tucker and his circle brought the influences of Warren's equitable commerce and the explicit mutualism of Proudhon and Greene together in his own individualist anarchism, there would have been no particular reason to think of the two currents as one.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Mutualism.info Dilemma

I've hardly started, and there are already some criticisms and concerns about what is is and isn't going to get covered here. My hope is to eventually cover a wide range of historical, theoretical and practical questions—and, where appropriate, to deal with elements of the traditions both historically (to get us on a firm footing) and critically. It's useful, for example, to know how William B. Greene adapted Proudhon's proposals, and the colonial land bank model, to the needs of his audience in 19th century New England. But most of my readers are probably, like me, not in a position to make much use of a mutual banking association—at least this side of The Revolution. It's useful to understand the various things that Proudhon meant when he talked about "property" and "possession," but mostly so that we can work intelligently toward models of resource distribution and use that don't lag far behind present day pressures, ecological science, etc. It's interesting, and frequently fun, to learn a bit about the various people who assumed the label and tested out the ideas of mutualism long before we came along. And then there are a lot of very pressing questions about how some basic mutualist principles might apply to present and future conditions. All of those need to be addressed.

But we are in the midst of a wide-ranging network of conversations and conflicts right now, with a rather protean "mutualism" at their center. And because of the difficulties of coming to specific grips with the mutualism suspended between a half-unknown past and an obscure future, it is perhaps becoming more protean, rather than less.

So, what will get addressed here will undoubtedly be a sort of triage list of particularly embattled bits of mutualist history and theory. In some cases, it is possible to simply supply answers to historical questions. In others, it will at least be possible to clarify options and conflicts. And where things seem to be just a mess, well, it will probably useful to say so.

Even that much is a rather daunting task, but I'm driven by a strong sense that there is in "classical" mutualism a really powerful body of theory, with potential for fairly immediate practical application in the present—if some fraction of us are able and willing to distill the good stuff from the tradition.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Golden Rule as a practical guide

I have been using the following paragraph on the Two-Gun Mutualism blog for some time now:
Mutualism is not a specific social, political or economic system. Mutualism as such is simply the assertion that every meaningfully social relation will have the form, at base, of an anarchic encounter between unique individuals—free absolutes—no matter what layers of convention we pile on it. To the extent that our conventions, institutions and norms respect that basic premise, we can call them “mutualist.” To the extent that we commit ourselves to viewing our relations through this lens, and exert ourselves in the extension of mutualistic freedom, we can call ourselves “mutualists.”
Unsurprisingly, I suppose, it has proved a bit dense for many readers not already familiar with the sort of analysis I've been doing there. But let's unpack it a bit. 

I understand mutualism—at its core, and apart from the character of our particular present approximations—as an ethical philosophy. We have mutuality or reciprocity—the Golden Rule, more or less—and then we have a series of applications of that principle. 

Now, there are a lot of interpretations of the Golden Rule—"do unto others as you would have others do unto you"—which hardly limp out of the starting gate before it's clear they won't be much use in application. Naturally, those are not the formulations I'm talking about. I don't want you to treat me as if I was you, simply imposing your preferences on me, any more than you want me to treat you as if you were me. To do so would simply be to deny the individuality of the other. Nor do either of us ultimately want to establish a principle which denies our own individuality—do unto others as they want you to do—in the expectation that we'll be on the receiving end of this principled self-denial at some point. In either case, our individuality is sacrificed in half of our relationship with the other. 

But if we treat one another as individualsunique individuals, with all of the emphasis that a Max Stirner might give to that term—then there is no question of sacrifice. The rule is a bit harder to apply, but nobody said this anarchy thing was going to be easy.

As we apply that standard, we want institutions that respect our uniqueness, and if we want to claim the name of "mutualist" as a sort of political identity, then we need to make sure we are walking the walk.

The Mutualist's Dilemma

People frequently tell me that they have trouble understanding what mutualism is, and how it relates to the rest of the anarchist tradition. I can sympathize. Mutualism is, at once, the earliest form of the explicit, continuous anarchist tradition, and one of its newest variations. In between its first flowering and its most recent rediscovery, most of what we think of as the history and development of anarchism has occurred.

To call ourselves "mutualists" in the early 21st century is to take our place in a tradition which reaches back into the mid-19th century, the roots of which are the roots of the anarchist tradition, but the anarchist tradition has been rather ambivalent and forgetful about its roots, so rather than grounding the modern mutualist somewhere near the heart of the anarchist project, I think many of us feel we've climbed out onto a rather slender limb.

In the mutualist revival of the last ten years, mutualists have had to reach back to uncover and explain the original foundations and subsequent development of their traditions, and simultaneously show how this original anarchism responds to contemporary concerns. With the number of active mutualist theorists being small, and their backgrounds diverse, the natural division of that already-complex labor has given rise to at least two divergent trends in the revival.
The first, exemplified by Kevin Carson's work, is reconstructive, a fairly conscious attempt to stitch back together a number of the narrower tendencies which have formed as anarchism developed. It has naturally become a focus for "big tent" coalitions like the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. Because the historical mutualism which Carson most closely identifies may be best understood as the economic component of Benjamin R. Tucker's individualist anarchism, with its plumb-line focus on removing key monopolies, this mutualist tendency has emerged as a "free-market anti-capitalism." 
The second tendency looks back to the earliest elements of the mutualist tradition, drawing on the extensive and largely neglected work of Proudhon, but also on influences (from Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux, etc) which Proudhon did not fully integrate into his work, and on the work of a variety of writers from those early days of anarchism. It combines a sort of archaeological process of rediscovering mutualism's roots with attempts to refine, complete and update its early forms. My own "two-gun mutualism" is an example of this explicitly neo-Proudhonian mutualism.

Both tendencies share the sort of unfinished character you might expect from revivals of long-dormant traditions, which poses problems for us, accustomed as we tend to be to well-established ideologies, amenable to treatment in FAQ form. There is a lot of work to be done—researching, translating, interpreting and updating—before a lot of the most common questions about mutualism can be answered in anything like a definitive form, and before we know if the various revivalist tendencies are destined ultimately to converge or diverge.

To some extent, we can expect the definitive to continue to elude mutualism. Proudhon emphasized the fact that social progress is a matter of experimentation and approximation. While our principles—key among them the ethic of mutuality or reciprocity—may remain fixed, our contexts constantly change, so practical answers to our most frequently answered questions are likely to change as well. Hopefully, we will just get better at applying our principles, and gradually perhaps our questions and concerns will change.

In the meantime, however, there are some things that can be said with some degree of certainty, and some speculations that can be made on the basis of those basic principles. While I pursue more complex, conditional and partisan projects elsewhere, this blog will focus on those bits of truth and certainty that perhaps we can share now. My hope is that it will serve as a useful introduction as well, in the absence of the sort of certainty or presumptive authority of an FAQ.