Mutualism: The Anarchism of Approximations

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Mutualism: The Anarchism of Approximations

Inheriting Mutualism

“Well,” [Joseph Warden] said, the smile still lingering in the corners of his mouth, “we are in one sense, my friend, a poverty-stricken people. We haven’t any institutions to speak of. All we can boast are certain outgrowths of our needs, which, for the most part, have taken care of themselves. We have, perhaps, an unwritten law, or general understanding, though no one to my knowledge has tried to state it. We all seem to know it when we meet it, and, as yet, have had no dispute about it. It may be said in a general way, however, as a matter of observation, that we are believers in liberty, in justice, in equality, in fraternity, in peace, progress, and in a state of happiness here on earth for one and all. What we mean by all this defines itself as we go along. It is a practical, working belief, we have. When we find an idea won’t work, we don’t decide against it; we let it rest; perhaps, later on, it will work all right. I don’t know as there is much more to say.”
The man was evidently disappointed. Warden’s talk all seemed trivial to him. It gave him the impression, he said, that the people had not taken hold of the great problem of life in a serious and scientific manner.
Warden replied that, if the gentleman would define what he meant by the terms serious and scientific, they would be better able to determine the matter. If he meant by serious anything sorrowful or agonizing, they would plead guilty; in that sense, they were not serious. If their life was declared not scientific in the sense that it was not cut and dried, planned, laid out in iron grooves, put into constitutions, established in set forms and ceremonies, he was right. They had neither seriousness nor science after those patterns. “But we have,” he said, “a stability of purpose born of our mutual attractions and necessities, and a scientific adjustment, we think, of all our difficulties as well as of our varied enterprises. Always respecting each other’s individuality, we apply common sense to every situation, so far as we are able.”


What is Mutualism? It is a question that even self-proclaimed mutualists may hesitate to answer. Since 1826, when the term mutualist first appeared in print, there have, in fact, been only a handful of attempts to present mutualism in systematic form. The most important of these, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières (1865), has yet to be translated into English. The most accessible, Clarence L. SwartzWhat Is Mutualism? (1927), dates from a period when mutualism had, by most accounts, waned almost to insignificance as a political force.

Proudhon’s mutualism is still enshrined in the histories as “the original anarchism,” though Proudhon, and other key figures commonly associated with the tradition (or traditions)—John Gray, Josiah Warren, the Mutualist of 1826, William Batchelder Greene, Joshua King Ingalls, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Benjamin R. Tucker, Alfred B. Westrup, Dyer Lum, Edward H. Fulton, Clarence L. Swartz, etc.—remain virtually unread. The majority of Proudhon’s work remains untranslated and, until recently, when the creation of digital archives of various sorts changed the equation, nearly all the major works have been unavailable to most readers.

Still, there are mutualists, and lately there seem to be a lot more of us. Mutualism has persisted as “the other anarchism,” drawing those unsatisfied with conventional divisions within anarchism. While nearly all anarchists, whatever their label of choice, have embraced some mixture of individualism with social solidarity and reciprocity, compromise in the economic realm has been tougher sledding. Particularly since the emergence of Rothbardian “anarcho-capitalism,” struggles over the place of market economics in anarchism have been fierce, and polarizing. This has created an increased interest in the historical figures associated with mutualism, but it has not necessarily made it any more acceptable to espouse their ideas. When confronted with, for example, with Proudhon’s lengthy and complex engagement with the notion of “property,” social anarchists tend to emphasize the claim that “Property is theft!” Anarcho-capitalists point to the later association of property with liberty—and, as often as not, treat it as a progressive move, claiming that Proudhon “got over” his initial analysis of property (and the rest of us ought to as well.) Mutualists have tried to work within the space created by the two, apparently contradictory statements. (This attempt, as much as anything, is probably what defines mutualism within the broader realm of anarchism.) Recent formulations, such as the “free-market anti-capitalism” of Kevin Carson, foreground the apparent contradictions, trying to signal that there is really something to be clarified there.

The current interest in mutualism has largely been driven by concerns that were not initially mutualist, and the mutualist and neo-mutualist positions that have emerged have been grounded very loosely in most instances in the historical tradition. While mutualism has never entirely died off as a tendency, there has been very little continuing structure by which specific mutualist doctrines could be passed along. That means that among those who currently call themselves mutualists, there is very little orthodoxy, and more than a bit of inconsistency.

That’s probably entirely consistent with the mutualist tradition as a whole—and, ultimately, I think we can talk about "the tradition" as something like a coherent "whole." Mutualists have tended to reject systemization, and to value experiment. In “Liberty and Wealth,” one of the true “lost classics” of the broad mutualist tradition, Sidney H. Morse engaged in a bit of alternate history, telling how the Owenite colony at New Harmony, Indiana was saved, after an initial failure, by hard work and common sense. Joseph Warden was obviously meant to invoke Josiah Warren, but the philosophy expressed was probably meant in large part as a counter to the various factions who, in the 1880s, questioned whether something more programmatic or specific than a commitment to liberty and reciprocity was necessary for radicals. It may, in fact, have been aimed in part at Benjamin R. Tucker, with whom Morse engaged in a series of friendly arguments. Tucker is perhaps better known for his not-so-friendly controversies, for the odd mix of generosity and intolerance with which he interacted with other radicals, and for the “plumb-line,” which led him, despite himself and his own best counsels, at times, towards inflexibility.

Now, everything we could say in this regard about Tucker could, with equal justice, be said of Proudhon, or Greene, or Warren. Whatever our reputation as “neither fish nor flesh,” as the school of compromise within anarchism, controversy has been our heritage nearly as often as conciliation. Morse’s New Harmonists capture one aspect of mutualism, the experimental, “tactical” approach which contemporary critics fail to recognize in “classical” anarchisms. But we should hope that mutualists will continue to send “fine hard shafts among friend and foe” alike. The question remains, though, what is our particular heritage?

Attempting to summarize over one hundred and eighty years of rather disparate history is unquestionably a daunting task. There is no present advantage to downplaying the diversity of the movement. Contemporary mutualists consider themselves such because they found some portion of our rather obscure tradition compelling, whether through direct contact with the original texts, through the earlier historical work done by James J. Martin, Enid Schuster, Joe Peacott and others, through Kevin Carson’s recent work, the commentary in An Anarchist FAQ, or historical spadework such as my own. Anarchist mutualists of the present day hardly need the sanction of an earlier tradition to engage in present-day activism, to carry on our own controversies and make our own alliances. Still, to the extent that we can claim to be part of a modern mutualist movement, or current, much of what has brought mutualists together has been a shared concern with recovering mutualist history.

It’s in this particular, and presentist, context that I offer a series of examinations of the mutualist tradition, summaries and syntheses that I hope do some justice to both past diversities and present needs. Because, like most present-day anarchists, we are inheritors of a tradition which we really know only in part, there are likely to be surprises—not all of them necessarily welcome—in what follows. I have attempted to be very open to such surprises, as I’ve struggled through Proudhon and Pierre Leroux in French, or through the metaphysical concerns of Greene. I’ve tried not to force-fit any of these earlier writers to any present-day model. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking for connections to my own concerns, to those of my comrades in the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, or to those of my friends in other anarchist currents. Fortunately, very little fudging of the historical facts, as far as I can ascertain them, has been necessary. It seems that mutualism has always had a basic core of values, and that those values may serve contemporary anarchism well.

Philosophical Observations

Consider the following set of statements—and consider them as tentative and overlapping, subject to elaboration, expansion, etc.

  • Mutualism is approximate. It rejects absolutism, fundamentalism, and the promotion of supposedly foolproof blueprints for society. What it seeks to approximate, however, is the fullest sort of human freedom.
  • Mutualism values justice, in the form of reciprocity, perhaps even over liberty.
  • Mutualism is dialectical. (Or “trialectical.” Or serial.)
  • Mutualism is individualism—and it is socialism—or it is neither.
  • Mutualism recognizes positive power, and looks for liberty in the counterpoise of powers, not in power’s abolition.
  • Mutualism is progressive and conservative, in Proudhon’s sense.
  • Mutualism’s notion of progress is not an acceptance of any fatality or inevitability.
  • Mutualism is—in the broadest sense of the term—equitable commerce.

Taken as a bundle, which may be a strong dose for many, these statements should give a fairly good indication of the kind of dialectical, antinomian dynamic which is at work at the heart of mutualism. But it may not be immediately clear that that heart, the very core of mutualist thought and practice is reciprocity—relations of justice between individuals. In any event, all of this seems rather uncertain. Vague concerns like "justice" don't exactly separate you from the political pack.

Perhaps, however, a return to that general dynamic of mutualism may help us out of this other morass. Our problem is that notions like "reciprocity" and "justice" don't just mean one thing, which is clear to everyone. "No," says the mutualist dialectician, "they don't. They mean multiple, often contradictory things. Sometimes competing meanings are diametrically opposed. You have to grasp the bundle, and try to untangle it a bit." The dialectician lives in a messy world, where every untangling reveals another snarl. But, honestly, isn't that pretty much how our world works anyway? Discourse, all language use, from the most scholarly and specialized to the loosest and most general, is part of a gigantic commerce in meaning. We know how value fluctuates in other markets, how dependent it is on factors extrinsic to the nature of the thing exchanged or external to the normal operations of the market. Changes in markets effectually change the "meaning" of goods—think of corn before and after the ethanol explosion. There's no point in pushing the analogy at this point, but consider the sort of "heavy trading" that a notion like "liberty" or "justice" undergoes, and ask whether perhaps we ask a lot when we expect these notions to function—specifically in the realms of the social, the economic and the political—as if they were safely ensconced in the realm of the forms.

OK. Concepts turn on themselves, splinter, mutate, disseminate themselves, go to war, form strange alliances—in short, behave much like the human organizations they inspire. These days we might call this deconstruction. Proudhon called it contradiction—antinomy—by which he meant not simply logical inconsistency, but a productive, pressurized dynamic. The antinomy is interesting because none of its individual expressions are entirely satisfactory. They may, in fact, be individually rather odious. But the whole package offers more. Simple contradiction involves as situation where both A and B cannot be simultaneously true, and our logical next step, after recognizing that, is to separate the true statement from the false. In the antinomy, A and B together look pretty good, despite the fact that neither of them alone seem to offer much. The difference is important, in part because it forces to focus on a rather different conceptual horizon than we might otherwise. It is not nearly sufficient, from this philosophical perspective, to try to discover truth by gallivanting about slaying falsehoods. At a minimum, we have to be willing to poke around in the entrails of the dragons we bring down. More than likely, though, we're going to need some of those suckers alive, at least for awhile.

Mutualism is Approximate

Mutualism is approximate. It rejects absolutism, fundamentalism, and the promotion of supposedly foolproof blueprints for society. What it seeks to approximate, however, is the fullest sort of human freedom.

In The Theory of Property, Proudhon claimed that “humanity proceeds by approximation,” and proceeded to list seven “approximations” that he considered key:

1st. The approximation of the equality of faculties through education, the division of labor, and the development of aptitudes;
2nd. The approximation of the equality of fortunes through industrial and commercial freedom.
3rd. The approximation of the equality of taxes;
4th. The approximation of the equality of property;
5th. The approximation of an-archy;
6th. The approximation of non-religion, or non-mysticism;
7th. Indefinite progress in the science, law, liberty, honor, justice.

This “indefinite” progress “is proof,” he said:

…that FATE does not govern society; that geometry and arithmetic proportions do not regulate its movements, as in minerology or chemistry; that there is a life, a soul, a liberty which escapes from the precise, fixed measures governing matter. Materialism, in that which touches society, is absurd.
Thus, on this great question, our critique remains at base the same, and our conclusions are always the same: we want equality, more and more fully approximated, of conditions and fortunes, as we want, more and more, the equalization of responsibilities.

Here is the first of mutualism’s basic principles.

I imagine I can hear the murmurs already. This sounds like “settling for less,” and perhaps less than anarchism. It’s too uncertain for much of the natural rights crowd, and probably comes off as downright defeatist to the revolutionaries. But Proudhon was, of course, a partisan of “the Revolution,” as he understood it, every bit as much as he was engaged in the project of grounding right in a scientific understanding of the individual and society. And he was the inheritor of notions that were both anti-utopian and perfectionist. While he rejected the “patent office” schemes of the Fourierist phalanx and of Leroux’s “ternary order,” he embraced the portions of Fourier’s passional analysis and Leroux’s “doctrine of Humanity” which emphasized a constant, restless, progressive movement—the work, as he put it, of “a life, a soul, a liberty which escapes….” So Proudhon declared that he wanted “equality,” but also—and this is at least as important—that he wanted “more and more.”

Following that lead—or, if you prefer, following the “blazing star” of William B. Greene —mutualism is unafraid of the very active pursuit of practical approximates. It is experimental. If it has at times made excessive claims for its particular schemes—and it certainly has—it can at least be held accountable for that failing. Meanwhile, arguments that “true anarchy,” “property,” or the conditions under which an individual could safely say “I am just,” are “impossible” (in some absolute sense) shouldn’t leave the mutualist sobbing in the corner. If we can’t reach perfection at a leap, even if we can’t ultimately reach it at all we can always at least try to take another step forward—and then another step forward, always—and this is the point at which people begin to work things out, as best they can under the circumstances, with the understanding that that current “best” is a step towards the next best, and so on, “indefinitely.”

The acknowledgment that progress is a matter of approximation—or the corollary acknowledgment that “there are degrees in everything,” including justice and right—does not lend itself to an “ah well, anything goes” sort of attitude. Indeed, the best-developed aspect of mutualist philosophy has probably been its analysis of how progress is, in general, not made. In that same passage from The Theory of Property, Proudhon continued:

We reject, along with governmentalism, communism in all its forms; we want the definition of official functions and individual functions; of public services and of free services.

Notice that in this case “communism” is not—or rather is not solely—an approach to property. Like Josiah Warren, Proudhon seems to have intended by the term a subordination of individual concerns to the collective, but the thing that seems most objectionable about “communism” in this context is that it leaves important things undefined. Proudhon wanted “definition.” And it’s a thing that any good experimentalist should want—and mutualism is nothing if not essentially experimental. To move on—and on—we need to know what we’ve got going, what we are involved with and connected to, and we need to know all of that in fairly fine detail, and then we need to rearrange things according to out best understanding of the context and the tools at hand. We need to put our understanding of our condition and our options to the test. And then we need to do it again, because we have inevitably left something—more likely someone—out of our calculations. I know… “Calculation” is one of those words likely to press some buttons. But the social problem posed by “calculation” is really most serious where the calculators and experimenters fail to carry the costs of their own experiments. Indeed, developing an ethic for mutualist experiment is undoubtedly one of those experimental processes that we will have to take very seriously—and it is there that the history of mutualist experiment may really serve us best.

I don’t know if a Warrenite, or Andrusian, labor-dollar is going to be of particular use to contemporary mutualism. And I suspect that mutualists pursued the mutual bank much longer than that pursuit made much sense. But I suspect that the story of Josiah Warren’s various experiments—of their successes and failures, and of the specific ways that their pursuit developed according to the circumstances—is probably still a gold mine. Similarly, I think the history of land-banks, mutual banks, banks of the people, etc., and of the propaganda in support of them, still has practical secrets to offer up to our continued exploration.

Our best tools will probably be a grasp of these specific experimental histories, and a general concern with avoiding what Proudhon called simplism. Indeed, that second concern may be the real heart of mutualist method. Approximation is incompletion in the sense of being “not there yet, but on the road,” but simplism is incompletion as a failure to even get a proper start. Proudhon seems to have borrowed the term from Fourier, and a Fourierist, Hippolyte Renaud, defined it in these terms:

One of the inherent characteristics of Civilization is simplism. Simplism is the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that the real progress is null or negative.

It should come as no surprise that mutualism, a political philosophy rooted in reciprocity and balance, would find one-sidedness to be a problem. And all of Proudhon’s various philosophical stages—from the early emphasis on synthesis, to the final emphasis on antinomies that “do not resolve”—involved a concern that social problems be addressed from multiple perspectives. For example, Proudhon changed his mind about the precise problem with the various existing understandings of “property,” but he seems to have consistently consider simplism a part of the problem. In The Theory of Property—in the passage immediately following the one on “definition”—he wrote:

There is only one thing new for us in our thesis: it is that that same property, the contradictory and abusive principle of which has raised our disapproval, we today accept entirely, along with its equally contradictory qualification: Dominium est just utendi et abutendi re suâ, quatenus juris ratio patur. We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes—one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensible, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.

Let’s be clear about Proudhon’s final approach to “property:” alone it was “unpardonably reprehensible,” and it would be the same if it operated alongside some alternative or alternatives. It appears as a tool for justice and right only when it enters into a dynamic relation with other principles which would be equally objectionable if alone or acting in parallel. In terms of methodology, the dynamic relation only appears when Proudhon begins to complicate his analysis of property—adding an analysis of “aims” to his analysis of philosophical justifications, and in that adding an analysis of the workings of “collective reason” to his individual analyses.

Proudhon barely began that expanded analysis. “Property” itself never really appears as anything but a simplist, or one-sided, concept. Its incorporation in a non-simplist property-state antinomy is some sort of advance—perhaps a necessary step towards something more useful—but inevitably one which tends to focus us on one part of a complex problem, to the exclusion of other parts. If we take that approach, then we have the option of attempting to focus on some higher-order concept, such as social justice or mutuality, which incorporates property as one of its aspects, or of attempting to rethink property in some other way. Proudhon attempted the first approach, with somewhat mixed results, but he explicitly suggested the possibility of the second. In the “New Approximation” which begins in this issue, I’m pursuing the other course, starting to address individual property in its “collective” aspects, in order to avoid some confusions that seem “built in” with Proudhon’s approach.

In this way, breaking with the founders is an act of fidelity to the tradition. We don’t encounter the originators of the mutualist tradition as masters, but as fellows, and the task put to us is to do the next thing, and advance the tradition in ways which respond at once to the general spirit of the thing we have inherited and to the specific conditions we face. What part or parts of the current mutualist movement will contribute most significantly to increasing liberty and clarifying the task for those who undertake the next set of approximations, is something that we can’t know until we put them to the test.

[to be continued…]