Anarchism’s Ungovernability, and What it Means to Be a Mutualist


Some time back I posted an unexpectedly controversial post on “The Ungovernability of Anarchism.” My goal was to start to talk about how the things that we are in the process of learning about the early phases of the anarchist movement, together with the struggles we are currently having to determine the limits of the tradition, raise interesting and potentially troubling questions about the ways in which we can lay claim to the various aspects of “anarchism.” I fully intended to “raise the bar,” but what I said was taken, by a variety of folks with an interest in some sort of “governing,” in pretty much the opposite sense. Although I have not returned to the subject directly on the blog, I’ve hardly left it in my own thinking about anarchist organizing, mutualist school-building, etc.

Let me run through the argument once more:

The word “Anarchism” marks a variety of things, among them an elusive and contested Ideal, a historical Tradition, and a present Movement.

  • As an Ideal, Anarchism runs on ahead of us as we chase it, constantly revealing greater freedom and unchallenged forms of authority, provided we pay close attention. The Ideal is ungovernable, and that is a good thing. We can’t get too smug, and those who would settle for “liberty on the low bid,” and attempt to reduce Anarchism to their level, just make it clear that they’re not paying attention at all.
  • As a Tradition, Anarchism has always been more diverse than most of us can easily be comfortable with, as an attentive reading of the most uncontroversial histories of the movement quickly demonstrates. This is a fact that we should probably learn to live with. Sure, it’s a little hard to know what to do with the earliest explicit expressions of anarchism, with their wild fantasies (Humanispheres, Cossack invasions, etc.) and their occasional glaring errors (antisemitic and anti-feminist elements, for example), but in attempting to cleanse the tradition of stuff that makes us uneasy, we’ve neglected some elements that arguably ought to please, or at least amuse us (the fact that Proudhon’s feminist adversaries were also mutualist activists, Humanispheres, Cossack invasions, etc.) We can acknowledge that Bellegarrigue, who produced Anarchy: A Journal of Order, was some sort of market anarchist, and it won’t be the end of the world. Our denials look too much like opportunistic history to reflect very well on us. We don’t have to go there again, and Bellegarrigue probably isn’t going to make a modern capitalist any happier than a modern communist. None of us claim the whole Tradition anyway.
  • As a Movement, in the realm of practical struggles and in our ideological struggles about how we will relate to the Ideal going forward, let’s try to at least be practical. Internal struggle is part of our Tradition, and is probably dictated by our relentless Ideal. We constantly face new questions, and new threats, among them elements that would just love to govern Anarchism to some narrower end. When we identify with the Movement, we presumably take on a relation to the Ideal and the Tradition (even if the latter may be somewhat antagonistic), and we necessarily enter into some kind of relation of basic solidarity with others who similarly identify. We don’t all have to play nice. We don’t have to welcome anything that appears in opposition to the Ideal, even if it has some validation from the Tradition, but we should probably have more sense than to squander or wreck what we have inherited and presumably share. Some kinds of sectarian squabbling will arguably drive the project of Anarchism forward. Others obviously don’t. Some kinds of toleration on the fringes enrich that project. Others clearly imperil it. So we need to take responsibility for the actions we take on this very field of conflict. We can’t hope to govern or rule the movement, without putting ourselves in conflict with our own Tradition and Ideal, but that’s not a reason to be indifferent. Quite the contrary.

These concerns have come up again recently in some discussions about defining Mutualism. Because Mutualism is, in essence, in the process of being reintroduced after a period of a relative dormancy, Mutualists find themselves in the midst of a complicated process, where we are simultaneously recovering a Tradition (which was itself in search of its Ideal), distilling our Ideal from that Tradition, and trying to build some sort of Movement. That’s a lot to be tackling all at once, and it’s complicated by the fact that the differences within the Tradition of Mutualism has been arguably a bit more complicated than those facing the broader anarchist movement, so that what we have in practice are several new Mutualisms, which have different understandings of the Ideal, different identifications within the Tradition, and different relations to other parts of the Anarchist Movement. So people, both inside and outside the circle of self-proclaimed “Mutualists,” can find the situation pretty frustrating. Me, too…

So, under these circumstances, what does it mean to “be a Mutualist”? Let me propose some potential criteria, based on my observations about Anarchism more generally:

  1. Our Ideal is Reciprocity of the highest order. References to the Golden Rule are a good place to start, but let’s be clear: There’s no treating others as we would be treated that falls much short of treating others as the unique individuals that they are. And there is nothing easy about that sort of standard. We will fail, as often as not. Hopefully, we will also learn, pick ourselves up, and do better the next time. We will try our best to approach our ideal in all sorts of practical circumstances, knowing that, as Proudhon put it, we progress “by approximations.” We will build with the understanding that someday soon we’ll probably be building again, better, on firmer foundations. At least we’re unlikely to be bored…
  2. Our Tradition is a rich source of examples of how to apply, and how not to apply, our Ideal. And there’s lots of that Tradition still to be unearthed. To “be a Mutualist” is not just to adhere some abstract ideal, but also to identify with the Tradition, diverse as it is, and to make the best possible use of what has been bequeathed to us by the individuals who struggled before us. It’s a Tradition which has been appropriated and used by other traditions, often in ways which obscure or misrepresent it, and it is not always the sort of tradition that will inspire comfort for those associating with it, particularly in an era dominated by more-or-less fundamentalist politics. But it is a rich tradition, full of unexplored and unexploited resources. Those who attempt to claim the name, but obscure that wealth, should not necessarily expect to be welcomed.
  3. After all, our Movement is, in many important ways, still to come. Because of the multiple labors facing Mutualists at the moment, and because sometimes these labors feel more than a bit Herculean, it would be nice if they did not also feel Sisyphean. One of the most difficult aspect of the reluctant school-building I’ve taken on with regard to Mutualism has been the balancing act between making clarifying the Tradition, suggesting a somewhat different relation to the Ideal, and maintaining a sort of general solidarity with those who approach those things differently. It probably isn’t obvious to many of the folks embracing the Mutualist label at this point what combination of brute force and restraint has been deployed to keep open a rhetorical space in which “Mutualism” could mean not just something fairly specific, but several fairly specific somethings, but these things don’t just happen. All of these elements—including Ideals, Traditions, definitions, rhetorical gestures, gestures of inclusion or exclusion—amount to a kind of shared means of production for continuing to produce Mutualism, and if there is going to continue to be such a thing we need to practice a bit of careful stewardship with regard to our available resources. Sometimes that means nothing more than being careful when we speak for “The Movement,” when we say “we” instead of “I,” or “is” instead of “could be.”
More—or perhaps just more explicitly—than other Anarchist schools, Mutualism is probably always going to be a little bit stuck between an Ideal that constantly outruns us and a series of practical Approximations about which we can never be too smug. While our critics think of Mutualism as the milquetoast version of Anarchism, I would challenge would-be Mutualists to think of it as a particularly demanding, high-risk approach, a very anarchistic Anarchism, refusing the archies of the community and of the market.
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.