Beyond Mutualism

[I see this post is being used as ammo in a particularly trolly attack on anarchism. Those arriving here thinking that “mutualism has been abandoned” might be interested in my tentative return to the label. But simply reading what has actually come “beyond mutualism,” in this post and those that have followed it, should wipe out any notion that anything beyond a particular label was ever abandoned.]

It’s really not an April Fool’s joke: I’m preparing to leave “mutualism” behind as the way I describe my politics. It’s a reinvention that I have been contemplating for a long time, but there are obviously associated costs, given the amount of energy I’ve invested in attempting to restore the good name of the anarchism of Proudhon and Co. I certainly stand by all of that work—which will naturally go on, though in a somewhat different context.

Mutualism was always unstable ground on which to try to build. You can go back to some of the very first posts on this blog and find Kevin Carson, Larry Gambone and I attempting to clarify the various things that “mutualism” means and has meant, or look at my more recent work on “the ungovernability of anarchism” to see some more mature thoughts on those same complexities. I have no doubt that there might well be some good work left in that much-contested political label, but my own personal experience is that the costs of keeping the term viable seem to be—at this point in time, and for me—considerably higher than the benefits of continuing to fly it as a flag.

In important ways, the battle that Kevin, Larry and I were engaged in when this blog launched—the struggle to restore mutualism to its proper place among the anarchist traditions—has been rather spectacularly won. The hegemony of the sort of anarchist history which simply sidelines mutualism has largely broken down, and the strong arguments in its defense—anarchist history of the Black Flame school, for example—can’t simply rely on general agreement. The work to restore Proudhon to his place in the anarchist canon is well underway, and a wide range of more-or-less mutualist figures now enjoy at least a certain amount of name recognition. Ben Godwin’s mutualist banner, featuring Proudhon, Ezra Heywood, William B. Greene, Jeanne Deroin, Dyer D. Lum, Herman Kuehn, Alfred B. Westrup, Clarence Swartz and Sidney H. Morse, has become a sort of stock visual representation of the school—and if anarchists are still hazy about what some of those folks actually accomplished, we’ve still come a long way from where we were even a few years ago. Iain McKay and Crispin Sartwell have done their share in exposing wider audiences to key figures, and Charles Johnson, Roderick Long, and others—some of them some distance outside the traditional limits of the anarchist movement—have done important work, broadening and enriching that canon. I like to think I’ve done a little myself, with my archiving, translating and publishing endeavors, as well as in the various attempts at interpretation and extension of mutualist theory that I’ve engaged in.

But one of the problems with the contemporary mutualisms or neo-mutualisms has been the fact that they have necessarily had one foot in a still-obscure past and one in some boldly projected future. We ended up with a variety of rather unlike things bearing the same “mutualist” label because the burial of the original mutualisms had been fairly complete. As a result, we uncovered the mutualist tradition in roughly reverse historical order. First came the Tuckerite footnote, then the adaptation by Greene, and only later any real engagement with the philosophy and social science of Proudhon, his contemporaries or his predecessors. All of the modern confusions of Carsonian vs. neo-Proudhonian vs. proto-communist mutualism have quite naturally been the result—and all sorts of more-or-less organization tensions have naturally followed from them.

That—from my perspective, at least—is how the costs of this whole “mutualist” thing have come to soar well above the level of its benefits.

But there is another problem with the mutualist renaissance, which we might call a sort of “retrospective” character. While I think all the active currents of new mutualist thought present at least pieces of a fairly powerful strategy for moving forward—and indeed share a great deal in those terms—it is almost inescapable that a revived mutualism would be seen, and to some degree see itself, in terms of an anarchist history which, if it has significantly relaxed its strictures against mutualism, still treats mutualism as a particular school, with a particular, largely preliminary role to play in the development of anarchism. Subsequent developments in the tradition have established what is important about mutualism in terms of their disagreements and differences, and it has been the hardest of tasks to simply present the philosophies of the early-to-mid 19th century on their own terms and in their own vocabulary. (Think, for example, of the critiques which claim that Proudhon abandoned anarchism by “abandoning” an anarchist anti-statism which arguably wasn’t even a thing for another decade or two.) We’re encouraged to think of mutualism as what is left of anarchism when all the cool, revolutionary stuff has been claimed by other traditions, when it might make as much sense to say what mutualism was before we chopped it up, parceled it out, and did our level best to govern it. I’m perfectly happy to take things that far, but even if we didn’t, there are lots of questions we might raise about whether our present tendency to define anarchistic schools according to the institutions and conventions they privilege or prohibit is faithful to the original vision of anarchist anti-authoritarianism that we all ultimately inherited. And then there are simply practical concerns that arise when we allow a contemporary political philosophy to be defined by the 19th century approximations that its historical proponents themselves understood as experimental and “approximate.” There are lots of useful things that might be said about “mutual banking,” Josiah Warren’s “time store” or particular formulations of “occupancy and use” property norms, but they aren’t, alas, the things that there has been much opportunity to say in the usual debates.

One of the results of the deeper and deeper delving into the history of mutualism has been a steady chipping away at most of the accepted wisdom about the tradition, and the neo-mutualists that have attempted to delve and build at the same time have naturally created difficulties for themselves. Our story, once freed from the dismissive narratives of mutualism’s would-be gravediggers and successors, leads off in dozens of interesting directions, many of them unexpected, and we find “mutualism” dissolving off into a lot of different stories, some of which (like the role of women in early mutualist associations) those intent on dismissing mutualism might not be so pleased—or at least consistent—to silence. But mutualism does indeed dissolve in those expanding histories—at least to a very great extent—and we are left with something more general, and potentially more interesting: an anarchism that looks more than just a bit different from our own.

I have often talked about the necessity, in the work on property, of solving the problem of our basic opposition to property by confronting it seriously and pushing through. That has ultimately been my experience with mutualism as well. It has been necessary to take it on, and take it very seriously, in order to push through and see what sort of anarchism might be hidden on the other side. The realization that I might be most of the way through mutualism has been dawning on me as I have begun work on Two-Gun Mutualism: Rearmed, increasingly conscious that the very last thing I’m interested in doing is establishing yet another anarchistic “school” or identity, another way of disciplining the tradition. That way, it seems to me, lies the same old shit, the very stuff that often makes me ready to discard anarchism altogether.

But there is this body of accumulated work, much of which seems useful or even important, all laid out in the book outline, and no shortage of loose ends hanging here on the blog, so what does a shift away from mutualism mean for ongoing projects?

My hope is to proceed so that none of the really good stuff gets abandoned, but everything that does get pursued gets a more useful treatment than I can be certain of giving it in the context of a more-or-less partisan mutualist work of theory or history. And I think that moving away from the specific mutualist context will remove some obstacles to making sense of my work, which, after all, has come to cover a lot of territory that is not “mutualist” by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the fun of organizing the book has been precisely the partisan nature of it, the audacious project of retelling early anarchist history in a way which ought to have repercussions for the way we think of anarchist history in general—the “Proudhon’s revenge” element. But arguably all of that sort of fun will be clearer—and stripped of at least some partisan silliness—if it is a question simply of reexamining anarchist history, without the mutualist lens. There is more than enough of interest in all the variations of what we might call “pre-classical” anarchism and the lingering influence of the “utopian” predecessors, without making a mutualist history, and there are a variety of elements that it will be easier to represent fairly, on their own terms, if there is no partisan lens at all.

Historical objectivity being out of the question, of course, my current plan for a reorganized TGM: Rearmed is attempt as much as possible to rely on that other anarchism which seems to be lurking in our anarchist past as the lens. Of course, anarchism has been what it has been and will be whatever we make of it, and to avoid as much as possible the “true anarchism” debates, I’m inclined to steal a word from Claude Pelletier and call the lens-anarchism “atercracy,” and treat the unabashedly revisionist history as a sort of alternate timeline, a series of historically grounded speculations on what might have been, in the interest of carving out another usable historical account from the same material as the one that a resurgent mutualism has struggled against. If I do the sort of minimal reorganization I’m currently envisioning, the first volume will be rechristened something like The Spirit of ’58, and focus on the story I’ve already begun telling in piecemeal fashion, from Etienne de la Boetie to the Paris Commune, with Proudhon and Déjacque situated at center stage, emphasizing the constructive side of anarchism. And then the second volume, Dancing with St. Ravachol, can address the more strictly negative side of anarchism, reaching back to at least Déjacque and Coeurderoy and forward into at least the 20th century. In the process of telling the story—and its various might-have-beens—the bits of TGM: Rearmed that at least some people are anticipating—the material on the “gift-economy of property” and “Proudhon for lovers”—will undoubtedly find their place, or be published separately.

Ultimately, and other concerns aside, the shift in focus will probably give me a better platform from which to spin off various other bits of radical history, like the oft-delayed Rogues radical biography project and some introductory author anthologies. The Mutualist will be a casualty of the adjustment, but I expect will receive the same sort of intermittent development that it has in the past.

I’m sure there will be lots of complications and concerns to deal with as I extricate myself from a familiar context and set out on a somewhat new course, but I’ve reached a point where I don’t see—for myself—any way forward which does not involve a broadening of context.

I’ll post links to whatever follow-up sites emerge, and to the Travels in the Libertarian Labyrinth volumes as they are completed. Beyond that, things will probably wind down here pretty quickly. Thanks to those who have followed along.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.