Mutualism and “Market Anarchism”


Let’s tackle a controversial question: Is mutualism a form of “market anarchism”?

It’s a useful sort of question, even though the correct answer is probably “that depends….” Since mutualism has its roots in a world where the distinctions that make a label like “market anarchism” useful simply didn’t exist, distinctions which may themselves run counter to the “classical” mutualist project, it’s tempting to say “no.” But since we’re in the process of rediscovering and reimaging mutualism in a world where the question of “markets” is of real importance, we have to resist the temptation.

For those mutualists who have rallied to the banner of “free-market anti-capitalism,” and for whom mutualism is perhaps first a kind of middle ground in a highly polarized anarchist/libertarian milieu, the “market anarchist” label has been a natural. Taking cues from the individualist anarchism of folks like Benjamin R. Tucker, and emphasizing monopolistic control of key economic resources and relations as the primary thing to be overcome, it’s an easy step from talk (in Proudhon, for example) about dissolving the whole political realm into the economic, to making “the market” the centerpiece of your vision of a free society. And there is no denying the absolutely critical work that has been done by anti-capitalist market anarchists to highlight the differences between “capitalism” (whether in its actually existing, historical form, or in the proposed, purer forms which still seem to depend on some form of privilege) and “commerce.” It’s also the case that some of the resistance to “market” relations in anarchism is a bit wrong-headed, based on the same historical narratives that tend to treat mutualism either as a sort of “infantile disorder,” in which markets appear as evidence that it remains “a little bit capitalist,” or to attempt to draw firm distinctions between mutualism, understood as a form of “social anarchism,” and the more recent forms of market-friendly liberty movements. If we want to argue about what forms of anarchism can claim to have been in at the beginning, it’s hard to exclude someone like Anselme Bellegarrigue, who, after all, characterized “The Revolution” as “purely and simply a matter of business.” His “first anarchist manifesto,” from the first issue of Anarchy: A Journal of Order, is generally accepted as an important early anarchist statement.

But there are perhaps some good reasons, bridging classical and contemporary concerns, for refusing the “market anarchist” label. Let me suggest three:

  1. Arguably, the analysis of markets that begins with the recognition that not all commerce is reducible to “capitalism” does not stop there. When we begin to really analyze the key concepts associated with markets—in order to separate what pertains to the capitalist “right of increase” and what does not—we find ourselves faced with not just varieties of “markets,” but varieties of “profit,” “competition,” etc. As we incorporate the work of synthesizing classical political economy with elements of Austrian economics, which has been pioneered by Kevin Carson and others, and rediscover the ways in which figures like Josiah Warren and Proudhon already incorporated a great deal of pretty sophisticated subjective valuation in their theories, it probably isn’t particularly useful to either cling to, or reject, “markets” or “the market” in a lump. So we might reject the label “market anarchist” in order to leave ourselves a free field to accept or reject market arrangements on a much more specific basis.
  2. It is also the case that saddling ourselves with the “market” label puts a special emphasis somewhere other than on the element that mutualists have traditionally considered the one really vital aspect of their approach: mutuality. While he was very critical at times of both the “communism” and the “economics” of his time, Proudhon was advocating something which “synthesized” elements of both, and the heart of his critique seems to have echoed the account of “individualism” and “socialism” given by Pierre Leroux. Like Leroux, Proudhon saw a need to balance extreme tendencies—to, in essence, establish a sort of reciprocity or mutuality between extremes—in order to avoid a constant oscillation between propertarian and communist poles in social relations. And the key to establishing that balance—the principle without which the best laid plans of reformers and revolutionists were perhaps doomed to come to naught, or even end in some opposite state—was a conscious application of the principle of mutuality. That’s the ground on which our we’ll build a successful, practical mutualism—and it makes sense to avoid anything that encourages us, or those around us, to imagine some other mechanism or principle is our real focus.
  3. The third reason to take a step back from “markets” is one that we could easily apply to all institutions, even to those, like the “mutual bank,” which have been our signature projects. There are, after all, important senses in which mutualism is still a bit suspended between its two eras of influence, and important aspects of the classical mutualist project that we have yet to really drag into the present in any very useful form. One very important aspect of that project which we have so far just begun to wrestle with is Proudhon’s theories of “collective force” and of the collective nature of individuality, a body of theory with implications for any mutualist theory of rights, but also for the mutualist analysis of institutions. Other schools of market anarchism have a variety of understandings of how markets functions as emergent orders, and sometimes as virtual, collective agents. Proudhon gives us another toolkit to explore these questions, and to shed a different sort of light on that analysis I was talking about back in the first point. There are also some general questions about the relationship between circulation—certainly a market characteristic—and concentration (as in property, capitalist accumulation, etc.) that are at least hinted at in Proudhon’s work, which may give us some tools for orienting a modern mutualism within an anarchist movement arguably torn in multiple directions by our failure to clarify the nature of that relationship.
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.