Mutualism Revisited

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Contr’un Revisited: [Commentary coming soon]

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Six months ago, I announced, after a lot of soul-searching, that I was going to abandon “mutualism” as a description of my politics, and opted to scrap the Two-Gun Mutualism: Rearmed book and begin work on a book examining the lessons of Proudhon for the broader anarchist movement. I always knew that it was going to be easier said than done. If the “mutualist” label covers too much ground, and what passes for a “mutualist movement” is too heterodox to move forward together, pursuing a neo-Proudhonian anarchism outside of that particular rhetorical framework was pretty well guaranteed to be very lonely work—not least because I was simultaneously in the midst of discovering that anarchism itself was rather different in its origins than I had previously suspected. What I discovered added a number of strange, new wrinkles to the story of the relationship between Proudhon, mutualism, and “market anarchism,” placing the anarchy of the anarchists and “the anarchy of the market” in much closer proximity than I think almost any of us would have anticipated—and at the same time seeming to draw a much firmer line between them than Proudhon’s rhetoric might otherwise suggest.

That discovery made it possible, even necessary, to approach anarchy, and anarchism, with the same mixture of critical and constructive tools that I had been applying to concepts like “the State,” and prompted some adjustments in the ongoing project of coming to grips with the general dynamic of anarchism. This is interesting territory, in part because an encounter with anarchism is something that would have been impossible for Proudhon. Many, if not most of the arguments dismissing “old stuff” and “dead philosophers” as useful in the present aren’t very convincing, but here’s a genuine difference: for Proudhon, and for others among the pioneers of anarchism, engagement with the idea had to be an act of creation, experimentation, and communication. There was no anarchist tradition to fall back on, no existing cultural capital to hoard, and no blueprints for “being an anarchist,” beyond a general experimental approach dictated by some initial definitions. If we shift our focus to Joseph Déjacque,—apparent inventor, during Proudhon’s lifetime, of the “you’re not an anarchist, you’re a liberal” response,—the game has changed. Something collective has emerged, and Déjacque has that, as well as Proudhon, to engage with. The change in the game really is significant.

There is a lot that we should examine, eventually, about Déjacque’s two manners of propagating new ideas, and his preference for scandal, in the context of the critical/constructive dichotomy and the watershed that Frédéric Tufferd marked between roughly Proudhonian and Bakuninist forms of social analysis. Certainly, the extent to which social change can be provoked by the work of reason was estimated very differently by Proudhon and Déjacque, and there is now perhaps plenty of evidence that Proudhon was always more “successful” with scandal (“property is theft!”) than we was “injecting truth drop by drop into minds that are already prepared.” But was the “success” of Proudhon’s scandals a success for anarchism? It’s hard to say exactly, since anarchism as we know it emerged in the context of those scandals, and has treasured them, without always understanding very well what more reasonable appeals were behind them. The anarchism that we have individually encountered was born, at least in part, of scandal, and has conserved a strong connection to those origins.

But for now let’s stick closer to the question of what happens when Déjacque responds to Proudhon. One very important thing happens: when Proudhon said “I am an anarchist,” he opened up a realm of positive possibilities; when Déjacque argued that Proudhon was in fact not an anarchist, or not an “entire anarchist,” he opened up a space between Proudhon and anarchism itself, acknowledging, if only tacitly, the emergence of that collective something (movement, tradition, shared ideal) which invariably haunts all of our discussions about anarchism. Déjacque was among the first to encounter anarchism itself, at a stage where it was little more than an idea—when, in reality, it was probably largely a spook—and played an important role in finishing the job that Proudhon had started, of launching this new something into the world. After Déjacque, I would argue, the game changes substantially once again.

None of these operations, however, go off without a hitch. Proudhon sabotaged his own scandals and fell short of his expressed ideals. Déjacque, launching anarchism at the same time he was attempting to correct or govern it, can probably be credited as the inventor of anarchist sectarianism, and of a type of anarchist identity that the tradition has conserved to this day. When we get over our slightly malicious glee at seeing Proudhon taken down a few pegs, there is a lot about Déjacque’s essay on “The Human Being, Male and Female” that might give us pause. Between the notion that Jenny d’Hericourt needed a defender, and the idea that the right way to straighten out Proudhon for his coarse, anti-feminist rants was to call him names and attack his masculinity, there are reasons to think that Déjacque was not himself perhaps an “entire anarchist,” or entire feminist for that matter—but where we come down on those questions will undoubtedly depend on whether we think the likes of Proudhon (whatever we think that means) deserved more than the scandalous treatment.

On that question, I suspect, anarchism itself is likely to be called in as a judge. We, who have inherited the results of more than 150 years of encounters explicitly related to anarchism, generally have a pretty clear sense of what is and is not permissible for “allies” and towards “enemies.” We have conventions based on that long history of internal and external struggle. We can assume, with some confidence, that many of those conventions serve to protect aspects of the anarchist movement that are probably worth protecting. The question, though, is whether the conventions are themselves anarchistic, whether there is any anarchistic rationale for calling on our conventions as a means of judging individual anarchists, etc.

I have a lot of thoughts about these issues, and about the uses and perils of what we might call anarchist identity politics. What seems clear to me at the moment is that there is a tension between the sorts of conventional ways in which anarchists relate to each other and/or relate to “anarchism” in its various more-or-less collective, persistent senses and the dynamic of the encounter we have borrowed from Proudhon. There are reasons to believe that at least a certain sort of anarchistic encounter is rather far from conventional anarchistic practice, among “allies” and especially with regard to “enemies.” Based on this observation, it seems to me that there is probably at least some utility in pursuing an analysis of how we think about “being an anarchist” and how that structures our relations, using the tools that Proudhon has provided us. Those unconvinced about the analytic apparatus can judge the study by its consequences. Those already convinced of its consistency with anarchist principles are faced with more immediate concerns, but perhaps also provided with at least some of the means of dealing with them.

There is just a bit more to say about the potentially absolutist concepts and institutions which may work against the interest of individual anarchists in pursuit of the anarchistic ideal—the constructive side of the question, by which we potentially bring back in, in variously modified forms, some of the same potential obstacles we just dismissed. Since we have raised the stakes considerably now, by including various manifestations of anarchy and anarchism among the elements potentially in need of reform, I think it makes sense to sketch out that side of things before we go too much farther into what is necessarily a difficult exploration. First, however, an aside and a much-delayed return to the question of “mutualism:”


 Back in the early 1990s, in my brief career as an internet sociologist, I wrote a series of papers examining the popular but hotly contested notion of “virtual community.” At the time, of course, I wasn’t using the Proudhonian toolkit, but more and more I find that some of the questions I was pursuing then are connected to issues I am wrestling with now. The collective actors of the present analysis are not, I think, so different in some ways from virtual communities. But as I was working through the arguments in this post and the previous one, beginning to chart the process by which perhaps anarchists began to encounter, and identify with, anarchism as such as much as other anarchists, I was reminded of my days on the edges of the “cyberpunk movement,” and some observations I made about the dynamics of that subculture when it felt itself under attack. As a sort of long footnote to this post, allow me to suggest the paper that resulted: “Running Down the Meme: Cyberpunk, alt.cyberpunk, and the Panic of ’93.” I will undoubtedly come back to it down the road.


That leaves the issue of “mutualism.” In our present vocabulary, the problem with mutualism has been that the collective something—or, more accurately, somethings—represented by the word seemed to be working, as such things “work,” at cross-purposes with the project in which I found myself engaged, and perhaps with all such projects, despite the solid grounding of that project in the mutualism of Proudhon. It made sense to withdraw participation, to the extent that this was possible, in this particular association. Given the way that our debates within anarchism tend to focus so strongly on questions of identity and identification, it still makes sense to me. But, were those conditions different, or should they differ in the future, there would be good reason, I think, to reinstall the notion of mutualism right at the heart of the sort of anarchistic project I’m pursuing. However, in keeping with the approach to social study that we’re borrowing from Proudhon, one difference would be necessary: rather than identifying a political identity, an allegiance to an ideological current or a movement—rather than referring to any sort of essence—we should keep our eyes on relations, under which circumstances “mutualism” might very aptly describe the dynamic we find within the anarchic encounter, where the whole mechanism of justice is composed of the agents involved in an act of social creation, without the mediation of outside authority. There would be no sense in calling ourselves “mutualists,” though perhaps we could in some transitory sense prove ourselves such in the act, because this mutualism is nothing but the basic dynamic of this very demanding conception of anarchism. Whether there would be any point, or any justice, in calling ourselves “anarchists”—whether there is any point and any justice in that, according to the standards we are applying here—is a question that we’ll probably have to wrestle with quite a bit more.


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