Mutualism: the Anarchism of Approximations — II

Contr’un Revisited: Sometimes it’s the little things in these old posts that reminds me just how far I’ve traveled, even if  I’ve ended up somewhere relatively close to where I started.

For example, I had a vague memory that “The Lesson of the Pear-Growers’ Series” had not originally appeared on this blog, but had completely forgotten about On ALLiance, the short-lived blog dedicated specifically to exploring theory suitable for the multi-tendency Alliance of the Libertarian Left. In hindsight, I guess that the handful of posts that appeared there were an early attempt at what I’ve been calling a “shareable narrative” regarding anarchism. But my context at the time was very different and much narrower than it was at the time this was written. This is me at a time when I could still embrace the label “market anarchism,” despite reservations, and was only on internet-adversary terms with most of the post-leftists. How times have changed…

Then there is the realization that “Proudhon is not driven by his vocabulary,” long before I had discovered the problem of “anarchy in all its senses,” but also my anachronistic and confusing use of the term anarchism, which Proudhon did not use, in place of anarchy. I am very, very careful about that sort of thing now, but that’s the result of lessons I had yet to learn.

This was, of course, a project that was never finished. Another installment appeared on September 11, 2009, with a revised set of theses:

  • Mutualism is approximate.
  • Mutualism values justice, in the form of reciprocity.
  • Mutualism is dialectical. (Or “trialectical.” Or serial.)
  • Mutualism is individualism and socialism—or it is neither.
  • Mutualism recognizes positive power.
  • Mutualism is progressive and conservative.
  • Mutualism is market anarchism.

But that’s as far as things ever went.

Perhaps it’s time to remedy that—with the appropriate updates and amendments.

I had thought, in the first installment of this series, and in the draft I circulated to a few friends, that I was going rather too gently. Some feathers still got ruffled. It turns out that, in some circles on the left, or post-left, it still seems necessary to protect the movement from “petit-bourgeois anarchism.” The new Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, for example, is about capitalism and anarchist business, and includes a piece by Lawrence Jarach (who, come to think of it, is probably my main critic over at which endorses Marx’s scurrilous attack on Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy as a “correct analysis,” and treats us to the following: “The petit bourgeois is stereotypically small-minded, parochial, conformist, acquisitive, stingy, and easily swayed by demagoguery.” Apparently, Jarach thinks this is a stereotype anarchists should embrace.

I wish we could, as a movement, at least set some standards for loose talk about Proudhon. It would be nice, for instance, if those who blithely repeated slogans like “property is theft,” or “property is an instrument of justice,” could refer intelligently to something Proudhon wrote about “property” after 1840. The first volume of The System of Economic Contradictions is available online in English. Reading all the way to the end of What Is Property? should actually prepare anyone to understand that Proudhon’s thought will not be reducible to slogans. (Check out the material on the “third form of society, the synthesis of communism and property, [that Proudhon] will call liberty.”) But the System is key to understanding Proudhon’s mature thought, including the more formal statements about mutualism. Without it, it’s pretty hard to understand why Proudhon continues to believe all the nasty things he’s said about “property,” (though he changes the way he says them a bit) but also and nevertheless, in his antinomian way, embraces property completely. Part of the answer is, of course, that Proudhon is not driven by his vocabulary, in the way that we seem to be. He’s as good a critic of fixed ideas as “spooks” as Stirner, and a much better one than most modern Stirnerites. I know that some folks simply refuse to consider the late Proudhon an anarchist. This neutralization of forces and institutions does not seem radical enough. I want to come back to this question, and to some of the issues raised by Aragorn and Andrew Robinson in that new issue of AJODA, more seriously in a continuation of my “Responses.” For now, though, I would like to ask my serious readers for a certain amount of patience. Proudhon’s own claims about his “anarchism” [actually anarchy] remained pretty consistent: he repeatedly stated his preference for an “approximation of an-archism an-archy,” and he considered “full-blown” anarchism anarchy an abstraction. Was he fooling himself, or trying to fool others? Is his position one we can still embrace as meaningfully “anarchist”? I think those are questions for which there are not simple answers floating around, at least in English-speaking anarchist circles. The more complex answers will take time to formulate. Proudhon was always pleading for patience and counseling against hasty decisions. To understand him, and the political philosophy he inspired, it might make sense to work at something like his own pace. YMMV.

Coming back more directly to the examination of mutualism, I want to tackle the philosophical core of the philosophy. Again, let me emphasize the approximate, experimental, perhaps even tendentious nature of these summary statements. And then let’s wade in.

Mutualism: The Anarchism of Approximations — II

Philosophical Observations

Consider the following set of statements as tentative and overlapping, subject to elaboration (which I’ll start today), expansions, 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 recognizes positive power, and looks for liberty in the counterpoise of powers, not in power’s abolition.
  • Mutualism is revolutionary, in Proudhon’s sense. It is both progressive and conservative.
  • Mutualism’s notion of progress is not an acceptance of any fatality or inevitability.
  • Mutualism is individualism
  • Mutualism is socialism
  • Mutualism is market anarchism
  • Mutualism is ???


— 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. One of these was “the approximation of an-archy.” Others included approximations of “non-religion or non-mysticism,” and of equality in faculties, fortunes, taxation, and property, to be pursued by education, division of labor, and commercial and industrial freedom. The seventh is progress, the “indefinite” pursuit of ever-new and higher approximations.

Mutualism is unafraid of the very active pursuit of practical approximates. It is experimental. If it has at times made excessive claims for its own schemes—and it certainly has—it can at least be held accountable for that failing. Meanwhile, arguments that “true anarchy is impossible,” or even the recognition that property is “impossible” (in some absolute sense) shouldn’t leave the mutualist sobbing in the corner. 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.”

— Mutualism values justice, in the form of reciprocity, perhaps even over liberty. Liberty, raised to an absolute value, may be just as harmful as any other absolute. Equal liberty, or liberty combined with order, is the goal.

Critics, particularly of the anti-market variety, seem to want to reduce “reciprocity” to an accounting function. It’s more appropriate to think of the Golden Rule. For Proudhon, in any event, questions of value and accounting were, at their best, rather mobile. (The French word means much the same thing as the English word. In the passage from the System which critics still insist on using to tie Proudhon to some naive form of labor-time valuation, it has been translated as “inconstant.”) We can be certain that consistent mutualists will inevitably search for this very social ideal of justice by subjective, individual means, and that they will recognize that others must also approach it in this way.

[This is the key value, I think, and so I present it here, now, only in its most cursory form. I promise to return to it once some other issues are on the table.]

— Mutualism is dialectical. (Or “trialectical.” Or serial.) It works within the realm of antinomies, attempting to unravel the sense of existing contradictions. It is not afraid of courting logical contradiction, if the analysis of existing social relations draws it into those spaces.

Starting even before the publication of his System of Economic Contradictions, Proudhon sensed that the road to a free society would pass through some rather labyrinthine spaces, for instance, that freedom might be “the synthesis of communism and property.”[1] Freedom through the balancing of forces was a commonplace in among reformers of the early 19th century. The Mutualist of 1826, for example, spoke of combination and competition as “the two great balances of labor.” William B. Greene, following Pierre Leroux, proposed a triad or trinity of forces—communism, capitalism, and socialism. “All these systems limit, modify and correct each other; and it is in their union and harmony that the truth is to be found.” [2] The Brook farm colonists, a number of whom play supporting roles in the story of mutualism, traded one scheme of the harmonizing of forces for another, as they changed their allegiance from Swedenborg to Fourier. [3] Among modern mutualists, Kevin Carson is perhaps the best known, and he is best known for his attempt to work in the space between classical socialist economics and the work of the Austrian school.

Mutualism is not “anarchism without adjectives,” which seeks to downplay differences among radical libertarians, for the purposes of movement-building. It is a specific philosophy which has sought the signposts to a free society in those places where conflict was most intractable. As such, it may tend towards intolerance of what it perceives as one-sidedness or unwillingness to engage with other positions, and it may be unreasonably tolerant of tendencies better left to their own devices. (This is not to say that, as a strategy, anarchism without adjectives is not compatible with mutualism. I’ve tried to suggest something along these lines recently on the On ALLiance blog.)

Proudhon, after the gaffe of attempting to paint Louis Napoleon’s coup as part of the advance of “The Revolution,” acknowledged that the dialectical method poses particular problems for the active radical—not least among them knowing at what point to finally stop, to decide, to take a position, to act. Recent thinkers have described similar dilemmas associated with the careful consideration of extremely complex problems. Jacques Derrida poses the problem as one of “two speeds” of thought required by our most important considerations. We feel a duty to think matters all the way through, and a constant concern with not taking the time required. And, in fact, for most real problems in the modern world, we could never take all the time required, even if there were no urgency. But there is always urgency. The most serious concerns are the ones we should have addressed yesterday. Both demands on us are real. Ultimately, we have to assume personal responsibility for how we respond to them.

[1] What Is Property?, p. 281.
[2] “Communism—Capitalism—Socialism,” Equality, 1849.
[3] Swedenborg claimed that human freedom emerged from the balance of the influence of Heaven and Hell.

[to be continued. . .]

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


  1. Funny that you mentioned Marx’s diatribe against Proudhon. Before starting work on “An Anarchist FAQ” I generally took the “Marx refuted Proudhon” line and Proudhon was petit-bourgeois sort of thing.

    But then I read some of his work, and well, he is much more complex than that. What is Property? is an absolute classic which defined pretty much the evolution of socialist thought (including Marx).

    Then I moved onto System of economic contradictions, fearing the worse. And, again, the richness of the ideas really is amazing. Marx’s attack does not do it justice at all.

    The General Idea of the Revolution is also essential reading and contains many key ideas which other anarchists have developed.

    So, basically, anyone who says that Marx’s attacks on Proudhon or Stirner say it all are, of course, wrong. Like his attacks on Bakunin, they are not 100% reliable — something Marxists never think of.

    He was, after all, trying to make his ideas the dominant ones and so did what he had to to refute his rivals. He made some good points on the way, but you really need to read who he attacking to see if a specific attack is valid or not.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. “even the recognition that property is “impossible” (in some absolute sense)”

    Property, too, is an approximation.

    Essentially it can be defined as the ‘authority’ to say how something may be used (with occupancy, or even walking upon, as a form of use). As such I think it is in some ways better to think of it, not as an absolute thing, but a matter of degree, or one of a set of multiple consanguineous attributes. E.g. if you are in jail, your toothbrush, in one aspect is your property, in another is that of the gaoler.

    Treating it as a single attribute seems to lead people to get rather hung up on the property issue and make rather absolutist pronouncements as to how it should be treated. ALL should be owned in common, ALL should be private… which isn’t really helpful, as they are talking about a fictional entity, not what is really there.

    Growing up on a hill-sheep farm in Scotland, surrounded by the fallen ruins of villages emptied in the Clearances, is an object lesson that you don’t own land–but merely make some use of it for your fourscore and ten. It is also the property of those who come after.

    (In Soviet^w Highland Scotland you don’t own land. Land owns you 😀 )

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