Note on Mutualism and the Market-Form

There is no doubt in my mind that mutualism has as much to offer in the ongoing conversation about establishing meaningfully anarchistic economic relations as any anarchist tendency, whether it is based in the plumbline anti-monopolism of Benjamin R. Tucker or the anti-absolutist social science of Proudhon. The part of our project that does indeed involve a kind of “market anarchism” seems bound to continue to play an important role among those not absolutely wedded to market abolitionism, if only because it is informed by a willingness—rare in anarchist circles—to address all the various possible arrangements of norms and institutions that might answer to the name of “market.”

That said, it’s hard to treat the conflation of mutualism with “market anarchism” as anything other than an unfortunately result of a complicated history—and in large part the result of a kind of systematic gaslighting by ideological rivals.

This is a story that I’ve told before, but I’m sticking to it. In order for anarchist communism, a relative latecomer among anarchist tendencies, to present itself as anarchism, it was necessary for the prior forms of anarchist thought to be repositioned in the story anarchist told themselves about their tradition. Mutualism, which had been anarchism before the name, became non-communist anarchism, while collectivism became not-quite-communist anarchism. It was a fairly successful displacement. Anarchism without adjectives emerged almost immediately, of course, and was followed by a steady stream of proposals for synthesis, symbiosis, tolerance, entente, etc., but those reconciliations were almost exclusively associated with future development, while mutualism still struggles in some ways with its relegation to the past.

It would be nice if anarchists of other tendencies learned this particular lesson of our history, but that’s not the main reason I’m inclined to keep telling it. I’m a lot more concerned with the narrowing effect that has had on mutualism. As good as mutualists have become at explaining the differences between “markets” and capitalism, injecting sense into the endless debates about broad categories of value-theory, etc., we’ve inherited a body of thought that perhaps ought to focus us on a more general sort of critique.

That’s one of the reasons that I’ve been attracted to what I’ve called a “general theory of archy,” tried to generalize the critiques of capitalism and governmentalism in an analysis of escheat, and based the opposition between archic and anarchic social relations on the presence or absence of the polity-form. We too—like the marxists, but perhaps in a more general way—want to alter basic modes of social production, because that really is the sort of change that is worth calling revolutionary.

I think that one of the lessons of applying ourselves to the details of potential anarchist economies has been to show, in quite a variety of ways, that what will make or break systems of exploitation is not the value theory we espouse or the forms of circulating media that we do or do not make use of, but instead whether we leave in place any of the apparatus that makes capital accumulation such an integral part of the present system. And if I am anywhere near correct that it is various forms of something like escheat that connects the various kinds of exploitation that we currently experience, then I am probably not too far wrong in thinking that the entire abandonment of the polity-form is the key to shifting from archic to anarchic forms of social organization.

That, it seems to me, is the one fundamentally anarchistic task we face and, if we manage to accomplish it, many of the challenges to follow are really just technical questions, to be answered experimentally as we try to best match our available resources with our needs and desires. At that point, we can settle back into a kind of economic analysis that we’ve learned to approach with a mix of skill and pleasure. But, at that point, I expect that the market-form itself will have diminished considerably in its specific importance, losing much of the ideological significance that it clearly now bears. We’ll be able to engage with it in all its variety, specifically as a class of economic arrangements.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2690 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.