Notes on Mutualism and the Problem(?) of Exchange

There is a criticism that mutualists frequently hear from communists—and we might say it dates back to the 1850s and Joseph Déjacque—that mutualism makes no fundamental break with capitalism because, among the various economic arrangements open to mutualists, we find some that involve some kind of exchange. In a social media discussion this week, the accusation took the form of a claim that “still inherently capitalist.” When it became clear that the would-be critic didn’t know much about any of the varieties of mutualism, the further claim was made that there was, in fact, no need to know anything about the details, as long as “exchange” was among the possibilities.

The notes collected here are drawn from recent responses to those criticisms on social media. I’ve tried to simply select the portions of the response that are of general theoretical interest, clarifying them a bit in the process.

Mutualist production has been described as “production for exchange,” as opposed to “production for use,” but it isn’t clear if this is a useful label.

There is a real distinction between “production for use” and “production for profit,” but it appears to be a dubious conflation to treat “production for exchange” as synonymous with either. It seems like an obvious confusion to suppose that the mere existence of some form of exchange means that the purpose of production is exchange—and to further assume that the mere existence of exchange makes profit the purpose of exchange is doubly doubtful. Exchange functions as mechanism under capitalism, but not as a purpose. Capitalist “production for exchange” is actually “production for exchange-in-the-service-of-profit.” So the question is whether the intermediate mechanism can be put to other uses. Can we, for example, make sense of a “production for exchange-in-the-service-of-use”?

Then there is the claim is that mutualism is “still inherently capitalist.”

If this claim was true, I would expect to see a number of specific capitalist norms and institutions present in mutualist proposal: strong, exclusive, individual property conventions; weak controls on the original appropriation of natural resources; mechanisms for the exploitation of labor; a theory of “productive” capital; tendencies toward, and rewards for, the concentration of capital; a notion of “profit” that is primarily individual in focus, etc.

But when we turn to mutualist proposals we find roughly opposite elements. The property conventions are recognized as just that. There are no strong private property rights. Occupancy-and-use is a minimum condition of the fragile, conventional and very social ownership that is proposed. The question of “rights” to appropriation is jettisoned along with the rest of the rights-talk. Proudhon’s theory of collective force (the basis of his original arguments against property) is a fine tool for thinking about ecosystemic impacts and sustainability—and, as such, poses potentially overwhelming obstacles to even weak individual property rights under present conditions. And that theory needs no updates to be a powerful critique of exploitation—particularly as it joins the critiques of capitalism and governmentalism in a single anarchistic critique of what we might call the authoritarian mode of the production of society. Mutualists have no use for the myth of productive capital. The tendency of mutualist economics is toward the circulation of resources, and against the accumulation of capital. Even the most individualistic forms of what is now called mutualism (Warren’s equitable commerce, for example) depended on an understandings= of “profit” that was really social in character, while the Tuckerites rejected profit and the Proudhonians don’t have much room for any very strict individualism anywhere in their approach.

It would, of course, be possible to go on, but these are some fairly fundamental feature of capitalism—none of which would appear to be qualities of mutualism. So if the claim that mutualism is “still inherently capitalist” is to stand, then some other, absolutely fundamental quality of capitalism has to be identified, in order to show that what are otherwise diametrically opposed sorts of economies are “inherently” the same.

An article proposed by the critic as a definitive take-down of mutualism contained the following claim: “Capitalism is in fact not just an exchange economy but an exchange economy where the aim of production is to make a profit.”

If the absolutely fundamental feature of capitalism is the mere fact of exchange, not all the critics of capitalism have recognized it.  The distinction I’ve been proposing—the possibility of “production for exchange-in-the-service-of-[something other than profit]”—seems to be implied in at least one of the critical definitions provided.

The article further assures us that “calculations concerning the production and distribution of wealth will of course still be necessary,” and we have to assume, I think, that the question of possible exploitation will continue to be a live one for workers in anything but a science-fiction scenario. In any event, everyone’s needs with have to be met—not just communicated—under real-world conditions that seem destined to pose some real problems for us, at least in the short term. So equity in resource distribution has to be a concern. Some kind of basic reciprocity will need to be maintained or workers will inevitably come to doubt the justice of the economic arrangements and perhaps look elsewhere. What all that means is that in-kind calculation and the active distribution of resources are going to retain the quality of *exchange* in any but the most favorable circumstances—circumstances where there is simply no incentive to wonder whether one is being exploited.

It’s worth noting, I suppose, that the invention of this particular kind of calculation and distribution do not transform a production-for-use economy into a production-for-calculation or production-for-distribution economy. The intermediate mechanisms, no matter how necessary, do not change the goals of production. And that’s the insight we need to understand how mutualisms decentralized economy remains dominated by a production-for-use ethic. Circulation of resources is not an end in itself. We have to ask why resources are in circulation—and here, the answers aren’t that different in communist and mutualist schemes, even if the language used to describe them is fairly dramatically different.

If we step away from “post-scarcity” scenarios, consider the problems of resource scarcity, concerns about ecological effects and sustainability, the requirements of an efficient reuse economy, etc., the questions we want to ask become more complicated as well. Plenty of mutualists, working from a Proudhonian analysis of collective force in modern, technologically amplified social relations, might well opt for nearly communistic relations in the production of staple goods and basic necessities. But what is optimal for producing needs is certainly not necessarily optimal for addressing more individual desires. What is most efficient for new production is not likely to be most efficient in the reuse sector. Local, material constraints will intervene—perhaps at times virtually dictating communistic relations, while at others essentially precluding them on practical grounds.

Mutualism, particularly in its more tradition forms—and perhaps most particularly in the “neo-Proudhonian” forms now emerging—is a pretty good toolkit for addressing the sort of real-world concerns that take us well beyond one-size-fits-all theorizing, since that optimization is hardly likely to be as uniform as the defenders of capitalist or communist doctrines might like.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2108 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. All very true. I would add that this also fits in with the “self-exploitation” assertion — namely that co-operatives “self-exploit” to survive on the market. Which makes little sense — if having to invest in new machinery rather than more goods is “self-exploitation” then capitalists “self-exploit” when they invest surplus-value into machinery rather than a new yacht. At best, it confuses the pressures associated with market forces with capitalism and uses confusing jargon to point to a real issue.

    I think that part of the problem is that Marx had two definition of capital. One was “self-expanding value” and the other was wage-labour. The former is flawed as it does not look at the social relationships within production. The latter does. The former ends up being unhistoric (capitalism equals exchange, which exists in many systems). The later gets to the uniqueness of capitalism (and shows that artisans and peasants exchanging goods does not equal capitalism). The former also means that exploitation does not occur in production, the later that it does. And Marxists generally move from one to the other in a very ad-hoc basis…

    And, of course, anarchists should not parrot others, particularly when they are confused. I should also note that the former is found in the early Marx, the latter in the later Marx — who repeated Proudhon’s analysis, the one he had earlier mocked:

    Ultimately, the “inherently capitalist” position is – ironically – the same as the propertarian one — exchange equals capitalism. You don’t get far accepting the definitions of your opponents.

    So you are completely correct to suggest “that theory needs no updates to be a powerful critique of exploitation—particularly as it joins the critiques of capitalism and governmentalism in a single anarchistic critique of what we might call the authoritarian mode of the production of society.” A very good way of putting it.

    Ultimately, the critique of mutualism should rest in the consequences of market socialism — as noted above, the pressures of market forces which make people do things they would prefer not to. So, for example, market forces could ensure that we work long and hard to survive on the (non-capitalist) market. This is what I think many mean when they say “self-exploitation” or “inherently capitalist,” however I don’t think we get far using such unclear and confused terminology.

    But, then, I would say that, being a “commie” and all 🙂

    • A couple of thoughts:

      If we’re approaching the question through a Proudhonian lens, so that exploitation arises from particular distributions of the fruits of collective force, we can entertain the possibility of “self-exploitation,” perhaps even outside a capitalist context. And we can even sympathize with some of the critiques of, for example, cooperative firms within a capitalist economy. But that lens—among other considerations—forces us to be a bit careful when we talk about “market forces.” After all, the list of radically different norms and institutions in capitalist and mutualist economies ought to force us to acknowledge the possibility of enormous variety in the character of those “forces.” Material constraints limit our options, and then the strategies we adopt to address those constraints limit them again. But this is as true of non-market economies as it is of market economies.

      I’ve had a few clarifying interactions since the one that inspired this post and one of the things that is clearer as a result is the extent to which a certain kind of communist does not define capitalism in terms of exploitation, but almost solely in terms of alienation. Leaning on post-scarcity scenarios to avoid talking about the possibility of exploitation in price-free economies, the critique simply dismisses all of the differences between capitalism and mutualism, focusing entirely on the fact that any sort of market economy would involve “value” (very broadly defined) and basically asserting that any sort of explicit valuation is alienating. (Non-price valuation under communism is again waved off with post-scarcity assumptions.) Again, I suppose this approach—which is basically just a prescriptive account of “human nature”—is just a reflection of the dominant society, much like the conflation of capitalism and commerce.

      • “but almost solely in terms of alienation…”

        Yes, I’ve seen that as well (although it seems to be rarer than others). In terms of “alienation,” this is related to the market forces argument but much stronger. Ultimately, though, surely any system which involves producing goods for others would count as “alienation” in the sense you do not use the product of your labour? Also, fine, get rid of the market alienation but would not central planning as desired by Marx be alienation of a different kind? One vote in millions over the “agreed” plan, even if your preferred plan gets majority approval?

        (this is assuming such a plan can be produced, of course)

        But I suppose it all depends on the “Communist” in question — Marx’s vision seems incoherent, at best. Also, it is very much sketched — a few sentences in “The Poverty of Philosophy” (based on generalising to millions from a thought experience with two people!), a few sentences here and there.

        My experience is that certain “Communists” just assume away all problems and it is hard to discuss concrete issues and possible problems. Look at the followers of Bordiga, who maintain like their master that any and all forms of workplace autonomy results in markets and so capitalism… I fail to see how that could work as it just be a bureaucratic bog in which nothing is done (no immediate action is possible as autonomy is capitalist!). That was approximated by the Bolsheviks between 1918 and 1920 and it was a disaster (as Emma Goldman recounted, goods were left to rot because the bureaucrats would not move the paper around fast enough — assuming they had the right forms in the first place…).

        Ultimately, use-value is extremely subjective — how can “the plan” really know how to meet specific needs, which are always specific to individual(s) in specific time(s) and place(s). Hence the pressing need for autonomy in decision making and any calculations will result in some needs not being meet… unless we just assume it all away by postulating enough goods lying around for everyone’s needs — which seems both wasteful and unlikely.

        Overall, I think any workable libertarian communism would be more like mutualism than some of us would care to admit. Mutualism without markets, perhaps? Anyway, more likely than us creating the technology of the Culture any times soon 🙂

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