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.