Reconstructing the “Anarchism of Approximations”

The Anarchism of Approximations (2007)

There have been a lot of opportunities recently to think about the last decade or two of mutualist history. Part of what I will have to do, if I follow the plan laid out for What Mutualism Was, is to treat the whole period of mutualist resurgence with a certain amount of critical distance, applying the lessons of mutualism’s long history to a period during which we knew little about the mutualist past and muddled along as best we could. It’s an interesting project, not least because I’m still not quite sure what it is going to leave me in the way of a usable mutualism. But a natural part of it is to go back and make the best of some false starts and unfinished projects.

“The Anarchism of Approximations” was an attempt, a decade ago, to sketch out a synthesis of key elements of various mutualisms. From the beginning, we struggled with the fact that not all of the pieces we had inherited seemed to belong to the same puzzle and there seemed to be some urgency to bring things together, if even we forced the fit a bit here and there. There is a lot about the first two unfinished drafts of this piece that I still like very much. The opening passage, from Sidney H. Morse’s “Liberty and Wealth,” remains my pick for a visualization of mutualist society, one that captures a mutualistic spirit without focusing on particular institutional experiments. But, like any attempt to speak multiple ideological languages at once, the ensemble is a bit of a hodgepodge. Still, when I annotated the sections for the Contr’un Revisited project, I was struck by the possibility of trying to construct a similar sort of statement, based on my present knowledge of mutualism. This new outline is probably more reflective of the last decade’s work on this blog than it is of the more eclectic intellectual environment of ten years ago, but my aim is still to try to paint a rather general picture of a still-developing and self-consciously evolving mutualism.

Time will tell if there is reason or opportunity to flesh out the outline in this form, but certainly this conception of mutualism informs much of the work here and will also inform more general works like Anarchism, Plain and Simple.

Mutualism: The Anarchism of Approximations

“Humanity proceeds by approximations.” — P.-J. Proudhon

In the realm of ideas:

  • Mutualism seeks the entire abandonment of the principle of authority as a social guide and its replacement by the anarchic principle.
  • Mutualism is anarchic anarchism, seeking to apply its anarchic principle even where anarchist ideology seems to have staked out certain eternal verities.
  • Mutualism recognizes the importance of reciprocity, understood as the recognition of interdependence and inevitable conflict, but also as the ideal of balance.
  • Mutualism seeks to apply its analysis at all applicable scales and in all relevant contexts.

In the realm of practice:

  • Mutualism is experimental.
  • Mutualism is progressive, in the sense that it restlessly seeks new applications and better approximations, but also conservative, in the sense that it also seeks mechanisms by which the lessons of experimentation may become part of the shared social landscape.
  • Mutualism is more a method to be applied—and refined along the way—than a proposal for specific institutional measures, because the problems we face do not remain the same and cannot be expected to require the same solutions.
  • As a result, Mutualism is necessarily an “anarchism of approximations.”
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.