The Character and Scope of the Mutualist Market

A Short History of Mutualism:
  • Mutualism (The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism)
Scattered Reflections on Mutualism as “Market Anarchism:”
Historical Mutualist Texts and Proposals:

One of the traditional elements of mutualism that seems to endure is the attraction of what we lovingly call “money crankery.” I’m not sure that there has been a modern currency scheme proposed in the last ten years that hasn’t been proposed to mutualists as the new “mutual banking.” Most recently, of course, it has been the Bitcoin enthusiasts promoting their pet project to mutualists, and they’ve been surprised, I think, to find some of us rather indifferent to its charms. That indifference probably needs some explanation, and the explanation takes us back to the question of in what sense mutualism is “market anarchism” and then on to the question of just what sort of market we expect to see in a mutualist society.

Do we need a new “mutual banking”? Traditionally, some form of proposal for a cheap circulating medium has been fairly close to the core of mutualism’s practical proposals, whether it was Proudhon’s Bank of the People, William B. Greene Mutual Bank, or one of the dozens of adaptations and variations on the land bank model of the 17th and 18th centuries. There is a useful argument to be had about whether or not the mutual banking propaganda went on for longer than that particular proposal was really the most appropriate option, but there is no doubt that there was a long historical moment in which the means of monetizing real property and/or products of labor does seem to have addressed a real need among those further marginalized within capitalist societies by limited access to currency. The question then becomes whether or not we’re still in such a moment, and, if not, what present needs might be met by alternative currencies. Once that question is answered, we can then turn to the specific alternatives to see what meets the specific needs.

There are unlikely to be one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, just as there wasn’t a single appropriate proposal in the mid-19th century. Greene’s bank looked different from Proudhon’s because Greene’s parishioners in rural Massachusetts differed in specific circumstances from the workers in Paris. In general, the mutualist strategy has been to attempt to find the solutions to currency shortage among the resources already available to the individuals in need. That’s why it has been extremely useful to understand the details of various proposals, but it is dangerous to assume that we could just apply them, either as transitional forms or in some genuinely mutualist society. The likely lack of generally applicable solutions has meant that it has been necessary to speculate in some depth about a variety of scenarios. For example, I’ve probably spent more time than is entirely sensible working through the circumstances under which a traditional mutual bank, on Greene’s model, could be consistent with occupancy and use property norms, with the primary goal of understanding to what extent the various traditional pieces of the mutualist apparatus would reinforce or balance one another. One of the difficulties in thinking in terms of “guarantism” is that there are always a lot of local factors to be considered, so it’s difficult to move beyond speculation about general tendencies. Still, if that’s what we’ve got to work with, then we have to do the work, and there are certainly kinds of analysis that we can do which will simplify our overall picture of things.

One important bit of analysis is to ask ourselves what will be “on the market” in a given society, assuming a given set of property and exchange norms. For example, the more strictly we apply “occupancy and use” to real property, the less we can expect real property transactions to take place in a market setting. As a result, the media of exchange in circulation will be more difficult to secure with real-property collateral, but they will also not be called upon to serve in real property transactions to the same degree. If we lift all or most of the real estate out of the mutualist market, then there are fairly obvious changes in what the currency will be required to do. The long-term “hardness” of the currency becomes less of a concern if some large percentage of our long-term purchases are no longer a factor.

Let’s say that instead—or in addition—we find that a rejection of the capitalist droit d’aubaine (right of escheat) wipes out a good deal of trade that is simply speculation. (Perhaps the most constant target of the traditional mutualist literature is not usury, but agiotage or stockjobbing.)

Then let’s consider the possibility that, once we start asking ourselves questions about the role of collective force in capitalist economies, we might start to attempt to provide public goods more directly from the collective share of the products of our labors.

Now imagine a much more decentralized economy, where our choice of circulating medium (among other things) is determined by local needs first, not by whether or not it is convenient for some multinational big-box operation. Decentralized, bottom-up currency design will create its own set of challenges and incentives, of course, and we’ll have to explore those, but the first thing to recognize is that once we start adding together these various potential changes in our economic systems “the market” is likely to look very different than what we experience now.

If we try to pin down the exact nature of the differences, we probably have to acknowledge that the lack of one-size-fits-all solutions is going to confront us again and again. But the main thing I want to suggest here is that talk about “the character and scope of the mutualist market” is useful and almost certainly necessary if we are to move forward.

We can probably draw some general conclusions about what these possible changes in the scope of the market might do to its character. For example, the more than our market interactions are focused on relatively small, daily wants and needs, the more the character of our currency is going to be determined by its role as a circulating medium, rather than as a stable store of value. Now, if we go beyond the currency questions and pick up other threads from our ongoing analysis, we might begin to suspect that mutualist economics involves a general shift from a focus on accumulation to one on circulation. Recall Proudhon’s criticism of saving:

The proprietor who consumes annihilates the products: it is far worse when he decides to save. The things that he has put aside pass into another world; they are never seen again, not even the caput mortuum [worthless remains], the manure. If there were means to journey to the moon, and the proprietors took a fancy to carry their savings there, after a while our whole terraqueous globe would be transported to its satellite.

Even if we extend the range of proprietors by equalizing property holdings in some way, so that it is not a question of one class moving all the earth’s resources out of circulation to maintain their power over another, we might still end up with a situation where a relatively just distribution of property had the same general effect. We are arguably in a period where our technologically-amplified ability to “mix” with the world around us means that even occupancy-and-use appropriation by everyone on the planet, each seeking to simply cushion themselves against the sorts of complications anyone might reasonably anticipate, threatens to have enormous ecological impacts—enormous enough impacts that perhaps some analogy with dragging those resources off to the moon is not so outlandish, at least as far as the damage to natural systems is concerned. And we have to be concerned, I think, about natural systems. This is, perhaps, another form of laissez faire, laissez passez that we need to observe if we are to avoid serious consequences, among them the impossibility of just property, and that is an acknowledgement that the world works, and in many ways work on our behalf, even, and often particularly, when it is not brought into the realm of property. In talking about Locke and his provisos, I proposed a reading of the “enough and as good” proviso that suggested that justly appropriable property might exist as a result of the self-renewing nature of natural systems—that is was, to pick up Pierre Leroux’s language, because of the ecological circulus that we could have a “good draught” of water and yet leave “a whole river of the same water.” X-(nonzero)G=X. We might include a range of other concerns here as well, such as Proudhon’s suggestion that the only certainty is justice, and that justice is only served by encountering each other as at least potentially an equal. But, at the very least, let’s acknowledge that another economic world is possible, in which the solution to the possibility of future shortages and difficulties is not stockpiling (individual or communal) but a constant attention to the suppleness of our distribution networks—networks we are constantly building and rebuilding with an eye to routing around obstacles. Such an economic world would naturally approach many familiar questions rather differently.

In my off-and-on work on The Distributive Passions, my “Fourierist speculative fiction, with a mutualist message,” one of the things I’ve been most interested in exploring is the range of possible alternatives to capitalist markets. My notes are full of odd possibilities, like Fourierist heretics who decide that currencies can and perhaps should have the same variety as just about everything else in Harmony and set out to prove it, or descriptions of cash-registers and money-belts in economies that embrace the full range of multiple currency systems. Often, I’ve been interested in understanding how apparently small deviations from capitalist norms might shift things dramatically. In thinking, for example, about an alternate Portland, it has been useful to extrapolate from a kind of stereotype, common when I returned here, of Portlanders as absorbed with bands and “projects,” all employed as part-time baristas, selling coffee to each other. There is still a sort of vague sense that Portland is particularly friendly to small business, despite years of development in other directions. (The Galleria, former showcase for the high end of the boutique economy, is now largely a big-box store…) It’s not too hard to imagine that the gentrifying development and the remaining, often flighty infatuation with the small and unusual might find themselves well and truly at odds at some point and the world of food carts, community gardens, reuse artists, etc. might have to really make a go of it on its own. Something I’ve been exploring in my notebooks is the possibility that it might do just that without losing a lot of its arty, green, “project”-heavy, microbrew-and-foodcart-centric character. The result is sort of an unholy mixture of small-scale consumerism and austere anti-capitalism, micro-boutiques and Food Not Bombs, but it strikes me that Portland is one of those places that might actually foster an economy that could pretty much run on slacker attitude and wooden nickles, doing a lot of not-very-precise trading during the week and working out the kinks in a potlatch on the weekend.

Stepping back from such an extreme example, I’ll say again that what I think is important at this stage of our thinking about mutualism, and about anarchist economics in general, is to consider the ways in which the various elements of our present economies do and do not depend on each other, and do or do not reinforce one another. When we take capitalism or “the market” as a particular set of necessarily connected norms and institutions, our economic choices no doubt seem simpler, but our chances of enjoying any alternative arguably look fairly distant. But perhaps fairly significant changes in our economic relations are possible by paying attention to what specific elements can be shifted, and what leverage that might give us. I’ve suggested that there has been at least one major revolution in the understanding of justly acquired property, as the rejection of Locke’s provisos transformed an understanding of property as fundamentally non-rivalrous to one that insists on its rivalrous character. I’ve also suggested a fundamental tension between property and capitalism. I suspect these issues are only the tip of the iceberg, and that another important set of potential transformations relate precisely to the question of the character and scope of “the market” in various settings.

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