Mutualism is not a specific social, political or economic system. Mutualism as such is simply the assertion that every meaningfully social relation will have the form, at base, of an anarchic encounter between unique individuals—free absolutes—no matter what layers of convention we pile on it. To the extent that our conventions, institutions and norms respect that basic premise, we can call them “mutualist.” To the extent that we commit ourselves to viewing our relations through this lens, and exert ourselves in the extension of mutualistic freedom, we can call ourselves “mutualists.”
Unsurprisingly, I suppose, it has proved a bit dense for many readers not already familiar with the sort of analysis I’ve been doing there. But let’s unpack it a bit.
I understand mutualism—at its core, and apart from the character of our particular present approximations—as an ethical philosophy. We have mutuality or reciprocity—the Golden Rule, more or less—and then we have a series of applications of that principle.
Now, there are a lot of interpretations of the Golden Rule—”do unto others as you would have others do unto you”—which hardly limp out of the starting gate before it’s clear they won’t be much use in application. Naturally, those are not the formulations I’m talking about. I don’t want you to treat me as if I was you, simply imposing your preferences on me, any more than you want me to treat you as if you were me. To do so would simply be to deny the individuality of the other. Nor do either of us ultimately want to establish a principle which denies our own individuality—do unto others as they want you to do—in the expectation that we’ll be on the receiving end of this principled self-denial at some point. In either case, our individuality is sacrificed in half of our relationship with the other.
But if we treat one another as individuals—unique individuals, with all of the emphasis that a Max Stirner might give to that term—then there is no question of sacrifice. The rule is a bit harder to apply, but nobody said this anarchy thing was going to be easy.
As we apply that standard, we want institutions that respect our uniqueness, and if we want to claim the name of “mutualist” as a sort of political identity, then we need to make sure we are walking the walk.