The Mutualist’s Dilemma

Contr’un Revisited: This post originally appeared as the introduction to the site. As the text suggests, that project was an attempt to focus on what could be said about mutualism in general, while other blogs pursued lines of inquiry that were different and generally more partisan. Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule, the blog that would become Contr’un, was the most important of those other blogs. There, I was in the midst of a very serious encounter with property theory and just beginning a more serious engagement with Proudhon’s work. The logic of spinning off an introductory blog, as the work on the main blog became increasingly advanced, made a lot of sense at the time. And it was a strategy that I would use again, spinning off other lines of inquiry, like the exploration of “atercracy” and the various alternatives to anarchism as an outcome of the early libertarian movements. However, until some very basic questions about mutualism and its history could be answered, none of the various lines could really develop too far.

The last labors of 2017 provided at least some of those fundamental answers, with the result that “the mutualist’s dilemma” is probably clearer, but certainly no less a dilemma. When we acknowledge the extent to which the history of mutualism was written by divers hands, with essential contributions by friends and foes alike, we’re left with an odd dynamic. What we might think of as the general definition of mutualism, the collection of elements that are shared by the various tendencies that have shared the name, pretty clearly appears as a lowest common denominator, not always sufficient to distinguish mutualism from other tendencies, rather than a description of what is distinctive about any of the mutualist tendencies. The result is that the development and enrichment of any or all of the various mutualist tendencies tends to pull their centers farther and farther from the shared elements. The clearer the various mutualisms become, the harder it is to say just what mutualism is in general.

That obviously has organizational consequences that we can’t ignore.

People frequently tell me that they have trouble understanding what mutualism is, and how it relates to the rest of the anarchist tradition. I can sympathize. Mutualism is, at once, the earliest form of the explicit, continuous anarchist tradition, and one of its newest variations. In between its first flowering and its most recent rediscovery, most of what we think of as the history and development of anarchism has occurred.

To call ourselves “mutualists” in the early 21st century is to take our place in a tradition which reaches back into the mid-19th century, the roots of which are also the roots of the anarchist tradition. But the anarchist tradition has been rather ambivalent and forgetful about its roots, so rather than grounding the modern mutualist somewhere near the heart of the anarchist project, I think many of us feel we’ve climbed out onto a rather slender limb.

In the mutualist revival of the last ten years, mutualists have had to reach back to uncover and explain the original foundations and subsequent development of their traditions, and simultaneously show how this original anarchism responds to contemporary concerns. With the number of active mutualist theorists being small, and their backgrounds diverse, the natural division of that already-complex labor has given rise to at least two divergent trends in the revival.

The first, exemplified by Kevin Carson’s work, is reconstructive, a fairly conscious attempt to stitch back together a number of the narrower tendencies which have formed as anarchism developed. It has naturally become a focus for “big tent” coalitions like the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. Because the historical mutualism which Carson most closely identifies may be best understood as the economic component of Benjamin R. Tucker’s individualist anarchism, with its plumb-line focus on removing key monopolies, this mutualist tendency has emerged as a “free-market anti-capitalism.”

The second tendency looks back to the earliest elements of the mutualist tradition, drawing on the extensive and largely neglected work of Proudhon, but also on influences (from Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux, etc) which Proudhon did not fully integrate into his work, and on the work of a variety of writers from those early days of anarchism. It combines a sort of archaeological process of rediscovering mutualism’s roots with attempts to refine, complete and update its early forms. My own “two-gun mutualism” is an example of this explicitly neo-Proudhonian mutualism.

Both tendencies share the sort of unfinished character you might expect from revivals of long-dormant traditions, which poses problems for us, accustomed as we tend to be to well-established ideologies, amenable to treatment in FAQ form. There is a lot of work to be done—researching, translating, interpreting and updating—before even the most common questions about mutualism can be answered in anything like a definitive form, and before we know if the various revivalist tendencies are destined ultimately to converge or diverge.

To some extent, we can expect the definitive to continue to elude mutualism. Proudhon emphasized the fact that social progress is a matter of experimentation and approximation. While our principles—key among them the ethic of mutuality or reciprocity—may remain fixed, our contexts constantly change, so practical answers to our most frequently answered questions are likely to change as well. Hopefully, we will just get better at applying our principles, and gradually perhaps our questions and concerns will change.

In the meantime, however, there are some things that can be said with some degree of certainty, and some speculations that can be made on the basis of those basic principles. While I pursue more complex, conditional and partisan projects elsewhere, this blog will focus on those bits of truth and certainty that perhaps we can share now. My hope is that it will serve as a useful introduction as well, in the absence of the sort of certainty or presumptive authority of an FAQ.