Mutualism is Approximate (from LeftLiberty 2)

Mutualism: The Anarchism of Approximations
[continued from Part II]

  • Mutualism is approximate.
  • Mutualism values justice, in the form of reciprocity.
  • Mutualism is dialectical. (Or “trialectical.” Or serial.)
  • Mutualism is individualism and socialism—or it is neither.
  • Mutualism recognizes positive power.
  • Mutualism is progressive and conservative.
  • Mutualism is market anarchism.


Philosophical Observations (continued)

Mutualism is approximate. It rejects absolutism, fundamentalism, and the promotion of supposedly foolproof blueprints for society. What it seeks to approximate, however, is the fullest sort of human freedom.

In The Theory of Property, Proudhon claimed that “humanity proceeds by approximation,” and proceeded to list seven “approximations” that he considered key:

1st. The approximation of the equality of faculties through education, the division of labor, and the development of aptitudes;

2nd. The approximation of the equality of fortunes through industrial and commercial freedom.

3rd. The approximation of the equality of taxes;

4th. The approximation of the equality of property;

5th. The approximation of an-archy;

6th. The approximation of non-religion, or non-mysticism;

7th. Indefinite progress in the science, law, liberty, honor, justice.

This “indefinite” progress “is proof,” he said:

…that fate does not govern society; that geometry and arithmetic proportions do not regulate its movements, as in minerology or chemistry; that there is a life, a soul, a liberty which escapes from the precise, fixed measures governing matter. Materialism, in that which touches society, is absurd.

Thus, on this great question, our critique remains at base the same, and our conclusions are always the same: we want equality, more and more fully approximated, of conditions and fortunes, as we want, more and more, the equalization of responsibilities.

Here is the first of mutualism’s basic principles.

I imagine I can hear the murmurs already. This sounds like “settling for less,” and perhaps less than anarchism. It’s too uncertain for much of the natural rights crowd, and probably comes off as downright defeatist to the revolutionaries. But Proudhon was, of course, a partisan of “the Revolution,” as he understood it, every bit as much as he was engaged in the project of grounding right in a scientific understanding of the individual and society. And he was the inheritor of notions that were both anti-utopian and perfectionist. While he rejected the “patent office” schemes of the Fourierist phalanx and of Leroux’s “ternary order,” he embraced the portions of Fourier’s passional analysis and Leroux’s “doctrine of Humanity” which emphasized a constant, restless, progressive movement—the work, as he put it, of “a life, a soul, a liberty which escapes….” So Proudhon declared that he wanted “equality,” but also—and this is at least as important—that he wanted “more and more.”

Following that lead—or, if you prefer, following the “blazing star” of William B. Greene—mutualism is unafraid of the very active pursuit of practical approximates. It is experimental. If it has at times made excessive claims for its particular schemes—and it certainly has—it can at least be held accountable for that failing. Meanwhile, arguments that “true anarchy,” “property,” or the conditions under which an individual could safely say “I am just,” are “impossible” (in some absolute sense) shouldn’t leave the mutualist sobbing in the corner. If we can’t reach perfection at a leap, even if we can’t ultimately reach it at all we can always at least try to take another step forward—and then another step forward, always—and this is the point at which people begin to work things out, as best they can under the circumstances, with the understanding that that current “best” is a step towards the next best, and so on, “indefinitely.”

The acknowledgment that progress is a matter of approximation—or the corollary acknowledgment that “there are degrees in everything,” including justice and right—does not lend itself to an “ah well, anything goes” sort of attitude. Indeed, the best-developed aspect of mutualist philosophy has probably been its analysis of how progress is, in general, not made. In that same passage from The Theory of Property, Proudhon continued:

We reject, along with governmentalism, communism in all its forms; we want the definition of official functions and individual functions; of public services and of free services.

Notice that in this case “communism” is not—or rather is not solely—an approach to property. Like Josiah Warren, Proudhon seems to have intended by the term a subordination of individual concerns to the collective, but the thing that seems most objectionable about “communism” in this context is that it leaves important things undefined. Proudhon wanted “definition.” And it’s a thing that any good experimentalist should want—and mutualism is nothing if not essentially experimental. To move on—and on—we need to know what we’ve got going, what we are involved with and connected to, and we need to know all of that in fairly fine detail, and then we need to rearrange things according to out best understanding of the context and the tools at hand. We need to put our understanding of our condition and our options to the test. And then we need to do it again, because we have inevitably left something—more likely someone—out of our calculations. I know… “Calculation” is one of those words likely to press some buttons. But the social problem posed by “calculation” is really most serious where the calculators and experimenters fail to carry the costs of their own experiments. Indeed, developing an ethic for mutualist experiment is undoubtedly one of those experimental processes that we will have to take very seriously—and it is there that the history of mutualist experiment may really serve us best.

I don’t know if a Warrenite, or Andrusian, labor-dollar is going to be of particular use to contemporary mutualism. And I suspect that mutualists pursued the mutual bank much longer than that pursuit made much sense. But I suspect that the story of Josiah Warren’s various experiments—of their successes and failures, and of the specific ways that their pursuit developed according to the circumstances—is probably still a gold mine. Similarly, I think the history of land-banks, mutual banks, banks of the people, etc., and of the propaganda in support of them, still has practical secrets to offer up to our continued exploration.

Our best tools will probably be a grasp of these specific experimental histories, and a general concern with avoiding what Proudhon called simplism. Indeed, that second concern may be the real heart of mutualist method. Approximation is incompletion in the sense of being “not there yet, but on the road,” but simplism is incompletion as a failure to even get a proper start. Proudhon seems to have borrowed the term from Fourier, and a Fourierist, Hippolyte Renaud, defined it in these terms:

One of the inherent characteristics of Civilization is simplism. Simplism is the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that the real progress is null or negative.

It should come as no surprise that mutualism, a political philosophy rooted in reciprocity and balance, would find one-sidedness to be a problem. And all of Proudhon’s various philosophical stages—from the early emphasis on synthesis, to the final emphasis on antinomies that “do not resolve”—involved a concern that social problems be addressed from multiple perspectives. For example, Proudhon changed his mind about the precise problem with the various existing understandings of “property,” but he seems to have consistently consider simplism a part of the problem. In The Theory of Property—in the passage immediately following the one on “definition”—he wrote:

There is only one thing new for us in our thesis: it is that that same property, the contradictory and abusive principle of which has raised our disapproval, we today accept entirely, along with its equally contradictory qualification: Dominium est just utendi et abutendi re suâ, quatenus juris ratio patur. We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes—one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensive, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.

Let’s be clear about Proudhon’s final approach to “property:” alone it was “unpardonably reprehensible,” and it would be the same if it operated alongside some alternative or alternatives. It appears as a tool for justice and right only when it enters into a dynamic relation with other principles which would be equally objectionable if alone or acting in parallel. In terms of methodology, the dynamic relation only appears when Proudhon begins to complicate his analysis of property—adding an analysis of “aims” to his analysis of philosophical justifications, and in that adding an analysis of the workings of “collective reason” to his individual analyses.

Proudhon barely began that expanded analysis. “Property” itself never really appears as anything but a simplist, or one-sided, concept. Its incorporation in a non-simplist property-state antinomy is some sort of advance—perhaps a necessary step towards something more useful—but inevitably one which tends to focus us on one part of a complex problem, to the exclusion of other parts. If we take that approach, then we have the option of attempting to focus on some higher-order concept, such as social justice or mutuality, which incorporates property as one of its aspects, or of attempting to rethink property in some other way. Proudhon attempted the first approach, with somewhat mixed results, but he explicitly suggested the possibility of the second. In the “New Approximation” which begins in this issue, I’m pursuing the other course, starting to address individual property in its “collective” aspects, in order to avoid some confusions that seem “built in” with Proudhon’s approach.

In this way, breaking with the founders is an act of fidelity to the tradition. We don’t encounter the originators of the mutualist tradition as masters, but as fellows, and the task put to us is to do the next thing, and advance the tradition in ways which respond at once to the general spirit of the thing we have inherited and to the specific conditions we face. What part or parts of the current mutualist movement will contribute most significantly to increasing liberty and clarifying the task for those who undertake the next set of approximations, is something that we can’t know until we put them to the test.

[to be continued in Issue Three…]
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.