Thoughts on a Mutualist Minimum

Thoughts on a Mutualist Minimum

Fragments from a Facebook forum

[These remarks, written several years ago, was originally archived in a section of the Labyrinth that no longer exists, but since the question of UBI seems to have become much more common than when I initially made these comments, it seems worth re-archiving them here.]


Let me be more explicit: A certain minimum level of food, shelter, clothing and fun is going to be deemed “essential” by just about everyone, and at the subsistence-level there will probably even be some rough consensus on more or less what that consists of. Nobody wants to just survive, even if the bar is set relatively high, but if one of our social tasks is to guarantee survival, it shouldn’t be all that hard to accomplish. For active workers, subsistence ought to be covered by the plain wage from some fairly small amount of labor in the appropriate industries — and it isn’t going to make much difference if we pay a wage for such labor and then charge the workers for the goods at cost-price or if we credit workers for labor towards the social minimum and make the “essentials” free — as long, at least, as we don’t end up in a situation where (as a result of too many non-producers or inefficient production) those workers find themselves facing some form of exploitation again. If every able worker contributed to associated production in industries producing staple goods, then wages would be easy to dispense with in those industries — no matter what we did in the rest of the society. And the only chore would be to see to it that those associated industries produced sufficient social product to provide for those unable to participate in the labor. But if we end up with workers specialized in staple industries, and other workers laboring entirely in industries which are presumably useful to some segment of the society, but which do not have the same character of being “essential,” then we need some mechanism for facilitating exchange between workers in the two different sorts of industries, and some means of allowing workers in the “non-essential” industries to provide their share of the subsistence for those who cannot work. A mutual currency, cost-price exchange, and a system of monetary compensation for labor will do those things. So, presumably, will other systems, but I’ll leave it to their advocates to explain how.

There is no escaping the fact that some labor contributes more directly to the general priorities of a society than other forms of labor, and that labor does not contribute equally. There is also no escaping resource-scarcity, a problem which our growing understanding of ecological science only makes more and more pressing. “Competition” factors into the discussion in a wide variety of ways.

At the point of resource-use or -appropriation, individuals are potentially in competition with one another, and are also in competition with natural systems. Clarified property theory would certainly help to establish conventions for non-exclusive, sustainable use, and also help to establish norms of accountability. And whatever mechanisms we can establish to see to it that sustainable resource use is itself sustained and encouraged in our free societies are certainly going to be good in terms of general welfare. If that means a bit more “stuff” (or status, or…) for an individual, while everyone else gets a more sustainable biosphere, that may not be such a bad trade-off.

Similarly, in the production of staple goods and services, basic mechanisms for exploring multiple models of production and provision will allow for the “competitive” search for better methods and the “competitive” provision of alternatives to better suit individual tastes (which naturally vary even at the most basic levels of consumption.) Because provision of these basics is the foundation for the society, all this experimentation will naturally be undertaken with a bit more gravity than might be the norm in less essential areas of production. Above all, the focus in these industries is likely to be the maximization of social profit, which means the more effective provision of potentially greater “essentials,” with the possibility of increasing leisure or opportunities for other sorts of labor among the laborers in these staple industries.

And then in the rest of the economy, where it is a question of harmonizing individuals’ productive and consumptive desires with one another, and within the limitations imposed by the natural and social environments, the same conditions will apply — and the objections to currency-based exchange will be considerably less convincing. Indeed, that harmonizing of productive and consumptive desires very simply is a market, though certainly not a capitalist market, which always sacrifices social harmony to the logics of the “right of increase.”

Unless we can somehow overcome some very basic issues of scarcity and sustainability, then we need mechanisms that keep issues of cost, benefit, responsibility, risk, etc., very much on the table. Non-capitalist market models have the potential to do this both elegantly and by decentralized means. And the thing blocking our way to implementing those models most decisively is that we have taken the capitalists’ word for it that the way markets work under capitalism is “the way markets work.” Arguably, capitalism harnesses a disseminative model that is actually very foreign to its key emphasis on the concentration of power through capital — and one means of pushing back at the “common sense” of capitalism is to emphasize just how foreign much of the logics of markets is to the main emphases of the capitalist system.


Virtually all efficient, associated production (so anything cooperative, taking advantage of cooperation of specialties, economies of scale, etc.) covers costs, including the subsistence of the workers, and provides some surplus which results from what Proudhon called the “collective force” (all that cooperative stuff.) In a capitalist society, wages are pushed towards the barest subsistence and prices for the goods produced are pushed towards all the market will bear. The laborer is then compensated for their individual labor, at the lowest level they will tolerate, and as a consumer is asked to buy their products (or equivalents) back at a higher price (and indeed the highest price that everyone in the distribution chain can get away with.) And capitalists along the way more or less successfully pocket the equivalents of both the collective force/surplus value and whatever other profits local supply/demand ratios will allow.

But in a non-capitalist system, we would start by not stripping the workers of the fruits of their collective work. With no capitalists demanding to be enriched on the basis of a “right of increase,” the social fruits of production could be disposed of socially, ideally both through enriching the lives of the workers and by contributing to the system of guarantees.

If we were plowing even a fraction of what is absorbed by the real parasites in our present system back into the care of those unable to work, we would be well on our way to our “social minimum.” And the potential is much greater than that, particularly with an emphasis on cost-price exchange, which reduces inefficiencies in the market (assuming margins aren’t cut *too* close) and socializes much of the profit. Social profit-seeking is obviously going to produce rather different results.


How will those things happen in *any* society?

If it is understood that “profit” is a social thing, then it’s just a question of local mechanisms. Make “disposition of social product/profits” a customary part of the business of commerce, and let people vie to feed the hungry more sumptuously and efficiently. In a libertarian socialist community of any sort, the preservation of liberty and justice will be constant concerns — and it will either be understood that we all pitch in to preserve those values or we won’t have a libertarian socialist society anymore.

It is actually the case, even in capitalist society, that small producers and traders are not driven by the urge to maximize profits in every individual transaction. Competition and the profit motive are always more complicated than that. There is arguably quite a bit of potlatch still at work even under contemporary capitalism, and part of our challenge is to bring those aspect “forward in the mix,” so to speak. There is also sort of a consensus among modern mutualists that a big part of the next phase of market relations is a fairly radical shift away from large and centralized models, towards micro- and nano-enterprise, and if that is the case there will be strong structural incentives to make solidarity a key part of our thinking about market organization. Capitalism has conducted such a scorched earth campaign on large parts of its own apparatus that nothing short of socialism is likely to work as a viable alternative.


As I explicitly said, “equal exchange” is *conventional.* Values are individual, and to a great extent incommensurable, so “equal exchange” is really just another part of the mutualist ethic of reciprocity. The mutualist “system” consists of little more than allowing individuals to interact according to their own values, with some institutions governing “property” and the like which limit the sorts of invasions that might otherwise be taken as “rights” or “liberties.”

What — apart from some concern that it might not work, which ought to be a concern about any system — is objectionable about that?