“We are in one sense, a poverty-stricken people”

If you look at the sidebar of the blog, you will find that I have added a section for “Mutualist Classics.” Eventually, there should be a pretty good little library linked there—mutualists are not, as it turns out, an impoverished people when it comes to literature—but I want to start with a few texts that may be unfamiliar to many readers, but which strike me as particularly useful.

The first two texts I’ve linked are short works of fiction by Sidney H. Morse. Morse is one of the figures who seems to appear everywhere in the story of mutualist and individualist anarchism in the United States, without having drawn much attention. He was a poet, a scultor, a writer of fiction and literary criticism, a friend of Walt Whitman, and something of a mover and shaker in American transcendentalist and free-religionist circles. He was also a friend of Josiah Warren, one of his executors, and arguably his most persuasive disciple. Like a number of his contempories, Morse contributed to Benjamin R. Tucker’s magazines until he ended up on the wrong side of a conflict with Tucker. But until that parting of the ways, he was a regular contributor to The Radical Review and Liberty, and his novelette “Liberty and Wealth” was serialized in the latter in 1884.

Liberty and Wealth” is in the form of a utopian fiction, set in what appears to be an alternate version of the Owenite community of “New Harmony,” where the guiding theoretical light turned out to have been a barely disguised Josiah Warren (“Joseph Warden”) imbued with the real Warren’s philosophy of “individual sovereignty” and “cost the limit of price,” but with Morse’s own rather laid-back style. I often point those interested in the practical application of Warren’s philosophy to Morse’s narrative (and to “Ethics of Homestead Strike,” which covers complementary ground) because one of the most difficult aspects of applying individualist philosophies is often the extreme individuality of their authors. When you have witnessed two committed individualists applying the same philosophy, it is arguably many, many times easier to apply it yourself. Principles emerge from amongst the personal peculiarities in application.

But there is another reason that I like to point people to “Liberty and Wealth.” Mutualists are often taken to task for, on the one hand, not being clearly opposed to a number of practices and institutions that most social anarchists have written off as necessarily oppressive, and, on the other, for not embracing any of the sets of natural rights, natural laws, non-aggression principles, a priori property norms, or other sorts of “anarchist common law” that have a lot of currency among “market anarchists,” and various near- or would-be anarchists more or less on “the right.” Folks on various sides look at our emphasis on “reciprocity” and things like a robust Golden Rule—and are frequently quite free with their disappointment in our lack and hard lines and firm rules….

Now, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the feelings of disappointment, and I’m entirely sympathetic to the serious concerns about practical realities that tend to drive them. The chore that mutualists have set themselves, of building robust institutions from just a principle or two, plus a lot of experimentation, certainly has its potential pitfalls. But there’s no escaping that all forms of mutualism—whether we’re talking about faithful extrapolation from Proudhonian principles or a more free-form “free-market anti-capitalism”—have tended to emphasize progressive self-organization in the midst of flexible conventions. We’ll have to return more than once to the specific consequences of mutualism being a principle-driven movement, with a sense of norms and institutions as necessarily imperfect and evolving “approximations,” but, as a start, perhaps we can’t do much better than to take part of the fictional journey through Morse’s New Harmony, and let him show us at least one way in which an approach like that might manifest itself.

“The old man paused for a moment A smile of satisfaction played across his face as he glanced in the direction of the city.
“‘You will pardon me,’ he resumed, ‘if for a moment I indulge a feeling of pride. Never can I recur to the dawn of our long, bright day but the joy of that awakening moment thrills me again: rejuvenates me, so that I almost long for the divine elixir that I may become young, and live my life over again. It is so great and satisfying a pleasure to have lived and been associated with the greatest achievement the world has known. My dear sir, what can be nobler, what aim higher than that which seeks to place the whole human family on a pedestal of power, with mutual respect, a common prosperity, and liberty—that inspiration of all achievement that is great and glorious in human existence—assured to all, even the humblest!
“‘But, enough of this! Let me stick to my story.
“‘I said we were prosperously situated for the winter. Indeed, we had enough and to spare. But we were not idle. We all agreed it was best to put in at least four hours each day at what we might call work. The rest of the time we devoted to study, to pleasure, each, in fact, following his or her own inclination. One day I said to my wife: “Is it now Paradise?”
“‘“No,” she replied, “Paradise ought to mean something possible for all the world. We get along so well because we are all so well acquainted, and have passed through a common experience. Our trials have united us as one family. But let Tom, Dick, and Harry—I mean the good, bad, and indifferent of all the world—come here, and I fear the whole of us would be by the ears again.”
“‘Something like this had been the thought running through my own mind. So I said to others, as I met them: “Isn’t it about time to consider ourselves and our prospects a little further?” But it seemed to be the general opinion that we better let well enough alone. “Do the thing next needed,” said the same man who had given us the suggestion that saved us the spring before, “and don’t look ahead too far.”
“‘But it happened not long after that the thing next needed was to settle the very question wife and I had pondered. A party of twenty strangers came in upon us, and wanted to settle and live in New Harmony. We had done no advertising; no reporter had been to see us; but these people had heard of us, and came one thousand miles on faith. They wanted to see our constitution. They asked about our principles, our politics, and our religion.
“‘I ought to confess that our happy family was thrown at once into a state of excitement. The old Adam cropped out in a number of ways. The croakers began. Evil days were before us; let them go by themselves, and form a community of their own, some said. This, however, was contrary to all our better instincts, and low prudence and caution soon gave way to a determination to solve the problem of expansion then and there. We needed a spokesman. All eyes turned to Joseph Warden. “Do the thing next needed, Joseph,” I exclaimed. He invited the new comers to join us all in our public reading room. He took a seat, and we gathered about him: For a little time we sat in silence. Then Warden asked the visitors to state their purpose in coming. One of their number replied that they had understood that New Harmony was a place where the people had all things in common. It was Scripture doctrine, and they were Christians. They wanted to join a society in which private property was unknown.
“‘At this point Warden smiled and said: “Then you have made a mistake in coming here, for we have somehow felt from the beginning that private individual property was a real and a sacred thing. I don’t know that any of us ever said so before in so many words. The question has never arisen.”
“The man replied that he was somewhat astonished, in fact, much astonished, at such a declaration. But he would like to be instructed in regard to New Harmony and its institutions. He felt strongly that there must be some kind of a Providence in the journey of himself and friends. Perhaps their coming was not a mistake. If they knew just what the people of New Harmony did propose, what they believed in, they could judge the better.
“‘Wife whispered to me: “He’s the man to frame constitutions, and so on.”
“‘I smiled. Warden caught my eye, and looked himself much amused.
“‘“Well,” he said, the smile still lingering in the corners of his mouth, “we are in one sense, my friend, a poverty-stricken people. We haven’t any institutions to speak of. All we can boast are certain outgrowths of our needs, which, for the most part, have taken care of themselves. We have, perhaps, an unwritten law, or general understanding, though no one to my knowledge has tried to state it. We all seem to know it when we meet it, and, as yet, have had no dispute about it. It may be said in a general way, however, as a matter of observation, that we are believers in liberty, in justice, in equality, in fraternity, in peace, progress, and in a state of happiness here on earth for one and all. What we mean by all this defines itself as we go along. It is a practical, working belief, we have. When we find an idea won’t work, we don’t decide against it; we let it rest; perhaps, later on, it will work all right. I don’t know as there is much more to say.”
“‘The man was evidently disappointed. Warden’s talk seemed trivial to him. It gave him the impression, he said, that the people had not taken hold of the great problem of life in a serious and scientific manner.
“‘Warden replied that, if the gentleman would define what he meant by the terms serious and scientific, they would be better able to determine the matter. If he meant by serious anything sorrowful or agonizing, they would plead guilty; in that sense, they were not serious. If their life was declared not scientific in the sense that it was not cut and dried, planned, laid out in iron grooves, put into constitutions, established in set forms and ceremonies, he was right. They had neither seriousness nor science after those patterns. “But we have,” he said, “a stability of purpose born of our mutual attractions and necessities, and a scientific adjustment, we think, of all our difficulties as well as of our varied enterprises. Always respecting each other’s individuality, we apply common sense to every situation, so far as we are able.”
“‘The man responded that they were not there to question the earnestness of purpose or the practical intelligence of the citizens of New Harmony. Far otherwise. And yet, it did seem to him, so novel was their plan of organization, that it was little more than a rope of sand. There seemed to be nothing binding or stable in its character. In that respect he must say they were disappointed. But for one he should be very glad to dwell in New Harmony for a season, at least. He turned abruptly to his companions and said: “All who are with me in this, please raise your right hands.” Every hand went up.
“‘Warden smiled, and said he hoped their stay would be a common benefit.
“‘There being no public house in the place, they had been entertained at private residences since their arrival.
“‘It was the Rev. Mr. Sangerfield who had been put forward as their speaker. He was a large man with an iron cast of countenance, and spoke with great moderation and precision. Somehow we none of us quite fancied him, but then, he was in the world, as my wife said, and it was our business to be able to live on peaceable terms with all sorts of people. We couldn’t expect our seclusion to be forever respected.
“‘The reverend gentleman consulted awhile with the others, and then rose and said that he had a few questions to ask by way of information. In the first place, as they proposed to settle, for one year at least, he would like to inquire as to tenements. He had noticed several unoccupied houses; were they for rent? That was the first time the word had been used in our midst. It created quite a sensation. In fact, we all laughed. Sangerfield looked embarrassed, but Warden explained that the idea of rent was new to them. The parties who built the unoccupied houses had gone, and anybody was free to occupy them. It would be only right, though, to keep them in repair, and leave them in good condition.
“‘Sangerfield said he should suppose that property left in that way would be appropriated by the town, become public property. That was the usual custom.
“‘Warden replied with a smile that the usual custom had seldom been adopted in such matters at New Harmony. There was no public property.
“‘“Indeed!” Sangerfield exclaimed. “Whose property is this building we are in? Is it not the property of the town?”
“‘He was informed that it belonged to one Simeon Larger.
“‘“Oh! you rent it of him?” said Sangerfield.
“‘“No, not exactly;” said Warden. “He is paid for the wear and tear of the building, and for his trouble in taking care of it.”
“‘“Who pays him,” Sangerfield asked, “if not the public? How do you raise the money? Impose a tax?”
“‘“We tax ourselves voluntarily. There is no trouble in that respect. Everyone is free to contribute according to his or her means. It is one of the points we think we have scored in behalf of Liberty. And here let me say that all property in New Harmony is private property. Everything has an individual owner, and is under individual management. Everything represents so much labor. We know just what it has cost, and if the individual parts with it in any way, he is recompensed according to his sacrifice. He receives either so much other property, or a labor-note secured by property that has so much labor-value, or a note promising so much labor.”’”