Mutualism: a philosophy for changing society with a difference – it’s implementable
There are lots of ideas for changing the world – from voting to demonstrations, petitions, lifestyle change, incremental change, revolutionary change, or more of the same, only harder. The problem with many of them is that they are either ineffective or not implementable. Mutualiism is, I believe, an idea that is both implementable and potentially beneficial.
Now, are you sitting down? Mutualism is a flavour of anarchism – mutualist anarchism. Try to banish from your mind any visions of men with beards, masks and bombs with fizzing fuses. Anarchism just means without ‘rulers’ – society is instead organised on a voluntary, co-operative basis. We find ways to network and make decisions democratically and collectively without the need for force. The kinds of decisions that get made amongst groups of friends, in co-operative businesses or in (functional) families.
Trying to differentiate types of anarchism can be a bit like trying to visually follow individual strands of spaghetti on a plate – very tricky. After tugging at lots of spaghetti strands, I suggest that these are the three main threads, from which a multitude of schools of thought emerge:
- mutualist anarchism; follows the philosophy of Proudhon; gradualist rather than revolutionary; involves a free market, with money as a means of exchange, with competition and wages. But – no bosses, no landlords and no shareholders. No making money from anybody else’s work, and no making money from lending money. Private property is fine as long as you live in it or use it for your work (including land).
- collectivist anarchism: follows the philosophy of Bakunin; requires a revolution; involves collectivisation of the means of production (land, industry, buildings, machinery); wages; money but with the same conditions as above.
- communist anarchism: follows the philosophy of Kropotkin; revolution required; no wages; no money; people take from communal stores what they need; from each according to ability, to each according to need.
I’m sure that many anarchists will disagree with this simplistic classification, and indeed, there are many other ways to do it – this is just my interpretation.
I’d describe myself as a mutualist for three main reasons:
- it’s implementable. ‘Solutions’ are no good if they only work in theory – they have to work in the real, messy, unforgiving world.
- I know that mutual systems can work – co-ops, building societies, peer-to-peer, partnerships, open source (even at the scale of Mondragon, the Scott-Bader commonwealth, the John Lewis partnership, the Nationwide or the Co-op), and that they can be successful in the 21st century. I can’t say that about collectivist or communist anarchism – yet.
- it can attract both left and right, which could free us from the pointless left vs right battle that saps our energy and allows the corporate sector to retain power. I can only see hysteria and absolute opposition emerging from the right from any attempt to implement collectivist or communist anarchism in one step from where we are now. I’d go so far as to say that if a strategy is opposed by either left or right, it’s going to fail.
However, I accept that mutualism could be a stepping stone to a moneyless society if that’s what we decide we want – all of us, not just the few who are in control now.
Wikipedia states that anarchism is generally considered a left-wing phenomenon. I don’t disagree that that’s what most people perceive it as, but I don’t agree that it actually is left-wing – not using the criteria for left- and right-wing thought that are used by most people these days. For me, ‘left’ means more state control and ‘right’ means less. As anarchism promotes no state or minimal state, I don’t see how it can possibly be considered ‘left’. And as for mutualist anarchism, the inclusion of competition and a free market in its philosophy seems to put it more towards the right end of the spectrum.
But I don’t think it is a spectrum, I think it’s a circle, and anarchism is the place where the libertarian right and the communist left meet. What’s the point of removing the authority of the state without challenging the power of money (libertarianism), or on the other hand, of removing the power of money without challenging the power of the state (communism)? A step further for each would see them firmly in the realm of anarchism – and all the better for it.
Here’s an infographic on the differences between the main strands of anarchism (leaves out collectivist anarchism, possibly a bit harsh on anarcho-primitivism but spot on about anarcho-capitalism. It’s not anarchism at all – you can corroborate that here, if you have a few thousand hours to spare).
But there are core principles shared by all types of anarchism – co-operation, no hierarchy, no making money from anyone else’s work, no landlordism etc. Here’s more on mutualism from Kevin Carson. I can’t find much there I disagree with – and if your thing is a moneyless society, then we might transition to that later. I can’t honestly see any one-step transition to collectivist or communist anarchism from here – even if we could be sure that they would work. I know that mutualism can work; and we don’t have the luxury of time (see here for why) for an idea that doesn’t have an immediate implementation plan.
Reading Parecon, by Michael Albert (an outline of a communist anarchist society), I was struck by a) how clever Albert is, and b) how extraordinarily difficult it would be to transfer to his ideal, moneyless society.
Alternatively, a mutualist society could involve:
- a steady-state economy.
- a market that’s free in ways that a capitalist market isn’t. Corporations outcompete small companies unfairly because they fund politicians and parties, they run a multi-billion dollar lobby industry, they have multi-billion dollar advertising budgets, they avoid tax, they offer jobs to politicians and they operate sweatshops. That is in no way a free market. Competition within a really free market is seen as a good thing because it engenders pride in work – people generally want to be good at what they do, and useful to their community. OK, maybe competition isn’t the best way for humans to relate to each other, ultimately, and if pushed on this, I agree. I’d just fall back on the previous argument, that mutualism is implementable, and doesn’t have to be the end of history.
- self-employment – and if you want to work with other people, then form or join a partnership, co-op or trust. You can only be a boss to an apprentice, as long as you’re teaching him or her a trade.
- home-ownership – owning your own home is fine, but owning someone else’s isn’t. All forms of co-ownership are, of course, fine. You can own land too – but only as much as you can work. If you can’t work it, co-operatively or alone (but not as anyone’s boss), it’s not yours – it’s wild land or it’s someone else’s to work.
- money – making money from your work is fine, but making money from your money isn’t. There should be a money economy, at least for now, but with no interest. What interest should anyone have in someone else’s work?
I used to think that this kind of society was ‘distributist‘, but it’s not, because (apart from the anti-semitism of some of its main proponents) distributism was about building an economy based on small businesses and family farms, but with no way to stop those small businesses growing into or being bought out by monopoly corporations. Back to the left vs right issue – I had a conversation with our Conservative parliamentary candidate who considered himself to be a distributist, but wondered how to limit the size of small businesses to stop them becoming corporate (yes, really).
To those who don’t believe that mutualism is human nature, I’d refer you to Murray Bookchin’s Ecology of Freedom. Working with palaeoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologists, he shows that pre-agricultural societies were non-hierarchical – people assumed leadership in tasks that they excelled in, such as hunting, cooking, climbing trees for honey etc. – but no-one was in overall control, no-one had a bigger hut than anyone else, and no-one had more possessions than anyone else (crucial really, in largely nomadic societies).
Some people may not want the responsibility of running their own business or being part of a co-operative – they may long for a structured job with a set wage, a boss telling them what to do and no responsibility. But that’s not an argument against mutualism – that’s like saying that some slaves didn’t want the responsibility of being free people. If owning people is wrong, it’s wrong – you can’t ‘volunteer’ to be a slave. When the feudal system had gone, I’m sure that some of the older generation looked back with nostalgia to a time when they were tied to the land of the lord of the manor, rather than having to work for a wage. But when that system had gone, it was gone. That was it, no going back. Now, of course, we see slavery and feudalism as barbaric, oppressive and exploitative. I believe that it’s wrong to make money from other people’s work, and that in time, people will look back on private employment in the same way that we look back on serfdom or slavery. It’s more than just making money from someone else’s work, bad though that is – it’s having the power to make decisions that will hugely affect someone else’s life – whether or not they have a job, for instance. Furthermore, being able to go to a polling station and vote every four or five years (especially if you’re not in a marginal constituency) doesn’t make up for the fact that you have a boss or line manager with authority over you for forty hours per week, virtually every week of your life. That in no way constitutes democracy.
Self-employed people obviously rely on their own hard work and skills, but also, in my experience of co-operatives, peer pressure is usually enough for people to pull their finger out. No-one wants to be seen as a slacker by their peers. And of course you can still be fired by a co-operative if you don’t pull your weight – but the decision will be made by a vote of your peers, rather than people above you in a hierarchy.
If the right are serious about free markets and fair competition then let’s have them. They can’t seriously argue that we have them at the moment. Achieving a mutualist society still seems like a distant dream, but I can envisage it, and we can start to build it straight away – by adopting, using, joining or starting:
- housing co-ops
- worker co-ops
- community energy
- credit unions
- open source
- community-supported agriculture
- intentional communities
- community land trusts
- building societies
- gift economy
- LETS, timebanking and collaborative credit
All the above systems are non-hierarchical, and benefits remain in the local community. But mutualism is definitely NOT the new ‘sharing’ economy, featuring Űber, Airbnb etc. This is nothing to do with real sharing, and huge amounts of money are sucked out of communities all over the world to pay already wealthy shareholders. See here for more on this.
An important point may be to not dwell on the name too much. I’ve had debates with people who lean more towards collectivist or communist anarchism, and some have agreed that trying to convert the mainstream to an idea called communist anarchism wouldn’t be easy, and that to have a successful revolution, having mainstream support is essential. I think that mainstream support is achievable with mutualism. If we step back from any kind of academic discussion, and look at the world from the position of someone in the street, I think the mutualist approach is much more explicable. Allowing competition in a free market chimes with people – it means that people work hard and try to do a good job. People understand the benefits of having a choice of two local bakers (for example) – the one who makes the best bread at the best price will get more customers. People get that. Try to explain collectivist or communist anarchism and I think you’re going to hit the wall pretty quickly. However, I think mutualism could be a stepping stone to a collectivist or communist (moneyless) economy, if that’s what we want, but I don’t see any way of getting there in one step from here. It has to work in the real world, surely, or we’re just talking academically, not practically. And there are already people building a mutualist society. We may as well support them and see what happens. A mutualist society doesn’t have to be the end of history, but it is a step in the right direction.
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1Scott Lot February 22nd, 2016
Thanks for the article – very interesting. The ideas here are certainly appealing, but I wonder how it sits with environmental exploitation – especially on a scale beyond that of the immediate collaborators?
2Dave Darby February 22nd, 2016
Thanks Scott. I think that the real engine of ecological damage is the drive for perpetual growth. This would be removed with the removal of fractional reserve banking, interest on debt and the giant casino at the heart of capitalism – as well as the governments that are constantly pushing for it.
3Paul Jennings February 22nd, 2016
Interesting piece, Dave. Thanks.
My feeling is that mutual aid or mutualism in practice – that is to say, in the world now – is not at all incompatible with being communist anarchist in philosophy. The differences of emphasis between anarchists seem to be important because we have paid so much attention to them, but in fact working in all sorts of ways to undermine hierarchical society and capitalism is a much more important thing we have in common than any of the disagreements we might have about how we would prefer to run our ideal society.
Assuming for a moment that we manage to avoid full-on brown-tech fascism, it seems to me that what will emerge both in the last years of capitalism and in the era which follows it will most likely be a patchwork of new societies all of which will have their roots in our own time. The important thing then, is to survive Capitalism’s collapse, hasten it if we can, and carry the idea of a better society into the future.
So, yes, mutualism should definitely be one of things we do now. Definitely.
4Dave Darby February 22nd, 2016
Exactly. I think it’s been a strength of capitalism that its hierarchy unifies it. Keep your nose clean, make lots of money and you won’t be marginalised. The anti-capitalist world, by its very non-hierarchical nature, splits into innumerable factions, many with very slight differences that some adherents will fight to the death over. If we support mutualist initiatives that are already happening, there’s nothing to stop us discussing ways to transition to a more communal, moneyless system later if that’s what we want to do. Recently debated with a Kropotkinite who would not countenance anything at all to do with a market or competition, and yet that’s what we have now, it’s just that it’s a corporate-dominated, unfree market with unfair competition. Making it freer and fairer seems like a step in the right direction to me.
5Paul Jennings February 22nd, 2016
Right, but here’s the thing: if you’d been talking to him about housing co-ops and workers co-ops and loads of other examples of mutual aid he’d probably have been nodding. Quite understandably, lots of anarchists, myself included, have problems with talk about the market, especially enthusiastic talk about the market. We can be keen for our workers co-op to make a few quid at a farmers’ market, but we don’t want in any way to seem enthusiastic for “the market”. The same is true of competition of course. There are very strong moral and practical arguments against both market economics and competition.
However, projects and social movements rooted in mutual aid – these might be Community Supported Everything or community gardens, or tool shares or whatever….. even say, co-op organisations like Radical Routes, will attract support from people who are communist anarchists by inclination. We don’t even need to get into philosophical debates really.
6Dave Darby February 22nd, 2016
Yes again. And I’m definitely not enthusiastic about the market or about competition – I’m not at all convinced that competition is ultimately the best way for humans to relate to each other.
You mention that the ‘left’ might be repelled by enthusiasm about the market and competition, but soothed by talk of co-ops, community-ownership, open source etc. In the same way, I think that talk of markets, competition and private property (albeit very, very different from what we have now) can soothe the right – and if real change is going to come, I think it needs the support (active or passive) of both left and right, or it will be blocked.
And yes, there’s not so much need for philosophical debate – just describe a system that is non-hierachical (i.e. no bosses, landlords, state or shareholders), but with free markets, competition and private property. We could take that to people without scaring them with political philosophy (especially the dreaded ‘A’ word).
7Michael E. V. Knight February 22nd, 2016
Have you heard of UBUNTU Contributionism (or Hybrid Money No Money SHARING Lifestyle). NO trade, NO barter, NO money, 3 hour work week doing what you like/enjoy that helps the community, and you get EVERYTHING you need at NO financial cost. This video explains it:
8Michael E. V. Knight February 22nd, 2016
Don’t know why the TVP video came up, here is the Contributionism video
9Dave Darby February 22nd, 2016
Thanks Michael, I’ll have a look.
10UncleGhoulieDetroit (@UncleGhoulieDet) February 23rd, 2016
Good pice minus the graphic… Though I am certain it was meant to be funny
11Dave Darby February 23rd, 2016
Thank you. It was meant to be funny (and I stole it). Are you offended from an anarcho-primitivist perspective (in which case I apologise, but it was funny), or from an ‘anarcho-capitalist’ perspective (in which case I don’t apologise)?