The Dialectical Thought of Mutualism


This Text Can Be Found in the Book,
The Evolution of Consent: Collected Essays (Vol. I)

This was composed for a speech given to the UNT Students for Liberty
on October 27, 2011 in Denton, Texas.

Mutualism and Libertarianism

Mutualist anarchism is a philosophy that advocates voluntary, democratic, and cooperative ownership within a free market; that is, a socialistic society without compulsive authority.

“What is the difference between libertarianism and mutualism?” you may already wonder. These categories share a similar relationship to the classifications dog and beagle. Not all dogs are beagles, but all beagles are most certainly dogs. Just the same, not all libertarians are necessarily mutualist in their economic outlook, but all mutualists are libertarian. That is, mutualists oppose domination through taxation and monopoly, are opposed to government restrictions on business, and would rather see the market select the services offered to the public on a basis of reciprocity. What keeps libertarians from all being mutualists, however, is that mutualists, as well as being advocates of free markets, are also socialists. We maintain a unique synthesis of these two normally opposing systems. Our socialism, however, does not impede upon our libertarianism, nor do our freedoms keep us from remaining egalitarian.


To understand the beginning of mutualism we must first turn to the early 19th century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose dialectical philosophies greatly influenced the French mutualism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as the thinking of his lesser-known contemporary, fellow Frenchman, Pierre Leroux. Charles Fourier, another Frenchman credited with being the originator of the term feminism and a builder of communes, and the Welshman, Robert Owen, one of the founders of the cooperative movement and utopian socialism, also had a role to play in the cooperative and communal philosophies that mutualists would come to ally with.

Hegel, most likely following Zeno of Elea, understood the motion of history as being powered by opposing forces, known as dialectical forces. Dialectics describe the interaction between a thesis (a general direction of thought or movement) and its antithesis (the opposite). These two forces oppose one another, but will ultimately culminate in a synthesis (the combination of both), which then begins the cycle anew, with the synthesis acting as the next thesis. Hegel’s thought bore great understanding to the political and economic conditions of both Proudhon and Leroux. Indeed, Proudhon once said, seemingly tired of being accused of Fourierism,

I have certainly read Fourier, and have spoken of him more than once in my works; but, upon the whole, I do not think that I owe anything to him. My real masters, those who have caused fertile ideas to spring up in my mind, are three in number: first, the Bible; next, Adam Smith; and last, Hegel.[i]

Pierre Leroux released his work, entitled Individualism and Socialism, in 1834, supposedly giving both terms their names, and arguing that both extremes were right and wrong to certain degrees, and that elements of both are necessary. Proudhon was inspired to write What is Property? in 1840 in which he declared property was simultaneously robbery and liberty. In the pages of What is Property? he declared that the only legitimate title of stewardship was based upon occupancy-and-use. It is in this notion, this contradiction between property and socialism, that mutualism sets its foundation. As the Hegelian dialectic would dictate, the thesis— property— was being challenged by its antithesis— communism— and was destined to find a middle ground in a synthesis— mutualism. Proudhon says,

Communism—the first expression of the social nature—is the first term of social development,—the THESIS; property, the reverse of communism, is the second term,—the ANTITHESIS. When we have discovered the third term, the SYNTHESIS, we shall have the required solution. Now, this synthesis necessarily results from the correction of the thesis by the antithesis. Therefore it is necessary, by a final examination of their characteristics, to eliminate those features which are hostile to sociability. The union of the two remainders will give us the true form of human association.


This third form of society, the synthesis of communism and property, we will call Liberty.[ii]

Most mutualists trace their roots back to Proudhon, although he, like Leroux, was undoubtedly influenced by a general theme in the philosophy of his era. His philosophy is a direct reflection of what he witnessed and discussed in his time among artisans, merchants, philosophers, and the mutual aid societies they established to solve their common problems. Mutualism, the voluntary and contractual sharing of resources for common needs, was already in practice, but it was not formally given a name until the early 1800’s. The origin of the name is debatable, and may come from Charles Fourier, various mutual aid societies of the time (such as one Proudhon was part of in Lyons), or perhaps it was used first by the Ricardian Socialists, such as John Gray, who felt that the free market was the road to socialism. Ultimately, it is unimportant where the term developed, so long as it maintains a specific definition and unites people today.

In the United States, the first known American anarchist, and certainly the first to publish an anarchist periodical, was thinking very similarly to those in France. Josiah Warren had experimented in the communes of the socialist, Robert Owen, and after seeing the failure of socialism had decided that private property was necessary to a flourishing community, but was set on establishing a fair and equal society where the cost of production was the limit of prices. He created a store, known as the Cincinnati Time Store, in 1827 that charged a price based on a time system. It was a success. He also printed currency based on time, but later came to the understanding that time alone could not measure the value in labor, but that repugnance was also necessary. His money, known as Labor Notes or Hours, also played a role in some of the communities he started, including Utopia and Modern Times. Josiah Warren’s principle of cost-the-limit-of-price is one that would be shared in the intimate relationship of individualist and mutualist schools of anarchism, which would be long-lasting and, at times, without any hard distinction at all.

Shortly after the time Josiah Warren had been experimenting with starting anarchist communities, and Proudhon had proposed a Bank of the People, William Batchelder Greene, an ex-military officer and Unitarian minister, was working on his own system of banking, which he would release in his work, Mutual Banking. Mutual banking, whether it was in the form of Greene’s Bank or Proudhon’s Bank of the People, had one purpose: to put an end to the monopoly on money, thereby eliminating the artificial scarcity imposed by the dollar. The anarchists saw in the state banking system a center of control, whereby a class of people could regulate an entire economy. The result of this, as well as the monopoly on land, was that laborers had to sell their labor for wages instead of profit, had to rent their homes instead of own them, had to pay taxes, and also had to pay interest to the banking class that many mutualists today endearingly call “banksters.”

Max Stirner, who would later inspire Friedrich Nietzsche according to some claims, released his work, The Ego and Its Own, in 1844. He stated that property was but a ghost of an idea, and that items belonged only to those who could maintain control of them. Though he challenged and even rejected many of Proudhon’s assumptions, Stirner’s post-Hegelian approach, known today as egoism, has been adopted by most mutualists to come after him. Benjamin Tucker, probably the largest popularizer of individualist anarchism ever, was a huge proponent of Stirner’s, and published his first English translation, as well as Proudhon’s What is Property?.

In 1851, Herbert Spencer, one of the fathers of sociology, echoed the sentiments of the anarchists in his book, Social Statics, wherein he argued that the state would inevitably wither away as market mechanisms replace the services it offers, and that one should have a right to ignore the state. He also stated that everyone should have an opportunity to use land, and that the proper measure of liberty was equal liberty, when the liberty of one individual cannot impose itself upon another. Although Herbert Spencer’s philosophy, especially later in life, would find himself hostile to positive liberties, his equal liberty shows a certain dialectic wherein negative liberties are kept in check by those of others. Even if Mr. Spencer would have hated to admit it, this displays a certain portion of positive liberty, for if negative liberties were the only rule, control through domination would remain a legitimate moral imposition through the right of property. Herbert Spencer unintentionally finds the middle ground between these liberties in equal liberty. Being a pragmatic and evolving belief system, the mutualists were quick to adopt Mr. Spencer’s solution, and the law of equal liberty remains a staple in mutualist thought today. Dyer Lum, another 19th century mutualist, would go on to write an essay, entitled “The Basis of Morals,” which he deemed as his proudest achievement, where he argued that utilitarianism, hedonism, and other forms of ethics were invalid, while equal liberty was a product of evolution.

It is balance that divides mutualism from the ethics of both American capitalism and state-socialism. To the mutualist, capitalism is represented only by the assertion of negative liberties, while socialism is represented by the assertion of positive liberties. For those who are unfamiliar with these terms, allow me to define them. Negative liberties are those rights not to act, or not to be affected by others. For instance, I would be exercising my negative liberties were I to say “no” when a police officer asks to enter my house without a warrant. Positive liberties, on the other hand, are those rights to act and to affect others. If I need to cross a public bridge to survive, and someone is blocking my way, I am exercising my positive liberties if I push them to the side. Again, the capitalist would argue in favor of negative liberties, not to be affected by society; and the socialist argues for the ability to affect society, positive liberties. The capitalist protects themself with individual property rights, while the socialist wants property to be owned only by society as a unit to protect the whole. Their methods of systemic decision-making differ also; the capitalist prefers the market, while the socialist prefers democracy. Neither of these are necessarily opposed, and that is what the mutualist is arguing.

We’ve now discussed the historical context of mutualism, let us now discuss what mutualists propose as solutions to our current system of corporate capitalism, as well as the coming welfare state that socialism offers us.


Mutualists generally see social and political problems resting on issues of economics, and the chief two culprits of economic problems are the monopoly on land and the monopoly on money. When these two monopolies are set into place, it becomes impossible for workers to retain the value of their labor in the market.

A classical capitalist would say that land rightly belongs to those who homestead it, indefinitely. A socialist would say that land should always remain in the hands of the collectivity. A mutualist, however, would establish their title to land based on occupancy-and-use: Not using it? You’re losing it. The concern mutualists have with the perpetual ownership of land, not defined by occupancy-and-use, is that arable land can become scarce as such a system grows. When land has become monopolized, charges on its use, such as taxes and rent, can begin to appear.

Oftentimes, the homestead principle is attributed to John Locke, who said that mixing one’s labor with the land gave one the right to possess it. Capitalists, when referring to Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, usually leave out certain crucial parts, like some fundamentally religious folks do with The Bible. One part in specific is the Lockean Proviso, some of which I will quote to you now:

   Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.[iii]

John Locke suggested, in the distribution of the commons, that one should not take more land than would be left for others to use after doing so. In supporting the perpetual ownership and inheritability of unused land, capitalist ideology fails to keep monopolies from arising and subjecting the people who use them to pay taxes and rent.

I don’t think I have to say much in the way of what would occur if, instead of private holders of land, the state was in its place as chief executive. We who respect liberty are generally under the impression that socialism would bring the worst domination and subjugation of human liberty that we can know. State socialism would stop productivity by ending incentive. It would put an end to privacy and autonomy in decisions. There would be no chance to better oneself as an individual. This would be no alternative to the capitalist system we partially have today, but would instead be a regression to domination, as we have had in the past.

Instead of making the choice between individual ownership and collective ownership of land, as the capitalist and the socialist does, the mutualist supports private possession of land while it is in use, but upon the end of its use it must be returned to the commons. One may ask, “How does one define occupancy-and-use under real conditions?” One may ask even further, “If I leave my house and my land on vacation, does that mean it is free for squatters to homestead?” to which a mutualist may reply, “It depends. Did you establish security to ensure that the place remained your own? If you did not, you have forfeited your land out of carelessness, much as you would be doing with a $5 bill if you were to leave it on a public table and expect it to be there for you the next day.”

The perpetual ownership of land relies on one class taxing another, and using those taxes to pay certain individuals from that class to repress the others. Tax-money from all classes of property-owners are pooled to pay the police. The rich benefit greatly from this. This is similar to our income taxes being used to pay for military protection. When the people rise up to demand their liberty, who do governments send in to “restore order”? Tanks; as seen by Chinese Tiananmen Square in 1989 when a large number of peaceful student and worker protestors were gunned down.

Along with the demand for occupancy-and-use titles to land tenure, mutualists suggest that the monopoly on credit must be removed. Mutualists believe that interest and profit are the results of government regulation on the printing of money. As long as only select individuals are allowed to print and distribute money— the means of exchange— they have the ability to demand payment for its use. That is to say, if I control money, and you can’t print it, I can charge you interest for the use of my money. As Benjamin Tucker reminds us in the pages of his periodical, Liberty,

   Usury rests on two great monopolies — the monopoly of land and the monopoly of credit. Were it not for these, it would disappear. Ground-rent exists only because the State stands by to collect it and to protect land-titles rooted in force or fraud. Otherwise the land would be free to all, and no one could control more than he used. Interest and house-rent exist only because the State grants to a certain class of individuals and corporations the exclusive privilege of using its credit and theirs as a basis for the issuance of circulating currency. Otherwise credit would be free to all, and money, brought under the law of competition, would be issued at cost. Interest and rent gone, competition would leave little or no chance for profit in exchange except in business protected by tariff or patent laws. And there again the State has but to step aside to cause the last vestige of usury to disappear.[iv]

Mutualists do not cling to any particular material, such as precious metals, for use as a means of exchange. To the mutualist carpenter, it makes more sense to use his or her store of furniture as a basis of their own money, than to pay interest in order to use a scarce resource such as gold; to the grocer, their stock of goods should suffice.

A society without a monopoly on land and credit would look very different from the one we have today. This would be a society where cost is the limit of price. What I, and other mutualists, mean by this is that no one could charge more than the real effort it took to manufacture goods and services. Only monopolies can dictate their prices and charge a price that is above cost. Without them, interest, profit, rent, and taxes would wither away.

Imagine being able to get loans without interest. Just about anyone who wanted would be able to buy their own home, start a business, or buy a share in a democratic cooperative. Scarcely anyone would accept full-time employment taking orders from a boss, but would rather opt for self-employment; employment by others, when it did exist, would be more along the lines of the employment between a customer and a producer, or between contractors; nothing long-term. No one would pay rent to a landlord. Any permanent residency would be tenant-controlled.

Examples of mutualist institutions include independent contracting, self-employment, producer co-ops, consumer co-ops, home ownership, housing co-ops, and mutual aid societies providing medical and insurance services to its membership at cost. Some of these groups choose to form federal relationships with one another.

Socialism cannot solve the problem, as any state, even that of the proletariat, depends on force to institute its will upon its subjects. Until force and aggression is eliminated in human relationships there will always be rent and there will always be taxes to ensure that force can continue to be used against its victims. Socialism can serve only to aggravate the problem. Only mutuality can solve it.


[i] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon5 (quoted by J.A. Langlois), 22.

[ii] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon5, 247.

[iii] John Locke, 21.

[iv] Benjamin Tucker, 88.


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