Mutualism: The Philosophy of Anarchy


This was composed for a speech given to the East Texas Freethinkers
on February 18th, 2017 in Tyler, Texas.

Mutualism is an anarchist social philosophy first established in print by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. While often considered to be the father of mutualism (something I have repeated and am apt to do again), Proudhon was actually more of its first philosopher, because mutualism already existed to some degree, long before Proudhon would write about it in his works. Proudhon had spent time among the workman’s associations in Lyon, France, where he witnessed fraternal organizations and guilds functioning in mutualistic manners, involving member control from voluntary participants. When he wrote in favor of mutualism, he probably had these cooperative associations in mind. Nonetheless, Proudhon can be considered to be the first philosophical exponent of mutualism as a school of thought.

Along with being the first philosophical proponent of mutualism, Proudhon is the first to call himself an anarchist. Yet, again, the sentiment against government and the state long preceded Proudhon. Some have traced it back to Ancient Greek or Chinese thinkers, such as Zeno or Lao Tzu. Others suggest that others much closer to Proudhon’s time were the first, such as William Godwin or Josiah Warren. Proudhon maintains the title of the first anarchist simply for being the first to call himself such on record.

Proudhon had been raised by a father who was a journeyman brewer and cooper and a mother who was a peasant and housekeeper. He is one of the few philosophers to truly have come from a lower class background. He had a thirst for knowledge, however, which drove him to study a large range of topics in social science and the humanities. He yearned for a society in which peasant and poor artisanal families like his own could live happy and fulfilling lives.

Proudhon had been influenced by a large range of thinkers, from the utopian socialists like Saint Simon and Charles Fourier to classical liberal economists such as Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say. He debated against communists such as Karl Marx, who had once been his proponent, and against capitalist philosophers such as Frederic Bastiat. Proudhon opposed communism, believing it to reward mediocrity at the expense of those who have more merit to perform social functions, and opposed capitalism on the grounds that idle holders of property held political power and income that was unearned. Proudhon said, “Communism is inequality, but not as property is. Property is exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is exploitation of the strong by the weak.”

Proudhon sought instead to maintain a balance between these two worldviews, which had both influenced him earlier in life, through Charles Fourier and Adam Smith, among others, and which he found himself debating against later on, with Karl Marx and Frederic Bastiat. In his view, there are useful elements in communism, as well as in capitalism, but liberty is found in assessing these elements and maintaining what is desirable from both sides, while doing away with the rest.

Proudhon’s mutualism is truly an example of libertarian socialism. Proudhon did not want to maintain any government compulsion in the economy, but he nonetheless wanted to create a socialist society. Proudhon’s libertarian socialism was not a socialism where the government owned and ran everything, but where workers owned and ran their workplaces in democratic assemblies, such as how many cooperatives are run today. Proudhon expected these worker cooperatives to produce and compete in the market economy in much the same way that capitalist firms do, but by being worker-owned he expected the workers to maintain a higher income, and so not need the state to provide them welfare. His plan for mutualism would provide full employment.

Proudhon’s scheme for the economy was largely based on his plan for a mutual bank, a bank owned by the people who bank there, which would issue its own currency. He believed that a bank of this sort would allow everyone to have better access to capital, with which they could employ themselves. Because of the availability of credit and capital, it was expected that employers would lose their bargaining power, and self-employment in cooperatives or as independent producers would become the norm.

Proudhon also wanted to provide everyone with free land to live on, or for society to charge an amount for its occupancy only equal to the rental value of land, and only when necessary. This would leave a great portion of land free to use without cost, and so provide a place for people to live, without relying on landlords.

Bosses, landlords, and moneylenders, as Proudhon saw it, made an income beyond that of their social input, and this income was measurable in terms of profit, rent, and interest, which were understood to be unearned incomes. On this, the classical liberal Adam Smith and the communist Karl Marx were in agreement. Proudhon’s economics sought to solve the problem by tackling it at its root, the state, which provided banks exclusive monopolies to perform financial functions and protected the claims of absentee landlords, which in turn allowed bosses to sell jobs by employing workers who themselves had no access to land or capital.

Rent, interest, and profit are all prices that are above the cost of labor, which is paid in full with wages. Any of the work that an employee, boss, landlord, or bankster actually does do can be roughly calculated and compensated in terms of wages, by comparing their efforts to those of others doing similar work. Anything above this amount of compensation in wages is a surplus, an extra amount, above that needed to compensate them for their efforts. This surplus must in turn come from the wages of someone who did the work. Thus, as Proudhon and the anarchists saw it, interest, rent, and profit— as paid to bankers, landlords, and bosses— were forms of legal theft, which relied principally on the state’s enforcement of private property rights and restrictions on the economy that kept workers from employing themselves. Along with bosses, landlords, and lenders, Proudhon, an atheist and anarchist, was critical of religion and the state, and the tithes and taxes that came along with them.

Proudhon’s anti-authoritarian outlook was founded on a dismissal of the Absolute. As Proudhon saw it, mankind had no connection to the Absolute, and any claims otherwise were harmful, leading justice to be sorted out through wars. He hated authority for claiming otherwise, and applying unwanted pressure despite the protests of citizens, lay people, workers, tenants, and debtors, as well as the self-employed and smallholding middle class, whose freedom of thought and exchange was also being hindered. Unlike other socialists of his day, however, Proudhon believed that these individuals, whose freedom was being restricted, had to take it upon themselves to create the change they wanted to see.

In place of offering Absolutes and strict models for how he thought society should function, Proudhon offered a rough sketch, or, as he titled one of his books, a General Idea of the Revolution. His own method was drawn in part from his loose understanding of Hegel, whose dialectical method had come to appeal to him as a means of resolving some of the proposed absolutes around him. Unlike Hegel, however, or Spinoza who preceded him, Proudhon was unwilling to admit an Absolute, even in the Universe or at its very end. I believe it fair to classify his metaphysics as being in the process tradition, albeit a non-theistic one, certainly divorced from something like that of Hegel or Whitehead. Proudhon, however, would come to understand that dialectics were not capable of resolving everything immediately, and so, taking influence then from Kant, took toward the balancing of remaining antinomies. Thus, Proudhon’s political outlook seems to suggest that socialism and classical liberalism can be synthesized in some way, while leaving room for their particulars to continue through the freedom of association. Consensus was something to be worked toward, and which enriched the world when it could happen, but where it lacked, there needed to be room for difference, and it helped if these differences balanced one another.

From Proudhon’s general idea, we redraw the rough sketch of Proudhon’s ideal society, which was one that reflected his experiences around the fraternal associations in France, and which reconciled or otherwise balanced the freedom found in markets and classical liberalism and the equality found in democracy and utopian socialism. In the place of the state, Proudhon wanted to establish a confederation which was founded on principles of voluntary association and direct-democracy. In place of private or corporate lending, and the extraction of interest, Proudhon wanted to establish mutual banks, credit unions, or other such financial institutions to facilitate exchanges with interest-free money. These would likewise be democratic and voluntary. In place of the private ownership of land, landlords, and the extraction of rent, Proudhon wanted to put land under common ownership and the personal control of the person using it. In some cases, he suggests charging for the protection of more valuable parcels. In place of the private ownership of capital, the extraction of profit, and bosses, Proudhon wanted workers to share in the ownership of capital that they used together and in the control of the company. He felt that mutual insurance was capable of providing for the general health and welfare of society outside of common market exchanges. He preferred a secular outlook founded on science to a religious one, or anything that could be rendered as Absolute, outside of freedom.

Proudhon’s revolution would not be a violent insurrection, but, himself having opposed the violence of the French Revolution, would be a gradual evolution of a new economy in the remains of the old, a gentle toppling of the state by its being made obsolete and no longer defendable to public logic or practice. Central to his plan was a concept of collective force, which was related to the benefits given occasion by way of group interaction. It was this collective force which was responsible for all of the emergent benefits of having a society, and it was this that was to be utilized in refreshing it in revolution. The old revolutions put the right of increase—the right to control rent, interest, or profit— the products of association, which resulted from collective force, into the hands of bosses, landlords, and bankers, but Proudhon’s revolution would retain these for the workers, tenants, and debtors who made them possible. This would be done by the formation of mutual banks and worker and tenant associations as acts of direct-action and civil disobedience. Proudhon’s gradual worker’s revolution would be self-funded, and would result in a process of state dissolution, as landlords, bankers, and bosses were themselves forced into self-employment, no longer available to support the state.

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