Mutualism — The Wolf in Anarchist Clothing
From No Wing Anarchy
Mutualism describes itself using words like “voluntary”, “reciprocal”, and (most contestedly) “anarchist”. Perhaps there is some claim to be made here, as the coiner of the term “mutualism” is the same man that brought the word “anarchism” into the Western world, Proudhon. Perhaps, though, despite having some claim of familial lineage in relation to anarchism, mutualism is yet another ideology that stifles individuality. Just like any other prescriptive “-ism”, there is an inherent danger in adhering to blueprints. The individual who adheres to an ideology stagnates in devotion to that ideology. The groups of individuals who form around ideologies have a tendency to calcify, and form rigid social systems. While an anarchism based in the idea of “no rulers” opposes these tendencies, as it is always vigilant towards potential coercive situations, mutualism does not contain this same defense mechanisms. Just like communism, socialism, and the many hyphenated anarchisms, mutualism betrays anarchism by attempting to prescribe a particular action or process, rather than anarchism’s simple prescription of freedom.
Mutualists may say that mutualism does not prescribe anything, but that flies in the face of the very name of the ideology! What is to be mutual? Exchange of course! Just as communism posits free production as the cure for all our ills, mutualism claims that free exchange will liberate us from our predicament. Just like the many short sighted ideologies one can choose from today, mutualism claims to have found the lynchpin of our oppression, and claims to have a plan to fix it. Instead of realizing that fluidity and flexibility are the only true guarantors of freedom, mutualism attempts to prescribe a path towards freedom…exchange.
The mutualist’s fetish with exchange is also prevalent in their use of the term “reciprocity”, possibly the biggest mutualist buzzword. Again, what is reciprocal? Exchange! To the mutualist, freedom must be based in exchange. If exchange is freed, the mutualist assumes that the people will be freed. Again, just as with communism or socialism, this type of thinking is still very much rooted in production, and just like these other ideologies, mutualism shares the tendency to view people as little more than producers of things, rather than fully formed free individuals. To mutualism, people are not people, they are nodes in networks of exchange. The mutualist cares more about the market than the people.
While on the subject of similarities to other ideologies, it is also useful to look at the similarities between anarcho-capitalism and mutualism. While ideologies like communism or socialism may be hostile to the concept of freedom through markets, mutualism and anarcho-capitalism embrace the idea of “freed markets”. Again, the logic here is not to provide people with the opportunities to create freedom, but to free the markets…which will supposedly enable people to be free. This sort of “trickle down freedom” from institutions/systems down onto people is a hierarchical concept, as it expects freedom to come from the structures places over individuals, instead of individuals creating free structures themselves from the bottom up. If mutualists are truly anarchist, and interested in the concept of “no rulers”, how is it that they cannot critically examine how markets and systems of exchange are inherently coercive?
Mutualists will of course claim that markets are not inherently coercive, as markets are just modes of exchange between individuals. The anarchist, however, sees the market for what it is…a codified system. The anarchist understands that when people do things, they have a tendency to keep doing them. The anarchist sees the potential ruler in waiting. This inertia is present in almost anything that people do, even to the point of tradition, where people do things simply because their dead ancestors did those same things. Given that this tendency of inertia will always be present among human acts, can a market ever really be free? A codified form of exchange will continue to be replicated, sometimes even without concern for the benefit of the people involved, because it is simply taken for granted as “what people do”. Therefore, the moment something is identified as a market, it becomes a potential ruler. The moment that a simple act of living is identified as something besides that…as a system, form, or market, it becomes something separate from the people involved. It is no longer their actions, but a system of its own accord, separate, and usually placed over the people involved. It is no longer the product of the actions of individuals, but a system that the individuals are now beholden to and trapped inside.
If a market, or form of exchange, is benefitting someone, do they not have an impetus to keep that form of exchange going? Would they not resist, or even be hostile, towards new forms of exchange, or the negation of the form of exchange that they benefit from? Would these beneficiaries not attempt to restrict alternate forms or non-forms of exchange, or possibly even coerce others that offer potential alternatives? The very act of moving from fluid, undefined exchange, and into a measured, defined market opens the door to hierarchy and social ossification. The first step of control is to define and measure what is to be controlled, and that is exactly what markets do to free and fluid exchange.
The mutualist looks at two people in the woods, trading nuts for berries, and says “Behold! A market!”, whereas common sense would simply see two people in the woods trading nuts for berries. The mutualist does the same when they refer to tribal and indigenous exchange as “gift economies”, something most people engaged in that type of activity would not even call their own actions. The mutualist, in thinking that only freed markets can liberate people, simply creates markets out of thin air to justify their beliefs. Not only do they conjure markets out of thin air, but they are willing to impose these conceptual markets onto people that might even outright reject the concept!
It is in this desire to frame nearly every human interaction as some sort of market that the mutualist’s true desires become evident. Reciprocity implies measurement, as in order to determine if two things are equal, they must be measured. Measurement implies control, as it is an outside entity examining an object or situation and applying its own internal rules, definitions, and logic to something external. Defining something as a market is a codification of free action, and defining an exchange as reciprocal is to quantify what was once free and fluid exchange.
In a true anarchist, “no rulers”, sense, free and fluid exchange would simply exist. It would not be called markets. It would not be measured to see if it was reciprocal. It would likely not be discussed as something separate from just living. What cannot be grasped cannot be ruled.
“The brain counts enough for us, and provides us with tools to interact with others…there is no need to write it down.”
It is clear how the mutualist intends to impose rulership. The mutualist cannot stand the sight of anyone getting something for free. They cannot resist the desire to rule over others by quantifying their actions, imposing definitions on them, and ultimately passing judgement on those actions by deciding if they are reciprocal or not. The desire for control here is quite evident. People cannot be trusted to act in their own benefit. Exchange must be tracked and counted to ensure reciprocity. People and their actions must be reduced to numbers so that they can more easily fit into the equations that mutualists insist dictate our lives. In insisting on defining markets, the mutualist is essentially making a claim of rulership over those involved in the exchange.
The mutualist does not view markets as inherently coercive, though. As stated earlier, they base their ideas in the concept of the “freed market”. This is a severe misunderstanding of the role that markets play among people, and a downright incorrect analysis as to the role of the state when dealing with markets. The mutualist views markets not as the source of coercion, but as a victim of the state. They believe that markets want to be free, but the state stops them from being free through regulation and enforcement of monopolies. While the state does regulate markets and enforce monopolies, the mutualist is too short sighted to trace the state’s coercion back to the source…the markets themselves.
The state did not just emerge from the void of nothing to regulate markets. It was created by those higher up in the hierarchy of markets to consolidate their positions. The state does not exist in spite of markets. It exists because of markets. It is an instrument of and for markets, not the oppressor of markets. The state is a tool of self interest, used by those who benefit most from a market in order to secure their dominance in that market. Removal of the state does nothing to prevent market beneficiaries from creating another one, or even devising new methods of control.
When states collapse or fail, the veil over the hierarchy between market and state is lifted, and it can clearly be seen that the state has always been subservient to markets. Take, for example, the collapse of the USSR in the early 90s. The absence of a state did not mean freedom through markets for the Russian people, but rather a power grab by those already at the top of existing market hierarchies. Directors of factories previously under state control would often become owners of that same factory through financial manipulations and the inertia of the fact that they were already the owners.. These markets and those at their helms, free from any state control, simply created a new state to legitimize themselves and maintain dominance in the market. Even though the entire state control apparatus failed, the static nature of the markets meant that those in control of exchange stayed in control. If the mutualist claim that states have power over markets is true, then how can that be possible? Why would the markets not reorganize, restructure, or even change in the slightest, given the chance to be “freed” from the state’s chains?
This subservience of the state to markets can also be seen in regulation. While the mutualist will say that regulation is the state having power over markets, the actually existing regulatory practices of states make this idea laughable. Agencies like the FDA and FCC do not exist to regulate the market so much as they exist to ensure dominance of those already at the top of the market. The state does not care about the quality of your food, or the contents of the media you consume. The rules it creates through regulation are not there for the benefit of the people. They are there to create barriers within particular markets. Competition within food markets is stifled when everyone involved has to adhere to a standard that only those at the top of the market can achieve. Competition within media is stifled when the state chooses to sell the airwaves to the highest bidder. Those at the top of these markets benefit from these restrictions, while everyone else is prohibited from taking action within the market. Neither the state nor the people are the real benefactors from regulation. The spoils of state interference in markets go to those already at the top. It is not wonder that when states do not exist, markets choose to create them.
In response to these claims, it is likely that the mutualist will agree, with the caveat that these things would not happen if exchange was “reciprocal”. The hierarchy of the market would be removed, and actors within the market would not have their benefit if only reciprocity existed in the market! Reciprocity! What a short-sighted idea!
For an exchange to be reciprocal, it must be determined by both sides of said exchange that there is a degree of equality in value for what is being exchanged. The exchange between parties must be considered relatively equal. Again, this way of thinking reduces real human interaction to mere numbers. It turns experience into equations. Reciprocity claims that if an exchange is more at less equal at the point of exchange, then there can be no hierarchy involved, as both sides of the exchange are voluntarily agreeing to the value of the exchange. In theory, this concept liberates people, because who would willingly short themselves in an exchange, or voluntarily enter a coercive exchange? In practice, it is the best example of why exchange is a horrible indicator of freedom, and truly shows the limits of mutualist thought.
By focusing purely on reciprocal exchange, the mutualist can really only examine a few nodes of a system of exchange at a time. To revisit our earlier example, if Person A is willingly trading their berries for Person B’s nuts, then the exchange must be reciprocal, right? Everything must be right in the world, and hierarchy cannot exist between two willing parties in exchange with each other! The illusion of freedom can be difficult to look past when looking at reciprocal exchange.
What if Person A’s berries were stolen from another person? What if they were produced via exploited labor? Reciprocity has no way of determining this, because it can only determine reciprocity at the site of exchange. A good produced via coercion is indistinguishable from one that was not. A party involved in coercion outside of the point of exchange could easily feign as if they were interested in reciprocity, and no one would be the wiser! Reciprocity has no mechanisms to trace back any farther in exchange than the “point of sale”. Reciprocity has no ability to detect when coercion outside of the actual exchange itself has taken place, and in that short-sightedness, has no ability to guarantee that what appears reciprocal is actually reciprocal. The door is left open for coercion and hierarchy to step inside.
To this critique, the mutualist will usually attempt to flip the accusation of authoritarianism around. They will claim that it is authoritarian to criticize markets, because people may voluntarily want to have markets. They claim that those who would criticize markets are attempting to assert control over and coerce others by opposing reciprocal exchange as a basis for liberation. To this, the anarchist should be clear that this opposition does not come from a desire to control, but a desire to not be controlled. The anarchist does not wish to tell others what to do, but the anarchist does not sit idly by while thinly veiled systems of rule are put in place over them. To the anarchist, the existence of a market…of a codified form of exchange…is potentially harmful.
We have seen how markets create rulership, either in the form of states, or the form of calcified social structures. As an anarchist, if someone is engaging in something that may possibly endanger my freedom by creating rulership, I will absolutely inform them of the potential harm, and if they insist on continuing, I may attempt to stop them. Stopping someone from engaging in an activity that has been shown to create rulership is not coercive…it is self defense.
“Our ultimate vision is of a society in which the economy is organized around free market exchange between producers, and production is carried out mainly by self-employed artisans and farmers, small producers’ cooperatives, worker-controlled large enterprises, and consumers’ cooperatives. To the extent that wage labor still exists (which is likely, if we do not coercively suppress it), the removal of statist privileges will result in the worker’s natural wage.” — Mutualist.org
As evidenced above, the mutualist does not even understand wage labor as inherently coercive, yet they somehow see the suppression of wage labor as coercive. To the mutualist, slavery is not coercive, but opposing it is! The mutualist does not understand the difference of the violence of the oppressor versus the self defense of the oppressed. They do not understand that freedom will not come from the reworking or reorganization of existing coercive systems, but by their complete abolition and a constant vigilance against their return. The mutualist cannot even think to abolish the idea of people as “producers” and “workers”. Even the communists claim they wish to abolish the distinction of the worker! They foolishly point to markets and even wage labor, the very things that enslave us now, as potential paths towards freedom.
Much like the socialists and communists, who believe that the state can be grabbed hold of and made to enforce freedom, the mutualists look to an existing authority as the answer to our ills. They choose the market rather than the state, but as we have seen, the market is an even greater hierarchy than the state…it has simply hidden its mechanisms of control, rather than brazenly displaying them as the state does. While many mutualists criticize or oppose the ideas of groups like the Bolsheviks or social democrats, who sought to harness the state for their ends, they are functionally no different in wishing to do the same with markets. This claim that systems placed over people can serve as vehicles of liberation is a hallmark of leftism.
And as with any leftist, the mutualist claims to want freedom, but cannot rid themselves of their present slavery. They appeal and submit to the higher power of the market, claiming that once the market is free, it will bring us liberation. Because markets are better at hiding their coercion than states, the mutualist can attempt to redress codified exchange as something non-coercive, as simply the free acts of individuals. Individuals do not act freely under markets. Individuals do not act freely under circumstances not of their own choosing, and markets, with their potential to calcify, and create hierarchies, or even states, do not provide free circumstances.
The mutualist, whether from a desire to control, a lack of imagination, or just plain ignorance as to the true nature of power, is antithetical to the anarchist. While the anarchist says “No rulers!”, the mutualist looks at market which currently rules us, and places it into the role of the victim, only needing to be freed. This is Stockholm Syndrome! That which rules can do nothing but rule, yet the mutualist would like to make excuses for that which rules them! Our freedom will not come from anything remotely recognizable. It will not come from any structure in existence today. It will not come from the state, or its absence. It will not come any “thing”.
Our freedom will only come from the absence of rulers. Rulership can only be prevented by robbing it of the power to control. When we are fluid and flexible, we cannot be ruled. When our lives are made of innumerable and infinite actions, we will be ungovernable. When we reject the quantification of our very lives, we will be free. To the mutualist, I say, “Stop counting. Start living.”