Thursday, June 30, 2005

Varieties of Mutualist History

In response to the previous post, Kevin Carson and Larry Gambone raise a useful distinction between "mutual practices and mutualism as an ideology." I was gesturing at the presence of that distinction as well, when i observed that "there's really no shortage of mutual aid and counter-economics in the historical record." But it's something we should really come to careful grips with, as it complicates everything we have to say about mutualism. The Mutualist FAQ makes a distinction between mutualist theory and mutualist organization, giving separate, overlapping accounts of their origins, and suggesting, in the context of the cooperative movement:
. . . mutualism is a set of general principles and the co-ops are one of the practical forms that these principles have taken. Historically, the practical forms were developed by the working class before the general principles were propounded by political philosophers. The problem today is the loss of consciousness of cooperatives as the embodiment of a form of mutualist practice.

One of the things i was suggesting in the last post was that this process of generalizing mutualism from practical experiment appears to have happened again and again, in different contexts, though we can find enough continuity between ideological mutualist episodes to talk about a movement.

We're really dealing with several connected histories here, including at least:
  • A general practical history of voluntary cooperative practices and instances of mutual aid, some of which come from specific political commitments, but many of which come out of a direct response to current shared needs. We know that many practices consistent with anarchism continue to take place even under capitalism and the rule of the state, and the persistence of this sort of piecemeal mutualism is both an encouragement and a caution to us. This history reaches back much farther than the histories of anarchism or mutualism as conscious ideologies.
  • A specific institutional history of specific mutualist experiments, ranging from friendly societies to modern mutual banks. Along with this, there are also histories of personal connections and influences, such as the connections we have drawn from the 19th century individualists anarchists towards the present. It's in these histories that we find the stability and continuity (such as it is) that those who dismiss mutualism have missed or denied.
  • An ideological and philosophical history, inseparable from the rest, of the expressions of mutualist theory that have accompanied mutualist practice.

And, last but surely not least, we have:

  • A set of presentist accounts, through which we assert our various claims to membership in a living movement, and within which we construct a tradition.

We're also forced to deal with any number of contextual histories. Nobody has had anything to say about my characterization of (some) mutualism as "experimental social science," but it seems to me that the struggles over broadly scientific issues, and the changes wrought in what could count as science, are probably as important as issues related to political economy.

Mutualism seems to be a bit more visible and respectable these days, with the result that we're probably more free to explore this stuff in a range of forums. But that also means we have a little extra pressure on us to clarify just what it is we've been going on about for so long. I suppose it's a good thing the process is so appealing.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Historical Character of Mutualism

I talk blithely sometimes about a "mutualist tradition," but it's worth asking whether mutualism isn't more like a tendency that asserts itself here and there, usually while something else is happening.

I remember the day i was finally able to email Kevin Carson with an unbroken chain of personal and political connections linking Josiah Warren more or less to the present. We hadn't been sure it could be done. The story told in so many of the histories of anarchism was that the individualist and mutualist forms pretty well died off. This is one of the few things you can find anarchist communists and anarcho-capitalists agreeing on with some frequency. Individualist libertarian socialism shows up as the Neanderthal of the anarchist evolutionary accounts. The real history looks a little different. There's really no shortage of mutual aid and counter-economics in the historical record. But mutualism has a tendency to show up on the edges - fringe or silver lining, as you prefer - of other movements and traditions. It has had very little organizational continuity - little infrastructure of its own. Finding a direct line of descent and transmission of ideas is valuable, for a variety of reasons. If nothing else, it gives us one fairly strong thread around which to weave the rest of our historical tapestry. And, as i think i'll be able to show gradually, there are multiple strong threads. But we mustn't overestimate the importance of any of them.

Mutualism shows up early at the edges of Owenism and Unitarianism. It might actually have been the core of the First International, had Marx & Co. not pushed it aside. It's a radical tendency among agrarians and land-reformers, as well as the refuge of rogue single-taxers. It's one of the more consistent expressions of progressive social gospel Christian reformism, as in the case of Samuel "Golden Rule" Jones.

I want to float some speculative stuff here: in the early 19th century, the folks we honor as early mutualists were part of an extremely complex culture of reformers, most driven by a sense that some "science of society" could orient practical social change. We see "scientific" approaches to language, to dress, to music notation (Warren), etc, and we see lots of amateur social scientists working away at their own little bit of "the social problem." We see a few folks who are generalists - and many of the struggles within socialism amount to "science wars" between the more agressive generalizers. The general emphasis on "science" is important, particularly since even anarchist history has been colored by Engels' assertions about the differences between "scientific" and "utopian socialism." Fourier doesn't differ from Marx because he's not "scientific" in his orientation. Granted, Fourier's science is pretty odd stuff, with his taxonomy of passions and predictions that the seas will turn to lemonade. It's probably not "as scientific" by contemporary standards as the work of Marx. But that's a different issue. We won't get a handle on this stuff if we don't acknowledge that mutualism rises out of a period of optimism about human potential, before the American Civil War, before the splintering of the International, before Haymarket and propaganda by the deed. It is, therefore, associated in its origins with a kind of scientism, but, again, there are different kinds - and the mutualist variety seems to be practical and experimental. At some point, i'll post some of the results of a study i've been doing on libertarian socialists who were also inventors. There have been a lot of them. We understand Engels better when we realize that what he is objecting to in the "utopian" is precisely its practical, experimental character - its blueprints. The criticism has its points, as i've said, but the elevation of "history" and "dialectical processes" over the socialism of communes and technologies ought to at least give us a moment's pause.

I'm leaning towards a characterization of early mutualism as the most open and experimental of the early socialist "sciences" - one without a master plan, open as a marketplace of small, practical solutions - linked to the rest of the broad socialist movement, and to much of the culture around it, by a shared faith and optimism. We shouldn't overstate this. We're talking about the ante-bellum era, rather than the prelapserian one. But we can probably usefully contrast this earlier orientation, and the mutualism that grew out of it as one of its more consistent expressions, to the kinds of radical political expressions that characterized later eras. There's a long story to tell, involving the changing status of "socialism" and "science," but the first thing we can say is that the status of those things keeps changing. One of the questions for a mutualist historian is whether or not mutualists change as well.

The recuperation of mutualism has to meet the criticism that it is simply obsolete, born from and only useful in contexts which no longer exists. Tucker was essentially defeated by his sense that mutualism, as he understood it, could not move forward without recourse to violent struggle. One of the questions we face is whether Tucker's understanding was sufficient. Is it enough to be a "consistent Manchesterian," or do we need to rethink things a bit. My tendency to emphasize the early stages of mutualism comes from a sense that we have lots of other options when it comes to inheriting mutualism.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

EZLN on Red Alert / Americans "generally in a funk"

Scattered thoughts today. . .

Things are happening in Chiapas again. The Zapatistas have announced a General Red Alert and are withdrawing the active bases from the communities, suspending some operations, including the Good Government Committees, asking international members of civil society to leave the region of revolt, etc. The context appears to be some showy drug war maneuvers by Fox's government, including large scale troop movements in Chiapas. Al Giordano has a summary, Mexico: The False Narco-Smear Against the Zapatistas, up at Narconews. Breaking news there indicates that there were marijuana fields siezed in the southern Mexico state, and that perhaps the government had indicated they were "inside the Zapatista zone of influence," since a representative for Fox came out to clarify that this was not the case. This will all be worth watching. Good news, irlandesa now has a blog with her translated EZLN communiques, which will make the watching that much easier.

Closer to home, a headline in USA Today yesterday caught my eye: "Poll shows Americans 'generally in a funk'." The story covers recent Gallup Polls that show support for the Iraq War down, with 59% opposed to it, and concern about imminent terrorist attacks at its lowest since 9/11. Apparently, Americans are not terribly certain that the War on Terror is going well, but neither are they too concerned about the consequences. They're not overwhelmingly behind the administration when it comes to Gitmo. Indeed, almost 40% seem to be in favor of closing the base.

Generally, the results of the "for or against" polls seem to be pretty even splits, though the war-support numbers are getting surprisingly low. But where more nuanced responses are possible, Americans seem to be all over the place. When one commentator described us as "generally in a funk" that rings fairly true for me. Nervous depression seems to be the mood of the nation.

There's been a lot of over-coffee conversation lately among my friends, lamenting the sort of political torpor that seems to dominate affairs. If 60% of Americans are against the war, why is the anti-war movement more or less invisible? And how can folks get away with claiming, for example, that the Democrats are out to get "Christians"?

If you're reading this, you probably already know the questions. And, like me, you probably only have glimmers of answers. But maybe a few things are clear. . . .

Let me return to this question of mutualism, and what it might be in the current context. And let me turn the sort of analysis i attempted in yesterday's posting to a different, somewhat parochial and not entirely (or at least solely) anarchistic concern. Situated as i am within American society, subject to the US political system, i have to pay some attention to what it means to be political actor in America, to "be an American" in at least some sense. If nothing else, this concern is something i share (or can share) with my neighbors - and any attempt to move in the political realm that only takes other committed libertarians into account is doomed to minimal impact. This isn't a capitulation to realpolitik, in part because "being an American" and positioning oneself within the national tradition has never excluded being a radical. We have to keep in mind the partial nature of these identifications. Nothing good comes of elevating one aspect of what we are above all the rest - and sometimes what comes of that sort of fetishization is quite accurately described as fascism. But the sorts of complexities we're talking about shouldn't be that big a deal. We have to get over thinking of ourselves, or our neighbors, as unsophisticated. We wouldn't survive a 5-minute block of TV commercials, let alone an episode of South Park, if we weren't pretty sharp. Back when i was doing academic scholarship on popular genre literature, it came to me just how much expertise was required to read, for example, romance novels - something i should have known from my days as a bookseller. But my digressions are now digressing.

The mutualist tradition within which i place myself can be traced back through a few hops, skips and jumps directly to the Owenite experiment at New Harmony, where Josiah Warren was, after all, the leader of the band (and printer, and gadfly. . .). But that thread is tangled at various points with other threads, including some in the land reform movement, which we can trace right back to folks like Paine and Jefferson. Untangling it all is the work of other days, though folks like Mark Lause have already done a lot of important work. Let's just say that it seems possible to imagine oneself an American Political Actor in a tradition that includes Daniel Shays, Thomas Skidmore, George Henry Evans, etc among its early figures.

OK. If i don't talk myself out of a common "American" project with my neighbors, it doesn't mean that the "commonness" of that project is much more than a promise or a leap of faith. On the other hand, it does give us something to talk about. And i'm becoming convinced that the only way political discourse can have degenerated so far is that we simply don't talk to the neighbors enough so that it hits us when people say stupid, obviously incorrect, divisive things. There's a difficult gambit here. If we don't talk about our commitments, and turn these promised projects into joint endeavors of a more concrete sort, then the labels tend to take the place of the discussion. Everyone hears what they want to hear. You can talk about love or America for days and avoid saying a damned thing. We know this. The question is: why would you want to?

One of the legacies of mutualism - particularly in its individualist anarchist form - had been a tendency to believe that freedom will pretty much take care of itself, assuming we remove certain obstacles. But this particular faith seems to have only characterized the movement for a fairly brief span of time. Even Tucker came to see that his plum-line anarchism wasn't just going to happen if a few privileges were taken away from the accumulating classes. Structures had changed and if there had ever been a self-levelling playing field, it had been bulldozed into another form. I think it's likely that the invisible hand was never as puissant as we imagined, and, even if it was, it could hardly work its magic in a context where human actors did not, finally, want to be free and to exchange freely.

I'm sitting here, "generally in a funk," trying to think of myself in a way that makes some political sense, and will possibly make some sense to those around me. In the mountains of southern Mexico, something is happening with regard to one of the more interesting experiments in locally automonous rule, and there are hints it might be a drastic something. . . .

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Confessions of a latter day mutualist

What is this Mutualism of which you speak?

I see that Kevin Carson has given me a rousing welcome to the neighborhood. I'll try not to let him down. I see he counts me among the "free market anti-capitalists." It's a label i'll happily embrace - at least as a partial description of my position. But the truth is that i'm a whole lot less interested in economics than some of my friends and comrades - and maybe a bit less interested than i should be, though i have done my fair share of slogging through the stuff - so defining myself in those terms seems like a little bit of an imposture. All labels have their limits. I'm a christian individualist poststructuralist socialist green market anarchist - i guess. Or something. . . .

Mostly, i call myself an anarchist, or a mutualist - depending on who i'm talking to, and how confusing or distracting the terms are likely to be in the context. There was a time, not all that long ago when mutualist was a term used very little among the generally left-anarchist company i was keeping. It struck me as a term used to keep folks like Proudhon carefully suspended about half in and half out of "proper anarchism." It was also a nice way to say "individualist anarchism" without starting quite as many fights. There still aren't very many of us who call ourselves mutualists, but at least now when we do so we only have to explain why we're not automatically enemies of anarchism about half the time. Let's hear it for progress.

I'm being a bit facetious, but, whatever you call them, the more individualistic and market-friendly early forms of anarchism pose all sorts of problems for contemporary anarchist ideologies - both right and left. Engaging with them takes us back to a time before the marxian coup in the First International remapped the political terrain, when socialism still meant little more than simultaneous concerns with social science and social justice. It's hard to grasp the diversity of that International. Beyond the familiar assortment of folks from the labor movement, the cooperatives, Proudhonists, Marxists, Bakuninists and such, Stephen Pearl Andrews and the Woodhull sisters were part of an American section grounded in part in Andrews' pantarchy and universology. William Batchelder Greene, the "American Proudhon," was a member of a French-speaking Boston chapter which understood the work of the International as a continuation of that of the Knights Templar. Cabet's Icarians were represented as well. You can imagine Marx tearing out his hair, wondering how he could get rid of half this crew. He worked it out eventually, of course, expelling the American English-speaking sections before he and Bakunin had a chance to duke it out. And while he was at it, Andrews and Greene continued to translate and disseminate Marx and Engels' Manifesto.

I'll be honest. The strange, promiscuous character of that First International fascinates me. All of the work that i've been doing on the history of anarchism and mutualism is aimed at getting a glimpse of some of the roads not travelled from that point to the present. It's tempting to say that the breakup of the International was a sort of Tower of Babel incident for the broad socialist movement. Certainly, some form of common language was lost, as it rapidly became almost impossible to speak of a broad socialist movement - and largely remains so today. But the incident is also, and perhaps more compellingly, a sort of Babel-in-reverse. First, there was a clamor of voices, but there was also this fragile joint project, the International. And then there was a different sort of clamor, but not within the joint project, which had become rather narrow and German. We've played out at least some of the possible outcomes of this change in relations. And the historical debates about anarchism, socialism and capitalism have helped us to make some judgments about the inevitability of some of the less pleasant outcomes. There's still a lot of historical spadework to be done to flesh out the genealogies of the various current anarchistic and socialistic currents, but there's also the very difficult job of trying to grasp the character of the International in that earlier moment.

I guess i'm happy to call myself a mutualist because it positions me within a story that must reach back before marxian takeover - to the extent that it's possible to do so. Mutualism, for me, is necessarily identified with the sort of chaos-in-concert that seems to have characterized that early, broad socialism. My intuition is that if there are going to be mutualists again, in a sense that is meaningful - that gets some work done - we'll have to learn to be pluralists, to relate to others despite the confusions of voices.

Right now, being a mutualist seems to involve being open, being committed to an experimental approach, embracing multiple, partial projects while we look for common ground. For that reason, the writing here will swoop wildly from high theory to minute concrete details. Hopefully, it will make for an interesting ride for all involved.

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The Libertatia Laboratories site is down at the moment. I'll be changing ISPs within the next day or so and will get the beginnings of a new site up and running right away.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Fork in the Labyrinth (Already), pt. 1

Well, dissemination seems to be at work, splitting a blog that, to my knowledge, nobody has actually read, into two blogs that may be just a bit more readable. I would like to take my own sweet time thrashing out some background and theoretical issues and journaling the last throes of my cross-town relocation in the Libertatia Lab Reports, but also feel like i should be getting on with some more direct responses to world events and ongoing critical discussions. So i'll do the more focused stuff here.

One of the conversations that seems well worth being a part of is the Building a New Libertarian Movement Symposium announced by Thomas L. Knapp at Knappster. He has proposed a decentralized symposium using Technorati Tags as a means of organization. Wally Conger and Kevin Carson have already contributed interesting material. I suppose it's time for me to digest the lessons of my time on the Libertarian Left List. Right off the bat, i can say that the time i've spent over the last couple of years in conversation and debate with libertarians and anarchists outside the usual orbit of the left-identified anarchist movement has been enormously helpful in clarifying my present positions and my understanding of the history of the various anarchistic movements. It's left me feeling a little out of step with virtually everybody, of course, but i've known for quite some time that the line i was following through what i insist on calling the "libertarian labyrinth" was destined to be a rather idiosyncratic one. More later...

Thanks to Kevin for linking this stuff. Apparently, i should be paying closer and more frequent attention to the Mutualist blog. Somehow i missed the formation of the very interesting mutualists list at Yahoogroups. Ah, well. I'll get back up to speed. I promise.