We know the standard anti-market concern, that even the truly free relations which mutualists and other market anarchists propose (free-market anti-capitalism, equitable commerce, etc...), will lead inevitably (through a fatal flaw in contract theory, or a fatal flaw in human nature, etc...) to (bad) "capitalism," rule by the possessors of capital, and the state. Answers to the problem (if it is such) generally involve rejections of "contract" and/or "commerce" tout court, along with, of course, "property" conceived on any model that includes exclusive, individual ownership. There seem to be problems with these answers, whether it is the dependence of a "gift economy" on the notion of individual property (though maybe also vice-versa), objections to broad construals of "commerce" and "markets" that seem to be largely aesthetic in character, or vague proposals for how distribution will actually be accomplished (and what sort of participation will be expected) in a non-market society. And one of the things at stake in the debate is validity of the story by which collectivist and communist anarchisms claim to be not only the more popular forms of anarchism, but the true philosophical standard-bearers of the tradition.
We won't settle the debate easily, and certainly not today. There's a lot to clarify before we can move forward much. If you're reading this you probably have a pretty good sense of the importance I place on bringing figures like Proudhon, Fourier, Bellegarrigue, Dejacque, Warren, Greene, Ingalls, Kimball, Molinari, Bastiat, Colins, Emerson, Whitman (etc...) fully into our shared history, so we agree or disagree with them in an informed and intelligent manner. It should also be obvious that I consider the revolutionary period around 1848 to have a particular importance, if only as fertile ground from which to gather ideas of a sort that no longer seem to flourish among us. But even if you don't agree with me on these general points, perhaps you can see the advantages of looking at familiar ideas in a setting which makes them strange for us.
Consider the mutualist critique of the free market: It's one of those well-known, but barely-understood facts of anarchist history that Proudhon, the "property is theft" guy, came around to embrace property, in part because it would serve as a necessary counter-balance to "the State." In "1848 origins of agro-industrial federation," I pointed to a couple of apparent oddities in Proudhon's "Revolutionary Program:" 1) his embrace of property and "laissez faire," and his proposal of "absolute insolidarity" as a principle of organization; and, 2) his assertion that this absolutely egoistic approach would lead naturally to "a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign."
Cool. The free market works. Someone like Bellegarrigue could, at roughly the same time, describe "the Revolution" as "purely and simply a matter of business," and describe (in the second issue of Anarchy: Journal of Order (translation forthcoming)) the scene after the deposing of Louis-Philippe as if someone had pushed that infamous Libertarian Button that makes government go away in a flash. With the king gone, everyone just had to get on with it, and let the "flux of interests" do its work. But there are some complications, at least from the mutualist point of view, not the least of which is that Proudhon never stopped being the "property is theft" guy. He never stopped thinking of exclusive, individual property as being based in individual "absolutism," as despotic in tendency, and as involving a "right to abuse" potentially more self-refuting with regard to "property" than anything his critics have poked at in his claims. But he also believed, consistently, that "community [of goods] is theft," just another form of absolutism. And by "Theory of Property" he had some hard things to say about possession, which is the half-way form that anarchists have frequently claimed was his choice: "It is a fact of universal history that land has been no more unequally divided than in places where the system of possession alone has predominated, or where fief has supplanted allodial property; similarly, the states where the most liberty and equality is found are those where property reigns." [p. 142]
Hmmm. Proudhon's antinomies complicate things considerably, if what we're after is a system, of property or of no-property, which simply works, and reduces or eliminates conflict. In a lot of the discussions I'm in these days, as interest in mutualism increases, the concern seems to be to find what sorts of arrangements mutualists would think are justified. But if Proudhon is our guide, justification is our permanent revolution, William B. Greene's "blazing star," which retreats every time we make an advance.
What if we had a "free market," equitable "commerce" in the broadest sense, and a truly just system for dealing with the "mine and thine"? To my knowledge, Proudhon never posed the question in this way. For him, the absolutist character of every one-sided element or approach only became more and more prominent, and necessary. In the conclusion of Theory of Property, he writes: "The principle of property is ultra-legal, extra-legal, absolutist, and egoist by nature, to the point of iniquity: it must be this way. It has for counter-weight the reason of the State, which is absolutist, ultra-legal, illiberal, and governmental, to the point of oppression: it must be this way." Add one more wrinkle here: We are not talking about "the State" as we know it, the governmentalist State. Instead, this is an essentially anarchist State, a collective being which does not rule, which has no standing above the individual, but which, if we are to take seriously Proudhon's descriptions, nevertheless marks a real peril, the loss of all individuality, precisely because it marks the extent to which the "flux of interests" has, through egoistic commerce, resulting in unity of interests, in the elimination of conflict.
It appears, in a strange turn, that the danger inherent in a free market, built on systems which reduce conflict, might well be "communism"--not the communism of goods-in-common, not the systems of Marx or Kropotkin (except to the extent that they fail in non-economic ways), but the "community of interests" that Proudhon and Josiah Warren both warned against. Dejacque suggested anarchist-communism as a logical product of individual egoisms. Indeed, most of the attempts to downplay the individualist element in communist anarchism are ignorant smears. So the suggestion is not so far from ones made by "communists" of one sort or another. But there's a tough knot to be unraveled here, one that tangles up communism and free markets, pits despotism against anarchism, in the interest, ultimately, of the latter.
If Proudhon could answer back to the criticisms of his successors in the anarchist tradition, I suspect they might have looked a bit like Nietzsche's attacks on the anarchists and socialists of his own day. In particular, to the tradition of Kropotkin (and to some degree many of us, myself included, get our anarchism in large part from Mutual Aid), I think he might feel the need today to say: Mutual aid, yes, as well as the struggle for life. In Kropotkin's own ethics, or at least that part drawn from Guyau, there is an understanding that it is neither optimism nor pessimism that drives the anarchist towards better approximations of justice, but elements in play, the pressure of life.
The Proudhonian question to economic communists seems to be: how, in a human society, in human "commerce," is that absolutist element that appears to be part of our nature, that may indeed be the hungry thing that (however reluctantly at times) pushes on after the blazing star, how is that kept in play? How does it render aid, and express its ethical fecundity, if it has nothing of its own to give? And how does community-of-property avoid being the narrow, then narrower-still, community of interests that seems to be the death or coma-state of society, or at least of its collective intelligence?
For the market anarchist, perhaps the question is still: What is property? What is its relation to a free market? Is the freedom we are seeking only a lack of impediments to the flux of interests, or is there perhaps something else, supplemental to or even opposed in some sense to that first market freedom, which we require for a free society? If we were able to complete our justification of property, would that get us what we ultimately want? We know how counter-economics works within the given context, in part because the anarchist entrepreneur has more than a whiff of brimstone about hir, but what happens if and when we win?