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What Is Mutualism?

Mutualism is one of the least known Anarchist school thought and economic theory within the Anarchist community. The colors are Orange and Black, and beyond that not too much is known about where Mutualists stand on property and exploitation.


The writings of philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon inspired the creation of Anarcho-Mutualism in the 1840s France. Mutualists advocate for a society where each person might possess means of production, either individually or in purely voluntary collectives, with trade representing equivalent amounts of labor in the market place. Mutualism is based on a labor theory of value that of when labor or its product is sold, in exchange it ought to receive goods or services embodying “the amount of labor necessary to produce an article of exactly similar and equal utility”. Mutualists oppose the idea of individuals receiving an income through loans, investments and rent as they believe these individuals are not laboring. Therefore since they ensure the worker’s right to the full product of their labor, mutualists support markets and property in the product of labor. However, they argue for conditional titles to land, whose ownership is legitimate only so long as it remains in use or occupation (which Proudhon called “possession“)—thus advocating personal property but not private property. Mutualists have distinguished Mutualism from state socialism and do not advocate state control over the means of production.


Though not the first to coin the term Mutualism, Proudhon’s writings brought it to the Anarchist community. Mutualism is similar to individualist anarchism doctrines of the 19th century though with differences. Some classify Proudhon as a Social Anarchist and some as an Individualist Anarchist.  Other philosophers like Clarence Swartz had this to say about Mutualism:

“A Social System Based on Equal Freedom, Reciprocity, and the Sovereignty of the Individual Over Himself, His Affairs, and His Products, Realized Through Individual Initiative, Free Contract, Cooperation, Competition, and Voluntary Association for Defense Against the Invasive and for the Protection of Life, Liberty and Property of the Non-invasive.”


Mutualists argue that association is only necessary where there is an organic combination of forces. For instance, an operation that requires specialization and many different workers performing their individual tasks to complete a unified product, i.e. a factory. An operation that can be performed by an individual without the help of specialized workers does not require association. One of the better descriptions of Mutualism is a summary of Proudhon’s philosophy by G. Ostergaard:

… he argued that working men should emancipate themselves, not by political but by economic means, through the voluntary organization of their own labour–a concept to which he attached redemptive value.  His proposed system of equitable exchange between self-governing producers, organized individually or in association and financed by free credit, was called ‘Mutualism’.  The units of the radically decentralized and pluralistic social order that he envisaged were to be linked at all levels by applying ‘the federal principle’.

Modern day Mutualists work along with Collective and Communist Anarchists despite differences in philosophy. Most Mutualists refuse to associate with crypto Fascists who call themselves Anarchist Capitalists, thus the reason for cooperation with Collectivists and Communists. The support of personal property and opposition of private property are the main causes behind the solidarity between philosophies. The need to oppose the state and capitalistic oppression outweigh the differences between Anarchists.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote:
“Capital”… in the political field is analogous to “government”… The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them . . . What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit. This trinity of absolutism is as baneful in practice as it is in philosophy. The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon also wrote:
To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

In What Is Property? Proudhon wrote:
Property, acting by exclusion and encroachment, while population was increasing, has been the life-principle and definitive cause of all revolutions. Religious wars, and wars of conquest, when they have stopped short of the extermination of races, have been only accidental disturbances, soon repaired by the mathematical progression of the life of nations. The downfall and death of societies are due to the power of accumulation possessed by property.

Therefore property is theft.



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