The Isocracy Network interviews Mr. Carson on the theory and practice of mutualism, worker self-management, anarchist thinkers and his critics.

3 Nov 09 | The Isocracy Network

Kevin Carson, an American political theorist and a contemporary leader in discussions concerning mutualism and author of three extremely important books on co-operation, mutualism and capitalism. Describing his politics as being “the outer fringes of both free market libertarianism and socialism”, he certainly will find a welcoming audience among our group—which is why he’s been asked several difficult questions.

The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand” is available in HTML format and Studies in Mutualist Political Economy and Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective are both available as PDF files.

Firstly, thank you Kevin for agreeing to this interview with The Isocracy Network.

Thanks for inviting me.

Could you begin by giving a description of mutualism from the initial definition offered by the anarchist, Proudhon, to contemporary examples and your own involvement in this sort of analysis of political economy?

Well, first of all, it’s important to distinguish between mutualism as a general form of praxis, and mutualism as a theory. Mutualist practices (friendly societies and lodges, guilds, arrangements for mutual aid, etc.) are probably old as the human race. Proudhon, Owen, Warren, et al simply created a theoretical framework that emphasized such forms of organization as a building block of society. It’s a bit like the centipede trying to figure out how it’s been walking all this time, or the man who was astonished to learn he’d been speaking in prose all along and didn’t even know it.

For that matter, there have been important anarchist thinkers like Kropotkin who emphasized mutual aid and other mutual organizations, without in any strict sense being mutualists. Cooperatives and mutuals have been central to the counterinstitution-building of much of the decentralist Left in the U.S. since the 1960s, but their thought is not explicitly mutualist either.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of the important examples of mutualist practice (the cooperative movement, the local currency and alternative credit movements, etc.) are not explicitly or self-consciously mutualist in ideology.

Having read Proudhon for some years, his thought is so complex and at times even seemingly self-contradictory, that I still hesitate to summarize it. But I’d venture to say, as an approximation, that his programme centered on: 1) abolishing artificial property rights in land and artificial scarcity of credit, so that the working class could secure cheap access to the prerequisites of production; and 2) organizing the economy around associations of producers. Of course Proudhon was an important founding thinker for anarchism as a whole as well as for mutualism; so these ideas, in modified form, have heavily influenced later collectivist, communist and syndicalist variants of anarchism.

Mutualist praxis was central to the Owenite movement in the U.K. (e.g. Owenite craft unions organized cooperative production and distribution by strikers in their own shops), as well as such things as the Rochedale cooperatives, the Chartists, and land colonization movements. Owenism, by way of Christian socialism and guild socialism, probably had a significant (if indirect) influence on distributism.

In the U.S. mutualism’s primary founder was the Owenite Josiah Warren. Warrenism, cross-pollinated with J.K. Ingalls’ occupancy-and-use view of land ownership and William Greene’s mutual banking theories, together led to the plumbline individualism of Benjamin Tucker. Tucker focused almost entirely on the abolition of artificial property rights and privilege in land and credit, assuming that when the legal props to rent and interest were removed and cheap land and credit were universally available, the forms of organization would take care of themselves. He displayed almost no interest whatever in cooperatives, associations for mutual aid, etc., as such.

Dyer Lum, John Beverley Robinson, and Clarence Swartz, all heavily influenced by Tucker, supplemented his focus on eliminating monopolies with some positive speculation on cooperative forms of organization; in so doing, they represented a partial fusion of Tucker’s version of individualism with the older cooperativist tradition of Proudhon and Owen. Lum, in particular, was also friendly to the radical labor movement and had fairly close ties to the I.W.W.

Would a highly successful large worker’s cooperatives, like the John Lewis Partnership in the U.K., and the Mondragón Corporation in Spain [centered in Basque Country] serve as evidence that mutualist economics can and does work in the large scale? Are credit unions evidence that mutualist economics can replace capitalist banking?

Although I’m quite friendly to both Mondragon and credit unions, and consider their influence to be decidedly positive, I believe their form is still distorted considerably by the capitalist milieu within which they exist. I like Mondragon’s federated system of cooperative producers, distributors and banks within a single umbrella organization. But it’s much too centralized a system in my opinion, with worker representation only effected at the level of the board of directors for the system as a whole; below the level of the Mondragon system as a whole, it’s a fairly top-down system of conventional management, with no significant self-management at the level of individual departments or factories.

I would greatly prefer local markets with lots of stand-alone cooperative manufacturing shops on the Emilia-Romagna model, integrated with cooperative banks in some sort of barter or local currency network of the sort promoted by Tom Greco.

Most credit unions, unfortunately, have adopted the culture of the conventional banking industry, and have almost no ideological affinity for the larger cooperative or counter-economy movement. Of course they are still greatly preferable to capitalist banks; being controlled by many small, local depositors, they are far less prone to the excesses of the capitalist banking system that we’ve seen in recent years.

Proudhon, although arguing that he opposed the idea of individuals deriving an income through rent and investments, said that he never wished “to forbid or suppress, by sovereign decree” such activities. A contemporary mainstream economist may argue that Proudhon’s position here would be particularly utopian in those markets that have high barriers to entry or other monopolistic features, that a worker’s cooperative versus an entrenched capitalist enterprise in such a market would require a miracle on the scale of David vs, Goliath for success.

That sounds a bit like Tucker’s pessimistic view of things in his later years, when he seemed resigned to the idea that the large industrial trusts had grown to the point that their market power would persist even after the Four Monopolies were removed.

I think such a view neglects the extent to which capital-intensiveness is a source of high overhead cost and inefficiency, and is only made artificially profitable by the state’s subsidies and protections. In fact production as such has become far less capital-intensive over the past three decades, with the old mass-production core outsourcing increasing shares of total production to flexible manufacturing networks and job-shops, and some of them retaining little more than control over marketing and “intellectual property.” The development of cheap, small-scale CNC tools in the 1970s meant that the capital outlays required for manufacturing imploded by one or two orders of magnitude. That was the beginning of a long shift from older mass-production industry to Emilia-Romagna, the Toyota supplier network, the job-shops of Shenzhen and Shanghai, etc.

The process continues even further in the same direction with the desktop manufacturing revolution of recent years: cheap, homebrew CNC machines scalable to the small shop and garage.

When physical capital costs are so low, most of the financial role of the old industrial core is becoming redundant. And with small-scale production driven by local orders on a lean, demand-pull, JIT basis, marketing is similarly redundant.

“Intellectual property” is the main surviving buttress to the old corporate walls, and it’s becoming increasingly unenforceable.

A follower of Henry George would argue in the realm of natural resources it would be impossible for success and that land-rents should be socialised. How would you respond to these claims?

I’m quite friendly to George, and think the lines between individualism and Georgism are a lot less harsh than (say) Tucker would have believed. But I believe a great deal of rent could be eliminated simply by removing subsidies to economic centralization and positive externalities created by taxpayers—not to mention by removing state enforcement of title to vacant and unimproved land. If as much urban infrastructure as possible were funded by user fees, and cities broken up into lots of mixed-use neighborhoods in which residential areas had their own miniature “downtown” cores, differential rent would be far less significant. I think a majority of George’s aims could be achieved by Tucker’s means, or even by a throughgoing application of Rothbard’s means.

With examples of worker’s self-management in the former Yugoslavia, and modelling by economists such as Jaroslav Vanek and Benjamin Ward, it has been shown in some cases (especially in critical infrastructure) it is advantageous for labor-managed firms, in their objective of increasing income per worker, to either lay-off workers or—like a monopolistic capitalist firm – to reduce productivity and thus derive monopoly profits. How would a contemporary version of mutualism prevent these problems?

It’s been a long time since I read Vanek’s work on worker-managed economies, but my immediate reaction is that there’s probably no fool-proof set of governance rules. When the firm is controlled by capital-owners, they’ll behave in such a way as to maximize returns on capital; when it’s controlled by managers, as in most large Western corporations, they’ll maximize benefits to management at the expense of both labor and capital. At least in a worker-managed firm, the decisions will reflect the interests of a bare majority, which can’t be said of the other two mechanisms. Beyond that, I think the answer to the kind of behavior you describe lies in exit as much as in voice: the lower the capitalization requirements and the lower the barrier to entry for most forms of production, and the lower the cost threshold for comfortable subsistence, the less catastrophic changes in employment will be. I’d like to see an economy where a much larger share of total consumption needs are met through production for subsistence or barter in the household/informal sector, and the average time spent in wage employment is much less than at present.

That would mean a significantly larger share of the population would be self-employed than at present, a very large share would work hours that we would regard as “part-time,” household arrangements for pooling wages and hoarding labor-time would be much more resilient, and even wage-earners would tend to accept as normal prolonged periods of unemployment during which they lived off subsistence resources while waiting for a job to their liking.

Pro-capitalist neoliberals, such as George Reismann, Roderick T. Long have criticised your advocacy of mutualism. Reisman and Long both argue that you do not support John Locke’s ownership of landed property that has been mixed with labour or, to use the peculiarly U.S. vernacular, “homesteading”. It seems that both this critics have fundamentally misunderstood Locke’s concept of land ownership, which recognises a public cost for exclusion and use in addition to the right of added value. How do you respond to these criticisms?

To be frank, I can’t say with any degree of confidence what Reisman understands about anything. But I think Long acknowledged Locke’s Proviso and explicitly characterized his own position as “non-Proviso Lockeanism.” I’m not a Georgist myself, although I’d be well-disposed to a local property rules system based on some form of common ownership and community collection of rent. In any case, justifiably or not, when answering Lockean critics I tend to tacitly work from the premise that “Lockean” means “non-Proviso Lockean.” And for the most part, I think a radical and consistent application of non-Proviso Lockean rules would go most of the way toward achieving the aims of the Tucker-Ingalls land theory.

… all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous band of nature: … Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property… For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.

–John Locke, Of Civil Government – Second Treatise

For that matter, over time I’ve come to see the bounderies between the Tucker-Ingalls and non-Proviso Lockean systems as less distinct, and to perceive some practical problems with the Tucker system (at least the more radical variant–he seems to promote different versions of the system at different times). At times Tucker himself seemed to concede the existence of house-rent, but to argue that the nullification of titles to vacant land would (through market competition) cause the land-rent component of rent to disappear and overall rent to fall to the value of rent on buildings. Now, to me, that seems to imply that Tucker wasn’t necessarily (at least at times) dead-set against absentee ownership in principle. That variant of his land theory, at least, seems to imply that the important thing was to eliminate large-scale absentee title to vacant and unimproved land.

In any case, I tend to think that doing so would go a long way to eliminating landlord rent through market competition.

Another critic, Walter Block argues that you are actually some sort of Marxist because you use the labour theory of value for deriving a theory of exploitation. It would seem that (a) Block is unaware that Adam Smith and David Ricardo also used the labour theory of value and (b) using it to calculate a rate of exploitation is hardly the same as using it as an anchor to exchange values.

I think the Austrians also, for the most part, exaggerate the extent to which marginalism/subjectivism is a radical departure from classical labor and cost theories. It’s closer to the truth to say that marginalism provides a mechanism for explaining the tendency that Ricardo et al described. The marginalist/subjectivist claim that “utility determines value” is true in a technical sense, if you add the qualification “at any point in time given the snapshot of supply and demand in the spot market.” But it’s not true in the ordinary way we use those words. If you allow changes in supply over time to enter the picture, then supply alters until the utility of the marginal unit reflects the cost of producing it—i.e., exactly what Ricardo said.

It makes far more sense to treat marginalism as a complement or fulfillment to classical political economy, rather than as supplanting it.

Politically, where do you think mutualists should align themselves. Should they spend their efforts in building cooperative organisations, like Proudhon’s advocacy of dual power? Or is there some mileage to be made in being involved in existing political organisations, such as the Labour Party—Cooperative Party groups in the U.K.? What about in the United States; is the Libertarian Party salvageable?

I think by far the most important, and the most interest, of our tasks is actually building the kind of society we want, and doing so so far as possible without regard to the state. But there’s something to be said for putting external pressure on the state, and participating in political coalitions to remove as much state interference with our activities as possible. Of course the primary emphasis of such coalition-building should be forming pressure groups, rather than attempting to become part of a governing coalition.

A lot of this parallels Daniel DeLeon’s disputes with the anarchists in the I.W.W. DeLeon argued that “building the structure of the new society in the shell of the old” (i.e. building industrial unions to serve as organs of self-management) would not be enough by itself. So long as the capitalists controlled the state and its armed force, and the significant minority of people whose class interest was tied up with it, there was the danger of the “Iron Heel” being brought to bear against counter-organizations. On the other hand, political victory alone wasn’t sufficient; he gave the example of threats by Jay Gould to organize a national capital strike and lockout if the socialists ever captured the national government. Workers, DeLeon argued, should be focused on building counter-institutions, but also be prepared to seize the commanding heights of the state long enough to dismantle them and prevent them from being used against themselves.

What we need is a primary focus on institution building, without entirely neglecting the need for a political movement to run interference for the counter-institutions.

What’s more, there’s the very real danger an authoritarian state might make a concerted effort to stamp out the counter-economy through (for example) the kinds of totalitarian surveillance Richard Stallman described in “The Right to Read,” intensified licensing and zoning to suppress low-capital producers, etc. It’s a waste of effort and probably corrupting to seriously run our people for Congress or the White House. But it’s perfectly sensible to carry out propaganda against legislation like the DMCA, to support lobbying campaigns organized by groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and NORML, etc.

Proudhon argued that through a society of contracts between individuals, a federal structure could arise. This of course must presume that individuals have the capacity to engage in uncoerced contractual arrangements. What other political requirements do you think have a particular priority in breaking down authoritarian elements in statist rule?

Well, it could be that the authoritarian elements of statist rule will persist on paper right up to the point at which they become irrelevant. But in my opinion it’s at least worth a shot to pressure the state from outside, and form ad hoc alliances to pressure the state, in order to minimize its interference and fend off attempts at intensified interference. That includes local efforts against licensing and zoning that impede household microenterprise and micromanufacturing, local pressure to defend peaceful squatters and vagrants, pressure against the regulatory suppression of self-organized mutual-aid efforts, pressure at the national level against further expanding “intellectual property” law, and so forth.

Kevin, thank you for your time and views.

Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society, contemporary mutualist author and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy and Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective. Mr. Carson has also written for a variety of internet-based journals and blogs, including Just Things, The Art of the Possible, the P2P Foundation and his own Mutualist Blog.

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