What is Mutualism?
by Clarence Lee Swartz
In collaboration with The Mutualist Associates (1927)
- Mutualism Universally Applicable
- The Four Great Monopolies
- Cooperation and Competition
- History of the Term Mutualism
The desire for freedom from oppression has inspired man in all ages; but the conception of what constitutes freedom has varied according to racial temperament, to the prevailing level of intelligence, to traditions, to physical environment, and to the nature and intensity of the particular oppression which seemed most flagrant at the time. The conceptions of freedom have run the gamut from a faint hope for ever so slight a mitigation of unbearable burdens to an all-consuming passion for absolute freedom, and even today it suffers almost as many interpretations as there are social and political creeds.
To propound the question: Why are people asking for freedom - why are they not satisfied with things as they are? is to make it necessary, before answering, to ask another question: What is the chief end of existence? Philosophers have tried to answer this question since the beginnings of recorded history - who knows if not earlier? It remained for Herbert Spencer (the great English philosopher, in his book, Social Statics) to answer that question in a most comprehensive manner. He points out, in substance, that nearly all persons - including religious teachers and every writer on morality - teach that human well-being is the goal of life. He develops his argument at great length, and proceeds to prove that the only means for attaining that end is to allow every human being the greatest amount of freedom possible - that is, the greatest amount that he can have without limiting to a greater degree the freedom of others. From this conclusion he generalizes his famous formula of Equal Freedom:
That every man may claim the fullest liberty to do as he wills compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man.
The inclination of the average person toward authoritarianism - that is, toward the coercion of the individual by organized society - is induced, naturally, by the fear of the aggressiveness or invasiveness of his neighbour. He feels, to be sure, that he himself needs no restraint - it is only the other fellow who is to be feared. This feeling arises from two sources: First, desire of man to secure an advantage over a competitor; and, Second, the overestimation of his own liberty in relation to that of others.
There is no other solution than education.
Unless the individual knows precisely the significance of all his acts and their effect upon his fellow, he has no serviceable means of gauging the measure of self-restraint which he must exercise. If one has studied the problem sufficiently to be able to know or to comprehend when a particular act will limit the opportunity of another to exercise his faculties to less than a like extent, one then may realize that he is overstepping the limits of equal freedom. Since man is a gregarious animal, and lives and associates with his kind; and, further, since he must cooperate with others of his species in order to carry out practically all the enterprises which his mind conceives, he must find some basis upon which to establish such social relations.
Now, it should be obvious that, if the highest efficiency is to result from his efforts, and if there is to be any degree of permanency to the relationship, the arrangement must - above all else - be an equitable one. It is freely admitted that many bases for such relations have been experimented with, and some of them have worked fairly well for a time. It also is admitted that such, as have been tried, have been tolerably well adapted to the stage of development through which the race was passing at the time.
Finally, likewise, it cannot be denied that the plan at present in use is the best that so far has been employed. But it is not equitable! And it is therefore not the best conceivable or even the best possible system. Of course it is a compromise. All schemes - since the very first - have been compromises. And even an ideal one also must be a compromise.
But with each step there has been - and in the future always will be - an attempt to put more equity into the compromise. To acquire sufficient knowledge to effect such compromise is, it seems, with most people, a slow and painful process. But it can be done. The personal or purely physical part of the question is extremely simple and clear. In its plainest form it may be expressed by the example of two persons wishing to look at a certain object. If one takes his position in front of the other, clearly he is limiting the opportunity of the other to less than his own. If, on the other hand, the two stand side by side, neither interferes with the view of the other, consequently their freedom is equal.
That situation is capable of extension, with due modification to obtain conformity to all variations of circumstances, to all the activities of life. Greater complexities naturally arise, however, when the matter of property rights is considered, and many subtle and vexing factors enter. Yet the same guidance may be secured by measuring all problems by the simple formula of equality of liberty.
If one man, through his superior intelligence and skill, or greater industry, can produce a larger amount of goods in a given time than another, and can therefore accumulate more than the latter, he, by doing so, in no wise limits the equal freedom of the other. On the other hand, if in the interest of the inefficient producer it should be attempted to take the surplus product from the other, it would be a violation of the principle of equal liberty.
It is but natural, as Walt Whitman said, that each should consider his own flesh the sweetest, and therefore a person feels more keenly any denial of his own personal liberty than he does that of his neighbour. In different persons this egoism varies with the personal equation, and inversely to the education and culture of the individual. Therefore, to realize that the happiness of others is just as important to them as one's own is to oneself, is the first step freedomward. To the extent that one is devoid of understanding of the other fellow's position and circumstances, just so far is one likely to be unwilling to grant him an equality of freedom. In other words, a person must be able so to detach himself from his own environment that he can look at the situation of his fellow man and at that of himself with an impartial eye.
To attain this justness of vision is no small task, but it is necessary to the complete comprehension of the basic principle of equality of freedom. Now, what are the inducements which may be offered for the acceptance of this principle? Every human being desires happiness. In fact, all his energies are directed toward securing, first, a livelihood, then (in proportion to his ambition), a competence, affluence, or complete power to satisfy all his desires. The satisfaction of all his wants - in the widest sense - represents the nearest approach to happiness that anybody can conceive. Equal liberty means that everybody will have equal opportunity in the quest for the things that bring happiness and that everybody will be protected in the enjoyment of those things once they have been secured.
Without security and tranquillity, happiness to a normal man is inconceivable. There never can be either of those states as long as some persons have less freedom than others. Therefore, when there is assurance of equality of opportunity for everyone, the inviolability of the person of each and the security of each in the possession of the product of his labor will be threatened only by the anti-social and criminally inclined, and protection against these can be secured through the common measures which society always must take for the safe-guarding of the lives and property of its members.
Now, once society has contrived to obtain, approximate security, as outlined above, (such security can never be absolute), and once it has so developed the consciousness of its members that they do not find happiness in the coercion of their fellow man or in his possession of less opportunity for the exercise of his faculties than they themselves possess, we are at the threshold of the acceptance of the principle of equal liberty, and its application will be comparatively easy.
The highest conception of freedom, then, is the greatest measure of individual liberty obtainable; for to live his own life to the fullest extent possible is what every man desires, secretly or openly, whether he realizes it or not. This is the only way to get satisfaction out of life; and all men crave satisfaction and happiness.
There are various "isms" which teach that society at large can best be benefited by the individual's sub-mission (more or less completely) to a central state, government, commune, or by whatever other term this controlling power (which pretends to be rational and benevolent) pleases to be called. The individual is largely ignored.
The theory of Mutualism, on the other hand, maintains that the interests of society at large are best served by the same means which go farthest to promote the interests of the individual: freedom from restraint, as long as the individual's activities are non-invasive; elimination of all factors which artificially limit man's opportunities; voluntary organization of society into associations as the need for them arises in order to carry on such activities as are beyond the power of the single individual; in short, a voluntary creation and mutual exchange of commodities under conditions which exclude special privileges and state-protected monopolies.
Mutualism cannot be pictured in operation unless there is in mind the attitude which will make such a system possible. This is not said for the purpose of reviving the age-old discussion as to whether a change in conditions would be a moral or an intellectual one, or both, or whether the world will have to wait until men are born good before better conditions can be had.
Dealing with the economic phase of Mutualism, it can be shown on analysis that great changes for the better are possible; but men must be shown how to bring about these changes, and must be willing to work for them. This belief in a better condition, a system where goods and services ore exchanged equitably - that is, on a mutual basis - instead of as at present, where everyone is trying to gouge or plunder another, is what may be called a change of attitude.
Mutualism is applicable to every human relation. Throughout the whole gamut of existence, from birth to death, mutuality - voluntary association for reciprocal action - can be felt everywhere and is at every moment available and waiting to solve every problem of social intercourse, to decide every issue that arises in commerce and industry.
In order to live Mutualism, it is necessary to observe only two conditions:
- That the non-invasive individual shall not be coerced, and
- That no part of the product of any one's labor shall be taken from him without his consent.
From these negative generalizations thus postulated, thereby affirming the sovereignty of the individual, naturally flows the positive and constructive corollary - reciprocity; which implies individual initiative, free contract, and voluntary association. That there may be no uncertainty about the meaning of the term "sovereignty of the individual," it should be explained that it is here used to mean the complete control of the non-invasive individual over himself, his affairs, and the product of his labor.
Briefly, Mutualism is a social system based on reciprocal and non-invasive relations among free individuals.
The Mutualist standards are:
Individual: Equal freedom for each - without invasion of others.
Economic: Untrammelled reciprocity, implying freedom of exchange and contract - without monopoly or privilege.
Social: Complete freedom of voluntary association - without coercive organization.
As has been earlier pointed out, there are four great monopolies that take their toll from the product of labor.
First, and greatest of all, the money monopoly, established and maintained by the government through a national tax of ten per cent on all money not issued as specified by the government, which thereby exercises complete control over the amount of money in circulation and restricts its basis to one commodity only - gold. These federal regulations are supplemented by laws in most states making it a crime to issue any money except that authorized by the national government. This limitation upon the amount of currency that may circulate in the nation, and the restriction of the basis for the issue of currency to gold alone, makes it possible for those agencies controlling the issuance of money to determine, practically and directly, the rate of interest, and also, indirectly, commodity prices and the rent of buildings.
For the overthrow of this monopoly, Mutualism proposes to make banking free, and against this freedom stand only the national tax and the state laws above mentioned. With their removal the way would be open to the inauguration of the system of Mutual Banking described in detail elsewhere.
The Second great monopoly is that of land, whereby non-users are permitted to hold vast areas out of use, for purposes of speculation, which keeps idle labor from employing itself by recourse to unused land. Moreover, non-occupiers are protected in the holding of many parcels upon which they cannot reside or work, and this enables them, in conjunction with the privileges obtained through the money monopoly, to employ labor at a wage that represents only a portion of its full product. Mutualism would attack this monopoly by making occupancy and use the only title to land, and would abrogate all laws that protect any other kind of tenure. The process by which this system would be applied is also outlined and discussed at length in its proper place.
The Third in this quartet of iniquities is the tariff monopoly, by which the prices of many commodities are kept on an abnormally high level by a tax on importations which makes it impossible for foreign-made goods to compete with the products of domestic manufacturers, thus giving to the latter an artificial monopoly which enables them to rob the consumer at will, which extracts from labor in general another portion of its product. It must be admitted, however, that to abolish this monopoly and leave the others - especially that of money - intact, would work a great hardship on those employed in the protected manufacturing industries, since labor in these occupations obtains, under the present system, a higher wage than it would if there were no protecting tariff. Mutualism, therefore, would not abolish this monopoly first, since to do that and leave labor at the mercy of the money monopoly would be unwise and harmful, even though, in the meantime, all those engaged in producing commodities that are not protected against foreign competition are forced to pay tribute to those manufacturers who are so protected. When, however, money and land are made free, the abolition of the tariff monopoly would throw open the markets of this nation to the competition of the world, and the laborer would be able to retain that part of his product which is now taken away from him and put into the pockets of those who manufacture the tariff-protected goods he consumes.
The patent and copyright monopoly is the Fourth of the list, and it has permitted its beneficiaries to exact a tribute from the people, through the granting of an exclusive monopoly to inventors and authors, which greatly exceeds the actual labor value of the products of their intelligence and ingenuity. The great injustice of this monopoly may be better understood when it is considered that any person who might independently devise or produce a similar contrivance is prevented, by the special protection given the first one, who recorded his invention, from reaping any benefit from his own labor. In this case, not only is the consumer robbed but, likewise, every other producer.
Mutualism proposes freedom here, as well as elsewhere, and sees no reason why inventors and authors should be permitted to obtain more reward for their services than that which other laborers receive for theirs. The abolition of the special privileges of patents and copyrights would relieve the people from this source of extortion by opening up these lines of endeavor to the same competition that others must meet.
With these four major privileges eliminated, the others, that are entrained with them, would offer no serious difficulties.
Mutualism, which is the embodiment of both competitive and associative effort, teaches that there are two great rights that are admitted - in theory, at least - by everybody.
These are the right to compete and the right to cooperate; and, if the right to compete be conceded, so likewise must the right to refrain from competition, or the right to refrain from cooperation. In fact, the two activities go hand in hand; one can scarcely be conceived without the other. It is impossible to cooperate without, in some way, competing, just as competition, in its best and truest sense, does not preclude but prompts cooperation.
Cooperators, by the superior power derived from their combination, may be able to compete individuals or non-cooperators out of business; so that the keenest competition may make cooperation the price of survival. The two are twin economic forces that go to form the warp and woof of modern commercial and industrial life. Mutualism is prepared to harness them together in a team that will, under conditions of freedom, make them not only invincible but also the very bulwark of the new social order.
Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the great French economist, wrote a number of books in which he expounded the principle of liberty, and in which he attacked both the economists and the reformers.
Liberty was shown to be, as he well expressed it, "the mother and not the daughter of order".
Proudhon explained that by property he meant privilege, so that his famous saying, "Property is robbery," does not justify Communists in claiming him as an advocate of their doctrine. His earlier works are chiefly critical, but, in his later writings, which are more constructive, he formulated detailed plans for reform, such as mutual credit and possessory titles to land. In his book The Solution of the Social Problem (1848), the word "mutual" frequently appears, and in his last work, On the Political Capacity of the Working Class (1865), which was not published, until after his death, the terms "mutualists" and "mutualism" are mentioned constantly.
The word "mutualism" seems to have been first used by John Gray, an English writer, in 1832. In 1849, Col. William B. Greene, of Massachusetts, wrote a series of newspaper articles, afterward gathered and published under the title, Mutual Banking, in which he says:
“Mutualism operates, by its very nature, to render political government, founded on arbitrary force, superfluous; that is, it operates to the decentralization of the political power, and to the transformation of the State, by substituting self-government instead of government from without.”
This is also Proudhon's theory, which he felicitously called "the dissolution of government in the economic organism."
In another book, published in 1875, entitled Socialistic, Communistic, Mutualistic and Financial Fragments, Colonel Greene points out the difference between Mutualism and Communism. Here is what he says:
The first very marked step in human progress results from the division of labor. It is the characteristic of the division of labor, and of the economic distribution of tasks, that each individual tends to do precisely what the others do not do. As soon as labor is divided, communism necessarily ceases, and mutualism, the negation of communism, and the reciprocal correlation of each to every other, and of every other to each, for a common purpose, commences. The march of social progress is out of communism into mutualism.
Communism sacrifices the individual to secure the unity of the whole. Mutualism has unlimited individualism as the essential and necessary prior condition of its existence, and coordinates individuals, without any sacrifice of individuality, into one collective whole - by spontaneous confederation, or solidarity. Communism is the ideal of the past; mutualism, of the future.
The garden of Eden is before us, as something to be achieved and attained; not behind us, as something that was lost when labor was divided, tasks were distributed, individualities were encouraged, and communism, or the mere animal and instinctive social order, had the sentence pronounced against it, 'Dying, thou shalt surely die'.
Mutual insurance has shown, by practical exemplification, a little of what the nature, bearings, and workings of the mutualistic principle are. When the currency shall have become mutualized by mutual banks, and the rate of interest of money loaned shall have been brought down to zero per cent per annum, it will become possible to generalize mutual insurance, applying it to all the contingencies of life, so that men, instead of being, as now, antagonistic to each other, shall be so federated with each other that an accidental loss falling on any one individual shall be a loss to be compensated by all other individuals, while a gain accidentally accruing to any one individual shall fall to the community, and be shared by all.
Under the mutual system, each individual will receive the just and exact pay for his work; service equivalent in cost being exchangeable for services equivalent in cost without profit or discount; and so much as the individual laborer will then get over and above what he has earned will come to him as his share in the general prosperity of the community of which he is an individual member. The principle of mutuality in social economy is identical with the principle of federation in politics.
Make a note of this last fact. Individual sovereignty is the John the Baptist, without whose coming the mutualistic idea remains void. There is no mutualism without reciprocal consent; and none but individuals can enter into voluntary mutual relations. Mutualism is the synthesis of liberty and order.