By Ewan Bolton
We hear many labels chucked around the political arena these days -- Socialist, Conservative, Alt-Right, Classical Liberal, Anarcho-Communist etc. But one rather niche title goes unuttered: Mutualist. It doesn’t deserve this silence, because it is a great unifier of left (or perhaps far left) ideas, while still maintaining several key aspects of the current economic model.
The most central principle of socialism is that the workers own and keep the profits of the produce of the means of production, and have total control over the means of production. Yet in many of the systems advocated for today and tried in the past; these criteria are met in no more than principle. Their proponents may cry “nationalise this, nationalise that!”, believing it will give workers true ownership and control. As Margaret Thatcher, an admittedly strange person to quote in this context, put it: “What earthly use is it that families should have a millionth share in some nationalised industry?”. This is the crux of the issue with much of leftist ideology; this promotion of the state over business which is somehow supposed to imply that it makes a difference to a worker if they’re paid from the public purse instead of the private purse, or have decisions made by civil servants instead of businesspeople.
So, what is the third option? Many would point to the traditional centrism and liberalism espoused by the likes of Blair and more recently Macron. But this is simply capitalism with a human face; a plaster over a gaping wound. For some, the only system that would constitute a true compromise would be Mutualism.
The basic principle of Mutualism is that everyone can own and have control over the means of production, either cooperatively or individually; nobody exploits another person’s labour for profit. Sounds like Socialism, no? Well, the key difference is that, in this system, there is still a market. Therefore, value is still determined by supply and demand, rather than labour value, which has proven itself to be problematic as a means of determining value of products and services. A mutualist economy would be a free market within which coops, non-profits and individual traders would operate. In its purest form, there isn’t even a state – though this system could certainly operate alongside and within one.
Even if one believes markets to be inherently inefficient or even evil, Mutualism could be viewed as a transitional device between capitalism and ‘true’ socialism. The key aspect in that sense is that a Mutualist economy within a country -- with the right protections against multinationals by the government – could still interact with and operate within the global market, and not get strangled like many socialist states of the past.
This brings us onto our biggest question, however: implementation. Despite being first devised in the 1820s, and then explained and expanded by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, it has never been meaningfully attempted anywhere and so there is no guide to any pitfalls a state or group of people would encounter whilst trying to base an economy or network in such a way. One route of implementing it, supported by Proudhon himself, was the idea of ‘dual power’;
simply not using or engaging with the current establishment through abstentionism and boycotting. However, it is unrealistic to assume these methods would work in the present day, certainly not in a developed country such as the UK or France. Another method may be the traditional left-wing route of revolution, although again, that seems rather unlikely in the modern west. That leaves democracy as the only way.
Assuming a government that wanted to base an economy around Mutualism got into office, what would it have to do for its plan to succeed? A good start would likely be to classify cooperatives differently to businesses in terms of taxation and labour-laws, in a way that made them more appealing and competitive. This would be aided by state investment and loaning to start up cooperatives. Of course, this would just be baby steps, the end goal is to rid the economy of all traditional businesses. Workers could be given the power to buy up the company they work for -- with state support. Compulsory purchase orders and seizure of assets -- in the name of the common good – could be used by the state to turn businesses into coops, though changes to the law would likely be needed to grant greater powers in this regard.
This would lead to a natural -- though likely slow -- growth in the number of cooperative start-ups, as well as state created ones. Once a certain ratio of coops to traditional businesses had been met, say fifty-fifty, the government could start taking even more aggressive steps against exploitative and profiteering businesses, and eventually outlaw that model of business altogether. The hope thereafter would be that this economy ran well; better than its contemporaries, and that it would survive acting as an example; a beacon of progress to other nations and a goal to strive for. Alas, the churning of the establishment oriented media and general difficulty to sway public opinion would leave this final step as one of wishful thinking… even if that be so, there is no particular reason that a lone country couldn’t survive in the global market with such an economy; far more than can be said for most previous Socialist states.
Why not give it a go?
1- 1983 Conservative Party election broadcast