What is Mutualism?

Work in progress

Mutualism is a family of socialist ideologies that assert that liberating the working classes involves allowing them to have full access to the rewards of their labour, full autonomy in determining how they labour and that large organisations must embrace economic democracy to facilitate the communication of information workers will deem necessary to get the full reward of their labour.

Mutualism belongs to the libertarian family of socialist ideologies, mutualists tend to support either a small-state or an anarchy. It advocates free markets, though differing families within mutualist thought differ in how they define a free market, this difference is primarily because different economic frameworks are utilised to understand how economic systems work.

Mutualists are market radicals, they want to fundamentally change the institutions operating within the market to create a set of conditions that will promote economic and social equality. Some market radicals are market anarchists, while others want a state to introduce a legal system that promotes property rights.

Market anarchists believe that the state plays a fundamental role in corrupting markets so that they don’t promote equality and enhance freedom for workers. The only way to strive for equality involves abolishing the state. Once the state is abolished certain privileges granted by the state, such as intellectual property, will no longer be enforced ensuring monopolies that exist as a result of intellectual property will have to face the full force of market competition.

Non-anarchist market radicals, like myself, believe that the roots of inequality rely in social relations themselves, not the state. A social relation, simply, is a form of interaction with some other entity in society. Essentially all societies will be unequal as all societies rely upon social relations to exist. The only way to achieve equality for yourself and others involves isolating yourself from others completely. The absurdity of this conclusion should be apparent.

Consequently, non-anarchist market radicals attempt to mould an equal society by defining institutions that encourage social relations to exist which promote equality, rather than inequality. Some social interactions enhance equality, while others don’t. Encouraging cooperative behaviour, empathy and mutual aid among one another is central to promoting equality. Granting people a sufficient level of welfare is also deemed necessary to ensure people don’t enter structural property.

So far most mutualists living today are anarchists, they have been heavily influenced by an interpretation of mutualism from the American thinker Kevin Carson. Kevin Carson take cues from the founder of mutualism Joseph-Pierre Proudhon, who was the originator of the term anarchist as well, but taking more influence from individualistic anarchists such Benjamin Tucker. He’s recently taking a keen interest in the works of Henry George.

My position is held currently by myself only on the other hand, the purpose of this blog to change that. I am influenced by Proudhon and George as well. I am also influenced by Silvio Gesell, Irving Fischer, Hyman Minsky, Joseph Schumpeter, Thorstein Veblen and …

Mutualism can be said to be a synthesis of capitalism and socialism. Kevin Carson, the most famous contemporary advocate of Mutualism, call its a form of “free-market socialism”. In the 19th century, many Mutualists called themselves libertarian socialists despite being supportive of a market economy.

Advocates of mutualism tend to be very critical the role of the state plays in enforcing inequalities in a market system. The state acts as the role of enforcing rules in the market, usually these rules are made to benefit particular vested interests.The vested interests tend to be those with the power and influence in society who can manipulate the political system for themselves.

Due to this strong suspicion of the role of the state in a market economy, mutualists such as Kevin Carson tend to be market anarchists. So mutualism does have a strong anarchist under current to it which is to be expected as the founder of mutualism Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first anarchist to utilise that term.

The Mutualist does not share the belief that mutualism must be an ideology in which anarchy is necessary. The Mutualist tends to side with left libertarians, usually Georgists and Steiner-Vallentyne libertarians, who advocate the need of the state.

For this reason, the Mutualist has referred to the anarchist form of mutualism as anarcho-mutualism. Also, cooperativism and distributivism have also been referred to in this article as they hold some similarities to mutualism.


Mutualism originally was an anarchist movement developed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He seeked to synthesise market economics with left wing concerns about the exploitation of workers in the capitalist system.

His solution was to develop an economic system with no waged labour in which all who worked were either self-employed or for a cooperative.

Proudhon believed that the gradual elimination of the state would ensure that the market would lead to an equitable and equal society based on socialist and market principles.

Like many left-libertarians, Proudhon was concerned greatly with the vast amounts of hierarchy and inequalities within society during the 19th century. This played a huge influence in his belief that workers would need to own the means of production in an economy through cooperatives, in order to stop the exploitation found in a capitalist system.

Proudhon’s belief in markets was centred on his criticism of using a planned system, which would be hierarchical in nature, to distribute resources in an economy. So, instead, Proudhon advocated a more decentralised method based on exchange in a market.

Proudhon’s insight was the way the market was organised lead to injustices within the capitalist system. For capitalism was an economic system in which a powerful minority would own the mean of production  and be able to dictate to workers their duties in order that they would get paid for subsistence.

Anarcho-mutualism, or Mutualism, is individualist in nature. This means that mutualism is in fact concerned primarily with the individual, granting the individual the right to have their own identity. Their identity not needing to be shaped by external factors such as the state, society, groups and traditions.

Anarcho-mutualist accept the labour theory of value, which stipulates the value of any given commodity is determined by the amount of labour put into its manufacturing. This acceptance of the labour theory of value alongside the belief in social ownership of the means of production ensures that mutualism is a form of socialism.

A group called the neo-mutualist are an offset of the mutualist tradition but reject an economic analysis based on the labour theory of value.


Cooperativists are more influenced by Robert Owen than Proudhon. Cooperatives are not anarchists for a start, they are more likely to be social democrats who would prefer a more decentralised form of social democracy rather than the more centralised version seen in the UK during the post-war consensus.

Cooperativists trace their roots through the foundation of the cooperative movement and to its founder Robert Owen. Robert Owen was an Utopian Socialist in the early to mid 19th century. Cooperatives are deemed an ethical form of business due to the fact that cooperatives tend to be more supportive of running operations to help the local community. Cooperativism is less a political ideology and more an ideology for ethical economics.

Cooperativists believe that state regulation of the economy is necessary as well as a belief that the state will need to interfere in the economy to correct market failures. Like social democrats, they share the belief that markets can fail and that supporting cooperatives is more help encourage a more ethical form of capitalism rather than to replace state intervention in the economy.

In the UK, the cooperative movement is represented in Westminster by the Cooperative Party. The Co-op Party is affiliated with the Labour party. Some Labour MPs also run as Co-op MPs as part of a Labour and Cooperative alliance.


A very similar view to mutualism is distributism. It is an economic philosophy based on common ownership of land in order that families and individuals can be self-sufficient.

The primary difference between mutualism and distributism is that mutualism origins were with anarchism while distributism origins lay in socially conservative Catholic Social Teachings. Distributists are more likely to be conservative in outlook, though they share similar concerns to mutualists about capitalism and state socialism.  For this reason, mutualists tend to be more radical, more libertarian inclined, more supportive of free markets and more inclined to accept the premises of libertarian socilaism compared to distributism.

Supportive of a more agrarian economy, distributivists support a heavily decentralised economy based upon the family unit. Property rights are seen as essential but for a just social order to arise private ownership must be wide spread rather than centralised to agents such as the state (socialism), the corporation (corporatocracy), or a few individuals (plutocracy). It is a form of egalitarian Toryism or conservatism.

Key supporters of the distributist movement include G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Pope Francis and Philip Blond, director of ResPublica think tank..

State Capitalism v Market Socialism

Market socialism, in the Mutualist sense, is the system that the economy will be a market based economy in which the means of production will be owned by either self-employed individuals or via employee owned cooperatives.

State capitalism on the other hand is an economic system in which a large amount of the economy is publicly owned and this publicly and privately owned sectors of the economy seek to gain through the profit motive.

The former is a decentralised form of socialism in which control over production and or consumption is spread on roughly equal terms to each member of society. It can feature many of the benefits that a market economy can have, in particular the advantages of the price mechanism.

The latter is a centralised economy in which the state plays a highly active role in the economy by providing jobs for workers but also to earn money for the state itself. State capitalism can also be referred to as a form of market socialism. This form of “market socialism” is the economic model used by the People Republic of China. It is socialist not in the sense that the workers own the mean of production, but in the sense owns a large portion of the economy. In other worlds, there is a very large nationalised public sector in a market economy. Though state capitalism is the preferred label due to the fact waged labour is utilised rather than common ownership of the means of production.