Saturday, 24 January 2009

More Mutualist Notes

The Banking Bailout's Intellectual Guru Is Revealed (Seen Here Demonstrating His Theories in Practice)!

I'm currently reading Kevin Carson's Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, which I think has the reputation of being 'The Das Kapital of Modern Evolutionary Anarchism'. I've still to finish Mr. C's magnum opus, as there is a lot to take in...and my brain has largely forgotten how to absorb serious economic theory (as opposed to slogans) in one go. In fact I've left the opening part, the most theoretical section, largely alone, and sort of made my way through the historical and 'what is to be done now?' sections.

However, after those caveats, I'm glad I'm reading it, as I think embracing Mutualism is the way forward. As the state in Britain, the US and elsewhere is getting increasingly exposed as just means to prop up Big Business financially, I think there is a space now for an anti-corporate, non-statist alternative to Actual Existing Capitalism to make its voice heard and challenge the status quo. Mutualism seems to be a good a starting point as any for trying to achieve this.

To be frank, there has not been a lot of calls from the British Left for a Mutualist approach to the current crisis. Indeed, with the British state nationalising (totally or in part) much of the banking/financial sector here, there appears to be wind (sailing, not scatalogical, metaphor intended!) behind those on the British Left whose answer to every economic or business problem appears to be a call to nationalise the sector or company in trouble. There is nearly invariably accompanied by a simultaneous call for 'workers control' of aforesaid firm or sector. Thus far in the current crisis, the British state has not heeded those calls, and without some sort of employee or consumer representation, the moves by the state to intervene in the financial system can be seen as merely state capitalism, as the Independent Working Class Association has pointed out.

Intellectual Guru demonstrates 'Plan B'...

Furthermore, I think the Left (here and elsewhere) has to think beyond putting forward nationalisation as the answer to all problems. There are some sectors ie the utilities, the railways, the Post Office, the NHS where I cannot see how corporations can do a better job than the state. That is, Actual Existing Corporations, as opposed to those pie-in-the-sky enterprises Politicians, Think Tanks and Journalists seem to think run erstwhile public services. However, even in the public sector, there needs to be more than just state ownership, run (often at arm's length) from Whitehall. Tony Benn wrote back in 1980 that 'We have had enough experience now to know that nationalisation plus Lord Robens does not add up to socialism' (Arguments for Socialism, quoted in Geoffrey Foote [1986, Croom Helm]The Labour Party's Political Thought, p.330). Hence it should be pretty obvious that a state-owned bank headed by some failed ex-financier who sends Christmas cards to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair is NOT socialism either. There needs to be some sort of representation of employees and consumers in the running of public enterprises. This is not just 'a good thing' for socialists to support. It is essential that state-owned enterprises have some democratic input from those who work in them, and use their products, otherwise further down the line the claim that 'we are returning to the 1970s' or 'modelling the economy on the old Eastern Bloc model' will come to the fore and derail any moves towards a post-corporate society. Writing in the early 1980s (In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, Verso Press, 1983, p.49), Perry Anderson wrote about the need for a quite detailed exposition of what a socialist society would look like, as:

' is quite clear that without serious exploration and mapping of it, any political advance beyond a parliamentary capitalism will continue to be blocked. No working-class or popular bloc in a Westernsociety will ever make a leap in the dark, at this point in history, let alone into the grey on grey of an Eastern society of the type that exists today. A socialism that remains incognito will never be embraced by it.'

Over a quarter of a century on, the need for a non-statist vision of a socialist society is even more pressing, and I think Mutualism can play a large part in creating such a vision.

While contemplating writing this post, I came across the following article. At the very least, it shows that Mutualism does occur in real life, and does suggest that it is a way for the Left to move forward:

Citizenship in action
Swiss firefighters are a living rebuke to right and left: society does exist, but is best left alone
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Guardian, Thursday 22 January 2009

A week before Christmas my son and I were skiing in the Swiss resort of Mürren and staying at the Eiger Guest House run by Alan and Véronique Ramsay-Flück, a Scottish-Swiss couple. At breakfast one day Alan was nowhere to be seen. It transpired that he's now a Swiss citizen and a member of the village fire brigade, who had been called out at 4am to deal with a fire raging in a barn a few miles away. A dramatic picture in the next day's local paper showed the barn had burned out but that they saved the farmhouse next to it.

We were suitably impressed, but there was more to it. What had happened that night was something increasingly rare in my own country: citizenship in action, not to say co-operative mutual aid. The fire brigade in Mürren - as in other towns and villages, in some parts of the US, and in social-democratic Denmark - isn't professional but amateur, in the best sense of the word. The firefighters are part-timers, carrying pagers for call-outs. Their only reward is serving their community.

Our nearest equivalent is the wonderful Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which may not think of itself as making a political statement but does. The lifeboat crews are unpaid volunteers. And the whole organisation receives no state support but is entirely funded by public donations. If the behemoth of the modern state is one pattern for society, the RNLI is another.

And so is much of Swiss society. One of the more pleasing things, if one comes from our damp little island and is condemned to talk with an accent that defines caste, is that everyone in Mürren sounds the same. Educated people read books and papers in literary German, but doctor, plumber, postman and teacher all speak the same Schywyzerdütsch, the impenetrable local Swiss-German dialect.

Over the centuries, people with several different languages and religions found a way to live together peaceably in Switzerland. The army consists of every adult man, with his uniform in a cupboard at home; that citizen force was formidable enough to make Hitler think twice about invading. And by way of a decentralised confederal structure, democracy works in a most practical way, with decisions taken at local level.

To praise Swiss localism, or voluntary institutions, is to risk being called rightwing, but that's curious when you look at it. Every kind of "little platoon" is in truth a rebuke to both left and right. Since the 19th century, critics of the ever-growing state called themselves liberal individualists, a misnomer which ignored the obvious truth that most forms of creative human activity are collective. A Cornish lifeboat crew and an Oberland fire brigade refute dogmatic individualism and "vulgar-Thatcherism": there is such a thing as society. The real distinction isn't between individual and collective, but between the voluntary and the coercive.

And yet for that reason those amateur platoons are a rebuke also to the left - or at least to state socialism. In either its Leninist or Fabian forms, socialism assumed unconsciously that people could not or would not deal with their lives by their own initiative and through co-operation unenforced and unregulated by the state. Even the moderate socialism of our own Labour party was all too clearly based on the belief that the lower classes were too backward, feckless and idle to look after themselves and had to be taken care of, whether they liked it or not.

In that respect, the modern welfare state took over from older repressive institutions, and in the process helped eviscerate the finest thing Britain has produced: the voluntary institutions of the self-helping working class. That splendid anarchist writer Colin Ward once made the point by contrasting the very names of the two kinds of organisation in 19th-century England: "On the one side the Workhouse, the Poor Law Infirmary, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church; and on on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Co-operative Society, the Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directed from above."

If anything, the RNLI and the Mürren fire brigade are exemplars not of greedy capitalism or some crazed Ayn Rand war-of-all-with-all, but of anarchism, and Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid". And if a "left" has anything to teach in the coming century, it won't be the authoritarian tradition which sees the the state as the answer to all problems, but the spirit of free mutual co-operation that believes that people can help each other - and will actually do so if left alone.

I can imagine someone asking what the Swiss fire brigade has to do with life in Blighty in order to put down the idea of Mutualism taking flight here. Well, there are political traditions here which, at the very least, overlap with Mutualism. I have mentioned before Meredith Veldman's Fantasy, the Bomb and the Greening of Britain: Romantic protest, 1945-1980 (1984, Cambridge University Press) and did promise to come back to it. In this case it is to refer to Veldman's volume to show that there are English political traditions which lend themeselves to being, at least, intellectual fellow travellers of Mutualism.

G.D.H. Cole: Mr. Guild Socialism

There is, for instance, Guild Socialism, which was taken up by leading socialist thinker G.D.H. Cole. He became a supporter of Guild Socialism as it 'offered me a kind of socialism that I could want as well as think right', since it saw people 'as having personalities to be expressed as well as stomachs to be filled.' (p.25)Cole saw Guild Socialism as attempting to realise 'a union of industrial self-government and community control' (p.26). He also believed that 'democracy had to be small, or broken up into small groups, in order to be real' (p.28). Cole and Guild Socialism is also discussed in the Foote book on the Labour Party's political thought. This shows that although Cole believes the nation-state to be supreme in national matters, such as foreign policy and defence, it had no right to interfere in those areas not common to its citizens, such as religion and industry. Cole says 'the State itself should only be regarded as an association- elder brother, if you will, but certainly in so sense father of the rest.' (Foote, op cit, p.115.)

G.K. Chesterton: Mr Distributism

Returning to Meredith Veldman's tome, it is possible to identity 'distributism', as advocated by GK Chesterton, as another intellectual fellow traveller of Mutualism. A caveat must be made here. When I was younger there was two things I associated Chesterton with: (i) 'The Father Brown' detective stories and (ii) a reputation for anti-semitism. From what I've read, I think Chesterton was pretty anti-semitic in outlook for most of his life. However, when the Nazis took charge in Germany, this changed, as his Wikipedia entry suggests:

In 1934, after the Nazi Party took power in Germany he wrote that:

'In our early days Hilaire Belloc and myself were accused of being uncompromising Anti-Semites. Today, although I still think there is a Jewish problem, I am appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities. They have absolutely no reason or logic behind them. It is quite obviously the expedient of a man who has been driven to seeking a scapegoat, and has found with relief the most famous scapegoat in European history, the Jewish people.'

The Wiener Library (London's archive on anti-semitism and Holocaust history) has defended Chesterton against the charge of anti-Semitism: "he was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on."

Chesterton condemned the Nuremberg Laws, and he died in 1936, as the Hitlerite antisemitic measures were temporarily decreased due to the Berlin Olympics, long before lethal persecution by the Nazis would start.

Sometimes one needs to see the possible consequences of a particular attitude before one rejects that attitude.

Like Cole, Chesterton was a firm believer in political and economic democracy, or distributism, as Chesterton saw it. As Veldman says, Chesterton thought men should be trusted to make their own decisions that concerned their lives and societies, rejecting the idea of there being a 'stupid public'. He thought real democracy depended upon participation, which could only be really secured in a decentralised, locally controlled system in which each citizen could see that their opinions and actions mattered. (Veldman, op cit, pp.33-34) Chesterton believed that 'The best and shortest way of saying it is that instead of the machine being a giant to which the man is a pygmy, we must at least reverse the proportions until man is a giant to whom the machine is a toy.' In economic sectors where large-scale tehcnology was essential, Chesterton advocated worker shareholding so that machinery belonged to each worker (ibid, p.35).

I realise this post is rapidly advancing into Outer Space, so I'm going move into the home straight. It was from the start more a way of putting various bits and pieces into the blogosphere that any Grand Synthesis...'Studies in Mutualist Political Economy' it is not! I will try and finish Kevin C's magnum opus before the whole economic edifice collapses and I have to finish it by candlelight in a London tube tunnel, and return to Mutualism once again!


Madam Miaow said...

I keep picturing the image you gave me the other day — that we've passed the tipping point and we're all Wile E Coyote who's walked off a cliff but doesn't realise it yet.

That Noel. A bundle of laffs! (Actually, I think it's brilliantly accurate.)

Charlie Marks said...

Noel, interesting post.

Another admirable aspect of Swiss society: direct democracy, voting on which proposals become law, rather than always leaving it to politicians to decide. For those who would insist that referendums would lead us to Nazi Germany (seriously, people have used this argument!) should take a look at Switzerland. Only recently proposals aimed at making it harder for immigrants to become Swiss citizens was rejected.

Here in the UK, we have a cooperative movement of sorts - building societies, credit unions, and worker cooperatives. All will be thriving even in the recession - the banking crisis led to greater deposits in building societies, the credit crunch has meant greater usage of credit unions, and I expect that there will be an increase in worker co-ops as employees decide to take over enterprises rather than be made redundant.

Mutualisation is problematic when it occurs in the public sector, however. Workers in Scottish Water know that attempts to turn the utility into a mutual will be merely a step towards full privatisation - no surprises for guessing that the Tories and the CBI in Scotland are the ones arguing for mutualisation...

Anglonoel said...

Charlie, I'd agree with you about it being problematic to mutualise the public sector at the moment. Indeed, I am more inclined to want public utilties state owned (including the retail banks which, as Larry Elliott says in today's Guardian, were more like public utilities back in The Bad Old 70s), with plenty of worker and consumer reps on their boards. After all, corporations which take over former publicly owned utilities and services do not want greater competition- just a chance to rake off mega-profits from the monopoly positions they hold.

In fact, 'Mutualise The Corporations' would be a much better slogan, along with 'Abolish Corporation Tax- And Abolish The Corporations'.