Sunday, 10 May 2015

Dear people of the UK, Mutualism

So... another election cycle is over. If most of the people on my Facebook news feed are anything to go by a lot of us aren't happy with the results. Considering only about 25% of the country voted conservative that's not very surprising! 

Things are bad. Rough sleeping is up 55% in the last 5 years, foodbank usage is off the charts, we're told that the economy is recovering but we know it's slowly and we know that it hasn't been an equal recovery for all. We've got a housing crisis, we've got an explosion in zero hours contract jobs and we're afraid in ways that people haven't been for a while. Our jobs feel less secure and when we peek over the precipice we see that there isn't much of a safety net left to catch us if we fall. Destitution is back, and that is a horrible surprise for a nation that was expecting things to get better and better with every passing generation.

We have the Conservatives for another 5 years now (unless anything massive happens) so, contrary to the popular opinion that we should be wallowing in depression or raging with anger this is exactly the time to be thinking and talking and planning for what we want next. The work starts now. 


Our heads are spinning with thoughts of what those with power are going to choose for us but put all that to one side for a moment. Take a breath, relax, look out the window, think about your neighbours, your friends, your family, the people you work with... 

--Give it a moment--

We are all equal. Whether our equality is respected in the world we see around us or not, we are fundamentally equal, we all matter, whoever we are. This is where the mutualist tradition begins as well. Mutualism is neither capitalism nor communism. It doesn't require a big powerful government to make it work and it doesn't ask you to put faith in a pre-ordered set of policies or a great leader. So what is it?

Mutualism says that when we come together, as a society/ community/ workplace/ whatever, it should be as equals and it should be for mutual benefit. We should all have a stake in the things we're part of. This translates first and foremost into the idea of the co-operative. A co-operative is an organisation of any size and almost any kind that exists for the benefit of its members and is democratically controlled by them. Co-operatives are free to join and free to leave. Mutualists think that this is not only a nice idea but could form the entire basis for a new way of organising society.

The state will never do the job we want it to do

The state is not fit for purpose, not for the purposes that most of us want to use it for anyway! 

Back in the days of feudalism it was obvious that the state existed to maintain the upper classes in lives of privilege and luxury and keep the peasants down but then democracy happened. Now every five years we have a chance to try to hold the people who run the show accountable. So we do what comes completely naturally; try to use our powers to get the state to make things better. To  get it to look after the poor and sick, to regulate what the richest and most powerful people can get away with


If you were going to design an organisation to do all that, starting from a blank sheet, would you really design anything that look remotely like the state or the government that run it. Would you design the following?
  • A massive ugly hierarchy.
  • A system where un-elected royals and lords (people who live entirely at our expense) are an integral part of how it functions. 
  • An organisation which both openly and behind closed doors answers to it's corporate sponsors.
  • An organisation where we get a small say in picking a representative but are far removed from actual decision making.
  • An organisation where if our representative lies to us or breaks their promises there is nothing we can do but wait and hope to boot them out next election, but for what? Another representative who might do the same? 
  • Ultimately an organisation which has lots and lots of rights that we don't have and if we get upset about it we are treated as a threat.

Capitalism and what's to be done about it

Capitalism is a naughty word in the UK, much more naughty than it is on the other side of the Atlantic. We blame it for an awful lot, are we clear on what it really means though?

Workers built the factory, workers labour in the factory, workers transport the product, workers clean up, workers look after those who get injured in the process, workers work in the shops that sell the final product... All belongs to the boss.
There are three elements that  I would say are definitive of a capitalist economy:

  • Capitalist property norms (this is absolutely crucial): How does your landlord get to claim rent from you for living in your house? How does your boss get to make a profit off your labour? Answer: Because it's not your house, it's his, and it's not your labour, it's the bosses' because he hired you to work for him. How can it be that people can collect up property that other people occupy and/or use? How can they use their claim of ownership on it to extract rents or profits from the labour of those people? Capitalist property norms backed up by the state, that's how! Mutualists believe in a much simpler and much more natural system of property norms; if you occupy it and use it (and came to do so peacefully) then it's yours,  if you stop occupying it or using it then you've abandoned it. I call this an embodied claim on property as opposed to the capitalists' one which is often a conceptual claim on property. Capitalist 'private property' backed up, not by a physical reality but by property deeds written on a bit of paper somewhere.
  • Markets: A market economy is just a system where people hold credit and debt against each other. The stuff on the shelves in the shops isn't seen as equally belonging to us all due to us being members of the global working class, or as fruit of the earth and therefore part of our natural inheritance.... at least not by most people. If we want stuff we have to be able to offer the seller sufficient compensation to get them to let go of it. Mutualists are neither pro or anti markets, we're accepting of any way of organising the distribution of goods and services, as long as it is mutual for all involved. Taxation and other forms of economic exploitation have historically been used to drag unwilling peasants into the market economy when they were previously quite happy sharing and holding property in common, for this reason many mutualists do tend to predict that markets will decrease in importance in a mutualist society.  
  • The state: This one is debatable in other schools of thought but mutualists believe that the state is an essential part of how capitalist economies work. Whether or not it might be theoretically possible to have capitalism without the state is not an important question, the question is over the role of the state in actually existing capitalism. In a nut shell this can be summed up in two ways: 1) The state is the board of executives for the capitalist class (i.e. the state manages the economy on behalf of the capitalist class, ensuring that the whole system remains stable) - Karl Marx came up with this one. And 2) The state exists to socialise the costs of capitalism on to the people whilst ensuring that it's profits can continue to be privatised by a tiny minority - Noam Cholmsky came up with this one. 

So capitalists have got a whole lot of wealth that they really shouldn't have and everyone else is often left without enough; the best solution we hear of which is based on using the state as a means to fix this? Tax the rich and spend it on health/welfare/education etc. for the people.

Why isn't this what mutualists are asking for? Mutualists recognise that all taxes applied to the capitalist class are passed on. Those who are in a position to raise rents/lower wages/increase interest rates in order to deal with the cost of taxation always do it, passing it on to tenants, workers/ borrowers/ consumers. The rest of us who pay tax on income that we have earned as wages cannot pass the cost on to anyone and so have to take a double hit personally.

It's not just super rich tax dodgers that are the problem (they're just breaking the rules of their own game), it's the entire system that is the problem.

Probably not the heroic heroes you thought they were.

What do mutualists suggest we do?

Start organising ourselves into co-operatives that can resist and don't stop until we over turn the whole thing.

If your landlord owns the whole building and there's 50 other tenants, get everyone together, form a tenants' union. In South Africa under apartheid huge tenants' unions organised prolonged rent strikes resulting in tens of thousands of units of housing having to be turned over to the occupants. In Glasgow during WW1 tens of thousands of tenants went on rent strikes and also got together to block bailiffs who came to try to evict them. There is a fast growing movement around housing activism happening in London right now, read about it here: 

The Glasgow rent strikers

Squat in some unused property.

Join a radical workers union like the Industrial Workers of the World, take the boss on to make sure that at absolute minimum you get all you are due under current legislation. If everyone did this we could organise a general strike and bring the entire economy to a halt. At this point we wouldn't even have to list our demands, politicians and capitalists would be falling over themselves trying to offer us all kinds of compromises deals to calm us down.

If you are in a position to do so you might consider starting some kind of co-operative from scratch. Anything from a credit union to a factory is possible. Do it with or without permission.

Mutual aid. Mutual aid is different from charity because it is supposed to be all about sharing as equals. If I have surplus of something I share it with you knowing that if our positions are flipped around you will do the same for me. Mutual aid can be very loose and informal or it can be a big organised 'friendly society' providing health care, welfare payments and more to it's members when they need it.

Voting for a political party is controversial within mutualism, should we try to avoid it altogether or could it be seen as one of many legitimate tactics? The bigger that smaller parties like the Greens get the more their message will be heard but I for one believe that if we empower a political party enough for them to actually get real power they will become like all the rest. Political parties always disappoint because they work within the system according to it's internal logic so they are never capable of being revolutionary on their own.

Other ideas...

  • Refuse to pay your taxes
  • Join a protest march
  • Buy fair trade (so very un-revolutionary but I still claim it's a good idea)
  • Write a blog
  • Go to jail over something you believe in if you are in a good position to do so (I'm not)
  • ... I don't know... think of more stuff yourselves... 


We haven't really "lost" this election because there was nothing much to win through elections anyway. We win when we take action directly, we lose when we get depressed and give up. We don't need representatives, we need to get our hands dirty and get involved. The time is now, you aren't even going to be offered another vote in a general election for a long time,  give this a try for the time being!

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