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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cooperative Islands in a Capitalist Sea?

Via Ecodema. This absolutely brilliant quote comes from Ethan Miller's "Other Economies are Possible!" at Dollars & Sense.

Can thousands of diverse, locally-rooted, grassroots economic projects form the basis for a viable democratic alternative to capitalism? It might seem unlikely that a motley array of initiatives such as worker, consumer, and housing cooperatives, community currencies, urban gardens, fair trade organizations, intentional communities, and neighborhood self-help associations could hold a candle to the pervasive and seemingly all-powerful capitalist economy. These "islands of alternatives in a capitalist sea" are often small in scale, low in resources, and sparsely networked. They are rarely able to connect with each other, much less to link their work with larger, coherent structural visions of an alternative economy.

Indeed, in the search for alternatives to capitalism, existing democratic economic projects are frequently painted as noble but marginal practices, doomed to be crushed or co-opted by the forces of the market. But is this inevitable? Is it possible that courageous and dedicated grassroots economic activists worldwide, forging paths that meet the basic needs of their communities while cultivating democracy and justice, are planting the seeds of another economy in our midst? Could a process of horizontal networking, linking diverse democratic alternatives and social change organizations together in webs of mutual recognition and support, generate a social movement and economic vision capable of challenging the global capitalist order?

I proposed something similar in this post: "Building the Structure of the New Society Within the Shell of the Old." I repost it in part below:

The solution is to promote as much consolidation as possible within the counter-economy. We need to get back to the job of "building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old." A great deal of production and consumption already takes place within the social or gift economy, self-employment, barter, etc. The linkages need to be increased and strengthened between those involved in consumers' and producers' co-ops, self-employment, LETS systems, home gardening and other household production, informal barter, etc. What economic counter-institutions already exist need to start functioning as a cohesive counter-economy.

As Hernando de Soto has pointed out, the resources already available to us are enormous. If we could leverage and mobilize them suffiiciently, they might be made to function as a counterweight to the capitalist economy. For example: the average residential lot, if subjected to biointensive farming methods, could supply the majority of a family's vegetable needs. And what's more important, the total labor involved in doing this would be less than it takes to earn the money to buy equivalent produce from the supermarket. The average person could increase his independence of the wage-system, improve the quality of his food, and reduce his total work hours, all at once. This is an ideal theme for mutualist propaganda.

A key objective should be building the secondary institutions we need to make the resources we already have more usable. Most people engage in a great deal of informal production to meet their own needs, but lack either access or awareness of the institutional framework by which they might cooperate and exchange with others involved in similar activities. Expanding LETS systems and increasing public awareness of them is vital. Every need that can be met by producing for oneself, or exchanging one's own produce for that of a neighbor, increases the amount of one's total consumption needs that can be met without depending on employment at someone else's whim. If an organic gardener lives next door to a plumber and they exchange produce for plumbing work, neither one can provide an outlet for the other's entire output. But both, at least, will have a secure source of supply for both his vegetables and plumbing needs, and an equally secure market for the portion of his own output consumed by the other. The more different trades come into the system, the larger the proportion of total needs that can be met outside the framework of a job.

Ultimately, we need a cooperative alternative to the capitalists' banking system, to increase the cooperative economy's access to its own mutual credit....

The capital and land of the rich is worthless to them without a supply of labor to produce surplus value. And even if they can find labor, their ability to extract surplus value from their labor force depends on a labor market that favors buyers over sellers. Anything that marginally increases the independence of labor and reduces its dependence on wages, and marginally reduces the supply of labor available to capitalists and landlords, will also marginally reduce the rate of profit and thus make their land and capital less profitable to them. The value of land and capital to landlords and capitalists depends on the ability to hire labor on their own terms. Anything that increases the marginal price of labor will reduce the marginal returns on capital and land.

What's more, even a partial shift in bargaining power from capital to labor will increase the share of their product that wage-workers receive even in capitalist industry....

And the owning classes use less efficient forms of production precisely because the state gives them preferential access to large tracts of land and subsidizes the inefficiency costs of large-scale production. Those engaged in the alternative economy, on the other hand, will be making the most intensive and efficient use of the land and capital available to them. So the balance of forces between the alternative and capitalist economy will not be anywhere near as uneven as the distribution of property might indicate.

If everyone capable of benefiting from the alternative economy participates in it, and it makes full and efficient use of the resources already available to them, eventually we'll have a society where most of what the average person consumes is produced in a network of self-employed or worker-owned production, and the owning classes are left with large tracts of land and understaffed factories that are almost useless to them because it's so hard to hire labor except at an unprofitable price. At that point, the correlation of forces will have shifted until the capitalists and landlords are islands in a mutualist sea--and their land and factories will be the last thing to fall, just like the U.S Embassy in Saigon.


Anonymous Emil H. said...

How fitting.

January 19, 2007 5:18 AM  
Blogger el tom said...

Beautiful writing.

you may be interested in googling (as I can't be bothered to link!) the co-operative bank, a lovely bunch of people we have over here in the UK. They also do 'smile accounts', the online banking people, but I'm not sure if that's available over there.

Funny, you know. Over herre most mutualist are social democrat/democratic socialist types like myself.

Anyway, as you run a good blog which I have frequently forgotten to link, have a link.

January 19, 2007 12:19 PM  
Blogger troutsky said...

This idea favors the more temperate climate areas and requires a large committment. I moved north many years ago in search of cheap land but found subsistence farming incredibly difficult, full of risks and all consuming in terms of time. Many from my era who tried living cooperatively had trouble purchasing productive land with profits from it. Not that we shouldn't try, but state models like Venezuela with subsidized production do help fledgling farms and industries get started.

January 20, 2007 5:42 PM  
Anonymous Reisman's Ghost said...

Maybe all you crazy lefties can move to Venezuela and start up your own subsistence-farming cooperative. If you're lucky you'll last longer than the kibbutzes did before succumbing to that delicious capitalist greed!

January 20, 2007 8:25 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Glad to see you here, El Tom! Not all of us mutualist types across the pond are anarchists, ECODEMA is run by a prominant Quebec NDP member, Pierre Ducasse, and I bet most of the worker coops and the housing coops are also the work of social democrats. My hope is in fact, that mutualism, and other anarchist ideas like decentralization, can renew and re-invigorate the democratic socialist movement.

January 22, 2007 2:49 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

el Tom,

Larry's right, it's kind of a mixed bag over here. But generally speaking, there's a pretty clear trans-Atlantic divide between the Proudhonian line of socialism in Europe, and the Warren-Tucker line of individualist anarchism that developed over here. Tucker cared mainly about eliminating state-enforced monopolies and giving everybody access to vacant land and interest-free credit, and was pretty much an agnostic on the specific forms economic organization would take under liberty. Clarence Swartz tried to incorporate the mutualist approach of cooperative organization into an individualist anarchist framework, and managed to bridge the gap to some extent.

I like your blog. I recently found a Cooperative Party blog. Before, I had repeatedly visited the Co-op Party's New Mutualism site, and been dismayed by their attachment to Tony Blair. The new blog seems much closer in spirit to the old Rochdale movement. I hope the webmaster doesn't get necklaced by the Cherie Blair Football Club.


How far north did you move? The Nearings moved to northern New England, where the normal period between frosts is three months or less, and with greenhouses and hotbeds and every other kind of season-extender imaginable, managed to get what I would consider a normal crop here in Arkansas without such aids. Sounds brutal. Here, with season extenders, you can manage fresh greens maybe nine months or even more out of the year.

The learning curve can also be fairly steep, which is why it's probably better for people new to raising their own food to start out incrementally from their existing houselot if they have one. But you can get enough vegetables to feed a small family out of a quarter acre lot, if you use the space intensively enough, and still have room left over for a few fruit and nut trees and berry bushes. I remember seeing a study of land use in the UK that argued the issue of disappearing farmland from sprawl was bogus, because the total output from ordinary backyard vegetable gardens actually exceeded the output of the farm land that was replaced.

So I was thinking more along the lines of most people starting where they are, and building on that. The potential for even a suburban community to become mostly self-sufficient in food, once it gets into the swing of things, is there.


It's encouraging to see the extent to which SocDems and the left wing of the U.S. Democratic Party are increasingly open to replacing the old FDR/Harold Wilson model of bureaucratic statism with both cooperatives and market incentives. I especially like the emphasis by some Greens on geolib ideas like "taxing bads, not goods," and Democrats like RFK Jr. and the guy who wrote The Conservative Nanny State (forget his name) who want to internalize costs and let the market take care of the rest.

I'd like to see free market anarchism (of the Tuckerite, not the Mises.Org version) as an end state, but the way to get there is probably by pushing the decentralist Left in a market/cooperativist direction, and simultaneously combating the worst vulgar libertarianism in the free market Right.

January 23, 2007 11:59 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

"the guy who wrote The Conservative Nanny State (forget his name)"

Dean Baker. I assume you've read it. For those who don't know, its available online

January 24, 2007 12:32 PM  
Anonymous Sasha said...


Look for the article communities of work. This is something rarely discussed on the internet (as far as I know) Mondragon cooperative is far more known but this community is also very interesting to me.
I find it is a great idea, a good way to start building the new world in the shell of the old.
Cheers,Sasha from Serbia

January 25, 2007 1:34 PM  
Blogger Presto said...

Kevin, RE: the Nearing's adventures in Maine: Eliot Coleman, a guru of the organic gardening community, purchased part of the property from the Nearings and has developed season extender techniques that has allowed him to run his small farm throughout the winter. He has the unique distinction of selling vegetables from his farm from October to May in coastal Maine. He has written a book about it, called The Winter Harvest Manual, which he sells from his farm's web site. Here's the page that describes the book.

January 25, 2007 1:59 PM  
Blogger Shawn P. Wilbur said...


The Eliot Coleman book looks very interesting. My family has property in northern New Hampshire, and growing season is always the reason I don't more seriously consider moving myself up in that direction. The Nearings' books are fascinating, but also daunting.

January 27, 2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger Presto said...

Shawn, Eliot Coleman has written several excellent books, all of which take a sane and balanced view of organic gardening and farming. His older titles on Amazon include Four Season Harvest and The New Organic Grower. His latest work on winter growing is, of course, The Winter Harvest Manual.

I first heard of Eliot Coleman through his 1990's show on TLC called Gardening Naturally. I still have a bunch of episodes that I taped from cable, and I watch them often. He and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, who is a gardening columnist for the Washington Post, I believe, make growing things organically very easy for a brown thumb like me.

January 28, 2007 4:33 PM  
Blogger jomama said...

I have a slightly different take on all

I think what you suggest will be required for survival.

January 29, 2007 6:50 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Thanks for doing my job for me. I have indeed read the book, but was too damn lazy to get up and dig for the printout. I heartily recommend the online version. Baker is too goo-gooish for me in a lot of ways (like the single-payer health stuff), but it's heartening to see liberal Democrats even starting to break out of the Art Schlesinger box and conceptualize the world in this way.


Thanks for the tip on communities of work. I'd never heard of them before. It sounds like something Larry Gambone would know a lot about, but if I've read anything of his on the subject it didn't leave any permanent traces in my brain.


I've got to check the local used bookstore to see if they've got any Coleman stuff in the gardening section.


The Nearings were pretty daunting even to their neighbors. The latter had the typical Yankee farmer quality of working "when I damn well get around to it," whereas the Nearings were typically anal-retentive specimens of the Old Left who wanted to organize and plan everything.


I agree, some granddaddy of all input/resource crises will probably be what it takes for people to actually pick all these tools up the shelf and use them. All the technics and organizations necessary for a decentralized countereconomy already exist, but they're marginalized in a relatively small movement. When Peak Oil and the housing bubble have their full effects, among other things, it may be what tips the balance between the corporate and alternative economies.

February 08, 2007 9:00 PM  
Anonymous Diebisch said...


This is a good Article



February 12, 2007 3:49 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunn said...

Well I am a proponent of free market capitalist cooperatives. I believe they are the best for society so I strongly disagree with your anti-capitalism but youre half way there.

July 12, 2011 11:07 AM  

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