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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, August 30, 2007

Announcing: The Solidarity Economy Network

In the past, I've written on the need for all the diverse facets of the alternative economy to coalesce into a coherent counter-weight to the corporate economy. I've argued that although the numerical weight of people and resources engaged in alternative economic and social institutions (cooperatives, complete or partial self-employment, LETS and other alternative currency and barter systems, household and informal production, community supported agriculture, homeschooling, radical unionism, alternative media, the open-source movement, Konkinian counter-economics, etc.) were cumulatively a huge portion of the total society and economy, they were still ineffectual in bringing their cumulative weight to bear.

The overall structure of the system is characterized by the hegemony of the large corporation and the centralized government agency; the character of the system as a whole is still determined by the corporate-state nexus, and the commanding heights of the system are controlled by state capitalist elites. Cooperatives and other alternative economic ventures find themselves swimming in a capitalist sea; because of their fragmentation from each other, their minimal systemic influence bears no relation to their actual numerical importance.

In an early blog post, "Building the Structure of the New Society in the Shell of the Old," I wrote:

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....

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....

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

One problem in achieving such consolidation is the sheer volume and diversity of the networked society: the information overload involved in keeping track of just what movements and ventures are out there. The only possibility for overcoming this, in my opinion, is 1) a common technical architecture for communications and exchange; and 2) organizationally, some sort of clearinghouse function for bringing the myriad bits and pieces of the alternative economy together, or at least facilitate their finding each other.

Unfortunately, the problem is not the absence of such technical architectures and umbrella organizations, but the proliferation of them. No single framework has emerged as the standard. For example, there are more concrete projects out there than I can account for providing encrypted electronic alternative currencies, P2P credit systems outside of the state capitalist banking system, etc. Just about any of them, if it could come to the top through some sort of invisible hand mechanism and become widely known among all the sub-movements out there, would be serviceable as a structure for exchange within the alternative economy. But none of them has. There are lots of good projects based on promising technology, that are largely unheard of outside a small subculture of devotees. Likewise, there are lots of attempts at creating federal organizations of worker cooperatives, intentional communities, LETS systems, and the like, many of them self-consciously aimed at providing an umbrella organization for the larger alternative economy. But again, they coexist as dozens of separate ghettoes.

One thing that might make a difference is the united support of some particular federal organization by a number of major movements within the alternative economy, so that together they might emerge as an organizational core around which the rest of the movement could coalesce. That was the approach taken by the I.W.W.'s Chicago organizing convention in 1905--otherwise known as "The Continental Congress of the Working Class." Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, which formed the actual labor nucleus of the movement, was joined by De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party and Debs of the American Socialist Party, along with representatives of other radical unions--not to mention the charismatic figure of Mother Jones, whose presence provided the movement with something like "the Pope's divisions" in moral weight.

Given all this prefatory material, you can understand why I was heartened to learn of this new attempt at creating an umbrella organization for the alternative economy: the Solidarity Economy Network. It emerged as a relatively low-visibility movement from a series of Solidarity Economy caucuses at the June U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. But there's reason to hope it will emerge from its obscurity.

For example, I'm heartened in part by some of the names and organizations represented on the Coordinating Committee. Among many others are these that I recognized:

Dan Swinney of the Center for Labor and Community Research
Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Ethan Miller of Grassroots Economic Organizing
Melissa Hoover and John Parker of U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives
Cliff Rosenthal of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions

Also heartening is the fact that I received the news of this organization from Steve Herrick, a leading figure in the fair trade movement.

Here are some of the stated goals of the new organization:

1. Global movement: to join with and build the movement for transformative
social and economic justice. To develop strong relationships and exchange
between U.S. and global organizations, practitioners and solidarity economy
networks such as NANSE (N. American Network for the Solidarity Economy) and
RIPESS (Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Solidarity Economy).

2. Common vision and framework: To create a structure and vision that can
promote a common identity and agenda among the currently fragmented elements of
the U.S. solidarity economy. SEN will build a learning community on issues
relevant to the solidarity economy, including discussing and debating
strategies and practices, and helping each other to uphold the principles of
the solidarity economy.

I do agree that this particular point is important: there is some use for a broad, widely shared ideological vision uniting the various cooperative and economic democracy movements, like that of the solidarity economy. But the basic principles of that vision should be general and broadly stated enough to leave a wide range for intepretation; it should not be so strident or doctrinaire as to impair the basic structural function of the organization, in providing a clearinghouse for ideological diverse movements within the alternative economy. There should be room enough for Wobblies, for fundamentalist homeschoolers and Crunchy Cons, for left-leaning market anarchists and agorists, and for anarcho-capitalists like Eric S. Raymond. In other words, a highly visible venue for people trying to increase economic control over their own lives, to network and establish mutually beneficial relationships with others trying to do the same--without fear of too much ideological sermonizing.

For example, to take just one quibble I have with this item in the list of principles in their Background Statement:

recognizes the primacy of social welfare over profits and the unfettered rule of the market.

To me this begs a question, and if pushed too heavily might needlessly alienate a lot of left-leaning market anarchists who reject the unspoken assumptions behind the statement. Some of us market anarchists believe the reason the economy is presently dominated by large corporations, and characterized by pollution, waste and great disparities of wealth, is precisely that the market is fettered by corporate capitalists using the state to protect themselves from the competition of a free market. The present domination of GM, Wal-Mart, Disney, Monsanto and other corporate behemoths did not emerge from the "unfettered rule of the market." It's precisely because of the fetters imposed on the market by those privileged monopolists, that we live with an economy dominated by a few hundred corporations, instead of by a few million cooperatives. And as New Left historian Gabriel Kolko's account of the Progressive Era shows, whenever politicians start making laws with the avowed purpose of promoting "social welfare over profits," you can be sure the legislation was actually drafted by corporations with a view to their own profits.

Of course, unless pushed in a doctrinaire and divisive manner, it's not really an obstacle to collaboration. To take a parallel example, I endorse the Wobbly preamble's call to "abolish the wage system" with considerable mental reservations: namely, my understanding of the "wage system" as a system in which wage labor not only predominates, but is artificially predominant and exploitative because of the state's privileges to capital and its shackles on the bargaining power of labor. In an economy without such a wage system, wage labor would no doubt exist on an individual basis--it would just be a less prevalent arrangement, and a bargain between true equals.

Anyway, the statement continues with what I consider the most important function of all:

3. Collaboration: To investigate and develop ways to build collaborative support systems for solidarity economy development. Examples might include: coordination between solidarity economy producers, suppliers and distributors; collaborative marketing, branding and distribution; group purchasing of insurance, energy, supplies; peer support & tech. assistance.

But such a large network, with its enormous resources, can perform another very important function:

4. Visibility and public support: To raise the visibility, legitimacy and public support for solidarity economy practices through public education and media coverage.

Ideally, in my opinion, this would eventually entail the funding of a think tank, issuing position papers, pamphlets, posters, podcasts, and so forth.

I encourage anyone involved in the larger movement for cooperative economics, economic democracy, human scale technology, and the like, to pass this news along to other leading organizations in the movement, and encourage contact with the SEN. For my own part, I plan to forward this material to Dave Pollard of How to Save the World, Pierre DuCasse of EcoDema, Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, the School of Cooperative Individualism, Brad Spangler of Agorism.Info, and the I.W.W. (and maybe more--that's just off the top of my head).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished reading the history of the largest secular collectivist economic movement ever - the kibbutzim of Israel. They tried all this cooperative and lefty stuff starting in the 20s: Collective agriculture, no private property, no wages or investment, communal child-rearing, the works (mothers even brest-fed other mothers' babies!). Starting around the 70s, they ended up hiring foreign workers, industrializing, and now today some are even listed on the NASDAQ! Here's a description of some of their activities from wikipedia:

The communal life was naturally hard for some people. Every kibbutz saw new members quit after a few years. Since kibbutzniks had no individual bank accounts, any purchase that could not be made at the kibbutz canteen had to be approved by a committee, a potentially humiliating experience. Kibbutzim also had their share of members who were not hard workers, or who abused common property; there would always be resentment against these "parasites." ...
Although major decisions about the future of the kibbutz were made by consensus or by voting, day-to-day decisions about where people would work were made by elected leaders. Typically, kibbutzniks would learn their assignments by reading an assignment sheet.

By the 1970s they even began to "exploit" workers by hiring non-jews to do agricultural or factory labor during periods of high demand, but not allowing these workers to join the Kibbutzim. Most of the Kibbutzim had to take extensive government subsidies or else turn to capitalist projects like factories and stock market investment to survive. Judging from the accounts of current Kibbutz residents, the whole "socialist impulse" is gone and now Kibbutzes are more like small communities than paragons of egalitarian, anti-capitalist virtue.

In short, it looks like democratic socialist cooperative businesses are not that great, and even if they become sustainable people just don't seem to be that crazy about them. Why should people believe that your ideas about cooperatives and mutualism will work and will be popular with people when the largest ever (non-Stalinist) collectivization experiment basically failed and went capitalist?

August 30, 2007 7:35 PM  
Blogger Charles Pooter said...

Collective agriculture, no private property, no wages or investment, communal child-rearing, the works (mothers even brest-fed other mothers' babies!)

There's your answer. That's why it failed: ideology that goes against the grain of human nature. But when has Kevin (or any other mutualist) ever advocvated any of these practices? You'd be good on a kibbutz amongst the scarecrows and other straw-men...

August 31, 2007 2:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, as the great mutualist Josiah Warren pointed out after leaving through the New Harmony commune failure.

His next mutualist experiment was the Cincinnati "time store" which proved to be a resounding success.

August 31, 2007 4:54 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Charles Pooter and Bill G beat me to part of my answer, on excessive degrees of collectivism within intentional communities. This is not a necessary quality of such endeavors.

More generally, your criticism of cooperatives based on their failure to thrive in a corporate economy seems to beg the question. Think a minute: if somebody said something like "If your capitalist corporations are so efficient, then why did they do so badly in the Soviet planned economy?", you'd think he was pretty stupid, wouldn't you? Obviously there were structural factors at play in the Soviet system that favored the success of state enterprises against private competition.

September 01, 2007 11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, but the kibbutzes receieved tons of public subsidies and still went capitalist. It's interesting that you bring up the Soviet Union; apparently its demise substantially discouraged the "socialist spirit" of the kibbutzniks, whether rightly or wrongly.

There's your answer. That's why it failed: ideology that goes against the grain of human nature. But when has Kevin (or any other mutualist) ever advocvated any of these practices?

His entire website is devoted to alternatives to capitalism. :)
Also, this just begs the natural response: Why don't cooperatives go against the grain of human nature? Not all the kibbutz problems stemmed from mothers breastfeeding other mothers' babies. For example the kibbutzim accepted tons of government bailout money, and then in the 70s many were forced to hire outside workers and pay them a wage! Now I suppose you could argue that the "capitalist structural factors" of 1940s-1960s Israel were to blame for the failure of the Kibbutzim, but as far as I can tell that's not the case.

September 01, 2007 4:05 PM  
Blogger Ian Stewart said...

Huh? His entire website is devoted to individualist alternatives to state capitalism, not alternative systems in which the individual must knuckle under to "leadership committees" and the like in all aspects of economic life. The primacy of the collective over the individual was the biggest factor in the failure of the kibbutzim, just as it was in the Soviet Union, and it's no surprise that the surviving kibbutzim were able to adapt themselves to the corporate form. I really don't think you've read Mr. Carson's writings closely enough to understand them.

September 01, 2007 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why the kibbutz as the example, rather than Emilia Romagna or Mondragon?

September 01, 2007 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why the kibbutz as the example, rather than Emilia Romagna or Mondragon?

As far as I know the Kibbutzim were the largest cooperative experiment so far, in terms of size and history (obviously discounting the Soviet Union, etc). Since Kevin prizes the cooperative over the capitalist firm as both morally and practically superior, it seemed like a good choice.

September 01, 2007 6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're confusing cooperatives with collectives. Your comments really do have little to do with mutualism/individualist anarchism, as Ian Stewart's comment illustrates. Then again, if people voluntary choose to join collectives, that's their business.

I recommend reading up on Kevin's ideas and the ideas of others in the movement if you don't want to be accused of simply whipping a strawman.

September 01, 2007 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recommend reading up on Kevin's ideas and the ideas of others in the movement if you don't want to be accused of simply whipping a strawman.

No true Scotsman would doubt mutualism, eh decentralist? :)

September 01, 2007 9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No true Scotsman would doubt mutualism, eh decentralist? :)

That's not a "No true scotsman" defense, and you know it. Cooperatives are not collectives, and they have no interest in running your life. Does Ocean Spray tell its members when to get up in the morning and when to go to bed? No? Of course not.
Mutualism is a wholly different philosophy than Communism.

September 02, 2007 9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What do you think about the british Co-operative Party and its alignment with Labour Party?

Do you have an opinion about this Party's ideology or praxis?

Foreign mutualist

September 02, 2007 2:33 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


My website is devoted to alternatives to *capitalism*, not alternatives to the free market. I consider them two different things. And as Ian S. said, they're all alternatives to the state capitalist system based on voluntary cooperation.

Although I'm quite friendly to kibbutzim and other intentional communities as a form of such cooperation, my main interest is in worker-owned and -managed firms. If such efforts are "collectivist," then so are those remarkable monuments to collectivism and central planning--the corporation. You know, entities whose tangible property is entirely owned by a fictional collective entity legally separate from any or all of the shareholders, and subject to the absolute managerial control of the self-perpetuating oligarchy in charge of that fictional collective entity. Entities whose employees' actions are expected to be governed by the values of obedience within a hierarchy, rather than personal interest (ever hear of the agency problem?).

Your misuse of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy is a strawman, like asking "have you stopped beating your wife?"

Foreign mutualist,

I was interested in some of the material at the Co-op Party website, but I've got to tell you I was horrified to see Tony Blair's visage leering down from the top of the page. And far too much of their policy agenda seems to involve an activist state promoting cooperatives and mutuals as some sort of "Third Way" within a larger framework that splits the difference between social democracy and neoliberalism.

September 03, 2007 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kevin. Do you think Labour Party is really promoting co-ops and mutuals in Britain?

Is it possible that Brown, the new Labour leader, leads his party to a new more "mutualist" and less statist alternative?

If this kind of strategy is not part of Labour Party's goals, so what is the reason of the alliance between the Co-op Party and Labour?

September 03, 2007 1:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I'm not too familiar with British politics. I've heard that Brown, with his more blue collar social roots, is a bit closer to Labour's SD tradition than to Blair's "third way." But in recent years, as Chancellor of the Exchequer (sp?), he's been identified as a sort of British Jeffrey Sachs or Robert Rubin, promoting a neoliberal version of "free markets."

I don't know much about the recent history of the Co-op party either, but I suspect their current close ties to Labour result from Tony Blair's original background as a Christian socialist/distributist, and the amount of their rhetoric he coopted in his "third way" rhetoric. I know some distributists had high hopes for Blair's third way in the early days of Nulab, much as the Nashville agrarians looked for signs of hope in the New Deal. For example Race Matthews, author of Jobs of Our Own, expressed considerable hope in Blair when he wrote the book in the '90s. Just goes to show "put not your trust in princes," I guess.

September 03, 2007 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In reference to the disappointment that Blair proved to be to those who epouse the values of Christian Socialism and cooperativism...I think it is too much to expect that the mere presence of a politician holding a certain set of values, Christian Socialism and coopertivism for example, can do all that much to steer the ship of state toward those values, especially in the absence of a mass social movement that is bent on building the kind of dual power that Kevin Carson has commented upon from time to time.

Or in other words, our best leadership is needed not at Westminister, DC or Ottawa, it is needed on the ground building regional networks, firms and new communities as well as a countervailing marketing infrastructure.

September 09, 2007 7:11 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

I agree, ADA. But surely there is a large element of betrayal on the personal level involved in Blair's shift from an earlier quasi-distributist orientation to his position until recently as the main representative for Hudge. He had to make some personal decisions to put himself at the head of the parade in pushing all the police state changes Britain has undergone in the past ten years: the suppression of common law due process in favor of administrative law under the EU; the cameras everywhere; the ASBO orders; the increasing periods of detention permissible without charge, etc. He didn't singlehandedly turn Britain into something out of Anthony Burgess, but he made the decision to lead the change.

September 10, 2007 12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See the following for an explanaton of the key difference between a kibbutz (collective) and a moshav (the Israeli term for a cooperative community).


September 15, 2007 6:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My thoughts on things like this solidarity network:

This is what I've considered a big part of revolutionary strategy for a long time..for the anarchist movements and the larger anti-capitalist/anti-state movements.

Dual power/alternative economy of non-hierarchical organizations that network and become able to defend themselves and each other from the inevitable state repression that will accompany any serious threat to the ruling class.

Collectives, coops, individual producers (etc.) that sell at cost and/or build a gift economy.

There's no reason why collectives, communes, cooperatives, and self-employed people cannot exhange goods, services & solidarity.

BUT, I really do feel this has to be accompanyied by direct action and resistance to the state & corporations - protest and strike are necessary too, and eventually armed defense of the movement/communities if in fact a long-term cultural movement becomes successfull and strong.

Anti-marxists of all people should know that the state isn't going to wither away or become irrelevant without putting up a bitter, ruthless fight, in whatever form it's in.

History has shown that the ruling class will almost certainly turn to fascism to protect its priviledge from any strong movement that's making too many serious gains/threats against it.

So a large network could be rolled back and smashed eventually, if it is not able to defend itself and win the sympathies of enough people.


October 17, 2007 11:23 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks for the comment, Alex.

I've got an old manuscript I never digitized that addresses some of your points ("Getting Right with the Petty Bourgeoisie"). I fully agree that any movement to build a new society within the shell of the old has to be supplemented with action to defend against state aggression. The article I wrote used, as a starting point, De Leon's argument for two parallel tracks of industrial unionism and parliamentary politics. If workers seized the state alone, he said, employers might stage a capital strike/lockout. On the other hand if workers seized control of industry, they might be vulnerable to counter-revolution from the "commanding heights" of the state. I added in the article that those two tracks had to be supplemented by a third parallel track: an armed self-defense movement, like the workers' militias that repelled Franco's coup in 1936.

October 18, 2007 2:19 PM  

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