To be honest, while mutualism is a term that I’ve come to adopt for myself, it isn’t entirely clear to me what mutualism is. What I mean by this is that it seems hard to identify an essential feature that all of the people who call themselves mutualists share in common. The positions currently being advocated under the title of mutualism seem to run the gamut from modified or modernized individualist anarchism (Kevin Carson) to a subtle neo-Proudhonian notion and “the anarchism of approximations” (Shawn Wilbur) to a more hardcore kind of libertarian socialism that thinks the other mutualists largely sound like anarcho-capitalists or make too many concessions to property (Francios Tremblay).There certainly is a history of mutualism going back to classic thinkers such as P.J. Proudhon and W.B. Greene, but no self-proclaimed mutualist that I know of really is a strict adherent to the ideas of such people (and I don’t mean to imply that one necessarily should be). The meaning attached to mutualism seems to be at least somewhat different for many people in a contemporary context, in contrast with its 19th century roots. This may partially be due to changes in economic theory. It also may be a matter of the ideological background or history of the people that have become interested in mutualism, which causes there to be market and social anarchist spins on mutualism and interpretations of Proudhon.It is true that there are certain reoccurring themes that tend to be associated with mutualism, such as an occupation and use standard of ownership, the cost principle, reciprocity, a focus on synthesizing equality and liberty, the antinomy of the individual and society, and so on. Yet some of these themes seem to fall under the general umbrella of the libertarian left, and one would think that mutualism is more specific than that. Is mutualism “free market anti-capitalism”? Well, there seems to be a spectrum of positions among the people adopting that kind of rhetoric, some of which are more substantive than others. Is mutualism a form of libertarian socialism? Well, some of the libertarian socialists I’ve encountered would scoff at the more market-oriented ideas that are called mutualism.
One thing that does seem to at least vaguely be common to people that consider themselves mutualists is that they have a sort of nuanced position or even a synthesis that has the feeling of being neither anarcho-capitalism or something that would be acceptable in the more hardcore platforms of social anarchism, as a sort of middle ground that doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes of various party lines or dogmas. There does appear to be certain themes of irreducible complexity and plays of apparent opposites that resolve or dissolve at some point in the play of concepts. The term mutualism itself seems to suggest synthesis, although this may be a superficial mental association on my part.
I suppose part of the confusion revolves around conflict between different interpretations. Mutualism has been portrayed as anything from fairly standard free market libertarianism with somewhat softened property norms and a different take on the implications of Austrian economics to an explicitly libertarian socialist creed with a prescriptive labor theory of value that calls for the absolute abolition of all profit, rent, and interest. This gets into tensions between descriptive and prescriptive formulations, different ideas on property, and varying degrees of emphasis on markets. With such considerations in mind, it should be no wonder that mutualism doesn’t necessarily have a completely clear identity.
When I advocate my own ideas, I generally do not express them as being “the mutualist creed”. They are the ideas of me as an individual, and they may or may not have anything explicitly to do with mutualism qua mutualism. But what does tend to bind me to the term, to the extent that could be said to be bound by it, is simply the extent to which I have ideas in common with other people who are called mutualists. I also adopt the term in the context of resonations with P.J. Proudhon. I have no particular problem using the term for myself, despite what seems to be the somewhat fragmented and approximate meanings that it conjures. I would just avoid reducing myself to it, which meshes with my opposition to reductionism in general.
Ultimately, I guess I would like to highlight the ambiguity that sometimes lurks behind rather obscure political labels such as “mutualism”. From a certain perspective, this could be portrayed as a good thing in the sense that it stops it from hardening into a dogma. At the same time, the desire for clarity is understandable and perhaps contemporary mutualists should do a better job of hashing out exactly what it is that makes mutualism unique. Mutualism certainly seems to be unique, and that’s part of the value I see in it. I’d be interested to see what various self-proclaimed mutualists have to say about this.