Kevin Carson’s “Studies in Mutualist Political Economy”

I’ve just finished Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy.

Mutualism, the political and economic theory that Carson champions, is a sort of free-market anarchism or left-libertarianism. It has American ancestors among the 19th Century anarchist bloom, such as Josiah Warren and Benjamin R. Tucker, and in the brief libertarian/new-left reconciliation of the 1960s promoted by Karl Hess, Murray Rothbard, and others.

Mutualism is universally misunderstood. Left-wing activists tend to suspect that mutualism’s advocacy of a free market must mean that it’s really advocating entrenched big business exploitation, while the mainstream “free market capitalist” libertarians suspect that mutualism’s criticism of entrenched big business exploitation must mean that it’s really advocating big-government socialism. Much of mutualist activity today involves patiently explaining itself to its critics and potential allies.

Carson is a tireless scholar and promoter of mutualism, and this book pulls together much of the patient explaining he’s been doing. It puts mutualism in its historical context, comparing and contrasting its economic theory with those of other schools of thought, particularly the Marxian and Austrian schools. It examines the nature of government and of the ruling class and why this makes government an inherently poor tool for correcting injustice. It contrasts capitalism as it actually developed and as it actually exists with a free market, and demonstrates why defenders of the latter ought to strongly oppose the former. And finally it sketches a realistic plan for how we can get from the mess we’re in now to a freer world whose abundance is more justly shared.

The first segment of the book is dedicated to explaining and defending the labor-theory of value: how the prices of goods in a free market will tend to gravitate to express the value of the labor embodied in them, how deviations from this general rule can be explained, and how this value should belong to the laborer as the natural wage of the labor. Carson asserts:

Throughout history, the state has been a means by which the producing classes were robbed of their produce in order to support an idle ruling class. Without state intervention in the marketplace, the natural wage of labor would be its product. It is statism that is at the root of all the exploitative features of capitalism. Capitalism, indeed, only exists to the extent that the principles of free exchange are violated. “Free market capitalism” is an oxymoron.

The various ways in which the state steps in to ameliorate the very same exploitation of capitalism that it caused in the first place are, Carson demonstrates, further methods of entrenching an exploitative elite. The social safety net, public infrastructure, consumer- and worker-protection legislation, and the whole lot actually function to the advantage of capitalist elites — allowing them to extract more profit from labor via the exploitation of a non-free market by externalizing costs, eliminating competition, and cartelizing.

The book is available to read on-line, and you may also be interested in an interesting back-and-forth between Carson and some of his right-libertarian critics in an issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies devoted to Studies in Mutualist Political Economy a few years ago.

I’m still working on a bar graph poster for Tax Day that highlights federal discretionary spending priorities. I think I’m going to go with a poster-board and construction-paper job along these lines:

What Message Do We Send With Our Taxes? (federal spending bar chart evocative of “giving the finger”)

Remember Abby & Julia Smith (and their cows)?. They were tax resisters for women’s rights back in the 19th century and wrote a book about it.

It turns out that their home is still standing, on the land that the male citizens of the town kept trying to tax away and seize from them back in the day. The Kimberly Mansion in Connecticut is a National Historic Landmark.