Mutual Aid, Parecon and the right stealing “libertarian”

Good news! My “Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation” is now in print, thanks to the wonderful people of AK Press in Edinburgh. They produced a short-print run for the bookfair on Saturday and we sold around 15 (at £3 each) on the Black Flag stall. A proper print-run is forthcoming. My talk on “From Proudhon to Kropotkin” was relatively well attended, given its somewhat historic theme. And talking of history, I came across this quote by Murray Rothbard on how he and his cronies consciously stole the word “libertarian” from us:

‘One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, “our side,” had captured a crucial word from the enemy . . . “Libertari­ans” . . . had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over. . .’ [The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83]

Nice to know that we are part of “the enemy” and the acknowledgment that our use of the term had been “long” – nearly 100 years when the laissez-faire right decided to appropriate it from its users. It is somewhat ironic, then, that amongst the first acts of the propertarians with their “absolute” property-rights was to steal their name! Ah, it may be objected, anarchists think “property is theft” so why should we complain? Well, because we believe in possession and use-rights and we were still using the term then! And we still are (the AFAQ blog marked the 150th anniversary of our use of the term back in 2008). While difficult given the funding the propertarians get from the wealthy, I do hope that anarchists and other radicals combat this appropriation of “libertarian” by people whose ideology is the exact opposite of what it traditionally means. Needless to say, that quote is going into the introduction of volume 2 of AFAQ (due out next year and being proof-read by AK Press as I write!).

Interestingly, Rothbard continues by stating “now we had taken it over, and more properly from the view of etymology; since we were proponents of individual liberty and therefore of the individual’s right to his property.” Clearly someone pretty ignorant of key anarchist positions as it utterly ignores the very obvious restrictions of liberty that result from property. It is almost like he had never read Proudhon’s “What is Property?” nor, indeed, any other key anarchist thinker like Bakunin or Kropotkin. Or had a proper job. But, then, he obviously was blind (unlike genuine libertarians) to how property results in similar social relations and restrictions in liberty as the state. Thus we find him proclaiming there is no freedom of speech or association on someone else’s property – which, if the state did that, he would be up in arms about but since it is a capitalist or landlord restricting the freedom of their wage-workers and tenants then it gets a free pass. I plan to cover this in an AFAQ blog posting (to complement the one discussing when Rothbard acknowledged the obvious and rightly proclaimed that p ropertarians “are not anarchists”) and leave it there for the time being.

And talking of property, I should mention my review of Proudhon’s “System of Economic Contradictions” which I posted recently. This was the product of a comrade in the Freedom collective asking me to write some reviews as they did not have any for the next issue (and, please, contribute to the movement’s media – papers and magazines don’t write themselves!). I was planning to review a recent booklet on “Economic Democracy” but I realised I would not get it ready in time. It was quicker to review books I already had quotes from and knew well – hence I’m reviewing “System” followed by “What is Property?” before turning to the new book. The review aims to summarise the key ideas in both books and give a flavour of why people today should read them. They have their flaws (which I sketch) but they have contributed to what anarchism is (and, indeed, the wider socialist movement – as can be seen from Proudhon’s analysis of how exploitation occurs in production).

If you like, the critique of capitalism is a jigsaw and Proudhon helped put many of the pieces together. He also put some in the wrong place and, at times, upside down (his sexism, for example). But like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx and many others he contributed to completing the jigsaw – as well as the commonwealth of ideas which libertarians hold.

Which is why the right’s appropriation of “libertarian”, like “anarchist”, is so disgraceful. The one thing that is obvious from reading Proudhon is how central and integrated the opposition to both state and property is to his ideas. The critique of property was not some additional afterthought but, rather, a core aspect of his politics. To suggest that anarchism is just opposition to the state (as many Marxists and the propertarians assert) is completely at odds with our ideas, their origin, history and development. This can be seen from his polemics with the likes of Pierre Leroux and Louis Blanc as well as his major works, plus his election manifesto from November 1848 (which I recommended to someone at the post-bookfair party at Freedom as Proudhon’s own best, short, summary of his ideas – although my introduction to the new anthology covers more ground). Genuine libertarians recognise the links between property and state – and combat both. To ignore such a key aspect of our ideas is to misrepresent them and make a travesty of them.

Confession time! Once, a long time ago, I subscribed to the “Proudhon was not an anarchist” school of thought. I even remember drafting a letter to a Marxist paper defending Bakunin and attacking their inclusion of Proudhon in their attack on anarchism. Then I did something unusual - I read Proudhon! This was due to my work on AFAQ and the need to explain, from first principles, why anarchists thought certain things. For our opposition to property, I turned to Proudhon and his classic “What is Property?” (see, for example, section B.3). I was impressed by what I read and I decided to read more. Before I moved down to London, I decided to print out volume 1 of “System of Economic Contradictions” and read it. I was, to be honest, expecting the worse (I had consulted Marx's “The Poverty of Philosophy”). It came as a big surprise when I discovered a work which was full of important insights and analyses. That was over 10 years ago and I've re-read it twice then - each time I gained more insight into his ideas and see how his later works are reflected in his 1846 double volume. I have also became fully aware of how Marx distorted his ideas - as can be seen from the appendix on Marx of the introduction to the Proudhon Reader.

Ultimately, if anyone asks “why Proudhon is important?” then the shortest answer is to reply “why is the Paris Commune important?” The links in terms of ideas are clear (as discussed in the Proudhon Reader blog as well as in my review-article on the Commune, Marxism and Anarchism.

Anyways, back to the bookfair. The new Black Flag (issue 232) also did well and our book sale was a success. It contains my summary of Proudhon’s ideas “I am An Anarchist: 170 years of anarchism” as well as much, much more. The raffle did okay, we raised more money by selling tickets than the selling my last copy of An Anarchist FAQ”. I had a nice chat with Brian Morris as well as a very quick discussion with a Parecon supporter at the bookfair (I could not attend the meetings unfortunately as one clashed and I was person-ing the stall a lot). After I explained why I thought it could never work (formulating one plan for a whole society would be near impossible) he denied that was the aim. He argued it would be federal and each unit would plan for itself, and each level would plan for what it had in common only.

This came as a surprise, to say the least. I said I could re-read the books – which I did, quickly, over the weekend and discovered that my memory was right. There would be one plan, which makes sense for unless a community was totally self-sufficient it would need resources from elsewhere. Such links would need to be included into any plan and so data would need to aggregate upwards (the books seem to stop at a national level, but surely a global plan would be required?). I guess that could explain some of its popularity – people don't really comprehend how it works (the attempt by market socialist David Schweickart to do just that produced little clarification by its authors, other than Michael Albert getting huffy that Schweickart took his examples seriously enough to discuss them!)

Which is understandable, as it is pretty incomprehensible at times – just like the planning process itself in Parecon. While elements of Parecon make sense (and usually taken from anarchists), I'm still surprised people take the whole package that seriously. The notion that we could gather and process the necessary information to plan the economic activity of millions (billions?) of people, workplaces and products seems obviously false. As is the notion that all we need to list is “6 million shoes” in the plan – as if different styles, sizes and colours do not imply different inputs and so different plans! Then there is the need to get the output to where it is required and when it is required. Of these six millions shoes, which ones go where? How does the workplace know that Glasgow needs 2,000 size 6 and 500 size 12? How does it know that types of shoes are required in specific seasons? That information, presumably, will be in the consumption plan submitted by the community councils. So the plan will, by necessity, need more than just “6 million shoes” – it will require a detailed breakdown so that the right things get sent at the right time to the right place. Which will make the plan pretty big – and as few people would have the time to review it, they will not know what they are voting for between plans. Assuming a plan could be produced in the first place… And don’t get me onto the Balanced Job Complexes – my work went through a job description process a few years back and it took months. That was 8,000 people. We did not try to balance them but I guess that would take at least the same amount of time. And that is not balancing them across workplaces… Or the need to ensure that all outputs have prices greater than the combination of their inputs… Not to mention its keeping of money… And its belief that the future is not unknown and that it would be easy to revise the plan in the face of significant unexpected change…

As I said, elements of it make sense and are praiseworthy. However, these elements are placed into a package that will not work. The question is, is its appeal due to other libertarians not being specific enough in their ideas of a free society? Does it relate to its use of vectors to “prove” that inputs will iterate towards coherent plans? Well, neo-classical economics also uses equations to prove that general equilibrium can exist and is the best of all possible worlds. Does not stop the whole thing being an unrealistic ideology! I blame Marx and Engels for the fetishising of “planning” on the left – luckily we libertarians are not encumbered by this legacy (it helps not to name our theory after a person!).

And I should also note that anarchist criticism of centralised state socialism predates the so-called “Economic Calculation Problem” raised by the “Austrian” economists in the 1920s – and that for all their talk of markets communicating “information” they simply ignore how they also block many of the key pieces of information required for truly informed decision-making – for example, the interest rate does not provide information on how funds are being invested so allowing relative over-investment and so over-production and crisis to occur; prices do not indicate what the actual environmental impact of a good is (that some has a price of £5 says nothing about how much pollution it costs nor the working conditions of those who produced it); prices are rooted in, and may increase, uncertainty and so on. Add to this the information blocks caused by the hierarchies and classes within the capitalist workplace, then it can be seen that the so-called “Economic Calculation Problem” applies just as much to capitalism as to centralised state socialist regimes (indeed, as these operate as “one big workplace” it is far better to call them state capitalism – as anarchists have long done).

Suffice to say, any real libertarian economy will require horizontal links between specific workplaces and communities in order to provide the required use-values desired as well as federalism to response to the aggregate impact of those decisions. To try and describe precisely how that would work would be difficult – particularly as it will need to be worked out in practice by those involved. Abstract models rarely work (look at neo-classical economics which simply fails to describe any real capitalist economy). We can sketch the outlines of a free economy (as summarised in “The Economics of Anarchy”) and describe how we create that new world while fighting this one. Needless to say, horizontal links need not be market based – although I will say that mutualism (like Schweickart’s similar system) at least has the advantage of being workable, unlike Parecon. I also think that we can do better than that, as mutualism is by no means without its flaws. So I remain a communist-anarchist, even if I’m not too optimistic that it will be possible immediately after a social revolution – a position that Kropotkin did not hold either, although the appeal of “The Conquest of Bread” is undoubtedly that it is a particularly optimistic account – realistic, too, as it does not shy away from discussing the obvious problems a revolution would face.

I should, of course, stress that there will be planning and plans in a libertarian economy. There is planning and plans in all economies, including capitalism. Firms and governments plan projects and implement them. So will the syndicates and communes of the future. The key is that there is a difference between plans and a single, comprehensive, detailed plan as suggested by Parecon. The aim of any federations would be to prioritise certain projects, try to estimate and plan responses to changing production and consumption needs, to plan to ensure agreed projects get the appropriate resources delivered on time, and so on. This is different from trying to aggregate all data in an economy in order to plan in detail the production and consumption of the next year.

But enough speculating on possible futures! Today, on the economic front, it appears that the system IS still workingthe rich are getting richer. This is also covered in this posting (which has a great picture to go with it!): “How do we know? Because wages are declining—both total and average—while top salaries—distributions of the surplus—are rising.” No comment – other than, obviously, this elite has been Taxed Enough Already!

This is, of course, the latest in a long series – for the mathematically inclined, it is part M of N, where M is some number greater than 1 and N is probably infinity… As are these latest comments on economics, specifically related to my last blog. I mentioned how if you postulated a market for economic theory, you would get something similar to neo-classical economics. It appears that economist Frederic Mishkin was hired before Iceland’s crash by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to praise the country’s financial regime – which he did. The same researcher has shown the links between economist Larry Summers and the finance industry (“Larry Summers and the Subversion of Economics”). It is handy that their “science” just happens to coincide with both the interests of capital and their job prospects! But that, as I stressed before, is just a happy coincidence…

On the recent (non-)Nobel Prize for economics, these two links complement my last blog – the excellent “Nobel prize – hardly noble” and “Adding Insult To Injury”. From the latter: “Unfortunately, it’s exactly what one expects of a Nobel Prize in Neoclassical Unemployment Economics: a recognition of market frictions and lots of modelling of search and matching costs, and absolutely no understanding of the possibility of capitalist crises and widespread unemployment.” On more positive news, the revolt against neo-classical economics continues with the “Kick It Over Manifesto” – of its 31 supporting links, “Toxic Textbooks” by Edward Fullbrook is particularly recommended.

Lastly, a few comments on the cuts in Britain and resistance to them. I watched the news on the night of the ConDem Comprehensive Spending Review and hurled swear words at the telly. These cuts are ideologically driven – as seen by the disgusting cheering and back-slapping which accompanied “Boy” George’s speech. They will cause misery for many people, particularly the poorest amongst us, and these scumbags are cheering! Then there is Clegg’s rant at the Institute for Fiscal Studies for exposing the hollowness of the Con-Dem’s claims of “fairness” – the man has no shame (Charlie Brooker’s article on Nick Clegg is a must read). Any claim to “fairness” involves including Labour’s tax rise to 50% for high earners, the ConDem policies afflict the many. Which suggests a new definition of “fair” is required:

Fair — when a £500bn+ bailout for the elite who created this mess is paid for by taking billions from the working-class people who did not.

Of the course the ConDems spun the last quarter's GDP growth figures as vindicating their policies, policies which have not actually been implemented yet! Strange, though, that drop in growth from 1.2% to 0.8% is seen as a good thing – particularly as it reflects the petering out of New Labour’s few attempts at stimulating the economy (I wonder what excuses the ConDems will come up with once their policies really kick in?). Interesting, yet again “the experts” in the City got it wrong (most of them thought it would grow by half amount). Even more interesting that this is reported as “news” as these “experts” are usually wrong about this. Oh, to be in such a job – you get it wrong time and time again and you are never fired… in fact, as can be seen from the current crisis, you even get hefty bonuses! And, unsurprisingly, the Tories have ensured that families are to contribute twice as much as the banks to bringing down the deficit.

Two other things which annoy me just now.

Firstly, there is the notion that people on benefits are somehow living it up. Thus we see comments like “oh they can afford the latest TVs” and such like (one old idiot on TV complained about people having mobile phones, so suggesting he had no idea how cheep they can be). Having grown up in a single-parent family in the poorest area on Glasgow I know how they can afford such things – debt, “the catalogue”, hire-purchase. So you pay a small amount per month in return for getting the good but, over time, you end up paying far more than it would have cost if you could afford to buy it outright. What gets me is the mentality of the people who make those statements – it is not enough to be poor, apparently you need to suffer as well. Not to mention that is assumed that poverty is best measured in absolute rather than relative terms. That perspective means that if you don’t live in a cave and forage berries then you are not poor… Significantly, while those who name-check Adam Smith the most usually stress absolute poverty, Smith himself recognised that poverty is only meaningful in relative terms. Unsurprisingly, this coalition of millionaires do not know what poverty means - hopefully a coalition of millions will form to stop them...

Secondly, the media and letters talk of “union bosses” organising strikes. These people have no idea how unions work, particularly after the Tory anti-union laws made going on official strike harder (the hoops we have to jump through are staggering). Any official strike requires a ballot and so it is impossible for “union bosses” to call strikes at will. Moreover, they are elected by their members – unlike actual bosses. Yes, the unions are hierarchical and bureaucratic but compared to the autocracy of the capitalist workplace they are models of democracy! This is not to suggest I’m soft on union bureaucrats, far from it. I’m just pointing out how language is used to frame certain things and using “union bosses” is part of a wider media campaign to undermine any form of working class organisation and direct action.

Unsurprisingly, then, I’m a union member. Sadly, my union had a meeting the next day and it was no better attended than usual. That does not seem like a good sign – but then the cuts have not been implemented and their scale may not have not really sunk in. Hopefully, next year things will be more like France…

Talking of which, I read an account of the French strikes in the free-paper The Metro last week. It ended a piece on the protests by saying many of the protesters were singing “the national anthem.” Talk about things being lost in translation! Technically this is correct, but what they were actually singing was La Marseillaise, a revolutionary song written by, and to inspire, free French citizens to fight against the autocrats trying to enslave them:

“Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage
What fury it should arouse!
It is we whom they dare plan
To return to ancient slavery!”

Unsurprisingly, La Marseillaise was a feature of socialist marches throughout the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth. So a somewhat different meaning than, say, someone in Britain singing that terrible servile (and anti-Scottish!) dirge termed the “national anthem”! Talking of which, a few years ago at a tennis tournament someone played the wrong (i.e., correct) Spanish annual anthem, the one from the 1930s Republic. I’m hoping someone, somewhere, will play “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols when the Queen visits by accident...

Until I blog again, be seeing you…


"The presentation of the "one

"The presentation of the "one big plan" is a lame try to evade the need for a multi tier direct democracy which will coordinate and adjust the production and services given to the demand and need of the people on the fly."
This just proves you haven't thought about parecon, as what you claim as necessary for the world, is exactly what parecon delivers (at least logically). Micro-macro direct-democracy is half the point of parecon! In fact we say democracy is too weak a word for the level of participation throughout society.

I think there are 2 major problems: 1. Anarchists are paranoid of any system, they are apt to interpret the new through their paranoia of the what we have now.
2. People have a real problem envisioning a whole new reality that is totally unrelated to what we've known as our only phenomenology.

"This just proves you haven't

"This just proves you haven't thought about parecon..."

I have read the articles and books, read Michael Albert (and others) not comprehend the points being made. I've given it lots of thought. I just happen to conclude that it is unworkable. For reasons I've sketched above, reasons which have not been even mentioned nevermind addressed!

"1. Anarchists are paranoid of any system, they are apt to interpret the new through their paranoia of the what we have now."

Rejecting Parecon does not equate to being "paranoid" about discussing the outlines of a free society. Anarchists have long discussed what a free society could look like, but we have (rightly) rejected the detailed plans of the Utopian Socialists (and Parecon is firmly in that tradition).

We recognise that real societies evolve and change and cannot be specified in advance (as Proudhon stressed way back in 1846!). We need to look at tendencies towards freedom in the here and now, not abstractly compare utopian visions to capitalism.

I've outlined what an anarchist economy could be like in, for example, The Economics of Anarchy. The specific details will be worked out by a free people, based on objective circumstances and their hopes, dreams, ideals, etc.

"2. People have a real problem envisioning a whole new reality that is totally unrelated to what we've known as our only phenomenology."

Well, I have a real problem predicting what a "whole new reality" will be like, that implies that the people who create a new world will be looking back to what we, shaped by capitalism and not by the struggle which overthrew it, think how free society would be organised for the best.

Particularly when it seems obvious to me that it will never work. I have to say, Parecon supporters seem really quite blasé on how easy it will be to collective, aggregate, analysis, process, and present the activities of millions of people, millions of products, millions of consumption decisions, and so on. Even stranger, when I raise this issue I do not get a reply but rather, well, insults.

Well, I'll re-read (yet again) the Parecon books I have and see if I've missed something. Unfortunately its supporters don't point me to the bits of the books which address my objections...

How do you insure against a

How do you insure against a coordinator class? How do you insure incentive? No iterations?.. How do we do inter-regional and inter-sectoral decisions? I'm not giving up technology, I want a global world as will 90% of people, so my world will remain international... Meaning I will need to plan in relation to other segments in other regions of the industry I work in. But I don't want to have to hold council with all of them.
Systems will be required in a revolutionary world. It's like there are a bunch of primitivists who can't even quite articulate primitivism.
Parecon requires that the micro processes are the macro processes, which require us to be good to each other.
Give me another methodology when you tear down parecon on vague and baseless values. Effort and Sacrifice is not individualistic, you have to negotiate with your work place and wider economy to determine RES. Captalistic!! With that claim you just dropped off the rational and reasonable map.


"How do you insure against a

"How do you insure against a coordinator class?"

I do find this objection funny, given that Parecon involves the collection, aggregation and processing of massive amounts of information! The better question, given all the iteration and "boards", is how does Parecon insure against a co-ordinator class -- for there is a hell of a lot of "co-ordination" going on in Parecon...

"How do you insure incentive?"

Because people only work if they can aspire to be rich? I thought Parecon was an alternative to the assumptions of our current system?

"No iterations?.. How do we do inter-regional and inter-sectoral decisions?"

By socio-economic federation, as suggested by Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, etc.

"I'm not giving up technology, I want a global world as will 90% of people, so my world will remain international..."

Who suggested giving up technology? As for a global world, so the plan would be global? The activities, products, consumption, etc. of 6 billion people will be easy to collect and process!

"Meaning I will need to plan in relation to other segments in other regions of the industry I work in. But I don't want to have to hold council with all of them."

And you favour Parecon? It is based on holding council will all six billion people in the world...

"Systems will be required in a revolutionary world."

And so suggested otherwise?

"It's like there are a bunch of primitivists who can't even quite articulate primitivism."

So you reject Parecon then you are a primitivist? Really?

"Give me another methodology when you tear down parecon on vague and baseless values."

Or, perhaps, address the issues I raised?

Before, when I tried to discuss Parecon, there was much muttering of "co-ordinator class" at the points I was raising. No attempt to address the issue, just the implication that I wanted to be part of a new ruling class. Here I get accused to primitivism! Me, who has spent some time critiquing that nonsense...

Now, I've raised some issues I have with Parecon. As usual, its defenders do not address them. Oh, hum.

The Parecon is stupid - like

The Parecon is stupid - like any effort to present a model of future society that do not take into consideration the society of the world as a whole.

The presentation of the "one big plan" is a lame try to evade the need for a multi tier direct democracy which will coordinate and adjust the production and services given to the demand and need of the people on the fly.

The "job balancing" is an impossible and mechanical mean to allocate (mandate) work tasks to people in a just way by grass roots communities by taking turns and rotating between tasks that cannot be equalized.

The remunerations according to efforts is individualistic and capitalist mentality of rejection of community cohesion and social desirability as much more in accord of human motivations and urges for Equality & Solidarity & Freedom.

For sure there will be plans of all levels including whole world scale... arrived via the direct democracy system but not by iterations and agreement after negotiations between work places and communities...

Very informative article.

Very informative article. Keep it up!

A great article. Thank you

A great article. Thank you for sharing your perspective with us all.

Great work Iain. Really good

Great work Iain. Really good stuff.
Now to parecon. I've married mutualism as a way into parecon. By advancing the co-operative model, a new type of federation (google Federated Participatory Co-ops) would allow us to actually reach for parecon. And even though I think one big plan might have it's benefits, I don't think parecon necessitates that at all. The book (that will one day be finished) that I've written is pretty clear that multiple plans can exist in parecon quite readily, and probably will in the first 100 years of established parecon methodology at least.
It's all about methodology and culture, there is no distinct end point to be reached. That's why parecon is the first and only complete model. Everything else is a series of lofty ideas/goals with vagueries about methodology.
Anarchism is all about the means being the ends. This is why parecon holds up.
I'm finishing up all my readings on Proudhon, (other than marxist) and am very much awaiting the Proudhon chapter you've written.
Thanks again for the great work,


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