Mutualism: An interview with Kevin Carson

Kevin Carson Interview

Kevin Carson, an American political theorist and a contemporary leader in discussions concerning mutualism and author of three extremely important books on co-operation, mutualism and capitalism (Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand). Describing his politics as being "the outer fringes of both free market libertarianism and socialism", he certainly will find a welcoming audience among our group - which is why he's been asked several difficult questions.

The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand is available in html format and Studies in Mutualist Political Economy and Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective are both available as PDF files.

Firstly, thank you Kevin for agreeing to this interview with The Isocracy Network.

Thanks for inviting me.

Could you begin by giving a description of mutualism from the initial definition offered by the anarchist Proudhon to contemporary examples and your own involvement in this sort of analysis of political economy?

Atheist Support for Religious Freedom?

Presentation by Lev Lafayette to the Melbourne Atheist Society, October 13, 2009

The History of Religion and Religious Freedom

The history of religion - in addition to being a history of charity, of good deeds, of community, of attempting to provide an explanation to timeless questions of existence, of making significant contributions to the development of the human spirit - is also a history of discrimination and persecution both by those who are greatly devout and towards those who are greatly devout. We may keep this in mind as the question of atheist support for religious freedom is explored. Some of these religious persecutions, and persecutions of religion, lasted for centuries and in many less liberal and democratic regimes than our own they are ongoing. At times this persecution has been subtle such as in the form of cultural discrimination. In others it is systematically enforced in the restriction of property titles, or the requirement of payment of additional taxes. More seriously it involves widespread censorship, forced conversions, segregation and pogroms, terrorism and war.

Can We Ever Be A Self-Governing People?

One thing that is clear with the debate on health care and the evolving legislation in the U.S. Congress is discourse in that country is filtered through an issue agenda that is top-down and highly manipulated. What I mean by that is while we are free to have our own opinions and exercise our constitutional right to express them, we rarely choose the topics for discussion. Much less do we participate in formulating the solutions. What happens instead is that the average person is presented with a menu of the issues of the day - already determined by someone else - and then we are left to comprehend them (not always accurately) and take sides.

The direction of public discussion turns out something like this; we are presented with a set of issues that are already defined, with back-door compromises that have already been made and then they sit back and see if it "plays in Peoria." That is, the public debate is the last phase of a process to see what the public will swallow. We, the people, have been reduced to beta testing democracy. Hardly that, even. More like being part of a giant market research project. I'll use an analogy to illustrate. Rather than all of us collectively creating a list of our favorite flavors of ice cream ourselves and sending it to the dairy producers, we are presented with vanilla and ketchup-flavored ice cream. There is sustainable support for vanilla and the reaction to ketchup is so negative that it is rejected. Oh, what powerful consumers we were. We made our choices and determined the market. But what happened to chocolate, fudge swirl, pistachio, black cherry and a hundred other flavors? Well, those weren't on the agenda. Sorry.

This is what happens in the political marketplace every day. And unlike the retail marketplace, there is really no competition to keep the system somewhat honest. Ben and Jerry's government is not out there to offer alternatives. We may periodically elect candidates to office, but we get the same existing institutions - and they go on and on. We don't have a choice of types of government or economic systems. Real change is thus only incremental at best.

Isocracy: For Liberty and Common Wealth

An Opportunity Gap for the Left

Isocracy is a political philosophy whose time has come. As the last dregs of totalitarian and authoritarian statist socialism have become anachronisms, mainstream politics has become almost entirely colonised by corporate interests as democracy increases loses its honoured attachment to the polis and the formation of genuine public opinion [1]. 'Capitalist democracy' has become the orthodox political position, an acceptable system for conservatives and social-democrats alike; private ownership of the economy, public determination of socially acceptable behaviour. The only recognised alternative to this neo-liberalism is reminiscent of the classic description [2] of the 'dangerous class', the social scum, who have been thrown into existence by the new order. In this case, religious-inspired anti-modernists who through terrorism, the systematic use of violence against non-combatants for a political goal, seek to impose a new totalitarianism which incorporates modern weaponry to enforce the absolute rule of theocratic rulers and and pre-modern prejudices against the ruled.

Where the supposed major conflict is between capitalism and Islamism [3], there exists a enormous opportunity exists for the new left whereby its historical objectives - secularism, republicanism, personal liberty, common wealth, and national self-determination - can reinvigorate the notion of historical progress within the collective human spirit with recognition of the need to re-establish moral reasoning in each and every generation as technology advances. The experience of totalitarianism in the twentieth century shattered forever the Enlightenment illusion of an inevitable connection between technical progress and socio-cultural development, even to the extent that some (e.g., various forms of primitivism) have rejected technological development altogether. Whilst in some cases well-intentioned this is ultimately an idyllic and reactionary approach which abdicates from dealing with the existing social system and technologies, and thus will inevitably fail. More realistically, the most serious challenge is that posed by the claim that history is effectively at an evolutionary end; liberal democracy will become the only - and last - form of government for all States [4].

The weakness with the argument is that it is explicitly tied to the notion of governance through the State and cannot conceive, like many contemporary anarchists, of governance without a State. But the State, as the holder of monopoly on legitimated violence and as an instrument of class rule [5], is a limited institution and one which will inevitably come into conflict with the technological potential, the productive forces, and the social networks that these technologies allow. At that stage of development any State, no matter how progressive it may have once been, will become a deadweight on further social development as its core characteristics require both governance and oppression. Only through overcoming those components of a monopoly on violence and class rule can a society truly become free and the 'withering away of the state' can be achieved [6]. The historic mission of isocracy, "equal rule", with the universal principles of personal liberty through self-ownership and social democracy in the commonwealth is to create such a society in the context of contemporary technology.

The once and future guide

Not so long ago, the United States made the pursuit and maintenance of moral authority one of the tenants of it's foreign policy. The incident that comes first to this blogger's mind is one that Henry Kissinger has roundly criticized in his 1994 book DIPLOMACY: America's intervention on the side of Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956 against its English and French NATO allies.

Mr Kissinger's analysis (which I do not have on hand and, regrettable, cannot therefore quote) is a good starting point. He writes that Egypt sought to make overtures to both NATO and the Soviet Union, playing the two blocs against each other to better place Egypt in the new world order; when Egypt warmed to the Soviets, America and England withdrew their financial commitments to Egypt (the building of the Aswan Dam). To finance the construction of the Dam, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, an old Anglo-French joint colonial venture. As the old colonial powers and the new state of Israel geared up for war, America forced its NATO and Israeli allies to withdraw. America, then under President Eisenhower, realized that it could not condemn the Soviets' brutal suppression of Hungary while simultaneously supporting colonial imperialist gestures in Egypt. To retain its moral authority to inspire revolutions to destabilize the Soviets, America -- putting it bluntly -- betrayed its allies to side with a country that was warming to the Soviets. But what is counter-intuitive from a strictly geo-political standpoint is a wise and prescient in a more nuanced analysis: for America to inspire revolutions behind the Iron Curtain it had to stand apart as an ideal example. Today, for America to undermine religious fanaticism, it must similarly deploy moral authority as part of its arsenal; to do that it must again stand apart and stand morally upright.

The Future of the Malay States

Tearing down of the Dutch flag Surabaya

Like so many parts of the world the Malay states (defined here as Nusantara; Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, Brunei and perhaps Singapore), are victims of European colonialism. The borders that exist are not borders of their own chosing. The largest country, Indonesia, is the outcome of the gradual expansion from the Dutch East Indies Company and the subsequently nationalised colonies. Timor-Leste's borders are the remains of the Portuguese presence. Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are the result of British interests in the region and in particular the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 which divided the archipelago. As a result, there is very uneven political and economic development in the region and difficulties with national identity and conflicts between and within countries.

This should not however, prohibit raising potential developments with a perspective of modernisation, common wealth, human rights and federalism regardless of the difficulties. As Oscar Wilde correctly observed; "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias."

Civil Unions for All

The debate about same-sex marriage has raged on for the past few years. I have personally been trying to find a stance that I feel comfortable with. On one side, I believe in maximising individual liberty and opportunity for all - regardless of adult sexual orientation, but I also acknowledge that marriage is a sacred institution for many, or at least a very important institution that in many cultures is strictly defined as being between a man and a woman. For a long time, I believed that those in same-sex relations should be allowed civil unions that have equal status to federally-recognised marriages, but the notion of "separate but equal" is a hard one to swallow in this day and age.

Ultimately, I have come to a solution that I am comfortable with... civil unions for all, marriages if you can get one.

I do not believe that a secular government has the authority to sponsor a single definition of marriage. Marriages should be left strictly to private religious institutions or social groups. Marriage seems to be a purely ceremonial thing and each culture has its own definitions, requirements, and rules regarding marriage. Supporting a single definition is not fair and breaches the concept of a separation between religion and state.

Civil unions, on the other hand, are purely legal constructions with no affiliation to any culture, religion, or social group. That is the domain of the government. All those in a relationship that seek to be recognised by the government and be given the associated benefits of being in a legal union must be granted a civil union - regardless of adult sexual orientation. That way, the government will not favour any particular group of people or sponsor a single definition of marriage.

Revolutionary Reformism

Introduction to the problem

The debate of revolutionary or reformist approaches to social change have been argued through the ages and has become most pertinent since the bourgeoise revolutions and in particular with the development of democratic reforms during the latter half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The debate certainly gained prominence with the the unification of the revolutionary Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany, led by Bebel and Liebknecht, and the reformist General German Workers' Association originally established by Lassalle. One of Marx's greatest works, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), in which he firmly established his 'third phase' (libertarian socialist) thinking, is a response to that unification. In the turn of the twentieth century the debate continued on one side of Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism (1899) and Rosa Luxembourg's critique, the equally bluntly titled Reform or Revolution (1900).

Goddess of Liberty, Tiananmen Square

To give a very simple summary, the revolutionary perspective argued that socialism can only be won through the forced overthrow of the ruling class, whereas the reformist perspective argues that socialism can develop over time with the gradual institutionalisation of more democratic rights. Related topics include political disposition of varying degrees of conservatism versus radicalism; debates over the psychological effects of State institutions, from insidiously corrupting to subtly influential; of political realism between principles and pragmatism; of class relations, conflict and the capacity of different classes to implement social change; in political organisation, between vanguard elites versus mass parties, and, on the highest level, the debate over the foundations of society itself whether natural, technological, institutional, relations, or ideas.

Of course, there is no suggestion that the following is anything but a brief sketch to the problem, a somewhat frustrated expression of personal experiences in both reformist and revolutionary politics, a discussion of the purpose of a revolutionary approach, and a conclusion that hopes to transcend some of the common problems through 'revolutionary reformism'. The notion of transcending, or overcoming, or even better still to use Hegel's phrase from the dialectical method Aufhebung is quite deliberate, in contrast to the erroneous assertion of a 'synthesis' through partial adaption of the thesis and antithesis. As much as Trotsky argued against "No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards!" from a revolutionary perspective he was also prepared to argue in favour of co-ordinated action "March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike!" ("For a Workers' United Front Against Fascism", 1931).

In decades of political involvement I am yet to see Trotsky's dictum seriously taken up by self-proclaimed revolutionary organisations in advanced capitalist states. Determined not to dirty their hands with actual governance, they are hopelessly split on relatively minimal differences and prone towards infiltrating social movements for the purpose of recruitment, rather than social change itself. The revolutionary assertions bring no comfort either; political programmes which are ill-considered and idealistic. By the same token, equal condemnation but of a different sort, can be levelled at reformist organisations. Highly institutionalised, they typically avoid involvement in extraparliamentary activism to engage in the byzantine labyrinth of State power for minimal and specific changes rather than seeking the systematic basis for the problems to begin with; as Henry David Thoreau remarked in Walden (1854): "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root".

The Global Financial Crisis

Iceland's stock exchange values


Today we are in an global economic crisis. It is an economic crisis not because of the scale, for at worst there has been a recession of a few percent of GDP, but rather because it has been systematically induced. The best strategies that have been proposed so far are essentially neo-Keynesian; because private demand has fallen, government expenditure can alter aggregate demand to provide a stimulus to the economy. At best, this can provide necessary infrastructure for positive externalities through network effects; at worst it will simply serve as a delaying tactic, leading to a greater crisis in the near future.

What Happened?

The start of the current economic problems were evident at the end of 2005 when there was a sudden halt to the rampant increases in real estate prices in the US. In 2006, as estate prices remained flat, the Dow Jones Index actually increased approximately a quarter. In 2007 real-estate prices declined leading to twenty-five subprime mortgage estate lenders went bankrupt, including the largest lenders such as New Century Financial, American Home Mortgage and Ameriquest. The largest U.S. mortgage lender Countrywide Financial narrowly avoided bankruptcy by borrowing $11 billion from other banks and in the UK there was a run on the Northern Rock bank, which was eventually put into public ownership in 2008.

Palestine: A Challenge to Humanity

Before I begin my presentation, I’d just like to say a couple of things about myself and Australians for Palestine.

The first is that I am not myself a Palestinian and have no family, cultural or any other connection with either side of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I am, rather, employed as the Public Advocate for Australians for Palestine and, for the most part, my role in this position is to explain the facts of the conflict to Australian audiences.

The second thing I’d like to say is that Australians for Palestine believe that, by explaining the facts of the conflict to the Australian public, we are also working towards its peaceful resolution

And it in this sense that we share in the mission of the Unitarian Church to "Seek the Truth and Serve Humanity."

Indeed it our view that these goals of seeking the truth and serving humanity are interchangeable. For clearly, no one can properly serve humanity in a state of ignorance. But it is also the case that the search for truth implies the service of humanity.

For the search for truth leads ultimately to knowledge and all knowledge has consequences. And the knowledge of injustice, in particular, has moral consequences.

And it is in this spirit that I wish to address you this morning on the issue of Palestine: as someone who believes

  • That knowledge implies obligation.
  • That the fulfilment of such obligation often incurs sanctions;
  • But that the true test of one’s humanity is and always has been the willingness to follow one’s conscience, regardless of the consequences.

Next Friday marks an anniversary that commemorates the turning point in the histories of 2 peoples: the Israelis and the Palestinians.

For the Israelis May 15 marks their Independence Day: the day that they celebrate not only the establishment of the state of Israel in the country, which, until that time, had been called “Palestine”.


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