I have been a mutualist for a short time, but it seems that the main thing people use to argue against mutualism is its theory of property rights. Communists complain that mutualists believe in property rights at all, of course, and use this to dismiss mutualism altogether (even to the extent, as I’ve seen in one blog commenting on this entry, of calling me a “right-winger,” which may actually make sense if you are clinically insane or call everyone who’s not a communist a right-winger). Capitalists, on the other hand, complain that mutualists don’t believe in perpetual property rights, and use this to dismiss mutualism altogether. There is a great deal of things to say about mutualism, but it seems the debate is often reduced to this one issue.
There are two related ways in which mutualist property rights differ from capitalist property rights:
1. Mutualism states that property is acquired and maintained by use/occupancy (which includes homesteading), not by contract or trade.
2. Because of this, mutualism states that property is not perpetual, but rather may become abandoned and thus a natural resource, ready to be homesteaded again.
Capitalists use these two differences to create scenarios which they find clearly unacceptable, and then claim this is what mutualism proposes. For instance, they will say things like “what if I leave my house for a weekend, and other people break into my house and start living in it!” But anyone with any good sense knows that leaving one’s house for a weekend does not mean you abandoned it, by any conception of “abandoned.” Mutualists do not claim that leaving your house for a weekend means abandoning it, either.
But this is used by capitalists to divert from the real issue, which is the property claims made by the State. By far the biggest “landowner” is the State: the government alone owns a third of the land (never mind that property taxes imply that the government owns all the land), let alone all the corporations put together (not even counting lands corporations gain exclusive access to), which must be at least another third. Historically, control over land has been the principal means by which populations were controlled. Feudalism was predicated on the ownership and control of land by a ruling structure. The Industrial Revolution, with all its attendant evils, wouldn’t have happened without the massive enclosure land grabs in England in the 18th century.
Even today we still see land ownership as a tool of control through the process called “gentrification,” which is a weasel word for “kicking poor people out of their homes so rich people can move in.” Here is one such example.
Director Phil Blakeley has publicly pledged to do as much, saying the company is doing its part to “bring along Harlem’s gentrification” as a beachhead in its bid to build a $5 billion real estate empire here. Yet Dawnay Day may have gotten more than it bargained for in East Harlem, known as El Barrio to those who call it home. Here, the powerful multinational corporation has run into a different kind of power - the power of a community ready to defend its right to exist. For tenants, the company’s offer to “bring along Harlem’s gentrification” can be translated to mean harassment, eviction, displacement experiences all too familiar to the people of Harlem, if all too invisible in the media.
“Dawnay Day Group is waging a war against our community from their headquarters across the ocean,” they said in a recent declaration, “with the sole purpose of forcing us from our homes in order to increase their profits… Together, we make our dignity resistance and we fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords and multinational corporations who are displacing poor families from our neighborhood. We fight back locally and across borders.”
Who is in the right here? According to capitalist property rights, Dawnay Day Group (the non-existing, purely imaginary corporate person) bought those buildings and is within its rights to evict whoever it wants, and the people fighting for their community are the bad guys. According to mutualist property rights, the imaginary “legal person” Dawnay Day Group cannot own any of these buildings, as they belong to those who occupy them (the “tenants”), and the people at Dawnay Day Group are trying to illegitimately fuck up people’s lives so they can make a profit.
Who is right, in your opinion?
What about the Zapatista natives, defending their land from capitalist farmers who swoop in and claim it for themselves? What about the Basque gaztetxe, organizations of teenagers who take over an abandoned building, renovate it, use it as a place of service for them and the community, and then often get kicked out by the local police for their trouble? What about teenagers and vagrants occupying abandoned factories trying to make a better life for themselves? What about people living on the innumerable acres of “public land”? Should they be kicked out as well?
I think it should be obvious to any reasonable person that capitalist property rights are at least flawed, and that use/occupancy rules are justified at least in some instances.
The fact remains that the State is responsible for the vast majority of abuses of property rights and is the biggest absentee landlord there is, and that any attempt at defending capitalist property rights must be seen as an attempt to defend the privilege system of capitalism. If use/occupancy rules were applied right now, there is no doubt that the whole system of capitalism, based on private owners of the means of production who have no use/occupancy connection with them (including land), would be gone by tomorrow.
Naturally the question arises as to who determines what is abandoned and what is not. In my opinion, this is a pretty pointless question since all such social rules are determined by the society itself, not any specific ideology. To quote Kevin Carson talking about capitalist (Lockean) property rights as compared with mutualism, and how capitalists use a double-standard when labeling mutualist rights as aggression:
To put it in more neutral language, neither the Lockean nor the mutualist property system could function without the willingness of the majority of one’s neighbors to recognize one’s rights claims under that system and to back them up with what they perceive as defensive force, if necessary.
See, when there’s a consensus on Lockean rules, and neighbors band together to enforce each other’s rights under those rules, it’s a defensive action on behalf of all that’s right and holy. When neighbors band together to enforce a consensus on mutualist rules, on the other hand, it’s a band of thugs.
But any system of property rules requires a majority consensus of people willing to enforce each other’s rights under that system, and such a majority will tend to view attempts to enforce any rival system as “aggression.”
Like any other proper form of Anarchy, mutualism does not set specific rules under which free people must be forced to accept, but rather tells us what is morally justifiable and what is not, in view of specific social values to be pursued, leaving the establishment of rules for one’s daily life to the people themselves.
Bonus question: does mutualism also apply to squatter bobcats?