I've considered myself an anarchist for a very long time, but figuring out what that means can be a bit tricky. The anarchist tradition is very diffuse, and contemporary anarchist cultures and movements are a bit incoherent (like most of the left). So I've been trying to find a tangent of anarchism that seems the most viable. Most people don't like identifying themselves with an "-ism", and I can understand that given that this is generally a stifling, limited, empty gesture, something to guide chatter in a coffeeshop, with little real bearing on one's life.
But a political belief system like any belief system can and should mean more than that. It should be a worldview you can use as a guide for personal and collective action. If your system has real merit, it will help you understand and act through the situations you encounter or create in life. It we're talking about a liberatory political belief system, it should help you to understand how power functions in the world, and how you can create or participate in the creation of democratic, grassroots, life-affirming power.
So the question for me, and I think many folks who consider themselves anarchist, is what can we really do to organize long-term change in a society towards the creation of life-affirming institutions and practices that are directly controlled by their participants. When doing that individually, in day-to-day life, we can sort of feel our way through it; but to build a movement capable of shifting society as a whole we need to be a little more systemic about things, we need a set of values and principles that are more or less coherent.
There are a wide variety of projects that attempt this, but to me they tend to share a fatal flaw. They begin by envisioning an ethical political ideal, use that ideal to imagine a utopian vision, and then try and graft the world onto that vision. They generally fail. If the utopias are enforced by violence, they become dictatorships, totalitarianisms. If the visions are not forced by arms, they're never realized.
Imagining ideals for a better society is fine, and can be a useful tool for sustaining our hope and dedication to social change. But it can be crippling if we don't accept the fundamental necessity of seeing where those ideals actually match up with real projects and organizations in society as it exists. Instead of creating an abstract ideal, we should see what parts of the political and economic spectrum and popular values are potentially liberatory, and draw upon them to guide our efforts. We should especially focus on those projects that are themselves radical in their foundation, and craft a politics that allows them to engage one another, a space of common connection between them.
So to me, the paramount politic question for anarchism has become this: What set of values can bind together cooperatives, land trusts, community gardens, affinity groups, DIY clusters, mutual aid societies, credit unions and alternative currencies, progressive small business networks, democratic labor unions, and grassroots economic development and empowerment? And what would we call it?
Mutualism was developed as a radical politics by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, generally regarded as a the French father of modern anarchism. Proudhon was a printer of peasant stock, and advocated the progressive abolition of government and large concentrations of private property. He distinguished between "property", accumulated by individual or government through some form of exploitation or coercion, and "possession," the land and tools a person used for living and working. Proudhon's philosophy was based on the labor theory of value, dominant in 19th century political economy, which simply held that all economic value is created through human labor. The radical extension of this proposal is that no person has a "right" to natural resources, as they have done no work to create them, and only people who work to make a thing have true right to own or sell that thing. The normal structure in capitalism, of a boss who owns and employees who do the work, is thus automatic exploitation, because workers don't have rights over the product of their labor.
In the mutualist ideal, only workers have a right to their products, and any other intervention of the state regarding property rights is an unjust power maneuver. The State primarily functions to insure the abstract rights of property over the organic rights of labor (or, more broadly, the creative community that generates things in the economy) and so must be abolished.
The broad strategy of mutualism lies in creating alternative economic vehicles and essentially "breaking off" from capitalist/statist organization. Instead of capitalist firms, the mutualist proposes independent contracting, worker and consumer cooperatives, and mutual aid networks. Instead of banks given monopoly power over the creation of wealth by the State, the mutualist proposes credit unions, labor exchanges and alternative currencies (indeed, some of the first credit unions were inspired by mutualist projects). Instead of corporate farming, smallhold farming bound together through producer cooperatives, tied directly to consumers (or simply home gardening). Instead of the State represented by a strong central government, community self-governance rooted in localities and regions and focused on building shared infrastructure instead of policing borders and building up armies.*
Mutualism is a broad political philosophy that exists as sort of a "third way", not quite capitalist, not quite socialist, but embodying the positive qualities of both. Property is valued insomuch as it is based on the needs of life and work, and as long as it is not heavily accumulated or monopolized or centralized. In other words, property is good when it is used as a safeguard for personal and collective freedom and economic security. Yet it only takes on this value when combined with socialist values of equity and solidarity, with larger organizations of people being thoroughly "socialist" in the sense that they are owned and controlled by their workers and members. Mutualism merges the the free worker, the community-rooted consumer, and the small business in the favored form of the cooperative.
I think mutualism has great potential as sort of a catch-all radical philosophy for the current era in America, because it seems to speak to what folks are actually trying to do. There's a lot of movement towards cooperatives, there's a lot of movement towards promoting small, local business over corporate chains, there's a lot of movement towards local sustainable farming over corporate megafarms. There's a lot of movement towards direct, local democracy over the hopelessly bureaucratic and megalithic war-empire of the federal government or even most state governments. These tools offer great opportunity for genuine economic and political emancipation at every scale. They only offer this though if we're conscious of the links between them, and conscious of the fact that we want to supplant the corporate-state system, not buy into it.