Kevin Carson's Studies in Mutualist Political EconomyKevin Carson's Studies in Mutualist Political EconomyKevin Carson is the author of Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto. He writes quarterly research papers and weekly news commentary as research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society. He has written for such print publications as The Freeman and Journal of Libertarian Studies, and for online sites like the P2P Foundation Blog and the UK Libertarian Alliance. His blog is at (Related Reading: Wikipedia entry on Kevin Carson)  What are the key tenets of Mutualism, as you have redefined and revived it through your seminal work "Studies in Mutualist Political Economy" and in what way could Mutualism be relevant to a specific economic sector such as Tourism?

Kevin Carson: The basic tenets of mutualism are (first) removing artificial property rights and artificial scarcity rents, and allowing a free market to reduce prices to cost and give labor the full value of its product; and (second) dissolving the functions of the state into society, and replacing the state with voluntary self-organized bodies like cooperatives, mutuals and p2p networks.

Regarding tourism in particular I'm afraid I can't give you much in the way of a satisfactory answer, since I know little to nothing about tourism-related issues or tourism exchanges (typical or not).  How can the cost principle work in your view, in particular in grassroots, community tourism? Can a poor local force a fair rate on a wealthy foreigner with many alternative options, or, to achieve reciprocity and equal exchange do we perhaps need more voluntary host cooperatives? Or mixed host-guest cooperatives, perhaps?

Kevin Carson: So long as there are wealthy people, they can't be ethically forced to deal with ventures they prefer not to, and no one can be forcibly constrained from offering them options more to their liking. Ultimately, I think it will come down to the question of how much less the disparities of wealth are in a society without privilege and artificial scarcity rents. When it's impossible to derive income from artificial property rights and artificial scarcity, high-end luxury goods for the super rich will be a lot less lucrative as a market niche. The main value of all forms of mutuals, rather, is to provide options for those who don't currently have them -- to enable people to live comfortably by exchanging their skills and efforts with equal producers, without being dependent on wage employment to buy capitalistically-provided services on the cash nexus.  Would international travel (and even domestic travel) be easy, at least at the current mass, industrial scale, in a future hypothetical mutualist, multi-fragmented, decentralised, localised world, possibly with infinite local currencies, local agreements (laws), visa agreements, and without large private or state transport companies (airlines, rail, etc)?

Kevin Carson:  I would say not. In general, if subsidies to centralized, high-capacity, long-distance transportation networks are removed, I would expect the overall cost of transportation to rise, and the amount consumed to fall.

But it could be that the most significant reduction in overall use of transportation would be in the shipping of goods that could be produced locally, and in the rapid shipping of perishable or "just-in-time" goods. In that case, the remaining transportation capacity might be disproportionately used for individual travel (with, for example, longer and more leisurely trips on economical airships replacing the airline industry). Even with less individual travel, the reduction might be primarily in frequent business travel, with the average person still having several memorable long-distance trips in a lifetime (like an American taking a tour of Europe, etc.), and occasionally using passenger trains and airships for visiting relatives.  How do you view modern, alternative, 'non-capitalist' even, tourism currents such as Couchsurfing, Woofing, and to an extent, Voluntourism? Or indeed, more commercial models such as time-sharing?

Kevin Carson: I don't know what most of these things are, aside from couchsurfing. But I view that sort of thing very positively, much like ride-sharing, freecycling, and things of that sort. They're all ways to transform spare capacity into use value, and extract use-value from what would otherwise be waste - and thereby reduce dependence on wage labor to purchase things on the cash nexus.  Many would recognise Mutualism as practical at many local, grassroots and everyday settings. However, perhaps peculiarly, the same people would doubt that it is compatible with the current complex and unfair state of the world and whether it would require or bring about a return to a pre-industrial society. What, if anything, could guarantee to them that such a decentralised, mutualist world (indeed a multipolar world without superpowers!) be peaceful and benevolent rather than an assortment of warring city-states, mini-tyrannies, chieftains, brigands and clans? 

Kevin Carson: Well, I don't have any hard and fast answers to this. How to manage the decline of centralized states, and to maintain a framework of general stability in which a new mutualist localism can arise, is a political question I can't say much about. But there are some general principles, at least, that might shed some light on the answer.

As for the pre-industrial society part, I don't see it at all. The model for the economic future is something like Emilia-Romagna or the Shanzhai enteprises in China -- only reoriented toward production for local markets rather than the global market. Micromanufacturing technology, garage production with affordable tools, is the wave of the future. I think we'll see the emergence of many thousands of relocalized manufacturing economies that will weather the coming collapse of the old mass production economies and centralized states, much like the rural villas became the building blocks of a new society after the fall of the western Roman Empire.

And when it comes to warring city-states and the like, economic decentralization will be a mitigating factor. The economy will be so dispersed that there won't be any targets lucrative enough to justify the cost of conquest. And in general, I think technology is favoring the defensive so heavily over the offensive that the cost of bothering other people and making trouble will just be prohibitive compared to minding your own business and trading peacefully with them.  In relation to Global Warming, what is your view of capitalist 'solutions' to it, and green left responses such as the climate justice movement?

Kevin Carson: I'm not sure what the capitalist solutions are, other than proposals of the capitalists' state like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes. I think the real solution, if there's a political one, is simply to remove all state subsidies to energy use and transportation. Stop using taxpayer money to protect the sea lanes for oil tankers, stop fighting wars to guarantee access to strategic oil basins, stop preempting tort laws to protect extractive industries from liability for things like land subsidence and mountaintop removal, start funding airports and highways entirely with user fees, stop criminalizing mixed use development and subsidizing sprawl, etc.

In the end, though, I think the only real solution will be Peak Oil. If you look at the predicted production curve for fossil fuels, it's pretty much isomorphic with the curve of energy consumption desired by those who want to restrict carbon emissions. We've probably already passed Peak Oil several years ago, and are within a decade of Peak Coal, which means we're probably very close to Peak Fossil Fuel. We're currently emitting about as much CO2 as we ever will, and the numbers will rapidly decline in the near future.  What is wrong with Green (statist capitalist?) recipies such as Travel Carbon Offsetting, incentives for green tourism development, green travel taxes, the Green New Deal, the green economy etc?

Kevin Carson:  Mainly that they amount to a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption, in which added layers of state regulation are added to control the side-effects of earlier state policy. Resource waste and pollution are the result of state privileges and subsidies to extracting industries, to artificially cheap transportation, etc. The real solution is to remove those primary structural interventions that create the problem in the first place, rather than to add secondary regulations to control the harmful effects..  What are your feelings about the 'rescue' of private banks by the state, during the recent (ongoing) global economic crisis? Should they have been allowed to collapse? Should they have remained state-owned from now on? Are mutual banks, and cooperative, ethical banks a practical and viable alternative?

Kevin Carson:  Well, as an anarchist I don't endorse anything the state does, other than reducing the amount of its own statism. Like the line in that James Bond film, I just expect it to die! But I will say there's a good chance that failure to intervene would have led to some sort of systemic collapse, which would have been intolerable to the state, and that I can't imagine any state failing to act under those circumstances.

What I find worth remarking on, rather, is how little questioning went into the basic form the bailout took. The basic form was just about identical for both Bush/Paulson and Obama/Geithner: saddling the taxpayers with interest-bearing public debt to prop up the value of bad assets, and prevent deflation from marking them down to real market value, so that the owners of those assets might turn around and loan some of the money (at interest!) back to the public. That's about as Hamiltonian as you can get - a wet dream for the folks in the FIRE economy who live off of interest.

There were people on the left, like Dennis Kucinich, who argued that the same amount of money could have been spent to capitalize a new network of cooperative community banks, and that the value of the banks' real estate holdings and investments could have been allowed to deflate radically, with the new community banks lending enough of the new currency interest-free for workers to buy up the old economy at fire sale prices. That would have been statist, but I can't see how it would have been any more statist than what we get. I guess for the right-wing "free market" establishment, statism is more statist when it helps poor people instead of the rich.  Mutualism seems to share the Epicurean approach to Justice, that it is not an abstract or god-given absolute but essentially an agreement / contract between people. But what about basic, external notions of Justice such as Human Rights? Is a local community entitled to knowingly and deliberately violate them?

Kevin Carson: Actually I tend toward an absolutist or deontological view of justice - based on self-ownership and nonaggression - although I'm not enough of a philosopher to really get into the grounding of it..  Despite three decades of neoliberalism, there are still millions of people who are members of mutual aid societies and cooperatives. Are, some at least, mutualists, without realising it and without even sharing the basic ideological influences of Mutualism?

Kevin CarsonWell, sure -- in the same sense that people are anarchists and don't know it, because they invite people into their homes without killing them, or borrow stuff from their neighbors and then give it back, and so forth, without the fear of punishment by the state playing a role in their behavior.

Likewise, we produce a major part of our total consumption needs in the informal and household sector, outside the cash nexus, or trade with other people in the informal economy.

Most of our daily lives are anarchy, insofar as we relate to other people freely in ways that don't even take the state's rules into account. Colin Ward was quite eloquent on the idea that ordinary people already live in an anarchist society that operates in the interstices of the statist one, and is constrained in its proper functioning by the larger framework of statist limitations.

The main problem is simply the limited portion of total resources that are available to this anarchist society, and the amount of tribute it's forced to pay to the capitalist framework within which it exists. If it weren't for privilege, artificial property rights, and artificial scarcity, the amount of resources available to us for use in the alternative economy would be much larger. If you look at the voluntary welfare state of worker mutuals in the nineteenth century, as described by E.P. Thompson and Pyotr Kropotkin, it was an amazing piece of work. If the workers participating in it hadn't been robbed by the Enclosures and other land thefts, subjected to totalitarian controls on their powers to organize by the Combination Acts and Laws of Settlement, etc., imagine what they could have done without the state! This week you have (had) elections in the United States, and we have local elections here in Greece. Is voting for the lesser evil (a party more or less compatibly with one's ideals) compatible with the gradualist tactics of Mutualism, or do you propose abstaining altogether?

Kevin Carson:  This is a problematic issue for me. But I've never really been convinced by the argument that voting legitimizes the state, or makes the voter complicit. I've mostly leaned toward the argument for defensive voting. When one alternative is clearly a lesser evil, it's better to take it. In the end, it probably doesn't do much good or harm either way to vote. What's really stupid is to attach much importance to it, compared to the stuff we really do have control over like building counter-institutions in ways that ignore the state and operate below its radar. Thank you very much!

Kevin Carson: Thanks a lot for inviting me!