Josh Jacob | A Defense of Government

By Josh Jacob

In Mutualism, Sara Horowitz presents a beautiful vision of cooperation and democratic participation: civil society associations like unions, co-ops, religious groups, and mutual aid groups satisfying the needs of their communities through place-based organizing. It’s certainly a view shared by the thousands of newly mobilized workers across the country who have taken up labor fights by unionizing their workplaces. Speaking to workers in the new labor movement, it is clear that many are driven by a sense that the decline in American union power over the past half-century has coincided not only with stagnant wages and increased worker exploitation, but also a loss of community and its attendant political coalitions. As Robert Putnam noted decades ago, the demise of our rich tapestry of social networks in favor of atomization has innumerable effects on our psychology and our ability to relate to one another. Isolationist individualism allows workers to be pitted against one another and erodes our collective power. Taken together with the sequent and equally prevalent sense that government no longer represents us, it is no wonder that labor activity has increased over the past few years. Today, young people flock to union organizing seeking to grow a power base outside of government, to participate in a democratic process that doesn’t feel as futile as electoral politics, and to hopefully build a coalition strong and united enough to one day make electoral politics feel less futile.

Ultimately, I agree with Horowitz’s fundamental assertion that an independent mutualist power base is necessary for our utopian future. In my theory of change, the mutualist sector serves three purposes. First, mutualist groups provide real, material support to the communities they serve. They provide food, housing, health care, and money for their communities, serving the safety net function Horowitz identifies. Second, they allow for the political coalition-building I alluded to in the preceding paragraph. It’s important to clarify that this type of coalition-building isn’t simply in service of getting one politician elected or another (though mutualism can help with that as well, from local school boards up to the highest office) – it’s also about building local political movements which can channel energy behind projects, ballot initiatives, impact litigation, and legislation like the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. Finally, mutualism builds a counterhegemonic culture. Organizing ourselves is our war of position, and just last month in Utopia 3/13 we saw some of the organic intellectuals that mutualism can produce. Counterhegemonic forces need battle-tested leaders, ideas, and messaging strategies to topple and replace the ideologies that justify our oppression.

But Horowitz’s focus is perhaps too narrow, and specifically minimizes the role of government. Horowitz portrays mutualism as self-sufficiency, coming to save us as the New Deal safety net is either becoming outdated or being actively dismantled. But this characterization understates the problem, which is structural; the wage labor system alienates us from our labor and the law privileges property rights uber alles. Government doesn’t just hand out benefits, create regulations, and collect taxes – government creates and upholds the structures of exploitation. But it is a mistake to think this means government is not going to be part of the solution. On the contrary, it means government must be part of the solution. I think the error stems from a failure to recognize government as the institution it is – not a behemoth destined to leave workers high and dry in the wake of neoliberalism, but an institution like any other which reflects the balance of forces in society, albeit with a sovereign authority that no other institution can claim. The power government wields in the sovereign state system means that government has the most power to effect change; so, just as we sow our mutualist institutions with the seeds of revolutionary potential, so must we imbue government.

Government’s Role in Supplementing Mutualism

As Horowitz points out, alternative forms of organizing are more important than ever, as work shifts away from the traditional employment relationship and American labor and employment law lags behind in its response. Workers centers, gig worker organizations, and Horowitz’s Freelancers Union present innovative ways to represent workers excluded from modern labor protections. But worker power ultimately comes from the labor we provide, and without the right to strike or collectively bargain, the ability of these organizations to bend the economy to the will of workers is limited. Government intervention is necessary to ensure that independent contractors, farmers, domestic workers, and everyone else excluded from labor laws can flex their labor power free from injunction or antitrust liability. We can accomplish this by amending the NLRA, fighting misclassification of workers, and expanding antitrust’s labor exemption.

But this is not the only role for government to play in ameliorating the consequences of capitalism. One issue with Horowitz’s argument is that it treats communities as the unit of analysis. Mutualism devolves power from the sweeping and undifferentiated to the local and particularized. This has obvious benefits – the needs or wants of one community might differ from those of another, and as Horowitz points out, recycling money back into a community increases that community’s power. What the approach fails to account for is inequality between communities. Sometimes there is no money in a community to be recycled, and of course some communities have vastly more purchasing power than others. Distributional equity between communities matters, even if each community is self-sufficient – but in all likelihood, some communities will not be self-sufficient, because the economy is national and global, and capital and labor aren’t equally distributed across communities. In Horowitz’s conception of mutualism, the government might augment capital flows to provide capital-starved communities with investment. This intervention can solve the distributional problem, but it also resembles the New Deal government safety net that mutualism is supposed to replace.

Another issue is the problem of non-workers. Non-workers don’t make money, so they rely on government programs and working caregivers for support. Some workers have zero dependents, while others have multiple children, aging retired parents, or disabled people relying on them; this fact means some workers’ incomes will not be enough to go around. And if benefits like health insurance are distributed through employers, non-working people may fall through the cracks there too. In Horowitz’s world, mutualism will catch these people through myriad mutual aid institutions based outside of the workplace. But that requires a material reality to make it happen, one in which there really is enough money in a community to meet everyone’s needs. But again, in conditions of global capitalism, that can’t be guaranteed: some communities will be robbed while others flourish. Government must fill the void with public benefits programs to ensure people aren’t left out.

In these instances, government acts like a risk-sharing mechanism, to plug up gaps in the safety net that inevitably arise. In this sense, government is like the health insurance scheme the Freelancers Union secured for their members. As Horowitz acknowledges, the logic of insurance dictates that bigger risk pools are more efficient to cover. The same logic explains government’s greatest value proposition: government can cover the largest risk pool possible, transferring wealth to low-income communities and non-workers in a cost-effective, democratic, and equitable way.

Government’s Role in Supplanting Mutualism

The metaphor of government-as-insurer isn’t just a metaphor – it can be literal too. Horowitz returns frequently to the freelancers’ health insurance example to show what mutualism can do, but a government health insurance program would assuredly be both more efficient and more accessible. As with welfare benefits, government can spread the risk across the entire country and cut down on administrative and marketing costs in the process. Health insurance would also cease to be tied to employment, meaning non-workers could use it and workers wouldn’t have to worry about losing their health care with their jobs. But perhaps most importantly, public programs can provide stability to communities because they don’t need to be profitable to stick around. Just as the post office will deliver mail to the most remote regions of the country for the same price as anywhere else, government is able to insure the highest-risk people – not because it’s profitable, but because it’s a public good.

On p. 186, Horowitz describes the freelancers’ insurance plan as “the kind of quality health insurance that was usually available only to employees at big corporations.” Perhaps that’s where our utopian visions differ; I want everyone to have the Cadillac plan. The same goes for community health clinics – rather than a clinic that survives if it can bring in enough money, we should remove money from health care considerations entirely. There should be public hospitals and clinics, free at the point of service, located in communities based on need. And just like health insurance and health care, other safety net benefits should be treated as public goods too. We must bring public goods out of the market framework and recognize that sometimes providing public goods isn’t profitable.

The logic of mutualism doesn’t guarantee we can provide everyone with all of the public goods we need. But I’m also not convinced that the upsides of mutualism are relevant to the provision of public goods like health care, housing, unemployment insurance, or other safety net benefits. A key advantage of mutualism is that communities know what they need, but the insurance needs of a community often aren’t unique. Every community needs these public goods. In some domains, bigness papers over necessary nuance, but in insurance and other public benefits schemes, bigness is desirable.

Another advantage of government providing these benefits is that it may be easier to establish a legally cognizable right to the benefits. In a system that privileges property rights, I can sue on due process grounds if the government deprives me of benefits to which I am entitled. But if instead we rely on the mutualist sector to provide a safety net, do I have a legally cognizable right to any benefits? If so, how do I ensure that an assortment of local organizations can fulfill my rights? What if it just doesn’t make financial sense for those in my community to provide these benefits? And if I have no such right, what do I do when my community doesn’t meet my needs?

Even in areas where government does facilitate the mutualist sector like Horowitz recommends (as is the case with labor law facilitating labor unions), relying on mutualism will not guarantee substantive rights. The NLRA and the NLRB protect the right to collectively bargain, but they do not protect the right to a living wage. Similarly, if the government created new laws more favorable to co-op buildings to allow a mutualist housing sector to thrive, that wouldn’t necessarily establish a right to housing. It is tough to imagine a guaranteed right to housing without some form of public housing.

Our Problems Are Embedded

Government’s role in all of this is much deeper than Horowitz suggests. Change must come at the government level for a mutualism economy to survive and grow, for reasons Horowitz points out in chapter 8. But change at the level of government can do so much more to address systemic problems, because government touches everything. The entire system of capital accumulation and wealth creation is mediated by government. As Katharina Pistor’s The Code of Capital explains, the law imparts four attributes to assets to code them as capital: priority, to rank competing claims to assets; durability, to extend those claims through time; universality, to extend those claims to protect entire classes of assets and asset holders; and convertibility, to ensure that assets retain their nominal value by allowing asset holders to convert their claims into state money. Pistor contends that capital is less of a natural force that exists and structures the world independently of the law and more of a socially constructed phenomenon whose parameters are dictated by lawyers, lawmakers, and judges. As such, law is not neutral as to winners and losers.

In this sense, government isn’t just responsible for redistribution; it’s responsible for distribution itself. The rules of the game (capitalism, as reproduced through government) have caused massive wealth inequality. How do we know mutualism will get us toward equity when the rules of the game remain intact? For this reason, government reform is a necessary but insufficient step towards justice – because government is inextricably linked to the distribution of wealth and resources in society.

Throughout Mutualism, Horowitz points out that government wasn’t there for us during the pandemic. This point encompasses the assumption that government should be there for us during a pandemic. It is fatalistic to assume that government’s capacity to provide a decent safety net is foreclosed. Instead, we must dream of a government that embodies the public will. Mutualism will play an important role in bonding groups, coalescing an agenda, building movements, and mobilizing coalitions to effect change in government. It may even be instructive to treat government as a mutualist organization itself, to be remade from the ground up.

The ideal of government is a sort of mega-mutualism. Horowitzian mutualist institutions 1) exist to solve a social problem for a community, 2) are funded with an independent economic mechanism that recycles money back into the community, and 3) invest in long-term goals. This describes government at its best, and we should fight to ensure government meets this definition. Mutualist institutions and government are both, as Douglass North put it, “humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction.” Institutions may develop cultures of corruption; Horowitz points to the failures of twentieth-century communism as an example of this, but one may as easily point to the history of corruption in the United Auto Workers, which is holding its first ever democratic election for union leadership as I write this. But the solution to government’s failures isn’t to retreat entirely to the private sphere to try to use the tools of capitalism for self-help. Instead, we must create a positive feedback loop between government and civil society. We must build solidaristic, anticapitalist institutions to advocate for ourselves in the mutualist sector, we must dismantle the building blocks of capitalism legislatively and judicially, and we must address the distributional consequences of capitalism through universal programs to have a chance at real utopian change.