Markets with free information flow help determine relative prices. But this effect can be difficult to observe in a deceptive or sparse marketplace. Murray Bookchin laments the loss of the “moral economy” as a reflection of losing the civic space and of losing our way in the chase for a homogenized global market catering to the cheapest bargain with little connection between buyers and sellers.1 The market that Bookchin laments losing is one that is not just the sterile connection between price and value recorded on an order book, but the knowledge (which he exemplifies through the street hawker’s sign, as if from a different era: “Fair Prices”) that buyer and seller are engaged in a mutually beneficial and mutually supportive act. They are participants within an ecological symbiosis, and they are active. They form the environment around them, making the market and remaking their own roles.
The connections between markets as a civic space and our ecological understanding can be traced to early concepts in evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species described the theory he had formed around the evolution of species as distinct organisms. He examined the differentiation of species and, before knowledge of gene theory, imagined how differentiation could benefit animals as their characteristics evolved to match their environment. The “finches” on the different islands of the Galapagos could exploit different food resources because of their differentiation in beaks. Thus, they did not need to compete for scarce resources in their isolated island environments. Their evolutionary adaptations allowed these distinct species to differentiate in their use of resources as they exploited what was available to them.
The underlying rationale behind the success of differentiation in evolutionary traits is often replicated in market form when firms choose to specialize or set themselves apart from the competition. By carving out a market for themselves, they can ensure that instead of competing for the same small pie, they enlarge the pie and take what others cannot consume, or at least they maintain a competitive advantage within their niche. Quickly after Darwin’s Origin of Species, Social Darwinists transformed the ideas therein for use in subjugating their fellow man. They argued that because evolutionary success was the result of particular traits, people with those traits should be exalted at the expense of others. Further, some argued that Darwin’s theory could support the removal of any social safety nets and supported a brutalist competition amongst people in furtherance of a shared evolutionary potential. They claimed to believe the test of a life without material support would create a species of the highest quality individuals.
Partially in response to these Social Darwinists, and partially in response to Darwin himself, Peter Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid as a Factor in Evolution which emphasized a different set of incentives and benefits in evolutionary development. Where Darwin had focused on animal species separating to avoid conflict and searching for evolutionary niches, Kropotkin focused on how different animal species complemented each other in their interactions. He chronicled the symbiotic relationships and coexistence of different species, as well as the cooperation of animals within species. Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid held that organisms could cooperate for mutual evolutionary success: Social bonds bridge resource gaps. The family unit that stays together propagates more easily and survives more variations in their environment. Symbiosis and coexistence between species resemble the moral economy, where firms and individuals take part in a mutually beneficial transfer of information and value, settling on a price not so much by coercion as by reason.
From a biological standpoint, the emergence of gene theory and the idea of large multi-celled organisms as collections of various cooperating and mutually beneficial smaller organisms (like the bacteria in a person’s gut), rather than distinct, fully-contained entities, lead us to look at Kropotkin’s as the superior description. But we should keep in mind that Kropotkin’s ire was aimed more strongly at those who interpreted Darwin than at Darwin himself. Darwin’s work does not reject cooperation within or between species—it just ignored it. After all, the purpose of Darwin’s book is in the title: Why speciate?
The drive towards differentiation that Darwin explored is what Bookchin praises as the “fecundity” of nature. Bookchin describes the ecological process wherein fecundity is an emergent phenomenon of areas teeming (almost to the brim) with life.2 Similarly, in those town squares that Bookchin admires as the closest descendants to the Greek agora, we see people, commerce, and life stacked right on top of itself, and yet endlessly differentiated.3 If the market is the medium or space for exchange within the commercial sphere, it is the place where our commercial engagement drives speciation. Free movement and passage of information, so vital to these shared spaces, supports differentiation.
To the extent that the presentation of evolution in Origin of Species is one wherein organisms respond to their environment through their attempts to survive and propagate their traits, the evolution in Mutual Aid is one wherein organisms actively shape their own co-evolution by seeking out beneficial relationships. Mutual Aid provides the basis for organization as an evolutionary trait and bridges the gap in Social Darwinists’ understanding of Darwin by describing that vehicle for evolutionary success as a trait of species, rather than of individuals. Kropotkin’s contribution is that social organization as a trait, like long and short beaks, can beget evolutionary success. Bookchin’s praise for difference and the revival of the shared spaces moves the focus away from organisms and towards ecologies—moral economies support difference; differentiation strengthens the bonds of the shared space.
Then, if fecundity is to be cultivated, not just in our biological world but in our commercial one, how is it brought about? We see the traces of it in all places civilization touches—both in town and country. The trash from one use or industry is reappropriated as the raw material for another. Another’s thirst is quenched by the sudden arrival of an endeavor to fill the need. But the mechanism by which these needs are met and excesses curbed is really only the symptom of a more fundamental transfer. Before the flow of goods from one party to another, the signal of their desire and relative weights comes first: Price. Information flowing readily within the town square engenders fecund commercial interaction just as the cramped but abundant tide pool or jungle floor permits rich growth and vibrancy.
But then where is the place for a moral economy within this information space? Morality is simply information of a different kind. It is a qualifier of that more fundamental, but also more basic data point, the price. When we receive a price quote from a trusted and valued seller, we can gauge it more readily than one that comes from an unknown source. Likewise, when a buyer shares their own wish to come to a “fair deal” rather than to make out like a bandit, their negotiations can be taken as good faith dealings.
The moral economy, within the ecological space defined by Darwin and Kropotkin, shows the value of trust within mutual societies and within groups. Fostering that trust and moral growth strengthens the bonds that carry information back and forth and allows for reliance on other people’s words by centering the mutual benefits of cooperation and symbiosis. Making a market becomes possible only with that trust in the foundations of fair dealings. Taking on the risks of personal vulnerability that come with mutual aid becomes possible in a moral economy, birthing cooperative societies and strengthening the individual.
It would be unfair to criticize the philosophies present in Origin of Species for their lack of foresight in predicting the focus of Mutual Aid. But Darwin’s focus on the survival (and even more, the emergence) of individual species as a powerful indicator of both the success of differentiation as an evolutionary strategy and the tendency of propagated traits to match the environments where these traits are used is nothing to be scoffed at. Even reading chronologically backwards from Bookchin to Kropotkin to Darwin, this focus on individual groups’ success (and of individuals’ success within those groups) brings us back to the individually beneficent character of the moral economy. Access to these places of vibrant, useful, and valuable information is a credit to all individuals who interact with them.
A moral economy supports a fecund commercial ecology, fostering the evolution of healthy and capable individuals. Kropotkin and Bookchin describe a world where we play a key role in forming these moral economies and developing our own evolutionary futures. Darwin’s work, while silent on these aspects, laid the foundations for understanding how these benefits to the individual filter back into the continued growth of the species as a whole. A modern ecological understanding further develops this loop, strengthening the bonds of an engaged and active civic life.
- Bookchin, Murray. (2021). The New Municipal Agenda. From Urbanization to Cities: The Politics of Democratic Municipalism (3rd). AK Press.
- Bookchin, Murray. (1998) The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Materialism. Black Rose Books. 44.
- Bookchin, Murray. (2021). The Ideal of Citizenship. From Urbanization to Cities: The Politics of Democratic Municipalism (3rd). AK Press.