The Agorist Revolutionary Alternative
By: J. Neil Schulman
Back in the early 1970′s Samuel Edward Konkin III, a libertarian activist, editor, and writer — began looking for alternatives to traditional political activism, both electoral and revolutionary — to bring about a free society. Sam’s premise was that electoral participation was a game that paid off not in liberty but in power; and that because the state’s tentacles held society hostage traditional revolutionary tactics resulted in unacceptable collateral damage to innocent bystanders.
Konkin, being a scientist, approached the question logically. To his way of thinking the means and ends had to be one and the same. If the end was a society whose institutions were noncoercive and respecting of voluntary contracts and trade then the means of achieving such a society, likewise, also needed to be noncoercive and respecting of voluntary contracts and trade.
These were the seeds which led Samuel Edward Konkin III (SEK3, for short) to begin exploring the strategy of countereconomics, and the philosophy of Agorism, as the libertarian means to achieve libertarian ends.
Konkin first presented his ideas on countereconomics at two “CounterCon” conferences I organized in fall 1974 and spring 1975, during the off-season at Camp Mohawk in the Berkshires, a summer children’s camp owned and operated by my father’s brother and sister-in-law.
The next expression of countereconomic ideas and Agorism were in my novel, Alongside Night, which I began writing in 1974 and which was first published in October 1979 by a major New York book publisher.
One year later Sam self-published The New Libertarian Manifesto, the first formal expression of countereconomic and Agorist ideas. The first edition sold out quickly, and reprint editions have been proliferating in both printed and digital editions ever since. Additional publications further elucidating countereconomics and Agorism followed, and SEK3 worked to refine his work on countereconomics and Agorism until his death in February 2004.
Sam saw Agorism as a revolutionary alternative to Marxism and, like Marx, the impact and popularity of his ideas have only spread and gained new converts after his death.
Me, I’m sort of like Paul McCartney after the death of John Lennon. I was there at the beginning and I’m still here.
Agorism is the idea that if you want a future society based on free trade there is no substitute for trading freely now as a means of getting there. Phrased as a boundary problem it’s obvious that a single individual escaping from the State is not a strategy; but obviously 100% of individuals escaping from the State into free trade would be. Like a revolutionary version of the Laffer Curve, there must be some tipping point where individuals removing their lives and property from State control is sufficient to starve a State thereby collapsing it. Seeking that tipping point in a Starvation Curve is the revolutionary strategy of Agorism in a nutshell.
Agorism looks to what traditionally has been called the black market, or underground economy, as the playing field for revolution.
The problem with this is that the people who trade on the black market are after tangible and immediate rewards – not anything as abstract as freedom — and more often than not they’re not all that scrupulous about how they get it. Lacking anything other than threats of violent retaliation from ripping off someone more powerful, the underground entrepreneur finds no particular market advantage to abiding by rules of honesty and fair play as opposed to getting away with anything one can get away with.
Furthermore, an oppressive — even a totalitarian — state can tolerate a thriving black market. In fact there’s an argument to be made that since command economies violate fundamental economic laws and create massive misallocations of resources, and consequent underproduction of anything people want and need, that a thriving black market is actually an enabler of above-ground economic oppression. The way Mafioso and drug lords buy off law-enforcement officers and judges regularly is a testament to the symbiosis between an oppressive state and a criminally-run black market.
The only thing that can take counter-economics out of this paradigm as a strategy for freedom, and Agorism out of this paradigm as a social movement, is that bringing morally self-conscious actors into the black market brings arbitral dispute settlement, and stable predictability, into the equation. This has the potential of enabling the expansion of markets by drawing new capital into the underground economy that would normally avoid such high-risk investments.
Bringing law and order to the black market is what makes countereconomics distingishable from the normal criminal-run “black market” — or, to use Samuel Edward Konkin III’s distinction, the “red” market.
The market is only truly “black” — run under the Anarchist’s Black Flag rather than the Pirate’s Jolly Roger — when underground markets are more lawful than the capricious and tyrannical rules of the aboveground economy.
Yes, that’s right. The revolution only succeeds when the Anarchist is more for law-and-order than the Statist.
Agorism only works as an alternative to other political philosophies — countereconomics only works as an investment alternative to a statist-controlled above-ground economy — if promises and contracts from traders in the underground markets are more honest and trustworthy than in the above-ground economy.
The Prisoners Dilemma can’t win freedom. Only Trust can do that.
Some may argue that the above argument is utopian or perfectionist — that the success of Agorism requires men to become better than they are. The fact is, it only requires underground traders to adopt business standards common in above-ground markets: consumer responsiveness, honest accounting, and above all peaceful dispute settlement.
If the leftist critique is correct and there is no actual distinction to be made between a businessman and a criminal then any sort of market approach to social organization is doomed.
Agorist traders don’t need to be angels for Agorism to replace Marxism as the Revolutionary Alternative.
Just middlin’ decent.
Author’s Note April 26, 2012: Recently I’ve been using a “Devil’s Dictionary” style definition of Agorism: Estate planning for the death of the statist-controlled economy.
This article is Copyright © 2011, 2012 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust. All rights reserved.