Direct Action as Entrepreneurship

The entrepreneur is given considerable accolades in today’s political discourse. Republicans laud them as role models, paragons of the protestant work ethic. Democrats celebrate the jobs they add to the economy. Libertarians of all stripes love them for their independence and key role in markets. It seems that only advocates of the various forms of state socialism are antagonistic toward entrepreneurs.

These accolades are well-deserved, as Joseph Schumpeter showed. Schumpeter, an Austrian economist who studied entrepreneurship, molded the place entrepreneurs have in the public eye. Schumpeterian entrepreneurs unite economic resources in new and innovative ways, providing means for the production of more value using fewer resources. This allows the resources now regarded as “extra” to be put to use satisfying other preferences. To draw an analogy to biology, entrepreneurs are the source of adaptive mutations in the marketplace.

Still, even non-Schumpeterian entrepreneurs meet needs that are not currently being met. These sorts of entrepreneurs recognize a preference that is not being met and redirect resources from preferences of lower importance to the more pressing preference. Someone who starts a business selling small aquatic pets is doing nothing new or innovative, but if their business succeeds, they are giving others access to goods that they would not have been able to procure. In the process, they are improving the quality of life for others by introducing the means to satisfy a greater number of more important preferences. In biology, these entrepreneurs are akin to the reproductive process.

A less well-received idea in popular discourse is that of direct action, and rightly so. Direct action intentionally sidesteps popular discourse. By simply ignoring popular opinion and working to achieve their ends outside of entrenched systems, activists can bring about their desired societies without needing to appeal to those in power. “Direct action” is a necessarily nebulous term. It includes in its purview agorism, strikes, community organizing, civil disobedience, cop blocks, etc. Anything wherein people act together against an ailment imposed on their society is direct action.

Importantly, direct action is not advocacy. It does not seek to change opinions. Part of the reason for its enormous success in many places is precisely this: It forces others to cease their illegitimate behaviors. When it succeeds, it does not do so because of the approval of those in power. Rather, it is a tool for forcing change in spite of the disapproval of the system as-is.

In one direction, the connection between entrepreneurship and direct action has already been developed. Agorism seeks to build alternatives to oppressive institutions by being entrepreneurial. Once again, it cares not for the opinions of its participants regarding the system they are changing. Only the first Schumpeterian entrepreneur in an agoristic endeavor has to care that the business is eating away at the existing institutions. It is partially because they care that this market actor is able to recognize the profit opportunity and act as an entrepreneur.

What has received less attention is investigation of the nature of direct action as an entrepreneurial activity. Where agorism is an entrepreneurial form of direct action, one can also understand direct action as a form of entrepreneurship. Schumpeterian entrepreneurship acts to improve the lot of society through the creation of more value from lesser value. It does this by replacing old and inefficient technologies with new and improved ones. This is the aim of direct action, as well, albeit not through technology as normally understood. Direct action works because it dismantles existing organizational arrangements. In whatever way it seeks to do so, it engages in what Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction”. Economically and socially inefficient methods end up falling apart as oppressors must succumb to even a small minority that refuses to utilize the system as intended. The new systems stand stronger than their predecessors because fewer people have reason to oppose them. Playing within the new rules maximizes social utility more effectively, giving more people reason to participate.

Consider the efforts of the Civil Rights movement in civil disobedience. By ignoring the legal and social rules as they stood and taking the freedoms they rightly deserved, the participants were able to bring about a social change. They created a system in which more people of color had reason to participate in an economy dominated by “whites-only” access. This incentive to tear down the vestiges of segregation has even proved effective in preventing its re-emergence. Most people, now, see the benefits of having more people actively participating as equals in the economy. The new structure has shown itself to be more efficient, both in allocation of economic goods and satisfaction of social desires than its predecessor with plenty of room for improvement to be gained or discovered. The new model has nearly destroyed the old, and the innovation has improved the lot of everyone living under the newer paradigm.

Israel Kirzner, another Austrian whose research focused on entrepreneurs, pointed out that as part of Schumpeterian creative destruction, entrepreneurs are discovering new information. To start a novel business in the way a Schumpeterian entrepreneur does, they must recognize information that no one else has – yet. This “radical” or “sheer” ignorance is the reason the Schumpeterian entrepreneur is important. They show others a way to improve their lives which they were previously radically unaware.

Direct action reveals information to others that was previously under the cover of radical ignorance. It is a part of being a privileged class that the members are unaware of how they benefit from their privilege. Privilege blinds its holders to its own existence. Due to this, those people who suffer under systems of social oppression must struggle to convince the privileged that their place in society is the product of illegitimate systems of oppression. Unfortunately, this is akin to an entrepreneur attempting to convince everyone that they could benefit from an invention which only the entrepreneur understands. In both cases, it is just easier to demonstrate the efficiency of the proposed change. Direct action does this by forcing the change to occur or by building alternative systems for its participants.

It is interesting to note that, globally, humanity has never regressed technologically. Long periods of stagnation in some places and vilification of academia in others, but never a mass, collective step backward. Furthermore, in places where steps backward have occurred, there has almost always been a repressive regime of cultural norms or governmental structures. This is, in part, due to Schumpeterian forces. New ideas and better theories lead to greater efficiency in economic and social arrangements, which in turn select for more of the same. As is usually the case, it’s hard to put a genie back in the bottle. This is why anarchists have the future. The inefficiency of the state will pull it apart, and our ideas will be there to catch society when it happens. Until then, it is our job to spin the state’s dynamo faster and weave our net tighter. Direct action does both.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory