Beware Panaceas: Promises and Pitfalls of Agorism, Illegalism, and Syndicalism

I am generally favorable to agorism, direct action, and other anarchist strategies that emphasize building the new world in the shell of the old. However, I recognize that there are no panaceas. All strategies have costs and benefits, and strategies for social change may have serious pitfalls and unintended consequences. This essay employs some basic concepts from economics in order to explore potential pitfalls of direct action strategies.

Bootleggers and Baptists: Black market entrepreneurs as beneficiaries of state action

One common phenomenon in regulatory policy is “bootleggers and Baptists.” First discussed in a paper by regulatory economist Bruce Yandle, the phrase refers to how seemingly opposed constituencies often support the same regulations. Sunday closing laws, which shut down bars and liquor stores on Sundays, received support from Baptists on moral grounds, but also from bootleggers who would see their competitors shut down on Sundays.

In an agorist framework, bootleggers are understood as part of the black market, the counter-economy. Bootleggers provide goods that people have a natural right to purchase. They are entrepreneurs who route around the state to provide goods and services that have been unjustly criminalized. And yet because state intervention reduces the competition they face, these counter-economic entrepreneurs have incentives to support state intervention.

Similarly, drug prohibition increases the profits reaped by drug cartels. Prohibition deters competitors from entering the drug market. This raises the prices of drugs. However, addiction makes demand for drugs inelastic. That is, users are not particularly responsive to price. So an increase in price increases profits. As Milton Friedman once said “if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel.”

David Skarbek’s recent work on prison gangs expands this point. Skarbek documents how prison gangs have risen to power as a result of mass incarceration. When prison populations are small, reputation can provide the right incentives to govern black markets. Someone who engages in dishonest behavior in a drug transaction could have their reputation ruined and face ostracism. Once prison populations are larger, however, people cannot know the reputation of their fellows. Governance must be provided by other means, and so prison gangs rise to power.

While these governance institutions lack the state’s monopoly jurisdiction and provide governance in a way that enables black market transactions, they can be just as authoritarian and violent as states. Skarbek documents how prison gangs collect taxes from gangs outside the prison by threatening their members with violence inside prisons if the outside gang fails to pay taxes. These gangs also enforce their rules through brutal violence. Citing a survey of prison officials where high scores indicate greater frequency of activity, Skarbek explains “prison gangs engage in predatory actions often, including intimidation (148 points, the highest score), assault (134), abuse of weak inmates (133), extortion (131), theft (117), strong arm robbery (99), robbery (89), rape (83), murder (79), arson (61), and slavery (52).” So prison gangs route around the state in order to facilitate and govern black markets. But they also engage in predatory violence, and they benefit from state policies. How should an agorist think about these institutions? Surely we should not valorize them as purely the agents of the counter-economic social change we want to see in the world.

The economic way of thinking provides us with good reasons to anticipate that agorist approaches to social change will be superior to strategies that emphasize reforms implemented through the political process. Politics is insulated from the entrepreneurial market process, and therefore lacks feedback mechanisms to ensure that value is created rather than destroyed. By working through the market process, agorist entrepreneurs have incentives to create value, access the dispersed knowledge that is coordinated through the price mechanism, and adapt their actions when they become destructive rather than productive. However, black markets are distorted by the state in ways that often benefit particular participants in those black markets. These actors may become predatory and embrace unproductive entrepreneurship that undermines liberty rather than advancing it.

Syndicalism, illegalism, and other counter-economic allies

My colleagues and comrades Logan Glitterbomb and Nick Ford have proposed alliances with illegalists and syndicalists as potential ways for agorists to increase their counter-economic impact. Illegalists engage in theft as a means of individual empowerment, insurrectionary defiance of the state, and redistribution of wealth away from the ruling class. Syndicalists engage in alt-labor tactics and wildcat unionism to advance the interests of workers in their organization. Their goal is often to seize the means of production and establish firms managed democratically by workers.

Illegalists and syndicalists are in some sense natural allies for agorists, as all three philosophies emphasize anti-authoritarian direct action that defies the state’s repressive legal regimes. However, I have some qualms about both syndicalist and illegalist tactics, and I think there are real pitfalls for use to be aware of.

Alt-labor organizations often avoid the worst pitfalls of union organization. Establishment unions, such as the AFL-CIO, have often established crony relationships with the state. The AFL-CIO, for example, supported expanding intellectual property protectionism and censoring the internet through such laws as SOPA and PIPA, because this law would benefit their members in the entertainment industry. These establishment unions have also historically excluded immigrants, people of color, and women. The syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World was largely formed in order to provide a more inclusive union that avoided these exclusionary policies. Moreover, while the AFL-CIO embraces the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board, alt-labor organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have gained their victories by refusing to work through these bureaucratic channels.

However, even unions that have syndicalist or alt-labor tendencies can engage in coercive tactics that undermine libertarian principles. For example, the Industrial Workers of the World, a favorite of anarchists and left-libertarians, successfully filed an action against non-profit Sisters’ Camelot at the National Labor Relations Board. Rather than acting in a counter-economic manner, the IWW here chose to go to the federal government in order to punish a private organization for their hiring and firing decisions.

Moreover, illegalist and syndicalist tactics may undermine property rights even when they do not involve appealing to the state. This is fairly obvious for illegalist tactics, which explicitly valorize theft as a form of direct action. Syndicalism may also involve the coercive transfer of property, particularly when it entails seizing factories from their owners. There are worthwhile questions to ask about the legitimacy of existing property claims given historical injustices such as the enclosures and other state actions that have privileged capitalists and impoverished workers. However, action that serves to transfer property from one person (or group of persons) to another person or group without the consent of the initial owner is zero or negative sum action. Given that we have limited time, labor, resources, and entrepreneurial alertness, there is a real opportunity cost to devoting our efforts to securing transfers rather than production and mutually beneficial exchange.

Economist William Baumol draws an important distinction between productive and unproductive entrepreneurship. A great deal of unproductive entrepreneurship is mediated through the political. Rent-seeking, lobbying, securing monopoly privileges, and war-profiteering are all good examples. But unproductive entrepreneurship can also occur outside the state apparatus, through theft and plunder. Regardless of whether the state is involved, this can create a cycle, where each act of unproductive entrepreneurship creates new niches for unproductive entrepreneurial profits. Illegalists who are engaged in theft, for example, may make theft easier for others or develop networks that help others build skill sets conducive to theft. This reduces total wealth, trust, and social cooperation.

Agorism is desirable in large part because it uses productive entrepreneurship to enlarge the productive sector of the economy and starve the unproductive state sector. Agorist counter-economic action shifts incentive towards productive entrepreneurship and away from unproductive entrepreneurship. Syndicalist direct action may do this under some circumstances, particularly when it employs the innovative free-market model used by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. But when syndicalist and illegalist direct action involves coercive transfer as a key tactic, it fuels an unproductive entrepreneurial process that can contribute to economic stagnation.

These points can provide reasons to avoid seeking transfers and coercive redistribution even when historical injustice makes the legitimacy of property titles highly dubious. It may be that the prevailing economic distribution is profoundly unjust, but that the best way to rectify this is to let the free market eat the rich and to outcompete the privileged elites that currently hold unjust wealth. Attempting to rectify it coercively can encourage unproductive entrepreneurship and weaken the social norms of individual liberty and mutually beneficial social cooperation that we seek to foster as market anarchists. As Peter Boettke and Christopher Coyne argue in their paper The Political Economy of Forgiveness, embracing reconciliation rather than vengeance after atrocities is often the best way to begin cultivating the norms of peaceful social cooperation that are conducive to free and flourishing societies.

Agorism, and to some extent syndicalism and illegalism, have significant advantages over the top-down pursuit of public policy. These grassroots tactics allow people with local knowledge to act in ways that advance their own well-being and liberation, rather than asking bureaucrats or politicians who lack this knowledge to implement reforms from the top down. Direct action tactics operate within a polycentric context that allow them to seek goals that may seem utopian, while at the same time avoiding the fatal conceits of attempting to impose panaceas on diverse environments where they may not fit. However, these strategies face real pitfalls, downsides, and trade offs that we should take seriously. I hope that this essay can start an honest conversation among anarchists about these potential pitfalls, and enables anarchists to start building solutions to them.

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The Anatomy of Escape
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