I: Does Agorism Require Intent?
Nathan Goodman has recently published a great piece on some of the drawbacks and potentials of agorism, direct action and trying to synthesize agorism with illegalism or syndicalism. In this piece I’ll address a few of his general arguments and then move to address his specific points about agora-syndicalism. In addition I shall make some critical remarks of my own towards agorism in line with the helpful comments I feel Goodman has made.
Goodman starts off with an interesting example, “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.”
While Goodman is correct that from an agorist framework they would be considered a part of the black market, being a part of the black market and the counter-economy are not always the same thing. From my perspective the black market is simply a type of market whereby illegal goods are bought and sold. The counter-economy on the other hand is, I’d argue, a certain type of black market whereby the people involved are intentionally trying to mitigate the state’s efforts and do it for radical purposes.
This opens up a larger discussion with some of my problems with agorism, one of which being the matter of ideology and intent. Agorists like to point to the Soviet Union as a great example of a flourishing black market but much of the “counter-economy” had nothing at all to do with undermining state authority in any intentional or ideological way. The black market was a way to survive and once state-capitalist markets started replacing it as the Soviet Union dissolved more and more, Russian folks turned away from the black markets.
What are agorists to make of this?
For one thing I think they should temper their historical examples with more historical context but with that in mind it’s still true that black markets are a flexible and powerful tool for revolutionary struggle through peaceful means. But at the same time they are a strategy that can be co-opted like anything else. If we have folks who are just bootleggers to make money or people who are doing things only to survive then the agorist revolution is unlikely to happen.
On the other hand the whole point of agorism is to have politically conscious individuals using black markets for counter-economic goals. Ironically, the libertarian community writ large seems to have forgotten this and sometimes appears more focused on who is making the most untaxed money then who is providing the most useful services for undermining the state.
One final point on the bootleggers is that we can see them in multi-faceted ways. In Thaddeus Russell’s book A Renegade History of the United States he points out the long history of mafia members providing gay bars for queer folks. Obviously members of the mafia were providing a valuable community service in defiance of the state but they’re also not particularly good people.
In this case an agorist would do well to try to compartmentalize in both political and moral ways with realizing that one of the great (and sometimes bad) things about markets is that people don’t necessarily have to be obviously good to do obviously good things for people.
Goodman makes a second point that I found somewhat puzzling, “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.”
In Samuel Edward Konkin III’s work he made the distinction between black markets and red markets and he explains this in his pamphlet Counter-Economics, “The Counter-Economy is the sum of all non-aggressive Human Action which is forbidden by the State. Counter-economics is the study of the Counter-Economy and its practices. The Counter-Economy includes the free market, the Black Market, the “underground economy,” all acts of civil and social disobedience, all acts of forbidden association (sexual, racial, cross-religious), and anything else the State, at any place or time, chooses to prohibit, control, regulate, tax, or tariff. The Counter-Economy excludes all State-approved action (the “White Market”) and the Red Market (violence and theft not approved by the State)”
Konkin is obviously drawing from Mises here and uses a broader definition of “counter-economy” than I am. Nevertheless, I think it’s clear that we can easily separate out the violent and non-violent sort of illegal markets if we’re to advocate or be agorists.
II: Can Agora-Syndicalism and Libertarianism Get Along?
Goodman makes some interesting comments about the tensions between syndicalism and libertarianism, “However, even unions that have syndicalist or alt-labor tendencies can engage in coercive tactics that undermine libertarian principles. … Syndicalism may also involve the coercive transfer of property, particularly when it entails seizing factories from their owners. … 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.”
For the sake of space, I’ll summarily respond to each point individually:
- I wouldn’t dispute Goodman’s claim that alt-labor organizations can engage in coercive tactics but this seems like a minor quibble at best. Any labor organization or organization period can engage in coercive tactics but this doesn’t seem like a pitfall so much as an inherent possibility given human action. If Goodman could give us some reasons why this latent possibility in any organization is particularly worrisome from alt-labor organizations then perhaps I’d be more inclined to argue his point but as is, it doesn’t leave much to work with.
- I agree with Goodman that syndicalism is done best when it is done peacefully and thus involving the state as little as possible. Much as I enjoy Rothbard’s Confiscation and the Homestead Principle where he calls for the seizure of capitalist property that relies on state subsidies to high degrees, implementation of this idea in peaceful ways would be difficult to say the least and likely bloody. I think his example of the Immokalee Workers is a great one and I would prefer to see more of that for many of the reasons Goodman rightly suggested as well as others.
There are other points to dispute or praise from Goodman but I think this suffices for now. I am hopeful that Glitterbomb or others may respond to Goodman about his challenges to agora-illegalism as I think they are also well put and worth considering.