Back to Basics: What is Agorism and Counter-Economics?

I: What is agorism?

There is a lot of what I’d call “201” discussion of agorism in this symposium but I think it’s helpful to take a step back and make sure we don’t let some of the fundamentals go under-analyzed.

For example, what is counter-economics? What counts as a counter-economic activity and what doesn’t? Does intent matter when we’re analyzing past, present or future counter-economic actions? Is agorism a philosophy or a strategy?

For the sake of time and space I’ll largely focus on the first and last question for right now but those other questions are worth considering as well.

To be clear, I do not consider myself an agorist and only consider myself someone who feels qualified to present the ideas and give both the pros and the cons of it. And though I do feel there are considerable upsides to the strategies and ideas of agorism I do not fully subscribe to Samuel Edward Konkin III’s (SEK III) ideas.

In terms of defining agorism, etymologically speaking agorism comes from the Greek word “agora” which meant market place, so agorism literally means market-ism.

For a more precise definition though SEK III defined it as:

…the consistent integration of libertarian theory with counter-economic practice; an agorist is one who acts consistently for freedom and in freedom.[1]

Others have more simply defined agorism as “revolutionary market anarchism” and Wikipedia says that it’s a “…revolutionary libertarian political philosophy that advocates the goal of the bringing about of a society in which all relations between people are voluntary exchanges by means of counter-economics, thus engaging in a manner with aspects of peaceful revolution.”

Definitions are a tricky thing and heavily depend on negotiations and renegotiations with the larger culture so as to assert any sort of cogent meaning. Without any of these things ideology becomes a useless and asocial tool. And if we’re aiming for any sort of revolution then that’s something to avoid at all costs.

That said, I don’t think any of these definitions are helpful on the face of things because they require deeper discussions about what libertarianism is, what is consistent with it, the importance of consistency itself, etc but they’re decent starting points at any rate.

But while that might be bad for those who want to theorize about agorism or use it as a label for themselves, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that most definitions tend to encounter similar problems. Anarchism could simply be defined as a philosophy that advocates the end of rulership. But then what is rulership? What is the best way to end it?

I can’t recall the last time I told someone I was an anarchist and they looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, sure, an anarchist!” and that was the end of the conversation, even amongst other anarchists.

Another clarification to keep in mind: Agorism and counter-economics are different things.

Agorism subsumes counter-economics as the philosophy that counter-economics has as its framework. And this makes sense when agorism is understood as the philosophy and counter-economics the tactic, more on this later.

Here’s my best crack at a definition of agorism, to help the differentiation be a bit clearer:

A philosophy whose advocates are anarchists (also called “New Libertarians”) in the tradition of SEK that advocates counter-economics (that is, the study and practice of economic relations that runs counter to the prevailing state-capitalist “order”) as one of the many means to a freer market place freed from the constraints of state-capitalism.

I would add that agorists see a market economy that tended towards self-employment and flatter firms as opposed to top-down and centralized firms. They use a mix of classic Austrian Economics and Left-Rothbardian analysis to reach this conclusion. And when it comes to strategy, agorists oppose voting and prefer building institutions so that the state may be abolished.

Here are some of the key points I take from agorism:

  1. An emphasis on counter-economics, both as a study and as a tactic
  2. An emphasis on peaceful revolution through alternative institutions
  3. An emphasis on using Austrian Economics in counter-economics as a study
  4. A hard lined emphasis on ideological consistency
  5. A de-emphasis on parliamentary politics typically tending towards an absolute
  6. A de-emphasis on non-scientific approaches to theory and application of theory

.II: Counter-Economics: A Tactic or a Philosophy?

Is counter-economics just a tactic or is it something else too? And further than that is agorism a tactic or a philosophy?

I believe that counter-economics is a tactic and a philosophy while agorism is just a philosophy. Agorism is a philosophy or ideology because it isn’t just an idea of how to get from here to there, it’s an idea of how to live and identifying what we’re living in, how to get out of that condition and what that life could look like. So agorism isn’t just a tactic because if it were it wouldn’t prescribe and describe so many things, or contain so many components such as Austrian Economics, counter-economics and so on.

Counter-economics is defined by Konkin in the New Libertarian Manifesto as, “An explanation of how people keep their wealth and property from the State…” but is also, “…counter economic activity” when people, “avoid and defy the state…” .

This means, in effect, that counter-economics is both a study and a practice.

In the NLM Konkin writes that since the NLM is itself a counter-economic theory that when he speaks of counter-economics in NLM he is referring to the practice. Konkin further clarifies that this is the case in The Agorist Primer when he says that, “A Counter-Economist is (1) anyone practicing a counter-economic act: (2) one who studies such acts. Counter-Economics is the (1) practice (2) study of counter-economics acts.”

Further, the counter-economy is defined by all of those who commit non-aggressive action against others in the pursuit of profit at the state’s expense. So a counter-economist and the idea of counter-economics more generally is either a practice or a study, but the two are not mutually exclusive either.

The fact that counter-economics exists as both a study and a practice means that the idea is both applicable in terms of how to live and structure one’s life but also (and what’s most often used) how to get from here to there. As such, counter-economics is about how to get from the current statist society to a freed society where markets aid mutually beneficial relations.

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