Agorism: The Revolutionary Philosophy of Counter-Economics
By | Updated May 9th, 2022
Can black markets lead to a libertarian society?
According to agorists, interactions in black markets and grey markets can lay the groundwork for a nonviolent revolution against the present-day administrative state.
Agorism refers to a political philosophy that advocates for the use of counter-economics and similar ideas to create a libertarian society based on voluntary exchanges and associations.
The Etymology and Origins of Agorism
American libertarian philosopher Samuel Edward Konkin III coined the term agorism. To understand the principles that define agorism, we must look towards the ancients.
The word is derived from the Ancient Greek word (Ancient Greek: ἀγορά), which refers to an open space where people can assemble and engage in commerce at in a polis— the Ancient Greek word for city-state (πόλις).
Konkin admired free markets and was part of the budding libertarian movement of the 1970s. His sympathies for libertarianism and anarchism made him a natural opponent of the modern-day state. SEK3 was particularly inspired by the works of the Ausrian School economist Ludwig von Mises and his acolytes who pushed for free markets.
The Debates Within the Libertarian Movement on Strategy
In addition to creating a political movement, Konkin gained fame for coining the term “minarchism”, which refers to a form of libertarianism that advocates for a minimal state.
Konkin was functionally an anarchist in his approach to the state. He viewed the state as an immoral entity that not only stifled economic progress but also transgressed on basic human liberties.
In the libertarian movement’s embryonic stage, there were constant debates about how liberty should be ultimately secured. Some libertarian figures advocated for traditional political methods to advance these ideas. The Libertarian Party was viewed as the primary vehicle for effecting change in the traditional political sphere.
There were other libertarians who agreed that the political route was the only way for their ideas to become politically relevant. But they held one caveat: Libertarians should run in the Republican Party. They reasoned that the GOP had libertarian factions within it and a mainstream party with its resources could propel those ideas to new heights.
Others focused on educational means of spreading their message through think tanks, educational institutions, and general culture. Certain schools of libertarianism inspired by Friedrich A. Hayek’s Intellectuals and Socialism, firmly believed that the diffusion of ideas is paramount towards generating change.
Why Ideological Splits Still Matter
There were obvious ideological splits among libertarians as well. There were minarchists, who believed in a minimal state, and the anarchists, who opposed the concept of a state. The latter were more averse to traditional activism, while the former was not afraid to participate in party politics and take part in mainstream academia.
Anti-state individuals have been allured by the unique nature of agorism. What excited them about this free-market philosophy was how it offered a unique opportunity for them to put their principles in action. By carrying the agorist flag, these individuals see market interactions as vehicles of societal liberation from state coercion
The Konkin vs. Rothbard Debate on How to Achieve Liberty
Konkin rose to prominence around the same time as Murray Rothbard, the leading exponent of anarcho-capitalism of that time, became the intellectual pillar for libertarianism.
Apart from his radicalism, Rothbard was known for his political eccentricism. Rothbard was willing to forge alliances with both the Old Right and the New Left. The free-market stalwart was a political junkie through and through. He was fascinated by the intrigue of 20th century politics in America.
Rothbard advocated for conventional political action to advance libertarian ideas. He was initially a strong supporter of the Libertarian Party and saw political parties as vehicles to realize substantial political reforms in the United States. Konkin, by contrast, was not a fan of party politics.
The founder of agorism was of the view that playing in the direct politics game only perpetuates statism. Konkin’s political philosophy focused on direct action in the real world and avoided the political arena altogether.
Konkin’s Aversion to Traditional Parties
Konkin had a powerful way with words. He described efforts to fight for market anarchism via conventional political means as the “partyarchy.” Konkin was not a fan of the Libertarian Party and believed that much more could be achieved outside of the political system.
Konkin was of the opinion that political participation perpetuates the status quo and does precious little to reduce the size of the state. For him, the political process is inherently corrupt and coercive. This facet of politics is immutable.
Instead, agorists inspired by Konkin focused on promoting educational causes, direct action, competing currencies, entrepreneurship, and participating in the counter economy.
In other words, the agora (open place) is the ultimate goal, where people can freely transact with each other without having to worry about outside aggression. Ultimately, market activities outside of the state define agorist methods of trying to change the present political paradigm.
Why Rothbard Was Ultimately Skeptical of Counter-Economics
Rothbard saw the validity of using political action to defeat statism in the United States. The repeal of burdensome laws and regulations was one goal that Rothbard pursued in his political ventures. He had no issues with liberty activists using political means to reduce state influence in people’s lives.
The anarcho-capitalist luminaire was a big admirer of nineteenth century parties such as the Bourbon Democrats, who were known for being champions of a restrained foreign policy, sound money, relatively free trade, and limited government. U.S. President Grover Cleveland was the most famous of this quasi libertarian faction.
Rothbard was not particularly sold on SEK3’s pro-black market approach to changing the political system. To Rothbard, the idea that black markets would phase out the state is an exercise in naivete. In his critique of Konkin’s political philosophy, Rothbard observed that black markets have always existed throughout human history.
Despite a long history of existence, black markets have never really supplanted the state in terms of the functions that it has traditionally occupied. The Rothbardian strategy focused on the real world and ultimately recognized the validity of politics as a means to bring about pro-freedom reforms.
The Agorist Philosophy Explained
The agorist philosophy is to some degree a left-libertarian sect. However, it was mostly centered on real world usage. The use of counter economics lied at the core of Konkin’s vision. Essentially, the counter economy consists of all the non-aggressive activity banned by the state that takes place in black and grey market.
Activity in these markets and the overall “underground economy” is the embodiment of the free market. Additionally, acts of civil disobedience, associations that states regulate or outright ban, and activities which states attempt to tax and regulate are part of this counter economy.
The ultimate agorist goal is to gradually get people to engage in black and grey market economic activity in order to starve the state of revenue and keep it from harassing people. That means building businesses that make the state irrelevant, while other people avoided paying taxes and complying with burdensome regulations.
In the meantime, people practicing agorism will be able to develop parallel institutions that replace traditional state activity. By participating in the market, people can build the free society that they desire without having to participate in the allegedly unproductive sphere of politics.
Agorist Class Theory
The advocates for agora do not eschew all market activity, despite their left-libertarian leanings. They praised genuinely innovative entrepreneurs who changed their industry, took risks, and produced goods people valued. Their system of laissez-faire would allow entrepreneurial-minded individuals to thrive and create better living standards for all.
Traditionally, libertarianism has been associated with conservatism and the broader right-wing movement. However, Konkin’s brand of libertarianism has the distinction of positioning itself on the Left. The political philosophy puts a unique spin to the concept of class conflict.
Instead of focusing on a bourgeoisie vs. proletariat class struggle typical of Marxist schools of thought, Konkin and his followers see the real class struggle between individuals operating peacefully in the agora and those who use the state to plunder wealth from peaceful individuals
In contrast to more milquetoast advocates of free markets, non-state capitalists were seen in a neutral manner under the agorist lens. These kinds of entrepreneurs are generally not very politically conscious. They tend to be conformist as well and unlikely to question the political status quo.
Statist capitalists are the main enemies of counter-economics. They use the state to secure their wealth at the expense of productive individuals. Crony capitalism is how politically-connected businesses acquire wealth and consolidate their positions in the market. The counter-economy seeks to abolish this parasitic behavior.
How Agorism Has Developed Over Time
Konkin defined what is agorism in a coherent manner after publishing the New Libertarian Manifesto in 1980. In it, he not only criticized the Rothbardian approach and other liberty movement efforts to reduce the size of the state via partisan politics, but laid out the case for counter-economics.
Curiously, the philosophy of counter-economics was put on display before Konkin’s manifesto was published. In 1979, science fiction author J. Neil Schulman published the libertarian science fiction novel Alongside Night, which he used to convey the principles of the agora.
Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the Silk Road, credited Schulman’s work for inspiring him to build this online market. Alongside Night is among the most popular pieces of libertarian science fiction and has served as influence for various anarchists and anti-statist activists in their intellectual development.
For the champions of agora, the counter-economy is the most practical way of conducting direct action. By engaging in direct action, individuals can both challenge and escape the iron fist of the state, while laying the foundation for a free society.
Konkin’s ideas of counter-economics and agorism have not really been expanded upon since his death in 2004. However, the spirit of the agora has lived on in the crypto currency space, with many people moving towards crypto currencies such as Bitcoin. Their goal is to use these currencies as instruments to break free from the grasp of fiat money.
The tech-centric proponents of crypto-anarchism have been drawn to Konkin’s ideas and actively work to build parallel institutions in real time. They see the digital sphere as a freedom space where people can circumvent the state.
Agorism is one of the more revolutionary sub-sects of libertarianism. Its proactive approach to circumventing the state has inspired many enterprising individuals to find market alternatives to the state and secure freedoms for future generations.