Towards the Counter-Economic General Strike
By Nick Ford
Presented at AltExpo #12
February 23, 2013

Introduction
“Working for the Weekend”

When I heard a once-popular song, “Working for the Weekend” by the band Loverboy I instantly thought…wait if this was literally true then wouldn’t this band be calling for a…general strike? That’s just how my brain works sometimes, very literally and oddly. And it’s tough to think of much else when you’re working at a job you hate and listening to music you wouldn’t typically listen to on your own right?
But what’s even odder to me is that the very idea of a general strike isn’t something that typically enters your everyday American libertarian’s mind. It’s an idea that, while advocated by a few historical libertarians such as Voltairine de Cleyre it’s not a regular occurrence among figures most libertarians would recognize and praise. But you’d probably be surprised to know that many historical libertarians advocated (and still do advocate)) the general strike. From the voluntaryists such as Wendy McElroy, Carl Watner and even the hailed proto-libertarian Etienne de La Boetie all advocated a sort of general strike thro ugh mass non-participation and resistance of the prevailing power structures. In much the same way as the Industrial Workers of the World (or, IWW, for short) would say, this move would end politics as most people understand it today. Likewise the IWW would suggest that the general strike is the end of industry and the economy as we know it.

So as it might already be obvious, given the previous presentation by James Tuttle on radical labor and libertarianism that libertarians have a lot more in common with folks from the IWW than they might sometimes think. But I want to further this case a little bit more by adding that in fact, all political movements indeed have their “general strike” idea. Or at least, any movement that wants to somehow affect social change in some deep and meaningful way. Because of that you of course wouldn’t expect a politician to talk about this or an employer or anyone who largely constitutes the exploiting class and benefits from it. But then you should expect such things about as much as you should expect your local police force to “protect and serve”.

In addition for La Boetie and the voluntaryists and many like them, the rule of the state and other oppressive institutions more generally relies on general consent of the populace at large. Likewise members of the IWW and similarly anarcho-syndicalists who advocate general strikes tend to advocate the necessity of the working class for the employing class’s capital and indeed the entire system. Constant references can be found made by IWW members and others like them and their supporters such as Voltairine in her Haymarket Affair speeches where she reminds us that the current system is relying on the back breaking labor of the many to the benefit of the few. This is similar to how La Boetie, the voluntaryists and even some plain old “anarcho”-capitalists and anarcho-“capitalists” think of the current system of exploitation under the state. Only in this situation it’s the state constituting the few and the citizen constituting the many.

Again, we find striking similarities between these two positions even for all of the ways in which these two sides might not much care for each other for both rhetorical and substantial reasons. Even so though, I stress these convergences not to downplay real differences or pretend “we’re all in this together” in some fantastical way but to put forth the precursor to the main part of this speech and indeed a lot of my work:

Synthesis of many ideas while remaining a strong core of disciplined but flexible principles can lead to rewarding experiences, tactics and ideology.

In any good study of social phenomenon it’s better to closely examine how close and far apart a given situation is from what people say it is. This study requires of us a look at how ideas come together, come apart and how both of these phenomenons cause further ideas to spawn. In the case of this essay when you think of something like, the Counter-economic General Strike it probably more sounds like two things that are meaningfully separate and distinct from each other. Not things that should be put in conjunction with each other in some actually serious way. The goal of this speech then is to give a little discomfort to those who think as much, in one way or another. Whether you think counter-economics isn’t important or the theory of the general strike isn’t important or if you think a synthesis is useless or perhaps something else I hope to throw a bit more caution in your ideological step. And I attempt to also give the same for those who think that anarcho-syndicalists and agorists are completely at odds.

What I want to argue here is that Samuel Edward Konkin the III’s and others ideas on agorism and counter-economics as well as IWW members such as Ralph Chaplin, Big Bill Haywood and anarcho-syndicalist influenced anarchists like Voltairine de Cleyre and others all have something to learn from each other. And in the end that a sort of synthesis between these thinkers while keeping what Voltairine called “the axiom of anarchy” intact leaves us with a lot to think about and for a lot to act on as a matter of strategy for the coming revolution.

Towards the goal of having a revolution I advocate the overthrow the present brutish systems of relations I identify in this essay as state-capitalism and I advocate the Counter-Economic General Strike as one way to do that. In addition I’ll discuss how we can move towards it, how we move away from it and how we can understand it independently of its whole and on the whole as well. Doing that and getting to a solid understanding of all of that while also trying to apply it to strategy and retain it within a libertarian strain of thought is going to be quite the journey. In all likelihood it’s going take the ideas of libertarianism to places some here might not want it to go, couldn’t think it could go or what have you. But in the end I believe the journey is worth it to make a revolution that Loverboy could be proud of.

…Well if we can take the song literally anyways.

What is Counter-Economics?

What is agorism?

Before I discuss how the practice of counter-economics and the practice of the general strike can integrate as a complete whole I want to examine the parts. So first I want to examine what counter-economics is and to do this I want to take a step even further back and examine the philosophy that it revolves around called agorism.

I’d like to make it clear before I begin though that I do not consider myself an agorist and merely consider myself someone who feels qualified to present the ideas and give both the pros and the cons of it. And though on the whole I do feel there are considerable upsides to the strategies and overall ideas of agorism I do not fully subscribe to Konkin’s ideas personally. Agorists are also certainly one group of people who I’d consider myself open to allying myself with given their strong disposition towards building alternative institutions, engaging in counter-economics and disavowing parliamentary politics. I therefore while not considering myself an agorist consider them an ally of mine and me and ally of them.

In terms of defining agorism, eytemologically speaking agor-ism comes from the Greek word “agora” which meant market place, so agorism literally means market-ism. For a more precise definition though Samuel Edward Konkin III defined it as:

Agorism is 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”[2] 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.”[3]

Definitions are a tricky thing and heavily depend negotiations and renegotiations well tuned awareness to how the culture at large is absorbing and dealing with the information. Without any of these things ideology becomes a useless tool because it becomes a quite asocial tool and if we’re aiming for any sort of revolution (whether it’s an agorist revolution or something else) then that’s something that in all likelihood is bound to fall flat on its face. I don’t think any of these definitions are actually pretty helpful on the face of things because they require some much deeper discussion of what libertarianism is, what is consistent with it and what is not and what consistency even constitutes and perhaps even for some the value of having such a rigid leaning on consistency[4].

But while that might sound 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 become matters of deeper discussions in the end. I can’t really recall the last time I told someone I was an anarchist and they just looked at me for a second and said, “oh yeah, sure, an anarchist!” and then that was the end of the conversation.

So this “problem” (if we can even call it such after further investigation) is certainly not exclusive to agorism.

Moving away from definitions I want to move towards categorization and agorism’s own relation to counter-economics briefly. Because in trying to help us all understand agorism better I feel it’s also appropriate for me to address confusion about agorism. Some people confuse agorism for counter-economics but the two are fundamentally different things.

Agorism subsumes counter-economics as the philosophy that counter-economics has as its typical framework. And this makes sense when agorism is more correctly perceived as the philosophy and counter-economics the tactic. We’ll discuss this more in just a little bit.
In summary then I see agorism as a contested ground for definitions and thus in the interest of further clearing the grounds I’ll add my own two-cents on the definition of agorism,

Anarchists (also called “New Libertarians”) in the tradition of SEK who advocate 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. They desire an economy more tending towards self-employment and flatter firms and use Austrian Economics and Left-Rothbardian analysis to come up with a radical and revolutionary market anarchist theory of overcoming the systematic violence of the state and its cronies. Agorists also generally oppose voting in a strict sense and prefer building institutions instead.

In any case it seems a futile matter to go spinning around in circles about what agorism does and does not mean. I think we can discern from what’s been said some key take away points of the agorist philosophy:

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

Much more could be said by now but at this point I think the ground has been prepared well enough to continue.

Counter-Economics: A Tactic or a Philosophy?

I briefly brought up this misunderstanding on some people’s part, on whether agorism and counter-economics are separate things or not. But there’s another popular confusion that I feel should also be addressed:
Is counter-economics just a tactic or is it something else too? And even 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 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 then isn’t just a tactic. 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. It would just be its own thing with some pretty narrow confines and interests.

Counter-economics on the other hand is another story. 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…” [5].

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 such 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.”[6]

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 of course.
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. Counter-economics on one side of things then is fundamentally about how to get from the current statist society to the society in which markets are freed up and people’s relations can be free and mutually beneficial.

Given this counter-economics as a tactic makes sense, but why too a philosophy? To some extent it is because tactics tend to help us form our lives and our broader understandings of life and deeper truths and meanings to our reality as we try to construct it for ourselves. But more importantly it is the study of the reality that is created by the action that creates a sort of philosophical and practical feedback loop in which knowledge is constantly sought for, analyzed and improved upon.

Why Counter-Economics?

But even so, why should counter-economics be important to a given libertarian and why is it libertarian at all? Both questions are especially important if you don’t consider yourself an agorist.
I’d suggest that it’s important for much the same reason that tactics like the general strike are important to IWW members, to anarcho-syndicalists and so forth. It’s important because it’s radical. When Konkin had counter-economics in mind he had hitting the pocketbook of the bureaucrat in mind much the same as Haywood of the IWW had in mind when he spoke of strikes more generally. Striking was all about depriving the capitalist of their life-blood, the workers wage and the profits they obtain from such. In much the same way Konkin wants us to resist the state’s attempts at draining profits from us via taxation, inflation and so on. So, because counter-economics hits at the root of the problem in one way it can be seen as useful compared to the many other tactics focused on the branches (such as voting).

It’s also important because unlike some individual strategies of revolt counter-economics is both microscopic and macroscopic. If counter-economics was just interested in, say, selling illegal substances to a given libertarian in the hopes of giving the finger to the state then it wouldn’t be very radical at all. Indeed, some have criticized agorism or counter-economics more specifically as just being about trading raw milk (which is illegal in some states) for some gold and then that’s it. This is a total strawman of the actual agorist position and is akin to calling counter-economics some sort of badly constituted lifestylism (which it can be to the credit of this critique, but that’s not what Konkin had in mind in the least).

But because counter-economics is interested in the micro and the macro this means that while it may have bigger ambitions and goals, it also has a lot more people in mind when considering a peaceful revolution or considering broad social change. And it also means that that strawman instantly falls flat. Because it’s not just seeing people in isolated communities or on individual levels bootstrapping it all on their own. While Konkin said that the counter-economy needs to be built one person at a time that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be limited to p2p basis or some such thing. Networks and various organizations and associations of New Libertarians may form to create groups of traders so that they can more efficiently create alternative institutions (while being one themselves) as well as counter-institutions and also making some well deserved money off of it to support themselves. The use in all of this then is its versatility and how counter-economics both recognizes the bigger picture but takes proper care to make sure not to ignore the individual as well.

An example of this might be the anarcho-milkman with his cartons of milk with the black flags on them who is the 3 AM alternative to the 6 PM milkman and who’s money doesn’t go to the government or is involved in some way in reporting the trades to the local regulation board if it’s raw milk. Now the sale itself isn’t really the radical or revolutionary thing (though it’s important in its own right) but it’s the effect of being able to provide milk at (presumably) a lower cost to the community at large. And while it’s slightly more inconvenient for the buyer it could yield some satisfaction if it’s mutually understood that the anarcho-milkman will do much the same for the other person. Building these social ties and building networks of mutual aid are all important parts of any good social revolution, peaceful or not and I think emphasizing that as really the mainstay of counter-economics (building networks of mutual aid and trade and expanding them from the ground up) is one of the most important parts .

Or another example could be when a disaster occurs and price controls go in effect from the “benevolent government” so that the poor can be protected. Of course as we libertarians might figure, it doesn’t work and many may starve due to the failures of government trying to control economies. So instead counter-economic collectives begin doing “food runs” from other places or perhaps even their own garages and self-sustaining apartments or whatever for free or for a lower cost, etc. In this way the counter-economy can get built up, mutual aid can be further developed and more of the agoric spirit can be made with not only the poor (who the price controls would probably hit the worst) but also the rest of the community who wanted to give but couldn’t because of bureaucratic controls such as regulations and various other sorts of red tape.[7]]8]

Finally to get away from the abstract and go to the historical we can briefly look at the Soviet Union. Much of the economy was indeed made up of various black market goods in which people peacefully exchanged goods such as TV repairs and papered goods and so on. The main problem with this historical example (and perhaps others like the alcohol bootleggers in the 20s and 30s) is that there was hardly ever (which isn’t to say there was never) a fundamentally agorist intention behind it. Typically the acts weren’t done with the state in mind or with authority or liberty being explicitly denied or upheld. Sure, these acts tend to uphold liberty at the price of authority but without the actual intent and fuller knowledge and breadth of the subject the action eventually falls over itself. Thus when the Soviet Union eventually fell (as many libertarians – including agorists – predicted it would) the “counter-economy” that had existed did little to nothing (as far as I am aware anyways) to subsume the machinations of the prevailing power structures and try to create a freer society.

The effects of these three examples in sum are more liberty and less authority and more networked paths of resistance and less isolation. These counter-economic exchanges can come among different ways and from different mediums. Some take the form of cash, other alternative currencies such as an illegal good like drugs or alcohol or you can even counter-economically trade things like good-will in opposition to the state when said good-will inherently routes around the damage that the state apparatus causes in our daily lives.

Even so, I believe these three examples (and others that could be given) give good reason for why counter-economics is both theoretically and practically useful but what about being libertarian?

Due to the interest in a given counter-economist’s activity (in subverting authority and raising the banner of liberty) which mostly consist of peaceful and anti-state actions (actions that are intentionally trying to undermine the state) then I don’t think it’s hard to see why it’s libertarian.
A far more interesting question in terms of what counts as meaningfully libertarian and what doesn’t is this:

Is a peaceful trade between two consenting individuals with, say, an illegal substance, a counter-economic action?

In part this trade could be considered counter-economic but I’d say on the whole it would not count as much as others. The trade in this given situation seems (there could be many nuances of course, such as emotional addiction on the buyer’s part or something for instance, but let’s presume these nuances are absent for sake of argument) fine and is peaceful there’s no intent to undermine the state.
The counter-economy, in my mind, revolves around actively countering the state and intending to do so through libertarian ethics. Now sure you don’t have to have libertarian ethics to counter the state (the people in the Soviet Union proved this well enough!) but I find myself hard pressed to say that while Konkin is right that as he says in NLM “…in some sense we’re all counter-economists!”[9] that there aren’t different levels of how counter-economic you’re actually being.

In the context of having levels then I’d put transactions like the substance dealing on the lower side, the Soviet Union black market a bit higher (maybe closer to the medium) and the first two abstract examples higher towards the top. Making it like this makes the role of counter-economics much more clearer to me as well also still being rather generously inclusive in terms of actions that could conceivably fit under its banner. At the same time though, it’s not made an irrelevant or un-libertarian tactic by sticking to the baseline of (if you want the action to count for much anyways) to be intentionally anti-state in both theory and practice.

What is a General Strike?

What is a General Strike?

But now we turn to the matter of the general strike. What is it? Why should libertarians concern themselves with it? What’s it got to do with us as a movement? And is the tactic any good anyways? And is it libertarian to begin with?

First to the matters of definition, a strike more generally is an economic tool used by workers against the capitalist in hopes of causing the either short term or long term cessation of work. There are different views on what the strike should be used for but the strike is mainly for the purpose of interrupting production by the capitalist in any case. This can be done so that alternatives can be built in the meantime or so that demands can be met (sometimes by the state or sometimes by the boss or sometimes something else) such as higher wages, better working environment, shorter hours and so on. Sometimes strikes are even done for larger reasons such as protesting a given craft’s or the larger industry’s role in a given war.

The general strike then is a larger act to try and create a situation in which the cessation of work and the interruption of production on a bigger scale happens. Typically this is a much longer-term effort due to how large the general strike is. But how large is it? The IWW member Ralph Chaplin in his 1933 work, The General Strike distinguishes the general strike as such:

“The General Strike, as its name implies, must be a revolutionary or class strike instead of a strike for amelioration of conditions. It must be designed to abolish private ownership of the means of life and to supplant it with social ownership. It must be a strike, not of a few local, industrial or national groupings of workers but of the industrial workers of the world as an entity.”[10]

Chaplin further clarifies that,

“If we keep in mind that there are four phases of the General Strike it will help to understand clearly what we mean by using the term:

• A General Strike in a community
• A General Strike in an Industry
• A national General Strike
• A Revolutionary or class strike – THE General Strike[11]

Is it a Useful Tactic?

But the strike is, of course, not the only tool at the worker’s disposal when dealing with the capitalist (and typically as an extension, the state) so why highlight it specifically?

I mentioned this earlier for counter-economics but it also applies to the tactic of the strike: it’s radical[12]. It strikes at the root of the problem because the worker involved in the strike knows their place in the war around them when the strike gets to this point. IWW members are especially adept at noting this social war that is going on as Voltairine noted in her wonderful essay Direct Action (which, although written in 1912 is still sadly in large part true). Not only that but the IWW members as opposed to the ones more interested in reform tend to not be the ones who want to grow up to be union officials or the ones who want to shine the shoes of the local bureaucrat or defend the next war if there’s a person with a (D) next to their name. Most of those folks will go back to the shift they started at (with maybe a few cents better of a pay and a few less names called at them) and they’ll get little else. The IWW member on the other hand will tend to get something accomplished in striking not for little but for all.

Chaplin also remarks on other tactics the worker can take and one such group is the “politicos” as he calls them and he criticizes their methods,

“It is manifestly absurd to expect the class which has stained the pages of history red in countless labor struggles to give over complete control because the electorates (whom they despise) have seen fit to demand it. The parasite class of the U.S.A. can be relied upon not to relinquish their sacrosanct rights to “property” until they are confronted with a power greater than that which they have at their command.
Anything less will be scoffed at.” [13]

So one reason for the general strike (or strikes in general) is that the alternatives don’t look as promising and Chaplin highlights this well enough in his work whether it comes to those who believe in parliamentary politics, those who believe in an insurrection, those who more generally believe in reform or those who want to simply influence public opinion. For Chaplin all of these options do not seem viable when compared to the advantages that the general strike gives the workers. The workers who want repeals (such as the state-socialists) are merely interested in the reworking of a broken system, the insurrectionists are badly outnumbered and outmatched at present and those that desire for public opinion to be on their side are merely just registering a small minority of intelligent complaints to the prevailing power structures. At best these sorts of complaints (and only then when it originates from an understanding of class struggle) can lead to more education and industrial solidarity that might lead to the general strike but at worst tends to lead towards mass hysteria and such things that can easily be bought out.

Unfortunately a broader criticism of all of these different tactics is beyond the scope of this speech so I’ll leave my objections there. And though I want to certainly claim that Chaplin is right that the politicos and insurrectionists and reformers tend to be on the wrong side of things strategically speaking I also don’t think this makes the general strike the only option. Even so I certainly recognize it as an option and think, historically speaking it works out in favor of the workers. For instance in the introduction to the February 2009 republication of Chaplin’s piece a fellow left-libertarian Charles Johnson who is also a proud IWW member writes,

“Chaplin’s conception of the general strike influenced the stay-in strikes of the 30s here and was modified by Japanese workers after World War II when they occupied the industries to make sure they were kept running. In the 1980s, workers in Bolivia, the Philippines, Poland and South Africa took up the tactic and used it to resist both economic exploitation and predatory governments. Since 2001, after an economic collapse in Argentina and a wave of factory closures, “autonomist” workers have put in Chaplin’s ideas into working reality in hundreds of occupied factories in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and other South American countries. Bosses abandoned factories, leaving workers owed weeks of back wages; workers responded by cutting the locks, reclaiming the factories, and reopening the business under autogestion – workers self-management. These workers without bosses have revitalized once-failing businesses and made a living for themselves through cooperative ownership of the business, equal wages for all workers, and business decisions made by direct votes of the assembled workers.

In December 2008, Chaplin’s conception of the General Strike returned to its birthplace in the U.S.A. When the bosses at Republic Windows and Doors shuttered a factory in Chicago and locked the workers out with millions of dollars in back wages still unpaid, the Republic workers occupied the factory and took over the maintenance of the shop until they won the pay they were owed.”[14]

So both on its face as a radical tactic, as opposed to other possible tactics and finally in terms of its history it seems like the general strike by a very rough estimation has at the very least been a useful tool. Does that always make it the right tool? Absolutely not and I think anarcho-syndicalists, IWW members and others would do well here to keep in mind that direct action isn’t simply limited to strikes. Open-mouth sabotage, slow-downs, sick-ins and other various forms of collective action formed by workers should all be considered welcomed as part of the strategy to establish industrial solidarity.

Is the General Strike a Libertarian Action?

But of course all of this is useless if none of us here actually feel like it fits well within the libertarian spirit of action. Is the general strike a peaceful action? Or if not is it at least a violent reaction in response to violence and is said violence justifiable? Are the actions voluntary or does it require subjugation of some sort?

I realize that for the majority of this talk I’ve been more or less presuming that no one in the audience or no one that is reading this doesn’t consider these actions immoral (either the counter-economics or the strikes) but I’m of course aware that both of these people exist in the audience. Due to the controversy that these strike related propositions I am making may cause I’ll try to focus on the ethics of this one more elaborately that I did for the concept of counter-economics .

The most important thing to establish here is the ethics of labor struggle more generally which, conveniently Kevin Carson, a noted proponent of mutualism and left-libertarianism has done in many different places. For this talk I shall focus more specifically on his piece The Ethics of Labor Struggle: A Free Market Perspective.

Labor struggle more generally of course includes the strike but isn’t limited to it so a broader discussion of labor struggle tactics such as monkey-wrenching, sabotage, networked minority-unionism, sick-ins and so on is required to get a better feel for what the libertarian’s ethical stance should be. In terms of things that may seemingly be a clear case for libertarian’s to object (i.e. in the case of sabotage) ultimately depends on the justness of the claim that they have to their capital and what it produces. Even here I think that, as Carson points out, it’s not as obvious as some libertarians may think it is that they should ethically see something wrong with these acts.

One of the main reasons that labor struggle is legitimate is reasoning that Rothbard (out of all people) said in Confiscation and the Homestead Principle in which he claimed that since the state (under both libertarian theory more generally and more specifically radical Lockean principles) doesn’t own the things it claims to (via taxation and the use of violence and so on) which in certain cases would justify expropriation.

For example state universities should instead be converted into student cooperatives or collectively owned by certain groups of scholars that tend to use and occupy the university the most and thus make the most use of it. In this same light Rothbard claimed that corporations that actively help the state engage in mass murder via war (such as big defense contract businesses such as Halliburton) should be expropriated due to their subsidies and ways of actively colluding with the state. Their claims to their so-called “private property” are close to approximating zero because of this and hence they can be justly expropriated based on libertarian ethics.

The other point to make about wage-labor relations and why labor struggles should be considered valid to a libertarian is the notion of contracts. Contracts tend to be pretty well highlighted in libertarian circles and tend to find that the capitalist can make whatever demands they want and if the laborers don’t like it then they can get out. Yet when labor tends to fight back against capital’s demands in the terms of a contract suddenly the terms of the contract become all important to the libertarian, as if the laborer were undermining the free market itself. But obviously the markets we have today are nowhere near what we’d consider a free (or in left-libertarian terminology freed) markets we actually want to have. And even if it was the whole idea of contracts should be a more malleable and flexible one, one that’s made on equal grounds rather than opening up power disparities and relations between employers and employees, if that relation is to exist at all.

Carson makes this same point first quoting someone else and then elaborating,

“’An employment relationship is established when, in return for a wage, the worker B agrees to submit to the authority of the employer A for a specified period of time in return for a wage w. While the employer’s promise to pay the wage is legally enforceable, the worker’s promise to bestow an adequate level of effort and care upon the tasks assigned, even if offered, is not. Work is subjectively costly for the worker to provide, valuable to the employer, and costly to measure. The manager-worker relationship is thus a contested exchange.’(12)

The very term “adequate effort” is meaningless, aside from whatever way its definition is worked out in practice based on the comparative bargaining power of worker and employer. It’s virtually impossible to design a contract that specifies ahead of time the exact levels of effort and standards of performance for a wage-laborer, and likewise impossible for employers to reliably monitor performance after the fact. Therefore, the workplace is contested terrain, and workers are justified entirely as much as employers in attempting to maximize their own interests within the leeway left by an incomplete contract. How much effort is “normal” to expend is determined by the informal outcome of the social contest within the workplace, given the de facto balance of power at any given time. And that includes slowdowns, “going canny,” and the like. The “normal” effort that an employer is entitled to, when he buys labor-power, is entirely a matter of convention. It’s directly analogous the local cultural standards that would determine the nature of “reasonable expectations,” in a libertarian common law of implied contract. If libertarians like to think of “a fair day’s wage” as an open-ended concept, subject to the employer’s discretion and limited by what he can get away with, they should remember that “a fair day’s work” is equally open-ended.”[15]

The combination of supporting equal agency and legitimacy in contracts (and the hypocrisy of not doing so according to libertarianism’s own ethos), the fact that state-supported industries such as big defense contractors that help directly and actively perpetuate the war machine leaves them open to homesteading and that the contract between labor and capital (should it be desirable at all) is as much a contestable one for capital as it is for labor means that libertarians have a good moral reasoning to support labor struggle.

Whether that struggle come in the forms of monkey-wrenching, striking or more extreme actions such as sabotage I think the point has been made well enough that libertarians at least have good reason to be suspicious when capital goes over labor in the relation and not be so necessarily hostile when labor decides to fight back.

Finally though, in terms of “fighting back” is the obvious question of, how do the workers fight back? Must it be through violence or are other means possible?

It seems obvious to me that other means such as open-mouth sabotage (simply speaking about injustices at the work place), wild-cat walk-outs (unspecified times in which you collectively organize you and your fellow workers to walk out at an undesignated time), slow-downs, work-to-rule (working as close to the rules as possible to the point of slowing down production or causing the capitalist some noticeable losses), sick-ins and so on are all non-violent ways labor can resist the gains of capital. And given the contestability of the contracts, how important contracts are and how they intertwine with the notion of liberty are important for libertarians it seems like an easy enough match between labor struggle and libertarianism given the right proclivities in thinking. (9 minutes)
Conclusion:

Towards a Counter-economic General Strike

Given that this talk is mainly about introducing and then synthesizing ideas I’d like to yield the rest of my time to the latter endeavor.

Matching the concept of counter-economics with the general strike means matching up those who practice both the study and the activity of resisting the state through illegal trades (which, in part, some anarcho-syndicalists may be doing already) and those who are organizing revolutionary unions to abolish the state and capitalism. Wanting these two groups to get together seems easier when we remember that both of these groups proclaim opposition to capitalism and the state (or at least the agorists who take the left in the left-libertarianism that agorism is seriously…). Of course the definitions of these two things may differ and means and groundings for opposing these two things may differ as well. But these are differences that can be discussed once both of these groups realize that they have some commonly held objectives. And as I’ve already stated it seems as though both counter-economics and the strike more generally have some philosophical similarities.

Anarcho-syndicalism and agorism also have their share of similarities and differences which might make for an interesting discussion but also a more challenging one. One of the biggest hurdles for both of these groups would most likely be the subject of private property and its proper place in an anarchist society. For the agorist, non-proviso Lockean property rights are pretty fundamental to a truly freed market while anarcho-syndicalists not only tend to disfavor property but markets as well. So how can these very real differences be overcome?

The most promising one for me is compromise. And by that I mean both sides cede something that’s important to each but still leaves the core of each system intact. It seems to make the most sense to me; if for example, both sides understand that both camps will most likely have a place in an anarchist society so long as they use peaceful, voluntary and mutually beneficial means to their ends which in turn reflect those means. In another place it could be a mutual understanding on property. Agorists understand that some property may do better to be socialized and anarcho-syndicalists might recognize that holding wealth doesn’t equal the dangers of primitive accumulation that Marx talks about. Both would do well however to aim more towards a healthy balance or medium of property ideas which I think points towards a use and occupancy standard based on possession and the ethics and norms of reciprocity and mutuality.
But let’s go past the other potential disputes for now and let’s presume that the biggest hurdles are overcome. What are some aspects of the Counter-economic General Strike that we can expect?

Let’s remember the terms apart:

The agorist would want networks of underground illegal traders who are intentionally trying to undermine the state along with those who are trading illegally and don’t want the state to get involved but still trade peacefully and voluntarily. Via these networks institutions and associations of New Libertarians would be built through education, direct action (both the agorist and the anarcho-syndicalist share a similar faith in this tactic as opposed to parliamentary politics) and other such tactics. The agorist then believes that once the public is educated enough and the institutions in the underground are built up enough that even the state can’t stop it due to a lack of organizational superiority and general public will the agorist cadre will be able to overcome the state apparatus and thus we’ll be well on our way to freedom.

For the anarcho-syndicalist it’s all about building networks of revolutionary unions to cause a general strike to end all other strikes (at least in many cases this is true). These unions would have little to no interest in parliamentary politics (like with the IWW) and would instead be built around organizing local workplaces until they become more democratic (not in the tyranny of the majority sense) and were more participatory for all. Once this happens, the workers can network factory by factory to cause general strikes in industries as well as other towns, cities, states, nations, countries and so on until Chaplin’s fifth form of the general strike would be complete and from there what happens is a matter of debate between the anarcho-syndicalists.

So how do we synthesize these two approaches to revolution?

I believe that the networks, associations and institutions of the agorists can link up with the networks and associations that the anarcho-syndicalists would offer up.

The agorists would be helping steer these groups into a more market-sympathetic direction thus allowing for trades of illegal goods to be exchanged where needed. This would be done so that the laws are further proven to be a hindrance to the group at large, thus boosting the morale of these groups and creating more incentives for cooperative affairs with the various unions via the trading of goods. The agorists in turn would likely more centrally organize along horizontal lines, not rely on gold or money per se’ as much and instead vary themselves more with labor notes, bartering, gifts and so on. Thus they would further broaden their arsenal of ways to undermine the money monopoly which the anarcho-syndicalists would also oppose. Given the dual opposition to the money monopoly the agorists can reason that, in their joint ventures moving more towards local based currencies (which may or may not include gold depending on the circumstances) it’d be a good way to more practically transition people away from money entirely if that’s what the anarcho-syndicalists want to do when it’s over.

The cooperative venture that agorists and anarcho-syndicalists would undertake would then be a network of people interested in overthrowing the state via the direct action of the economic. Via the workers rebelling not only in the workplace but in the marketplace and by the agorists not only rebelling against the state-economists but the bosses too there’d be a multi-layered attack on state-capitalism which would lead to multiple interwoven trade networks of workers, entrepreneurs and more that are all seeking to end capitalism and the state.

Now, what that exactly means should be determined beforehand of course but would most likely differ on a case by case basis and through the organizational means of consensus decision making ala the same thing that Occupy Wall St. had. The vast networked (and sometimes federated) links between the agorists and the anarcho-syndicalists would be possible through the means of direct action and education, specifically educating illegal traders and educating workers. Through this partially underground and partially aboveground approach to revolutionary politics the agorist and anarcho-syndicalist revolution would be something that both built from not only the bottom up but from the underground up.

I can’t prescribe much past this, not just for the sake of time and space (though there’s that too) but because really I’ve only aimed to tease out the fuller implications of desiring a synthesis like this. The aims of both groups seems similar and though I’ve only commented briefly on this I believe the methods also have some synchronistic temper to them too due to their radical nature and what the aims of both approaches is to do (aim at the pocketbook of the given target). There are other reasons for why I believe this synthesis (however challenging it may be to happen) but I hope this’ll at least suffice as a way to point towards why a synthesis is possible some reasons for why it should happen and what it should aim for. I didn’t intend to give an exhaustive account of these things and I don’t think I have by any stretch but hopefully what I’ve done has been enough to start a productive conversation. If this talk can do at least that much then I’ll feel like writing this has been worth it.

Footnotes:

[1] Agorist Primer, pp. 12-13

[2] agorism.info

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agorism

[4] A criticism of consistency might seem odd but it’s not something that should be a stranger to those who are familiar with something like the transcendentalist counter-culture where you had quotes like Emerson’s, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. In this light there are different sorts of consistency and having consistency within a certain framework that is, for instance, unworkable or unethical isn’t necessarily better just because it’s internally consistent by its own rules. It’s still problematic because those rules themselves was what are the issue to begin with.

[5] New Libertarian Manifesto, pp. 38-39

[6] An Agorist Primer, p. 40

[7] Both of these examples are taken from Konkin’s speech at Countercon II on May 23rd, 1975. The mp3 file can be found online.

[8] For example, store employees are asked to throw away whole aisles of food that isn’t even expired. Some may even want to not do this but due to governmental bureaucracy can’t donate it or just sell it elsewhere and must instead throw it out.

[9] NLM, p. 45

[10] The General Strike, p.17

[11] Ibid. p. 20

[12] Which isn’t the same as saying it’s beyond critique. It’s just to say that radical moves tend to be better predisposed with a given social ill because of what radical tactics tend to do: aim at the root. But again, this doesn’t mean all radical tactics come equally or that they all identify the root correctly or that even when the former two qualifications are met the tactic is beyond reproach. I certainly don’t think that tactics and ideology are ever beyond reproach and won’t start here.

[13] The General Strike, p. 6

[14] Ibid. p. 1-2

[15] Source: http://mutualist.blogspot.com/2007/04/media-print-projection-embossed-body.html