Wednesday, March 14, 2012

And the Agorists Have it!

In hearing people go back and forth regarding the on-going race for the Republican nomination I've become more sure than I ever have been that electoral politics only rarely affords us something like a paradigm shift. And listening to my fellow citizens, I'm not quite convinced that it's really a negative aspect of that system. However, what I am convinced of is that it's not going to end up offering a path to the changes I'd like to see anytime soon. That's given me the opportunity to more seriously consider alternate approaches to affecting change. And, while I was never opposed to it before, I keep coming back to concluding that agorism is not only more than a radical libertarian side-project, but rather that it might be our best if not only hope to really shift things in our favor.

A discussion about politics, in practice, is a discussion about institutions. Institutions of all types - we are surrounded by them. From culture to conscience, they permeate us and our interactions with one another. Although not always the case, institutional phenomena are emergent, competing, evolving - garnering use and favor or whithering on the vine. There is one institution, however, that stands as an exception; forcefully throttling nascent rivals. That institution is the current institution of law - that which we call government.

This institution claims for itself something that no other institutions are seemingly able to muster alone - a monopoly. Simply put, competitors are not welcome. This of course plays into the common libertarian arguments against the state; inefficiency, unresponsiveness, bureaucracy, plutocracy, and so on. Those points are understood by libertarians well-enough. However, that should also offer some meta-political insight as to why working through the system would remain difficult for us...even if we managed to create a meaningful groundswell. Creating alternative (even if suppressed) institutions may some day prove to be a seeding that leads to a mighty oak. It might be a long and arduous process. But, if we really believe in the power of markets, we must allow for the possibility (if not probability) that voluntary institutions could eventually break the antiquated chains of government.

Now, regarding everything I've said so far, this has been my general position for a while. But some further contemplating has prompted an even stronger insistence on agorist solutions. Not only do I think that it could represent a good method to topple the current system, I'm starting to have doubts that the system could be toppled in any meaningful way without such alternative institutions in place already. To illustrate the point I'm trying to get at, let's take a look at the oft-despaired anti-libertarian meme that is "Somalia!".

Now, as so many others have pointed out, comparing "no-state" (which isn't quite true, by the way) Somalia with "lots-of-state" U.S. is a bit apples and oranges in some respects. There are obvious differences in culture and tradition. But beyond that the most stark difference is the obvious one of wealth. As nations become wealthier they, and their institutions, can afford them more luxuries. This is, of course, also a dispute even when making inter-temporal comparisons regarding just the United States. Schools, workplaces, homes, churches, hospitals - the conditions of all (as a matter of comfort, safety, and utility) have improved drastically over time. And while wide-eyed supporters of the state point to standards and regulations, I believe even they can understand that much of the "standards" we have now would have been both economically and technologically impossible without our progressive accumulation of wealth.

The fact of the matter is that Somalia is/was a poor country. They had little wealth with which such institutional infrastructures could have been maintained (government or otherwise). Comparing a country like that to ours to "prove" the inefficacy of this or that seems to be a poor methodological choice. We could have likewise compared it to the old USSR and concluded that Communism was superior. Or we could have compared early America to any number of (then) concurrent constitutional monarchies and concluded that a democratic republic is a relatively piss-poor choice for government. Both claims would seem to hold little water today. A more realistic approach would compare Somalia to a neighboring country (with similar culture and affluence) or even Somalia with it's former self. But, of course, that would reveal a stateless Somalia to be an improvement...and that doesn't fit their ham-fisted conclusions.

All arguments regarding the illegitimate nature of these comparisons aside, you'd have to be blind to look at Somalia and not see problems. The question is, what kind of problems? And how can they be addressed? I think pretty clearly the problems are institutional - and therefore the answers must likewise be institutional. The disintegration of their former government, as incompetent as it may have been, left a huge institutional vacuum. In particular, it left a gaping hole in the provision and procurement of law-enforcement, infrastructure, and protection. And yet, in an ironic twist, the crumbling of that monopolistic government left what amounts to tools and cleared paths for standers-by to usurp and exploit. We get warlords and opposed factions reclaiming the resources of the state and vying for power in its wake.

This is actually a more complex version of the rebuttal anarchists are usually afforded in casual political conversation. Even iconic small-government crazies like Ayn Rand pushed this defense of the state; that its absence would breed war in the fight for ultimate power. I think that, even as ideologues, we must concede this possibility - especially when looking to war-torn countries like Somalia. In one sense it's an unfair argument to level at someone. We can't simply rid ourselves of the current institution of law because there's nothing to take it's place. But there's nothing to take it's place because the current institution of law does not allow for it. It's almost a chicken and egg argument. The indictment is equally damning regardless of where you point it. But it remains true, even if it is the general fault of government, that such a vacuum is fertile ground for instability. We might be perfectly righteous in our justifications for dismantling government as it is now, and yet if it gives way to something worse than what we had to begin with, there is a definite sense in which our efforts will have been for naught.

So where does this leave us?

Well, it's hard to say without a good deal of consideration and deliberation. But I know that, at least in my case, it leaves me with the impression that the proliferation of alternate institutions is important not only as a tool of persuasion in conversation or even more directly as a pointed weapon against the state, but as what may be the only effective way to peacefully transition to an acceptable system. It's not only important that people see how markets can function in the state's absence, or that we begin to assemble the institutional battering rams that might eventually allow us to storm the castille. It's important because, for all the wonderful facets of those institutions, immediacy with regards to their existence isn't one of them. I think agorism might prove to be the tourniquet that allows us to proceed with removing the state once and for all.