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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Counter-Economics and the Counterculture

I remember, one day in the Comparative Revolutions class I took last semester Dr. Leahy brought up the topic of Gramsci's cultural hegemony and related it to the uprisings by young people in 1968 (namely, the fact that the sheer resentment towards the culture which emerges from capitalism triggered the student revolt). Right after, the class dove into discussion on alternative subcultures and how they have the potential to create revolutionary consciousness, the countercultures of the 1960's, being an example.

I think of all the ways in which the people I know have theorized using cultural aspects as a means of creating a revolutionary consciousness, but how many of those attempts end up being taken up by the dominant culture. We have seen the commodification and de-politicization of the "hippie". We have seen "punk" become corporatized. Thrift store clothing and organic food are all "mainstream" now, and soon every yuppie couple here in Windham will be installing solar panels on their roofs and guerilla gardening all the vegetables they don't want to shell out cash for at Shaw's (in fact, some already do).

We have all seen "lifestyle anarchism" manifest itself within radical communities. While I would argue that some "lifestylism" can have some positive effects, most of it comes across as a naive attempt at crashing the system from within (such as the people who think changing their diet will collapse the fucked up food industry or something along those lines) that doesn't seek to tackle the problem at its roots. The other reason tends to be more practical: that the creation of a subculture will transform into an outright rebellion against the current paradigm. Of course, whether or not changes to lifestyle can transcend the individual all depend on how such actions are carried out. In some instances, lifestylism creates more of a wall between those who participate in it and those that don't. I've experienced a ridiculous amount of elitism from people in radical leftist circles in the case of lifestyle politics where endless contests of whose lifestyle is "most radical" take place. Others view the lifestylism as a means of "living like you're already free", which I see as a much better means of using it. Acts of liberation must always seek to liberate the self, after all. When we taste liberty, we will desire to establish it and maintain it. What should be considered is how this can create a genuine paradigm shift, as countercultures tend to do, that resists appropriation by the mainstream capitalist culture by shaking off all its aspects.

This notion is being used by market anarchists as well (especially agorists, like the ones who live and work here in NH). When they speak of creating a "libertarian consciousness" through underground markets, they are essentially applying Gramsci's ideas of cultural hegemony to their reality. I get the feeling many of them admire all the great philosophy which came out of leftist political ideas - namely, marxism - in the past century, such as post-structuralism, critical theory, semiotics, radical feminist theories, and the like, even though many of those ideas and concepts remain missing from the new libertarian idealism (I couldn't imagine someone writing an Austrian School equivalent to Society of the Spectacle, for example). There are a few reasons for this: 1) libertarianism tends to stress "the individual" to the point where any mention of collectives, groups, or classes is rejected in their analyses and 2) the binary logic of "market vs. state" - as well as the reduction of everything to this dichotomy - which neglects the multiple dimensions of society. As a result, many attempts at bringing more radical forms of social thought to the libertarian framework appear very flaky. According to the agorists with whom I've personally spoken, the primary goal of the underground markets is to create a cultural shift. The counter-economy, it is claimed, will morph into a counter-culture through the creation of a new libertarian mentality, where the agorá remains a space untouched by the authority of the state or corporations and where individuals can live freely, if only for the brief moment when they are exchanging.

The idea of the agorá as an intrinsically "liberated" space akin to a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) is a dubious one, simply because a market - even one freed from governmental regulations - creates dubious outcomes. On one hand, the ungoverned market is the greatest means of autonomy. You are free to buy and free to sell without overseers. You are told you have the space to move and exchange. All of this is allegedly a means of shaking off the ideology imposed on you by the state and corporations, since you are now able to exchange freely without them.

But there remains a problem of using "the market" as the core of a revolutionary or evolutionary praxis. It is not certain whether or not this space is truly "liberated" from the authoritarianism of state-capitalist relations. The view that markets never breed authoritarianism within themselves - and that any inequality or extortion within the market is only the fault of outsiders such as the state - is naive. The historical role of markets, as we all know, was that of state control; a means of which the state stabilized economic relations among the populations it governed. Today the capitalist market has become a place of poisonous social relations based almost entirely on theft, which in turn has manifested itself into a culture of usury and a consumer society where such actions are legitimized internally. Corporations can't be scapegoated; these acts are found everywhere.

If the goal is to create new customs (namely, markets without top-down control) so that these customs create a new culture to counter the dominant one, it must be asked what kinds of values are these underground free markets promoting. The proponents of agorism as a means to a new social paradigm will have to show that market interactions without taxation or state intervention will create liberation for more than just the producer and consumer interacting, or new social relationships that transcend capitalist ones. This is especially true for the individuals who claim that free(d) markets in themselves are revolutionary, and will "naturally" produce a revolutionary consciousness without a need for new principles or forms of organization.

Perhaps the largest red herring is the idea that the problems with market systems, aside from being the result of state interference, stem from large-scale firms, and the solution to bring the market back to its "pure" form is through downsizing. The size of businesses means little, and the proponents of this notion are conflating size with function whenever they assert small businesses will inevitably act ethically, or that a market entirely dominated with small producers will gradually create a change in principles or culture. It's true that smaller firms will still exploit workers and consumers. A small firm doesn't entail that the producer and consumer are in personal relations, or that the act of exchange is more intimate. Scientific management would still exist as well to some degree if the market calls for it. But above all, you still won't see a changing of communal norms merely by reducing the size of firms; the same "extort or be extorted from" exists.

If the state-corporate culture forced upon us by ruling class has ended up reducing both our identities to that of consumers and social relations to that of exchange in the marketplace carries over to black and gray markets, I see no use in thinking of these alternative markets as a means for revolution. There cannot be any rebellion against the hegemony of the governmental state and "corporate class" if those who participate in the agorás are imitating the rituals forced upon them by the state, leading the agorá to reproduce rather than transcend the dominant culture. Commodification, for example, will still breed a fucked up mentality and the hyperreality which distorts our perceptions and relationships. Black and gray markets are also not immune to appropriation by the state-capitalist system either. As it is, hacker spaces have become assimilated into the mainstream, and many of them take state funding. If one wants to go further they could claim that no agorist firm is ever completely divorced from the state. Bitcoin relies on the internet, provided by state-owned firms. Individuals who sell baked goods are more than likely using ingredients shipped over by state-subsidized transportation (such as the agorists here in NH who sell candies made from sugar grown and processed in Hawaii and chocolate from Central America). To add, it should also be said that black markets are not necessarily places of solidarity. In a true showing of capitalist culture, both producers and consumers will try to rip each other off, because the environment they're in provides the means to. While the only thing that can keep these markets functioning without the use of force (such as a consumer threatening a producer or vice-versa) is trust, it doesn't always entail that trust will be present. A capitalistic market context will never breed solidarity. The inequalities of power, exploitation, reduction of everything to a commodity-form, and so on will always make it that way. 

Ideologically speaking, over-simplifications and the conclusions based on such paint the picture of a world that is much different from the world as it is. The reduction of everything to "the market vs. the state" (more precisely, everything in "the market" being a voluntary transaction whereas every forceful transaction constitutes "the state") in a completely fucked up binary logic is an example of this. Markets are not always political institutions and, as stated previously, can breed their own forms of coercion. Property relations play a huge role in this: capitalist property relations will lead to the formation of classes, and thus the governmental principle. Class societies are predicated on the opressive social norms that reproduce governments that work to reinforce those norms and class structures. The state dominates and embezzles through its own false principles and institutions to stabilize capitalism (though governmental principle, use of violent force, monopolization) just as capital dominates and embezzles property by its own norms and seeks the solidity through the state and culture to enforce its norms. In other words, as distinct as they may be, capital and the governmental state inevitably work to reinforce each other. You will never abolish or lessen one without abolishing or lessening the other. The logic of "market vs. state" is also why the issues of commodification and consumer society are more than not deliberately left out of most market anarchist discourse. In this case it's impossible to break either of these concepts down to some simplistic notion of "government distorting the market is the problem, a market completely free(d) of government is the solution", since such phenomena go beyond the usual dichotomy. Even the criticisms of "big society" can't explain it either, since commodification could easily happen in a small market consisting entirely of small producers, as I've stated previously. Since commodities are a central part of markets, the question must be how we can ensure that the commodity remains in its "right" function and that the constant trade of commodities doesn't manifest itself into a world of illusions or fetishisms.

There remains a need to build a counter-power, but before we can adequately do that we must examine our values and come to an understanding of what principles we would like to see carried out and reproduced. How we define ourselves within the system is always important. Our changes ought to be based on social relations between people rather than between things, as material relations will still dominate regardless of how big the market is or how large or powerful the producers are. Marxists and social democrats are naive for thinking that the state can be revolutionary, yet an-caps, agorists, and libertarians of all shapes and sizes are also naive for thinking that markets can be revolutionary in and of themselves. (For example, there's nothing inherently revolutionary in trading bitcoins for raw milk cheeses or whatever.) Unless we fundamentally change the context of our underground markets away from capitalist practices, agorism will ultimately reproduce the same capitalist relationships and the culture of extortion and domination. The free market will not feel like the "free market" because we are still living within the old capitalist structure. When we built a commune in Zuccotti Park, we were in full rebellion against the mainstream society; we sought to rid ourselves of the old norms and foster a counter-structure. The anarchist revolution in Catalonia, to use a more tangible real-world example, didn't spark due to consciousness created by black markets but rather consciousness created through a whole anarchist culture which included many strikes, revolts, attempts at insurrection (much like what the protesters in Europe are doing right now), which all lead up to 1936. It's been said that the greatest weapon of governing authority is not the gun it points to your head, but the myth of the legitimacy of its gun. Though that gun is not unique to governments: it is found everywhere, including the market. Unless we have a genuine change in our minds and culture we will not overcome it. Since liberty can only be approximated, and can never be realized in an absolute sense, we must examine which structures, institutions, and relations maximize our autonomy the most, and within this, maintain our commitments. Let it not keep the same paradigms and structures as the old. Let it liberate as far as it can go rather than imitate the authority of the past.

 Guy Debord wrote in a 1958 article entitled Theses on Cultural Revolution:
"Those who want to supersede the old established order in all its aspects cannot cling to the disorder of the present, even in the sphere of culture. In culture as in other areas, it is necessary to struggle without waiting any longer for some concrete appearance of the moving order of the future. The possibility of this ever-changing new order, which is already present among us, devalues all expressions within existing cultural forms. If we are ever to arrive at authentic direct communication... we must bring about the destruction of all the forms of pseudocommunication. The victory will go to those who are capable of creating disorder without loving it."

Anyway, the intention of this post isn't to bash on market anarchists but rather to look at the notion of markets as liberation and markets as control. This isn't meant to be an in-depth philosophy paper either; I merely took my leftover thesis notes and combined them with Gramsci's Prison Notebooks and criticisms of agorism.

What do you think?


21 comments:

  1. The commodity tends to mystify social relations. Why not shoot for an end to the shell exchange-value shrouds the use of something or some service in?

    Well written and thought out essay, Julia.

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  2. "As it is, hacker spaces have become assimilated into the mainstream, and many of them take state funding."

    Undoubtedly, shortly before they started taking state funding, someone asked the question "how do we monetize this?" Just before that, someone probably asked "how can I make a living at this?" I suppose hacker space is something one could do after work as a hobby, so long as nothing they do at hacker space violates the non-disclosure agreement at work? In theory?

    I'm sick of the "social entrepreneurship" fad. Will people ever ask questions such as "how do we NOT monetize this?"

    The lifestyle anarchists (at least the better ones) are pioneering ultra-cheap living, which I see more conducive, if not to freedom, at least to the possibility of non-monetized activities, than this so-called counter-economics. A counter-economics worthy of the name would be contrary to the laws of economics.

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    1. "I'm sick of the "social entrepreneurship" fad. Will people ever ask questions such as "how do we NOT monetize this?"?

      EXACTLY!

      Counter-economic institutions will face assimilation into the state-capitalist system unless those participating in them hold a strong commitment to anarchism, in my opinion. Whenever the priorities change the project changes. Micro structures affect macro structures in a way that would make a commitment to principles necessary.

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    2. The distinction between low cost living and counter-economics seems a bit unhelpful. As a matter of day to day life, lots of people on low income do odd jobs or under the table work to bring in ends meet, or "invest" labor in cost reduction measures that also have the effect the establishing some measure of autonomy. Back when I worked as a delivery driver for a restaurant, I took advantage of the fact that lots of local office workers came in to eat to offer my services ferrying them from work to the local train station from which they commuted, using my own car and undercutting the licensed cabbies.

      For that matter, Kevin Carson's practical work is all about counter-economic means that are accessible to people on low incomes and further reduce their dependence on mainstream supplies of both income and goods. Hence the subtitle to the Homebrew Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto

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    3. This is just one experience of many. I don't doubt that you had the ability to "compete" with white market cabs and make some extra money, but this is not what I'm talking about at all. What Lorraine brought up was the commodification of institutions like hacker spaces and their general assimilation into the capitalist system. It's an example of what I was talking about: market institutions have a huge chance of becoming dissolved into capitalism and adopting capitalist norms. This is part of the reason why I was turned off by Carson's approach: too much of it seems deterministic, like those who adhere to a "free market anti-capitalist" approach assume that free(d) markets will ultimately produce a free and equal society regardless. I can point to several cases from my own experience where the opposite happened, and agorists ditched their underground work for white market work.

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    4. The problem with micro-industry is that it is limited in what it can actually do. Carson and co. have some good ideas, but most of them seem to be putting all their eggs in one basket with 3D printing, open source software, and other low-cost endeavors, which just can't be universalized. Not every industry can be scaled back. I would like to see left-libertarians explain how their system (and property theories, since many of them don't have a concise theory of property) would work in a large complex city like New York where you have all sorts of large industries and complex infrastructure (trains, highways, bridges, subways, power grids, water, sewage, and so on).

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  3. Thank you Julia. Lots of great points. My only point of contention is that market anarchists would not necessarily disagree. Charles W. Johnson wrote an article called Markets Freed from Capitalism, in which he makes this point.

    "If a 'freed market' is the sum of all voluntary exchanges, then family sharing takes place within a freed market; charity is part of a freed market; gifts are part of a freed market; informal exchange and barter are all part of a freed market. Similarly, while markets-as-free exchange may include 'capitalistic' arrangements – so long as they are consensual – they also encompass far more than that. There is nothing in a freed market that prohibits wage labor, rent, corporate jobs, or corporate insurance. But a freed market also encompasses alternative arrangements – including many that clearly have nothing to do with employer-employee relationships or corporate management, and which fit awkwardly, at best, with any conventional meaning of the term 'capitalism': worker ownership and consumer co-ops are part of the market; grassroots mutual aid associations and community free clinics are part of the market; so are voluntary labor unions, consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and countless other alternatives to the prevailing corporate capitalist status quo. To focus on the specific act of exchange may even be a bit misleading; it might be more suggestive, and less misleading, to describe a fully freed market, in this sense, as the space of maximal consensually sustained social experimentation."

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  4. "It is not certain whether or not this space is truly "liberated" from the authoritarianism of state-capitalist relations. The view that markets never breed authoritarianism within themselves - and that any inequality or extortion within the market is only the fault of outsiders such as the state - is naive."

    Ditto for unions, communes, the very notion of "the community", not to mention families, ugh.

    The tendencies toward bureaucracy and thus the psychological separation between base and administration implicit in planning councils render any form of social anarchism not limiting itself to local autarky (and thus cultural insularity) prone to its own sets of failures, just like the assertion that markets are. Simply trusting in (ostensibly) egalitarian participatory democracy to solve problems doesn't escape these flaws.

    For that matter when it comes to strategies like syndicalism, states since the 1930's have had a long, long history of offering incentives to sell out here as well, aside from the ones presented to market actors.

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    1. "
      The tendencies toward bureaucracy and thus the psychological separation between base and administration implicit in planning councils render any form of social anarchism not limiting itself to local autarky (and thus cultural insularity) prone to its own sets of failures, just like the assertion that markets are. Simply trusting in (ostensibly) egalitarian participatory democracy to solve problems doesn't escape these flaws."


      Your (completely mislead) comment would be correct if and only if anarchist unions, communes, etc. were to completely override any kind of individualism. Other than that, your comment is a total strawman argument. Obviously, you don't understand the many factors that go into anarchist organizing, including that of individualism within anarchist institutions.

      Also, you could make an argument based on approximation. Anarchist unions, federations, communes, etc. are much better in increasing individual liberty than capitalist institutions (including the market). We should ask ourselves: do markets generally create more subordination, or do they generally maximize autonomy? How long until "the market" becomes akin to a commune (or even a state) insofar that it creates its own state whereby individuals are subordinated to its forces?

      To add, your entire argument is based on the faulty notion that social anarchism is an ends. It is not; the revolution is supposed to be ongoing. As soon as a union manifests itself into its own level of bureaucracy we will rebel against it as well. It's not supposed to be a "that's it, we're done" scenario.

      "For that matter when it comes to strategies like syndicalism, states since the 1930's have had a long, long history of offering incentives to sell out here as well, aside from the ones presented to market actors."

      Again, you're missing the entire point of my original post. I was making the case that principles are vital. But here's something else: because radical unions are generally democratic and run by people who hold particular principles, they have far less of an incentive to sell out. See the CNT and IWW and compare them with the UGT and AFL-CIO - why do you think the former two have remained radical for decades when the latter two have not? Market actors have a much greater chance of selling out because their bottom line is usually profit (or generally becomes profit). Remember too that I live in New Hampshire and know plenty of self-proclaimed agorists in real life; many of them have to work a "white market" job as well as an underground one, and because their underground jobs pay so little they end up putting it aside to focus on their "legal" one. That's just my personal experience but I wouldn't doubt it happens elsewhere.

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    2. To clarify, radical unions and federations put their principles and commitment to anti-authoritarianism at the forefront, and as a result they resist "selling out" to the greater capitalist system. This isn't the case with agorists, as my entire article was pointing out. Agorists are primarily concerned with avoiding taxation, not with altering social relations or paradigms. "Exchange without the state" doesn't imply equitable exchange or exchange without commodification.

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    3. Every act of selling out is an act of selling. One strategy for inoculating an individual or a group from selling out is, as Henry David Thoreau put it, "to avoid the necessity of selling." A necessitous man is not a free man, etc. We're fucked if cheap living is the only strategy available to us, as a penny saved is a penny. Counter-economics may play a role, although I envision something that looks more like "Angel Economics."

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  5. There is an academic mindset polluted by every variation of Marxist class theory and social psychology that loses sight of a real world where individuals live.

    I'm one of the founders of Agorism but I don't spend time deconstructing picyune critiques of withdrawing from, becoming independent of, and making oneself invisible to the use of force and intimidation by government avatars against people who want to keep what they own and live as they like.

    Alongside Night, which I wrote decades ago as a novel, and have just now made into a new movie -- is a good visualisation of some of the possibilities of how a transition to Agorism might work. Consider novel and movie thought experiments translated into an enjoyable medium.

    For those who can't or won't induce abstract principles from story examples, read my article "Welcome to Customer Service" on my blog at http://jneilschulman.rationalreview.com/2012/04/welcome-to-customer-service/.

    J. Neil Schulman

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    1. In my experience, whenever someone tells me "it's not about left or right," they're trying to recruit me into the right. The tone of Welcome to Customer Service seems almost patriotic, in a "love my country, fear my government" sort of way. I'm more of a "fear both country and government" type. In addition to the slogan "a republic, if you can keep it" so popular with the "republic, not democracy" crowd, there are the usual right wing talking points about "central banking and income tax," so-called judicial activism, and of course "State, County, and Local Government officials eunuched whenever a federal agent shows up." Sometimes state/county/local government is the lesser of two evils, and sometimes (usually in the Bible Belt states) they're the greater of two evils. Not that it matters, as government is government. States rights is not in any sense an anarchist viewpoint.

      "...one can convincingly argue that, despite their protests, both Ayn Rand and Robert A. Heinlein made far better cases in their fiction for anarchistic societies than they made for government in their nonfiction."

      Perhaps the nonfiction is a reference to 1974, the year Ayn Rand was commencement speaker at West Point and Robert A. Heinlein at Annapolis. The trouble with minarchist, "don't tread on me" types is that the parts of government they are most likely to see as at least a little bit legitimate are those parts directly and explicitly involved in the wielding of authority...the military, intelligence and police functions of government. Any anarchist worthy of the name will attack those parts of the state first, not last.

      The bulleted list of conditions which must be met is entirely consistent with anarcho-capitalism, of which agorism is, of course, a minor variant. The left-styled libertarians who rally around agorism are either wolves in sheep's clothing, or are tools of capital.

      "Now, some may say what I’ve proposed above is not anarchy at all, but limited Constitutional Government.

      I won’t argue the semantic point."

      Yup, limited Constitutional Government. Basic populist American conservatism; the same basic message recycled in the 1960's as Birchism, in the 1970's as agorism, in the 2010's as "tea party."

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    2. "The trouble with minarchist, "don't tread on me" types is that the parts of government they are most likely to see as at least a little bit legitimate are those parts directly and explicitly involved in the wielding of authority...the military, intelligence and police functions of government. Any anarchist worthy of the name will attack those parts of the state first, not last."

      Exactly. To add, most anarchists aren't so naive as to think that it's only capital reinforcing the state, but also the state reinforcing the power of capital. The parts of the state we go after first are the ones which give rise to or preserve authoritarian relationships (which then manifest themselves into an authoritarian culture). We're not so naive as to think that the state will die as soon as capital does or vice-versa.

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    3. "There is an academic mindset polluted by every variation of Marxist class theory and social psychology that loses sight of a real world where individuals live."

      This comment made me fall on the floor laughing. Certainly, I take ideas from marxism and structuralism but I'm by no means a state-socialist. I don't disregard entire schools of philosophy simply because I disagree with certain ideas found in those schools. We can apply elements of marxism, structuralism, etc. to anarchism.

      "I'm one of the founders of Agorism but I don't spend time deconstructing picyune critiques of withdrawing from, becoming independent of, and making oneself invisible to the use of force and intimidation by government avatars against people who want to keep what they own and live as they like."

      Sure, but ideas do have power. Structures have power. Cultures have power. If your philosophy and principles are piss-poor then it's more than likely your end results based on such shoddy ideas will be piss-poor. Critical thought matters a hell of a lot here.

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  6. Social media of Internet with Linux etc. gift economies, Bitcoin, MMPORG currencies and markets etc. alternative currencies, and much else can be regarded as similar sandbox of experimenting and creation as Spanish anarchist experience before and during the Spanish civil war. In fact as Zizek said, if Lenin had had Internet for accounting and organizing tool, he would not have needed central bank. But instead of laying out a detailed plan for an "anarchist state" (hope that expression provokes creative and liberating thinking) to self-regulate money creation and its monetary exchange-market, here's one simple and hopefully quite doable suggestion for a toolbox:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demarchy
    http://model-economy.wikispaces.com/natural-money
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclos

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    1. But are these models immune to the problems that come with capitalism and markets? Bitcoin is hardly anarchist as it's being used by the ultra-wealthy as a means of enhancing their power. The Spanish Anarchists to my knowledge never engaged in any kind of black market activity, at least not as a strategy for anarchist organizing.

      Markets are truly limiting to what they can accomplish. These little "market transactions" don't happen in a vacuum. Reducing everything down to simple trade is not enough.

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    2. This article explains how BTC is now run by elites. Definitely not something that will make cracks in the capitalist structure.

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  7. Just an addendum here:

    I'm almost certain most of the agorist black markets that exist out there are part of the ideology espoused by later capitalism. We practice the same capitalist practices, relate to each other in the same capitalist fashion - we overcome nothing, but reproduce the same relationships that the system is built upon. Remember that ideology is not just consciousness, but something you live.

    "Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe." - Pascal

    Source (Good ol' Cultural Marxism.)

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