Monday, October 8, 2012

Agorism and "Barbarians by Design": Parallels between Historical Asian Anarchism and Modern Day Revolutionary Market Anarchism

I am currently looking through the masterful work The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by Yale University professor James C. Scott. I am still in the process of studying this book; consequently, I cannot come to any definitive conclusions about exactly how consistent historical Asian anarchism is with modern day ideas known as agorism (or revolutionary market anarchism). For a brief overview of what agorism is all about, see My purpose in this blog is to simply highlight some of the elements of Asian anarchist history that sound, at least to me, very similar to modern day agorism. In other words, I just want to document some of the key words and key concepts from Asian anarchist history that seem to be very consistent with what a modern day agorist would do in real life. In this blog I do not intend to go into some points that seem to be inconsistent with agorism such as some issues about egalitarianism and land ownership. My purpose here is just to look for some consistencies between agorism and Asian anarchism.

My speculation over the possible existence of a link between historical Asian anarchism and modern day agorism began with one of Scott's earliest discussions about how these Asian anarchists behaved. Scott writes a lot about this "false dichotomy"--a product of "officially-sanctioned history--that distinguishes between the "civilized" state and the "ungoverned" barbarians. Scott emphasizes that these "barbarians by design" deliberately seek to function outside of the state while still engaging in mutually beneficial trade:
This account of the periphery is sharply at odds with the official story most civilizations tell about themselves. According to that tale, a backward, naïve, and perhaps barbaric people are gradually incorporated into an advanced, superior, and more prosperous society and culture. If, instead, many of these ungoverned barbarians had, at one time or another, elected, as a political choice, to take their distance from the state, a new element of political agency enters the picture. Many, perhaps most, inhabitants of the ungoverned margins are not remnants of an earlier social formation, left behind, or, as some lowland folk accounts in Southeast Asia have it, "our living ancestors." The situation of populations that have deliberately placed themselves at the state's periphery has occasionally been termed, infelicitously [i.e., inappropriately], secondary primitivism. Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them. State evasion and state prevention permeate their practices and, often, their ideology as well. They are, in other words, "state effect." They are "barbarians by design." They continue to conduct a brisk and mutually advantageous trade with low-land centers while steering clear of being politically captured. (Scott 2009, 8; emphasis added)
 Notice how Scott mentions that "state evasion" and "state prevention" permeate their practices. This seems to be consistent with the definition of agorism in the sense that the focus of attention is the "real world" and pragmatic implementation of the underlying ideas: "the ideology which asserts that the Libertarian philosophical position occurs in the real world in practice as Counter-Economics."

The last part of the quotation, I think, is the key part: they want (1) to engage in mutually beneficial trades while (2) avoiding "capture" by the political process. The use of this language by Scott makes sense because, as he discusses at other points in his book, the early states really did engage in a lot of "capturing" and "enslaving" of people. Capturing and enslaving people was (and is still) the essence of the state: "The accumulation of population by war and slave-raiding is often seen as the origin of the social hierarchy and centralization typical of the earliest states" (Scott 2009, 67).

Scott captures this combination of "free trade" and "stateless" people nicely when he writes:
These stateless peoples were not, by and large, easily drawn into the fiscally legible economy of wage labor and sedentary agriculture. On this definition, "civilization" held little attraction for them when they could have all the advantages of trade without the drudgery, subordination, and immobility of state subjects. (Scott 2009, 10; emphasis added)
 This talk of all the advantages of trade WITHOUT the drudgery, subordination, and immobility of state subjects, is basically what got me really interested in looking for parallels between agorism and Asian history.
Some Points of Agreement between Agorism and Asian Anarchy:


1. Ignoring Borders


One point of consistency between modern day agorism and historical Asian anarchy is that both have nothing but contempt for the artificial border lines of nations. Scott's study of the historical anarchy in Asia definitely discusses the attitude of the people with regard to national borders. Basically, the people ignore the borders:
For much of the period we wish to examine there was no nation-state and, when it did come into being late in the game, many hill people continued to conduct their cross-border lives as if the state didn't exist. The concept of "Zomia" marks an attempt to explore a new genre of "area" studies, in which the justification for designating the area has nothing to do with national boundaries (for example, Laos) or strategic conceptions (for example, Southeast Asia) but is rather based on certain ecological regularities and structural relationships that do not hesitate to cross national frontiers. (Scott 2009, 26; emphasis added)
In the Against Borders pamphlet there is a section by Darian Worden entitled "Escalating the War on Freedom." With regard to the question of national borders, Worden writes that
Borders are gang turf boundaries, usually drawn by conquest and upheld through repressive measures. Those who cross lines drawn across the earth should not have to ask permission from tyrants who created those lines.
In other words, both the agorists and the Asian anarchists refuse to recognize national boundaries as barriers to their free movement and trade.

2. Tax Evasion


Agorism certainly advocates for tax evasion. Some of Samuel Edward Konkin III (SEK3) writings were complied by Wally Conger into a short book entitled Agorist Class Theory: A Left Libertarian Approach to Class Conflict Analysis.  This book really spells out the agorist position on taxation in the framework of the agorist version of class conflict theory, which is reminiscent of the class conflict theories presented by radical liberals. See for example, Ralph Raico's Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes: The "Industrialist Manifesto" section in which Raico begins by stating the core issue in the class conflict theory as follows: "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of struggles between the plundering and the producing classes.

This is pretty much how Conger begins his introduction to Agorist Class Theory. In summarizing Konkin's five major theses of his theory of classes, the very first thesis is that "the State is the means by which people live by plunder; the Market, in contradistinction, is the sum of human action of the productive." In the Foreword to this book, Brad Spangler elaborates on this theory of an oppressive class by specifically linking the ruling class to the coercive form of plundering known as taxation:
The political class is the parasitic class that acquires its livelihood via the "political means"--through "confiscation, taxation, and other forms of coercion."  Their victims are the rest of us--the productive class--those who make their living through peaceful and honest means. (emphasis added)
Implicit in this argument is the assumption that taxes are not voluntary. If taxes were voluntary, then obviously calling the "political class" a "parasitic class" would make absolutely no sense. People would be freely giving the "political class" money in exchange for state-provided goods and services. Of course, no agorist believes that taxes are voluntary. On the contrary, taxes are viewed as a form of involuntary wealth and property transfers. With regard to the question of whether taxes are voluntary or not, one could simply ask, as Murray Rothbard does in his Ethics of Liberty, "what would happen if the government were to abolish taxation, and to confine itself to simple requests for voluntary contributions. Does anyone really believe that anything comparable to the current vast revenues of the State would continue to pour into its coffers?"

This explains why agorism calls for both tax avoidance and tax evasion. Involuntary taxation implies that one is being robbed; hence, a short agorist pamphlet on taxation is called simply Tax Is Theft! Agorists openly advocate for tax resistance. As the pamphlet Tax Is Theft says right near the beginning: "remember that there are 40,000,000 successful tax resisters in the U.S. alone, and around 100,000,000 tax avoiders and evaders; yes, nearly everyone." As another excellent example of the agorist position on taxation, see the pamphlet called War or Liberty: The Real Choice. In this pamphlet, a number of suggestions are given regarding what one should do. The first thing on the list is tax rebellion!
  • Tax Rebellion (not just "avoidance")
  • Draft Resistance
  • Smuggling (to circumvent the privileges producers get from trade protectionism)
  • Wage and Price Control Breaking 
  • Censorship Evasion
  • Networking with like-minded individuals
  • Propagating Revisionist History (such as my personal favorite, the works of Gabriel Kolko)

A similar tax avoidance and tax evasion type culture existed in Asia. James C. Scott repeatedly mentions that these people in Asia would move to Zomia in order to avoid the State for a variety of reasons, including taxation. "Subjects who were sorely tried by conscription, forced labor, and taxes would typically move away to the hills or to a neighboring kingdom rather than revolt" (Scott 2009, 33; emphasis added).

Scott mentions a specific example of a tax revolt, which was led by by a Buddhist rebel in the 18th century:
As a political location--outside the state but adjacent to it--the ethnicized barbarians represent a permanent example of defiance of central authority. Semiotically necessary to the cultural idea of civilization, the barbarians are also well nigh ineradicable [i.e., the barbarians are almost impossible to eradicate], owing to their defensive advantages in terrain, in dispersal, in segmentary social organization, and in their mobile, fugitive subsistence strategies. They remain an example--and thus an option, a temptation--of a form of social organization outside state-based hierarchy and taxes. One imagines that the eighteenth-century Buddhist rebel against the Qing in Yunnan understood the appeal of "barbarian-ness" when he exhorted people with the chant: "Api's followers need pay NO TAXES. They plow for themselves and eat their own produce." For officials of the nearby state, the barbarians represent a refuge for criminals and rebels, and an exit for tax-shy subjects. (Scott 2009, 125; emphasis added)
In fact, Scott goes on to point out how people would deliberately turn themselves in "barbarians." Some of the characteristics of these "barbarians-by-design" sound very similar to what a modern day agorist would support fully, including tax evasion:
"Self-barbarianization" could occur in any number of ways. Han populations wanting to trade, to evade taxes, flee the law, or seek new land were continually moving into barbarian zones. (Scott 2009, 126; emphasis added)

Jeff Riggenbach, in his The Art of Not Being Governed, mentions how the people in the anarchist area of Zomia practiced a method of production that was deliberately designed to make it really difficult for the state to take, i.e., to tax. "The residents of Zomia," writes Riggenbach, "typically practice was Scott calls 'escape agriculture: forms of cultivation designed to thwart state appropriation.'" 

In the final analysis, it is important to remember that the power to tax is the core foundation of all States. If you abolish the power to tax, you abolish the State.  This point is made explicitly by Michael Rozeff in his paper How the Power to Tax Destroys. He goes straight to the most fundamental point: no taxes, no ruling class. "Where the state is, there is the power to tax; for rulers cannot rule without taxation."

3. The Overblown History of the Importance of States

Scott also argues that, to quote Riggenbach's The Art of Not Being Governed, "the state's importance is usually exaggerated by historians." Such a claim is actually not surprising, especially coming from a revisionist historian such as Riggenbach. Remember, Riggenbach actually wrote a book entitled Why American History is Not What They Say, in which he argues that

Murray N. Rothbard, in his The Ethics of Liberty, explains why this alliance exists between the Court Intellectuals and the Ruling Classes:
For if the bulk of the public were really convinced of the illegitimacy of the State, if it were convinced that the State is nothing more nor less than a bandit gang writ large, then the State would soon collapse to take on no more status or breadth of existence than another Mafia gang. Hence the necessity of the State's employment of ideologists; and hence the necessity of the State's age-old alliance with the Court Intellectuals who weave the apologia for State rule. (Rothbard 2002, 169; emphasis added)

4. Avoiding and Ignoring Laws

5. Creating a Competing System

In a collection of lectures given in Argentina in 1958 at the University of Buenos Aires, Ludwig von Mises told his audience about the very early origins of the free market. These lectures were later printed as Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow. The basic story is that the "official system" was rigged in order to favor a small group at the expense of the masses. Unfortunately, the masses were starving to death because of this government-created system of privilege. Consequently, in order to survive--quite literally from death--the masses of people started up an economic system "outside of the official economy," an "underground economy."  I will now quote Mises at length because I think it is so important to highlight the fact that the free markets were born when the ordinary people defied the authorities and set up their own "underground" economy. First, Mises paints a picture of a very bleak environment for the masses of people:
As the rural population expanded, there developed a surplus of people on the land. For this surplus of population without inherited land or estates, there was not enough to do, nor was it possible for them to work in the processing industries; the kings of the cities denied them access. The numbers of these "outcasts" continued to grow, and still no one knew what to do with them. They were, in the full sense of the word, "proletarians," outcasts whom the government could only put into the workhouse or the poorhouse. (Mises 2006, 2; emphasis added)
These "proletarians" were, quite literally, facing death as a result of this situation. At this time, Mises notes, out of a population of roughly 7 million in England, 2 million or 29% of the population were "poor outcasts."Mises also notes that the government officials, in typical form, were totally clueless about what to do. "The statesment did not know what to do, and the ruling gentry were absolutely without any ideas on how to improve conditions" (3).  To save themselves from both their incompetent rulers and starvation, the poor turned to innovation for their salvation. Mises notes that
Out of this serious social situation emerged the beginnings of modern capitalism. There were some persons among those outcasts, among those poor people, who tried to organize others to set up small shops which could produce something. This as an innovation. These innovators did not produce expenseive goods suitable only for the upper classes; they produced cheaper products for everyone's needs. (3; emphasis added)
These innovators were definitely upsetting the existing order, which, of course, was designed to benefit the upper classes. The ruling classes reacted, not surprisingly, by running to the government to undermine these innovators. Mises notes that
the landed aristocracy again reacted against the new production system. In Germany the Prussian Junkers, having lost many workers to the higher-paying capitalistic industries, invented a special term for the problem: "flight from the country-side"--Landflucht. And in the German Parliament, they discussed what might be done against this evil, as it was seen from the point of view of the landed aristocracy. (8; italics in the original, bold emphasis added)
For me, the key point in Mises's discussion is that in order to break the existing rigged system, the masses of poor people have to innovate, i.e., they have to invent a new system of production that isn't rigged for the benefit of a small ruling class.

The agorist, the revolutionary market anachist, would label this as an example of Counter-Economics.  A definition of "counter-economics" is provided at Counter-Economics is "the study and/or practice of all peaceful human action which is forbidden by the State." And this is exactly what Mises was documenting. There was a large collection of people who were forbidden by the kings to engage in production, so these people ignored the existing system of production and set up a new one. We easily see that the "establishment" did not like what was happening because they ran to the parliament looking for a legislative way to shut these innovators down.

Notice the obvious parallels between Mises's history of the early rise of capitalism and the two-choices for modern day people presented by Konkin in his book An Agorist Primer. "You must abandon Economics to the regulators and the political 'businessmen' who play ball with them. You are left with the alternatives: stifle yourself and starve OR embrace Counter-Economics" (38; emphasis added).  In Mises's history we have the political "landed aristocracy" working through the government apparatus in order to keep the masses in their "starvation-like" existence. In Konkin's statement we have the political "businessman class" working through the government regulators in order to keep the masses in their "starvation-like" existence as well.

6. Abolishing Both the Military and Conscription

7. Geography and Statelessness

In the New Libertarian Manifesto, Samuel Edward Konkin III mentions the issue of geography. Specifically, he notes that some areas might still be under state control while other areas might turn toward full-blown agorism. Konkin's suggestions, as I will point out momentarily, sound very similar to what the anarchists in Southeast Asia implemented in Zomia. Konkin writes that "some easily defendable territories, perhaps in space or islands in the ocean (or under the ocean) or big-city 'ghettos' may be almost entirely agorist, where the state is impotent to crush them. But most agorists will live within statist-claimed areas." The Zomian anarchists, of course, also used geography as a way of living where the state is impotent to crush them.Scott documents many examples of how geography can be used effectively as a way of evading state control. What is very interesting about Scott's study is that he presents examples not only from the Southeast Asian Zomia anarchy but also from other geographic areas including the United States.

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