Free & Fair, Part IV – Counter Economics
"Which government is the best? That which teaches us to govern ourselves." – Goethe
"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any." – Alice Walker
"The government of an exclusive company of merchants is, perhaps, the worst of all governments for any country whatsoever." – Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations
Ages ago, when I was in college, it dawned on me that having a counter-culture was not enough. There was a thriving counter-culture in the Sixties, but over time, it became commodified and largely trivialized. The underlying structures of the economy can not only resist the strongest attacks, it can turn them to its advantage. The way to change the world is not to drop out, but to actively build a working alternative. To really make a difference, we need a counter-economy.
It was with a mix of chagrin and vindication that I discovered years later that Samuel Edward Konkin III had coined the term well before I did. He used the term somewhat differently than I did, however — he meant things that were expressly illegal, or at least under the table in the "cash economy." This might mean prostitution, guns, and drugs, but it also might mean lawn-mowers, baby-sitters, a whole spectrum of day laborers, and pretty much any economic exchange that doesn’t leave a paper trail: bartering, gifts/donations, freecycling, volunteerism, and on and on. It might sound a little questionable, but stop and think about the things that make the formal economy run: strip-mining, clear-cutting, union-busting, petroleum, genetic engineering, fast food, hostile corporate takeovers, strip malls — and above all, war. The longer you look at the orthodox economy, the better the grey and black markets look.
I produced a magazine on fair trade for exactly one year whose tag line was "The Fair Trade Journal of Applied Counter-Economics." I defined counter-economics simply as "money at the service of people, instead of the other way around." Even after learning of Konkin, I used this definition interchangeably with my criteria for fair trade: empowering workers, empowering consumers, safeguarding the environment, and buying and selling locally to the extent possible. Brad Spangler, one of a handful to pick up the torch of the libertarian left after SEK III passed on in 2004, was kind enough to describe my definition as "a separate but arguably compatible sense" of the term.
The philosophy that is most closely associated with Konkin’s use of "counter-economics" is called agorism, also known as market anarchism, or as Kevin Carson puts it, free-market anti-capitalism. I can’t call myself a full-fledged anarchist, because I haven’t completely renounced electoral politics (only the corporate-sponsored parties — you know who you are!), but in the long run, what I call myself is not as important as what I do, and what I do is promote fair trade. Fair trade is neither the black nor grey market, because it is legal. However, by definition, it challenges the dominant assumptions and structures of neoliberal economics. Even now, I’m seeing an upswing in articles all over the web challenging the validity and effectiveness of fair trade. If it continues to grow, corporations will continue trying to buy it out, and if they cannot, they will petition the government to outlaw it. Not directly, of course — it wouldn’t be seemly to pass a law against paying workers well. Rather, you’ll see laws that chip away at any market advantages that fair trade brings. For example, corporations might ask the state to limit the ways fair trade can be labeled, which would keep buyers ignorant and undermine price signals. Or, they might ask for "standards" on all businesses in a given sector — standards that only multinationals have the resources to meet. This isn’t idle speculation… it’s already happened to organics.
The agorists are right to lump the state in with the executives of trickle-up economics. Far from the enemy of big business, government is all but indistiguishable from it. As Marx rightly said, "the state is the executive committee of the ruling class." Likewise, when Adam Smith called for laissez faire — keeping the government out of the market — he wasn’t trying to defend business. He was trying to protect the consumer against collusion between the state and the wealthy. If one free person can negotiate in good faith with another free person, and not close the deal until both are happy with the terms, then the classical idea of a self-regulating market will come true. But the very purpose of the modern corporation, and the state that serves its interests, is to unbalance the equation, and strip away power from both the worker and the consumer. This is the corporate conception of a "free market," which is neither free nor fair.
I have become convinced that power, freedom, and dignity are all names for the same thing, and the surest sign you have it is that you respect it, reinforce it, and reward it in others. This is what fair trade is all about. When we buy corporate products, it accepts the power imbalance, and treats it as fair, because of our very willingness to participate on the corporation’s terms. When we buy fair trade, we reinforce our neighbors and peers, and circulate power within the community.