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?