"How to Start Doing Agorism"

Cross-posted from a comment at George Donnelly's blog:

Agorism may sound complicated, but it’s just extra-governmental trade. Anyone can do it.

I was in South Africa in the '90s when the National Party (who had run the apartheid political machine) and the ANC were negotiating the future rule of the country. The two parties were highly antagonistic to each other, yet each had lost the backing of their cold-war benefactors (US support exclusively for the Nats crumbled with the sanctions program and the Soviet Union had simply evaporated) who could have helped one dominate the other. Each party attacked the other's bad ideas: the Nats wouldn't allow the ANC to nationalize the mines, the ANC wouldn't allow the Nats to continue the agricultural control boards. The Zulus, the DP, and dozens of other parties were doing whatever they could to avoid domination by the two major parties. More than gridlock, this was actually shrinking the political pie. As a result, the country was on the brink of complete freedom. Laws were deleted from the statute books, entire government departments closed, and people ignored what unpopular laws were left in the expectation that they would soon be overturned. Finally, the negotiators realized they better start agreeing or they would lose everything. The future was with the ANC--individual Nats either left government or finally merged with their "archenemies" to stay in the power game. It took the ANC the better part of a decade to reimpose the restrictions on the country; to make sure no matter what you wanted to do with your life, first the government had to get its cut.

But in that period of crippled government, the country bloomed like a desert when the drought finally ends. Office buildings turned their underground parking lots over to managers to rent out as flea markets on the weekend. Traders could rent two parking bays for the weekend (though competition was fierce for spots and most were tied up with long-term commitments). Sometimes a food court would be built in a cul-de-sac. Traders would chat during the day--which markets were doing well these days? Have you got an "in" there? Can my brother share your cousin's stand until we get our own?

I was doing contract work (mostly scientific data analysis for mining houses), and my wife was running a goat dairy. Milk is highly perishable, and your animals' production varies wildly from a maximum after newborn kids are weaned to nothing in the last few months of pregnancy; the name of the game is to figure out how to deliver a steady supply of products. We sold pasteurized, frozen milk to regular shops and made cheese during the peak times. We had big wheels of Gouda that needed to be matured for anywhere between six months and two years, we had soft cheeses that could be sold within a month, and we had a processed cheese made from the wheels that cracked open or otherwise didn't pass our QC test (taking a plug from the side and tasting it) at the end of a six month production process.

We wanted to know what customers like, so we would pack up everything for our stand: cheeses and some frozen milk (using a broken chest freezer as a big cooler), the cheeses of other suppliers (some ran their own stalls at different markets, some were busy enough with just cheese-making), tables and shelves built to fit in our two parking spaces, table cloths, packaging, scales, and cleaning supplies. We'd tie it all on the back of a pick-up truck, and try to be early in line when the market opened for traders at 06:30. If you were early, you could drive in and unload in 15 minutes; the later it got, the more difficult it was to drive out around the other stands; if you didn't get in well before 08:00 when the market opened to customers, you had to hump in all your gear on your back. Then, the music would start being piped in, signaling that opening time had arrived.

I loved the buzz of the marketplace! Indian traders with spices, Boere with biltong, undocumented black immigrant peddlers with blankets, east-ender type English with pirate CDs, Pakistanis with carpets, car parts, books, clothing, art work, fish, balloons, candy, jugglers, musicians, puppet shows--the place was all color and sound and smells and desire swirling together. It was the glorious integration of hundreds of individual wishes being negotiated and satisfied. As a trader, you had to learn to manage your focus. At once, you had to keep an awareness of everything around you, and make personal eye contact with your customer. You had to keep the line moving or people would leave, yet you had to make enough time to swap pleasantries and stories with whoever was trading with you, for you were selling the market experience as much as your product. You had to invite opportunities and yet protect your goods against thieves and cheats.

The best times were when the whole family worked the same market together. Our two sons were probably between six and ten during this period, and my wife and I would coach them in how to serve customers and run the till. It was amazing to see our eight year old offer up samples for tasting, then slice a piece of cheese that came to within 5g of the price the customer wanted, wrap it, ring it up, and bid the customer well on their way. As they became comfortable with the routine, my wife and I would excuse ourselves to go to the food court for a schwarma, or satay, or boerewors. We wouldn't tell the boys that one of us had our eyes glued to them while the other bought food; that the topic of discussion while we ate together rarely strayed from pointing out to each other the skills they had developed. The boys would get paid as soon as the morning rush was over so they could go buy treats and toys from the other stands.

I can remember only two interactions with government people during this time. One was 40-ish Xhosa woman in expensive western business dress and speaking in a condescending tone that confirmed she was from some child welfare bureau. She asked lots of pointed questions to our eight-year-old about how many hours he was working, and gave him a card with a help-line number before she left. My son gave me a puzzled glance--I explained to him that if he was unhappy working on the stand, she could use the police to remove him from us and put him in the care of an institution or another family. He rolled his eyes and threw away the card. The other government worker was a 20-ish white girl from the health department, new enough in her job to take things seriously. She gave me a lecture about how we needed running water on the stand in order to keep selling cheese. She didn't seem to be worried that this would be impossible in the middle of an underground parking lot. It was a slow day, and she was kind of cute, so I kept asking her help for how we could bring things up to her standards. I think we got 20 minutes into designing a portable water storage tank above the stand with a gas heater before she got creeped out by the middle-aged married guy having such an interest in her. Never saw her again.

This system worked in layers of government legitimacy. There were those, like the building owners, with assets that couldn't be easily hidden and were easy pickings for tax collectors. Then, there were the market managers, who had offices in the buildings, but made private contracts with traders. They would have to show some income on the building owners' books to justify their position, but it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to track their transactions.

Finally, there were the traders. They were doing business in cash and turning over a handful of bills to the market manager. They could disappear at the end of the day, if they wished, leaving nothing behind but a pay-as-you-go cell phone number on the manager's application form.

The market exists everywhere there are two people who can satisfy each other's needs. A free market exists anywhere they can do so without interference.

Share this

Modern day survivalism is a

Modern day survivalism is a good example of how to get your start. I wish it was as easy as holing up with my guns, but it is far from that.

Learn trade skills that require a minimum technological investment: blacksmitihing, cheesemaking (nice story...), wine crafting, brewing, bread making, etc. Then turn this around and trade with your neighbors for other goods/services. You can inform them simply by making a gift of your goods and introducing yourself. The benefit will be seen later, after the initial investment to get them hooked, because a good business person "gets them on the come back". Barter your skills and deal in inflation proof trade goods, how many can you name?

Grow a garden, give some of it away as charity to your neighbors or church, or Food NOT Bombs. Convince your neighbors to help you out, and pay them in fresh food they pick themselves!

You build community, while saving money and learning skills that will serve you well regardless of what life brings you.

Brilliant and fascinating

Brilliant and fascinating story there Mark, thanks for sharing!