Just What Is the “Counter-Economy”, Anyway?

Sunni's picture

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about bartering; and it occurred to me the other day that I have been remiss in discussing it in a proper context. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do today.

Barter is one of a number of truly free-market exchange processes available to interested individuals. Some people use the term “counter-economy” for this, to more clearly separate it from the gov-monitored and -approved mainstream economy: the economy where licenses and permits are required, where one is increasingly prohibited from working from one’s home; where taxes and subsidies interfere with prices; where taxes are stolen at many steps in the process of creating, distributing, and selling goods and services; where, ultimately, it is impossible to separate the state from the economy, because the latter is conceived of as originating from the former—and thus rightfully must be taxed, supported, analyzed, adjusted, planned, bailed out, databased, monetized, mined, prioritized, specialized ... in short, thoroughly controlled. Seen in this context, though, it should be obvious that the terms are backwards. The market that is free of state interference is the real economy; the state’s version originated much later, and to the degree any statist version succeeds in thwarting, subverting, or eliminating free trade, it successfully counters the free market. Semantics isn’t my focus today, however; identifying and expanding all manner of non-coercive, minimally-taxed exchange is.

Somewhat similarly, barter has come to have a more specific meaning than it used to; and my current favorite online dictionary helpfully buttresses my suspicion. Barter has a French etymology; its root means simply “to do business, exchange”. Nowadays it means, according to this source, “to trade by exchanging one commodity for another” ... but isn’t money a commodity of sorts? Well, if it has intrinsic value, it would be; but what intrinsic value do certain patterns on pieces of special paper offer? Even for those of us who grok the meaning of “fiat”, there can be value in obtaining some of those pieces of paper in return for a good or service; doing so allows us to transact business with those who’re only comfortable in receiving that kind of payment, for starters.

All of the above is largely background to help elucidate why I cannot wrap my mind around statements such as this from FSK: “Right now, the agorist counter-economy is non-existent.” Even allowing for definitional differences, such a statement is mind-boggling. Aren’t the simple acts of neighbors lending each other tools and/or helping out with big jobs counter-economic? Aren’t Craigslist, Freecycle, and similar hubs counter-economic? I’d even say that garage sales, and to a lesser extent, auctions are counter-economic. Auctions have been somewhat regulated for a long time now, and more than a few locations are starting to apply that mentality to garage sales as well.

I hope that those of you who’ve expressed uncertainty about your ability to barter are now busily reorganizing your mental landscapes regarding what you might offer in a free trading environment. Surely some of these ideas have sparked your imagination! But, in an attempt to be thorough, let’s think a little about some fairly safe barter bets.

What “fairly safe” means depends in part upon one’s outlook—if one expects a collapse of the USSA mainstream economy and is thus survival-oriented, a lot more things can come into play. As was mentioned in an earlier conversation, ammunition and firearms would likely be highly tradable items in such a scenario. Similarly, other things that meet basic needs would be desirable: fuel; batteries and/or generators; seasoned firewood; cast iron or other durable cookware; water filters and/or chemical purifiers; health-oriented supplies, including toothbrushes, thermometers, bandages, tourniquets, antibiotics, and much more; books—both as stores of knowledge and for escapism; and of course the tools required to do all these things and many more—knives, chainsaws, axes, grain mills, glass bottles for storage, etc. It should go without saying that if you’re planning on using these kinds of items for barter, you should have one set of supplies for your own, personal use, and another store for trading purposes—and of course that runs into storage considerations for many of us.

Or, one might gamble a bit more and count on using some of his personal stores to trade to get things he can’t easily store or acquire himself. A basic foodstuff such as rice or flour can be laid in more heavily, with the idea of trading some of that stock for venison, perhaps, or help cutting and splitting wood. Basic foodstuffs with a long shelf life are good to keep on hand anyway. Perhaps even more valuable could be little luxuries: coffee, cigarettes, alcohol. Green coffee beans can be quite long-lived if stored properly; tobacco might be a plant that one could cultivate in one’s area; hoarding booze or learning how to brew beer and wine, or to distill spirits are likely to pay off. Computer and comm equipment will be essential items too, but the ongoing development in those areas makes recommending stockpiles a little more difficult for this insufficiently-geeky snake.

If one doesn’t have the money to stockpile good candidate items, consider stockpiling an even more valuable commodity: information, or skill. Having books that instruct one on basic skills, such as tracking and foraging, or technical skills, such as low-tech solar or hydroelectric power are good possibilities. Having those skills, or any of a number of others that could be useful, would be even better. Maybe your current job or profession wouldn't convert into a barterable commodity; what about a hobby or avocation? Minstrels used to earn their keep by wandering and performing music, plays, or reciting epic poems; story-tellers and other performance artists are still valued in some areas of this country ... if the TV goes dark people will want other kinds of entertainment. Spinning thread or yarn, weaving fabric, knitting, sewing, candle-making, glass-blowing, butchery, rendering, soap-making, perfumery, first aid, paper-making, welding, forging, carpentry, lathe-turning ... start with a kit if you need to, but learn how to do something with one and work up to doing it from scratch so that you know some resources if they’re necessary, and you can build a stock of the necessary ingredients and tools to support yourself should the crash come. Go to local estate sales and garage sales to stock up on old-tech tools that may just need a bit of cleaning or repair to be serviceable again. You may need to fall back to them yourself, or you could become the tool library when everyone else's cheaply-made, electrically-dependent modern stuff stops working ...

Even if things don’t get that bad, many of these ideas can serve as useful seeds for a sidestream of income today. The entire “buy local” movement is opening up niches for all sorts of artisans. It could begin as simply as selling some extra eggs from your chickens or produce from the family garden. Harder economic times means that more people will be looking for ways to stretch their money; if you can assist them at this you will do well yourself. If you live in a town, a produce stand might not be feasible; but maybe you can trade some tomatoes (or homemade ketchup) with co-workers, neighbors, or fellow churchgoers for some of their goods and services.

In other words, identify useful things, tools, or skills that you have or can develop in your current situation. Identify and become involved in existing free flows of information, goods, and services. I dare say that each person who’s visited this site has at least two possibility-scapes before him; and moreover, that each has been more involved in counter-economic activities than he may have previously recognized. It may take a little more attention, time, and effort to develop these possibilities than continuing in one’s current patterns; but the benefits of modifying one’s habits to accommodate these new things will likely be obvious with just a small investment into them.

Those benefits include a bonus that galacticmonk touched on earlier: this way of transacting things goes way beyond balancing books; it re-humanizes much of the essential elements of daily life. The pleasure I get from making food for people vastly exceeds the material things I receive for it; and I think my customers like sharing with me their feedback and comparisons between orders of caramels or truffles. I don’t think that kind of exchange is possible when one buys food from even the best middleman (read “grocery store”, such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s) rather than the maker. That kind of direct exchange is what re-establishes the “flow of life through a community”, as the monk put it. That is just as true for online exchanges as it is realspace ones.


Sunni, I don't have one thing to add. What you have penned is so concise, so beautiful, there is nothing I can add that would enhance your points.

Those benefits include a bonus that galacticmonk touched on earlier: this way of transacting things goes way beyond balancing books; it re-humanizes much of the essential elements of daily life. Thank you to galacticmonk and you for this most appropriate and poignant reminder.


I’m glad my ramble resonated with you ... but I really do think galacticmonk deserves the bulk of the thanks: it was his comment that primarily set me to thinking more deeply about these kinds of exchanges.

(Concise? The above was concise?? Well, maybe for me, it was ... but the label amuses me all the same.)

The Counter Economy

The terms "counter-economics" and "counter-economy" were coined back in the 1970s by the late Samuel Edward Konkin III, the founder of the strain of market anarchism known as Agorism. Sam based his coinage on the already widely used term "counter-culture" and conceived it similarly: as the counter-culture sprang up spontaneously to replace the mainstream culture, so the counter-economy springs up spontaneously to replace the State-dominated mainstream economy.

You're quite right, of course, that the counter-economy is thriving all around us. FSK doesn't exhibit a very firm grasp of Agorist principles, as is evidenced by his preposterous claim that "the three main evils of the State . . . are income taxes, the Federal Reserve, and government regulation of almost all industries." Sam would have had a healthy horse laugh at that. He knew that the main evil of the State is murder and that the most important issue before us today is therefore war, not taxes, monetary policy, or regulation of business.

Perhaps FSK's shaky grasp of Agorism explains his inability to see what, to the rest of us, is as plain as the nose on your face?

Thanks for the history lesson!

Being alive during the 70s, perhaps I should have seen the context you presented for us myself, Jeff; but I obviously didn’t. Thank you for taking the time to contribute here.

Given the rest of your comments, I’m not so sure I have a firm foundation in agorism ... therefore I’m reluctant to comment on your assertions and speculations regarding another’s understanding. I’m planning to correct my ignorance soon, however.

Main Evils

A tad off topic, but since "main evils of" is part of the thread, I can't help but throwing this out for your enjoyment pleasure: The local news show mentioned that the city council was debating whether or not to renew the hospitality tax. I literally burst out loud with laughter at the concept of "hospitality" and "tax" in the same phrase. "NewSpeak" has most assuredly arrived!

- NonE

We're thinking along the same lines

We're definitely thinking the same thing. As such I want you as my neighbor.

From my blog:
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