Pragmatic Libertarianism, Autonomous War Machines and International Relations: Part IV

Pragmatic Libertarianism and Pessimistic Agorism

“Transitions from one system of social organization to another, in the real world, are piecemeal and partial, with a considerable variety of subjective visions and motives among those involved. So Murray Rothbard’s vision of a stable majority of an entire society converted to the nonaggression principle, operating according to essentially the same libertarian law code, and with some set of model libertarian institutions, is probably as close to the literal meaning of ‘utopia’—nowhere—as we could imagine”[1].

As Carson states, and as I noted in the first part, Rothbard’s schema for a libertarian society doesn’t interact with real-world context. It is within the context of actually-existing international relations that we must find the infoldings and delineations of a commercial sovereignty, one that limits the coercive potential of governmental structures and expands the connections of free exchange across national borders. However, a commercial sovereignty must also guard itself against the homogenising tendencies of an integrative international order. The paradoxical developments of American unipolarity as both liberal and imperial shows that commercial sovereignty and its expansion cannot be reliant upon a nominally-liberal international order, particularly one that limits the potentials of voice and exit from such an order.

In beginning to construct “piecemeal and partial” transitions, libertarianism should then oppose the homogenising effects of the liberal order, instead exploiting mechanisms that transgress it and allow for the redevelopment of exit as a viable option for individuals and sub-sovereign groups. The emergence of this transversal security field containing not just sovereign states but multiple sub-sovereign and quasi-sovereign actors (including terrorist organisations, platform systems and city/regional networks) developing into integrated communities of practice suggests a practical libertarian engagement as a way forward, developing new governance logics inside established sovereign and international institutions and through the creation of alternative governing orders. Emerging fields in trade and financial technologies, international regulatory organisations and private military engagement show mechanisms for such libertarian engagement/infiltration.

One strategy for libertarian engagement is ethnogenesis. Defined as “the formation of a new ethnic group”, it served as a useful strategy in stateless arenas for “self-governance”, allowing potential gains from trade between Europeans and natives to be exploited in the American colonies[2]. However ethnogenesis can be seen as a wider strategy of bridging capital that can be used to fuse together new sovereign orders and disrupt/alter existing processes of statification. Such bridging capital was used in developing trade networks between colonists and natives, using mixed-ethnic groups as middlemen to facilitate and maintain trade and cultural links. As an alternative to the totalisation that sovereignty attempts to portend, ethnogenesis presents a more voluntaristic means of developing coherent governance structures that neither produce the homogenisation of a second anarchy nor the chaos of a first anarchy (as in Deudney’s theory). Such middlemen can be coded onto existing sovereign structures or can be autonomous from them, creating viable means for the extension of a voice for commercial sovereignty in centralised governance structures while also producing a means to exit through cultural and linguistic differentiation.

Such methods are comparable to Konkin’s agorism and specifically his theory of counter-economics. Similar to violence entrepreneurism or Nordstrom’s description of criminal networks, agorism posits the development of counter-economic institutions that shadow their centralised/statist counterparts, developing their own internal logics and furthering their own autonomy. “Pockets of statism, mostly contiguous in territory, since the State requires regional monopolies, would first appear. The remaining victims are becoming more and more aware of the wonderful free world around them and ‘evaporating’ from these pockets. Large syndicates of market protection agencies are containing the State by defending those who have signed up for protection- insurance”[3]. In a similar manner to ethnogenesis, independent groups form that are both external to the state (as through protection agencies) but that also engage with it.

This takes libertarian IR theory beyond panarchy. While explicit social contracts and extra-territoriality may be an end goal for some elements of libertarian IR, we must not forget what Carson noted regarding the “subjective visions” that inform any transition away from the established order of things. As I previously noted, the existence of commerce and war as autonomous forces make them pre-ethical i.e. they are not naturally congruent with a world of free trade, just war and peaceful relations. Instead such things are socially constructed and require constant adaptation and innovation to their surrounding contexts. While Gibson sees the “Nakamoto consensus” of cryptocurrencies and smart contracts[4] as an emerging anti-state logic, such things are just as easily encoded within the apparatuses of states or other coercive governments.

Instead, systems of bridging capital and variable exit should be constructed to best attain exit options in the given context. In world of sovereign leakage, there are exploitable mechanisms that allow for different levels of autonomy. The growing criminal networks allow for greater black market activity that can undermine state’s regulatory apparatuses and tax structures. Stigmergic social movements show ways of both challenging the state’s legitimacy directly while also developing alternative governance at a micro level. The transversality of international governance that blurs the distinctions of public and private allow greater individual or sub-sovereign engagement with international structures, as in the European Union’s system of committees or the growth of quangos as regulatory structures independent of government (as in the EU Water Framework Directive that emplaced a stakeholder-based mechanism of governance surrounding the sustainable use of water for consumption purposes, integrating consumer groups and affected persons).

Panarchy’s offer of a way to work around sovereignty and its related totalities rings as hollow as Rothbard’s non-aggression principle. “Panarchy offers a political mechanism for the selection of best states that is absent from all other normative political theories”[5]. However selecting the best states remains normative, and Tucker’s monolithic conception of states goes back to the problem I identified in the first part. States are a conflagration of transactions that develop into assemblages composed of many parts, some contradictory. Any such assemblage remains fragile. One can certainly select transactions, but these will remain relative to the choices of others and the inequalities that exist in being able to make certain choices.

A similar issue of definition clouds Christensen’s Philadelphian interstate order, as this too relies on a totalising definition of sovereignty with a specific end-goal in place. As the American experiment in federalism has shown, a federal structure with balance of powers and decentralisation is no guarantee of liberty. “The compound republic of the United States, and especially its sovereignty-subsuming Madisonian Senate, has largely prevented both decentralized despotism and the concentration of power in one branch of government for centuries”[6]. How this statement squares with the expansive powers of the New Deal, or the growth of the military-industrial complex remains questionable, as vast quasi-autonomous bureaucracies within the American governmental structure have grown that wield vast and far-reaching powers to define legislation and create regulatory functions. The capacity for a federal order to adequately limit this and make it transparent appear limited.

A middle-ground between leaving sovereignty (as in panarchy) and directly confronting it (interstate federalism) maintains a more coherent path forward for libertarian IR and commercial sovereignty. As the technological context changes drastically with the rise of the internet and the ubiquity of uncontrollable flows of information and communication, the traditional bounds of sovereignty will be altered substantially, splintering off into various ecologies of governance that range from international regulatory regimes (like ICANN) to nationalised structures (like the Great Chinese Firewall). Such alterations present new means for libertarian engagement that go beyond the attempted totalisations of the Nakamoto consensus or interstate federalism, instead entering and exploiting the bottlenecks of these ecologies of governance, attempting to limit homogenisation and maintaining the means for exit. The bridging strategies of ethnogenesis and the variable exit mechanisms of agorism present viable methods for, if not full exit and unconstrained freedom (which are as utopian as theories of world government), then the positioning of liberty as a key ideological goal that can direct and structure the autonomous forces of commerce and the war machine.

This is a pragmatic libertarianism that engages with the various delineations of state sovereignty, recognising the contingent nature of commercial relations without falling into utopic dreams of a libertarian society run along abstract principles of non-aggression or self-ownership. War, as produced through rational and irrational reasons, is an ever-present feature of any international order (or disorder). Pragmatic libertarianism seeks to eke out what liberty it can, innovating on the frontiers of governance or unbundling the state through “parallel governance (that) promotes parallel experimentation and learning about citizen preferences”[7]. More specifically we can think of it as pessimistic agorism that attempts to traverse the increasingly chaotic world order where “concepts like order and national interest are being displaced by subterranean violence entrepreneurs that populate transversal battlefields, security corridors, and border zones”[8]. Pessimism does not mean giving up though, but developing methods and means for liberty within the available pockets of space. Context is key.

Pragmatic libertarianism then also takes us beyond Cowen’s state capacity libertarianism[9], as Cowen like others commits the statist fallacy of seeing states as monolithic entities that can grow or shrink, but always remain. State capacity becomes practically redundant, as the mechanisms of governance go beyond the bounds of state sovereignty and into the very transactions that both undergird and undermine said sovereignty. As Williamson has noted, the very issue of state capacity is entirely reliant on the existence of functioning private institutions and informal rules in the first place[10]. Strong states with weak institutions do not produce the commercial order that Cowen describes. This then goes back to the importance of pragmatism in extending liberty, as neither the formal/informal nor private/public dichotomies that have traditionally defined libertarian theory are coherent, as both sides of the dichotomy are interconnected with the other. The autonomous forces of intercourse (warfare, commerce, information, etc.) are encodable by various types and means of sovereignty, as these forces are then altered by the context and geographies of such sovereignties. There is no developmentalist endpoint or end of history. Instead there are the forces of constant negotiation and conflict.

In taking the contextual-materialist argument of Deudney and relating it to libertarian political theory, the contingent nature of commercial relations emerges as a constraint on the development of such relations in a world of sovereignty. If sovereignty relates to totality (surrounding the procurement or production of security), then libertarian imperatives both challenge this totalisation and demonstrate a shadow sovereignty of alternate governance mechanisms relating to greater unrestricted commerce and greater transversal connectivity.


[1] Kevin Carson, The Desktop Regulatory State

[2] Vincent Geloso & Louis Rouanet, Ethnogenesis and Statelessness

[3] Samuel Edward Konkin III, New Libertarian Manifesto

[4] Michael Gibson, The Nakamoto Consensus

[5] Aviezer Tucker, The Best States

[6] Brandon Christensen, Reviving the Libertarian Interstate Federalist Tradition: The American Proposal

[7] Trent J. MacDonald, The Unbundled State

[8] Jairus Victor Grove, Savage Ecology

[9] https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/01/what-libertarianism-has-become-and-will-become-state-capacity-libertarianism.html

[10] Claudia R. Williamson, Informal Institutions Rule: Institutional Arrangements and Economic Performance

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