‘Just Say No’ to the invisible hand of the free market

George Smith takes us inside the world of dark-web harm reduction...

by George Smith

In the uphill battle to dissuade people from using illegal drugs, one argument has long propagated the link between purchasing drugs and the funding of terrorism, pairing the use of cannabis, cocaine, and heroin with the support of dangerous, fundamentalist ideology.

Drug use (or, more accurately, the prohibition of drug use) has indeed funnelled money into the pockets of UN designated terrorist groups, particularly those which control trade routes in the Middle East and South and Central America.

But unlike fundamentalist Islamic ideologies associated with the heroin supply in the Middle East or the various Marxist, Leninist, Maoist ideologies associated with cocaine guerrilla rebels, the moral panic is nowhere to be seen when it comes to the anarcho-capitalist ideology of darknet marketplaces (DNMs).

DNMs have, in the last decade, marked a new frontier in the fight against prohibition. Combining, for the first time, e-commerce and illegal drugs. DNMs such as the once-infamous Silk Road or the more recent AlphaBay Market are online marketplaces like Amazon or eBay but are invisible on the regular ‘clearnet’. Accessible only through encrypted technology, DNMs provide users the ability to stay anonymous while trading in plain sight.

The DNM ecosystem also consists of forums and messaging boards which orbit the marketplace, enabling the formation of a community of users as well as providing a mechanics of harm reduction in the form of customer reviews, support and advice, publishing of verified lab test results, mass adulterant warnings, and other forms of quality-control and safeguarding.

But since their inception, the darknet forums have also cultivated a strong community with an anarchist-libertarian temperament. One hacker I spoke to told me:

There was a lot of anarchist and libertarian chatter on the early Bitcoin forums, and man oh man there was a LOT of it in the Silk Road forums. And everybody there felt like this was a *revolution*. The fact that the site was able to exist meant that the libertarian dream of opting out was finally possible. People could conduct their business out of the reach of the evil that is “The State” (cue villainous music).”

The hackers involved in establishing these markets promote the fringe political philosophy of Agorism – a branch of libertarianism conceived in 1970s California by a man named Samuel Edward Konkin III. He writes,

“The goal of Agorism is the Agora. The society of the open marketplace as near to untainted by theft, assault, and fraud as can be humanly attained is as close to a free society as can be achieved. And a free society is the only one in which every one of us can satisfy his or her subjective values without crushing others’ values by violence and coercion”

Agorism believes the way to achieve this lies in the laws of the free market, specifically by practicing counter-economics – a form of resistance with roots in the anarchist practice of direct action. As a way of overthrowing the State using free market logic to strengthen underground economies, counter-economics has been almost impossible to practice in the ‘real world’ because of the threat of police intervention. However, the dream of ‘opting-out’ became possible for the first time following recent technological innovations. This new suite of tools – Tor (an anonymous browser which hides users IP address), PGP (an encryption tool to hide sensitive information such as names and addresses), and Bitcoin (a decentralised, untraceable cryptocurrency) – enabled the creation of Silk Road, the first DNM launched in 2011.

The website was created by Ross Ulbricht, a then-27-year-old University of Texas graduate and online book seller. His LinkedIn page detailed his plans:

I want to use economic theory to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”

But prior to Ulbricht’s arrest in 2013 the world knew him by his pseudonym, Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR). He took the alias from William Goldman’s 1977 fantasy novel, The Princess Bride wherein the identity of the pirate is assumed by several different characters. Ulbricht’s pseudonym was a message to law enforcement that if caught, others will continue his mission; a prophesy which came to fruition when Silk Road 2.0 was set up following Ulbricht’s arrest, led by a new DPR. 

At first a mysterious figure in the community, DPR soon became known through his publicised interviews as a scholar and activist, well-versed in libertarian economics. Out of his enigmatic persona emerged a visionary who had thought about the implications of such an experiment on a macro-political scale. In a message to the Silk Road users he wrote,

“The great thing about Agorism is that it is a victory from a thousand battles. Every single transaction that takes place outside the nexus of state control is a victory for those individuals taking part in the transaction. So there are thousands of victories here each week and each one makes a difference, strengthens the agora, and weakens the state”

Accordingly, those who frequent these marketplaces sign their name on this new libertarian manifesto, irrespective of whether they’re even aware of it. All users, vendors, admins, mods are political actors in this “brave new world”. Deciphering who is, and who isn’t an Agorist is arbitrary in this space, as the movement itself encourages free market self-interest. Its view of humanity is that of homo economicus. Konkin himself echoed this sentiment, 

“People practicing counter-economics need not be aware of what they are doing or the full implications of their acts; in fact, throughout history, most have not been”

Why, then, has this newly influential ideology which wants to overthrow the State by creating a sophisticated illegal drug market, not been the subject of government or media moral panic?

Perhaps its omission in the just-say-no narrative is because, unlike the aforementioned ideologies, anarcho-capitalism is too close to home to meet the criteria of a foreign public enemy. In fact, not only does it have its roots in Western political traditions, it is actually the epitome of our current political economy taken to its furthest logical conclusion. It is Adam Smith gone cyber, the invisible hand dictating an arrow of technological progress. As such, if you criticise this hacker ethic, you criticise the very policy of deregulation which allows the darknet to thrive under prohibition. 

Irrespective of the established narrative of “getting tough on drugs” or the mythical “controlled substance”, drugs are as of yet completely unregulated. Paired with a society with a clicker-happy sense of consumer entitlement and a proclivity for free market governmentality, our economy is ripe territory for new emergent markets which sophisticatedly exploit the demand for a commodity. Which is why the DNM’s libertarian anarchy seems less like a public enemy and more like an elaborate participatory performance art piece which, in attempting to satirise the impotence of the American dream in the postmodern digital world, accidentally created a more efficient and democratic reality. Imagine the headlines…

‘American dream turns to American NIGHTMARE as capitalism gets HACKED’

‘Drug dealers say they will stop at NOTHING to realise the visions of free market economics’

If we want to take seriously the quasi-legalisation of drugs on the internet, it’s time to have a frank discussion about regulation. Whether they admit it or not, our government’s current policy is laissez faire, fostering an underground economy of limitless access to drugs. But this is paired with a criminal justice approach which disproportionately targets poor and ethnic minority communities and leaves those who need harm reduction support in the shadows.

When recently asked about Portugal’s successes, our government’s Policing Minister, Kit Malthouse said “By legalising them or whatever, we think consumption would rise”. This scandalous lack of awareness of the statistics echoes the archaic concern that reform would “send the wrong message”, once again abdicating the burden of responsibility onto the individual consumer.

This is not social justice, but social Darwinism – assuming a level playing field where the strongest (read richest and whitest) win. If we are to play this game, we must also consider the symbiotic effect this has on the evolution of the illicit market. Like a beautiful and dangerous flower, the market for illegal drugs is resilient and will adapt intelligently to its environment – of which the recent acceleration of the darknet is a demonstratively successful mutation. 

Just last month, AlphaBay Market celebrated the 1-year anniversary since its relaunch after its shutdown in 2017 following a highly publicised international sting which led to the mysterious death of its founder, Alexandre Cazes. Now stronger than ever, with new innovative operational security and a radical harm reduction program, AlphaBay shows no sign of defeat. As former undercover police officer, Neil Woods said at a recent lobby of parliament, “prohibition sharpens the sword of organised crime”. 

Like our cherished ideal of competitive capitalism, if our current drug policy is a game of survival of the fittest, I know where I’d put my money.

If the government are serious about “getting tough on drugs” I suggest they put their money where their mouth is and ‘Just Say No’ to the invisible hand of the free market.

This piece was written by George Smith(BA SOAS, MA Bristol). Tweets:@GESmithResearch. George is an anthropologist, his ethnographic research among British “new age” travellers was published in the SOAS Research Journal, and his research on darknet marketplaces was presented at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference. His latest project ‘Whose Republic?’ explores the creative expression of spatial politics in a gentrified area of Bristol, which will be presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute’s annual conference next year. 

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept

Privacy & Cookies Policy