The founder of Silk Road – the deep-web drug marketplace – thought of his creation first and foremost as a political experiment. One that would prove the principles of libertarian, Austrian economics in practice and inspire similar initiatives in other areas beyond drug trade.
While the drug empire was a tremendous success, the revolution Ross Ulbricht had envisioned collapsed on itself like many revolutions before it. Why?
Silk Road’s Ideological Foundation
“Silk Road is more than a business, it’s a revolution” claimed Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR for short) – as Ross Ulbricht was known to users on the site. Despite an estimated $22 million in sales generated yearly at its apogee.
The revolution he spoke of was about more than simply contesting the perceived unfairness of the so-called “War on Drugs”. It was a project to free humanity from the bounds of government.
More than a business
Given the success of the site, DPR often had to defend his motives. He did so by relying on a libertarian defense of the black market which stipulates that all of the transactions that occur outside the realm of the state undermine it by generating wealth that the government would otherwise have confiscated in the form of taxes.
He also attributed these transactions a broader role than just a way to avoid lining the states pockets. In his argument, these transactions also foster consciousness of the existence of life free of government interventionism. This awareness in turn creates a more active form of black marketers, actively seeking peer-to-peer transactions over other forms of commerce.
A practical experiment
Building on the Austrian school of agorist economics (of which Mises, Rothbard and especially Konkin) DPR conceived of his creation as an exercise in freedom. The free market, unencumbered by state interventionism, would prove its efficiency in allocating and pricing resources, while accountability of the users on the site vis à vis one another would demonstrate the values of authentic community as it is allowed to grow outside of the confines of the state.
On his LinkedIn profile, DPR also alluded to the fact that Silk Road was intended as the start to a broader process. “The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed,” he wrote, adding that “to that end, he was 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.”
Seeing a direct transferability of the experience of Silk Road to other realms, DPR argued that “the principles that have allowed Silk Road to flourish can and do work anywhere human beings come together. The only difference is that the State is unable to get its thieving murderous mitts on it.”
This was one of the attempts that DPR carried out himself by opening a section of Silk Road devoted to anonymous arms trading. A service that never found its audience and was shut down as a result.
In one of his most expansive posts on the site, DPR enunciated the more ambitious goal behind Silk Road to the site’s community: “As a community, if we are going to survive, we need to adopt a LONG TERM vision. Getting the most out of this thing before it gets taken down is NOT going to bring us success. […] Planning ahead and doing everything we can NOW to prepare for the war to come is the only way we are going to have a shot at this. We are still mostly ignored by our true enemies, but this incubation WILL NOT last forever.”
In conclusion, Dread Pirate Roberts signed off calling his followers to the following:
“Do it for mankind.”
Why the revolution failed
The Silk Road revolution inherited the flaw of virtually every Left-wing revolutionary movement – claiming to speak in the name of the People. It ended hopes of being successful by turning, as a result, to internal violence and despotism.
The illusion of the leaderless movement
One of the underlying contradiction that Left-wing theorists have grappled with is that of creating and directing a leaderless movement. Silk Road was no exception to the rule.
DPR pledged to the community that “Silk Road was built to serve you, your needs and desires are the wind that fills its sails. The real power lies in your hands.” However, he also recognized that it was “[his] job to steer and chart the course, and [he is] ultimately responsible for the outcome of this experiment.” Himself unable to grapple adequately with the problem of the impossibility of a genuine Left-wing movement, the consequences for the site became visible as its success grew.
The inability to theorize the relationship between the community and its founder became apparent in the way that users revered the father of the revolution. Dread Pirate Roberts became an icon to his followers and his speeches became more and more punctuated with marks of his growing authority over the libertarian experiment.
The Jacobin turn
The incapacity to properly formulate the parameters of the relation between the revolution’s leaders and those it claimed to speak for is inherent to Left-wing revolutionary politics centered around a definition of “The People.” Its turn to Jacobinism, however, is Silk Road’s cardinal sin in its path to revolution.
Silk Road fell on the bureaucratic reflexes DPR so sullenly despised: constituting himself an apparatus to oversee various parts of the site’s upkeep and ignoring repeated warnings from users (most notably with the traceability of the site’s servers).
It also resorted to terror. First, DPR ordered their execution of some of his closest generals which had been in the inner ring of Silk Road’s governance and whom were claimed to have betrayed the regime. Second, the violence also turned outwards towards blackmailers whom were regarded by DPR’s regime as collaborators with the oppressor and compromising the revolution’s chances of success.
Why do revolutions fail?
In conclusion, one cannot claim that the Silk Road revolution ended when empire-building took over. Expansion and consolidation are inherent in any revolutionary project – and to their followers they are what constitutes some of its appeal.
However, the inherited difficulty in conceptualizing the relation between the masses involved in the movement and its leadership was nowhere as painfully visible as on this online, anonymous experiment. Silk Road, on its own modest scale, rapidly took on the worst traits of the Year II of the French Revolution or of the Party in war-torn Russia.
The underlying theoretical gaps in revolutionary thinking have – and will continue to – capsize attempts at changing the world. Whether for better or for worse.