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Number 980, July 8, 2018

We should try to have more children,
and to bring them up in our values.

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Anti-Leftism: A Century of Failure
by Sean Gabb

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Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

I am currently preparing another book of essays by my late friend Chris R. Tame. He was an accomplished bibliographer, and I have been slowed down in publishing his book by the need to type in hundreds of references scribbled over the hard copy. This has reminded me of the immense body of literature produced on our side between about 1930 and 1990. University professors, university journals, policy institutes lavishly funded by big business, economists, historians, philosophers, historians, sociologists, political scientists, journalists – no criticism in this period that could be made of the managerial state was left unmade. In writing his essays, Chris ran over whole libraries of books and articles. I read many of them when I was younger, and was convinced.

This being said, their collective effect was close to zero. Since about 1980, the authorities have placed a greater emphasis than they did on market rationality. No doubt, the Institute of Economic Affairs had some influence here. On the other hand, the model of statism established in the 1940s had become inconvenient to those who rule, and whatever market reforms were suggested went into a filter from which nothing emerged but corporatism. Worse, the generations of men who wrote all those books were not replaced.

In part, this was an inevitable failure. In 1980, there was a large conservative and semi-libertarian Establishment in this country. There were genuinely conservative newspaper editors, and senior managers in the BBC, and university professors, and managing directors of large companies. Since then, they have been swept away by death or retirement. They have been replaced by Cultural Leftists – that is, by the kind of people described in my book Radical Coup: A Case for Reaction.

In part, it was a self-inflicted failure. These conservative and semi-libertarian leaders failed to understand the altered state of the enemy. They assumed the enemy was trade union bosses from the working classes, or Soviet agents. They overlooked the Cultural Leftists, or thought of them as somehow “our people.” Worse, when they did make some effort to replace themselves, they invariably appointed non-entities.

Whatever the case, the universities and big business have been captured by the leftists. There are not, and will not be, any more Antony Flews and Stanislav Andreskis – no more men with the time and the tenured authority to continue the work of arguing for a free society. I speak of England. But, if a few decades behind us, I doubt things are very different in America.

We have lost, I believe, because those generations of highly able men were engaged in the equivalent of making bricks without straw. In 1986, the Social Affairs Unit published A Diet of Reason, This was a comprehensive demolition of official dietary advice and food regulation. It was discussed and heavily promoted in those parts of the media that were still conservative. Thousands of copies were bought and handed out by food manufacturers. There was even an audiobook edition. It had no effect. The food controllers had a few months of diminishing embarrassment, and continued expanding their numbers and powers. The book is now forgotten.

Or there was E.G. West’s Education and the State , published in 1965 by the Institute of Economic Affairs. This piled up massive evidence that England was already a literate society before the State intervened in education, and that the Education Act 1870 and its precursors were projected on various kinds of statistical fraud. Again, the book had a brief notoriety, and was forgotten. It is not listed in the bibliography of any mainstream history of education that I have read. I could mention dozens of other books of the same kind. But these two can stand for the rest.

To make use of Thomas Kuhn, there is, at any time in any society, an overall paradigm that both explains the world and provides an agenda for action. For a very long time in this country, the paradigm has been statist. The justifications may overlap and change from time to time – the welfare of the working classes, racial and sexual equality, anthropogenic climate change, the demonisation of Moslems and paedophiles and the unhealthy, and so forth. But the paradigm is one that accepts an enlarged state as both inevitable and desirable. Books like A Diet of Reason and Education and the State do no more than draw attention to anomalies.

Now, anomalies can overthrow a paradigm. But they need to accumulate on a scale that amounts to the catastrophic – for example the impact of the Spanish arrival on the Aztec theology. This barely ever happens. What does mostly happen is that anomalies are ignored and forgotten. Or, if they continue to accumulate, they will force a shift within the existing paradigm. I mention again the change in economic policy after 1980. If it were otherwise, those libraries of books that Chris put in his bibliographies would by now have carried us into some kind of anarcho-utopia. If our present social paradigm is to be destroyed, it is necessary to make people lose interest in it. I cannot be bothered with a minute critique of the Investigatory Powers Bill because, as said, no one important listens to us – but also because proving how our Internet records will end up with ISIS or in North Korea will get nothing more than a shrug and a few soothing words about the “safeguards” in the Bill. We need to do better than produce anomalies of detail.

I will give this illustration of how paradigm shifts take place. In 1600, just about everyone in Western Europe assented to these propositions: that we are surrounded by invisible beings of great power; that some of these beings are evil; that humans are able, through the appropriate rituals and incantations, to make contact with these beings; that we must do whatever is necessary to deter and to punish such contact. Showing that some alleged witches had been framed, or that some were mad, did nothing to overthrow belief in witchcraft. By 1700, almost no one in authority believed in witchcraft, and the laws in England and France had been repealed or were in abeyance. Yet there was virtually no attack, during the seventeenth century, on the basic propositions mentioned above. They were defended with great subtlety, but never contested. What happened was that the educated classes gave up on Platonism. They preferred instead to think of the universe as a kind of machine governed by laws that could be reduced to mathematics. In this new paradigm, there was no room for belief in witchcraft. It was abandoned with barely a considered thought. Otherwise inexplicable events were now dismissed as not yet explained.

I doubt it was the work of Kepler and Galileo and Newton that produced this paradigm shift. Hardly anyone read them. They only became generally famous in the eighteenth century, after the paradigm shift had already taken place. The shift was more likely caused by contemplation of the pocket watch.

All through the twentieth century, our people tried to shift the paradigm by purely intellectual activism. Given the altered correlation of forces within the universities, they worked on a scale that we cannot now match. They still failed. The reason was that they were trying to apply their lever to the wrong point. The Diet of Reason was a modest sensation. But the leftists controlled light entertainment. You can wait for the fuss over an unwelcome book to die down. You cannot argue with a plotline in Eastenders, or the lyrics of a pop song. And it was not just light entertainment, or in the 1980s, that the leftists became culturally active. They had, by 1960 at the latest, taken control over virtually the whole mechanism of cultural reproduction, both here and in America – and they had been increasingly predominant for decades before then. They were able to set the terms of debate, and they were able to create the environment within which their setting of those terms was seen as reasonable.

Intellectual activism is not a waste of time. Someone needs to articulate the counter-paradigm. But this is not sufficient in itself to overthrow the dominant paradigm. It should be seen rather as one line of attack in a largely cultural assault. We need our economists and philosophers. We also need our writers and artists and musicians. We need our own unofficial and unregulated – and that probably means secret – schools. We need our own structures of family life and arbitration. Our counter-paradigm must be seen to exist across the whole spectrum. We cannot try to privatise defence procurement, or bring back gold, and expect the tone of Hollywood and the BBC and the publishing industry to change accordingly. We must provide our own full-spectrum alternative. Plainly, we have done almost nothing in this direction. Hardly surprising if we life in a grotty police state.

The future strategy, I suggest, is that we should spend more time writing and reviewing fiction, and composing music. We should try to have more children, and to bring them up in our values. If you are rich, and have read this far, I suggest your donations are better spent on publishing alternate history novels or commissioning wind quintets from libertarian or conservative composers, than on yet another with-a-bound-he-was-free effort to reform the Bank of England, or to get a better deal from the European Union, or to defeat a Parliamentary Bill that virtually every elected politician thinks it madness not to pass. All else aside, the kind of people who put themselves in charge of such campaigns tend to follow the “80-20 rule” – that is, they will spend 80 per cent of whatever they are given on cocaine and whores, and the other 20 per cent on getting someone else to do the work they promised themselves to do.

I could say more on this final point. But I think I have explained myself.


Reprinted from Sean Gabb's blog for July 7, 2018.


Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia. Under the name Richard Blake, he has written eight historical novels for Hodder & Stoughton. These have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Chinese and Indonesian. They have been praised by both The Daily Telegraph and The Morning Star. He has produced three further historical novels for Endeavour Press, and has written two horror novels for Caffeine Nights. Under his own name, he has written four novels. His other books are mainly about culture and politics. He also teaches, mostly at university level, though sometimes in schools and sixth form colleges. His first degree was in History. His PhD is in English History. From 2006 to 2017 he was Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is currently an Honorary Vice-President of the Ludwig von Mises Centre UK, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.

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