Sean Gabb on the New Ruling Class and “Grown-Up” Libertarianism

by Christian Robitaille

It is difficult for any writer to be both prolific and insightful. It is even more difficult to be so while defending opinions that are deemed to be dangerous by the State’s ruling class. Such writers are indeed often ridiculed or ignored. It thus requires courage as well as many other uncommon qualities to dedicate an important part of one’s life to effectively defend libertarianism. It first requires a profound knowledge of social theory and history. It then requires the ability to make sense, in light of this profound knowledge, of what the current state of the world is and to understand how it can be changed. Finally, it requires the skill to coherently articulate an opinion or a program which can be understood by as many intelligent readers as possible.

In light of this, Sean Gabb is without any doubt one of the most prolific and insightful libertarian authors of our time. As anyone who met or read him would admit, his knowledge of the various disciplines of the social sciences and, in particular, of history, is very impressive. His understanding of the structure of the contemporary State and of how its ruling class operates is enlightening. And, at a time in which obscure language is confused for profoundness of thought, he is not only able to enlighten his readers, but is also able to do so with great clarity.

In the following, I will briefly summarise what I consider to be some of the most important insights that Gabb provided us in his many articles and books. It goes without saying that, in light of the immensity of Gabb’s work as a libertarian author, both in terms of quantity and quality, I do not claim to be exhaustive in this short exposition of his contributions. Rather, I will concentrate on his analysis of the state’s ruling class and of how what he calls a “grown-up libertarianism”—i.e., a libertarianism which actually seeks to become relevant and to concretely advance liberty—can effectively operate in its fight against it.

The ruling class, including not only political decision-makers but also the media, the educators, big businesses, and all publicly-funded entities enjoying some control over the life of the masses, is the main enemy of liberty. As such, its members are the main enemies of libertarians. Sean Gabb tells us that the British ruling class (and this is generalisable to most Western countries’ ruling classes) has shifted ideologically. To control their fellow men, classical socialism is no longer their short-term goal. Rather, the members of the ruling class seek to establish a cultural hegemony. They wish to control the masses’ health decisions, everyday life actions, speech, and even their thoughts. They have come to the realisation that they can exercise control more efficiently by modifying the orientation of the free market rather than by seeking the increasingly unpopular outright collectivising of the means of production. As such, while their main target remains individual liberty, the ruling class is now also at war with Western traditions. For the natural, local, hierarchies on which Western civilisation rests are the biggest threats to their own authority. The manner the ruling class operates in order to undermine personal liberty is thus an outright condemnation of traditions and local authorities. And, as Bertrand de Jouvenel pointed out many decades ago, because the typical man sees more clearly the impact of local powers on his daily life than that of central powers, the ruling class can easily argue that it “liberates” the ordinary man by crushing the local hierarchies that exercise power over him. Traditional local powers and hierarchies, then, are weakened as the direct effect of the strengthening of the central State and its new ruling class.

If we want to fight the ruling class described above, then we must become, as Gabb puts it, “grown-up” libertarians. This means that, although it is interesting, and sometimes even important, to ask ourselves questions about how libertarian theory could address such and such hypothetical issue, we must concentrate our efforts at finding a new strategy to defend liberty; one that is adjusted to the structure of the new ruling class. Indeed, it is now insufficient to insist on economic arguments and avoid talking about any cultural question whatsoever. For the ruling class has become more sophisticated and does not claim anymore to be opposed to the private ownership of the means of production; most of its members often even claim to defend it. The current political situation is in fact characterised by the presence of the exact opposite of what Luc Boltanski called the “new spirit of capitalism”; we could rather talk of a “new spirit of statism.” In brief, it is not capitalism which “internalised” its leftist critique to continue its self-legitimisation. Rather, it is the State which has internalised its economic critique and that has subsequently re-invented itself in order to continue to exercise control. Politicians and educators are now far less likely to advocate for the nationalisation of industries or of factors of production than they used to not so long ago. They would rather orient the free market than abolish it completely. The Western States and their respective ruling classes now indeed even claim to be protectors of capitalism. There is of course no truth whatsoever to be found in such a claim, although this is an entirely other question. Suffice it to say here that it is increasingly difficult for the typical member of the public to see any socialistic threat (in the classical sense), and that any argument claiming that socialism is near is therefore doomed to be, at best, unconvincing. Grown-up libertarians must thus make a conscious effort to address the question of culture in order to attract public support and efficiently attack their enemy. It is around cultural questions that libertarians must make alliances against the State and its new ruling class.

This is what Sean Gabb does extremely well. As he points out, to realistically have a chance at overcoming the new ruling class and preserve civilization, libertarians must ally themselves with traditionalists. For, as Gabb recognises, the mortal enemy of Western civilisation and its culture of individual liberty is the central State and its new ruling class aforementioned. From the recognition of this fact, it follows that the defenders of Western civilisation must join forces and ally in their fight against the State. But who are the defenders of the West if not those who insist on the importance of its traditions (and especially of its natural, local hierarchies) and those who insist on the importance of the culture of liberty that made it so great? It is only natural, then, as Gabb perceptively points out many times, that libertarians and traditionalists must become allies in a common fight against the State. But the question remains: how are we to articulate such a common fight?

Gabb provides us with many specific means by which we can do so. One of these is to concentrate our efforts in advocating for a considerable reduction of immigration. For the indiscriminate acceptance of a massive amount of immigrants, mixed with a policy of forced multiculturalism, is one of the ruling class’ favourite tools to undermine Western culture. Indeed, how can a country preserve its traditions, including its tradition of individual liberty, if an increasing amount of culturally incompatible groups are forced to cohabit within the same political entity? Gabb here takes a position that is quite distinct from the naïve open borders libertarian position. In fact, contrary to the erroneous and, unfortunately, widespread belief in libertarian circles that open borders is a sound libertarian immigration policy, he correctly insists that mass-immigration erodes our culture of liberty. He clearly points out that the non-aggression principle does not provide specific solutions to many problems that occur under statist conditions. For there is no contradiction between the recognition that the State is always an aggressor and the recognition that, given that the state aggresses and will continue to aggress in the foreseeable future, there are some policies or actions that are better than others in terms of property protection. Restricted immigration policies are part of such better policies in the same manner that arguing in favour of the police arresting murderers is better than arguing that, since the police is at the service of the State, they should just let murders occur. Indeed, under statist conditions, in the same manner that the police not doing anything about murders destroys even more a country’s culture of liberty than allowing them to intervene, letting anyone cross the border without any kind of discrimination whatsoever destroys a country’s social cohesion and, consequently, its culture of liberty. True enough, without the State, these sort of problems would be easily resolved by private property rules, by the complete freedom of association and discrimination. But in the meantime, libertarians would ignore the immediate immigration problem at the cost of not being relevant anymore in the eyes of the public. Libertarianism must not just be an intellectual game about “what-ifs”; it must seek to get closer to actual liberty in the real world given the conditions of our time. And we must recognise that mass-immigration must be stopped in order to protect freedom. This illustrates quite well the nature of what Gabb called “grown-up libertarianism.”

Needless to say, the implications of such a grown-up libertarianism are not very popular in many libertarian circles. Libertarians are typically concentrating their efforts on either theorizing about things such as how a libertarian social order would resolve some hypothetical (and often unrealistic) scenario or on pleasing their leftist friends. The latter is often done by accommodating their cultural leftist agenda: by arguing that libertarians really are “socially liberal” or by insisting that they truly have the same end goal but only envision different means to achieve it. Sean Gabb, on the contrary, has a sense of priority that is based on his profound understanding of the workings of our current ruling class. As such, his work is an inspiration to any libertarian who wishes to “grow up” and to actually improve the state of liberty in his country. Every libertarian should therefore be thankful that Gabb chose to dedicate his time to providing us with these many insights. There is no doubt that, thanks to him, thanks to his prolific and insightful writings, we are better equipped to fight for liberty.


  1. Well, this is an interesting series of essays about Sean, to be sure. Thank you, Keir, Robert and Christian (so far). I don’t know when “The Day” is, but it looks as though the “official” date you get by googling his name (4th November – next year!) is off by a way.

    I’m maybe a little miffed that I wasn’t asked to contribute to this series. So I’ll add my twopennyworth here.

    I’ve known Sean for about 22 years. He and I are quite close on some philosophical issues, such as a shared enthusiasm for the Enlightenment and an appreciation of the classics. We disagree on others; as a cosmopolitan individualist (not all that far short of the “anarchist” line), I find it really hard to understand his support for conservative nationalism. And still less for the tory party.

    All that said, Sean has many times helped me in my liberty efforts, and he has never let me down. Nor has he ever been unpleasant to me. I trust Sean, and that is something I can say about only a very few people I have ever known.

    The best gift I can give Sean for this coming momentous occasion, I think, is to repeat a verse I originally wrote to mark the occasion of my own 60th birthday around six and a half years ago:

    And now I’m 60, I do know
    That most of what I’m told ain’t so.
    So, if you want me to be couth,
    You’d better tell the bloody truth.

    Sean, whatever some may opine about him, is a warrior for the truth. Long may that continue.

    • Dear Neil,

      So many kind words already. Now more. I lack the means to express my gratitude. But belated greetings on your own growing up.


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