Some years ago, a friend suggested I should copy George Orwell and write something called “Why I Write.” It seemed a reasonable suggestion at the time. I had already written four million words, a quarter of this on politics, and there was something new every couple of days. I refused the suggestion. Explaining why I wrote, I said, would take time away from writing. That was then. In the past year, I have written very little, and almost nothing on politics. Now, feeling a vague duty to say something, I will take up the suggestion, though with an obvious change of title.
I began writing about politics early in the 1980s. Even then, I failed to share the optimism of other libertarians. Where they came in from Economics, I came to libertarianism from a background in History and Law. Where they saw the intellectual bankruptcy of socialism and the hesitant emergence of a new market order, I mainly saw the growth of a police state. I soon realised that the rising trickle of intrusive regulations and of attacks on previously untouchable civil liberties was not the effect of bad ideas, taken up by people whose intentions were good or no worse than neutral. The cause was the ascendency of a class of people for whom ideas were a passing excuse for their settled passion to control others. These were the people who filled the administration, the law, the management and delivery of education by the State, and the media. They had been growing in numbers and power since the 1830s. Before the 1980s, their ascendency had been limited by the nature of their legitimising ideologies and by a firm though weakening resistance by the ruled. Then, from about 1980, they began to adopt a set of ideologies that placed no theoretical limit on the scope of their control. At the same time, there was a deliberate attack by the State on the working classes and an expansion of the universities to absorb and transform the less incapable of the unemployed. The result was a spread of this class into the mainstream churches and the charities, and then into important areas of big business. Growing numbers led to a scramble for new areas of life to control, or to control more intensively the areas already controlled. That explains the increasing totalitarianism of the legitimising ideologies. This can be seen as a classic purity spiral. At the same time, these things do need an outside push. Whatever the case, because the ideologies, as they have now become, are so plainly false, and often so grotesquely funny, conformity within the classes that benefit from them is obsessive and hysterical. Dissent from outside is tolerated only so long as it remains below a certain threshold of danger. And this is a descending threshold. Now we have reached the public worship of freaks and career criminals and terrorists, any dissent by anyone can bring a visit from the police.
The solution to this development is not yet more policy institutes to argue against the claims of the legitimising ideologies. On the one hand, the ideologies are only a menace because they justify the existence of a managerial state. Challenge any one of them hard enough, and it will be proofed against challenge, or withdrawn in favour of something less exposed. On the other hand, most policy institutes, in my experience, are filled with idlers and charlatans – that, or they function as bribe markets for politicians and business interests. The solution is a radical downsizing of the State and of all the institutions that grow large because of the State. This does not mean yet another attack on the working poor. Welfare policy and the National Health Service are both in need of reform, but their basic objects need not be expensive or incompatible with a free country. The purpose of downsizing the State must be to wage a short and victorious class war against all those who lie awake at night, asking what more they can do to make others dance as they desire. Take away their jobs, force them to look for work as unskilled labour in the factories, or pushing trolleys in supermarket car parks, and there will be an immediate end to deep greenery and critical race theory. These are not autonomous bodies of ideas, like Physics or Chemistry, that tell truth about the world regardless of whether they are studied. They exist only to legitimise a particular order of things.
And this, I suppose, is an answer to the question I said I would ignore. Give or take endless digressions and much rudeness to individuals, explaining what was wrong and how to make it right was the main purpose of my political writing. Now to the question of why I have mostly stopped writing. Part of the answer is already implied. The growth of our police state has reached the point where public dissent is dangerous. In the past year, I have published a dozen political essays. Each of these was carefully read and edited before publication. I started many more, but gave up when I realised I might get into trouble. Last summer, I wrote an elaborate analysis of the Ukraine War. This went up on the Free Life Blog, and I was very pleased with it. After a few hours of pressing calls from friends, it came down again. Something I failed to appreciate when writing about the approach of one was how depressing it is to live in a police state. It is not just the unpleasant thrill of waiting for the police to come knocking. It is also the knowledge that those in charge can spout evil nonsense, or that most commercial advertising is a form of psychological warfare – and that even laughter can bring a summons from Human Resources. I used to be a happy trouble-maker. I have never fancied martyrdom. The only safe response to where we are now is to tune out from the mainstream. I never buy or read newspapers. The television hardly ever goes on. News does drift through my informal firewall. But I try not to think too hard about it. I mostly avoid writing the obvious reflections on it.
A further reason for silence is that, dangerous or not, I see little point in preaching freedom to a nation of sheep. Of course, most people in all times and places have had little interest in being free. If its benefits are general, the defence of freedom has always been the concern of minorities. But, if I can supply no figures, I do feel that the minority of people in England who want to be free is below the level needed for a critical mass. I grant that, if even I am backing away from dissent, why should I expect others to become dissidents? Yet, if active dissent may be dangerous, passive dissent is hard to punish. Vicious and relentless exposure is good against lies. Just as effective can be a widespread refusal to endorse or pass on the lies. Indeed, a comedian once told me that boos and insults can be less dispiriting from an audience than cold silence. Yet, wherever I look, I see enthusiastic endorsement and passing on of the lies. Fewer people than before read those newspapers or watch those television programmes. But there are still millions who do and who are devoted fans of the cultural poison served by the mainstream media. Look at how many people got themselves and their children injected with those dangerous vaccines. Look at the apparently unforced and general support for the Zelensky Régime in Kiev. Or, taking a longer view, see how little resistance there has been to the abolition of one liberty after another. Look at those successful and even popular attacks on gun owners and smokers. Where was the popular defence of trial by jury and other due process protections? Where is the public outrage at the present attack on encryption that will drive the most popular messaging services from the country? These are questions based on what may be a false view of what people really think. But, assuming most people want to be slaves, why should I make a target of myself to save them?
This is not to say that the present order of things will be permanent. It is so dysfunctional that it will be swept away, even if it does not collapse of its own motion. But the time for a libertarian or conservative reaction has passed. Until 2010, it was possible to hope for the election of a Conservative Government that would do to the rising totalitarianism what the Thatcher Government did to the post-war consensus on economic management. But the Conservative Government we got in that year did nothing. Instead, it encouraged a rolling purge of true believers from the libertarian and conservative movements. The deal was that the usual suspects would be left to continue ruining the country. In return, the elected rulers would be left to enrich themselves in the manner of their choice. There was to be no embarrassing internal dissent. I should have seen this coming. I had already been taken aside and warned. Earlier than this, my books were denounced by various mediocrities with unusual vehemence. Not to have seen the coming purge was my biggest political failure. Then again, I was not alone in that failure, and I can doubt if I or any of us, or all of us acting together, could have prevented what happened. It has now happened, and we face problems to which neither libertarianism nor traditional conservatism has immediate answers. There will be a reaction, but this will be led by men outside these traditions. It will be hard for their new order to be more illiberal than the one we have. At the same time, they will not bring back anything like the old England. In the new debates seeping through the blanket of censored coverage, I feel as out of place as a Jacobite must have in the 1790s.
Therefore, do not expect to find me in the newspapers, or see me on the television. Do not trouble me with speaking invitations – not, at least, unless I can do them from my basement. If I continue with occasional writing, take me as the intellectual equivalent of those smelly old men who turn out to boot fairs, picking through boxes of vinyl records in search of the music they enjoyed in the 1970s. I will not fade away entirely. But the time when I felt I might make a difference has gone.
What grates with me about the general public isn’t the apathy, it is the hypocrisy. In hindsight I realise that I should not have bothered.
As I have gotten older and gained more context and breadth of experience it’s the enormity of the lies by which the world is ordered that impresses me. The only thing more astonishing is the level of cognitive dissonance people are able to live with to get through the day. It’s no wonder, in the final analysis, that most people who aren’t simply stupid are quite obviously insane.
The reasons behind our decline, along with other western countries, is very easy to work out. It was pointed out here many years ago, but quickly dismissed because it was safer to deny the truth than face up to it. Yes, the majority are stupid, but the rest are mainly cowards.
“The solution is a radical downsizing of the State and of all the institutions that grow large because of the State.”
The problem with the state, as I see it, is that, by its very nature, it has two classes – a ruling class and a ruled-over class. Your historical analysis shows the ruling class rapidly, even exponentially, increasing. You’re right that it started in the 1830s (Education Act and Factories Act 1833, in my book). It went through a phase of major growth during and after the second world war, and the current growth spurt began in the 1980s. And as it grows, the ruling class becomes more and more corrupt.
So I think, Sean, that you are under-ambitious when you talk about downsizing the state. We need to get rid of it entirely, and replace it by something better. And we can’t do that through politics. In any case, traditional conservatism is now completely irrelevant, and what passes for Conservatism is conservative only in the sense that it it is utterly opposed to the interests of ordinary people. Libertarianism as a kind of “nationalism with freedom” (which seems to be the thrust of the right-libertarian ideology these days) is also, in my view, not a right way to go. We need something much more radical, something that rejects politics entirely. Something, perhaps, much more like the Renaissance; a moral Renaissance, perhaps?. That’s where I’m starting to find myself coming from.
Great Article, The push forwards in libertarianism has to be the purposeful creation of autonomous multiple different cultures, as early colonial societies were settled by Puritans sharing a common set of values in the United States that can self-govern, and engage in trade while maximizing the powers of a free society. Freedom is deeply intertwined with praxis, writing, and philosophizing without action leads to a dead-end as the implications of ideas cannot always be known a priori.
Your observation that most commercial advertising is a form of psychological warfare is excellent.