Sean Gabb Reviews Keith Preston’s New Book


Review Article by Sean Gabb

Attack the System: A New Anarchist Perspective for the 21st Century
Keith Preston
Black House Publishing Ltd, London, 2013, 473pp, £16.50 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-0-9927365-0-7

I first came across Keith Preston in October 2008. In those days, the Libertarian Alliance was able to put up £1,000 every year for a prize essay. The title I had set for that year was “To what extent can a libertarian utopia be described as Tesco minus the State?” I wanted someone to analyse the frequent identification of libertarianism with the defence of big business. Though I had my own view of the question, the conclusions reached were less important than the quality of the analysis. Sadly, my question brought me a flood of autopilot defences of big business, all in the house style of the Adam Smith Institute. One of them began something like: “I’ve never heard of Tesco, so I’ll write about Wal-Mart.” It continued with a love letter so gushing, even Madsen Pirie might have given it a funny look.

One morning, while brooding over which of these submissions was least undeserving of our £1,000, another big envelope arrived from America. It was by Keith Preston, and its title was “Free Enterprise: The Antidote to Corporate Plutocracy.” I read it with astonishment and delight. I set aside that I agreed with it, and read it as I would an undergraduate essay. Even so, long before the final page, I knew that this had to be the winning entry. It had a clarity and force of analysis that placed it and its writer in the highest class. Indeed, if there had been no other payback for the six years that we ran the prize essay, being able to give £1,000 to Keith would in itself have justified the enterprise.

Obviously, then, I commend this book, which is a long selection of Keith’s writings on politics and philosophy. They range from Nietzsche to Ernst Junger, from attacks on Marxism and mainstream libertarianism to calls for the overthrow of the American Empire. It is hard to say which essay is the best. All of them are excellent. This is the first review book I have had in several years that I wish I could put on my shelves, rather than keep on hard disk.

I turn to the generality of what Keith believes. For him, the biggest threat to freedom in what can be called Anglo-America is not Communists or neo-Nazis, or the Moslems, or Christian fundamentalists, or any other of the groups the media preaches against. The real threat is our own ruling class of “totalitarian humanists.” These are a coalition of three forces. There are the cultural leftists – people who have abandoned any pretence of concern for the working classes, and replaced it with an obsessive political correctness. There is the old corporate elite. There are the various agencies of state repression. Together, they have created a police state at home and a foreign empire, both of which combine varying degrees of self-righteousness and brutality.

Until about thirty years ago, the cultural leftists were denouncing their new allies. Today, while still posing as outsiders, and even as dissidents, they provide a legitimising ideology for a power more total than anything known in Anglo-America since the puritan ascendency of the 1650s. Theirs is an ideology embedded in business and education and the media, and in politics and law and administration, and in every medical and professional bureaucracy. It is supreme in every transnational bureaucracy. Excepting only Islam, every main religion bows before it.

Within these areas, no open dissidence is allowed. Within society as a whole, there is dwindling shelter from the power of the ruling class. Intermediary institutions are subverted. Ancient liberties are swept away. We have censorship. We have detention without trial. We have police forces and welfare and social worker bureaucracies clothed with what amounts to absolute and arbitrary power. We have wars fought by terror bombing of civilians, and occupations in which torture and looting are central concerns.

All this is cried up as “progressive,” or an extension of “human rights.” When its existence is admitted, we are told that power is only bad when used for bad ends. Because the ruling class insists on the total goodness of its legitimising ideology, and the total evil of anyone who resists, no atrocity is forbidden – or is, by definition, an atrocity.

The emergence of this tripartite ruling class has made obsolete many of the assumptions absorbed by libertarians and market anarchists in the 1960s and 70s. The main oppressed groups in those days were ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals. It was reasonable for libertarians to take their side. But times are now altered. These groups are no longer oppressed in any reasonable sense. They are protected by anti-discrimination and often by hate speech laws that amount to legal privilege. There are libertarians and libertarian allies in all three. But the main discontent among ordinary members is that the privileges are not yet great enough; and their leaders are full members of the ruling class.

The main oppressed groups nowadays are the white working classes, religious minorities and people whose opinions about the official oppressed groups are not considered sufficiently enlightened. These include white nationalists, Christian fundamentalists and Moslems.

Anyone who is serious about freedom, therefore, should give up on posturing in a battle that ended some time in the 1980s. The battle has always been to destroy the police state at home in Anglo-America, and to end our imperial wars in the third world. This is not to be achieved by taking over the system, and trying to humanise it – but by destroying the system. We must overthrow all centralised systems of control, and replace them by a vast diversity of autonomous and voluntary communities. That is our goal. The alliances we need to make to get there are determined by forces outside our control. Our natural allies at the moment are people we may deplore. Our opponents are often people we used to support  – and whose legitimate rights we still wholeheartedly support.

Keith asks:

Which is more authoritarian: a Nazi community on the top of a mountain whose members voluntarily choose their way of life or a massive, centralist, “democratic” state that seeks to impose the narrow values of a self-serving elite on the whole of society? [p.61]

Good question. Keith answers it without hesitation. Liberal democracy was always something of a fraud. It has now been destroyed. Its institutions are corrupted beyond repair. If this were not enough, state-sponsored mass-immigration has balkanised both England and America. There is no middle way left between totalitarian control and radical decentralisation. He accepts that this will not bring utopia. There

might be associations or communities of such a puritanical nature as to put Calvin or Khomeini to shame…. Some of the institutions that would form in an anarchist world might be hallmarks in human progress and achievement while others might be hellholes of incomparable ghastliness. This is what authentic liberty and authentic diversity are all about. Individuals and communities alike must be left to succeed or fail on their own terms.[ibid.]

It is also the only answer to the problems brought by state-sponsored mass-immigration:

Forced integration only exacerbates hostility between social groups. Allowing different groups to practice mutual self-segregation and sovereignty may be a partial way out of this predicament. [p.80]

As for economics, Keith broadly endorses the small-scale localism of writers like Kevin Carson. He sees big business and big government as close allies. Destroy the state, thereby taking away the privileges – incorporation laws, patent laws as they currently are, transport subsidies, etc – given to the corporate elite, and there would still be an economy based on market exchanges. But the actors in this market would be smaller and more integrated into their communities. There would be sole traders and partnerships and workers cooperatives, and the occasional firm employing wage labour in the conventional sense. Keith’s ideal is a world with no masters and no bosses. Anarchy may not take us there. But it will take us closer to it than the New World Order will.

I could easily say more about this book. It is, after all, very long. So far, I have drawn only from three of its essays. However, I have given something of its flavour, thereby discharging my first duty as a reviewer. My second duty is to say how far I agree with it.

In part, I do agree with Keith. My 2007 book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War, gives a similar critique of the ruling class. Mine differs so far as I concentrate on England, and he on America. It also differs in emphasis. I saw the cultural leftists as the dominant actors in the new ruling class. The State agencies and business had been captured by these people. Keith sees the ruling class much more as a coalition of equals. I am not sure if this is an important distinction. Indeed, since I have not read my own book since it came out, I may not remember exactly what I said. My main difference with Keith is over the nature and extent of what needs to be done. Here, I think it would be useful to speak of where each of us stands, and of the different paths by which we came there.

Keith arrived at his present views from starting as a conventional anarchist of the left. Also, he is an American. Even before the waves of mass-immigration that started around 1880, Americans had little sense of national identity. What little they nowadays have is a creation of the Federal State. I began as a Tory, rooted in the English past. I was brought over to classical liberalism in my late teens, when I read J.S. Mill and Macaulay and Lecky. I have become somewhat more radical with age. But the default position to which I always return is to want a reaction to something like the England of the 18th and 19th centuries.

If I ever came to power, I would ruthlessly destroy the new ruling class. I would shut down agencies and institutions and whole departments of state. I would throw functionaries by the hundreds of thousands into the street, and cancel their pensions. I would tax the already pensioned into shelf-stacking and telesales. I would strip away every corporate privilege. I would unleash a revolution as fundamental as the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, or the destruction of the Tudor and Stuart State in 1641. This done, my imagination reaches hardly beyond restoring the Old Constitution.

I despise Elizabeth the Useless, but think well of constitutional monarchy. I hate corporate elites and plutocracies, but not the old landed aristocracy. I suspect that every present Member of Parliament is there for the sex or the bribes, or both: I still take comfort in the drone of a returning officer’s voice. I want England back as it used to be – though probably more like it used to be than it ever was.

For this reason, I find Keith’s taste for dissolving the nation state not to my own. And yet, I am sensible enough to doubt if what I want is remotely on offer. The moral and institutional bases of the old order crumbled away before I was born. It cannot be brought back. In particular, the non-European immigrations of the past sixty years have brought fundamental changes. Since I and most other people recoil from the thought of ethnic cleansing, we need to find some way of living together that does not involve a total state to keep the peace. All this brings me to a scared reading of Keith Preston and Kevin Carson and Hans-Hermann Hoppe and the other radicals. I arrived without their influence at a similar analysis of what has gone wrong, and of what needs to be done to stop the downward progress. I am less comfortable with their longer term solutions. But it may be that their visions of a stateless future are the only ones that have any chance of working.

And so I thank Keith for sending me a review copy of his book. It confirms many of my own opinions. It challenges others. Though sometimes disturbing, it is always brilliant. I have no hesitation in calling it the most significant book our movement has produced in the past year.

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7 responses to “Sean Gabb Reviews Keith Preston’s New Book

  1. One way or another, the Nation State is dead. If the New World Order doesn’t kill it (except in name) then mass migration will. We must remove the moral underpinnings of the institutional use of violence and go where that takes us.

  2. Just bought a copy and printed the review… thanks for pointing the way.

  3. The idea that big retailers such as Tesco (or Asda Walmart) would not exist without government roads (and so on) is wrong – flat wrong.

    Even if private roads did not exist, people will simply live near railway stations (private railways) and that is where the big retail stores would be. There might be more specialist stores (such as specialist butchers) without government health and safety rules (and so on), but it would not be a revolutionary change. Certainly to claim that “under freedom” most people would be self employed or would work in some sort of commune is not credible.

    As for the Nazis. well yes the National Socialist German Worker’s Party did campaign against Department Stores (and not just Jewish ones) and so on, and promise a golden age for the small operator – but it was all impossible nonsense.

    As for the general idea that the Industrial Revolution was caused by state intervention – that is nonsense, indeed “nonsense on stilts”.

    As is the idea that the improvements in farming methods in the 18th century and 19th centuries were a bad thing – and we should go back to peasant plots (much of Ireland stuck to peasant plots – it did not end well in the 1840s).

    On the idea that steel (and so on) should either be made by individual operators or by communes.

    That sounds very much lie the ideas of Mao (because it is) – with people rushing out to make steel in their backyards (a total mess).

    Americans having “little sense of national identity even before the 1880s” (other than that created by the Federal government) – drivel, utter nonsense.

    For example, there was not even a Federal Department of Education till the time of President Carter (and even then Federal spending on and control of education was small) – the American sense of national identity was traditionally strong. True it is not a German style “blood-and-soil” sense of identity (artificially created by Fichte and the other monsters of German philosophy) – but neither is the English sense of national identity.

    English national identity was always around certain cultural institutions – such as the monarchy (only someone with a deeply unEnglish, indeed anti English, cast of mind judges the King or Queen of England on the basis of their POLITICAL effectiveness – cultural loyalty to the “Thrane of the Shire” has got nothing to do with the views of “The Took” on some policy matter or other). Not a matter of racial hate. For example if French Protestants came to England (to escape the persecution of Louis XIV) there children (those born here and so did not have French accents) would be considered as English as anyone else (I say English as the Union with Scotland did not happen till 1707). The English sense of national identity was NOT about persecuting or murdering other people – it was reserved but decent (more Miss Maple than the blood-and-soil S.S).

    Of course there have always been people on this island who have attacked the traditional cultural institutions.

    Not just the monarchy, but the local squire (who would also likely be the local JP) and the Church Vestry (in town as well as country) and the traditional independence of such things as schools and Oxbridge colleges as charitable foundations (and the “Closed Corporations” who ran the cites before the Act of 1835 – which only left the City of London standing, itself in another way undermined by the vile government take-over masked as the “de regulation” of the “Big Bang” of the late 1980s).

    However, the Radicals who attacked the traditional independence (and private funding – rather than tax funding) of institutions (such as that of the University of Edinburgh – where the Fellows had committed the dreadful offence of not voting for Chairs the people “liberal” Sir William Hamilton demanded they vote for – voting for “Blackwoods” type people instead), were a minority (they may have screamed for “democracy”, but, in private, the had nothing but contempt for the opinions of ordinary people – they just hoped the “masses” would be less difficult to MANIPULATE than the land owners, the “landed interest”, has proves – the “landed interest” have committed the “ultimate crime” of not OBEYING the “intellectual elite” the heirs of Plato).

    I am reminded of the words of John Witherspoon (who left Scotland and became one of the Founding Fathers of the American nation). Indeed his words are lot truer in the case of the early 19th century Radicals than they were to the 18th century Moderates he aimed them at (indeed they are a bit unfair when directed at the 18th century Moderates).

    “The Moderates are very tolerant – indeed they will tolerant almost anything. But there are two things they will not tolerate – Holy Scripture ad the opinions of the common people, these two things the Moderates will not tolerate at all”.

    How anyone (especially someone who claims to be a loyal Englishman) can really like the Westminster Review Radicals (James Mill, J.S. Mill and so on) is hard to see – although it should be pointed out that whilst most of them were Scots (although Scots very different to such Blackwoods men as Sir Walter Scott). – but it should be pointed out that their “spiritual father” was English (the vile Jeremy Bentham, with his desire that every aspect of human life should be under some Continental style professional department of paid Civil Servants with mathematical planning, – from the tradition of the “Bowood Circle” of Lord Shelbourne and which goes back to Sir William Petty, Thomas Hobbes and Sir Francis Bacon – a tradition filed with mocking HOSTILITY to traditional liberties).

    Certainly this is not “liberalism” in the sense that people in the Old Whig tradition (and most Whigs still supported the Liberal party in the early 19th century) would have understood the term.

    As for a Nazi community up a mountain.

    If they own the land – and allow people to freely leave, I can not see any grounds for invading them.

    Indeed such a community exists in the country of Paraguay (although it is not “up a mountain”)

    The community was founded in the 19th century by admirers of Richard Wagner (specifically his German style mixing of socialism and racialism) ;

    The present “pure race” inhabitants of this community are both physically and mentally inferior to their neighbours (the “inferior” mixed race people of Paraguay).

    Possibly due to inbreeding.

  4. Pingback: Sean Gabb Reviews Keith Preston’s New Book « Attack the System

  5. Julie near Chicago

    Excellent, highly educational comments, Paul. Thanks.

    By the way — I’m sure we over here have today no bunch analogous to the “Moderates” in your quote on the same. :>))

  6. Hello Julie – Witherspoon was a bit unfair to the Moderates (in this context there were members of the Church of Scotland who took what in England would have been called a latitudinarian view of salvation – rather than sticking to a strict creed). however he had a point about the nature of the Church of Scotland.

    In 1712 a majority of positions in the Church of Scotland had been taken control of by the Crown – and, over time, the Crown tended to appoint people of the Moderate party (theologically) the “Moderates” also did intend to use parliamentary tricks to gain control of Church bodies even when they were actually in the minority. Regardless of one’s view of theology – having the people stripped of their choice of Minister amounted to a revolution in Scottish life – it also marks the start of the division between the Scots-Scots and the Scots-Irish (the Ulstermen).

    In Ireland the “Penal Laws” applied to Presbyterians as well as Roman Catholics (a point that is often forgotten), but at least they kept control over their own Church (it was not a State Church as the Church of Scotland was).

    To the modern mind all this seem of minor importance – but it was not.

    Differences in Church organisation led to radically different politics.

    For example – most of the “Scots-Scots” at the time of the American Revolution sided with the Crown (Witherspoon and others like him being the minority), but the “Scots-Irish” (Ulster Scots) were overwhelming on the side of American Independence – indeed they formed the backbone (and the fighting arm) of the American army – as they have proved in every war since then (every war).

    Yes – they are the “Red Necks”.