Review Article by Sean Gabb
Attack the System: A New Anarchist Perspective for the 21st Century
Black House Publishing Ltd, London, 2013, 473pp, £16.50 (pbk)
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.
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.