Dr. Sean Gabb, An Interview
by L. Neil Smith
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
L. NEIL SMITH: Sean Gabb, any attempt to introduce you adequately toour readers would end up as long as the rest of this interview. Youare a man of many accomplishments, and there are plenty of things thislong-overdue discussion might be about. From my viewpoint, forexample, you are British libertarianism.
But you’re also one of the most hardworking and productive writers Iknow of, magnificently adept at both fiction and non-fiction. So let’smake this simply a writer-to-writer conversation and see what happens.
First question: the great Raymond Chandler once famously said, “Theonly salvation for a writer is to write”. What is it that drives youto write as much as you do?
Dr. SEAN GABB: I write for many reasons. I write because I havesomething to say, because I want other people to hear me, because Iwant to change the world, because I’m vain, because I’d go mad if Icouldn’t write, because I want people to speak about me after I’mdead, because I hope it will eventually bring in more cash thangetting a regular job, because I’m rather good at it. I’m sure thereare many other reasons for writing. Each one in itself could be theexcuse for an essay.
Let’s deal, however, with writing as a compulsion, which coversseveral of the points given above. If I were to say I’d never changedmy mind, I’d be lying. But I will say that I’ve had certain basicopinions about the world for as long as I’ve been able to think beyond”Seanie wants potty!”
The most basic of these is that the world would be a better place ifwe could all agree to stop pushing each other around. Just behindthis, or perhaps in front, is that English civilisation is a very finething, and anyone who disagrees should go and live somewhere else.There might, I’ll admit, be a slight lack of consistency between theseopinions. But my entire life has seen a progressive collapse ofcivility and due process liberty, and a decline of England so fast andso complete that the Spanish decadence of the 17th century was smoothby comparison. It’s got to the point where I feel almost embarrassedto be English.
I can do without the Empire. Many of my ancestors seem to have donethe crappier jobs in its conquest and defence and generaladministration. But I can’t think I have any moral right to enjoy itnow. What really angers me is that the same class of degenerates wholet the Empire slip away is still messing things up. That class is afounder-member of the New World Order. While spouting crap aboutshifting comparative advantage, it stuffed working class dissent byshutting down British industry, and turning the country into agigantic casino—a casino employing people with names like Justinand Tarquin as the head croupiers. It’s bleeding us white in taxes.It’s suppressing all enterprise and initiative in what looks like adeliberate attack on the people. It’s a class that has corrupted anddirtied everything it touched. More to the point, it now rules throughan increasingly ruthless police state.
All this used to make my friend Chris R. Tame so angry, that I reallybelieve he died of cancer as a result. What keeps me in reasonablehealth is the ability to spray hate for these people all over theInternet. My only regret, when I look at the million words or so I’vewritten of denunciation is that they’ve had so little effect so far.
NEIL: Although I also write non-fiction, I’ve always believed—basedon the efforts of H.G. Wells, Edward Bellamy, Eric Frank Russell,Robert Heinlein, and Ayn Rand, among others—that fiction can be abetter teacher of political philosophy. Why do you write fiction, andis your expectation any different than when you write non-fiction?
SEAN: The short answer is that I’ve always liked stories. I’ve alwaysbeen a daydreamer—I’ve always had a crowded and enjoyable dreamlife. I’ve always wanted to write fiction much more than anythingelse. I was writing short stories at school. I wrote three novels inmy twenties and two in my thirties. None of these got published, and Isometimes feel a certain regret that they have probably faded from thenon-standard disks on which I put them. But I started again in 2005,and have written eight since then.
Writing fiction ticks all the boxes given above. But let’s talk aboutthe political aspects. There is a relative lack of sustained culturalproduction within the conservative and libertarian movements. We’vealways been strong on analysis and criticism. We have our philosophersand economists and historians, and these are among the best. We aren’twholly without our novelists and musicians and artists. There’s you.There’s Heinlein. There’s Rand. There are many others.
But we haven’t so far put cultural production at the top of our listof things to do. It’s been treated as barely even secondary touncovering and explaining the workings of a natural order. So far asthis has been the case, however, it’s been a big mistake. There’slittle benefit in preaching to an audience that doesn’t understand whyyour message is important.
The socialist takeover of the English mind during the early 20thcentury was only in part the achievement of the Webbs and J.A. Hobsonand E.H. Carr and Harold Laski and Douglas Jay, and all the others oftheir kind. They were important, and if they hadn’t written as theydid, there would have been no takeover. But for every one who readthese, there were tens or hundreds who read and were captured by Shawand Wells and Galsworthy and Richard Llewellyn, among others. Thesewere men who transmitted the socialist cases to a much wider audience.
Just as importantly, where they did not directly transmit, they helpedbring about a change in the climate of opinion so that propositionsthat were rejected out of hand by most thoughtful men in the 1890scould become the received wisdom of the 1940s. They achieved a similareffect in the United States, and were supplemented there by writerslike Howard Fast, and, of course, by the Hollywood film industry.
More recently in England, the effect of television soap operas like Eastenders has been immense and profound. Their writers have takenthe dense and often incomprehensible writings of the neo-Marxists andpresented them as a set of hidden assumptions that have transformedthe English mind since 1980. No one can fully explain the Labourvictory of 1997, or the ease with which law and administration weretransformed even before them, without reference to popular culture.
Though I’ll say outright that she’s never been one of my favourites,there’s no doubt that Ayn Rand was a great novelist and a greatlibertarian. And there’s no doubt at all that her novels did more thananything else to revive libertarianism in America—and perhaps evenin England. But what I’m talking about at the moment isn’t longdidactic novels where characters speak for three pages about the evilsof central banking. What I do believe we need is good, popularentertainment of our own creation that is based on our ownassumptions.
I think the most significant objective propagandist of my lifetime forthe libertarian and conservative cause in England was the historicalnovelist Patrick O’Brian. I’ve read all his historical novels, somemore than once, and I don’t think he ever sets out an explicit caseagainst the modern order of things. What he does instead is to createa world—that may once have existed largely as he describes it—that works on different assumptions from our own. If this world isoften unattractive on account of its poverty and brutality, itssettled emphasis on tradition and on personal freedom andresponsibility has probably done more to spread the truth in Englandthan the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Ideascombined.
And, now I mention these organisations, I really do groan at most ofthe stuff they bring out. If they really wanted to win the battle ofideas, they’d do better to cancel a few of those dreary policydocuments, and put the money instead into a ballet about the earlylife of Ludwig von Mises.
NEIL: You’ve written a good many excellent novels under your own nameand otherwise, but you’ve expressed dissatisfaction with what you seeas an inability to persuade British publishers to print your sciencefiction. What do you suppose is at the root of this problem, and whatplans do you have, if any, to fix it?
SEAN: There are many reasons why a publisher may turn down your work.The most likely is that he doesn’t think it will make money. I suspectthat is the case with my own science fiction novels—though I alsosuspect that anyone who believes this is mistaken. While it came outthrough my own publishing company, The Churchill Memorandum has donerather well, and would probably do better still with a mainstreampublisher behind it.
My most recent science fiction novel is an apocalyptic fantasy called The Break. It’s set in an England, just a few years in the future,that has somehow reverted to the year 1065. There was a big storm,eleven months before the start of the novel. When it had cleared,everything in the UK mainland was the same—but the whole world,starting 300 yards from the shore, had gone back 900 years to justbefore the Norman Conquest. Forget any talk, in this scenario, ofshared adversity. What happens is that a ruling class, even moredegenerate than it now is, rolls out a naked police state and lets athird of the population starve to death. Several millions more arerounded up and deported to mediaeval Ireland and set to work on makingthe place into a plantation.
The main characters in this nightmare are a young woman calledJennifer and a stray Byzantine called Michael. Why is the BritishState so eager to lay hands on Michael? What really happened toJennifer’s parents? Above all, what is the American Secretary of Statedoing in London?
I think it’s rather good. Sadly, it sprawls across so many genres, andis so scathing about modern England, that every publisher I’veapproached has told me the novel is highly readable but unprintable.Even my normal publisher won’t touch it.
What to do about this? I suppose the answer is to keep trying. Theremust be a publisher somewhere in the English-speaking world who willbring out my science fiction. It’s a question of finding the rightone.
NEIL: You’ve written four science fiction novels so far. I wonder ifyou’d name them and tell us as much as you wish about each one ofthem.
SEAN: Accidental Qualities (1985) was a less than devout retellingof the Gospel story from the point of view of Erich von Daniken. Ienjoyed describing a massacre by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, and thecharacter of Pilate was probably amusing. But I don’t think the worldis losing much from the existence of the novel in a handwritten firstdraft.
In The Return of the Skolli (1995), it is 2014, and England hasbecome a vicious but down-at-the-heel police state, with brokensecurity cameras and a vestigial PC legitimising ideology.
Philip Phiston is a petty thief who’s been found out at work andsacked. Before leaving the building, he looks through the basement andfinds a nice-looking attache case. When he gets this back to hissordid lodgings in South London, he drinks himself to sleep. When hewakes up, the attache case has turned into a notebook computer—witha 1Gb memory! This is sentient and demands access to the Internet.
Cutting a long story short, this object has been around for 40million years, waiting for the right kind of civilisation to comealong, after which it will construct a gateway through time for a raceof intelligent lizards called the Skolli, whose world was destroyed byan asteroid impact.
The whole thing goes wrong, as Phiston goes on the run with theobject. After a few hundred pages of chasing and killing, we end witha Prime Minister who dissolves into a pool of grey s lime, and thecasting back to the Skolli to their own time.
It’s quite a good novel—or could be. One day, I will see how muchof it survives on the 3.5″ floppy on which it is stored.
The premise of The Churchill Memorandum (2011) is as follows:
It was Thursday the 16th March 1939. The Fuhrer had spent twenty-twohours in Prague to inspect his latest conquest. During this time, thepeople of that city had barely been aware of his presence in theCastle. But as the Mercedes accelerated to carry him back to therailway station, one of the armoured cars forming his guard got stuckin the tramlines that lay just beyond the Wenzelsplatz. The Fuhrer’scar swerved to avoid this. On the frozen cobblestones….
Hitler is dead. There is no Second World War—no takeover of Englandby the Left in 1940. Go forward twenty years, to 1959, and England isstill England. The Queen is on her throne. The pound is worth a pound.All is right with the world—or with that quarter of it lucky enoughto repose under an English heaven.
Rejoicing in this happy state of affairs, Anthony Markham takes hisleave of a nightmarish, totalitarian America. He has a biography towrite of a dead and now largely forgotten Winston Churchill, and hashad to travel to where the old drunk left his papers. But little doesMarkham realise, as he returns to his safe, orderly England, that hecarries, somewhere in his luggage, an object that can be used todestroy England and the whole structure of bourgeois civilisation asit has been gradually restored since 1918.
Who is trying to kill Anthony Markham? For whom is Major Stanhopereally working? Where did Dr Pakeshi get his bag of money? Whatconnection might there be between Michael Foot, Leader of the BritishCommunist Party, and Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan? Why is AynRand in an American prison, and Nathaniel Brandon living in a SouthLondon bedsit? Where does Enoch Powell fit into the story? Above all,what is the Churchill Memorandum? What terrible secrets does itcontain?
All will be revealed—but not till after Markham and Pakeshi havegone on the run through an England unbombed, uncentralised, stillfree, and still mysterious. How might our country have turned out butfor that catastrophic declaration of war in defence of Poland? Read onand wonder….
The Churchill Memorandum can be read as a thriller, as a blackcomedy, as a satire on political correctness. It may also warm thehearts of anyone who suspects that the Pax Americana has been lessthan a blessing for mankind, and that what civilisation we still enjoyis threatened most by those who rule in Washington.
It came out in February 2011 to mixed acclaim and hystericaldenunciation. Several British libertarians appear to have been drivenmad by it. On these grounds alone, I suggest it’s worth buying onAmazon.
The Break (2011) we have already discussed, above.
NEIL: What would you say—to American publishers and readers—makes your novels especially different and interesting to them?
SEAN: Well, in terms of language, the difference is limited to mattersof slightly different speech patterns and a few variations of spellingand vocabulary. My science fiction novels are nearly all set inEngland, and are closely rooted there. This means they will be seen asslightly exotic. But most American readers surely know something aboutEngland. It isn’t as if I were being translated from Uzbek. Englishwriters do well in America so far as what they write isn’t so local asto be incomprehensible—I think here about the large if mostlyignored genre of novels about football (soccer), and all those familysagas set in the north of England.
If my novels ever do well in America, it will be because Americanreaders enjoy reading them—because they have original and strikingplots and are engagingly written. I think they are that—or I hopethey are.
NEIL: In the end, I believe British science fiction writers, fromH. G. Wells, through Eric Frank Russell, to Brian Aldiss and MichaelMoorcock found more willing publishers and more enthusiastic readersin the United States than at home. Could you be satisfied if thatbecame the case with your life’s work?
SEAN: Perfectly so. Fame is fame, and money is money. But I believethe trade hasn’t all been in one direction. I think Frank Herbert’s Dune first came out in England.
Generally, though, science fiction tends to do better in America thanin England. Why that is I can’t say. I might try arguing that modernEnglish culture is deeply pessimistic, and people here tend to lookfor escape into the past. Perhaps America remains more optimistic, andpeople there still believe that the future will be better than thepresent. This being said, science fiction has always been more popularin America, and English science fiction novelists have done better inAmerica than at home.
This being said, I wonder if John Wyndham is much read in America? Hewas a very good novelist, but his novels were all rooted in aspecifically English setting, and require a close familiarity withEnglish ways and assumptions.
NEIL: Speaking only for myself, I read all of Wyndham’s books as ateeneager and enjoyed them very much. And the movie The Day of theTriffids made a pretty good splash. But in a more general sense,what would it take to make you feel that your efforts as a sciencefiction writer have been worthwhile?
SEAN: Oh, the answer to that one is a shedload of money, and standingovations every time I turn up at a convention. Otherwise, it would benice to know that I’d started a whole movement of English libertariannovelists, who went on to have a profound impact on the English mind.The purpose of fiction is always to entertain readers, and to give thewriter at least hopes of enrichment. But hoping for a widerintellectual impact is legitimate.
NEIL: Finally, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln issaid to have declared, “So you’re the little lady who started theCivil War.” Do you believe that writers in general, and writers offiction in particular, are capable of changing the course of history?
SEAN: Oddly enough, I found a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin the otherday in my local library. I think, in general, that 19th centuryAmerican fiction is overrated and is a poor imitation of the Victoriangiants. What I read of UTC, however, struck me as first class. Stoweknew how to write very effective English, and she ranges well betweenpathos and satire and biting denunciation. Since there was no defencepossible of American slavery, I can easily imagine that she puncturedthe unwillingness of most Americans to think about the issue.
Novels do change the course of history. I’ve said that I don’t muchlike Ayn Rand. But there cannot be the slightest doubt that she didmore than anyone else to revive an American libertarian movement thatwas largely moribund, and that her influence spilled straight acrossthe Atlantic. I have very few libertarian friends who were notinitially brought over by reading Atlas Shrugged.
My own path led through the English liberals of the 19th century. ButI have written about how finding The Probability Broach in a railwaycarriage got me out of an intellectual rut in my early twenties. I maynever amount to much, but one of my students may become a Conservativecabinet minister around 2030. One thing often leads to another.
Look at George Orwell. His early novels are worth reading, so far asthey entertain and illustrate the English lefty mind of the 1930s. But Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four did more than Hayek and VonMises and all the lavishly-funded anti-communist stuff of the late1940s to discredit communism in the English-speaking world. TwoCommunists got into Parliament in the 1945 general election. NineteenEighty-Four came out in 1949. There were no Communists who even cameclose to being elected in the 1950 general election. I think there wasa connection between these two latter events. Animal Farm is cruelsatire. But, while, before Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was possible tolie with a straight face about Soviet Russia and not lose friends,totalitarianism ever since has been utterly disreputable.
Looking far outside our movement, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbirdhas become a core text of political correctness. It seems to be onevery English Literature reading list over here. But there can be nodoubt that it’s a very good novel. I suspect the American South wasmuch more complex than this novel describes it. Nevertheless, mostEnglish—and perhaps American—views of the pre-civil rights Southis based on this one novel. It’s a question of ruthless promotion ontothe reading lists, but also of inherent quality. Of course works offiction change history. I doubt it is more changed by anything else.
I’ll say again that the corporate-funded part of the libertarianmovement turns out several hundred thousand pages a year of stuff thatmay be read once by its commissioning editor. Boring at the time, itbecomes, after a few years, incomprehensible. I used to spend oneafternoon a week in the library of the Institute of Economic Affairsin London. This has a complete run of its publication since the late1950s. Some of these are gems that deserve much wider publication—E.G. West on education, for example. Most of them though, are drearythings—about ineffective billing in the state-owned telephoneindustry of the late 1960s.
I won’t say these things have no influence at all. But I suspect theirinfluence is limited to their physical existence. They have adescriptive title, sometimes a striking cover, and they have areassuring bulk. If the actual pages turned out to be filled with thefake Latin used to display printing fonts, they would be no lesseffective.
If only some part of this lavish funding could be turned to publishinglibertarian fiction. The socialists of the early 20th century went forfull spectrum coverage. We are still living with their success. Thereis much that is scandalous in the gross corporatist propaganda I’ve ghost-written for the pharmaceutical industry. What I find mostscandalous is that these people pay me for this dross and let theireyes glaze over if I give them a copy of The Churchill Memorandum.
NEIL: Thank you very much, Sean. This has been an extremelypleasurable experience and I hope we can do it again sometime.Speaking of “boring and incomprehensible”, for instance, we could talk about CATO and the Hoover Institute.
But for now, I’ll remind our readers about The Churchill Memorandum, available in both dead-tree and Kindle formats at Amazon.com. And I’msure you’ll agree that the thrilling historical novels of our mutual friend Richard Blake—also well-represented at Amazon.com—could use a plug.