by Kevin Carson
Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, And How to Get It Back
Sean Gabb, successor to the late Chris Tame as Director of the Libertarian Alliance, is very much a man of the Right: a composite of Burkean and Little Englander, roughly equivalent to the Old Right or paleolibertarians on this side of the Atlantic. In his critique of managerialism and the corporate state, however, he has much to say about globalization and corporate rule, among many other things, that left-libertarians will find of benefit.
The chief villain in Gabb’s book is the managerial New Class and the rentier capitalists whose main source of profit is their association with the corporate state:
It is clear that our ruling class–or that loose coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, educators, and media and business people who derive wealth and power and status from an enlarged and active state–wants an end of liberal democracy. [p. 6]
Elected politicians never have the running of a country all to themselves. While undoubtedly important, they must in all cases govern with the advice and consent of a wider community of the powerful. There are the civil servants. There are the public sector educators. There are the semi-autonomous agencies funded by the tax payers. There are journalists and other communicators. There are certain formally private media and entertainment and legal and professional and business interests that also obtain power, status and income from the policies of government. Together, these form a web of individuals and institutions that is sometimes called the Establishment, though I prefer… to call it the ruling class. [p. 8]
Gabb’s ruling class, like the mass base of Orwell’s Ingsoc party, was “brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government.”
The new Britain he finds so objectionable was essentially described by Anthony Burgess some forty years before. Indeed I find the absence of any reference to Burgess somewhat remarkable. Tony Blair’s Britain, with its near-total supercession of common law protections by administrative courts, and with the social pathologies symbolized by the ubiquity of yobs, happy-slappers and ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders), under the watchful eye of the public surveillance camera, could have leapt from the pages of A Clockwork Orange or 1985. Burgess’s Britain, terrorized by hoodlums like Alex and his droogs, in which “everyone not a child or with child must work,” and where the Minister of the Interior sought to empty the prisons of common prisons because they’d “soon be needing them for the politicals”–is it really such a stretch of the imagination, these days?
The instruments by which the New Class is imposing this “new settlement” on Britain are the replacement of common law due process, civil liberties, and parliamentary government by the unaccountable rule of administrative bodies, and the use of multiculturalism as an ideology to divide, conquer, and reshape society.
Gabb sees the old institutional basis of liberal democracy being eviscerated by the New Class:
…structures of accountability that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries are to be deactivated. Their forms will continue. There will be assemblies at Westminster. But these will not be sovereign assemblies with the formal authority of life and death over us all. That authority will have been passed to various unelected and transnational agencies. And so far as the Westminster assemblies will remain important, our votes will have little effect on what they enact. [p. 6]
I can find much to disagree with in Gabb’s view of cultural (or rather multicultural) matters. For example, in principle I would view the shift in orientation of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich that he describes, from a celebration of Empire and naval supremacy to a focus on slavery and “history from the position of the colonised,” [p. 10] as a good thing. I consider insititutional racism in police forces, and the casual expression within police circles of racist attitudes toward the subject populations over which they are have been given near-unlimited power to coerce, in a much more alarming light than Gabb apparently does. In a country where the names Cory Maye and Katherine Johnson have recently figured in the news, where every week brings another story of someone murdered in a botched no-knock raid, or of someone being tasered to death for “resisting arrest” (who turned out to have been in a diabetic coma)–I can understand the reasons for rooting out such attitudes among our “protectors and servers” root and branch. I confess little sympathy for a uniformed beast of prey (or “filth,” in the apt terminology of some across the Pond) who expressed approval for the murder of black suspects in police custody, and who joked about burying a “Paki bastard” under a railway line,– regardless of how badly his life was “ruined” by exposure. [pp. 11-12] Although Gabb suggests the public reaction was “excessive” and expressed some doubt as to whether such views would affect their performance of public duties, [p. 12] given the background of police abuses in my own country I tend to think cops with absolute and unaccountable power are quite prone to act on such views, and that the public reaction isn’t severe enough.
But the remarkable fact is not our disagreement on cultural matters, but that I concur with so much of his analysis of the effect of “political correctness” and multiculturalism as ruling class ideologies. Like Gabb, I see official multiculturalism in the hands of the New Class and its state agencies as an instrument of division and control, serving a ruling class that prefers a population without the cohesion to resist.
The ruling class seeks “the establishment of absolute and unaccountable power,” to be achieved in part by coercion, but even more by the “reshaping of our thoughts.” The significance of multiculturalism is not so much its objective content, or the often harmful and wrongheaded content of the older habits of thought it seeks to replace. It is the attitude of uncertainty and deference it seeks to create among the ruled: constant uncertainty and anxiety lest they be using a word (“crippled” or “handicapped” rather than “differently-abled,” “black” rather than “African-American,” “Indian” rather than “Native American”) that has been superceded by the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, and deference to the class of social engineers who decide the currently acceptable terminology. And the terminology is deliberately changed frequently enough to maintain this constant free-floating sense of anxiety and dependence.
As dangerous as virulently racist views may be when held by the lawless thugs whose “gang colors” are police uniforms, the nature of the ideas being stamped out is purely incidental for the social engineers; their real purpose could be served just as well by identifying any widely held belief, no matter its substantive content, as a “thoughtcrime” to be policed by themselves. And the assumption of such state power is even more dangerous when exercised against private citizens–as when plainclothes police agents visited Chinese and Indian restaurants to monitor the patrons for ethnic slurs against the staff. [p. 13] Criminalizing the expression of racist views by private citizens, no matter how abhorrent–it should go without saying for any libertarian–endangers the liberties of everyone else.
The ruling class’s motivation in ideologically renovating museums and such is not to replace a worse with a better understanding of an objective truth, but to “weaken their ties with the past, or… to make them into vehicles for contemporary propaganda.” [p. 10]
Every autonomous institution, every set of historical associations, every pattern of loyalty that cannot be co-opted and controlled–these must be destroyed or neuralized. [p. 25]
Their agenda, in rooting out and punishing private expressions of racist thought, is to seize on the abhorrence that many understandably feel for such views as a vehicle for putting power into the hands of a class of social engineers.
If borders and customs and other artificial barriers to the free movement of people are a bad thing, then so is the artificial mobility promoted by Empire and by subsidized global capitalism. The result, as described by Gabb, is to render impossible a recurrence of the liberal uprisings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries , “by promoting movements of peolles so that nations in the old sense disappear, and are replaced by patchworks of nationalities more suspicious of each other than of any ruling class.” [p. 6]
Stripped of the Left’s older preoccupations with economics and class, likewise, multiculturalism can be of immense service to the cartelized private sector in policing its wage-serfs and cubicle-drones. For one thing, the added inefficiency and overhead costs of an internal PC regime, as Gabb observes, are cartelized: that is, they apply equally to all large corporations and are therefore not a matter for competition between firms. [p. 48] For another, the postmodern, multicultural corporate culture described by Thomas Frank in One Market Under God is much closer to the worldview of David Brooks’ “Bobos” who predominate in managerial ranks. In the U.S., for the managerialists and professionals who constitute the base of the Democratic Party, stagnant wages, downsizing, and all the other economic aspects of the new global economy are perfectly fine–so long as the people in the boardrooms who do the exploiting “look like America.” Forty years ago in The Greening of America, Charles Reich depicted a hippie chic utopia in which the centralized, hierarchical power structures of the state and corporation were largely unaltered–but staffed by people with bell-bottoms and beads. What mattered was not the existence of concentrations of power, but that the people in power “had their heads in the right place, man.” That “utopia” is, in essence, now a reality. Most importantly, in an age of increasing worker disgruntlement over stagnant pay and increased workloads, an internal PC regime serves admirably to promote resentment and divisions and reduce solidarity among workers, and provide trumped-up grounds for disciplining troublemakers.
A central part of Gabb’s analytical toolkit is the work of Frankfurt School and neo-Marxist scholars on “ideological hegemony.” Although he denies the applicability of their analysis to “liberal democracy,” he sees it as well-suited to the ideological project of the new ruling class.
I should say, in passing, that I take issue with Gabb on the relevance of neo-Marxist thought to the old, “liberal” order. He denied the existence of any real “hegemonic discourse” under the old liberal regime, arguing rather that political leaders tended to legitimize their positions in terms of a value system which arose spontaneously from civil society and which they accepted as given. [p. 20] Likewise, he considers the Chomsky/Herman “propaganda model” of the media to have been inapplicable to liberal democracy. [pp. 31-32]
I think he is mistaken on this count. For one thing, the question of whether “liberal democracy” even existed in any meaningful sense is a very real one. The old liberal democracy was dominated by privileged capitalist and landed elites whose economic position resulted, not from the workings of a market, but from the state. And the old “spontaneous” ideological climate reflected, to a large extent, their interests. For another, the New Class and its ideology are nearly as old as corporate capitalism, and its managerialist world-view (eg. scientific management) has been incorporated into the service of the plutocracy since the corporate revolution first required a class of “professional” overseers. The New Class and managerialism, and the protective and nurturing state, have been integral parts of corporate capitalism since its beginning; and if we identify the full flowering of liberal democracy with the electoral reforms of 1833 and 1867 (let alone 1911), then liberal democracy was hardly even fairly begun and the Old Regime fairly ended, before the beginnings of state capitalism. Genuine “liberal democracy” was largely limited to a thin sliver of thought by Ricardian radicals like Hodgskin, assorted Cobdenites, etc., sandwiched in-between the Old Regime and state capitalism, which was quickly relegated to a few radical free market strands (the individualist anarchists, Georgists, Nock and Borsodi, etc.) fighting a rear-guard action within state capitalism.
And in more general terms, hegemonic ideology is coextensive with, and as old as, class society. As an individualist anarchist, I consider class power and economic exploitation the primary functions of the state; and just as there has never been a genuine free market, free from economic exploitation by state-privileged classes, there has never been a society without a hegemonic ideology serving such privileged classes. Hegemonic ideology, I should add, does not require any conscious, conspiratorial design–it is a largely automatic result of a society’s normal tendency to reproduce the conditions for its own continued existence.
I also suspect Gabb’s treatment of neo-Marxism as the ideology of the new ruling class is overblown. There may be something to his tracing of their political style to the New Left fashions of their formative years; Gabb cites Boyd Tonkin to the effect that while Nulab has abandoned most of the economic content of Marxism and social democracy, their “pattern-building, system-seeking cast of thought” persists. [p. 22] But stripped of their economic and political substance, the signficance of their style itself is tenuous at best (as also with explanations of the neoconservative “style” in terms of their alleged Trotskyite origins).
As an analytical tool for describing the ideological functions of the ruling class, as opposed to the content of their ideology, neo-Marxist concepts may however be quite useful.
And while I disagree with Gabb on the question of whether a hegemonic ideology existed under “liberalism” and the Old Regime, I do agree that it was much more feasible to argue against the hegemonic ideology from an independent base. The average person of the late twentieth century was far more conditioned by his televised matrix reality, than the average member of the working class by the hegemonic ideology of the nineteenth century. The very extent to which Marxism and assorted brands of anarchism spread among the working classes demonstrates as much. Contrast, for example, Thomas Franks’ Kansas before WWI, to the same region in recent years. It was surely even more prone to Bible-thumping and Jesus-shouting at the turn of the twentieth century as it is now–and yet it was one of the prime constituencies for the Wobblies and Gene Debs, and home to a vibrant and independent working class press. Today, on the other hand, the populist resentment of the area is channeled by Rove’s talking points and AM talk radio against a range of targets carefully selected by the ruling class. The turning point was probably the liquidation of the genuine socialist, working class, and economic populist movements during the reign of terror under St. Woodrow and A. Mitchell Palmer. We may finally be witnessing today, with the rise of the Internet and network culture as an alternative to the gatekeepers of the corporate media, the weak beginnings of a resurgence of something like the pre-WWI independent popular culture.
Gabb’s revolutionary agenda deserves a great deal of attention. He rejects any gradualist program of scaling back one institution at a time. Such a strategy, he says, would just result in a pitched battle over each institution, with the anti-state coalition quickly losing its political capital to a war of attrition. The only hope is to gamble everything on electoral success and then to act quickly and decisively, in the brief window of opportunity, to dismantle as much of the ruling class’ institutional base as possible, so that it cannot be quickly reconstituted if power once again changes hands. That means completely abolishing institutions like the BBC, and completely dismantling the administrative apparatus and records of the regulatory state (“An hour in front of a shredding machine can ruin the work of 20 years.”), and–while leaving the state schools intact–completely abolishing teacher training colleges. [pp. 54-56, 60]
I am skeptical as to the prospects for any such all-at-once seizure of power, as opposed to gradually rolling back the state and supplanting it with alternative organizations (as per both the agorist agenda of building a counter-economy, and the Wobbly strategy of “building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old”). But I agree that, revolutionary or gradualist, the goal of any libertarian movement should be, not to control the state and other centralized institutions, but to dismantle them. I am very much a believer in Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy. Genuine democratic control of centralized, hierarchical institutions is impossible. Our only hope for real democracy is to destroy as much of the infrastructure of the centralized state and corporate economy as possible, and replace them with loose political federations of local direct democracies and with a free market of competing worker cooperatives.
Along these last lines, interestingly, Gabb proposes something of an entente with the libertarian left.
…there are many anarchists and syndicalists and libertarian socialists who do not believe in this extended state. And so I will make it clear that when I talk about a free market, I do not mean a legal framework within which giant corporations are able to squeeze their suppliers, shut down their small competitors and socialize their workers into human sheep.
I have already said I would not defend the landed interests. I would very strongly favor an attack on the structures of corporate capitalism
Organisations like Tesco, British Pretroleum and ICI are not free market entities. They are joint stock limited liability cororations. The Company Acts allow them to incorporate so that their directors and shareholders can evade their natural responsibilities in contract and tort. They are, for this reason, privileged in law….
It is not true that big business has in any sense suffered from the public interventions in economic activity of the past hundred years. The truth is that big business has benefited from, and in many cases, promoted every agenda of big government. Employment protection laws, product safety laws, curbs on advertising and promotion, heavy taxes, and all the rest–these have served to insulate big business from their smaller competition, or have cartelized or externalized costs, thereby reducing the need for competition between big business….
The leaders of large corporations are nothign more than the economic wing of the ruling class. They provide taxes and outright bribes that enrich the political wing. They act as part of the ideological state apparatus…. In return for all this, they receive various kinds of protection and subsidy that allow them to make large profits.
They police their workers… Workers find themselves gently conscripted into large organisations that strip them of autonomy and suppress any actual desire for self-direction. Anyone who works for any length of time in one of these big corporations tends to become just another “human resource”–all his important life decisions made for him by others, and insensibly encouraged into political and cultural passivity. [pp. 63-65]
His description of the likely fate of the state-affiliated “private sector” corporate economy, after the revolution, is positively eloquent:
Our first big attack on the present ruling class should destroy most of the really dangerous government bodies, and the formally private bodies that now cluster round them would perish like tapeworms in a dead rat. [p. 61]
The tapeworm is to be killed through the elimination of all subsidies and protections, and above all the elimination of limited liability.
We should promote the emergence of markets in which the majority of players are sole traders and partnerships and worker cooperatives, and in which the number of people employed on contracts of permanent service is an ever-dwindling minority…. [This policy] would replace armies of ruling class serfs with beneficiaries of our counter-revolution. [pp. 65-66]
The welfare state he advises to leave pretty much alone for the near term. In so doing, the revolution would deprive the ruling class of its chief potential ally for an attempted counter-revolution. And, he points out, the main actual cost of the welfare state is the administrative overhead from supporting intrusive and authoritarian welfare bureaucrats in a comfortable lifestyle. As a first reform, he proposes eliminating the entire apparatus of case workers and redirecting the entire welfare budget to a guaranteed annual income. [pp. 57-59] Ultimately, it could be drastically scaled back as increased working class prosperity and a resurgence of voluntary mutual aid arrangements made it unnecessary. [p. 63]
His tax agenda–eliminating the income tax and VAT, and replacing them with a tax on land-value–should be pleasing to the Geolibertarian contingent of the libertarian left. [pp.
In the legal realm, Gabb proposes dismantling as much as possible of the administrative state and its prerogative law procedures. In the restored common law, all regulations of vice and private behavior are to be eliminated, while making penalties for real crimes against person and property sufficient to deter. For the latter crimes, however, a maximalist reading of all common law due process guarantees is to be restored:
the right to silence under police questioning, the full right ofhabeas corpus, the full presumption of innocence, the full right of peremptory challenge of jurors, the rules against similar fact and hearsay evidence, the unanimity rule in jury trials, and all else that has been taken away. [p. 68]