We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Dancing with Sister Morphine

I came out of hospital yesterday. La Belle Dame is in America making money (one of us has to) so Dave picked me up and steered me home. I live quite close to the Chelsea & Westminster and needed some air to clear my head so we walked back. I felt surprisingly well considering I have been under a general anaesthetic and had quite a few squishy bits from inside lopped off me. In fact I felt amazingly well.

The journey back home was interesting. The colours were so very bright and someone seems to have turned up the contrast. Sometimes when I looked closely as the things written on the back of people’s tee-shirts whilst walking down King’s Road, the words seemed to suddenly zoom away from me towards some vanishing point.

Getting home and having a nice shower was a transcendent experience but the thing that really kept me captivated was the way the water fell down, coming from hundreds of feet above my head and travelling downwards towards the gleaming ceramic floor perhaps three yards below. I could feel the vibration of the water spiralling down the plughole and the strange flute-like sound it made.

I looked forward to getting some good food as being chopped up had not dented my appetite and the hospital food was moderately dreadful. When it came time to eat, for some reason Dave would not let me near the hot stove. The smell of bacon was almost erotic.

Dave and I work together and I had been struck by some really good creative ideas whilst pacing back and forth in the ward the night before last, waiting for the frigging painkillers to actually do something. The ideas kept pouring out of me and Dave just absorbed them like the 185 IQ colossus he is. For a while at least.

But then I noticed that I was having to force the ideas out through clenched teeth and they kept bouncing off Dave’s head rather than going in. To make matters worse although the bacon surrendered to me willingly, the sausages were staring at me with ill concealed contempt. I stabbed a couple to death as punishment and gave the rest to Dave.

Today I find the internet in front of me and deep throbbing pains from within. Be prepared from some bad tempered blogging over the next few days when I can drag my fingers to the mouse. Tramadol, Co-Codamol and Diclofenac are pallid impostors. Sister Morphine is a fickle lover and she would not come home with me.

The public mood (while the public moo-ed)

I am feeling less of a lone loony than I did. After a decade of my saying the key thing wrong with the demon eyes campaign was that the slogan ought to have been: ‘New Labour: Old Danger’ because the electorate should not have the purported newness reinforced, more and more people in the chattering classes seem to be accepting that there is a danger. Even such fringe lefty agitators as Clifford Chance LLP have offered severe warnings about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Too late?

The War on Liberty may never end, but it became a general action only in the 90s – just about the time, the Wall being down, and the net routing round borders and censorship, we free-lifers had begun to feel we were winning. Now I find I am doing my bit with NO2ID and we are gearing up for a ten-year campaign. Grand constitutionalist coalitions are being proposed left, right, and centre (which I’m sure are meritorious). The differences between Peter Hitchens and Mark Thomas begin to be indistinguishable when the establishment is of the extreme centre…

What worries me is that this ferment is still superficial, a speck of mould on Mr Blair’s Horlicks. It concerns the tiny minority of the population that reads the serious press, say 10% – and of those only the avid followers of politics, maybe a quarter of that. The readers and writers of blogs are fewer still, and more introrse.

The mass of the population of Britain is nescient, complacent, and has no interest in the abstractions of liberty, or the threats from power assumed only to be threats to others, to bad people. Many people are happy to claim the status of an ‘ordinary’ person, with “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” from officialdom, while being paradoxically susceptible to fears of everything else. Passively concerned with material welfare, security against virtual risks, and gossip, they graze and are milked as the livestock of the state.

This is Foucault’s concept of governmentality in action. Not, pace his fans on the left, a neo-liberal order, but a post-liberal order in which the foundational institutions of liberalism – liberty and individuality, rule of law, the separation of private and public life, a civil society and a political sphere distinct from one another – have ceased to have a meaning for even the bulk of the middle-classes.

Where is the cattle-prod that will change the public mood?

David Cameron as Peter Sellers

The Tories could simply abolish entire government departments that the ‘man in the street’ really does not give a damn about (such as the DTI for example) and save huge amounts of money… but far from cutting pointless state expenditures, Cameron is in the process of making it politically impossible for him to do anything but ape Blair. Why? Because there has been no meaningful attempt by the Tories to even make the idea of a smaller state something that is simply a feature of normal political discourse. They have left the thinking to the other side and now have to fight every battle on ground Tony Blair has chosen for them.

The Tories have had more than a decade to put in the intellectual ground work for cutting the scope of the state and to argue their positions on the basis of several rights, and yet have done nothing of the sort because that is not what most of them believe. That is hardly surprising given the pathologies of the sort of people who are drawn to politics: they do not get involved because they want to wield less power than the previous guys who ran things. Understanding politicians and what they are likely to do is much easier once you realise that almost everyone in politics (even the ‘nice guys’ who wear sensible cardigans and remind you of Wallace and Gromit) have more in common psychologically and morally with your typical member of a street gang than with most of the people who actually vote for them.

However where does that leave people who do want a less intrusive state and cannot bring themselves to believe the Tory party does not give a damn about them? Well it leaves them trying to convince themselves that Cameron is just playing a clever game because the alternative is just too dreadful. He is the man who will save us from those who are incrementally destroying our competitiveness and strangling our civil liberties because, well, he has to be, who else is there?

But even if his conversion to ‘soft socialist’ economics is because he is going after LibDem voters who think high taxes and regulations are a good thing, it would at least require Cameron to also make a pitch based on civil liberties, the one differentiating issue where the LibDems make sense, and yet the main thrust of the inconstant Tory opposition to ID cards is based on their cost.

Those of you who think Cameron is just being clever should go watch Peter Sellers in ‘Being There’ and realise that what you are mistaking for cleverness is in fact just emptiness.

Are you a ‘citizen’ or just a ‘subject’?

My previous article seems to have sparked off a discussion amongst the commentariat on the difference between being called a ‘subject’ or a ‘citizen’. To prevent that comment section from digressing too far, I thought it might be interesting to provide an article to revisit the topic even though I have written about it before.

There are some historical reasons why the British have been ‘subjects’ (as they were subject to the laws of the Crown), whereas Americans have been ‘citizens’. The reality is that the British are subject to are the laws of a democratically elected Parliament. As in truth the Royal Assent is nothing more than a historical curiosity, the actual differences between the way individuals truly relate to state in the United States and Britain is less than it might seem. The principle differences of significance are be that as Britain is more democratic at th national level, individuals have less institutional defences against the power of the state, whereas in the United States, with its written constitution and clearer separation of powers, an individual has more structural defences against the excesses of democratic politics, at least in theory.

In my experience most people tend to think they are citizens rather than subjects of whatever nation issues their passport. However I have always though the term ‘subject’ was a far more honest word to describe the relationship between individuals and the state rather than the prouder egalitarian sounding ‘citizen’. We are subject to taxes, we are subject to laws, we are subject to conscription of various sorts (be it military, educational or judicial). Sure, we ‘citizens’ are empowered via the glories of democracy, but quite how being out-voted and then being subject to some law you oppose ’empowers’ you is unclear to me, even if it is a reasonable law. To be a subject may seem demeaning but in truth that is what we are: subjects.

As it happens, I think the term is even more appropriate for US ‘citizens’ given that at least in Britain and almost every other country, to avoid your particular state making ownership claims on the product of your labour, you just have to leave the country and live somewhere else. States generally do not claim to own you independent of your location, just the territory you live on and part of your labour within that territory in return for its ‘protection’ (capisce?).

The United States, on the other hand, claims you owe them the obeisance of taxes regardless of where you are physically located anywhere on the planet, although in practice it often makes arrangements with other nations to only impose its demands if you make more than a certain amount (double taxation treaties). Yet the obligation to report your income from overseas and to pay the IRS is still there if they wish you to do so.

So if it is not just sovereignty over a piece of land that the USA claims, it actually contends that it owns part of your labour regardless of where you live, making you subject to taxation for merely having the permission to live in America even if you choose to live elsewhere, then you sure sound like a ‘subject’ to me.

Church and state

“America’s militant agnostic minority has totally distorted the meaning of separation of church and state. It doesn’t mean banning religion and religious values from the public square. It doesn’t mean Howard Stern’s off-color (and frequently off-the-wall) ‘humor’ is protected speech, while the free _expression of religion is banned. It means the United States will establish no official religion, while remaining equally hospitable to all religions — and to those who practice none. Religious principle is not something to fear and loathe and banish from the public square; it is a code of conduct on which we can and should rely to guide our personal and civic behavior”
– singer Pat Boone, writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

I know, I know – Pat Boone? But he seems to me he got this one about right (except for the implication that Howard Stern’s humor may not be protected speech).

Contrary to popular belief, “separation of church and state” is not found in the US Constitution. What is found in the Constitution is a prohibition on the establishment of a state church (which is why it is known as the Establishment Clause) reading thusly “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” The ‘separation’ meme comes from correspondence between Jefferson and Madison, but was never enacted in Constitutional language.

A nice, fairly even-handed intro can be found here.

Personally, I think that the issue of impending theocracy and separation of church and state evaporates, once you take seriously the US Constitution’s limited grant of power to the national government. If the national government is held to its enumerated powers, then it lacks the power to implement into civil law most behavioral controls that various religions might promote. Since the federal government restricted to its enumerated powers has no Constitutional basis to, for example, ban abortions, it simply cannot be used for that purpose by the purported theocrats among us.

The various left-wing ninnies who are running around bleating about theocracy are, in effect, hoist on their own petard. Having spent generations destroying the idea of limited government and creating an all-powerful national state, it ill becomes them to complain now that their tool is being turned to different ends. Even so, it is astonishing that virtually none of them realize that the uses to which the Republicans want to put federal power are inevitable, once you establish an all-powerful state in a country that is actually quite Christian and conservative, all told. It is sad but unsurprising that none of them are willing to attack the problem at its root by calling for limited government. No, the only solution the statists can imagine is seizing power again, themselves.

A moment of utter clarity

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that we have long regarded the Ban on Foxhunting with Dogs as having very little to do with foxhunting.

As David Carr has pointed out before, those who shout loudly that the move against hunting is ‘undemocratic’ are completely wrong: it is perfectly democratic. Welcome to the world in which there is no give and take of civil society… welcome to the world of total politics.

Mr Bradley says: ‘We ought at last to own up to it: the struggle over the Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom: it was class war.’

The MP for The Wrekin adds that it was the ‘toffs’ who declared war on Labour by resisting the ban, but agrees that both sides are battling for power, not animal welfare.

‘This was not about the politics of envy but the polities of power. Ultimately it’s about who governs Britain.’


‘Labour governments have come and gone and left little impression on the gentry. But a ban on hunting touches them. It threatens their inalienable right to do as they please on their own land. For the first time, a decision of a Parliament they don’t control has breached their wrought-iron gates.

No kidding. That is what we have been pointing out here on Samizdata.net for quite some time and why we have treated commenters who shrugged and said “why get worked up about foxhunting?” with such derision. It was never about hunting but rather things that are far, far more fundamental. It is about those who would make all things subject to democratically sanctified politics (‘Rule by Activist’) seeking to crush those who see private property and society, rather than state, as what matters.

Mr Bradley, 51, admits that he personally sees the campaign to save hunting as an assault on his right to govern as a Labour MP.

And Mr. Bradley is correct but for one thing: the battle in question is about the limits of political power and not just Labour’s political power. Until the supporter of the Countryside Alliance see that they are actually struggling against the idea of a total political state, they will not even be fighting the right war. It is not about who controls the political system but what the political system is permitted to do under anyone’s control. The United States has a system of separation of powers and constitutional governance which (at least in theory even though not in fact) places whole areas of civil society outside politics. Britain on the other hand has no such well defined system and the customary checks and balances have been all but swept away under the current regime. Britain’s ‘unwritten constitution’ has been shown to be a paper tiger.

But those who look to the Tories to save them from the class warriors of the left are missing another fundamental truth. During their time in power, the Tory Party set the very foundations upon which Blair and Blunkett are building the apparatus for totally replacing social processes with political processes, a world in which nothing cannot be compelled by law if that is what ‘The People’ want: populist authoritarianism has been here for a while but now it no longer even feels it has to hide its true face behind a mask.

Moreover it would take another blind man to look back on Michael Howard’s time as Home Secretary and see him as being less corrosive to civil liberties that the monstrous David Blunkett. Have you heard the outraged Tory opposition to the terrifying Civil Contingencies Act? Of course not, because the intellectual bankruptcy of the Tory party is now complete… for the most part they support it. If the so-called ‘Conservatives’ will not lift a finger to stop the destruction of the ancient underpinnings of British liberty, what exactly are they allegedly intending to ‘conserve’? The Tories are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem and the sooner the UKIP destroy them by making them permanently unelectable, the better, so that some sort of real opposition can fill the ideological vacuum.

Those who were marching against banning foxhunting completely miss the issues at stake here. The issue is not and never has been foxhunting but rather the acceptable limits of politics. And you cannot resolve that issue via the political system in Britain. It is only once the people who oppose the ban on foxhunting and the people who oppose the Civil Contingencies Act and the people who oppose the introduction of ID cards and data pooling all realise that these are NOT separate issues but the same issue will effective opposition be possible. And I fear that opposition will, at least until the ‘facts on the ground’ can be established, have to be via civil disobedience and other ways to make sections of this country ungovernable by whatever means prove effective. The solution does not lie in ‘democracy’ but rather by enough people across the country asserting their right to free association and non-politically mediated social interaction by refusing to obey the entirely democratic laws which come out of Westminster.

Peter Bradley is right and he has provided any who are paying attention with a moment of utter clarity: It is time to challenge his right to ‘rule’ by whatever means necessary.

Regulation and data

This article from the Washington Post, on the application of the little known Data Quality Act to hobble the regulatory leviathan, is full of unintentional insights. The Data Quality Act is, well, let the Post tell it, and let the insights begin!

The Data Quality Act — written by an industry lobbyist and slipped into a giant appropriations bill in 2000 without congressional discussion or debate — is just two sentences directing the OMB to ensure that all information disseminated by the federal government is reliable.

The first insight is, of course, the clonking great pro-government, pro-regulation bias that the Post brings to this story. Note the disparaging terms applied to this piece of legislation, which has a genesis and a pedigree that is totally ordinary – most legislation is the product of interested parties, and most finds its way onto the books via massive omnibus bills that no one reads. However, these routine facts of Washington life are given ominous prominence only when the media outlet is opposed to whatever was done. The rest of the story is riddled with similar bias – in the Post’s world, regulation is always good, always to protect the people, never fails a cost-benefit test, always supported by the preponderance of the scientific evidence, etc.

The next set of unintentional insights comes to us when the relatively innocuous purpose of the Act collides with the prerogatives of the regulatory state.

But many consumers, conservationists and worker advocates say the act is inherently biased in favor of industry. By demanding that government use only data that have achieved a rare level of certainty, these critics maintain, the act dismisses scientific information that in the past would have triggered tighter regulation.

First, of course, note who the Post asks for their opinion. Of equal interest is the rather revealing admission that, in the past, regulation was apparently handed down on the basis of information that was, how to put this, of less than adequate quality. Declining to regulate because the data isn’t there is, of course, a Bad Thing.

These final comments surely need no elaboration.

“It’s a tool to clobber every effort to regulate,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor of law and director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland. “In my view, it amounts to censorship and harassment.”
. . . .

Yet Steinzor, the Maryland environmental lawyer, and other critics complain that the OMB’s involvement politicizes the process. The expertise of the handful of scientists hired by Graham, they say, cannot match that of the thousands of experts on agency staffs.

My friend Ed

Compared to other people (or rather, other people of my acquaintance) I joined the internet revolution rather late. While most people I meet are able to boast that they have had an e-mail address since the late (or even mid) 1980’s, I was not similarly endowed until 1998.

But what I lacked in early adoption techniques I made up for in subsequent enthusiasm. This was a whole new frontier and I revelled and rejoiced in the exhilirating liberation it provided. I am sure that plenty of our readers have experienced that same feeling.

And it was while I was on this big journey of discovery and emancipation that I stumbled across a forum (there were no blogs in those olden times) run by LM Magazine. LM stands (or stood) for ‘Living Marxism’ and it was run by the same people who, today, run Spiked-Online.

As with most internet fora, there was a regular contingent of posters and, in the case of the LM Forum, this consisted of a whole gaggle of Marxists, Communists and Trotskyites. Into this lion’s den barged (or perhaps blundered) two libertarians; one of them was me and the other was an American called Ed Collins. → Continue reading: My friend Ed

How ideas spread and get acted on – the weight of numbers fallacy

Almost anything you say about how ideas spread and eventually get accepted and acted upon is liable to be (a) true, but (b) over-simplified, because the whole truth about how ideas spread and get acted upon is far, far too complicated ever to keep complete track of. Where the definite falsehood creeps in is when people say, or more commonly imply through the other things that they say, that ideas can only spread in this way or that way, and that all the other ways they can spread don’t count for anything.

There is one such implied falsehood which we at Samizdata, for humiliatingly obvious reasons, are likely to be particularly interested in and cheered up by contesting. This is the idea that what matters when it comes to spreading ideas is sheer weight of numbers. It’s the idea that getting some other idea to catch on and be acted upon is a question of assembling a sufficiently huge number of people who believe this idea to be true or good or appealing, and then for this vast throng of supporting people to prevail against the other almost equally vast (but not quite) throng of people who believe the opposite.

Clearly, as a partial description about how some ideas spread, at some times and in some places, this kind of thing can definitely happen. Political elections are often just like this. This vast throng of humanity votes for this idea, that throng votes for that idea, and the winners are the ones who appeal to the biggest throng.

But as a complete description of how ideas spread this picture is false. Most things, after all, are not decided by political elections. For example, I would say that when historians look back on our era, they will say that the development of the Internet was a huge historical event, up there with the first printed bibles in local languages, or with the development of the railways or of the motor car. Yet neither the internet, nor printing, nor railways, nor motor cars were any of them set in motion merely by political electorates, and nor, once they had got underway, were any political electorates ever invited to vote against them.

The weight-of-numbers model is even seriously false when it comes to understanding the full story of most political elections. Yes, elections decide who will occupy various political offices, and what will be written about in newspaper editorials for the next few years. But these elections seldom decide very much about what actually gets done from these offices. Instead, democratic true believers (the ones who really do believe that absolutely everything should be decided with a head count) constantly rage at how “undemocratic” democracy typically turns out to be. They have a point.

I will now offer you a thought experiment, the point of which is to explain how unimportant mere numbers of believers in an idea can be, and how much more interesting and complicated the spread of and adoption of ideas can sometimes be. → Continue reading: How ideas spread and get acted on – the weight of numbers fallacy

Hitler’s home in Homes & Gardens

There’s an article in today’s New York Times, an article about another article, in Homes & Gardens. But follow that Homes & Gardens link and you won’t find any mention of this article, because it was published in 1938 and was about Adolf Hitler’s “Bavarian retreat”.

The predominant color scheme of Hitler’s “bright, airy chalet” was “a light jade green.” Chairs and tables of braided cane graced the sun parlor, and the Führer, “a droll raconteur,” decorated his entrance hall with “cactus plants in majolica pots.”

Such are the precious and chilling observations in an irony-free 1938 article in Homes & Gardens, a British magazine, on Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps. A bit of arcana, to be sure, but one that has dropped squarely into the current debate over the Internet and intellectual property. This file, too, is being shared.

The resurrection of the article can be traced to Simon Waldman, the director of digital publishing at Guardian Newspapers in Britain, who says he was given a vintage issue of the magazine by his father-in-law. Noticing the Hitler spread, which doted on the compound’s high-mountain beauty (“the fairest view in all Europe”) at a time when the Nazis had already gobbled up Austria, Mr. Waldman scanned the three pages and posted them on his personal Web site last May. They sat largely unnoticed until about three weeks ago, when Mr. Waldman made them more prominent on his site and sent an e-mail message to the current editor of Homes & Gardens, Isobel McKenzie-Price, pointing up the article as a historical curiosity.

Ms. McKenzie-Price, citing copyright rules, politely requested that he remove the pages. Mr. Waldman did so, but not before other Web users had turned the pages into communal property, like so many songs and photographs and movies and words that have been illegally traded for more than a decade in the Internet’s back alleys.

Still, there was a question of whether the magazine’s position was a stance against property theft or a bit of red-faced persnicketiness.

Now this episode could be turned into yet another intellectual property comment fest, and if that’s what people want, fine, go ahead. But what interests me is the ineptness of the commercial Homes & Gardens response, their woeful neglect of a major business opportunity. An honest response from them about their reluctance to get involved in political judgements of the many and varied political people whose houses they have featured in their pages over the decades, and about all the other famous (and infamous) people whose homes they’ve written about over the years, together with a website pointing us all to their archives, might surely have served their commercial purposes far better, I would have thought.

This might have morphed into a discussion of the comparably fabulous pads occupied by other famous monster-criminal-dictators (including some featured in Homes & Gardens, of the exact degree of opulence/disgustingness of the homes of the Russian and Chinese Communist apparatchiks, but of their far greater reluctance (when compared to openly inegalitarian despots like Hitler) to reveal their living arrangements to the world, in the pages of such publications as Homes & Gardens. There might also have been some quite admiring further thoughts on the nice way that Hitler had arranged matters for himself, from the domestic point of view, the way the design of the house made maximum use of the view of the mountains, etc., etc. It does sound like a really nice place.

Such a discussion could surely have been combined with a robust defence by Homes & Gardens of their intellectual property rights under existing law, and in a way that might have been to their further commercial advantage. They might have simply reprinted the entire piece in a current issue, together with their current comments about it.

But no. Down go the shutters. And an opportunity to bring Homes & Gardens to the non-contemptuous attention of a whole new generation of readers, instead of to its contemptuous attention, is missed. Or is about to be missed. → Continue reading: Hitler’s home in Homes & Gardens

Globalisation, bookshops, and the Anglosphere

One of the more annoying things about modern large bookshops is that they divide the non-fiction books into a vast number of over-defined categories. This is not a huge difficulty if you are looking for a cookbook, or a book about trains, or a travel guidebook, as it is pretty clear what sections those books belong in. However, when we get to the social sciences things get hazy. If I am looking for (say) one of Ian Buruma‘s books on Asia (which are all worth a read, by the way), it is impossible to know whether the book in question will be on the shelves in “Asian History”, “Eastern culture”, “Travel writing”, “Sociology”, “Chinese History”, or one several other categories, even though if you look at all his books together they are clearly all have a very similar theme. It just does not fit into bookshop categorisation.

This is fine if you are looking for a particular book. You just ask at the information counter, they look it up in the computer and they tell you where it is and whether they have any copies. However, if you are trying to find it without help it can be close to impossible.

In any event, when I was wandering through my local branch of Books etc the other day, I found myself walking past a section I hadn’t noticed before, labelled “anti-globalisation”. That’s right, they had a section devoted to the works of Michael Moore, Noam Chomksy and the like. People who wanted to read such books can go straight to that section without having to be exposed to anything else. I’m sure they find this very convenient.

Even better, the bookshop encourages its staff to recommend books to customers. They even go to the trouble of giving their staff members little cards on which they can write down their recommendations and attach them to the shelves in the store. This is a good practice, as it may help readers find books and it also makes it clear that the booksellers are people who like to read themselves. But, even so, I had personal issues with the anti-globalisation recommendations.

Books etc. staff pick


Books etc. Staff pick

Save me.

Seriously, I suspect that the number of people who have read Michael Moore and are not already aware of the existence of John Pilger and Noam Chomsky already is small (or perhaps I overestimate them). I think recommendations like this are better when they refer people who have read something well known to something that is both rather more obscure and also good. And Pilger and Chomsky are not especially obscure, however much I might wish it were so.

However, in the chance that there might be anyone walking through the bookshop who might have discovered Michael Moore but not Pilger or Chomsky, I thought I had a duty to save them from this (and also there was a Samizdata post in it). Therefore, although it was a bit naughty of me I removed the little cards from the shelf and walked out with them. (Yes, okay, technically I stole them. However, sometimes the ends do justify the means).

As I was walking out of the shop, it struck me that it would be kind of cool to get a few of the blank cards, write out a few book recommendations of my own, and then attach them to the shelves. However, when I thought about it some more, I realised I didn’t need anyone to supply me with a stock of blank cards. For I have the miracles of modern technology at my disposal, and I could produce some of my own. I could go back into the bookshop and leave something like this.

Samizdata.net staff pick

Or perhaps this.

Samizdata.net staff pick

The fun could be never ending. → Continue reading: Globalisation, bookshops, and the Anglosphere

Libertarian socialism?

Whilst perusing Harry’s Place, I discovered a reference to an essay written by Labour MP Peter Hain in 2000 about ‘libertarian socialism’ over on the Chartist website called Rediscovering our libertarian roots.

The whole notion of this alleged form of libertarianism is something I have commented on before, but I have probably never seen a more clearly written explanation of the true thinking that underpins ‘libertarian socialism’ than this article by Hain.

It is very important to understand what Hain’s essay is and is not. It is not a philosophical paper making logical links between socialism and libertarianism. What it is is a tactical paper very much along the lines of the one I wrote called Giving libertarianism a left hook, only with the opposite objective.

Rather than fisking Hain’s article, I will just quote what I think are the most illustrative sections (emphasis added):

The key elements of libertarian socialism – decentralisation, democracy, popular sovereignty and a refusal to accept that collectivism means subjugating individual liberty.


Discredited by its association with statism, socialism’s rehabilitation can only be achieved through a recovery of its libertarian roots, applying these to the modern age through Labour’s Third Way.


Underlying libertarian socialism is a different and distinct notion of politics which rests on the belief that it is only through interaction with others in political activity and civic action that individuals will fully realise their humanity. Democracy should therefore extend not simply to government but throughout society: in industry, in the neighbourhood or in any arrangement by which people organise their lives.


However, power can only be spread downwards in an equitable manner if there is a national framework where opportunities, resources, wealth and income are distributed fairly, where democratic rights are constitutionally entrenched, and where there is equal sexual and racial opportunity. This is where socialism becomes the essential counterpart to libertarianism which could otherwise, and indeed sometimes is, right wing. It means nationally established minimum levels of public provision, such as for housing, public transport, social services, day-care facilities, home helps and so on. The extent to which these are ‘topped up’ and different priorities set between them, is then a matter for local decision.


Most individuals need active government to intervene and curb market excess and distortions of market power. For choice and individual aspiration to be real for the many, and not simply for the privileged few, people must have the power to choose.

Nevertheless the old left nostrum that markets equal capitalism and the absence of markets equals socialism, is utterly simplistic. As Aneurin Bevan argued, the extent to which markets are regulated or subjected to strategic intervention by government is not a matter of theoretical dogma, but a practical matter to be judged on its merit. That is why a Third Way Labour government is not passive, but highly active, working in partnership with business and investing in the skills and modern infrastructure which market forces and the private sector do not provide

There are so many problems and manifest contradictions that leap off the page it is difficult to know where to start. The core of what makes this so wrong lies as usual at the meta-contextual level. The problem is one of the distorting lens of the writer’s world view, based as they clearly are on utterly utilitarian principles. Hain says libertarian socialists are characterised by a “refusal to accept that collectivism means subjugating individual liberty”, whereupon he follows with an article which lists the many ways in which his socialist system would in fact do precisely that.

The core of Hain’s view is that politics, which is a euphemism for ‘the the struggle for control of the means of collective coercion’, is the essential core around which ‘society’ exists and interacts. Thus when he says society must be ‘completely democratic’, he means society must be completely political (based upon collective coercion). Yet the argument that it is only by this that individual liberty can be realised falls at the first fence by virtue of the fact you cannot opt out of a political society and particularly a democratic political society: if my neighbour gets to vote on all aspects of “any arrangement by which people organise their lives”, then clearly my individual wish regarding what I may do with my own life is by no means my choice unless that choice is quite literally a popular one.

Secondly, if democratic rights are to be ‘constitutionally enshrined’ and the society is completely democratic in all its aspects and therefore completely political, then how can the individual rights of people be insulated from the democratic political process which may seek to abridge them? You can either have complete democracy enshrined or, as the American founding fathers tried with limited success, you can have individual rights enshrined and placed outside the reach of democratic politics, but you cannot logically have both.

The notion that a completely politicized democratic ‘society’ of the kind advocated by Hain could by its very nature allow any personal liberty whatsoever in a meaningful sense is manifestly absurd. If you cannot opt out of something you have not previously agreed to, in what manner are you free? If society is totally political, then you may have ‘permissions’ to do this or that, won by the give and take of democratic political processes but you do not have super-political inalienable rights at all. Politics can in theory make you ‘free from starving’ perhaps (in practise of course it tends to do the opposite), but what about being free to try or not try some course of action? When every aspect of life is subject to the views of a plurality of other people, there is no liberty to just try anything at all on your own initiative. What Hain is arguing for is by his own words collectivism.

It seems to me that one thing all forms of collectivism share is that individual choice is always subordinate to The Group, be it the fascist volk or a local soviet or an anarcho-syndicalist people’s council or whatever other fiction of ‘society’ the state decides to use. So talk of individual rights within the context of a collectivist ‘society’ is either incoherence or if not it is nothing more than a tactical ploy to conflate a violence based system of total governance with its antithesis in a manner well understood. As I wrote in a recent article, unlike a collectivist kibbutz, which is a voluntary collectivist commune, you cannot just walk out of the door of a collectivist ‘society’ and start setting up private arrangements with other willing people if the majority do not want you to do that: they will in fact deputise the use of violence to prevent it.

The logical flaws in the ‘collectivist society replacing collectivist state’ notion are so obvious that they have been pointed out a great many times by a great many people, but I will add my voice to the throng anyway. Hain, like Marx before him, clearly sees libertarian socialism as working towards the ‘withering away of the state’ as a true collectivist ‘society’ comes to replace it. But to maintain such a condition of total political governance will require the use of force to prevent any consensual but not democratically sanctioned acts between willing individuals. To maintain this suppression of spontaneous several relationships, a collectivist socialist ‘society’ must be organised and structured in certain ways that make it indistinguishable from a collectivist socialist state.

So if for a collectivist ‘society’ to function there must be a high degree of politically imposed non-spontaneous behaviour from its ‘citizens’ (such as preventing a person selling their own labour for less than the political community will allow them to), and those mandates must be backed with the threat of violence (i.e. law) if they are not to be ignored, then what we have a political State by any reasonable definition of the word ‘State’, much as Rousseau would have defined one. In fact, socialism must be the most ironic use of language in the history of human linguistics: it is the advocacy of the complete replacement of social interaction with political interaction, the very negation of civil society itself. ‘Politicalism’ would be a more honest term.

Now of course all societies have laws, be it polycentric law or state imposed law. Even the most libertarian society plausibly imaginable will have force backed prohibitions against the unjustified use of violence, which is to say (in very crude and simplified terms) libertarian law deals with ‘that which you may not do without consent of the person to or with whom you are doing it’. You may not cause me harm with dioxin from your factory because I have not given you leave to put your chemicals in my lungs. This law is based on the principle that the individual’s rights to his body (and property) are his own.

However the collectivist places the protection of the political collective as more important than the individual and thus collective law is whatever the political collective says it is. If the political collective says ‘a factory may not put dioxin in Fred’s lungs because we want a more environmentally safe place to live for all of us’, then that is the law because the political collective has said so, not because Fred has the right to control the contents of his own lungs.

But if they say ‘a factory may indeed put dioxin in Fred’s lungs because we want a better economy and more stuff for the rest of us’ then that too is the voice of the collective. And Fred? If he does not like it, well, it is “only through interaction with others in political activity and civic action that individuals will fully realise their humanity”. And if Fred finds himself in the minority? Now Fred has a problem because as the society is ‘totally democratic’, we will have none of this nonsense of independent and politically neutral courts stepping in to support the objective and several rights of Fred against the collective, as if that could happen in our libertarian socialist paradise, we would no longer have our totally democratic society.

So as Hain says it is only through trying to control the means of collective coercion, the means to use force to make people do things, that Fred can ‘fully realise his humanity’, how is this ‘libertarian socialism’ going to protect the individual called Fred’s rights? What if the majority in Hain’s total democracy don’t like Fred? And who will define these ‘individual’ rights? The political collective, of course. Forget constitutions which constrain democracy because those are anti-democratic (which is rather the point). Forget consensual several relationships because everything is democratic, meaning no politically unpopular relationships will be allowed. Forget custom and culture as a means to moderate interactions because that is not political. If Fred is not popular, Fred is just out of luck.

Fascist collectivists try to prevent mixed race sex, socialist collectivists try to prevent ‘undemocratic’ private trade, but the principle of collectivism is always the same. If an individual does something he wants to do in a collectivist ‘society’, it is because the political collective allows him to do it, not because it is his right to do as he pleases with those who are willing participants.

Clearly this democratic ‘society’ of Hain’s is willing to use force to prevent free trade between willing individuals unless they happen to be acting in a manner which is politically favoured. Much as most states currently use force to try and prevent free trade in drugs between willing individuals, the same will be done to any relationship the political collective dislikes. Put another way, this democratic society is in fact a state which will be organised to enforce the political will of the plurality on an epic scale, given that this would be a totally political society. And any time someone tries to opt out, they will quickly discover just how ‘withered away’ the state is under ‘socialist libertarianism’: not very.

Of course just as modern states may be more repressive or less repressive (running on a continuum from, say, Switzerland to North Korea), some implementations of so-called ‘socialist libertarianism’ may be more savage or less savage in their interpretation of an unfettered total political democracy at a given point in time. An individual who shares the views, aspirations and prejudices of the majority may well think that life seems equitable and good. After all, if he is allowed to do the things he wishes to do, why complain? But as the democracy advocated by Hain is total, what if he wants to do that which not popular?

I have long thought that supporters of collectivism (be it of the socialist, nationalist or conservative kind) who are homosexuals or who are people with other lifestyles that will never be popular (in the literal sense of the word, actually favoured by the majority) are unwise in the extreme to advocate anything that does not reserve rights to individuals before collectives. Socialism is by Hain’s own words seen as “…where socialism becomes the essential counterpart to libertarianism which could otherwise – and indeed sometimes is – right wing”. Of course by ‘right wing’ Hain means individualist. Libertarianism puts the rights of the individual as the first of all virtues. Libertarian socialism is individualist collectivism, ergo libertarian socialism is an oxymoron.

So what is Hain’s total political ‘society’ in reality? It is locally organised totalitarianism with Big Brother based in the local town hall rather than in Whitehall.