Wayne John Sturgeon talks to Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance
Please could you introduce yourself and how you became Director of the Libertarian Alliance?
I joined the Libertarian Alliance in December 1979. Just before the death of its founder, Chris Tame, from cancer in 2006, I became Director. I don’t regard myself as a natural leader. However, I am the most prolific and the most prominent libertarian in England, and Chris had come, in his final years, to despise almost everyone else round him. It was the case that either I should follow him, or he would dissolve the organisation.
What is the difference, if any, between a liberal and a libertarian?
Until about 1910, in both England and America, a liberal could be defined as someone who believed in limited government under the rule of law, and who opposed state regulation of interactions between consenting adults. Since then, the word has been applied to various kinds of statists – some of them rather totalitarian. One day, it may come back to us. But there really is no point in sharing a word with people like Nick Clegg and Hillary Clinton. For this reason, we grabbed the word libertarian back in the 1960s. It had been coined by, and was first attached to, leftist anarchists in the 19th century. However, they did little with it after about 1917, and it was almost bona vacantia when we took it up.
There is a further difference between us and the old liberals. Twentieth century statism was so frightening that many of us lost all faith in even a limited state of the 19th century kind. I don’t know what proportion of self-defined modern libertarian are anarchists. But it might easily be half.
You have written a book entitled Culture Revolution Culture War. What is the theme of the book?
The theme is to understand what has happened to England over the past 20 years. The people who rule us are not socialists in any meaningful sense. Nothing of what is happening to us can be explained in terms of the usual terms of debate used in the 20th century. What we have is a new ruling class. Its core is people whose legitimising ideology is cultural leftism, and who are imposing this via a police state at home and military force abroad. They have merged with a much older corporate elite. They have massively enlarged the military and police arms of the State. Until about 30 years ago, they were denouncing these three forces. But they have now spread their ideology to their former enemies, and thereby cleansed them of evil. They seek absolute and unaccountable power, and the consequent destruction of ancient liberties and intermediary institutions, by insisting on the absolute goodness of their legitimising ideology and the absolute evil of the various “hates” they are combating. They control business and education and the media, and politics and law and administration, and every medical bureaucracy. They are embedded in every main religion except Islam. They are absolutely supreme in every transnational bureaucracy.
As an aside, I suggest that the European Union is evil not because it is run by Frenchmen and Germans, or whatever. Let’s be reasonable – rule from Paris or Berlin would not in itself be catastrophic. It isn’t evil because our own liberal institutions are being destroyed – these have already been destroyed. It is evil because it is another place from which the new ruling class of the English world can exercise absolute and unaccountable power to reshape us as they desire.
A good British example of what is being done to us is the Stephen Lawrence circus. Two men faced 20 years of administrative and legal harassment and media vilification. They were finally brought to trial and convicted on the basis of what looks like fabricated evidence. One of them could only be tried after the very ancient protection against double jeopardy had been stripped out of the Common Law. Had this been done to Sinn Fein/IRA terrorists, there would – rightly – have been howls of outrage. In this case, the entire ruling class set up a squeal of delight. Nothing – certainly not due process or even common decency – can be allowed to stand in the way of crushing racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, or any other excuse for not joining in the Potemkin love feast of the new ruling class.
Other examples are the persecution of Emma West, the persecution of Christian hoteliers who won’t rent out rooms to homosexuals, refusal to let devout Christians foster children, denial of NHS treatment to people who live other than as directed, the attempted use of sporting associations to brainwash the white working classes. These really are all examples of the same war against bourgeois civilisation.
Do you believe in completely free open borders and mass immigration as libertarianism tends to be associated with this view?
Completely free immigration is by no means a defining belief of libertarians. Ludwig von Mises was against it. So is Hans-Hermann Hoppe. In a free society, there might be no formal immigration controls – if we have a stateless society, there can be no formal controls. This means that there would be some movement of peoples. However, there might also be a strong prejudice against newcomers of radically different appearance and ways of life. This would be expressed in a disinclination to rent property or offer jobs, or generally to interact with them. Newcomers of great ability would overcome these prejudices. But no one would come here simply to start a family on welfare.
What we have instead is effectively state-sponsored mass-immigration. Regardless of what natives may think of them, or of what think of the natives, the newcomers are given all the political and welfare rights of natives, and are given actionable rights to be included in every aspect of our national life. Indeed, there is a formal discrimination in favour of the newcomers.
The value of this to the ruling class is that it sucks wealth upwards and reduces political accountability. Multi-national populations are fairly easy to rule because each group is more inclined to distrust the others than the State. This is not an unusual point among libertarians. John Stuart Mill made it over a century and a half ago.
As for the redistribution of wealth, it takes very little economics to know that, after a certain point, increasing amounts of labour combined with slowly changing amounts of land and capital must result in a lowering of wage rates. This is good in all sorts of ways for the ruling class. It cheapens labour. It disrupts the solidarity of the working classes, and so makes strikes and other forms of collective action less common. It makes people at the bottom more deferential.
Is libertarianism compatible with cultural nationalism?
It depends what culture you are being nationalistic about. Where English culture is concerned, though, the answer is an obvious yes. Our heritage is one of limited government, the rule of law, of systematic tolerance, and of high degrees of participation and accountability. Of course all this is compatible with libertarianism. You might almost say that libertarianism is no more than a set of principles derived from the ways of the English people.
Do you believe in any kind of wealth redistribution?
It depends how the wealth is acquired. If you have a South American type of social and economic structure, where a few hundred families own nearly everything, and base this on some act of armed violence in the historic past, I’d be in favour of some kind of redistribution. I have little respect for our own corporate economy, where a small class of very rich people try to justify their wealth in terms of free market outcomes. People like Richard Branson and Tony Blair all the others are insiders, who benefit from a system designed to make them look like the winners in an open competitive process. (DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS BIT. CAN IT BE RE-WRITTEN?)
This being said, I have a strong regard for the old landed aristocracy. This did much to preserve English liberty well in to the 20th century. Certainly, it was better than the anational technocratic corporatists who now rule England.
What do you think of Henry George and his concept of the single tax on land ownership?
Not much. As said, I like the old order in England. Show me landed wealth that is against the public interest, and I would go for redistribution. Even so, I do think it would be a good idea to replace all present taxes on income and economic activity with a tax on land. This is a matter of convenience and respect for dignity of the taxpayers.
Your last book was called The Churchill Memorandum which has, I believe, a Sci Fi theme. Could you tell us about it please?
The premise of The Churchill Memorandum (2011) is as follows:
It was Thursday the 16th March 1939. The Führer had spent twenty-two hours in Prague to inspect his latest conquest. During this time, the people of that city had barely been aware of his presence in the Castle. But as the Mercedes accelerated to carry him back to the railway station, one of the armoured cars forming his guard got stuck in the tramlines that lay just beyond the Wenzelsplatz. The Führer’s car swerved to avoid this. On the frozen cobblestones….Hitler is dead. There is no Second World War – no takeover of England by the Left in 1940. Go forward twenty years, to 1959, and England is still 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 enough to repose under an English heaven.Rejoicing in this happy state of affairs, Anthony Markham takes his leave of a nightmarish, totalitarian America. He has a biography to write of a dead and now largely forgotten Winston Churchill, and has had to travel to where the old drunk left his papers. But little does Markham realise, as he returns to his safe, orderly England, that he carries, somewhere in his luggage, an object that can be used to destroy England and the whole structure of bourgeois civilisation as it has been gradually restored since 1918.Who is trying to kill Anthony Markham? For whom is Major Stanhope really working? Where did Dr Pakeshi get his bag of money? What connection might there be between Michael Foot, Leader of the British Communist Party, and Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan? Why is Ayn Rand in an American prison, and Nathaniel Brandon living in a South London bedsit? Where does Enoch Powell fit into the story? Above all, what is the Churchill Memorandum? What terrible secrets does it contain?All will be revealed – but not till after Markham and Pakeshi have gone on the run through an England unbombed, uncentralised, still free, and still mysterious. How might our country have turned out but for that catastrophic declaration of war in defence of Poland? Read on and wonder….The Churchill Memorandum can be read as a thriller, as a black comedy, as a satire on political correctness. It may also warm the hearts of anyone who suspects that the Pax Americana has been less than a blessing for mankind, and that what civilisation we still enjoy is threatened most by those who rule in Washington.
It came out in February 2011 to mixed acclaim and hysterical denunciation. Several British libertarians appear to have been driven mad by it. On these grounds alone, I suggest it’s worth buying on Amazon.
Do you advocate the complete legalisation of all drugs, prostitution etc?
Yes. It is not the business of the State to tell adults what to do with themselves, or how they interact with other consenting adults. Where drugs are concerned, any disadvantages in leaving people alone are greatly outweighed by the costs of the War on Drugs, which has reduced large parts of the world to violent chaos, and corrupted every law enforcement agency involved in fighting it, and been made an excuse for the destruction of due process rights in England and America.
What are your views concerning the privatisation of the police force and law courts in a libertarian society?
In a stateless society, these things would have to be private. At the moment, though, police privatisation consists of giving state powers of oppression to unaccountable corporations. My present view is that anyone wielding the powers of the State should be directly employed by the State, and subject to formal lines of accountability.
Are you a minarchist or anarchist as regards some form of government? Also, do you think that rather than living in a truely free market society, we have a society dominated by a kind of “corporatist liberalism” ie, a modernist form of fascism?!
I am an agnostic on this dispute. I want a much smaller and weaker state. If we ever get one in my lifetime, I might realise that would could usefully continue cutting state functions until there were none at all. We are like men splashing about in a giant storm. Arguing whether my place or yours would be better places than here does not strike me as a valuable activity.
What are your current projects and how can one find out more about the Libertarian Alliance.
Political activism is something we do because we enjoy it. But there is no doubt it has failed as a device for moving us to a freer world. My own view is that we can do much better on the cultural front. There is a relative lack of sustained cultural production within the conservative and libertarian movements. We’ve always been strong on analysis and criticism. We have our philosophers and economists and historians, and these are among the best. We aren’t wholly 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 list of things to do. It’s been treated as barely even secondary to uncovering and explaining the workings of a natural order. So far as this has been the case, however, it’s been a big mistake. There’s little benefit in preaching to an audience that doesn’t understand why your message is important.
The socialist takeover of the English mind during the early 20th century was only in part the achievement of the Webbs and J.A. Hobson and E.H. Carr and Harold Laski and Douglas Jay, and all the others of their kind. They were important, and if they hadn’t written as they did, there would have been no takeover. But for every one who read these, there were tens or hundreds who read and were captured by Shaw and Wells and Galsworthy and Richard Llewellyn, among others. These were men who transmitted the socialist cases to a much wider audience.
Just as importantly, where they did not directly transmit, they helped bring about a change in the climate of opinion so that propositions that were rejected out of hand by most thoughtful men in the 1890s could become the received wisdom of the 1940s. They achieved a similar effect in the United States, and were supplemented there by writers like 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 taken the dense and often incomprehensible writings of the neo-Marxists and presented them as a set of hidden assumptions that have transformed the English mind since 1980. No one can fully explain the Labour victory of 1997, or the ease with which law and administration were transformed 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 great libertarian. And there’s no doubt at all that her novels did more than anything else to revive libertarianism in America—and perhaps even in England. But what I’m talking about at the moment isn’t long didactic novels where characters speak for three pages about the evils of central banking. What I do believe we need is good, popular entertainment of our own creation that is based on our own assumptions.
I think the most significant objective propagandist of my lifetime for the libertarian and conservative cause in England was the historical novelist Patrick O’Brian. I’ve read all his historical novels, some more than once, and I don’t think he ever sets out an explicit case against the modern order of things. What he does instead is to create a world – that may once have existed largely as he describes I – that works on different assumptions from our own. If this world is often unattractive on account of its poverty and brutality, its settled emphasis on tradition and on personal freedom and responsibility has probably done more to spread the truth in England than the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Ideas combined.
And, now I mention these organisations, I really do groan at most of the stuff they bring out. If they really wanted to win the battle of ideas, they’d do better to cancel a few of those dreary policy documents, and put the money instead into a ballet about the early life of Ludwig von Mises.