The Iron Heel and the Long-view

The Iron Heel is a 1908 novel by Jack London. It’s a novel which I think is safe to say is not read much today, which is a shame especially for an Americans, for the setting for what was the world’s first modern political dystopia, a novel written when Orwell and Huxley were just babes in the cradle was the United States itself.

Reading the novel as an American gives puts one in a kind of temporal vertigo. It’s not only like finding a long forgotten photograph of oneself and being stuck with the question “is that really me?”, it as if when one turned the photo over one found a note from scribbled n from yourself to yourself a kind of time capsule rich with the assumption that the past “you” knew who the “you” reading the note would be. It makes you start asking questions like “am I the person who I thought I would be?” and set to pondering on all the choices and events which have put you on, or diverted you from, your self-predicted path.

The Iron Heel tells the story of the rise of , “The Oligarchy”, a fascist state deftly laid in almost all of its details before fascism had even been invented. The fact that London pictures the rise of not only the world’s first fascist regime, but what might be considered the world’s first communist revolution not “out there” in the Old World, but on the familiar grounds of the United States where places like California, Idaho, “Indian Territory”, Chicago and Washington D.C. are the setting for events that are hauntingly similar to ones that would indeed happen in Europe decades later, turn the novel into a kind of alternative history.

The story itself is presented in the form of a kind of time capsule, a buried manuscript that has been discovered by a scholar, Anthony Meredith,  in the year 2,600 AD. Footnotes throughout the book are written from this very long view of the future when, after centuries of repression and false starts, a true Brotherhood of Man has been obtained.

The manuscript,  footnoted by Meredith,  contains the story of, Avis Everhard, the wife and fellow revolutionary of seminal figure in London’s fictional history, Ernest Everhard. Avis tells the tale of an early 20th century America racked by inequality, class divisions, and the most brutal forms of labor exploitation. These conditions set the stage for a looming socialist revolution, a political alliance between industrial labor in the form of a Socialist Party, and American farmers in the Grange Movement, that is preempted by the forces of capital. Ernest Everhard is elected as a socialist US Senator, one of many members of the Socialists and Grange Movement who have been swept into national and state office by the groundswell of support for revolutionary change.

The chance to change American  society through constitutional means does not last long. The Oligarchs use a feigned terrorist incident in the US Capitol to turn the American Constitution into a mere facade. Members of the Grange Movement are barred from taking their seats in state legislatures. Socialists are hounded from office pursued as potential terrorists and arrested. The Oligarchs create new mechanisms of social control.  London, writing before the US had a true and permanent standing Army, describes how The Oligarchs turn the state militias into a national army “The Mercenaries” with their own secret service tied to the police that will act against any perceived challenges to the social order.

Writing a generation before corporatism was even conceived, London describes how this oligarchic coup would manage to divide and conquer the forces of labor by essentially buying off and vesting in the system vital workers such as those in steel or railroads so that crippling general strikes became impossible, and all other unskilled labor was pushed into what we would understand as Third World conditions of bare survival. These wage slaves would be compelled to build the glittering new cities of the Oligarchs such as Ardis and Asgard.

The lower classes are robbed of that singularly American right- the right to bare arms, and only allowed to travel using an internal passport system similar to the one used in Czarist Russia.

Under these conditions, actual revolution brews, and the Oligarchs and the revolutionary forces engage in a protracted struggle of espionage and counter-espionage that for the revolutionaries is to culminate in a planned revolution- essentially a set of coordinated terrorists attacks on US communications and military infrastructure that the revolutionaries hope will spark a genuine revolution against the Oligarchs.

The Oligarchs again set out to short- circuit revolution, this time by staging a massive military assault on the heart of American labor, Chicago. The assault unleashes violent clashes between the well-armed Mercenaries and police forces and howling crowds of the poor armed only with household tools: knives, clubs, axes. In scenes far more gripping than those in Collin’s Catching Fire, London depicts urban warfare between security forces fighting raging crowds and bomb throwing insurgents who attack their targets from the heights of skyscrapers, in a way surely reminiscent of Fallujah, or even more so, what is going on right now in Syria.

Eventually, the oligarchic forces burn the poor sections of Chicago to the ground, and end all chance of successful revolution within the lifetime of the Everhard’s. In such conditions the effort at revolution becomes pure terrorism, the names of the terrorists groups no doubt reflective of the limited geographical area in which they operate and America’s history of resistance to the powers of the federal government such as the Mormon group the Danites or the Comanches.

The Oligarch’s suppression of revolutionary forces eventually reaches the Everhard’s. The novel ends abruptly with Avis’s narration stopping in mid-sentence.

The Iron Heel is a kind of warning, and the strange thing about this warning is that London, who was labeled a gloom obsessed pessimists by many of his fellow socialists, got so much of what would happen over the next 50 or so years eerily right, with the marked exception of where they were to occur.

Such prescience is hard to achieve even for someone as brilliant as the fellow novelist Anatole France the author of the introduction to the 1924 edition of the The Iron Heel I hold in my hand.

France, who was 80 at the time and would die the same year, thinks London was right, that the Iron Heel was coming, but doesn’t think it will arrive for quite some time.

“In France, as in Italy and Spain, Socialism, is for the moment, too feeble to have anything to fear from the Iron Heel., for extreme feebleness is the one safety of the feeble. No Heel of Iron will trouble itself to tread down this dust of a party”. (xiv)

1924 is the same year that the murder of socialist Giacomo Matteotti truly began the fascist dictatorship in Italy- a kind of corporate state that was certainly anticipated by London in The Iron Heel. Within 6 years “feeble” Spanish socialism would be locked in a civil war with fascism, within 9 years, the Nazis would rise to power on the backs of the same sort of fears of revolution, and using the same kinds of political machinations described in The Iron Heel. The bombing of the Reichstag ,which was blamed on the German communists but really committed by the Nazi’s, became the justification for an anti-revolutionary crackdown and the transformation of German democracy into a sham. It makes one wonder if Hitler himself had read The Iron Heel!

The Iron Heel throws up all sorts of historical questions and useful analogies for the current day. Why did neither revolutionary socialism or outright fascism emerge in the US in the 1930’s as it did elsewhere?

The Iron Heel should perhaps be read as part of a trilogy with Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 It can’t happen here! Which describes the transformation of America into a Nazi-like totalitarian state, or Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America which describes a similar fascists regime which comes about when the Nazi sympathizer and isolationist, Charles Lindberg, win the presidential race against Franklin Roosevelt. Full reviews of both will be found here at some point in the future the point for now being that there were figures and sentiments in American politics that might have added up to something quite different than American exceptionalism during this period. That what we ended up with was as much the consequence of historical luck as it was of any particularly American virtue.

Some, on both the right and the left would argue that what we have now is just a softer version of the tyranny portrayed by London, Lewis, and Roth, and they do indeed have something, but I do not as of now want to go there. The reason, I think, the kind of socialist revolution found in other countries never got legs in the United States the way it did elsewhere was that the US, which had been a hotbed of labor unrest and socialist sentiment and anticipation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, willingly adopted a whole series of reforms that made worker grievances against capitalism less acute.

  • Unemployment benefits- 1935
  • Eight-hour workday- 1936
  • Worker’s compensation in event of injury (widespread by 1949).
  • Government funded support for the poor that preserved a minimum standard of living- 1935
  • Minimum wage- 1938
  • Right to unionize and the adoption of a formal system to hold strikes- 1935

In addition controls were placed on financial markets so that the kinds of wild swings, financial panics, that periodically brought the nation’s economy to its knees would no longer occur.

Even when derided on the right as move towards socialism or on the left as delusional reformism, these changes followed by an unprecedented era of prosperity for the middle class from the 1940s through the 1970s, essentially ended the vicious circle presented in the Iron Heel of a political system unresponsive to worker grievances and exploitation that gave rise to forces of social revolution that in turn  engendered a move towards state violence and tyranny by the wealthy elites, which resulted in widespread terrorism by continually frustrated revolutionaries.

As a system for producing widespread prosperity faltered in the 1970s the American right, followed by increasingly centrist Democrats diagnosed the economic malaise as having originated from both the choke hold American unions had over the economy and the stifling effects of too much government interference.  Through the 1980s and 90s labor union power was dismantled, economic production globalized, capital markets freed up from earlier constraints, welfare reformed. Support for the lower classes was now to come not primarily through government programs, but through tax policy, such as the Earned Income Tax, that would free individuals to make their own choices and vest them in the capitalist economic system rather than view them as an opposition. Such reforms with their explicit claim that they would lead to universal prosperity collapsed with the 2008 financial crisis and neither the American right nor the American left has any clear understanding of where we go from here.

This history is what makes the recent video of Romney and his 47% comments so galling. His fellow oligarch’s who had paid more than the median income of an average American family- $50,000- to listen to his speech laugh and clink their silverware as he describes the sad state of American society where over half of the county either receive some government support or pay no taxes to the federal government. Romney and his audience forget how we got here: that the working class were granted their “privileges”  because the only way to otherwise sustain him and his fellow oligarchs would be through a regime of violence. That the fact that so many Americans don’t pay federal income tax was brought about by Republicans who hoped to entrench the idea that the system of free enterprise was for the good of rich, middle class and poor alike.

Romney and his listeners are oblivious to the long-view. In a way I wish I could send them all a copy of The Iron Heel.

Would I charge, or could it be a tax write-off?

*Jack London, The Iron Heel, McKinlay, Stone & Mackenzie, 1924 (original 1907).

Big Brother, Big Data, and the Forked Path

The technological ecosystem in which political power operates tends to mark out the possibility space for what kinds of political arrangements, good and bad, exist within that space. Orwell’s Oceania and its sister tyrannies were imagined in what was the age of big, centralized media. Here the Party had under its control not only the older printing press, having the ability to craft and doctor, at will, anything created using print from newspapers, to government documents, to novels. It also controlled the newer mediums of radio and film, and, as Orwell imagined, would twist those technologies around backwards to serve as spying machines aimed at everyone.

The questions, to my knowledge, Orwell never asked was what was the Party to do with all that data? How was it to store, sift through, make sense of, or locate locate actual threats within it the  yottabytes of information that would be gathered by recording almost every conversation, filming or viewing almost every movement, of its citizens lives? In other words, the Party would have ran into the problem of Big Data. Many of Orwellian developments since 9/11 have come in the form of the state trying to ride the wave of the Big Data tsunami unleashed with the rise of the internet, an attempt create it’s own form of electronic panopticon.

In their book Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, Dana Priest, and ,William Arkin, of the Washington Post present a frightening picture of the surveillance and covert state that has mushroomed in the United States since 9/11. A vast network of endeavors which has grown to dwarf, in terms of cummulative numbers of programs and operations, similar efforts, during the unarguably much more dangerous Cold War. (TS 12)

Theirs’ is not so much a vision of an America of dark security services controlled behind the scenes by a sinister figure like J. Edgar Hoover, as it is one of complexity gone wild. Priest and Arkin paint a picture of Top Secret America as a vast data sucking machine, vacuuming up every morsel of information with the intention of correctly “connecting the dots”, (150) in the hopes of preventing another tragedy like 9/11.

So much money was poured into intelligence gathering after 9/11, in so many different organizations, that no one, not the President, nor the Director of the CIA, nor any other official has a full grasp of what is going on. The security state, like the rest of the American government, has become reliant on private contractors who rake in stupendous profits. The same corruption that can be found elsewhere in Washington is found here. Employees of the government and the private sector spin round and round in a revolving door between the Washington connections brought by participation in political establishment followed by big-time money in the ballooning world of private security and intelligence. Priest quotes one American intelligence official  who had the balls to describe the insectous relationship between government and private security firms as “a self-licking ice cream cone”. (TS 198)

The flood of money that inundated the intelligence field in after  9/11 has created what Priest and Arkin call an “alternative geography” companies doing covert work for the government that exist in huge complexes, some of which are large contain their very own “cities”- shopping centers, athletic facilities, and the like. To these are added mammoth government run complexes some known and others unknown.

Our modern day Winston Smiths, who work for such public and private intelligence services, are tasked not with the mind numbing work of doctoring history, but with the equally superfluous job of repackaging the very same information that had been produced by another individual in another organization public or private each with little hope that they would know that the other was working on the same damned thing. All of this would be a mere tragic waste of public money that could be better invested in other things, but it goes beyond that by threatening the very freedoms that these efforts are meant to protect.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the government’s Orwellian version of a Google FaceBook mashup is the gargantuan supercomputer data center in Bluffdale Nevada built and run by the premier spy agency in the age of the internet- the National Security Administration or NSA. As described by James Bamford for Wired Magazine:

In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net.

It had been thought that domestic spying by the NSA, under a super-secret program with the Carl Saganesque name, Stellar Wind, had ended during the G.W. Bush administration, but if the whistleblower, William Binney, interviewed in this chilling piece by Laura Poitras of the New York Times, is to be believed, the certainly unconstitutional program remains very much in existence.

The bizarre thing about this program is just how wasteful it is. After all, don’t private companies, such as FaceBook and Google not already possess the very same kinds of data trails that would be provided by such obviously unconstitutional efforts like those at Bluffdale? Why doesn’t the US government just subpoena internet and telecommunications companies who already track almost everything we do for commercial purposes? The US government, of course, has already tried to turn the internet into a tool of intelligence gathering, most notably, with the stalled Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Intelligence Act, or CISPA , and perhaps it is building Bluffdale in anticipation that such legislation will fail, that however it is changed might not be to its liking, or because it doesn’t want to be bothered with the need to obtain warrants or with constitutional niceties such as our protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

If such behemoth surveillance instruments fulfill the role of the telescreens and hidden microphones in Orwell’s 1984, then the role the only group in the novel whose name actually reflects what it is- The Spies – children who watch their parents for unorthodox behavior and turn them in, is taken today by the American public itself. In post 9/11 America it is, local law enforcement, neighbors, and passersby who are asked to “report suspicious activity”. People who actually do report suspicious activity have their observations and photographs recorded in an ominous sounding data base that Orwell himself might have named called The Guardian. (TS 144)

As Priest writes:

Guardian stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. Most are not even suspected of one. What they have done is appear, to a town sheriff, a traffic cop, or even a neighbor to be acting suspiciously”. (TS 145)

Such information is reported to, and initially investigated by, the personnel in another sort of data collector- the “fusion centers” which had been created in every state after 9/11.These fusion centers are often located in rural states whose employees have literally nothing to do. They tend to be staffed by persons without intelligence backgrounds, and who instead hailed from law enforcement, because those with even the bare minimum of foreign intelligence experience were sucked up by the behemoth intelligence organizations, both private and public, that have spread like mould around Washington D.C.

Into this vacuum of largely non-existent threats came “consultants” such as Montijo Walid Shoebat, who lectured fusion center staff on the fantastical plot of Muslims to establish Sharia Law in the United States. (TS 271-272). A story as wild as the concocted boogeymen of Goldstein and the Brotherhood in Orwell’s dystopia.

It isn’t only Mosques, or Islamic groups that find themselves spied upon by overeager local law enforcement and sometimes highly unprofessional private intelligence firms. Completely non-violent, political groups, such as ones in my native Pennsylvania, have become the target of “investigations”. In 2009 the private intelligence firm the Institute for Terrorism Research and Response compiled reports for state officials on a wide range of peaceful political groups that included: “The Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots Coalition, the Libertarian Movement, anti-war protesters, animal-rights groups, and an environmentalist dressed up as Santa Claus and handing out coal-filled stockings” (TS 146). A list that is just about politically broad enough to piss everybody off.

Like the fusion centers, or as part of them, data rich crime centers such as the Memphis Real Time Crime Center are popping up all over the United States. Local police officers now suck up streams of data about the environments in which they operate and are able to pull that data together to identify suspects- now by scanning licence plates, but soon enough, as in Arizona, where the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office was creating up to 9,000 biometric, digital profiles a month (TS 131) by scanning human faces from a distance.

Sometimes crime centers used the information gathered for massive sweeps arresting over a thousand people at a clip. The result was an overloaded justice and prison system that couldn’t handle the caseload (TS 144), and no doubt, as was the case in territories occupied by the US military, an even more alienated and angry local population.

From one perspective Big Data would seem to make torture more not less likely as all information that can be gathered from suspects, whatever their station, becomes important in a way it wasn’t before, a piece in a gigantic, electronic puzzle. Yet, technological developments outside of Big Data, appear to point in the direction away from torture as a way of gathering information.

“Controlled torture”, the phrase burns in my mouth, has always been the consequence of the unbridgeable space between human minds. Torture attempts to break through the wall of privacy we possess as individuals through physical and mental coercion. Big Data, whether of the commercial or security variety, hates privacy because it gums up the capacity to gather more and more information for Big Data to become what so it desires- Even Bigger Data. The dilemma for the state, or in the case of the Inquisition, the organization, is that once the green light has been given to human sadism it is almost impossible to control it. Torture, or the knowledge of torture inflicted on loved ones, breeds more and more enemies.

Torture’s ham fisted and outwardly brutal methods today are going hopelessly out of fashion. They are the equivalent of rifling through someone’s trash or breaking into their house to obtain useful information about them. Much better to have them tell you what you need to know because they “like” you.

In that vein, Priest describes some of the new interrogation technologies being developed by the government and private security technology firms. One such technology is an “interrogation booth” that contain avatars with characteristics (such as an older Hispanic woman) that have been psychologically studied to produce more accurate answers from those questioned. There are ideas to replace the booth with a tiny projector mounted on a soldier’s or policeman’s helmet to produce the needed avatar at a moments notice. There was also a “lie detecting beam” that could tell- from a distance- whether someone was lying by measuring miniscule changes on a person’s skin. (TS 169) But if security services demand transparency from those it seeks to control they offer up no such transparency themselves. This is the case not only in the notoriously secretive nature of the security state, but also in the way the US government itself explains and seeks support for its policies in the outside world.

Orwell, was deeply interested in the abuse of language, and I think here too, the actions of the American government would give him much to chew on. Ever since the disaster of the war in Iraq, American officials have been obsessed with the idea of “soft-power”. The fallacy that resistance to American policy was a matter of “bad messaging” rather than the policy itself. Sadly, this messaging was often something far from truthful and often fell under what the government termed” Influence operations” which, according to Priest:

Influence operations, as the name suggests, are aimed at secretly influencing or manipulating the opinions of foreign audiences, either on an actual battlefield- such as during a feint in a tactical battle- or within civilian populations, such as undermining support for an existing government of terrorist group (TS 59)

Another great technological development over the past decade has been the revolution in robotics, which like Big Data is brought to us by the ever expanding information processing powers of computers, the product of Moore’s Law.

Since 9/11 multiple forms of robots have been perfected, developed, and deployed by the military, intelligence services and private contractors only the most discussed and controversial of which have been flying drones. It is with these and other tools of covert warfare, such as drones, and in his quite sweeping understanding and application of executive power that President Obama has been even more Orwellian than his predecessor.

Obama may have ended the torture of prisoners captured by American soldiers and intelligence officials, and he certainly showed courage and foresight in his assassination of Osama Bin Laden, a fact by which the world can breathe a sigh of relief. The problem is that he has allowed, indeed propelled, the expansion of the instruments of American foreign policy that are largely hidden from the purview and control of the democratic public. In addition to the surveillance issues above, he has put forward a sweeping and quite dangerous interpretation of executive power in the forms of indefinite detention without trial found in the NDAA, engaged in the extrajudicial killings of American citizens, and asserted the prerogative, questionable under both the constitution and international law, to launch attacks, both covert and overt, on countries with which the United States is not officially at war.

In the words of Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic writing on the unprecedented expansion of executive power under the Obama administration and comparing these very real and troubling developments to the paranoid delusions of right-wing nuts, who seem more concerned with the fantastical conspiracy theories such as the Social Security Administration buying hollow-point bullets:

… the fact that the executive branch is literally spying on American citizens, putting them on secret kill lists, and invoking the state secrets privilege to hide their actions doesn’t even merit a mention.  (by the right-wing).

Perhaps surprisingly, the technologies created in the last generation seem tailor made for the new types of covert war the US is now choosing to fight. This can perhaps best be seen in the ongoing covert war against Iran which has used not only drones but brand new forms of weapons such the Stuxnet Worm.

The questions posed to us by the militarized versions of Big Data, new media, Robotics, and spyware/computer viruses are the same as those these phenomena pose in the civilian world: Big Data; does it actually provide us with a useful map of reality, or instead drown us in mostly useless information? In analog to the question of profitability in the economic sphere: does Big Data actually make us safer? New Media, how is the truth to survive in a world where seemingly any organization or person can create their own version of reality. Doesn’t the lack of transparency by corporations or the government give rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories in such an atmosphere, and isn’t it ultimately futile, and liable to backfire, for corporations and governments to try to shape all these newly enabled voices to its liking through spin and propaganda? Robotics; in analog to the question of what it portends to the world of work, what is it doing to the world of war? Is Robotics making us safer or giving us a false sense of security and control? Is it engendering an over-readiness to take risks because we have abstracted away the very human consequences of our actions- at least in terms of the risks to our own soldiers. In terms of spyware and computer viruses: how open should our systems remain given their vulnerabilities to those who would use this openness for ill ends?

At the very least, in terms of Big.Data, we should have grave doubts. The kind of FaceBook from hell the government has created didn’t seem all that capable of actually pulling information together into a coherent much less accurate picture. Much like their less technologically enabled counterparts who missed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and fall of the Soviet Union, the new internet enabled security services missed the world shaking event of the Arab Spring.

The problem with all of these technologies, I think, is that they are methods for treating the symptoms of a diseased society, rather than the disease itself. But first let me take a detour through Orwell vision of the future of capitalist, liberal democracy seen from his vantage point in the 1940s.

Orwell, and this is especially clear in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, believed the world was poised between two stark alternatives: the Socialist one, which he defined in terms of social justice, political liberty, equal rights, and global solidarity, and a Fascist or Bolshevist one, characterized by the increasingly brutal actions of the state in the name of caste, both domestically and internationally.

He wrote:

Because the time has come when one can predict the future in terms of an “either–or”. Either we turn this war into a revolutionary war (I do not say that our policy will be EXACTLY what I have indicated above–merely that it will be along those general lines) or we lose it, and much more besides. Quite soon it will be possible to say definitely that our feet are set upon one path or the other. But at any rate it is certain that with our present social structure we cannot win. Our real forces, physical, moral or intellectual, cannot be mobilised.

It is almost impossible for those of us in the West who have been raised to believe that capitalist liberal democracy is the end of the line in terms of political evolution to remember that within the lifetimes of people still with us (such as my grandmother who tends her garden now in the same way she did in the 1940’s) this whole system seemed to have been swept up into the dustbin of history and that the future lie elsewhere.

What the brilliance of Orwell missed, the penetrating insight of Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World caught: that a sufficiently prosperous society would lull it’s citizens to sleep, and in doing so rob them both of the desire for revolutionary change and their very freedom.

As I have argued elsewhere, Huxley’s prescience may depend on the kind of economic growth and general prosperity that was the norm after the Second World War. What worries me is that if the pessimists are proven correct, if we are in for an era of resource scarcity, and population pressures, stagnant economies, and chronic unemployment that Huxley’s dystopia will give way to a more brutal Orwellian one.

This is why, no matter who wins the presidential election in November, we need to push back against the Orwellian features that have crept upon us since 9/11. The fact is we are almost unaware that we building the architecture for something truly dystopian and should pause to think before it is too late.

To return to the question of whether the new technologies help or hurt here: It is almost undeniable that all of the technological wonders that have emerged since 9/11 are good at treating the symptoms of social breakdown, both abroad and at home. They allow us to kill or capture persons who would harm largely innocent Americans, or catch violent or predatory criminals in our own country, state, and neighborhood. Where they fail is in getting to the actual root of the disease itself.

American would much better serve  its foreign policy interest were it to better align itself with the public opinion of the outside world insofar as we were able to maintain our long term interests and continue to guarantee the safety of our allies. Much better than the kind of “information operation” supported by the US government to portray a corrupt, and now deposed, autocrat like Yemen’s  Abdullah Saleh as “an anti-corruption activist”, would be actual assistance by the US and other advanced countries in…. I duknow… fighting corruption. Much better Western support for education and health in the Islamic world that the kinds of interference in the internal political development of post-revolutionary Islamic societies driven by geopolitical interest and practiced by the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This same logic applies inside the United States as well. It is time to radically roll back the Orwellian advances that have occurred since 9/11. The dangers of the war on terrorism were always that they would become like Orwell’s “continuous warfare”, and would perpetually exist in spite, rather than because of the level of threat. We are in danger of investing so much in our security architecture, bloated to a scale that dwarfs enemies, which we have blown up in our own imaginations into monstrous shadows, that we are failing to invest in the parts of our society that will actually keep us safe and prosperous over the long-term.

In Orwell’s Oceania, the poor, the “proles” were largely ignored by the surveillance state. There is a danger here that with the movement of what were once advanced technologies into the hands of local law enforcement: drones, robots, biometric scanners, super-fast data crunching computers, geo-location technologies- that domestically we will move even further in the direction of treating the symptoms of social decay, rather than dealing with the underlying conditions that propel it.

The fact of the matter is that the very equality, “the early paradise”, a product of democratic socialism and technology, Orwell thought was at our fingertips has retreated farther and farther from us. The reasons for this are multiple; To name just a few: financial   concentration,  automation, the end of “low hanging fruit” and their consequent high growth rates brought by industrialization,the crisis of complexity and the problem of ever more marginal returns. This retreat, if it lasts, would likely tip the balance from Huxley’s stupification by consumption to Orwell’s more brutal dystopia initiated by terrified elites attempting to keep a lid on things.

In a state of fear and panic we have blanketed the world with a sphere of surveillance, propaganda and covert violence at which Big Brother himself would be proud. This is shameful, and threatens not only to undermine our very real freedom, but to usher in a horribly dystopian world with some resemblance to the one outlined in Orwell’s dark imaginings. We must return to the other path.


Do you not begin to see, then, what kind of world it is we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined.

A world of fear and treachery, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world that will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.

George Orwell, 1984

Even if it is the case, as I have argued elsewhere, that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better guide to our dystopian present than the much more brutal and barren world of Orwell’s 1984, the West, since 9-11 has been evolving in a decidedly Orwellian direction. This has been the case under both George W. Bush and perhaps even more so under President Obama, a reality that has proven highly upsetting to civil libertarians of all stripes who helped  sweep Obama into office in the hopes that he would end some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration.

It might be best then to take another look at Orwell’s 1984, a book most of us probably remember from high school or college, and then to see how Orwell’s warnings line up with reality today.  For he drew our attention to features of state power and put that power within a context that is perhaps more relevant today for political, technological, and economic reasons than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

1984 is the story of, Winston Smith, a “middle-class” member of the Outer Party of Oceania that works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to doctor and destroy documents based upon the constantly shifting whims of what the Party which rules Oceania declares to be the “truth”.

Oceania is a totalitarian state that would make even monsters like Stalin and Hitler green with envy.  Oceania which includes what was formerly Great Britain (now called Air-Strip One, on which Winston lives), the United States, Canada and Australasia is covered with telescreens which are a kind of two-way television that projects propaganda in, and can also watch for subversive activities, and microphones that monitor citizens almost anywhere 24/7.

Whereas the mass of citizens, the “proles” are left unmolested by the Party largely because of their ignorance and inability to organize, the Outer Party, especially is constantly monitored for “thought-crime” (even having a thought that challenges the orthodoxy of the Party) by the Thought Police who are housed in the Ministry of Love.

Orwell has a genius for playing with words, and his Oceania is a dystopia in a literal sense of being a world where everything is really its dark opposite: the Ministry of Truth is really an organization for creating lies, the Ministry of Love a hell-house of torture, the Ministry of Plenty a bureaucracy that administers privation, or the Ministry of Peace an institution of war.

One of the ultimate goals of the Party is to destroy the meaning of language itself- to fully institute the use of “Newspeak” so that all reference with the past and the truth has been destroyed. The Party then becomes the sole arbiter of what is real and what is fiction. The defiant act against the Party that would ultimately lead to Winston’s doom was when he started a diary. It was an act that declared what the Party found totally unacceptable- that a person could think for himself. Later, under the most brutal forms of torture, Winston would find himself compelled to deny the very sanity of trying to think outside of the iron grip of the Party:

   “He could not fight against the Party any longer. Besides, the Party was in the
right. It must be so: how could the immortal, collective brain be mistaken? By
what external standards could you check it judgements? Sanity was statistical.
It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.” (228)

The Party of Oceania takes relativism, social construction, and collective solipsism to their logical extremes. It does not merely reflect a certain view of the world- it is the world- and can create and destroy the “truth” as it sees fit. Facts and the past are nothing but memory, so by controlling memory both individual and collective facts and history become whatever the Party wants them to be. Even logical, self-evident truths are capable of being overthrown- ideas such as 2 + 2 = 4. Under the proper pressure and manipulation even mathematics and science bend before the will of the Party.

Winston’s second crime against the Party is to engage in a secret love-affair with his co-worker Juila.  Much like in Plato’s Republic  Orwell’s Oceania will not countenance divided loyalties and passions, especially the kinds of loyalties and passions that grow out of love and sex. Unlike Plato, the Party has not ended the family, but has turned it into a nest of spies, where children betray their parents at any hint of unorthodoxy. The sexual instinct, especially for women, is channeled into the love of Big-Brother and hatred of the traitorous Goldstein, both of whose no doubt imaginary images are plastered , everywhere.

The emotions of the masses are constantly kept at a fever-pitch of hate against Oceania’s  geo-political enemies: Eurasia and East Asia. These two other great powers live under similar totalitarian systems as that in Oceania. Eurasia combines essentially the former Soviet Union and Europe, East Asia, China, Japan, the Koreas and nearby territories. The three great powers struggle with one another for what is left of the globe- essentially the Middle East and India. They fight not so much over resources or markets- all three are in essence self-contained, autarchic systems, as they do labor power, with the peoples of these up-for-grabs regions being enslaved by one region and then the other into making weapons. Weapons, which because world wars have become a thing of the past, are essentially useless.

If these were geo-political predictions, Orwell was on all accounts incorrect.  In terms of war, however, Orwell has some very interesting and prescient things to say, both for the Cold War period that followed his novel, and even more so, for today. The international environment in which Oceania exists is one of constant low-level or outright phony war between the big powers. Orwell in the mouth of the imaginary Goldstein muses that “war by becoming continuous has fundamentally changed its character” (163).

Orwell thinks that real wars- for all their horrors- served as a reality check on the state anchoring its delusions to the practical need of avoiding conquest. In the world of 1984 actual conquest of one great power by another had become impossible, and because of the vast resources which each of the 3 world powers possessed- unnecessary.  The reality check of war, therefore disappeared, and its very purpose which had once been the survival or aggrandizement of the state transformed into an instrument of internal control. Not merely did the phony war hypnotize the masses and bind them tightly to the Party, the creation of completely useless weapons was a way to steer surplus production away from the needs of the subject classes, therefore keeping them in a constant state of privation, in which the spread of general wealth and education that might threaten the grip of the Party was not allowed to come into being.

Winston’s third crime is to join the ranks of the secret revolutionary organization- The Brotherhood.   Like Big Brother, who serves as the face of the Party, or Goldstein who serves as the face of the revolution, The Brotherhood itself is a fiction created by the Party. In its name both Winston and Julia, in a act completely out of character, pledge themselves to crimes even against innocents, a subject that will be dealt with in my next post.

The Orwellian state imagined in 1984 is a sadistic-state the likes of which have never been seen. What makes it so horrendous even in light of its very real world rivals in this regard is its concept of power as a self-justifying force.  As Orwell puts in the mouth of Winston’s torturer O’Brien:

Progress in our civilization will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Our is founded on hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face-forever. (220)

The scenes Orwell depicts of Winston’s imprisonment and torture are gut wrenching and horrifying. They starve him until he becomes skeletal and loses his hair, break most of his bones, smash his teeth, burn his insides with electrical shocks. We are forced to watch a once dignified man reduced to groveling, bargaining and betrayal. But it is not the physical abuse that so much reduces Winston as the psychological:

These other questioners saw to it that he was in constant slight pain, but it was not the pain that they chiefly relied on. They slapped his face, wrung his ear, pulled his hair, made him stand on one leg, refused to leave him urinate, shown glaring lights in his face until his eyes ran with water; but the aim of this was simply to humiliate him and destroy his power of arguing and reasoning. Their real weapon was their relentless questioning that went on hour after hour, tripping him up, laying traps for him, convicting him at every step of lies and contradiction, until he began weeping as much from shame as from nervous fatigue. (199)

The ultimate psychological torture comes at the end of the novel when Winston, whose greatest fear is rats, has a cage of starved rats attached to his face. Under the extremest of fear he betrays Julia not in the sense of turning her in, but in asking that she be put in his place. It is a real rather than a feigned request, and with it Winston has lost both his mind and his soul to the evil of the Party.

I think a good question to ask here is how Orwell thought such a horrifying world might come about? I think it would be a mistake to see Orwell as engaged in a sort of political phantasy that he thought was completely implausible, rather, 1984, is a kind of warning that given the continuation of certain trends this might be the world we ended up with. Orwell’s version of history up until the end of WWII can certainly not be considered a fiction, but a kind bird’s-eye-view of what had happened stretching back before the industrial revolution.

Orwell sees history as the story of class struggle between the 3 classes that have composed humanity since the Neolithic Age: the High, the Middle, and the Low. Consistently the Middle have overthrown the High by enlisting the Low taking the position of the High themselves and once victorious inevitably throwing the Low back into servitude. What would make the 20th century distinct is that the revolutionary forces of the Middle, which in the past had been partially fooled by their own rhetoric concerning the freedom of the masses that could be brought by revolution, became openly authoritarian and tyrannical in their aims.

Socialism, a theory which appeared in the early 19th century and was the last link in a chain of thought stretching back to the slave rebellions of antiquity, was still deeply infected with the Utopianism of past ages. But in each variant of Socialism that appeared from about 1900 onward the aim of establishing liberty and equality was more and more openly abandoned.  (167)

In part, Orwell saw this growing out of the new historical consciousness. According to the logic of the new revolutionaries: if society’s, instability- understood to be caused by war between classes- could be ended by the permanent domination of  ONE class, then, history itself would come to an end, the world, like that proposed in Plato’s Republic frozen forever in amber.

But the main reason Orwell saw for the new authoritarian revolutionaries was that machine based civilization had, for the first time in human history, made actual material equality possible. New groups wanting to seize power saw equality as no longer a bait for the masses, but as a threat to their own claims on power.

“The earthly paradise had been discredited at exactly the moment when it became realizable. Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation”. (168)

The political ideology which Orwell imagined dominated his Oceania – Ingsoc- was foreshadowed by the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian movements who stripped of their Utopian veneer in his imagined ideologies and became mere will to power. The class which gave rise to Orwell’s ruling Party had been “brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government” (169).

Their totalitarian order, he thought, would likely be enabled by new technologies of surveillance and control. Technologies such as the aforementioned ubiquitous telescreens and microphones, but also neuropharmacology, and mechanisms such as novel writing machines. Indeed, because it aimed to destroy independent thought and empirical science, Orwell’s dystopia is a world of technological decline and endemic scarcity; the only areas in which it excels being that of manipulation and control.

1984 gives us a lot to think about and not as something abstract, applied to some far off dystopia, but right here and now.  He brings to our attention the issues of technological surveillance, torture, continuous low-level war and propaganda and the abuse of language, along with questions about the history up- to- the- present of inequality and its origins. All the subject of my next post.

Only then will we be able to guess where such Orwellian trends might be leading, and how we might stop them.

* Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, Signet Classics,  New American Library of World Literature, Inc. 1961. First published 1949 

Defining Home 2

Something that has struck me over the course of the global economic crisis is the overlap between groups on the “far- left” best personified internationally by the Occupy Movement, and, at least in the United States, the “far-right” whose libertarian aspirations has been best encapsulated by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.

In my view of things, both the Occupy Movement and Ron Paul libertarians share a great many things in common. Both represent a systematic critique of the current economic and political order along with a strong desire to change that order. This sharing of basic assumptions by those on opposite ends of the political spectrum is not entirely new. In the early part of the 20th century the Communists and Nazis both offered systematic critiques of the then current order. What gives me hope today is that both the Occupy Movement and libertarians, unlike the Communist and Nazis, set themselves firmly against the coercive apparatus of the state both in its international and domestic manifestations.

The Occupy Movement is an anti-war movement (and war is now the constant condition in which our society exists)  in that it seeks to shed light upon and undermine the current practice of real politik and the injustice of American empire. The libertarians want, quite literally, to bring all of the boys home, that is to unwind the American empire and its globe straddling military apparatus that has been in existence since the Second World War.  Members of both movements hold deep respect for the dissident Julian Assange, and are deeply troubled by the increase of the state’s powers of covert surveillance and control.

Both movements seek an end to the collusion of finance and governments and the cronyism found in the relationship between the state and corporations. They both hold that the state should have little, if anything to do with the choices of individuals, and oppose use of the coercive powers of the state i.e. imprisonment to punish people for those choices, such as drug use.

The members of both movements, also, tend to be young, no doubt a reflection of the fact that this crisis has been particularly hard on the youngest members of society many of whose aspirations for the future have been clouded or destroyed by the crisis.  However, in this sad fact also lies my hope. For, if these young people, unlike the generation of the 1960s that abandoned their critique of the system for what was largely a return to the status quo, can hold firm to their principles then they might eventually bring to the system deep and truly systematic change.

In that vein, I hope the conversation below between two young and articulate voices from both sides of the political spectrum represents, in its very small way, the beginning of a philosophical discussion that rises above the sophistry of the current regime.

The discussion was sparked by a prior post Defining Home after which I tried to bring these two deep thinking bloggers into discussion (the dialogue below in its original form can be found in the comments section there).  On the surface the two could not be more different. Giulio Amerigo Caperchi is an Italian-American living in Italy who writes the excellent blog Geaneology of Consent  which looks at current events from the perspective of the political theory and represents an excellent window into the types of ideas that underlie the Occupy Movement. Henry Moore is a fervent Ron Paul supporter hailing from Yellowstone country, and a thoughtful voice for the sentiments of libertarians who writes for the blog

The discussion below lays out the differing views of the two sides on the nature of and our relationship to the free market. This is the chasm that currently separates the Occupy Movement from libertarians, and, in my understanding only when this chasm is bridged will we really have a real possibility of any systematic reform of the crumbling world of the early 21st century.



One of the key assumptions running through classical liberalism and neo-liberal theory (from Adam Smith, through Hayek, up to Milton Friedman) is that the market is the only place where true, spontaneous and un-biased information may be witnessed and analysed. The market, for these economists, is a site where individuals freely interact (“trade, truck and barter” as Adam Smith said) unhindered and on a completely voluntary basis. As such it is the only place where “real” human behaviour is expressed: “reality” thus occurs in the marketplace. The market is conceived as a neutral ground devoid of ideology and political influence.

This is a tremendous assumption with far-reaching consequences. And, more importantly, it is a key ideological manoeuvre. What neo-liberals like to claim is that seeing that they derive their social policies from feedback accruing from the “neutral” free market, they are ideologically un-biased. They contrast themselves to “big-government central planning” and socialism which apply one-size-fits-all social policy to intrinsically diverse populations. The crucial point is, however, that basing social policy on the utopian idea of perfectly working, self-regulating and unbiased free markets is itself a sublimely ideological assumption. The neo-liberal free-market is a utopia as much as the communist classless society is. In this respect forcing societies to conform to the rules of the free-market is itself a one-size-fits-all policy.(Joseph Stiglitz is probably the most important economist which shows that markets are VERY imperfect and VERY biased).

This is not to say that one should be completely relativist and refuse the idea that there is nowhere that one may garner social feedback with which to inform policy. But the deconstruction of what experts and technicians call “reality”, “truth”, and “natural law” is always necessary to reveal the ideological bias ALWAYS present in any idea, concept or science.

I therefore totally agree (Rick) with your powerfully stated conclusions, namely, that there is the need for constant discussion and deliberation on these “assumptions” which inform our private and public lives. The democratization of these assumptions is critically needed to reveal their ideological underpinnings and their nature as instruments (sometimes) of domination. That is why epistemological sovereignty (mostly at the local level of course) is a key instrument of resistance and a safeguard against the excesses of what experts (be they in Washington, in a university or on Wall Street) call “truth”.



To me “neoliberal” is a loaded word. One that I am not ashamed to cast about myself, particularly for “Supply Siders” and other assorted Friedmanites. I do not put myself in that camp, though as an Austrian School lay-enthusiast, I see some common ground, though not as much as I would otherwise like.

I don’t know much about what neo-liberals think in terms of whether “the market is the only place where true spontaneous and un-biased information may be witnessed and analyzed.” I guess it really comes down to how you define “market”. Markets in the purely economic sense? Or markets in the more abstract sense?

If the former, and if your claim is correct, I would say that neo-liberals are quite narrow minded. If the latter, I would tend to agree with the neo-liberals. If this more abstract, conceptual marketplace, essentially an (I am loathe to use the word) aggregation of human action is indeed the only place to witness spontaneous and unbiased information, it is precisely because of how broad an idea it is. This is where the Austrian School often faces the most criticism: the theory that all human action can be deduced using the same (or superficially dissimilar) axioms as purely economic action.

So basically, ALL human action, spontaneous or otherwise is seen as part and parcel of the marketplace (which could, in effect really be an infinite amount of smaller marketplaces). Given this axiom, it is impossible for human action to exist outside of the marketplace, by definition. Based on this, the market would be the only place to witness spontaneous information.

And then there is the question of bias. Bias exists in the market. Whether this is desirable or not depends entirely on the human actors themselves. This includes those acting spontaneously and those acting more deliberately. Those acting deliberately (such as the state, regulators, corporations) are able to cause undesirable bias by distorting the market. They cannot do this without committing, perpetuating, or taking advantage of some form of coercion, explicit or implicit. At which point the FREE part of the Free Market goes out the window.

Under ideal circumstances, which may not even be attainable on a large scale, biases that occur are simply a reflection of the decisions of market actors. I fail to see the problem. If there is good, good. If there is bad, the fault is in the actors, not the system. I don’t think most libertarians believe in the perfectibility of the human condition, which to me is the defining characteristic of a utopian ideology. And certainly most would not suggest that the Free Market alone could accomplish this. Most hold that the Free Market, whether it might be considered to have inherent flaws or not, at least is the best allocator of resources and cause of economic growth. But the main reason some prefer the Free Market has little to do with how effective it is in these areas, but instead the fact that it is the most consistent with what are seen as natural rights. Some, myself included, would still advocate the Free Market even if it was not the “best” system for allocating resources and spurring growth. It is not the practical implications that are our chief concern. It is the ethical ones.

I agree that Markets are not, as you say, “perfectly working, self-regulating and unbiased”. I do hold, however that Markets are the best of all possibilities, but this is not perfection. That markets self-regulate to a point, which happens to be the same point at which the word FREE goes out the window. That bias is not undesirable, per se.

I am sure that you and I agree more than we would disagree on many an issue, this one included. It is not my intent to argue, though I am happy to engage in discussion. I am only here to express another point of view for the benefit of this blog’s readers and to, in someone else’s words, engage in a civil exchange of ideas between bloggers.


Hi Henry,

Thank you for your wonderful and very articulate response. You are indeed right, we do agree on many respects.

Essentially, what I am arguing for, and the chief reason I criticize utopian strands of free-market ideology, is for the separation of the the political sphere from the economic, and the refusal of subsuming politics and the public sphere to economic imperatives.

I do not agree with the fundamental neoliberal axiom that all human action may be explained in terms of rational individuals freely pursuing their interests. Coming from a more communitarian perspective (think Michael Sandel for example), there are certain types of behaviour that cannot be rationalized through market motivations. Patriotism and sacrifice, for example, elude the idea of rational interest-motivated behaviour. The virtues informing classical citizenship, also, are not informed by market behaviour but by respect and allegiance to the public sphere and to the common good of the “demos”.

More importantly, something like the social contract and the erection of democratic a order are not a spontaneous acts arising from the state of nature (as some neo-liberals and libertarians have it -think Nozick), but a conscious political effort of collective human agency.

On the question of bias, we thoroughly agree: very few believe in the infallibility of human behaviour and that there won’t always be bias/asymmetries/coercion in our societies. I also agree that it is not inherently the fault of the free market. However, I do think that a society informed by the rationale of laissez faire is more inclined to exacerbate such power imbalances that we naturally find in the human condition.

Finally, I am not arguing against the free market per se. But I am arguing that in CERTAIN domains the free market is NOT best suited to allocate resources or inform behaviour. For example (and here comes my European bias) healthcare, basic public transportation, the military, certain infrastructure, water provision, education, and the right to food are services and issues so essential to the unity and stability of the modern nation state that they cannot be exposed to the imbalances/biases/asymmetries inherent in the free market. In addition, I do not think that the free market is always most consistent with regimes ensuring natural rights. The ethical implications of natural rights, for me, do not arise spontaneously from a system of free-markets but from a united and concerted discussion within democracies on which ethical paradigm(s) best applies to particular contexts.


In conclusion, I agree with your final remarks saying that markets are not perfect but that they are better than many other catastrophic politico-economic systems witnessed throughout history. But we cannot remain blind to the economic and financial catastrophe caused by unbridled and corrupt free markets (with governments thoroughly compliant of course) unfolding before our very eyes. Yes to free markets – but constant vigilance of its inherent excesses (as in all things).

I therefore think that we must have a public discussion on WHERE markets are best suited to allocate resources and promote growth/innovation/creativity, and where they are not. While I am not a fan of government regulation (and this is my libertarian side coming out), prudential limits and legislative boundaries are essential to our stability as a nation and as a united people. Therefore, as Rick says in his post, we should have a public discussion on whether the neoliberal axiom we have discussed earlier should in fact inform societal and governmental behaviour.

Many thanks for taking the time to answer my points and engage in this fruitful discussion. Indeed this is what democratic deliberation is all about. I really do think we don’t disagree that much and that we both favour a democracy and an economic order where liberty is indeed maximised.




What I am curious about is this: I know from reading your blog that you are strongly anti-interventionist in terms of the government trying to manage the economy, and hold that many of the large-scale economic crises we have experienced were brought about by government interference in the market.

But do you think this always the case? Are markets, in your view, not so much perfect as impervious to catastrophic failure insofar as they are not subject to government distortions? Has the government no or only a minimum role in cushioning the public from such crises in your understanding?

Some further questions: Do you not hold the view that what are termed neo-liberal policies have the consequence of exacerbating sharp economic inequality? If you do believe neo-liberal policies can result in rising inequality why is this inequality not a danger to the survival of the market based society you wish to promote? At some point, it seems to me, some level of equality is necessary for the survival of the market itself. Isn’t it in a sense true that this is what natural property rights are meant to protect? Wouldn’t the right to hold property contradict itself in a society where only a tiny minority actually held property?



Please understand that I approach Free Markets from a Libertarian position, rather than an Egalitarian one. That is, from a love of liberty (which is simply the result of others’ duty to not aggress), regardless of its consequences, rather than a love of equality (which has many forms, some of which seem not to be compatible with others, and some which may be incompatible with liberty). Having said that, libertarianism and egalitarianism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there is a “leftist” school of thought that emphasizes both. The left-libertarians, particularly Market Anarchists argue, pragmatically, that markets are best because they lead to equality and social justice, that monopolies rarely come into existence, and that when they do, it really is because they are the best and most efficient at what they do, rather than because their cronies did them a favor. To them, it is regulations that truly cause monopolies, rather than protect against them.

More right-leaning anarchists and libertarians (such as myself) would tend to agree, but with the caveat that even if markets did lead to inequality they are still better because they do not violate the non-aggression axiom. However, my heart does bleed more than others I could name.

Wikipedia says, “Neoliberalism is an ideology based on the advocacy of economic liberalizations, free trade, and open markets. Neoliberalism supports privatization of state-owned enterprises, deregulation of markets, and promotion of the private sector’s role in society. In the 1980s, much of neoliberal theory was incorporated into mainstream economics.”

Looking at the first sentence, it would seem that the libertarian groups I mentioned above all fit neatly into this camp. But neoliberalism, especially as it has been incorporated into mainstream economics does not seem to have much common ground, apart from a few general principles, with the more fringe (anarchists, deontological minarchists) elements of Free Market advocates.

First, Neoliberalism tends to accept things the way they are, even while advocating for a change of hands, from the public sector to the private sector. If there is already a monopoly, regardless of how it got there, so long as it is not a public entity (on paper), all is well. That is their take on economic liberalization. Rather than lead to inequality, this enshrines inequality that already exists.

Second, free trade to a Neoliberal, is not free at all, it is managed, often heavily-managed trade and consistent with the ideas of a state-corporate partnership that resembles a “benign” fascism, i.e., crony capitalism, and entangling alliances. That is not to say that one form of managed trade isn’t better than another form, but to call either free trade is a mockery.

Third, the concept of an open market is not the same as that of a free market. A free market is an open market that is always subject to market forces, and in that sense they are the same.

But an open market could in theory be a part of any economic system so long as none (perhaps meeting certain requirements like competency, liquidity, and/or competitiveness, perhaps not) are denied the right to enter that market as a merchant. Also, the otherwise laudable idea that all markets should be open markets leads to the more contemptible idea that “closed” markets should be forced open. This can amount to forced trade, or at the very least trade that favors one party over the other. Another variant of legal plunder.

Fourth, privatization of state-owned enterprises, may be all well and good for things such as railroads and communications and resources, but in the case of an entity that should not exist in the first place (Federal Reserve System, Federal National Mortgage Association, Federal Home Loan Mortgage Association, to name a few), privatization is just another road of economic fascism.

And finally, deregulation can mean any number of things. It can mean deregulation of certain entities or industries and not others, which is picking winners and losers. It can also mean the removal of regulations that were in place to paper over the problems caused by other regulations, or to remove the original regulations and leave the ones that only came about as a result of the original ones, when this may be a considerably worse thing to do than to just leave them all or remove them all. This sort of occurrence is fodder for the mainstream media which can then claim that deregulation is causing economic mischief and miscalculation.

So Neoliberalism, as practiced, does seem to promote inequality. Not a gradual inequality emanating from true competition and market forces, but an already present inequality solidified and then worsened in the process of so called “liberalization.”

Inequality such as this is indeed a danger. Partly because the sheer scope of it may squeeze out competition, thus harming potential competitors and consumers, and partly because it was brought about through coercion.

Some level of equality (though I am not sure how one would measure it) may be necessary to the progression of a market based system. If different players do not at least have similar chances, the one with the best chances will necessarily end up on the top. By the same token, if their chances are roughly equal, they can compete and keep the others from crowding them out. Even so, it is very hard to maintain front runner status, even with a huge head start (in terms of resources or capital), without being artificially propped up. There will always be those smaller (unequal) entities that are just able to do things more efficiently, provided the larger entity does not have some regulatory body fixing prices in its favor, which is just one example of being artificially propped up.

Can markets have serious downturns or crashes without large scale government intervention? The answer is yes. But something (the market, to me, is not a “something”, but rather the absence of “something”, it is negative, not positive) still must be the cause. Put in place of government intervention either wide-scale fraud or groupthink. I see no reason why these wouldn’t cause problems. But there are several differences between these things and government intervention.

Whereas the failures of government intervention can be used to excuse even more of it, when fraud or groupthink occur, because they are not thought to have the same irreproachable nature as the state, they are more readily dealt with. A downturn caused by government just leads to more such intervention and more problems. Look at the dot-com boom and bust. The government’s and the Fed’s policies resulting from it led to our current housing boom-bust, and those same policies in reaction to that are now leading to a sovereign debt boom and soon to be bust. But con artists and highly speculative fads, because they do not have power over whole jurisdictions simply cannot create as big of problems. And because they are not quite so sacrosanct as the state, they will be discovered, understood, and dealt with, and will have no chance of using their own blunders to save or perpetuate themselves.

In the case of fraud, there should be laws protecting against it, but they should be defensive in nature rather than aggressive. They should not forbid every single action that could, in theory become fraudulent, as they would tend to weed out perfectly safe and moral economic actions. And in the case of irrational or risky manias, no law can protect against these. There are too many variables. Should the Dutch government have banned tulips or the cultivation of tulips or any activity related to tulips even if it had known tulipomania would lead to a bust? But even in that example, the monetary environment was distorted by debasement of the currency. Crooks and speculators (who, unlike the former, serve a valuable purpose in the market) will always exist and always be problematic, but when they are enabled with regulations protecting them from bankruptcy and granting them monopolistic privilege; or with an elastic currency encouraging their risk-taking and misallocation of resources, then doesn’t the blame fall on the enablers as well?

That the government should cushion the blows of its own making is just another way it can get its foot in the door and create more distortions. I do not think the government should have the role in bailing out industries, especially when the time is coming when the government will be the one that is in need of a handout. I am a little less inclined to criticize welfare programs for their economic effects (which, as with a bailout or stimulus, are negative), as much as for their lack of necessity. I don’t see why charity and initiative (as opposed to just one, which may be insufficient) can’t more than replace welfare programs, especially in relatively normal economic times. During a crisis, drastic measures may be more necessary, but only because of how dependent some have become during more stable conditions.

I apologize for being so long- winded in answering your questions. When I really thought about them, they were much harder to answer than I thought they would be. To be honest, I wish I could say even more, but for both our sake I will leave things as they are. I also apologize for not answering things in the order you asked them and for stringing out some of my sentences.



What I am curious about is this:

I know from reading your blog that you are especially interested in finding alternatives to the current economic and social order which you find to be dominated by corporate interests which use the tools of the state for their own ends and suppress what might be called “forms of living” that emerge spontaneously and organically from the people. I am thinking here of things like peasant movements and organic farming. Knowledge, in your view, is often an instrument of power.

My questions are, though you reject the idea Henry promotes that property rights are the basis of natural rights: Is there any natural limit to the power of the state acting as an instrument of the people to demand use or regulation of the property held by individuals? If yes, what limits do you think these might be? If no, is how is this not a kind of tyranny of the public, and why will it not give rise to the same sorts of injustices and epistemological imperialism you see now originating from the free market only now from a different set of players- bureaucrats, democratic factions, ethnic groups etc?


I thoroughly believe that there is absolutely no natural limit to what the state’s power can be used for. Be it guided by private, ethnic, religious or public interests, the modern state remains fundamentally a coercive apparatus with absolute sovereignty over its territory and citizens (in its classical Weberian definition). If an egalitarian-minded political movement claiming to represent “the people” were to take power tomorrow morning, there would be no internal or “natural” principle limiting its power: it would most probably coercively redistribute the hard-earned property of the well-off and may very well impose its own epistemological imperialism. History is rife with such occurrences.

My central point, however, is that principles of limitation of public and private power do in fact exist. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, along with most of modern legal orders clearly limit the power first and foremost of the state (these were, after all, documents enshrining principles defending the private citizen from arbitrary power of centralized monarchies). In addition, most of the greatest minds of the enlightenment (both liberal and egalitarian) such as Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau, along with practically all of the American Founding Fathers saw the separation of government’s powers as central to the architecture of any democratic nation.

So the first effective limits to state power come into existence with the birth of the modern democracy. We may safely state that the aforementioned “fathers” of liberal democracies were primarily concerned with the state NOT falling into corrupt hands (be them egalitarian or private-minded). Madison’s famous essays in the Federalist Papers are a prime example of this.

The limitations to state power are therefore, in my personal opinion, not “natural” limits based on axioms of non-aggression or conceptualizations of personal and property rights as libertarians have it. Rather, they are principles born out of historical struggle and resistance against various forms of oppression (in the enlightenment it was against absolutism and aristocracy). These principles may be “self-evident” and “universal”, but they do not exist in a void: if government were to retreat to nothingness tomorrow morning we would not in fact be left with our inviolable personal liberty. Liberty, as French philosopher Foucault once said, is relational: it exists solely in virtue of its mutual recognition.

This act of recognition is thoroughly a positive act, as it is born out of political struggle and out of democratic deliberation. Indeed, the recognition of rights to one another is the basis of a democratic society, of the social contract and is the very “stuff” of democracy. Thus, any limitation to the power of the state, for me, is not based on “negative” rights but on positive democratic deliberation over what those limitations should be. Which brings me to why I do not agree with libertarian tenets. Even though I agree with libertarians in asserting that government is essentially a coercive apparatus, I don’t believe that its simple retreat will leave us with more liberty. It is not a zero sum game of: more government = less liberty; or, less government = more liberty.

In this conceptualization, when government retreats out of the individual’s life we are left with the free market. But the free market is not a “negative” domain devoid of interests, morals and values; rather, it comes laden with specifically free-market ethics and morals (or lack thereof). For example, in the domain of free markets liberty is not primarily understood as the relationship between free and equal citizens in the public sphere, but is rather defined by, and exercised through, the exchanges between rationally motivated individuals pursuing their self interest. This is a momentous change in the very conceptualization of the citizen and her/his relationship within society.

In conclusion, I therefore argue for increased democratization of the spaces in which individuals interact: be it government or free market. The principles limiting the domains and extents of the public and the private are never given but always negotiated, fought over and forged through political contention. Let us use our democratic instruments to participate in the definition of our public and private life and not retreat to what some consider a “natural” form of human existence. What some deem “natural” (as some proponents of free markets do) is, in my personal opinion, an ideological paradigm no different from the ones we are familiar with today. For me, it is better to define our nature collectively through democratic means in positive political acts rather than allowing “natural” forces -such as inequality- strip us of our personal liberty and collective self-determination.

I thank you again Rick for allowing me to be part of this enlightened discussion, and please excuse me again for this late response. And Hank, thank you for clearly stating and elegantly expounding many of the key points of libertarianism, as well as helping me understand some of its areas which I had previously not been acquainted with. Although I do not agree with all libertarian tenets, I do remain fascinated by it and will now study it in a different light.


You guys have been great and this has been a very informative discussion.


It is my belief that these are precisely the kinds of conversations we should be having, and I would like to make it a permanent feature of this blog to do so. If readers are interested in these types of conversations both through text, and perhaps actual discussions via SKYPE or some other medium, shoot me email: I hope to make this feature available on Utopia or Dystopia starting sometime this fall.

Rick Searle