Sean Gabb on why we need to change the subject

Sean Gabb is a British intellectual who assaults the encroachments on freedom from a libertarian point of view. He is not an Ayn Randist; his views are much more historically informed, and I have paid tribute to him elsewhere in this blog.

His latest target is the proposal to put through an electronic surveillance bill in the British Parliament.

First, he draws attention to the complete failure of any analysis of the failure of statist measures to achieve their objectives. Reviewing the literature from 1930 to 1970, he concludes that every criticism of statist measures in the UK that could have been made was made, correctly, and it had no effect. The state continued to expand regardless of any criticism no matter how well reasoned and persuasive.

He asks why this was so.

Gabb writes:

To make use of Thomas Kuhn, there is, at any time in any society, an overall paradigm that both explains the world and provides an agenda for action. For a very long time in this country, the paradigm has been statist. The justifications may overlap and change from time to time – the welfare of the working classes, racial and sexual equality, anthropogenic climate change, the demonization of Moslems and paedophiles and the unhealthy, and so forth. But the paradigm is one that accepts an enlarged state as both inevitable and desirable. Books like A Diet of Reason and Education and the State do no more than draw attention to anomalies….

If our present social paradigm is to be destroyed, it is necessary to make people lose interest in it. I cannot be bothered with a minute critique of the Investigatory Powers Bill because, as said, no one important listens to us – but also because proving how our Internet records will end up with ISIS or in North Korea will get nothing more than a shrug and a few soothing words about the “safeguards” in the Bill. We need to do better than produce anomalies of detail….

All through the twentieth century, our people tried to shift the paradigm by purely intellectual activism. Given the altered correlation of forces within the universities, they worked on a scale that we cannot now match. They still failed. The reason was that they were trying to apply their lever to the wrong point….

Intellectual activism is not a waste of time. Someone needs to articulate the counter-paradigm. But this is not sufficient in itself to overthrow the dominant paradigm. It should be seen rather as one line of attack in a largely cultural assault. We need our economists and philosophers. We also need our writers and artists and musicians. We need our own unofficial and unregulated – and that probably means secret – schools. We need our own structures of family life and arbitration. Our counter-paradigm must be seen to exist across the whole spectrum. We cannot try to privatize defence procurement, or bring back gold, and expect the tone of Hollywood and the BBC and the publishing industry to change accordingly. We must provide our own full-spectrum alternative. Plainly, we have done almost nothing in this direction. Hardly surprising if we life in a grotty police state….

To be clear, I do not believe we are living in a police state in Canada. Yes we have an expansive state, and there are many reasons for this, some of them utterly beyond anyone’s conscious control. As to Britain, the argument that it is a police state could be made more easily, especially when you see the arrests and prosecutions of white people for what are essentially the frank expression of everyday views on matters of race and religion.

The following is the tale of one Matthew Doyle, who tweeted something considered offensive by the thought-police after the Belgian airport bombings this past week. His story perfectly illustrates what Gabb is fighting against:

A man who tweeted about stopping a Muslim ‘women’ (sic) in the street and challenging her to “explain Brussels”, has said he will sue the Metropolitan Police after charges of race-hate against him were dropped.

Matthew Doyle, 46, from South Croydon, no longer faces the charge after the Met Police was told it had jumped the gun and did not have the power to make the decision without consulting the Attorney-General or the CPS.

“I cannot understand why I was detained, my flat trashed, my passport seized and two PCs, two tablets and my phone taken,” he said.

Mr Doyle, a partner at a south London-based talent and PR agency, allegedly posted a tweet on Wednesday morning saying: “I confronted a Muslim woman in Croydon yesterday. I asked her to explain Brussels. She said ‘nothing to do with me’. A mealy mouthed reply.”

The tweet, which appeared to refer to referred to this week’s bomb attacks on the Belgian capital’s main airport and Metro system, received hundreds of angry responses.

Regardless of the merits of Mr Doyle’s tweet or his underlying views, that the police in Britain are seizing the property of a man who posts an “offensive” tweet, according to a very expansive idea of racial incitement, is close to insane, and yet Britain is living under this form of police control now, with full support of the political classes.

“I was denied a shave, shower, food. I was stripped of any dignity to appear in court without looking like a dishevelled hobo that I am not,” he said.

He also accused ‘”nameless Twitter trolls” of “fanning the flames” and accused the Met of being “foolish” for bowing to social media rows.

He said: “It is not only foolish of them but I will be making a complaint against them and damages for trashing my flat, taking all my electronic stuff from my flat and forcing me to leave London.”

When first rate intellectuals like Sean Gabb are saying that opposition to some particular surveillance legislation is futile until we change the culture, he is on to something important. If rational intellectual opposition could have worked, it would have worked. It has not, and he is bold enough to ask why.

As Gabb showed, nearly everyone in 1600 thought that there were malevolent supernatural powers with whom humans could communicate, and that communication with these powers ought to be illegal. People were tried and hanged for witchcraft because people believed in these supernatural malevolent powers. A century later in 1700, no one believed in witchcraft. What had changed? In Gabb’s view the fact that intellectuals had pocket watches by 1700 did more to persuade people of a mechanistic universe than any amount of rational agitation against belief in witchcraft. In short, the subject – the focus of attnetion-changed.

I do not know what the answer is to controlling the expansion of the state. It may be, as Sean Gabb suggested about the effect of the pocket watch, that the near miraculous devices in our pockets, those telephone/camera/star chart/calculating/social media connecting/encyclopedias/ geo-positioning calulcators will turn society’s collective attention away from the state towards other things, and that they will accomplish the equivalent of the mental transformation that saw belief in witchcraft disappear between 1600 and 1700.

Whatever that force, thing, idea may be, I agree that the most important act we can engage in is actually to withdraw our attention from the state in order to refresh ourselves in our own lives, communities, and beliefs.

I have been much happier since I withdrew my attention from the CBC, and more recently, broadcast television. Part of the way to cope with the media and the political circus it supports is shift one’s attention to matters of more permanent importance, as one defines it.





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Bill Elder

I’ve been reading Gabb for some time. Because he’s a UK libertarian he opens you to insights tat are usually a decade distant in Canada – it has been our fate or folly that our political class follow UK paradigms sooner or later – usually later.

I think we haven’t the open police state the UK does but we are approaching it – if you do any competitive shooting you’ll understand the unseemly under belly of the martinet police state I’m seeing


I would be interested in hearing more about your experiences with the martinet police state that you are seeing. Thank you.


I doubt it not. I think that you would have things to say of which we should be aware, that people who do not target shoot would find interesting to know.

Bill Elder

What I could tell you about the control regime affecting the non-criminal peaceful lawful ownership and use of legally available firearms could fill volumes. Suffice to say that from both a legal perspective, administrative perspective and enforcement perspective, the regulatory regime was crafted for the diminishment of lawful civilian firearms ownership and use through regulatory harrassement, legal entrapment, abuse of authority and malicious prosecution.

I have been on the inside of this since PET initiated it and Chretien/Rock finally concocted the last statute ever needed to effect total civilian disarmament by decree. I have witnesses the unmitigated bullying of senior citizens, widows, lawful dealers, range operators and so on.

I do intend to spill my guts as it were, in a dystopian fiction using legal fact (in the Orwellian fashion)before I throw off this mortal coil – however it will be at a time of retirement and from a foreign local where the “authorities” cannot damage me through all the devious little bureaucratic devices available to them to utterly destroy a Canadian who speaks truth to power.

In the 35 odd years I have been fighting for justice within this control regime, I have learned that the greatest crime you commit in Canada is NOT breaking the law, but defying authority when it is wrong.

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