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Is it folly to ignore art?

PoliticsPosted by David McDonagh Sun, March 29, 2015 12:43:45

Is it folly to ignore art?

In Sean Gabb’s latest talk to the LA he seemed to have embraced a completely bogus thesis viz. that art aids society in general, especially the morale of the ruling class.

Sean also feels that the progress of the LA has been very disappointing and he expressed the rather odd idea that this was because there is not enough libertarian art. Some libertarians on Sean’s LA blog agreed with Sean on both art and on the more realistic looking idea of a lack of liberal progress since 1979, especially on the futility of LA activity, but, despite appearance on that latter idea if we have different ideas from the LA on the progress rate of the spread of ideas, if the LA was right in 1981 then that is a similarly unrealistic outlook on expectations of progress from libertarian propaganda and some of those who agreed with Sean even expressed that it was not clear to them of whom the enemy of liberalism is, or of what progress of the pristine liberal idea would amount to.

I will begin with a short re-statement of what I take to be the main content of the 1981 purpose and strategy of the LA.

The main idea is that ideas change slowly. We cannot realistically ever expect rapid progress. We can witness instant conversion, of course, in the odd individual case, but customs change way more slowly, for most people are conservative with a small “c” and so tradition is often against change, but customs do change nevertheless. It simply takes time. It takes decades, or even centuries, rather than days or weeks.

There is short run propaganda and long run propaganda that manifests in society in two forms of politics, that we might call 1) practical politics and 2) theoretical politics. Harold Wilson, a career politician, rightly said that “a week is a long time in politics” and this was, and is still, clearly true for his sort of politics.

Theoretical politics, or ideological politics, would haply be better off with the statement that a decade is not very long in the aim of changing society. But slow change does take place.

The LA was never thought to be a pressure group to get practical politicians to do just one thing, such as the Anti-Corn Law League, or recently, the UKIP [though they decided to go into a party before their pristine aim of getting out of the slowly emerging super-state was achieved] but rather it was a long run ideology group. The aim of the LA was to muster propagandists or “intellectuals” or extraverts who habitually tend to foster or change public opinion. They may not be bright people but they are usually outspoken.

It usually takes about fifty years to make noticeable headway in this quest to change fundamental ideas. Such propagandists will be few in number yet they matter way more that the general public in this quest to change fundamental customs, here the aim is to roll back the state.

The foremost violator of social liberty is the state; so our enemy is the state. Getting that rolled back, or reduced to zero, is the aim of the LA, and recruiting the propagandists is the peaceful means to that long run aim; but tax cuts are fine in the short run. But no results can be soon attained and facile pessimism and disappointment in the LA needs to be carefully dodged. Pessimism is not realism. A rise in membership to a thousand or two thousand in five to ten years would be success for the LA. That is what we thought in 1981.

How do things stand now? We had a bad upset in 1982, of course. Before then we seemed to be growing quite well.

The Internet shows support for ideological groups and below is the statistics for meet-up groups.

50 Socialism meetups:

5,377 members

238 Feminism meetups:

42,389 members

442 Conservative meetups:

73,728 members

487 Libertarian meetups:

74,410 members

Now I will give an account of Sean’s talk then criticise it, as well as a few comments made by others on the blog. Sean, more or less, said the following: that at the end of the 1980s many thought that libertarianism was doing well. We had seen off socialism. Most were optimistic but one young man was not: Sean Gabb.

What have we achieved in 25 years? One LA puts on monthly meetings. My LA collects money but apart from keeping the movement in being, it seems not much has been done.

It might be different in the USA, but I doubt it.

Since the 1980s it has been stagnation or decline for libertarianism. We are all intellectuals and that is the problem.

I always thought it was stupid to get people talking at bus-stops but nowadays we do not even seem to be doing that but only talking to ourselves. This is not the way to win debates or to influence the world.

How did the left come to dominate things? They were not concerned with mere ideas. They won because they focused on culture.

Films made by John Ford starring Henry Fonda spread leftist ideas by a narrative and a world view that rendered them acceptable. J.B. Priestley in the play, later a film An Inspector Calls (1954) with Alastair Sim delegitimises the past. We all have duties, not just rights. I read the play at school.

It is the likes of J.B. Priestley and George Orwell that count, and even G.B. Shaw, though I always thought he was a bit of a windbag, but they all three won the day, but not Laski. Laski and Marx are not all that important.

All this culture established Political Correctness [PC] but The New Statesman and The New Society, Marcuse, and the like, are not so important but art succeeds brilliantly.

The LA go on about von Mises and so not surprisingly we are ignored. We ought to produce novels and plays or ballet rather than books on economics. No one reads books by Eamonn Butler.

The left have took over as they focus on what is important. We need a counter narrative in the UK. It is a bit better in the USA, as there is more of a culture for libertarianism there. They have novels, music, film-makers there and similar are needed here.

We need libertarian poetry, ballet, novels for we need to give up going on and on about the economic calculation argument [eca] and defence problems. We have had 40 years but there are no libertarian film-makers yet.

Hayek’s Road To Serfdom (1944) had no particular influence but Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Darkness At Noon (1940) Arthur Koestler did influence have a great impact and those books destroyed communism in the UK. I was converted by 1984 but I was not much affected by The Road to Serfdom.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks won out owing to art. Eisenstein, Shostakovich and general Socialist Realism culture made the late USSR look glamorous. On recent visits, I look up at the tops of the buildings of the tower blocks and I see excellent art. It was not Marx or the theory of the Bolsheviks that maintained the USSR for so long but the art.

Do you associate art and libertarianism? I don’t.

There Sean handed it over for discussion.

I think that art plays no part at all in politics. That we have zero allows us to be exact about its actual role.

Sean has his own theories about the ruling class but my own view on class can be prefaced by what Marx said on class for he said we can classify people as we wish but objective economic interests is what matters and I would say that Marx got nowhere near discovering such objective class interests, for there never were any to be found. In fact, there are none. So, far from history being full of class struggle there are no classes like the ones Marx imagined, none at all, in history. The Marxist meme of class is pure Romance. There is a ruling class [i.e. a group in government and in the administration of the various states] but no objective economic class interests.

Sean seems to have overlooked how bleak establishment thought it was in 1944, when Hayek wrote that book. One man it did influence was Orwell, who wrote a review of it. He had thought, beforehand, that capitalism was doomed. The Times in the 1940s was full of the over confident E.H. Carr editorials stating that the market might not last even another week. It all looks silly today and the cited book was a factor. Hayek was a way bigger factor in ending all that gloom than Orwell or Koestler ever was.

As for ballet, has even Sean ever been to a performance of that? Girls seem to love it but I am surprised to see a man even mention it, and Sean seems to be about the only male that I have known to do so, but then I do not know a female who does not claim to have wanted to be a ballet dancer and actively aimed at it by dancing when young. Until Sean’s talk, I thought only females ever cared about it. It clearly does not influence politics very much, if at all.

I read 1984 in 1968 but I saw it as anti- Bolshevik rather than anti-socialist. It did not affect my, then, enthusiastic socialism one bit.

As I said, the media is not dominated by the left today. They feel that it is, instead, the right wing that dominates the BBC, but I would agree that that is not very realistic of them and I think they are even less realistic than Sean is, in that respect. I think the BBC is more statist than market biased, as it is state owned [though it began as a private company], but they do try to be fair.

The enemy is the state. Some socialists imagine that they, too, are against the state. Orwell was one. I used to be another.

The liberal idea is the top idea today but few see they need to get rid of illiberal ideas to be coherent on it, at least not outside the LA. So the majority of people today do not see the state, especially democracy, as illiberal. But the LA does.

Culture itself [culture qua culture] never matters much, as it is too vague and nebulous anyway, but the things that do matter will often be cultural; like the nation, love, justice to cite but three items out of many that are important for people.

One chap said that the state might decide all our entertainment. But what entertainment thrives depends on what sells, not on the rulers. Politicians often pretend they like that, but whether they do, or not, hardly matters much to the masses. When Gordon Brown pretended to like Cold Play he haply alienated more people than he successfully pandered to. In any case, the ruling class cannot determine successful entertainment.

What the LA opposes is cultural but it is also illiberal; it is the state. Liberty uses private ownership as a means but no one who thinks clearly defines liberty as mere private ownership. I do not need to own things to be free. To think so is to be confused.

Of course the shorter word, liberal is more apt than libertarian, as many on the blog rightly said, and one chap said those who are against liberty should be called puritans, but many puritans can be liberal. So statist is clearly the proper name for those who want to restrict liberty, not puritan.


Sean replied:

“I’ll begin the comments by thanking David for an accurate and fair summary of what I said last week. Beyond that, I’ll only repeat myself that we do seem to have been barking up the wrong tree – forty years devoid of measurable success.

The Great Schism of 1982 may not have helped. On the other hand, two fairly vibrant Libertarian Alliances emerged from that. The truth is that we had no impact on British politics when we were a unified movement, and none when we were spitting venom at each other, and none when we came to our senses and became friends again.

Look at it this way. Christ was crucified in 33AD. Within thirty years, there were enough Christians to be worth blaming for the Great Fire of Rome. In 1983, Peter Tatchell lost a safe Labour seat because he was outed as a poofter. Thirty years later, we had gay marriage. In the early 1960s, South African apartheid seemed unshakeable. Thirty years later, it had fallen apart. In 1985, we were talking to each other and hardly anyone else. Today, we are talking to each other and hardly anyone else.

Oh – thirty years ago, some of us were predicting a police state. Today, we live in one.

You don’t get a paradigm shift in five years. But we’ve been in this game longer than the average life expectancy of 1900. We ought by now to have some indication of success. We are so marginal, I don’t believe we are being watched even passively by the security services.”


Thank you for your reply and criticism, Sean, and for making my reply into an independent blog article.

I think we are barking up the right tree but we need to be way more active. However, even if we were as active as I wish we were and there had been no upset in 1982, so there had been a more robust LA all along, as well as a better one today, things would haply look much as they do today. It is not so easy to see the results of long run liberal propaganda in the short run but it is clear how silly the1940s The Times columns of E.H. Carr look today. I think Hayek was the main factor there but it is not at all easy to exactly measure progress.

I do not think that two active LAs emerged from the 1982 upset but rather that an active base in London was cut off from the national LA network. Things never were quite the same again. Both groups were weakened compared to the pristine LA.

It never was the aim of the LA to directly affect British politics. We were out to capture the extraverts, or propagandists, and to bias them against politics and more action by the state.

Christianity has a nominal success but a “Christian” is as ignorant of the creed as an Irishman of actual Irish history or a Marxist of the ideas of Karl Marx. But the main fact here is that versions of the creed were going a lot longer than only a few years between when Paul converted and the persecution of the creed by the Romans and Paul converted to a network that not even his energy created in the short time that you think. There never was a pristine Jesus Christ, of course, the word never was made flesh, but we pitch his death just before Paul converted to the creed, but I think the network was being built up a long time prior to then. G.A. Wells once said he thought it was around about three hundred years prior to Paul.

Do you feel that if Peter Tatchell had a heart attack on failing to win that safe Labour seat then daft David Cameron would be any the less keen on gay marriage, such that we would not have it today? You seem to be the complete Romantic, Sean!

Ever since 1962, Christianity has seemed utterly perverse to me. It is phenomenal that it ever caught on, even with brilliant and hard-working propagandists like St Paul spreading it. But so is a Conservative Prime Minister pressing for a gay marriage law that must alienate most of his natural supporters, and the fact that a Conservative party ever wants to modernise is also phenomenal. The majority are always going to be conservative. Even New Labour upset many people by modernising. Those examples certainly show the power of ideas, or of fashion, or of both. But the long march of what we now call Political Correctness [PC] was going long prior to 1900. It is, basically, the very perverse ideal of Equality.

South Africa did not look solid in 1960 to many, certainly not to me, but it had the USA on its side at that point for there was, back then, about as much apartheid in the cities of USA as there was in South Africa.

PC need not be statist, of course. Many liberals, maybe most liberals, have been exceedingly fond of the crass idea of equality. It has never been the very top idea. Liberalism is! It was in 1800. Maybe it was very much before then too. As I said above, in the now blog article, few people want to vie or mesh their ideas together for coherence. They simply do not see democracy, or even the state, as illiberal. But the LA is right that it clearly is such. But it is not obvious today. It will be in the future. This is because people are not often interested in those things, just as they are not often interested in art. If the public do not look, then they will not see even the clearest things.

That you were about the only one who looked up at the top of the buildings on your visits to the lands of the late USSR should have told you about the little effect on others was of the excellent art that you enjoyed, Sean.

Statist PC is not only illiberal but totalitarian thus the emerging police state you cite, Sean. But the ideal of PC, which is equality, the market, has served way better than the state ever can, and the free market would serve even faster and better but it would be free of totalitarian coercion.

Adam Smith saw that fact back in 1776. He felt that the workings of supply and demand tended towards price equality and he was quite right.

Now the economists have developed the theory of the price system, it is way easier today to see that he was right. There has been a long run societal movement towards equality beginning long before 1776 and it continues to happen to this day, off-set only by short run new inequalities introduced by innovation, invention, amongst other things, like new fashion, that tends to make the whole process a levelling up one. The luxuries of one generation that had to be in short supply to begin with have often become the everyday goods of the next, and this the statists call “trickle down” just as they call competition “cut throat” but both are social boons. Nothing needs to fall from a table and no throats need to be cut. That is merely the hyperbole of statist propaganda.

Indeed, profit is the hallmark of social service just as taxation is the sign of abuse towards others. The market is largely colour blind, indifferent to homosexuality, but it does not privilege groups by coercive law, as statist PC does, but then such privilege flouts the PC ideal of equality, as politics cannot be even or just, to one and all.

Politics has to oppose some group as the enemy, a Romantic ideal that is anti-liberal to its core but it is anti-equality too. So PC ought to go free. Liberalism has an institution as an enemy rather than any class of people, including the ignorant ruling class. De jure statist equality law is always de facto privilege.

When Enoch Powell said in 1968 that a constituent told him that in ten years’ time the black man would have the whip hand over the white men he might have replied that they already had the metaphorical whip hand since 1963, as the whites were under-privileged in relation to the blacks privilege owing to the racial discrimination laws of that year.

Sean, the plain fact is that we have only just begun to talk to each other theoretically. I do hope we continue a little before we decide break off. I have no idea what your ideas of class amount to. But I am an ex-smoker so not the best chap to champion the liberal right to smoke, and similarly, as an ex-Marxist, I tend to think class is sheer bosh rather as I tend to think that Christianity is, as an ex-Catholic.

But I ought to confess that I do not mind being marginal, or unnoticed, by my enemy the state. As people, I wish state employees, at any level, no harm at all. The Enlightenment outlook, which I champion against the Romantic reaction that reacted against it, has no enemies. That politics intrinsically gratuitously uses proactive coercion against at least some people is the major fault of the state and it is why politics can never be fair.

  • Comments(4)

Posted by David McDonagh Wed, April 01, 2015 09:01:06

You seem to ignore what Sean said in the talk and since, Nico.

However, I think we do not have enough ideas as a matter of fact. But that is in answer to you rather than to Sean. Your reading of his thesis is better than the thesis. I think we have not dealt with why liberalism declined after 1860 and we do need to do so; nor with the 1930s slump to cite but two problem areas. There are many more.

What Sean calls art is almost apolitical.

But, to repeat, I enjoyed the talk and the aftermath.

Posted by Nico Metten Tue, March 31, 2015 18:15:53

Sean is not against ideas David. He is just saying that we have enough ideas and need to start putting them into art, so that we can spread the message. I don't think he is completely wrong on that. However, he seems to overestimate the degree to which you can manipulate people into believing in something. People believe what makes sense to them.

Posted by David McDonagh Mon, March 30, 2015 17:31:27

Thanks for your reply, Nico.

I cannot see where you agree even one iota, Nico. I see no harm in expressing full agreement with him, for we can then discuss it [as I am always willing to do even with Sean himself] but you seem to, below, express no real agreement with him whatsoever.

Sean’s rather odd thesis is that only art matters. The LA is simply a waste of time, is his gist, and the 1981 policy statement is misguided [see the Free Life section on the main site].

In particular, Hayek [whom Sean rightly assumes had some influence on that 1981 statement] is utterly wrong to single out the intellectuals [it emerges from Sean’s second reply {on the other LA blog}, that Sean overlooked how DRS cast the “intellectuals” in 1981, it was a bit distinct from Hayek] for that, he boldly said in his talk, was the problem.

All this is very welcome as criticism but it is still sheer bosh. I liked the talk, and the aftermath, here and on the other blog, but Sean’s thesis has no merit as proper or useful criticism of the LA. It is as clear as anything could be that there is no relationship between what Sean had in his talk as largely high art in general and the effectiveness of any propaganda whatsoever. In his hyperbole, he even explicitly said that any propaganda was a waste of time yet he afterwards, absurdly, added that it might not be if the background art was right.

I think you read into this some realism, Nico, for clearly what you say below is way more realistic than anything that Sean had to say in his talk or on the topic since, and there is the very interesting problem of mere fashion in ideology. Again, fashion is culture but not art as Sean had it. Liberalism was the fashion 1800-’60 despite the big Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment just before but especially after 1789, lead first by Rousseau then later by Burke. In morals liberalism has been the top meme for centuries, at least since 1500; but maybe always. But socialism seemed to be the new fashion by about 1870, but only in politics, not ever in morals or ethics. Since the 1970s, liberalism has revived somewhat in politics, but not yet fully.

In morals, there is not a single person who does not feel the pull of the idea to respect the liberty of others, and even abusers of others do not abuse them most of the time. As liars need to use lots of honesty even to make any lie work, for all lies need a large hinterland of honesty to ever work, so abusers of other people need to confine it to a minority of the time of their treatment of the abused, if it is to periodically carry on for any length of time. As with lies, abuse has to be hidden. Most of the time they treat the abused correctly and pretend that is how it is always. As the saying goes, hypocrisy needs to pay lip service to morals and morals have as a chief idea the liberal idea of respect for the liberty of others; of social liberty. This is tacitly, if not explicitly, known to one and all. So it is not easy to ever completely close the door on liberalism, at least in basic morals. The door is always going to be ajar for the LA to push it further open.

As what Sean says was sheer bosh, there no middle ground for the truth to be in, Nico. Sean mistakes pessimism for realism, a very common conflation. Is it all down to the widespread influence of the Romantic writings of Arthur Schopenhauer [the influence of Art, as they might say in the USA]? His 1818 book was certainly high art but it was almost completely devoid of truth. However, it is great fun. I recommend it.

Liberalism would be better measured in repealing laws than in making yet more laws, and the totalitarian laws giving out privilege on the basis of race and sex ought to be amongst the first to be repealed if we are to remove the under-privilege that they enforce to restore more social liberty.

The state needs to get out of the way, if we are ever to get an alternative to it. It is not easy to replace a state that monopolises most of the domains it takes over by statutory law. We cannot expect entrepreneurs to go against the law. We do need to make that slight use of democracy to negate the negation of social liberty. But we are miles away from being ready to do that yet.

But once the state draws back by mass public use of democracy then we do not need to do more to aid that very diverse, and ever changing, class that we call the entrepreneurs to further encourage them to move in to where they can pander to what they think the public wants in pursuit of profit, that societal hallmark of public service.

But the state will need to be rolled back first.

Sean’s thesis seems to be utterly unrealistic. He was on about both high art and low art but neither seemed to aid his thesis on the background need for liberal propaganda; or was it that art, both low and high, would replace propaganda entirely, as pamphlets on von Mises could only bark up the wrong tree? It was the latter, it seems.

It is odd how the usage of “von” comes in whenever people want to reject Mises.

Art seems short for artificial, thus for culture in the widest anthropological, or sociological, sense or for what is made out of nature by man [or even other animals, given things like a bird’s nest]; thus art in general is a departure from rude nature.

But then we also tend to cite only "high" culture as art, leaving out the more routine stuff to call crafts, or even as tradesmen's work, which is often classified as even lower than craftwork. So uniqueness, or rarity, or originality becomes important in the classification of high art.

But little of any sort of art can have much to do with crass politics, though crass politics itself is cultural in its own right, of course. It is also intrinsically illiberal and corrupting of any nation but it will take the human race maybe centuries to fully shed it. The movement towards doing so is not likely to be rapid. The sooner the better, of course, but realistically we can expect progress to be every slow.

We all have beliefs and whenever they are true [i.e. cite external facts], then we have subjective truth but when they miss the facts then we have subjective falsehood. If we write down a true thing then we have objective truth but if we write down a false thing then we have objective falsehood. Subjectivity or objectivity cannot ever affect the truth qua truth. Both truth and falsehood can be quite unwitting. Honesty is not necessarily truthfulness, nor lying falsehood.

Yes, if what you say seems to be true to others then the others can be persuaded, but it may take longer to persuade people if what you say seems to be false at the outset and it needs to eventually look true for persuasion to succeed with anyone. Fashion does come into this, as stated for liberalism and socialism above.

To repeat, it does not look like you agree with Sean at all, Nico. He was not on about the art we might find within liberal propaganda but saying that all propaganda was “barking up the wrong tree”.

You are right, of course, that we need to make what we say as clear and as attractive as we can, and if it can ever pass for high art then all the better; though that might well be way beyond most of us. But that is not related to Sean’s very odd thesis about art at all.

Emotions do indeed matter and the Stoics were right to realise that the emotions are quite intellectual, even though the gap between what is often expressed as the heart and the head does exist often exist in all of us. Cold proof seems beside the point in the short run, but more often than not, it flows down from the head into the heart and then it becomes charged with emotion; as Karl Popper rightly said: psychology follows logic. So we find that many mathematicians are often highly excited by what, to those many people who do not like mathematics, can often seem to be very cold indeed. But this learning process of adoption by the heart can take time.

Posted by Nico Metten Sun, March 29, 2015 18:33:04

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I think the truth is in the middle. I don't think that success of Libertarianism can be measured in politicians making laws. I do think that we need to change the minds, particularly of entrepreneurs, who then go out and create alternatives to the state.

In order to create culture, we clearly need to have the ideas first, before we can turn them into culture. I do believe that truth is subjective and therefore, the environment that people live in matters to whether you can persuade them or not of an idea.

But ultimately, I do agree with Sean to some degree. It clearly matters how you present ideas. I can read the same idea in different books, and one time I get and another I don't, depending on which style the person is writing in. It matters how you explain an idea. Emotions seem to be very helpful in accelerating learning. So if you can present ideas in an emotional context it helps to influence people. And our brains seem to love stories. Every good teacher will tell you that if you want pupils to remember something, it is always good to but it into a story. If that story triggers emotions, even better. I disagree with Sean, who seems to suggest that art is the origin of a successful movement. But art can certainly help to accelerate the pace with which ideas spread.