L. Neil Smith Interviews Sean Gabb (2012)
Dr. Sean Gabb, An Interview
by L. Neil Smith
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
L. NEIL SMITH: Sean Gabb, any attempt to introduce you adequately to our readers would end up as long as the rest of this interview. You are a man of many accomplishments, and there are plenty of things this long-overdue discussion might be about. From my viewpoint, for example, you are British libertarianism.
But you're also one of the most hardworking and productive writers I know of, magnificently adept at both fiction and non-fiction. So let's make this simply a writer-to-writer conversation and see what happens.
First question: the great Raymond Chandler once famously said, "The only salvation for a writer is to write". What is it that drives you to write as much as you do?
Dr. SEAN GABB: I write for many reasons. I write because I have something to say, because I want other people to hear me, because I want to change the world, because I'm vain, because I'd go mad if I couldn't write, because I want people to speak about me after I'm dead, because I hope it will eventually bring in more cash than getting a regular job, because I'm rather good at it. I'm sure there are many other reasons for writing. Each one in itself could be the excuse for an essay.
Let's deal, however, with writing as a compulsion, which covers several of the points given above. If I were to say I'd never changed my mind, I'd be lying. But I will say that I've had certain basic opinions about the world for as long as I've been able to think beyond "Seanie wants potty!"
The most basic of these is that the world would be a better place if we could all agree to stop pushing each other around. Just behind this, or perhaps in front, is that English civilisation is a very fine thing, and anyone who disagrees should go and live somewhere else. There might, I'll admit, be a slight lack of consistency between these opinions. But my entire life has seen a progressive collapse of civility and due process liberty, and a decline of England so fast and so complete that the Spanish decadence of the 17th century was smooth by comparison. It's got to the point where I feel almost embarrassed to be English.
I can do without the Empire. Many of my ancestors seem to have done the crappier jobs in its conquest and defence and general administration. But I can't think I have any moral right to enjoy it now. What really angers me is that the same class of degenerates who let the Empire slip away is still messing things up. That class is a founder-member of the New World Order. While spouting crap about shifting comparative advantage, it stuffed working class dissent by shutting down British industry, and turning the country into a gigantic casino—a casino employing people with names like Justin and Tarquin as the head croupiers. It's bleeding us white in taxes. It's suppressing all enterprise and initiative in what looks like a deliberate attack on the people. It's a class that has corrupted and dirtied everything it touched. More to the point, it now rules through an increasingly ruthless police state.
All this used to make my friend Chris R. Tame so angry, that I really believe he died of cancer as a result. What keeps me in reasonable health is the ability to spray hate for these people all over the Internet. My only regret, when I look at the million words or so I've written of denunciation is that they've had so little effect so far.
NEIL: Although I also write non-fiction, I've always believed—based on the efforts of H.G. Wells, Edward Bellamy, Eric Frank Russell, Robert Heinlein, and Ayn Rand, among others—that fiction can be a better teacher of political philosophy. Why do you write fiction, and is your expectation any different than when you write non-fiction?
SEAN: The short answer is that I've always liked stories. I've always been a daydreamer—I've always had a crowded and enjoyable dream life. I've always wanted to write fiction much more than anything else. I was writing short stories at school. I wrote three novels in my twenties and two in my thirties. None of these got published, and I sometimes feel a certain regret that they have probably faded from the non-standard disks on which I put them. But I started again in 2005, and have written eight since then.
Writing fiction ticks all the boxes given above. But let's talk about the political aspects. There is a relative lack of sustained cultural production within the conservative and libertarian movements. We've always been strong on analysis and criticism. We have our philosophers and economists and historians, and these are among the best. We aren't wholly without our novelists and musicians and artists. There's you. There's Heinlein. There's Rand. There are many others.
But we haven't so far put cultural production at the top of our list of things to do. It's been treated as barely even secondary to uncovering and explaining the workings of a natural order. So far as this has been the case, however, it's been a big mistake. There's little benefit in preaching to an audience that doesn't understand why your message is important.
The socialist takeover of the English mind during the early 20th century was only in part the achievement of the Webbs and J.A. Hobson and E.H. Carr and Harold Laski and Douglas Jay, and all the others of their kind. They were important, and if they hadn't written as they did, there would have been no takeover. But for every one who read these, there were tens or hundreds who read and were captured by Shaw and Wells and Galsworthy and Richard Llewellyn, among others. These were men who transmitted the socialist cases to a much wider audience.
Just as importantly, where they did not directly transmit, they helped bring about a change in the climate of opinion so that propositions that were rejected out of hand by most thoughtful men in the 1890s could become the received wisdom of the 1940s. They achieved a similar effect in the United States, and were supplemented there by writers like Howard Fast, and, of course, by the Hollywood film industry.
More recently in England, the effect of television soap operas like Eastenders has been immense and profound. Their writers have taken the dense and often incomprehensible writings of the neo-Marxists and presented them as a set of hidden assumptions that have transformed the English mind since 1980. No one can fully explain the Labour victory of 1997, or the ease with which law and administration were transformed even before them, without reference to popular culture.
Though I'll say outright that she's never been one of my favourites, there's no doubt that Ayn Rand was a great novelist and a great libertarian. And there's no doubt at all that her novels did more than anything else to revive libertarianism in America—and perhaps even in England. But what I'm talking about at the moment isn't long didactic novels where characters speak for three pages about the evils of central banking. What I do believe we need is good, popular entertainment of our own creation that is based on our own assumptions.
I think the most significant objective propagandist of my lifetime for the libertarian and conservative cause in England was the historical novelist Patrick O'Brian. I've read all his historical novels, some more than once, and I don't think he ever sets out an explicit case against the modern order of things. What he does instead is to create a world—that may once have existed largely as he describes it—that works on different assumptions from our own. If this world is often unattractive on account of its poverty and brutality, its settled emphasis on tradition and on personal freedom and responsibility has probably done more to spread the truth in England than the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Ideas combined.
And, now I mention these organisations, I really do groan at most of the stuff they bring out. If they really wanted to win the battle of ideas, they'd do better to cancel a few of those dreary policy documents, and put the money instead into a ballet about the early life of Ludwig von Mises.
NEIL: You've written a good many excellent novels under your own name and otherwise, but you've expressed dissatisfaction with what you see as an inability to persuade British publishers to print your science fiction. What do you suppose is at the root of this problem, and what plans do you have, if any, to fix it?
SEAN: There are many reasons why a publisher may turn down your work. The most likely is that he doesn't think it will make money. I suspect that is the case with my own science fiction novels—though I also suspect that anyone who believes this is mistaken. While it came out through my own publishing company, The Churchill Memorandum has done rather well, and would probably do better still with a mainstream publisher behind it.
My most recent science fiction novel is an apocalyptic fantasy called The Break. It's set in an England, just a few years in the future, that has somehow reverted to the year 1065. There was a big storm, eleven months before the start of the novel. When it had cleared, everything in the UK mainland was the same—but the whole world, starting 300 yards from the shore, had gone back 900 years to just before the Norman Conquest. Forget any talk, in this scenario, of shared adversity. What happens is that a ruling class, even more degenerate than it now is, rolls out a naked police state and lets a third of the population starve to death. Several millions more are rounded up and deported to mediaeval Ireland and set to work on making the place into a plantation.
The main characters in this nightmare are a young woman called Jennifer and a stray Byzantine called Michael. Why is the British State so eager to lay hands on Michael? What really happened to Jennifer's parents? Above all, what is the American Secretary of State doing in London?
I think it's rather good. Sadly, it sprawls across so many genres, and is so scathing about modern England, that every publisher I've approached has told me the novel is highly readable but unprintable. Even my normal publisher won't touch it.
What to do about this? I suppose the answer is to keep trying. There must be a publisher somewhere in the English-speaking world who will bring out my science fiction. It's a question of finding the right one.
NEIL: You've written four science fiction novels so far. I wonder if you'd name them and tell us as much as you wish about each one of them.
SEAN: Accidental Qualities (1985) was a less than devout retelling of the Gospel story from the point of view of Erich von Daniken. I enjoyed describing a massacre by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem, and the character of Pilate was probably amusing. But I don't think the world is losing much from the existence of the novel in a handwritten first draft.
In The Return of the Skolli (1995), it is 2014, and England has become a vicious but down-at-the-heel police state, with broken security cameras and a vestigial PC legitimising ideology.
Philip Phiston is a petty thief who's been found out at work and sacked. Before leaving the building, he looks through the basement and finds a nice-looking attache case. When he gets this back to his sordid lodgings in South London, he drinks himself to sleep. When he wakes up, the attache case has turned into a notebook computer—with a 1Gb memory! This is sentient and demands access to the Internet.
Cutting a long story short, this object has been around for 40 million years, waiting for the right kind of civilisation to come along, after which it will construct a gateway through time for a race of intelligent lizards called the Skolli, whose world was destroyed by an asteroid impact.
The whole thing goes wrong, as Phiston goes on the run with the object. After a few hundred pages of chasing and killing, we end with a Prime Minister who dissolves into a pool of grey s lime, and the casting back to the Skolli to their own time.
It's quite a good novel—or could be. One day, I will see how much of it survives on the 3.5" floppy on which it is stored.
The premise of The Churchill Memorandum (2011) is as follows:
It was Thursday the 16th March 1939. The Fuhrer had spent twenty-two hours in Prague to inspect his latest conquest. During this time, the people of that city had barely been aware of his presence in the Castle. But as the Mercedes accelerated to carry him back to the railway station, one of the armoured cars forming his guard got stuck in the tramlines that lay just beyond the Wenzelsplatz. The Fuhrer's car swerved to avoid this. On the frozen cobblestones....
Hitler is dead. There is no Second World War—no takeover of England by the Left in 1940. Go forward twenty years, to 1959, and England is still England. The Queen is on her throne. The pound is worth a pound. All is right with the world—or with that quarter of it lucky enough to repose under an English heaven.
Rejoicing in this happy state of affairs, Anthony Markham takes his leave of a nightmarish, totalitarian America. He has a biography to write of a dead and now largely forgotten Winston Churchill, and has had to travel to where the old drunk left his papers. But little does Markham realise, as he returns to his safe, orderly England, that he carries, somewhere in his luggage, an object that can be used to destroy England and the whole structure of bourgeois civilisation as it has been gradually restored since 1918.
Who is trying to kill Anthony Markham? For whom is Major Stanhope really working? Where did Dr Pakeshi get his bag of money? What connection might there be between Michael Foot, Leader of the British Communist Party, and Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan? Why is Ayn Rand in an American prison, and Nathaniel Brandon living in a South London bedsit? Where does Enoch Powell fit into the story? Above all, what is the Churchill Memorandum? What terrible secrets does it contain?
All will be revealed—but not till after Markham and Pakeshi have gone on the run through an England unbombed, uncentralised, still free, and still mysterious. How might our country have turned out but for that catastrophic declaration of war in defence of Poland? Read on and wonder....
The Churchill Memorandum can be read as a thriller, as a black comedy, as a satire on political correctness. It may also warm the hearts of anyone who suspects that the Pax Americana has been less than a blessing for mankind, and that what civilisation we still enjoy is threatened most by those who rule in Washington.
It came out in February 2011 to mixed acclaim and hysterical denunciation. Several British libertarians appear to have been driven mad by it. On these grounds alone, I suggest it's worth buying on Amazon.
The Break (2011) we have already discussed, above.
NEIL: What would you say—to American publishers and readers—makes your novels especially different and interesting to them?
SEAN: Well, in terms of language, the difference is limited to matters of slightly different speech patterns and a few variations of spelling and vocabulary. My science fiction novels are nearly all set in England, and are closely rooted there. This means they will be seen as slightly exotic. But most American readers surely know something about England. It isn't as if I were being translated from Uzbek. English writers do well in America so far as what they write isn't so local as to be incomprehensible—I think here about the large if mostly ignored genre of novels about football (soccer), and all those family sagas set in the north of England.
If my novels ever do well in America, it will be because American readers enjoy reading them—because they have original and striking plots and are engagingly written. I think they are that—or I hope they are.
NEIL: In the end, I believe British science fiction writers, from H. G. Wells, through Eric Frank Russell, to Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock found more willing publishers and more enthusiastic readers in the United States than at home. Could you be satisfied if that became the case with your life's work?
SEAN: Perfectly so. Fame is fame, and money is money. But I believe the trade hasn't all been in one direction. I think Frank Herbert's Dune first came out in England.
Generally, though, science fiction tends to do better in America than in England. Why that is I can't say. I might try arguing that modern English culture is deeply pessimistic, and people here tend to look for escape into the past. Perhaps America remains more optimistic, and people there still believe that the future will be better than the present. This being said, science fiction has always been more popular in America, and English science fiction novelists have done better in America than at home.
This being said, I wonder if John Wyndham is much read in America? He was a very good novelist, but his novels were all rooted in a specifically English setting, and require a close familiarity with English ways and assumptions.
NEIL: Speaking only for myself, I read all of Wyndham's books as a teeneager and enjoyed them very much. And the movie The Day of the Triffids made a pretty good splash. But in a more general sense, what would it take to make you feel that your efforts as a science fiction writer have been worthwhile?
SEAN: Oh, the answer to that one is a shedload of money, and standing ovations every time I turn up at a convention. Otherwise, it would be nice to know that I'd started a whole movement of English libertarian novelists, who went on to have a profound impact on the English mind. The purpose of fiction is always to entertain readers, and to give the writer at least hopes of enrichment. But hoping for a wider intellectual impact is legitimate.
NEIL: Finally, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln is said to have declared, "So you're the little lady who started the Civil War." Do you believe that writers in general, and writers of fiction in particular, are capable of changing the course of history?
SEAN: Oddly enough, I found a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin the other day in my local library. I think, in general, that 19th century American fiction is overrated and is a poor imitation of the Victorian giants. What I read of UTC, however, struck me as first class. Stowe knew how to write very effective English, and she ranges well between pathos and satire and biting denunciation. Since there was no defence possible of American slavery, I can easily imagine that she punctured the unwillingness of most Americans to think about the issue.
Novels do change the course of history. I've said that I don't much like Ayn Rand. But there cannot be the slightest doubt that she did more than anyone else to revive an American libertarian movement that was largely moribund, and that her influence spilled straight across the Atlantic. I have very few libertarian friends who were not initially brought over by reading Atlas Shrugged.
My own path led through the English liberals of the 19th century. But I have written about how finding The Probability Broach in a railway carriage got me out of an intellectual rut in my early twenties. I may never amount to much, but one of my students may become a Conservative cabinet minister around 2030. One thing often leads to another.
Look at George Orwell. His early novels are worth reading, so far as they entertain and illustrate the English lefty mind of the 1930s. But Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four did more than Hayek and Von Mises and all the lavishly-funded anti-communist stuff of the late 1940s to discredit communism in the English-speaking world. Two Communists got into Parliament in the 1945 general election. Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in 1949. There were no Communists who even came close to being elected in the 1950 general election. I think there was a connection between these two latter events. Animal Farm is cruel satire. But, while, before Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was possible to lie with a straight face about Soviet Russia and not lose friends, totalitarianism ever since has been utterly disreputable.
Looking far outside our movement, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has become a core text of political correctness. It seems to be on every English Literature reading list over here. But there can be no doubt that it's a very good novel. I suspect the American South was much more complex than this novel describes it. Nevertheless, most English—and perhaps American—views of the pre-civil rights South is based on this one novel. It's a question of ruthless promotion onto the reading lists, but also of inherent quality. Of course works of fiction change history. I doubt it is more changed by anything else.
I'll say again that the corporate-funded part of the libertarian movement turns out several hundred thousand pages a year of stuff that may be read once by its commissioning editor. Boring at the time, it becomes, after a few years, incomprehensible. I used to spend one afternoon a week in the library of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. This has a complete run of its publication since the late 1950s. Some of these are gems that deserve much wider publication—E.G. West on education, for example. Most of them though, are dreary things—about ineffective billing in the state-owned telephone industry of the late 1960s.
I won't say these things have no influence at all. But I suspect their influence is limited to their physical existence. They have a descriptive title, sometimes a striking cover, and they have a reassuring bulk. If the actual pages turned out to be filled with the fake Latin used to display printing fonts, they would be no less effective.
If only some part of this lavish funding could be turned to publishing libertarian fiction. The socialists of the early 20th century went for full spectrum coverage. We are still living with their success. There is much that is scandalous in the gross corporatist propaganda I've ghost-written for the pharmaceutical industry. What I find most scandalous is that these people pay me for this dross and let their eyes glaze over if I give them a copy of The Churchill Memorandum.
NEIL: Thank you very much, Sean. This has been an extremely pleasurable experience and I hope we can do it again sometime. Speaking of "boring and incomprehensible", for instance, we could talk about CATO and the Hoover Institute.
But for now, I'll remind our readers about The Churchill Memorandum, available in both dead-tree and Kindle formats at Amazon.com. And I'm sure you'll agree that the thrilling historical novels of our mutual friend Richard Blake—also well-represented at Amazon.com—could use a plug.
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Was that worth reading?
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