My column in this week’s New European, subscription to which is an essential part of the survival kit needed for these Brexit times.
‘Too little attention has been paid to the fact that electoral politics lures disordered, messianic personalities into positions of power. A system that routinely submits control over the largest, most deadly enterprises on earth to the winner of popularity contests between charismatic demagogues is bound to suffer for it in the long run.’
We have to assume William Rees-Mogg did not have his son Jacob in mind when he wrote these words, back in 1997, as Tony Blair was about to become Prime Minister.
It was just one of many anti-politics, anti-politician statements in the 400-page tome I wrote about last week, having been urged to read it by a fellow Brexit resister who insisted it would help me understand why the Jacob Rees-Mogg right is so hellbent on Brexit, the harder the better. And indeed it did.
If you missed last week’s paper, look it up online. But the basic point, from an era before the word Brexit even existed, was that information technology was going to deliver the most sweeping and fastest revolution in history; that traditional institutions such as the nation-state would become obsolete, democracy itself would be called into question; and a kind of economic super-race (my phrase not his) would emerge amid the ‘commercialisation of sovereignty’, and for those of wealth a ‘Bermuda in the sky with diamonds’ (his phrases not mine) would become available to exploit, freed from the ‘predatory’ instincts of politicians who want to tax to pay for things like schools and hospitals, perish the thought. The title of the book is The Sovereign Individual. Fair to say Rees-Mogg assumed his hugely wealthy son would be one of them.
As a father of three, I know that it is wrong to assume children all adopt the views and manner of their parents. But equally it is right to assume there will be some crossover. I am sure that Rees-Mogg Jr broadly agrees with his father’s assertion that ‘the destruction of tradition has been a disaster to the moral order of the world.’ I can almost hear his voice, standing on the steps of Number 10 with a Daily Express petition calling for cuts in overseas aid, and echoing his father’s writing: ‘Webelieve that foreign aid and international development programmes have had the perverse effect of lowering the real incomes of poor people in poor countries by subsidising incompetent governments.’
We know too that he is likely to appreciate and agree with the many references to the importance of religion along the way, the belief in ‘dynamic morality,’ the complaint that ‘a high proportion of people in the growing cognitive elite have been given little religious or moral education in the family.’ Though whether Jacob’s sixth son, Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher, will appreciate learning from Grandpapa that the Pope after whom he was named caught syphilis from one of his mistresses and licensed prostitutes so he could tax their earnings is another matter.
Amid the occasional Catholic sermonising, what emerges is a hard-headed, ultra-free market approach to life, business and politics. ‘The Sovereign Individual explores the social and financial consequences of this revolutionary change. Our desire is to help you take advantage of the opportunities of the new age and to avoid being destroyed by its impact.’ Co-written with James Dale Davidson, it is a guide for disaster capitalists with a love of disorder, provided they benefit and others take the pain, up to and including the violence that they predict as the ‘left-behinds’ realise they have been taken for a ride and their communities and way of life are under threat. ‘A time of great danger and great reward.’
Two of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s more controversial recent moves are more clearly understood on the back of reading this book. First, the shift of millions in his hedge fund from the UK to Ireland. Politics says don’t do such a thing, just as you are heralding a great patriotic future for the UK after Brexit. But the Sovereign Individual puts his wealth where he can best maximise his capital.
Second, his observation, made under pressure from Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy, that it may be fifty years before we, that is the country as a whole, see the full benefits (sic) of Brexit.
Sovereign Individuals are exempt from that long wait, because Rees-Mogg Senior makes clear there are huge opportunities from upheaval, and in particular the weakening of nation-states, the decline of welfare, the death as he wills it of social democracy, which is in any event ‘an illusion …’ Oh yes, JRM grew up in a very right-wing home. Social democracy is dismissed as ‘an anachronism, as much an artefact of industrialisation as a rusting smokestack.’ They go on: ‘The civic myths reflect not only a mindset that sees society’s problems as susceptible to engineering solutions; they also reflect a false confidence that resources and individuals will remain as vulnerable to political compulsion in the future as they have been in the twentieth century. We doubt it. Market forces, not political majorities, will compel societies to reconfigure themselves in ways that public opinion will neither comprehend nor welcome.’
And is it not possible to hear a father-son tone here, as one generation on its way out passes on advice and perceived wisdom to the next generation on its way in: ‘It will be crucial that you see the world anew … If you fail to transcend conventional thinking at a time when conventional thinking is losing touch with reality, then you will be more likely to fall prey to an epidemic of disorientation that lies ahead. Disorientation breeds mistakes that could threaten your business, your investments and your way of life.’
But what rewards lie ahead for this gilded few if only its members – ‘a relatively small, elite group of rich represent a more coherent and effective body than a large mass of citizens’ – seize the opportunities. ‘The new Sovereign Individual will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically. Commanding vastly greater resources and beyond the reach of many forms of compulsion, the Sovereign Individual will redesign governments and reconfigure economies in the new millennium. The full implications of this change are all but unimaginable.’ Indeed.
Since having The Sovereign Individual thrust into my hands, I have learned that in two previous books, Blood in the Streets and The Great Reckoning, Davidson and Rees-Mogg forecast the end of Communism and the rise of Gorbachev, the war in Yugoslavia, the Japanese economic bust and the late 80s Wall Street crash, the decline of Marxism and the rise of extreme Islam as chief security concern for the West. So though there are some things they get wrong, they got a lot right.
And, bearing in mind the third of this trilogy was written in 1997, when I was part of the Blair team meant to be in touch with the modern world, I certainly was not in touch enough to make this observation. ‘We believe the Information Age will bring the dawn of cybersoldiers, who will be heralds of devolution. Cybersoldiers could be deployed not merely by nation-states but by very small organisations, and even by individuals. Wars of the next millennium will include some almost bloodless battles fought with computers.’
Vladimir Putin was two years off becoming President of Russia, Mark Zuckerberg was just thirteen, Vote Leave crook Darren Grimes was three, when Rees-Mogg Sr wrote this … ‘The result will be a massive problem of data corruption that will provide an accidental illustration of a new potential for information warfare. In the Information Age, potential adversaries will be able to wreak havoc by detonating “logic bombs” that sabotage the functions of essential systems by corrupting the data upon which their functioning depends. As a military exercise, for example, you would not need to shoot down an airplane, if you could corrupt data crucial to its safe operation. Data corruption can do almost as much as physical weapons can to thwart the function of a modern society.’
And as we all scratch our heads today and wonder what to do about ‘fake news,’ perhaps we should have paid more heed to WRM … ‘Unfortunately, you will not be able to depend upon normal information channels to give you an accurate and timely understanding of the decay of the nation-state… For a variety of reasons, the news media cannot always be relied upon to tell you the truth. Many are conservative in that they represent the party of the past. Some are blinded by anachronistic ideological commitments to socialism and the nation-state. Some will be afraid for more tangible reasons to reveal the corruption that is likely to loom ever larger in a decaying system. Some will lack physical courage that might be required for such a task. Others will fear for their jobs, or be shy of other retribution for speaking up. And of course, there is no reason to suspect that reporters and editors are any less prone to corrupt consideration than building inspectors or Italian paving contractors. To a large extent than you might expect, important organs of information that appear to be keen to report anything and everything may prove to be less dependable information sources than in commonly supposed. Many will have other motivations, including shoring up support for a faltering system, that they will place ahead of honestly informing you. They will see little and explain less.’
See little and explain less? Anyone else read that, and think of the BBC and Brexit today?
He foretells the algorithmised echo chambers of today. ‘As artificial reality and computer games technologies continue to improve, you’ll even be able to order a nightly news report that simulates the news you would like to hear. … You’ll see any story you wish, true or false, unfold on your television/computer with greater verisimilitude than anything than NBC or the BBC can now muster.’
As to all the factors they pile in as indicators of the commercialisation of sovereignty and the death of the nation-state, they include economic upheaval caused by microprocessing; the decline in reputation of governments, unions, professionals and lobbyists; the decline in the power of traditional elites; the decline in respect for symbols of statehood; widespread secession movements in many parts of the globe; intense, violent, nationalist reaction from those who lose income, status, power; suspicion of and opposition to free trade and globalisation; hostility to immigration; hatred of the ‘information elite’, the rich and well-educated; acts of ethnic cleansing to restore nationalist identification; neo-Luddite attack on new technologies, especially from the poor; the ultimate collapse of the nation-state in fiscal crisis.
Oh, and they predict the United Nations will be ‘liquidated.’ Donald Trump anyone? ‘disordered, messianic personalities … the winner of popularity contests …charismatic demagogues .. bound to suffer in the long run.’
So is there any good news, for the many who will not be Sovereign Individuals? Well, there is, for nannies, and we know, do we not, that JRM likes a good nanny … ‘we expect increasing numbers of low-income persons in Western countries who previously would have depended upon transfer payments from the state to affiliate with wealthy households as retainers.’
Welcome to the brave new world. Or, shall we try and stop it from happening?