This is one of my longer posts, dear reader. Not quite as long as Dominic Cummings’ blogs, and hopefully more intelligible, but long nonetheless. Also, if you read The New European, or subscribe to Tortoise, you will be familiar with some of the content. However, though it may annoy my book publicist that I choose to publicise someone else’s book rather than my own, I think it is important that I do. Because I don’t think there are many, including among those paid to cover politics, economics and the debates about both, who fully appreciate what Brexit is about, and the bigger pattern into which it fits.
So this post is a longer piece on the book I have talked about before, The Sovereign Individual, which I think gives an important insight into the people and philosophy behind Brexit and many of the changes they hope to flow from it.
I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist. However, when you reflect that Brexit is the consequence of a reverse takeover by a tiny but well-funded minority of the Tory Party, and that the Cabinet of the UK is now virtually wholly owned by and representative of that formerly minority position, you have to take seriously the scale of what is going on, and at least reflect on it rather more than much of the debate and coverage thus far seems to do.
It was early in August, 2018, as I stepped from a train at Marylebone station, that I experienced something of an Ancient Mariner moment, and was introduced to the most important book nobody has ever heard of.
Britain was in the middle of a heatwave, I had spent the day at a football coaches’ seminar in the Midlands, and was keen to get home. But my 2018 Mariner was not a man to be ignored. He chased me down the platform, calling my name, ‘Mr Campbell, Mr Campbell,’ but as I turned, I couldn’t see where the voice was coming from, so carried on towards the ticket barrier.
The shouting became louder, came closer, and eventually, there he was, out of breath, his face creased with the look of a man who was definitely on a mission. He did not have the Ancient Mariner’s long grey beard, but he did have a glistening eye.
‘I am friend, not foe,’ he began. He apologised for shouting, apologised for stopping me, and thanked me for campaigning against Brexit.
‘I know you’re busy,’ he said. ‘But,’ – now he was rummaging into a backpack that he had slung forward from his shoulders, and produced a dog-eared book – ‘if I give you this book, do you promise me you will read it?’
I was still working out whether to switch into the polite fob off mode that anyone with a public profile has to deploy from time to time.
‘I promise you won’t regret it,’ he said. ‘But more importantly, if you don’t read this book, you won’t fully understand why Brexit is happening.’
‘OK,’ I said, taking the book, and looking at the cover.
‘You must read it,’ he said.
‘I will definitely look at it. Promise.’
At the back of my mind was the pile of unread books by my bed. He sensed I was hedging.
‘Even the first chapter,’ he said. ‘Even if you just read the first chapter, please, I promise, you will see straight away why it matters.’
A few days later, I did read the first chapter. He was right; I did see straight away why it matters, and read spellbound, and horrified, to the end.
It is called The Sovereign Individual and if I was unaware of its publication, it might have been because it was in early 1997, when I was busy working on New Labour’s campaign ahead of the election in May. But my Mariner was right. It really does help you understand why the political Right fought so hard for Brexit, and why they are relishing the chaos it has unleashed.
The sub-title is Mastering the Transition to the Information Age. The use of the word ‘mastering’ is instructive. It is a book written by Masters of the Universe, for Masters of the Universe, Sovereign Individuals. One of the two co-authors, James Dale Davidson, is American; the other is British, very British … Lord William Rees-Mogg, ex-editor of The Times, father of Jacob, leading light of the Brexit revolution.
I did not have to agree with its essential philosophy to recognise that the book is the product of very large brainpower, sweeping far and wide in historical research and analysis. Its strength however, especially reading it today, lies in the force of its predictions about the new millennium that was to dawn three years later.
It is prefaced by a quote by Tom Stoppard, from Arcadia. ‘The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It is the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.’ To most people, disorder is threatening, scary. To Rees-Mogg and the radical Right it is a source of opportunity, the chance for the Sovereign Individual to rise above tedious constraints lesser mortals take for granted – tax, regulation, government, even politics and democracy itself.
The driving theme of this book is the information revolution, ‘the most sweeping in history’, with which we were all wrestling at the time. I remember a tortured afternoon ahead of then Opposition leader Tony Blair’s Labour Conference speech in 1995, trying to make sense of a passage about ‘the information superhighway,’ which we knew was important, but didn’t fully understand. Davidson and Rees-Mogg were definitely ahead of us in foreseeing just how revolutionary the information revolution might turn out to be.
Their forecast was that it would ‘subvert and destroy the nation state, creating new forms of social organisation in the process. It will be faster than any previous revolution, and not without pain.’
The ‘Sovereign Individuals’ who would gain most from this ‘liberation’ are ‘the brightest, most successful and ambitious’ among us, they said, ‘those who can educate and motivate themselves …. Genius will be unleashed, freed from both the oppression of government.’
In their view, government is but a drag on ambition and success, welfare something the rich are forced to fund for the less bright, successful and ambitious. Real success, they argue, will be measured not just by how many zeroes you can add to your net worth, but whether you can structure your affairs in a way that enables you to realise your full autonomy and independence. … autonomous of government, independent of communal responsibility.
The Sovereign Individuals, this vision of wonder goes on, will compete and interact on terms that echo the relations among the gods in Greek myth. ‘The elusive Mount Olympus of the next Millennium will be in cyberspace.’ Some will be as rich as Bill Gates. The ‘cyberpoor’ will be those with an income of less than $200,000 a year. But here is what Sovereign Individuals can really like about cyberspace – there will be no cyberwelfare, no cybertaxes and no cybergovernment. ‘The good news is that politicians will no more be able to dominate, suppress and regulate the greater part of commerce in this new realm than the legislators of the ancient Greek city-states could have trimmed the beard of Zeus.’
The loathing of democratic politics is profound. Government is constantly equated with organised crime, then US President Bill Clinton portrayed as something akin to a gangster, but this change, they argue, will force governments to do less, and do what they still do according to the values of the market. Governments will have to treat people like customers, ‘and less in a way that organised criminals treat the victims of a shakedown racket… First in scores, then in hundreds, and ultimately in the millions, individuals will escape the shackles of politics.’
As the modern nation-state ‘decomposes’, ‘latter-day barbarians like the Russian mafia, other ethnic criminal gangs, drug lords, and renegade covert agencies will be laws unto themselves… They already are.’
But Sovereign Individuals, like the ancient gods, will enjoy a kind of ‘diplomatic immunity’ from political decisions. Meanwhile, the capacity of nation-states to raise money for redistribution will collapse, and ‘the information aristocracy’ will move their wealth to wherever they are least troubled by politicians, whose capacity for taxing will fall by 50-70 percent.
Herein lies the heart of the argument. ‘Transactions on the Internet or the World Wide Web can be encrypted and will soon be almost impossible for tax collectors to capture. Tax-free money already compounds far faster offshore than onshore funds still subject to the high tax burden imposed by the twentieth-century nation-state. After the turn of the millennium, much of the world’s commerce will migrate into the new realm of cyberspace, a region where governments will have no more dominion than they exercise over the bottom of the sea or the outer planets. … Cyberspace is the ultimate offshore jurisdiction. An economy with no taxes. Bermuda in the sky with diamonds.
‘When this greatest tax haven of them all is fully open for business, all funds will essentially be offshore funds at the discretion of their owner. The state has grown used to treating its taxpayers as a farmer treats his cows, keeping them in a field to be milked. Soon, the cows will have wings. Like an angry farmer, the state will no doubt take desperate measures at first to tether and hobble its escaping herd. It will employ covert and even violent means to restrict access to liberating technologies. Such expedients will work only temporarily, if at all. The twentieth-century nation-state, with all its pretensions, will starve to death as its tax revenues decline.’
Governments’ ability to control money by printing it will be transcended, the authors say – this is 1997, remember – by mathematical algorithms that have no physical existence…. ‘Payment will be rendered in cybercurrency. Profits will be booked in cyberbanks. Investments will be made in cyberbrokages. Many transactions will not be subject to taxation…. Extraterritorial regulatory power will collapse…. Control over money will migrate from the halls of power to the global marketplace. Any individual or firm with access to cyberspace will be able to easily shift out of any currency that appears in danger of depreciation…. ‘Only the poor will be victims of inflation.’
The book is written somewhat in the manner of a memo to investors, a guide for disaster capitalists with a love of disorder, like those who were egging the government for a hard, disruptive Brexit outcome.
‘A series of transition crises lies ahead … We expect it to be a time of great danger and great reward … Increasingly autonomous individuals and bankrupt, desperate governments will confront one another across a new divide. We expect to see a radical restructuring of the nature of sovereignty and the virtual death of politics before the transition is over. Instead of state domination and control of resources, you are destined to see the privatisation of almost all services governments now provide.’
Privatisation of services heralds ‘the ultimate form of privatisation – the sweeping denationalisation of the individual.’ The Sovereign Individual will not be the asset of any state, nor even a citizen, but a customer of competing jurisdictions. Once sovereignty is commercialised, people will choose their jurisdictions, much as they now choose their insurance companies or their religions. Jurisdictions that fail to deliver will face bankruptcy and liquidation, ‘just as incompetent commercial enterprises or failed religious congregations do.’
The authors’ hatred of welfare could not be clearer. And how is this for a radical right-wing view of public services, in which the idea of co-operative pooling of resources for common goods like roads and hospitals is clearly anathema? ‘If you went into a store to buy furniture, and the salespeople took your money but then proceeded to ignore your requests and consult others about how to spend your money, you would quite rightly be upset. You would not think it normal or justifiable if the employees of the store argued that you really did not deserve the furniture, and that it should be shipped instead to someone whom they found more worthy. The fact that something very like this happens in dealings with government shows how little control the “customers” actually have.’
There will, it is admitted, be ‘left-behinds,’ and they will become ‘increasingly jingoistic and unpleasant’ as the impact of information technology grows. There will be a backlash, and it could well turn violent. Social peace will be in jeopardy, especially in America and Europe, they warn. ‘The more psychopathic of these unhappy souls’ will strike out against anyone with more prosperity. The rich and immigrants will be most at risk. ‘A furious nationalist reaction will sweep the world,’ we are told. ‘One of the crucial challenges of the great transformation ahead will be maintaining order in the face of escalating violence, or alternatively escaping its brunt… It is difficult to guess at precisely what point the reaction will turn ugly. Our guess is that the recriminations will intensify when Western nations begin to unambiguously crack apart in the manner of the former Soviet Union.’ Was I alone in reading that and seeing the growth in support for Scottish independence, and the increased likelihood of a united Ireland, thanks to Brexit?
Again, though, Sovereign Individuals must fear none of this, because ‘every time a nation-state cracks up, it will facilitate further devolution and encourage the autonomy of Sovereign Individuals. ‘We expect to see a significant multiplication of sovereign entities, as scores of enclaves and jurisdictions more akin to city-states emerge from the rubble of nations.’
Today, the libertarian right sees Enterprise Cities, Charter Cities and Freeports, able to set their own rules on everything from labour law to codes on corruption, as central to its vision, aggressively pursued by well-funded and well-connected think tanks, like-minded politicians, academics, media and business tycoons. The ‘Sovereign Individual,’ the better-known ‘Road to Serfdom’ by Friedrich Hayek, are often referred to as ‘Bibles’ of their thinking. The goal is a complete redesign of the world’s economic, political and data systems. It helps to explain their passion for Brexit.
Interesting, too, how often the same names come up, again and again with regard to the intellectual, political and business activities behind this drive … dual national British-American trade laywer Shanker Singham, Daniel Hannan (Lord Hannan to be, thanks to Johnson) , Matthew Elliot who ran Vote Leave, his wife Sarah, Rees-Mogg Jr, his fellow Tory MP Steve Baker. The role of 55, Tufton Street, home to several of the libertarian right organisations in the UK, is not to be underestimated. Check out Baker Street Herald for more on this.
As we have seen with Brexit, and saw with Trump, to pursue their goals, right-wing politicians have to win campaigns on one basis, whilst delivering their objectives on another. Brexit could not be won without the votes of the people. Boris Johnson could not deliver the Sovereign Individual version of it without being Prime Minister. But had the Leave campaign spelled out openly the length of the exit process, the costs en route, the loss of rights and access, all the things they denied would ever happen, they know they would not have won. And even against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, he might have struggled to win a majority of 80, had he been promising to shred labour, social, and environmental protections as many of those who supported him en route to Brexit and Number 10 now desire.
What Johnson had to promise was greater control, more money for public services, the same benefits as EU membership, proper protections, lies about ‘levelling up,’ when the real goal is the opposite. What the libertarian right always wanted was Brexit as part of their journey to a low-tax, low-regulation and low-transparency UK. It helps explain, too, why so many of the norms of UK government, from proroguing Parliament to ditching ministerial standards, rubbishing the civil service, judges and even the rule of law, to growing corruption in Covid contracts, have been undermined. It helps explain my incredulity that Labour are planning to vote in favour of the deal, when given the Parliamentary arithmetic, no deal is not going to happen.
The eventual goal of this well-funded, highly organised, widely media-backed network is a global network of Enterprise Cities competing on the basis of freedom from restraint. They would appear to have the support of the current Chancellor Rishi Sunak, a long-term enthusiast for Freeports, his recent announcements on which – plans for ten new ones – flowed seamlessly from work he had done for the Centre for Policy Studies, which drew criticism at the time for its support for low standards of regulation. His father-in-law, NR Narayana Murthy, one of the richest men in the world, laid the first brick of his own Special Economic Zone in India in 2014.
The message of the Sovereign Individual is about as free market a view of the world as you could imagine, profoundly right-wing, anti-state, anti-welfare, anti-rules worldview, fiercely anti politics, with democracy itself called into question. Labour should have nothing to do with it. The rubble of nations indeed. ‘The argument of this book clearly informs the decision to redeploy your capital, if you have any. Citizenship is obsolete. To optimise your lifetime earnings and become a Sovereign Individual you will need to become a customer of a government or protection service rather than a citizen. Instead of paying whatever tax burden is imposed upon you by grasping politicians, you will be better positioned to prosper in the Information Age by freeing yourself to negotiate a private tax treaty that obliges you to pay no more for services of government than they are actually worth to you.’
As a father of three, I know that it is wrong to assume children all adopt the views and manner of their parents. Rees-Mogg Jr may not share every part of the Rees-Mogg Sr worldview. But we know from his own mouth that he shares much of it. Lord Mogg would be very proud of his son’s role in trying to get Britain to the hardest Brexit of all, whatever the impact on the ‘left-behinds’ whose votes were just a necessary support on the journey, first in the EU referendum, then in the 2019 election won on the slogan ‘get Brexit done.’
Rees-Mogg Senior had a very low view of politicians, though one suspects he would not be at all surprised that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump reached the top.
‘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.’ That is just one of many anti-politics, anti-politician statements in the 400-page tome. They are ‘predatory,’ they say, and their prey are the rich, whose taxes they want so that they can pay for public services, perish the thought.
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.’ His persistent calls for cuts in overseas aid, recently answered in a blatant breach of a year-old ‘cast-iron manifesto promise,’ echo his father’s writing: ‘We believe 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.
Two of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s more controversial moves in recent times 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, that it may be fifty years before the country as a whole sees what he calls ‘the full benefits’ 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 … an anachronism, as much an artefact of industrialisation as a rusting smokestack.’ They go on: ‘Market forces, not political majorities, will compel societies to reconfigure themselves in ways that public opinion will neither comprehend nor welcome.’ Thereby confirming that this is a vision that could never have won democratic support, other than through deceit and subterfuge.
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.
In two earlier 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, and Dominic Cummings was still in his 20s, 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.’
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 that pile in as indicators of the commercialisation of sovereignty and the death of the nation-state, they include economic upheaval caused by micro-processing; 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.
I took another look at the book in an attempt to find a logic to the position to which Johnson’s government has led us on Brexit. Set in the context of the Rees-Mogg Sr worldview, the logic of chaos and disruption is clear. Had he campaigned openly for it, he would never have won the referendum in the first place. It had to be the destination on a journey fuelled by ‘the will of the people,’ and in which others – the EU – could be blamed when the journey ended in a very different place to that which had been promised, backed by those parts of the media owned by Sovereign Individuals such as Rupert Murdoch or the Barclay Brothers to whose clicking fingers Johnson and Michael Gove still willingly jump, often without being asked to.
That the EU by any rational assessment, (as opposed to the jingoistic rubbish of the Kim Il BoJo Brextremist press) played hardball and won the negotiations, that the Brexit discussion at the recent EU Leaders’ Summit lasted just minutes, and that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron refused to go along with Johnson’s attempts to find chinks in the EU negotiating strategy by dealing one-on-one, were indicators of a widespread disdain for him and the way the UK government has conducted itself.
There are two schools of thought among EU leaders and diplomats. There are those who view Johnson as hopelessly out of his depth, who in terms of his understanding of the realities of EU politics has never really moved on from his days inventing anti-European stories for the Brexit-fanatical Channel Island based Barclays. Others, however, believe that Johnson negotiated in bad faith throughout, that given the bulk of those who supported him in his career, and ultimately helped him become Prime Minister, were insistent on the purest form of Brexit he could get without wholesale economic and therefore political calamity, he would always go to wherever the Sovereign Individuals would want him to.
Whether uselessness or strategy, both have made EU leaders view the UK and its Prime Minister as not to be trusted. That has consequences that will outlive whatever happens on January 1. But meanwhile, Sunak, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Liz Truss and the true Brexit believers are better placed than ever to turn Britain into the kind of country Rees-Mogg’s father spent his life wishing it could be. That the EU met more of their stated objectives in the trade deal outcome than the UK is of little concern to them. Their vision is impossible inside a major values-based organisation such as the EU. Outside they have a chance, and as Sunak spouts platitudes about uniting around the deal, Truss talks bilge about the wrong sort of equality, Patel agitates for the death penalty, Rees-Mogg continues to play Sovereign Individual games with his millions, and Johnson does whatever his paymasters ask for, anyone who thinks Brexit is the end of this hard right vision should think again … it is, unless people wake up, but the start.