Book Review: The Art Of Invisibility

The Art of Invisibility is a book about methods of maintaining privacy and anonymity in an age of surveillance by American hacker and cybersecurity analyst Kevin Mitnick. The book gives advice on every aspect of modern technology which could expose one to nosy neighbors, identity thieves, law enforcement, and other sources of unwanted attention. The book is divided into sixteen chapters which advise the reader about various measures that can be taken to improve security.

The introduction begins with the revelations made about the NSA’s activities by Edward Snowden, then discusses the information that is publicly available about most people with very little searching required. The first chapter is about password security and security questions. Tips are given for choosing a strong password, using a password manager, creating answers for security questions, and using multi-factor authentication. The second and third chapters cover surveillance of email and phones. Mitnick covers the concepts of metadata, encryption, and social engineering. He explains how the Tor browser and MAC addresses work. He discusses several current and historic methods of wiretapping phone conversations and pinpointing the location of a phone, then explains how a burner phone may be used to obtain some privacy.

Chapter 4 is about the functionality and use of encryption to thwart eavesdroppers. This is discussed in the context of text messages, cell phones, and computers, each of which is remarkably vulnerable without it. The next chapter begins with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which is now being used to prosecute anyone who deletes browser history that federal prosecutors wish preserved. Mitnick makes the obvious recommendation of not collecting such history in the first place, then instructs the reader on how to do so. He then discusses how Internet browsers track a user’s location and how this may be countered. The chapter concludes with the dangers of connecting devices and cloud storage.

The sixth chapter details various tactics that websites use to track users, such as scripts, single-pixel images, cookies, and toolbars, then offers advice for stopping them. The chapter ends with a basic overview of Bitcoin for overcoming some current legitimate uses for tracking. The dangers of sharing an Internet connection make up the seventh and eighth chapters. Mitnick teaches the reader how to set up an Internet connection that is difficult for malicious users to find and use. Next, he discusses several cases in which webcams were used to spy on people, including underage students. The phenomenon of ransomware, in which a user’s files are encrypted by malware and can only be decrypted by paying an extortionist, concludes Chapter 7. After this comes the pitfalls of public computers and Wi-Fi connections. Lessons on avoiding man-in-the-middle attacks, using virtual private networks, resetting one’s MAC address, and more are found in the eighth chapter.

The second half of the book opens with examples of photo metadata being used to locate people, then tells how to delete such information and prevent it from being created. Mitnick then gives advice on how to get unwanted photographs of oneself removed from websites, though it may not always work. The dangers of posting sensitive personal information on social media or otherwise sharing it with strangers is discussed. The extent to which corporations track commentary on social media is detailed through examples of students found publicly discussing standardized test material. The absurdity of minors facing criminal charges for possessing nude photos of themselves is used to illustrate the potential dangers of Instagram and Snapchat. The chapter finishes with privacy problems that can come from using dating sites and mobile apps.

Mobile device tracking is the subject of the tenth chapter. Mitnick writes about the third-party accessibility of information recorded by fitness-tracking devices as well as the trackability of people through the GPS features of their devices. He also shares an interesting episode of social engineering combined with tracking in which he surprised a careless driver who almost killed him with a stern warning supposedly from the DMV. The use of drones and facial recognition to erode privacy come later in the chapter, along with some prototypical countermeasures. The next two chapters detail how cars and home appliances can be used to track people, then show people how to turn off many of these features. Doing so will deprive users of some convenience, but that is the general cost of privacy and anonymity.

Chapter 13 applies the information discussed in previous chapters to the workplace. The insecurity of copiers, printers, and other such office appliances is highlighted so as to warn readers not to use them for any purpose that one would not want one’s employer or any hacker to see. Videoconferencing and remote file storage systems are covered in the last part of the chapter, with advice given for increasing security on them. The fourteenth chapter details the myriad ways in which government agents violate privacy and interfere with private electronics and communications, then advises readers on how to protect themselves while being aware of the laws in various countries. Also included here are the privacy concerns with hotel keys, supermarket cards, and airline boarding passes should they fall into the wrong hands.

The fifteenth chapter is mostly about the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, describing the mistakes that led to his capture. Devices that masks geolocation, and could thus have hidden Ulbricht from law enforcement had they existed in 2013, are mentioned. The final chapter lays out a step-by-step guide to achieving as much anonymity online as possible.

From beginning to end, Mitnick shares a wealth of information with just the right amount of personal anecdotes and other stories to keep the reader engaged. The Art of Invisibility is an excellent reference that deserves a place on the bookshelf of all who care about online privacy and personal security until enough time passes to render the information within obsolete, which may be on the order of decades.

Rating: 4.5/5

On Citizenship And Casual Totalitarianism

This article expands upon an essay found in Libertarian Reaction.

There are many statists who actively fight against totalitarianism. This may not seem inherently contradictory, but the key to understanding totalitarian ideology is completely ignored by them. The very machinations of the state require totalitarian control over the population. To say that there can be a state without totalitarianism is a contradiction. Totalitarianism originates largely from early fascist theory but has similarly been associated with authoritarian communism. This seems simple enough; a state that attempts to control all parts of society is totalitarian, while a state that does not is just liberal or conservative. Therefore, there is a distinction between a good justifiable state and an evil unjustifiable state. People can make more distinctions based on economic and political systems, but the vast majority agree that totalitarianism is ultimately what determines whether or not a state is ethical. Very few people act as if the Third Reich was a valid exercise in statecraft, and only a few more similarly defend the actions of the Soviet Union. There are also other such regimes, various authoritarian socialist experiments, and lower profile fascist states.

Control Through Law

It is physically impossible for a state to control the lives of everyone. This problem is solved by having the state legislate and regulate, then allowing the enforcers of these laws and regulations to have special privileges, so as to give the state the ability to convict any person the state wants to convict and punish in any way the state deems appropriate. In this manner, one may create a totalitarian state. For obvious reasons, these sorts of states have no regard for human rights or basic decency. Rather, they are directly opposed to the civilized nature of man. Although most people understand this, they do not understand that any state is inherently totalitarian. There are historical exceptions to this, but they are very few and far between and have long since disappeared. Because this is the case, we cannot act as if the historical possibility of a non-totalitarian state is a valid argument. Even if a state can be free of or largely lack totalitarianism for a limited time, this can never last.

Citizenship and Personhood

At the heart of the issue is the very thing that defines the state for all individuals: the aspect of citizenship. Every person under a state is the citizen of that state, which means that they have a relationship with the state in which the state is in a privileged position of control over the citizen. The relationship is even more integrated as without the state, no one can be a citizen. Due to the form of citizenship practiced in modern states, the ability to delegate citizenship gives the state the power to delegate legal personhood. In this system, a non-citizen is as good as a non-person, as they are without the legal protections that other people enjoy.

Because the actions of the citizens affect the relationship of the state with other states and the rest of the citizenry, the state has an interest in subjugating the people under it. This is because the people who live under a state are by necessity people whom the state must control and is expected to control by the rulers of other states and the citizens of that selfsame state. If the state does not control its people, then the state will lose perceived legitimacy as it fails to curtail adverse social effects that result from individual actors who act contrary to a state’s domestic and foreign policies.

From this, any actions taken in a statist system must not only require the consent of all parties involved, but also the consent of the state. The state effectively becomes a secular god, in that it can arbitrarily decide who is or is not legally a person and how people must or must not act. This must be the case with any state, no matter its size, scope, form, or ideological position. The state must hold a monopoly on law in a certain region, as failing to do so would both run afoul of the definition of a state and allow agents of the state to be held accountable for the crimes they commit under color of law. In order to do this, the state needs to make the people within its claimed territory into its citizens. The modern statist system relies upon citizenship, and the states within it would have no justification without such subjects.

Casual Totalitarianism

By this reasoning, there can be no state without totalitarianism. However, this is not the form of totalitarianism that was present in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. This is a casual totalitarianism, which is far more insidious than any explicit totalitarianism. In this totalitarianism, the state allows people to sell their labor to a crony capitalist who has swindled for himself special privileges from the state in what is called rent-seeking behavior. Thus, the worker has to either accept terms that no person would rationally accept if given a real choice or work in the black market. This is seemingly voluntary, and most people can get hired to work somewhere, so there can supposedly be no complaining. However, if a person actually tries to do the job that one wants to do as one wants to do it, one runs into mountains of regulations and legislation that an entire team of lawyers must review for compliance. They are also faced with licensing requirements and other privileges that the state keeps for itself and only distributes as the ruling class sees fit. Due to the involvement of the state, we cannot say that there is any legal voluntary economic activity in the current system, as there is no legal economic activity without the state. This is only possible because the state maintains a monopoly on law.

Furthermore, the state can legislate with regard to any relationship, whether interpersonal or political. One cannot engage in any activity without first getting the consent of the state. The state replaces faith and culture when it comes to marriage, as the state decides which marriages and types of marriages are valid and which are not. The state replaces any sense of morality when it comes to law through the doctrine of legal positivism. What matters becomes what is legal rather than what is morally righteous. The state assumes full control over one’s life without arousing suspicion in most people. The state even takes control over what happens between a citizen and himself. That is, the state replaces free will. In the modern world, the state may allow one to engage in any sort of degeneracy under the sun, but the moment the state is harmed or lessened in influence from whatever a person does with himself, the state will forbid it. The state is thus omnipresent, and for many people, this is enough; if they are forbidden from doing something by the state, even when it affects no other persons, they will not do it. People will actively avoid anything illegal, as the state has replaced morality and thinking for oneself.

Because of this, there is no such thing as individualism in the presence of the state. There is effectively only one real person, and that person is the state. No one other than the state can act in any meaningful manner without the consent of the state for fear of being shut down. The state will always make all decisions, even if we do not realize it. Neither will the citizens have a choice in their own minds, as the state has replaced them as people. Thus, we are stuck in a form of totalitarianism, which only differs from place to place and from time to time in the degree of apparent restriction. Some will claim that democracy counters this tendency towards totalitarianism, but if anything, liberal democracy only enables the total state. Without the apparent will of the people, the state cannot designate who the people are without breaking the casual nature of its totalitarianism. The citizens give up their own rights as humans and give the state the right to decide for them. The state needs some sort of mandate, as it needs the citizens to listen to its commands and the government agents to enforce these commands. This may be more or less explicit, but it is always present by necessity. Mass democracy demonstrates this better than any other system.

Ending Totalitarianism

The single greatest show of submission is to beg for the state to lengthen one’s leash, as no matter what happens, one will still be collared. The state will not be changed by begging, as the state is by necessity a totalitarian institution. The only meaningful exercises of power by the people are to subvert the state or overthrow it. The state is antithetical to morality, freedom, and humanity by design, and it cannot be designed otherwise. It is therefore necessary to create an alternative form of governance and defend it against the state. The precise nature of stateless organization will vary from place to place and must be decided by the organizers in each locality.

It is vital that we remove totalitarianism from society if we wish to ever achieve real human liberty. If one believes this, then the precise details become less relevant as it creates an entirely new paradigm of political theory. The alliances and conflicts of previous theories are subordinated to the point of irrelevance. This is not to say that we should support those who call themselves anarchists but simply want global socialism; rather, it is to say that regardless of whether people organize along socialistic, capitalistic, progressive, or reactionary lines, it will be of secondary importance because the highest priority for any living person today should be the elimination of the inherently totalitarian state. Personal preferences about the actions of others will only take precedence once we have freed ourselves from the state and created a society of distinct and free persons. If we do not do this, then we will necessarily choose totalitarianism.

Twelve Observations On The Catalonia Independence Vote

On September 6, the government in Catalonia announced that it was going to hold a vote on October 1 to decide whether the region should secede from Spain and become a nation-state unto itself in the form of a republic. It also announced that should the people choose independence, the government would declare secession within 48 hours. Spain’s constitutional court declared the vote unconstitutional, and the central government in Madrid said that it would attempt to stop the vote. Neither side backed down. The Spanish government seized ballots and tried to shut down polling places, resulting in violence that left over 840 people injured. The vote still took place, with nearly 90 percent voting for independence. In response, pro-secession protests occurred throughout Spain and a general strike was called across Catalonia. Spain and the European Union have rejected Catalonia’s requests for mediation, and King Felipe VI has denounced the secession movement. Twelve observations on these events follow.

1. One cannot understand the present without knowing the past. The formation of the current Spanish state can be dated to 1469, when the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Under their leadership, the last Muslim rulers were expelled from Spain, Christopher Columbus was sent to the New World, and royal power was centralized at the expense of local nobility. Even so, Spain has always been a multi-ethnic state, composed of Basques, Catalans, Galicians, and others. In the 19th century, nationalist feelings among these groups grew. These aspirations took a back seat during the Cuban War of Independence, Phillipine Revolution, and Spanish-American War. Regions of Spain were granted greater autonomy in the Second Spanish Republic (1931-39), but this was brutally repressed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-75), such that people were not even allowed to give their children Basque, Catalan, Galician names. After Franco’s death, Spain was turned into a semi-federal state with 17 autonomous communities, some of which have their own languages and cultures, as Catalonia does.

2. The Catalan independence movement cuts across ordinary political lines. Some people in Catalonia believe that independence would bring order to the region’s finances, or make taxes paid by Catalonians provide more benefit to Catalonians. Others are migrants who became involved with the Catalan movement and have no loyalty to the government in Madrid. Still others have particular political objectives that they believe to be easier to achieve on a smaller scale, such as an independent Catalonia rather than the entirety of Spain. In American terms, the parties which are in a temporary alliance to achieve independence run the gamut from the Constitution Party to the Green Party.

3. The harder one clenches one’s fist, the more sand slips through one’s fingers. For the Madrid government, responding with peaceful dismissal of the independence vote would have been more effective. Instead, they met peaceful efforts by Catalans with violence. In the words of a Spanish politician, “We have given them the pictures they want.” By forcefully opposing the self-determination of Catalans, the Spanish government is pushing swing voters toward the independence movement, as such actions raise the specter of Franco that is still remembered, particularly among older people. Furthermore, the creation of a new state is much easier if existing states recognize it, and images for foreign consumption of people trying to vote and being hit with truncheons and shot with rubber bullets for it will create pressure on other governments from their people to recognize Catalonian independence.

4. The voting results are questionable. The Catalan government rushed through the legislation for the referendum and passed it in a late-night session without the opposition being present. They vowed to secede even if turnout was low, and engaged in smear tactics against those who opposed independence. Turnout was only 42.3 percent, and the anti-independence side did not campaign because the government in Madrid declared the vote to be illegal.

5. This will provoke greater nationalist sentiment in the rest of Spain. Whenever separatist sentiment grows in one part of a nation, a unionist sentiment tends to grow elsewhere in reaction to it. In some cases, this occurs because the separatists threaten to remove an economically important area from the nation, such as a mine or a seaport. In others, such as the American Civil War, the separatists are engaged in activities that the unionists find morally reprehensible. Sometimes, a central government simply wishes to keep separatists subjugated so as to discourage other separatist movements elsewhere in the nation, such as in the Basque country. Whatever the case may be, nationalism in Madrid is likely to grow alongside secessionism in Catalonia. This will be bolstered by the fact that Catalonia is more leftist than the rest of Spain, as nationalism tends to be more common on the right.

6. Nationalism is not an ally of liberty; merely an enemy of some of liberty’s enemies. The nationalist sentiments of Catalans or anyone else in Spain will not lead to liberty in and of themselves. Only by coupling such sentiments with the principles of self-ownership, non-aggression, and respect for private property can a libertarian social order emerge. Nationalism is also hostile to any decentralizations of power below the national level. That being said, nationalism is certainly a lesser evil than globalism, and may serve as a temporary makeshift on the path to a better political arrangement.

7. The EU will be weakened regardless of the end result. If Catalonia becomes independent, it will be outside the EU, having to either apply to rejoin or have its move toward independence also serve as a Catexit, so to speak. Given Catalonia’s population of 7,522,596 and GDP of $255.204 billion, this would remove 1.47 percent of the population and 1.23 percent of the GDP from the EU. By contrast, Brexit will remove 12.83 percent of the population and 13.45 percent of the GDP from the EU. Even though Brexit is a much larger issue, the impact of a Catexit would still be noticeable. Catalonians are unlikely to want to exit the EU, but doing so may be unavoidable if they cannot gain admission once they are independent.

As per the previous point, it is also necessary to contemplate a Spexit, with or without Catalonia included. Growing nationalism in Spain as a reaction to growing separatism in Catalonia may lead to euroskepticism there. This, combined with longstanding economic issues in Spain such as high unemployment, may lead conservatives to contemplate the possibility of a brighter future outside of the European single market. A complete Spexit would remove 9.08 percent of the population and 5.94 percent of the GDP from the EU, while only Catalonia remaining in the EU would remove 7.61 percent of the population and 4.71 percent of the GDP from the EU. Though not as impactful as Brexit, a second member state leaving the EU could signal the beginning of the end.

Finally, regardless of whether any exits occur, the EU will almost certainly appear to be weak and ineffectual as a result of recent events. Calls for it to mediate the dispute have gone unanswered, and the EU seems intent on ignoring repression of a democratic vote. Given the EU commission’s threats of sanctions against Hungary and Poland for their anti-democratic policies, this seems rather hypocritical. One must also consider that the EU has no mechanism for dealing with such an issue. Article 3a of the Treaty of Lisbon calls for the EU to “respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order, and safeguarding national security,” so it is unlikely to help the separatists. Nor is it in the rational self-interest of anyone who wields power in the EU to intervene, as doing so would encourage separatists in other EU nation-states.

8. Secessionist movements are fueled by economic hardship and government mismanagement. The role of the Catalan people in Spain is both privileged and marginalized. Even though Catalans have maintained a distinct identity, they contribute more to Spain than they receive in return, especially in terms of institutional influence, which remains dominated by Madrid. Since the 2008 financial crisis, this has exacerbated tensions, and the continued economic problems in Spain lead some Catalonians to believe that they could do better for themselves with more local governance.

9. The state is legitimized only by force. The simple truth is that any other basis for legitimacy is subject to reason and defeated thereby. A deity fails because no such being is proven to exist. A constitution fails because any person or group can write one, leaving the state’s legitimacy constantly imperiled. An appeal to tradition fails because all traditions and states must begin somewhere, leaving them unable to be formed in the first place. A supranational body fails because it begs the question of how it gets its legitimacy. A social contract fails because a valid contract must be entered into willfully by all parties. Democracy fails because it is a logical impossibility, which could not even appear to function without the state already in place, thus resulting in circular reasoning.

Mao Zedong spoke truly on the nature of state legitimacy; “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” A state continues to operate because it violently subjugates anyone who would attempt to end its operation, and it maintains territorial integrity by violently suppressing any efforts by its people to secede from the state. The only factor preventing individuals or sub-national groups from gaining sovereignty is the fact that they lack the force of arms and/or the willingness to use them for that purpose.

10. Self-determination must be taken and defended by force. Given the previous point, the path to true independence is clear. A separatist movement must first declare independence, but this will never be sufficient. The larger state will seek to retain any breakaway provinces by force, and if the separatists wish to form a new nation rather than be imprisoned or executed on charges of sedition or treason, they must respond with defensive force to the aggressions of the larger state. This has been the norm at least since the American Revolution, and the Catalonian situation is shaping up to be no different.

In a more general theoretical sense, self-determination must be taken and defended by force because the failure to do so will result in some group of aggressors infringing upon one’s self-determination. As Vegetius said, “He, therefore, who desires peace, should prepare for war.” Only by doing this can one present an effective deterrent against those who would return a free people to a state of bondage.

11. Repression by the Spanish government may provoke terrorism. Should the violence escalate, as appears likely, some Catalonians may end up following the Basque model. In the Basque Country, there is a moderate nationalist and separatist movement, much like the Catalonian independence movement. But there is also the ETA, a paramilitary group that has engaged in terrorist acts for decades. The group was founded in 1959 during Franco’s regime, but continued carrying out attacks for decades after the restoration of regional autonomy. Other examples of this throughout the world include the Irish Republican Army and the PKK in Kurdish regions of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Notably, the Kurds are also attempting to create a new state for themselves at the time of this writing.

12. The international community functions as a cartel. Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan are currently attempting to become independent nation-states, and both are being met with a mixture of indifference and contempt from existing nation-states. That such movements provoke hostility from the remainder of their current states is understandable and has been addressed above, as has the uneasiness of foreign governments to recognize the independence of separatist movements. But there is more at work here, which may be explained by considering the role of cartels in a marketplace and the effects that decentralization would have if taken to its logical conclusion.

The standard libertarian view is that cartels are inherently unstable, as the incentive of each member has a profit motive to betray the cartel. This incentive is frequently countered by state interference in the economy to protect a cartel from this effect. There is no more profitable venture in the current system than the management of a state, so this profit motive is amplified alongside the protectionist motive as an equal and opposite reaction. But libertarians tend to under-appreciate the role of aggressive violence in the marketplace, which is a service for sale like any other. This keeps them from fully understanding situations like these, in which established players seek not only to out-compete upstarts or hamstring them through regulatory capture, but to engage in direct violent suppression of competitors.

Finally, the rulers of nation-states must be aware at some level that the entry of new polities into the established order has the potential to remove that order from power. In the words of Murray Rothbard,

Once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy,’ why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighbourhood? Each block? Each house? Each person? But, of course, if each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society, where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.”[1]

Taken to its logical conclusion, political exit may be disintegrative, but stopping somewhat short of atomized individualism would both remove the Cathedral from power and create the opportunity to build a superior form of social order. The establishment has no interest in allowing this to happen and would rather nip it in the bud at the expense of looking oppressive and/or indifferent than risk losing their global hegemony.

Taken together, these explanations help one understand why the established nation-states, despite their contrary interests, can agree that no new members should be able to join their club.

References:

1. Rothbard, Murray (2009). Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Scholar’s Edition, 2nd ed. p. 1051.

Lecture: Libertarianism and Reaction

On July 28-30, 2017, the second annual Corax Conference took place in Sliema, Malta. To my great surprise, I was invited and sponsored as a speaker. I decided to seize upon the opportunity to spread part of my message to a live audience, as well as leave the United States for the first time. While there, I gave an early version of the lecture linked below. That version, and all other materials from the conference, may be purchased here: https://cor.ax/coraxconf-remote

This is a lecture about libertarianism and its relationship to reactionary thought of several types.

Privatizing State Security

The title of this article is an intentional contradiction. Not only is the modern state a coercive body that initiates and sustains itself through violence (thereby lying through its teeth about “national security”), but the real aim of this article is to bypass the state security apparatus altogether. In short, this article will make a modest proposal: in order to subvert the military-industrial complex, citizens and parallel alternative institutions should think of security in private terms.

First and foremost, security is the duty of individuals. Everyone should realize that nobody can care about their own lives as much as they do. Therefore, owning a gun or any other weapon is neither an extravagance nor an antisocial threat; it is the most effective means of protecting one’s most fundamental right, the right to life.

If a disability or some other impairment makes self-protection an impossibility, then families or communities should fulfill that role. In contemporary society, many people suffer when these steps of self-defense are bypassed completely and the state is given total control over security, especially those who live in urban centers or states with restrictive gun laws. The police cannot be everywhere at all times, and much of their time and effort is consumed by enforcing useless laws which actually endanger the public.

Besides inefficiency, relying on the state for one’s personal safety is a gross waste of money. On a national scale, there is no entity that drains the coffers quite like the Pentagon. Late in 2016, the Defense Business Board released a report criticizing the Pentagon for trying to cover up $125 billion in bureaucratic waste. Besides wasting roughly $400 billion on the clearly deficient F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the United States military apparatus wastes taxpayer money on such vague extravagances like “overhead” and “administrative fees.”

If such monumental waste is not enough to convince people that America has a problem, then the continuing mess in Afghanistan should. After sixteen years of warfare, the Taliban is still holding large swaths of the country, ISIS is putting up a fight, and the government in Kabul remains mind-numbingly corrupt. This is what $714 billion of taxpayer money has won us so far.

President Donald Trump came into Washington, D.C. with promises of making “America First” not only an economic slogan, but also a foreign policy motivation. Before he became a candidate, he railed against the waste of the Afghan war and hinted that, if elected president, he’d pull US troops out of the country.

The president had a chance to do just that in August 2017. He chose instead to send a small, additional force of 4,000 troops—the type of force that is big enough to look like his administration is doing something, but too small to have any meaningful significance on the ground. Half-measures usually mean nothing, but half-measures really mean nothing if they do not go hand-in-hand with policy changes or new modes of strategic planning.

President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy should only merit our attention because it briefly shined a light on a true alternative. Erik Prince, the former US Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater USA and now runs Frontier Services Group Ltd., proposed replacing America’s military with private contractors. Prince’s solution promised to not only save $40 billion a year, but its establishment of a “viceroy” (an old imperial term that Prince used in a somewhat cheeky fashion) and a smaller, more specialized American military force would mean less bodybags coming home on C-130s every year.

Prince’s proposal was not only shot down like an enemy plane, but, while discussing his plans on NPR, Prince was labeled a “warmonger,” criticized for trying to undermine the morale of military NCOs, and lambasted by nominal liberals for denying the state its right to unlimited control over violence. Throughout it all, Prince kept reminding his opponents that private warfare is as old as prostitution, and is certainly not uncommon in American history.

Private warfare is due for a comeback. However, not all mercenaries are equal. Each type of private warfare that can be found in history has had its downsides. Several will be discussed below with an eye towards finding which one could be best utilized in the fight against the tyrannical warfare-welfare state. A private military ethos could not only break the back of warfare socialism, which has become standard in the United States with or without war, but it could also begin the process of conditioning American citizens away from thinking about the state as being synonymous with security.

The Freikorps Model

Right after the armistice to end World War I was signed, millions of German troops returned to a Germany that they thought would welcome them as heroes. That is not what happened at all. Following the declaration of the German Republic, which was controlled by the Majority Socialists (the Social Democratic Party, or SPD), many on the German left seized the opportunity to formalize Karl Marx’s dream of a communist German state. The most organized of these groups were the Spartacists, a collection of radical Bolsheviks led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (the latter of whom was a naturalized German citizen of Polish-Jewish ancestry). The Spartacists and their sympathizers briefly controlled Berlin, and were in certain parts joined in their rebellion by mutinous sailors from the major German port of Kiel.

For the Sparticists, this revolution was not only in fulfillment of Marx’s dream of a proletarian utopia in Europe’s most industrially advanced nation, but it was also a way to kill the “sellout” republic in its infancy. In this one respect they were right, for many of the Social Democrats like President Friedrich Ebert and Minister of Defense Gustav Noske were Wilhelmian patriots who had supported the war and who were not entirely committed to the aims of the leftist elements in their party.

The new government needed to put down these rebellions quickly. The problem was that several members of the German defense establishment were on the side of the communists. The Chief of Police in Berlin at the time was Emil Eichhorn, a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and a man dedicated to supporting the Bolshevik takeover of the Prussian capital. At one point, Eichhorn released several political prisoners, including several well-known communists.

Desperate to suppress this communist rebellion, the Republic turned to the new private militaries known as the Free Corps (Freikorps). Not wanting to return to normal life and what they saw as the constraining norms of the bourgeoisie, thousands of soldiers volunteered to serve in regiments headed by authoritarian junior officers. From the very outset, these troops loathed the new German Republic and saw its supporters as the chief reason why they lost the war (the “Stab-in-the-Back myth”). But, for the time being, Ebert and Noske believed that these battle-hardened veterans would need little encouragement to begin attacking communists on German streets. They were right.

However, in making a pact with the devil, the Weimar government spelled its own doom in 1919. After all, Freikorps soldiers despised liberal democracy and always saw the eradication of “Western” values in Germany as their raison d’être. In the book Vanguard of Nazism, Canadian historian Robert G. L. Waite quotes one Freikorps soldier as saying that their mission was always political:

“These people still believe that could build on the same lies and false sentiments with which—in spite of unheard of sacrifices on the part of soldiers—they had lost the war against the Western world. Now this lie was fulfilled through the acceptance of Western democracy. Now this blasphemy was made official. The western bourgeoisie had triumphed…We [the students of 1918] replied: We must become nihilists in order to crush tis rottenness underfoot.”[1]

Not long after performing services on behalf of the government, the Freikorps soldiers became, in their own words, “outlaws” who rampaged and pillaged ostentatiously on behalf of German nationalism, but, more truthfully, on behalf of their own desire for action. Freikorps units, which designated their commanding officers as Führer, believed in the principle of “primitive man.”

One of the admirers of Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, the leader of the best Freikorps unit, the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, was positively described as having a “primitiveness and simplicity” that exuded a “stoic soldierly instinct” that had no time for “political or philosophical convictions.”[2] Such mindless destruction saw Freikorps units pillaging the Baltic territories on behalf of Germany and the White Russian Army. Other Freikorps soldiers found more appeal in the violent radicalism of the Bolsheviks and the Führer Vladimir Lenin.[3] These “Freebooters” craved action and violence. They became a law unto themselves, as evidenced by the Feme murders, a series of political assassinations that may have killed as many as 354 “traitors” on behalf of the German Volk.[4]

The problem with recreating a Free Corps movement in America is obvious: such political militias can never be fully trusted by owners of property or those who seek a stabilized social order. The Freikorps glorified in chaos, and chaos is the enemy of liberty. The story of the “beefsteak” Nazis (brown on the outside, red on the inside) also sheds light on the fact that Freikorps soldiers routinely switched their allegiances, especially between the two most powerful totalitarian ideologies.

While a Free Corps movement made up of American veterans may not be so prone to utopian ideologies, America in 2017 is not Germany in 1918. American degeneracy is caused by prosperity, not material poverty or the shame of military defeat.

The Condottieri Model

It is easy to romanticize the military engagements of the Middle Ages. After all, unlike modern wars perpetrated by nation-states, warfare during the medieval age was a small-scale affair between kings and their private armies. Most of the time, medieval cities and villages were left alone so long as they paid a fee and offered up no resistance. In Anatomy of the State, Murray Rothbard quotes F.J.P. Veale in saying that “the rich burghers and merchants of medieval Italy were too busy making money and enjoying life to undertake the hardships and dangers of soldiering themselves.”[5] Therefore, these townspeople hired foreign mercenaries to defend them. When a threat was neutralized and the job was done, these mercenaries were paid and told to go away.

The benefit of this system was that civilians were mostly left alone and could continue with life and trade. Theoretically, these mercenaries would try to avoid unnecessary casualties, and would only attack villagers and burghers if their payment was not forthcoming. Unfortunately, this is not always how it played out. As noted by Joseph R. Stromberg, many mercenaries of the Early Modern period set out to become territorial lords, which essentially meant that they began wars of aggression in order to claim private kingdoms. “Many mercenary captains aspired to become outright political rulers—men on horseback—rather than mere subcontractors in the business of security provision.”[6]

Although these mercenaries, known in Italy as condottieri, did not engage in the type of warfare that indiscriminately killed civilians or created undue hardships to lives and property, they nevertheless injected political chaos wherever they went. Then as now, mercenary bands attracted men of action who grow easily bored with too much peace. Such men are prone to engaging in conflict only to satisfy their boredom. In the 19th century, American filibusters (not to be confused with the parliamentary tactic) undertook private military expeditions to Latin America in order to aid local liberals, establish private fiefdoms, and/or spread the business of slavery. In the 20th century, adventurers have had a hand in destabilizing Germany, Africa, and Asia.

The idea of creating modern mercenaries in America is downright silly. First, foreigners should never be in charge of another nation’s security. Second, mercenary warfare in the presence of states is almost always offensive in nature, thereby making imperial expeditions all but a certainty.

The Militia Model

The militia has a long and storied tradition in American history. Militia troops were key to the American victory in the Revolutionary War, for militia units utilized small-scale tactics, guerrilla warfare, and targeted assassination of British commanders that forced the British to penetrate deep into the American hinterlands. This over-extended British supply lines, thereby making it easy for American militia fighters to win the day in small to medium-sized battles.

Militias are also synonymous with republics. The Second Amendment not only enshrines the right to self-defense, but the right to form militias as well, though both came under heavy attack by the Supreme Court in the intervening years. In a better world, all American communities would be able to form their own militias in order to protect their property rights and dissuade the vampiric state from overstepping its official limitations. Militias do not have to be standing forces, but it would be in the best interest of a community if all able-bodied men were well-trained and adequately prepared for emergencies and insurgency-style warfare. The best feature about militias are that their small size and local focus make them best-suited for defensive warfare rather than offensive warfare. Militias are not designed for long, extended wars of conquest. Rather, a militia unit is designed for low-intensity conflict wherein they have the advantage in regards to intelligence, knowledge of terrain, and maneuverability.

Modern America will undoubtedly recoil at the very proposal of forming militias. Thanks to a campaign of disinformation during the 1990s, when homegrown militias became synonymous with white supremacist politics and domestic terrorism, any militia that forms today will be quickly infiltrated by government agents. A militia directly threatens the state’s monopoly on violence. The state and its supporters know this. Look no further than the overreaction surrounding the standoff between Ammon Bundy and Western ranchers against the Bureau of Land Management. The same people who fret over “Islamophobia” and police brutality towards blacks were the same ones advocating for dropping bombs on American citizens.

Conclusion

The painful truth is that all these options would be snuffed out by the modern Leviathan state. From a purely logical perspective, an American Free Corps might work, so long as sympathetic junior officers decided that it was right to let their men become political soldiers. The US military has many regulations dictating what service members can and cannot do while in uniform. Therefore, any Free Corps creation would automatically go against the oaths that many of its potential members took upon enlisting in the US military. Most take these oaths very seriously.

The likelihood of American mercenary bands serving stateside is nil. While libertarian or right-wing mercenaries serving abroad is a bettter idea than current practices, these men will undoubtably face prosecution on charges of treason or terrorism for daring to fight for a country or an idea that goes against progressive liberalism.

In the end, a militia force makes the most sense if Americans are serious about maintaining their local liberty in the face of an increasingly tyrannical state. That said, this militia must function in strict secrecy. Wearing uniforms and bearing flags is a sure way to draw the attention of the FBI or local law enforcement. Conversely, without such uniformity, many military bands lose cohesion and fall into infighting.

Unfortunately, there are no perfect answers to this situation. The idea of a powerful state is now unthinkingly accepted by Democrats, Republicans, and centrists. Republicans rely on the votes of military members past and present, and so would be unlikely to support any measure that threatens the force and violence monopoly enjoyed by the Pentagon. Democrats would shriek “racism” and “terrorism,” and would run to the receptive state in order to have these units put down with extreme prejudice. It is also unlikely that many ordinary Americans will rush to join bands of guerrilla fighters, despite the promise of status and a bit of excitement.

At this point in time, the best thing that could be hoped for is that a wide swath of Americans would come to accept the reality that the security of their lives and the lives of their neighbors depends on them and their willingness to use force in defense of life, liberty, and property. This thought crime starts the process of rejecting the state’s monopoly on violence, and could ultimately lead to a new, more privatized model of security. But until we can produce more thought criminals, arguing over how to best create private security entities is a fruitless endeavor.

References:

1. Waite, Robert G. L. (1969) Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany, 1918-1923. W.W. Norton and Company. p. 55.

2. Ibid, p. 165.

3. Ibid, p. 274-275.

4. Ibid, p. 216.

5. Rothbard, Murray (1974). Anatomy of the State. The Ludwig von Mises Institute. p. 49.

6. Stromberg, Joseph R. (2003). “Mercenaries, Guerrillas, Militias, and the Defense of Minimal States and Free Societies.” The Myth of National Defense: Essays on the theory and History of Security Production, ed. Hans-Hermann Hoppe. p. 219.

Why Price Gouging Is Good

When a natural disaster strikes, it is almost guaranteed that there will be yet another uproar about price gouging. Media pundits will take to the airwaves to virtue signal against people who would dare to exploit disaster victims. Government officials will use the crisis to score political points by portraying themselves as defenders of the common people against greedy capitalists. But how accurately does this reflect reality? Let us explore the nature of price gouging to see the economics of such a situation and explain the behavior of journalists and state agents.

Economic Forces

In order to intelligently approach the concept of price gouging, one must first define it. Price gouging is a sudden, sharp increase in prices that occurs in response to a disaster or other civil emergency. Though this defines the act well, it does not explain the mechanisms behind it. When a disaster approaches, there are certain goods that people wish to acquire in greater quantities than normal, such as clean drinking water, non-perishable foods, wooden boards for protecting windows, and so on. If supply is held constant, then this sudden increase in demand for such goods will produce a sudden increase in their prices.

If left unhindered by the state, this upward pressure on prices will produce important benefits. First, it serves as a signal to producers and distributors of those goods that more supply is needed. The producers and distributors thus learn where their goods are most urgently in demand, allowing them to engage in mutually beneficial transactions with disaster victims. This is how free markets are supposed to function in order to meet the needs of customers.

Second, price gouging encourages proactive preparations. A potential business model for a firm is to invest in equipment that allows it to operate when a disaster would otherwise force it to close, and use the proceeds from price gouging to amortize the cost of the equipment. This helps consumers by allowing them to purchase goods at higher prices rather than be left without essential items during a crisis.

Third, price gouging provides an important benefit by conserving the fixed amount of resources which are present before more deliveries can be made to the disaster area. The higher cost of scarce goods disincentivizes people from buying up supplies that other people need, thus helping to keep the items in stock. This keeps scarce resources from being wasted on marginal uses, directing them toward their most valued uses and the people who most need them instead.

Markets And Malice

Unfortunately, not every instance of price gouging is so benevolent. Business owners who seek to exploit vulnerable people in order to make money do exist. But engaging in such behavior in a free market produces a short-term gain followed by a long-term loss. In a pure capitalist environment, reputation is everything for a business. Whatever profits may come from gouging disaster victims in the present will be more than outweighed by the sales that one will lose in the future because of the damage that this does to one’s brand. After all, most people would view such behavior as adding insult to injury and vote against it with their wallets. Though it is impossible to accurately count sales that do not happen, to dismiss this effect as nonexistent is to commit the broken window fallacy.

Enter The State

Most people are economically illiterate, so they tend to focus on the malevolent type of price gouging and be unaware of the benevolent type. In a democratic state, this has predictable results. Politicians and other government agents will frown upon price gouging and seek to punish anyone who they believe to be engaging in it. But it can be difficult to distinguish the natural effects of demand spikes and limited supplies upon price from the efforts of greedy exploiters of disaster victims, especially for government officials who are too far removed from the disaster area to be intimately familiar with the economic dynamics there. Thus, all price gouging is suppressed by the state, and while this may protect a few people from exploitation, it causes more harm than good by disrupting the market signals which would have informed producers and distributors that their goods need to be sent to the disaster area. The end result is that scarce goods are depleted and not replaced, leading people to once more blame the market for failing them when the actual cause of their shortage was a government failure.

Suppression of price gouging has several deleterious effects. First, by placing price controls on goods, the state deprives entrepreneurs of the profit motive to bring additional supply to the disaster area. Without state inteference, people who live outside of the disaster area and are willing to travel there in order to bring supplies could charge enough for their goods to recover their travel costs and be compensated for the inconvenience of spending time in a disaster area, all while making enough profit to make such a venture more attractive than other economic opportunities. Price gouging laws remove such action, leaving only state agencies and altruistic private groups to provide aid. Note that like all government regulations, price gouging laws are subject to regulatory capture by the largest businesses.

Second, removing the incentive for proactive preparations makes untenable the business model for operating during a disaster described above. Third, removing the conservation effect of price gouging forces business owners to sell goods below their market-clearing price. This incentivizes hoarders to buy more than they need and scalpers to buy goods for resale. The existence of scalpers also makes desired goods more difficult to find, as resellers will be more difficult to locate than established stores. Thus, laws against price gouging do not eliminate the practice, but rather shift it from primary markets to secondary markets and cause a different set of people to profit. Taken together, these effects result in artificial scarcity that makes conditions in a disaster area even worse.

A Pair of Razors

Given the clear case in favor of price gouging, one may wonder why so many people in positions of political power rail against it. Reece’s razor suggests that we look for the most cynical explanation when attempting to determine a motive for state policy. No other possibility prioritizes the self-interest of politicians and their minions over the lives and properties of citizens quite like the idea that government officials want to suppress the natural response of markets in order to make government disaster relief agencies look effective and necessary, thus justifying their existence and expansion, so Reece’s razor selects it.

However, it is not in the rational self-interest of elected officials to increase the suffering of disaster victims who are capable of removing them from office in the next election. A better explanation is offered by Hanlon’s razor, which says that one should not attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. In this view, government officials are not trying to increase the harm done during a disaster; they simply know no better because they are just as economically illiterate as the electorate, if not more so. This razor is a better fit for the available logic and evidence.

Conclusion

It is clear that price gouging has an important economic role in ensuring that goods both go to those who need them most and remain available in times of emergency. Market prices are important signals that tell producers and distributors where their goods are most urgently needed. When the state interferes with this process by imposing price controls, it turns off the signal and incentives for market actors to send aid, encourages hoarding and scalping, and discourages conservation and farsightedness. These effects mean that laws against price gouging harm the very people that they are ostensibly supposed to help. Therefore, price gouging should not be punished by the state or demonized by the press.

Thirteen Observations on Events in Charlottesville

On the weekend of August 12, 2017, various activist groups came together in Charlottesville, Va. for the Unite the Right rally organized by James Kessler and Richard Spencer. A torch-lit march to the statue of Robert E. Lee on the University of Virginia campus took place on the night of August 11. This resulted in clashes between alt-right and Antifa demonstrators, which the alt-right won. The next day, the mayor of Charlottesville illegally shut down the rally. Violence then ensued between alt-right and Antifa, which culminated in a car crashing into leftist protesters, killing one and injuring 19. Two police officers also died in a helicopter crash after monitoring the events. Thirteen observations on these events follow.

1. Permits are not worth the paper on which they are printed. One week before the event, Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer and vice-mayor Wes Bellamy illegally revoked Kessler’s permit. The ACLU took the case before a judge, arguing that civil liberties were being tread upon and that the city was not allowed to stop the march. Kessler and Spencer won a legal injunction, and the city of Charlottesville was legally responsible for enforcing it and providing protection for the rally. If the Charlottesville police had formed a line to separate the alt-right from Antifa, as was done in Pikeville on April 29, it is unlikely that most of the violence would have occurred. But Mayor Signer failed to uphold the court injunction and protect the rally. Instead, he illegally revoked the permit and sent police in riot gear to declare the rally an unlawful assembly and disperse it. Several participants were attacked by riot police, while Antifa attacked other participants. Not only this, but Mayor Signer issued a stand-down order to the police after the alt-right gathering was forcibly dispersed. This left the alt-right and Antifa to battle in the streets. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe then declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard, after which the car crash and helicopter crash occurred, among more violence. If this is the result of trying to go through legal channels, then there is no point in doing so.

2. Unscheduled, spontaneous events are more effective for right-wing activism. Given the above result, going through the legal process to get permits and police protection is actually counterproductive. In fact, it is tantamount to a general handing his battle plans to the enemy. There was only token opposition from Antifa and no real interference from state agents during the torch march, and this was partly because it was not announced or planned ahead of time as an official event. All right-wing and libertarian activists would do well to be more spontaneous in future to keep leftists and politicians from having the intelligence necessary to attack and shut down activities.

3. Public property is an oxymoron. Property is an object external to a person’s physical body in which that person has acquired an ownership right through mixing one’s labor with unowned natural resources, trading, or inheritance. Ownership is a synonym for a right to exclusive control, and this requires either an individual owner or a collective that is in full agreement as to the use of the property. What is called ‘public property’ in a statist society is really state-occupied property that is set aside for state-approved common use. No one truly owns such property because no individual or fully agreeing collective exercises exclusive control over it. This leaves it open not only to use by groups of people who are at cross purposes with each other, but to an occupation by one group for the purpose of denying access to another group.

4. Coordinating with state agents is a tactical mistake. Though many rank-and-file state agents are sympathetic to various right-wing and/or libertarian causes, their commanding officers tend to be progressive leftists. When the order comes from above to shut down right-wing events or avoid suppressing communist rioters, they almost invariably choose to obey such orders rather than resign en masse to provide private defense or disobey their orders in order to perform their jobs as they normally would. This should tell the organizers of right-wing events in no uncertain terms that government police are not ultimately on their side.

5. The torches and some of the chants during the march provided terrible optics. When the average American sees a mass of people carrying torches, it makes them think of the Ku Klux Klan and all of the terrorist activity its members have perpetrated over the years. When the same people are chanting “blood and soil,” an English translation of the Nazi phrase “Blut und Boden,” and “Jews will not replace us” while carrying flags of a power that the United States waged war against, it causes a neutral observer to view them as alien enemies. These associations are not entirely inaccurate, as both neo-Nazis and Klansmen participated in the event. Though some critics of such a demonstration would never be satisfied (see observation #8), and some alt-righters would claim that they might as well act the part if they will be accused of Nazism anyway, marginal observers who could be swayed one way or another would be far more sympathetic to a candlelight vigil rather than a torch-wielding procession, a lack of Roman salutes, phrases which do not make anti-Semitic references, and a lack of Nazi and Klan flags.

6. Terry McAuliffe, Michael Singer, and Wes Bellamy wanted violence. They used the Charlottesville police and the National Guard to bring alt-right and Antifa groups together, then ordered them to stand down while the two groups fought. Previous incidents, such as the Battle of Berkeley, clearly demonstrated that these two groups cannot be in close proximity without violence erupting between them. Though the idea that the governor, mayor, and vice-mayor actually wanted a violent conflict on the streets of Charlottesville is a very cynical explanation, it fits best with the facts of the case.

7. Though the results were terrible, James Fields may have acted in self-defense. According to the establishment press, Fields engaged in domestic terrorism by intentionally running over leftist counter-protesters. His history of psychiatric problems and violent behavior does not help his case. But the press seems intent on ignoring two videos which support a much different chain of events. The first shows someone striking the car with what appears to be a baseball bat. The sound of the bat impacting the car is heard, followed by the sound of the car engine. The car quickly accelerates, crashing into other vehicles and the crowd that was blocking traffic by standing in the street. The second video thoroughly examines the chain of events, freezing at multiple points to point out a bicyclist on the sidewalk behaving normally, the car being operated at appropriate speeds, the strike by the apparent baseball bat, an attempt by Fields to brake and change direction, and finally Fields flooring the accelerator to escape a mob of people closing in on him.

8. It is impossible to appease the left without submitting to the left. President Donald Trump spoke on the events on the afternoon of August 12, saying in part,

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, this has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society. And no child should ever be afraid to go outside and play or be with their parents and have a good time.”

That Trump accurately pointed to violence from “many sides” rather than just white nationalists set off a media firestorm, with pundits, Democrats, and establishment Republicans alike rushing to virtue signal against Trump and the alt-right. On August 14, he said in part,

“As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of bigotry, hatred, and violence. It has no place in America. And as I have said many times before, no matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws; we all salute the same great flag; and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence. We must discover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator, we are equal under the law, and we are equal under our constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”

This did not satisfy Trump’s leftist critics in the media or either major party, nor would it, for this is not how leftists operate. As Vox Day writes in SJWs Always Lie,

“Do not say you are sorry if anyone’s feelings were hurt, do not express regret, remorse, or contrition, do not say anything that can be taken as an apology in any way. Just in case I am not being sufficiently clear, do not apologize! Normal people seek apologies because they want to know that you feel bad about what you have done and that you will at least attempt to avoid doing it again in the future. When SJWs push you for an apology after pointing-and-shrieking at you, what they are seeking is a confession to bolster their indictment. They are like the police down at the station with a suspect in the interrogation room, badgering him to confess to the crime. And like all too many police these days, the SJWs don’t really care if you did it or not, they’re just looking for a confession that they can take to the prosecutor. Be aware that once they have launched an attack on you, they will press you hard for an apology and repeatedly imply that if you will just apologize, all will be forgiven. Do not be fooled! I have seen people fall for it time and time again, and the result is always the same. The SJWs are simply looking for a public confession that will confirm their accusations, give them PR cover, and provide them with the ammunition required to discredit and disemploy you. Apologizing will accomplish nothing more than hand them the very weapons they require to destroy you.”

Trump eventually showed some understanding of this concept, returning to his earlier statements when questioned by the media again on August 15. He also elevated the term ‘alt-left’ to prominence to refer to Antifa and other violent left-wing groups. But a stronger intellect would have resisted the urge to punch right while kowtowing to SJWs on August 14.

9. The mainstream press serves the establishment and mammon at the expense of truth. The news coverage of what happened in Charlottesville was perhaps more worthy of the term lügenpresse than anything in recent memory. Even though there appears to be exculpatory evidence for James Fields, the establishment press was determined to advance the narrative that he had intentionally planned an ISIS-style terrorist attack with his car. They have done all they could to portray everyone on the alt-right side as a racist terrorist, while tacitly supporting the communist terror group Antifa. They have done their best to portray anyone affiliated with Donald Trump in any way, real or imagined, as a white supremacist equal to the worst elements present in Charlottesville. Compare this to the response when a Muslim perpetrates a terrorist attack; the act is said to be independent of Islam itself and the focus is turned to anti-Muslim hate crimes. Never would the establishment press equate everyone affiliated with Islam to a terrorist, or investigate anti-white hate crimes.

The simplest explanation for the behavior of the establishment press is the desire for money and power. As long as they give the party line like good Soviet-era apparatchiks, they can enjoy a comfortable life of repeating state propaganda and running advertisements for large corporations whose leadership marches in lockstep with the political establishment while not performing any authentic journalism. Should they deviate from this, they will lose access to important political sources and events. As for the chaos, they thrive on it and hope for more, as it drives traffic to their programming and revenue to their bank accounts.

10. Ignoring the legitimate grievances of the alt-right will not work. Despite the lies of the establishment press, not everyone at Unite The Right was a Klansman or Nazi. Some attendees were simply concerned about the potential removal of historical monuments that reflect their heritage, the demographic shift toward a white minority in a democratic system, an economic system which threw them overboard decades ago, and the rise of identity politics among women and non-whites following decades of leftist agitation. Ignoring and suppressing the concerns of the alt-right will not be any more effective than any other form of prohibition; as has followed other prohibition efforts throughout history, the prohibited behavior will then manifest in a manner that is less open and more violent. Furthermore, when people feel that they have no exit and that no one will listen to their voices, their only remaining option is to revolt.

11. Democracy does not receive enough blame for heated rhetoric and political violence. Though it is important to deal with proximate causes and understand the nuances of a particular case, it is also important to address the ultimate sources of problems. One such root is democracy itself. Democracy replaces the theoretical Hobbesian war of all against all with an actual civil war of half against half, and it is only a matter of time before this cold war flares up. Rulers intentionally create such a system in order to manufacture perpetual conflict in society, which keeps the masses fighting amongst themselves so that they do not join together to overthrow the ruling class. Because a democratic system grants each citizen who is eligible to vote a small piece of political power, each person can—at least in theory—mobilize other people into a voting bloc to advance a political agenda that would use state power in a manner hostile to another group of people. This makes each politically active person an unofficial soldier in the aforementioned democratic war, and thus a target for various abuses by the other side. It is this dynamic that produces the degeneration of political discourse into physical violence. Though there will always be some level of societal conflict, removing such a disastrous generator of malignant incentives as political democracy can only be a net improvement.

12. The only solution to the problem of the commons is to eliminate the commons. As long the fiction of public property persists, groups will continue to fight over control of it. If all property in the Charlottesville area were privately owned, then the statue of General Lee would be on the property of someone who wants it to be there, and anyone taking action to remove it would be guilty of trespassing and vandalism. If the UVA campus and the roads in Charlottesville were privately owned, then their owners could decide which people to allow and trespass the others. There is a fundamental philosophical error at work, in that the state exercises monopoly control over certain spaces in the name of preventing monopoly control over those spaces. Until this error is resolved by eliminating the commons through returning common spaces to private ownership, conflicts over who gets to use the commons and when they get to use them will continue to occur.

13. Matters will only escalate from here. Because the problems outlined in observations #1, #3, #5, #6, #9, #10, #11, and #12 are unlikely to be addressed and resolved by the appropriate parties, violent conflicts will escalate in frequency and intensity. In fact, many local government leaders across the United States and social media companies have proceeded to do the opposite, seeking to de-platform prominent alt-right members and remove more Confederate statues. Unfortunately, the escalation of hostilities is a necessary development because humans tend not to do what is necessary to solve difficult problems until they run out of other options.

A Critique of Libertarian Strategy

Lack of Action

Even the slightest familiarity with most libertarians will show the observer how much libertarians love to talk about the slightest philosophical disagreements, as well as how much time libertarians devote to libertarian literature and propagating the ideas of liberty on the Internet. However, even with that immense passion, most libertarians seem to be averse to actual economic and political action that would increase the amount of liberty in the world. In fairness, some move to New Hampshire for the Free State Project, some work on start-up societies, and there are gray market alternative products sold by libertarians. However, the amount of effort put into learning liberty does not seem to match up with the amount of effort actually spent on advancing liberty in the real world. Libertarian philosophy may win hearts and minds until the end of time, but if libertarians are not willing to go outside the statist quo, there can be no real world change.

Contrast this inactivity with the progressive movement that swept the United States in the early 20th century. The progressives opened public areas, worked on local communities, and did so in order to spread their progressive beliefs. It was a complete hands-on movement intent on creating actual change and composed of people who were willing to work, leave their houses, and participate in their community. If libertarians want to achieve any level of cultural advancement in a libertarian direction, there can be no expectation of it being created by arguing on social media about whether or not abortions or borders are libertarian, but rather by engaging in social activities in a voluntary manner to spread liberty. Recently, a man built a $100,000 dollar staircase for just over 500 dollars for his community, and this great act of voluntary improvement was removed by the state. There are examples over examples of how children have their lemonade stands shut down when they are trying to make some pocket money. There are constant news stories of how adults who do business on a very small scale without any harm and without selling illegal items get shut down due to the lack of a permit. Every time this happens it gets massive media traction. Imagine if all these people were devoted libertarians and used their platform as a way to spread libertarian ideas, how much more exposure libertarianism could get. If these people flew the black and yellow flag and wrote “taxation is theft” on the side of whatever they were making, they could spread the message of liberty. They may be censored or ridiculed, but it would demonstrate how the libertarian philosophy is practical and beneficial.

This does not mean organizing Libertarian Party caucuses or running for office. Rather, it means breaking laws and making sure that breaking those laws will improve the community in which the law-breaker resides. When there are attempts to combat the injustice of the state, there must be people willing to take risks, and some people must be willing to improve their own communities to make their own lives and the lives of their communities better. If there is no one willing to go against the state and no one willing to get arrested, fined, or subjected to other injustices, then mouthing off on the Internet becomes a waste of time. It is good to try to increase the presence of libertarian ideas virtually, in think tanks, or in politics, but real change comes from individuals acting locally to create a more libertarian society.

This need not be non-political; any libertarian could go out, talk to people, hand out fliers, and do whatever else is necessary for the principles of liberty to be spread in a physical manner. But if libertarians cannot organize a local club, cannot make and print out some fliers to hand out, and are thus unable to actually advance the principles of liberty, they will get nothing done. In fairness, there are libertarians in Cuba who build libraries and take action; there are libertarians in Europe who translate great libertarian texts into their own languages. There are many libertarians who already do such things, but nowhere near enough in comparison to the amount of people who are passive libertarian cyber-intellectuals.

Lack of Charisma

Many libertarians are abrasive, intense, and ill-suited for social interaction. This is a problem which tends to arise when any ideology is based on abstract economic and intellectual arguments rather than arguments which are more relatable to the layperson. This means that libertarians must try to become more charismatic if there is to be a chance for spreading the principles of liberty without forceful imposition. Advocates of these principles cannot stay within a bubble of abstract arguments. Libertarians must become more sociable in order to recruit more people to become libertarians. It is easy to see how this has worked every time it has happened; Ron Paul brought more people over to the liberty movement than perhaps anyone else in the history of libertarianism. The intellectuals who have spent a lot of time being sociable (Walter Block, Tom Woods, and Murray Rothbard immediately come to mind) have converted more people than anyone else who wrote some treatises but never personally taught anyone the principles of liberty.

Music and art are great tools when it comes to spreading the message of different philosophical positions, and it seems that everyone else, from communists to fascists, understands this. That is why Ayn Rand was so important to libertarianism and Objectivism; she made philosophy accessible through her works of fiction. Since libertarian philosophy can affect people deeply and show them truths that they never realized before, it is vital that libertarians focus on making free-market and property-based positions more presentable without corrupting the message. Having to read dozens of dry books and have hundreds of intellectual conversations in order to properly and fully understand libertarianism when some good works of fiction and a few bands could expose the philosophy to a much wider audience in a more effective manner is a travesty. Backwordz is one such exciting libertarian project, as they serve to make libertarianism more accessible, but libertarians cannot relegate an important task in spreading the message of the cause to a few projects. Libertarians should focus more on creating works that are accessible to large audiences. There are many people who lack artistic talents, but if one is blessed with these talents in even the smallest capacity, they could use their time more effectively by utilizing these mediums in order to create a more libertarian society and to make libertarianism more palatable.

This is also the case for the “meme war” that has been happening on the Internet. This is a tactic in which the far-right uses poignant viral images to create propaganda that spreads on its own. This can captivate people who might never be convinced by a logical argument. Libertarians have mostly failed at this and have not often demonstrated the humor necessary to make this tactic work. This is just one small factor of the whole picture, but when one considers the possibility of free viral marketing just by demonstrating a small bit of humor, it becomes very odd that there so little focus on this. Furthermore, it is unnecessary to have this one strategy of viral marketing. Libertarians tend to be individuals who are at least moderately wealthy, so it would be easy for them to buy billboards, put up posters, or purchase online ads that direct people to libertarian websites and beliefs that focus on property and justice. Most people have never been exposed to a true representation of what libertarians actually believe, seeing only the gross caricatures of the establishment press and other statist propagandists. Being able to make the movement and the cause more present and more public would greatly increase the number of people who identify as libertarians. One incredible example, simply for comparison, is that of the flat-earthers who put up a billboard. They are a much more fringe community with an obviously false message, and they still managed to generate enough money for a billboard that gained them at least a small amount of media traction. How libertarians have failed to engage in this method boggles the mind.

Ignorance of the Opposition

One more item of criticism for libertarians is how most fail to understand the arguments of their opponents. Many people may have memorized points and counter-arguments from reading Rothbard, Hoppe, and other libertarian theorists, but there is usually a base assumption that the opposition comes mainly from ignorance and not from differences in knowledge, ethics, and sources. All ideas come from somewhere and although most people with those ideas parrot them to others, this does not mean that we can combat these points properly without knowing their intellectual origins. What makes this even worse is that libertarians may have come from the cultural status quo where most people started and understand those arguments; some libertarians may even have had a phase of being socialist without knowing what that would actually imply. However, most libertarians are libertarians in their premises. It is not an intellectual decision to be a libertarian for most people; we all tend to have some degree of libertarianism within our basic assumptions.

It helps a great deal to know where the opponents of property and capitalism are coming from. It helps to be able to assume their perspective without prejudice and be able to dissect their premises and arguments. Of course, by some metric of self-satisfaction, libertarians are able to think that they did something productive by telling socialists that they need to learn basic economics while ignoring the hundreds of years of socialist economic studies. This argument may have worked when socialism was something that people adopted just to be edgy and to rebel against the capitalist status quo, but in the age of the modern intelligentsia, Austrian economic arguments are less prevalent than socialist ones. In essence, libertarians are the ones who need to learn what other people consider to be basic economics if they are to refute socialists.

Furthermore, libertarians assume that everyone who is pro-state would stop being so if the violence of the state was exposed for what it is. This is false, as many people are completely fine with the state being an institution of violence as long as it serves their own interests. No matter how much anyone talks about the state being immoral or violent and how much taxation is theft, there will be a great amount of people who think, in a Hobbesian manner, that without this violence human beings cannot have civilization. These moral arguments may be fine, but libertarians need to present more perspectives that are better suited for people who approach the world more pragmatically. This is especially true for many socialists and alt-righters; they know that the state is violence and a pure forceful institution. Their question about this is simply, “So what?”. Libertarians cannot always change the moral premises of others by trying to get people to understand the conclusions of the personal moral premises that libertarians tend to hold.

Lack of Virtue

No matter the intellectual caliber of particular libertarians, there are a few problems that need to be solved with the ideology if libertarianism is to go forward. There are strategies and perspectives on how to create a libertarian society and what libertarians can do to approach the type of people who are ready to be libertarians. However, the overwhelming majority of libertarian theory focuses on how great everything would be if everyone already lived in a world where there was virtue, without providing methods of how to cultivate this virtue within the population that is to be made libertarian. The other minority focuses on how bad everything is while everyone is in an oppressive statist society, and other areas of concern are seldom talked about. Only in the past few years has there been even a start of sociological inquiry of these issues on a sustained and continuous basis.

Stefan Molyneux advocates peaceful parenting as an actionable solution for making the world freer. Many libertarians say that education is the best solution. Some propose economic solutions to show people how property benefits them. Some advocate violent revolution. But cultivating the sort of virtue that is necessary to maintain a libertarian social order is not so simple. Anyone can parent peacefully, yet still it can turn out that there is no virtue cultivated in the children within a society. People can educate a person who is not virtuous himself and he may not become virtuous when he knows all the facts. Libertarians can show people how property rights may benefit them, but they may still try to undermine it, provided they are not individuals who have the virtue of respect for property rights.

This needs to be a strong point of libertarian tactics; not only how to make people more receptive to a society based on virtuous behavior, but rather how to make sure that the people are sufficiently virtuous to maintain a libertarian social order. Libertarianism needs to come out of the value-free lull where the focus on intellectualism has left it and delve deeper into the fields of sociology, psychology, and other areas where further research is needed for how to increase the virtue within populations. As it stands right now, libertarians may have good strategies for libertarianism and how to create a more libertarian world when libertarianism already has this support, but far less on how to cultivate libertarian virtues within society.

Lack of Breadth

Libertarianism has overwhelming amounts of substance, but the substance it has is very limited in content when it comes to anything other than economics and philosophy. Though this is by design, in that libertarianism itself is only an answer to the question of when the use of force is appropriate, this does not a complete worldview make. Economics is never enough to run a whole society; there must be values and character traits beyond the economic. There cannot be a healthy society in which the only relations are that of material exchange; this kind of society would certainly fall apart as soon as it was revealed as the husk it is. Even though the intellectual side of libertarianism may call for a value-free economic analysis, a pragmatic and objective political strategy, and a philosophy that can create values beyond what people would consider moral, this is inapplicable to many people. Everyone has values, most people have morals, and people want to see these morals reflected in their societies.

This writer has proposed abandoning political libertarianism as a strategy and focusing instead on advancing local autonomy as much as possible. It would serve to make libertarianism more relatable and to show people how libertarianism can serve to bring their values into the world. However, there is much work to be done on this. Only now are the first efforts being made of a very deep examination and expansive practical project.

Blame Democracy For Heated Political Rhetoric

In recent times, concern has grown over the increasing hatred between competing political factions. As political rhetoric escalates into political violence, the various agents of the Cathedral have begun asking what may be done to reduce tensions. Naturally, they demonstrate obliviousness to their own culpability in ratcheting up hostilities, and reversing their own behavior would be a significant first step. Their actions are par for the course for leftists, as psychological projection—the act of accusing one’s opponents of whatever wrongdoing one is committing oneself—is an essential part of the leftist mindset. In the same vein, they accuse right-wing activists of causing any political violence that occurs, even when it is clear to any rational observer that rightists are taking action to defend themselves against aggression by radical leftists.

As for the radical leftists, it has long been the case that the right views the left as factually wrong while the left views the right as morally evil. This imbalance could not persist indefinitely, and because the elements of the left which are most vocal at present are pathologically incapable of rational discourse, the only rebalancing that could occur was for elements of the right to begin viewing the left as morally evil. This necessarily escalated matters, but in a manner that was necessary to restore a balance of political terror, which will result in less political violence in the long term by way of peace through mutually assured destruction.

Leftist Strategy

The leftist strategy at work here is that of high-low versus middle, better known by the Van Jones quote “top down, bottom up, inside out.” The academics, politicians, and pundits of the Cathedral are the high, the communist terrorists of Antifa and the minority criminal underclass are the low, and the middle is anyone who is middle-class, working-class, white, right-wing, and/or libertarian. The high-class group uses the privileges of state power to buy the loyalty of the low-class group, which is done by funneling money extorted from the middle-class group to them in addition to giving symbols of higher status to select members of the low-class group. In return, the low-class group is used to intimidate the middle-class group into compliance with this arrangement. The end goal is to transform society by defeating the middle, but in practice the low-class group tends to turn on the high-class group when times become hard and the high-class group can no longer afford to purchase their loyalty. Alternatively, this may end when the middle-class is tired of being abused and decides to violently suppress the low-class, then subject the high-class to vigilante justice.

The Real Culprit

The talking heads, politicians, and left-wing activists all deserve blame for creating a cultural milieu in which the political rhetoric has become increasingly heated and violence has erupted as a result. But as troublesome as these elements are, they are mere symptoms of a much larger and deeper problem. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The root that must be named and struck is nothing less than democracy itself.

Benjamin Franklin described democracy as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. If Franklin were correct, then democratic impulses would quickly be exhausted, as the lambs would be consumed in short order and society would spiral downward into a Hobbesian nightmare of wolf against wolf, every wolf for himself. But the truth is even worse; who is a wolf and who is a lamb changes depending on the time and the political issue at hand. Over time, majority rule thus “allows for A and B to band together to rip off C, C and A in turn joining to rip off B, and then B and C conspiring against A, and so on.”[1] This allows the democratic state to survive much longer than it would if there were a static majority and a static minority.

In the aggregate, the theoretical Hobbesian war of all against all is replaced by an actual democratic war of half against half. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an improvement; rather, it is an intentional engineering of a particular kind of perpetual conflict for the purpose of diverting the energies of the masses away from revolt against the ruling class. For what exploiter of people would wish all of his victims to unite against him? It is far easier to victimize people who are too busy quarreling with each other to mount an effective resistance against their mutual enemy. Democracy works beautifully toward this end, making human farming not only possible, but highly lucrative.

Returning to the level of interpersonal relationships and conflicts between local groups, a democratic state grants each citizen a small piece of political power. The possession of this power by every person who is eligible to vote means that the political opinions of each such person are a relevant concern, at least to some degree. That each person can—at least theoretically—mobilize other people into a voting bloc to advance a political agenda that would use state power in a manner hostile to another group of people makes each politically active person an unofficial soldier in the aforementioned democratic war, and thus a target for various abuses by the other side. This democratic civil war is a cold one in most cases, but as in many cold wars, both sides engage in rhetoric that denounces the other side in strong terms. It is this dynamic that produces the degeneration of political discourse into insults and vitriol and the replacement of healthy interpersonal relationships with hostility. The escalation into physical violence is an expected outgrowth of this dynamic.

The Solution

If democracy is the root problem, then the abolition of democracy is the solution. The historical methodology of this has been an unelected government, whether a military junta, hereditary monarchy, or some combination thereof. Libertarians propose another methodology; that of a stateless propertarian society in which all property is privately owned and all goods and services are provided by competing firms in a free market. Both of these systems deny the general public—those who do not have an ownership stake in the society—a political voice. The restriction of political power to those who have an ownership stake, or the abolition of political power in the anarcho-capitalist case, means that it makes no sense for most people living in these social orders to insult, bully, and attack one another over political disputes, as the winner of such a dispute has no direct influence over the direction of the society. One may only influence such a society by convincing a mass of people to move elsewhere or by acquiring property in the anarcho-capitalist case. When only the king or dictator can vote, or only the private property owner can make decisions over the property in question, only they and whatever underlings they may have are worth attacking with words or weapons when they say or do something reprehensible. Everyone else is no longer a political target, and thus most people are incentivized to be apolitical (if not anti-political), resolving any disagreements with the established order through the right of exit.

Objections

There are two common objections to such a proposal that must be addressed; first, that it will not solve the problem, and second, that abolishing democracy may cause more violence than it eliminates.

The accusation that abolishing democracy will not eliminate heated rhetoric is true but trivial. There are no perfect solutions; there are only trade-offs. As long as more than one person exists and there is a disagreement about anything, there is the potential for heated rhetoric and physical violence. And although rational actors would not get into political disputes if they lacked political power, assuming rational actors is a folly of any rigorous socioeconomic theory. In the absence of mass-distributed political power, would people still bully other people? Yes. Would people still try to lift themselves up by putting others down? Certainly. Would people still make fun of others for having views that are strongly at odds with their own? Of course. But a major impetus for doing so, namely the quest for political power and dominance, would be removed. Though some people will always rebel against their incentives, most people do not. For these reasons, we may expect that the trade-off would be worthwhile.

The claim that abolishing democracy would cause more violence than it eliminates must be answered with both nuance and depth. Democratic statists will claim that without voting on ballots, people will start voting with bullets and the only real change will be greater bloodshed and destruction. First, democracy does not solve the problem of interpersonal violence; in fact, it does the opposite. Rather than eliminate the crimes that people commit against other people and their property, statists have created and maintained an institution with a monopoly on performing those crimes, giving them different names, and suffering no penalty for committing them. Theft becomes taxation, slavery becomes conscription, kidnapping becomes arrest, murder becomes war, and so on. The removal of the option of voting for politicians and their minions to do to other people what one would never be allowed to do to other people on one’s own will leave everyone with two options: engage in crime directly or live peaceably with others. Those who choose the former would quickly discover that it is far easier to vote for politicians to hire enforcement officers to victimize someone else than to try to commit crimes oneself. Though there would likely be an increase in violence in the short-term, the elimination of hardened criminals by people acting in self-defense would be swift, resulting in both less violence and less crime in the long-term.

Second, the democratic peace theory must be addressed. This theory claims that democracies do not go to war with each other, and thus a democratic world is a world without war. The evidence for these assertions is lacking on all counts. The democratic nation-state is a recent invention in human history, which produces the statistical uncertainties of a small sample size. What reason and evidence we do have is not promising; democratic states are aggressive both internally and externally, particularly toward individuals and states that are anti-democratic. The political power vested in each voter by the democratic state that makes the civilian population unofficial soldiers and targets during peacetime makes them official soldiers and targets during wartime. Whereas the historical wars between monarchs were mostly royal and knightly affairs over border disputes that had little effect on the peasants, the incentive structures of democratic states led to the total warfare of the World Wars. The entire economies of nations were disrupted for the purpose of war production, the civilian populations were militarized, and the mass murder of civilians became an accepted part of military strategy. By abolishing democracy, the perverse incentives that produced such carnage may be eliminated.

Finally, there is the possibility that people who are accustomed to democracy would violently resist an effort to disenfranchise them by returning to unelected government or by creating a stateless propertarian society. Though reactionaries and libertarians alike hope to convince the voting public to use democracy for the purpose of abolishing it, this is almost certainly a false hope. The incentive structure of the democratic state coupled with the institutional power wielded by the progressive left is probably too strong to overcome peacefully. The path from here to a superior form of social order thus becomes a violent one, as the people who wish to establish a new order must respond with force against determined and unrepentant aggressors. This is another sense in which there would be a short-term increase in violence followed by a long-term decrease. As before, there are no ideal solutions; only trade-offs which produce a net benefit.

Conclusion

Democracy is a sanitized, soft variant of civil war. The question is how long it can remain a cold war. For contemporary Western civilization, the answer is no longer. As shown above, the engine that drives heated rhetoric and political violence will keep running as long as democracy persists. Though there will always be some level of societal conflict, removing such a disastrous generator of malignant incentives as the democratic state can only be a net improvement.

References:

  1. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (2001). Democracy: The God That Failed. Transaction Publishers. p. 104

Book Review: Islamic Exceptionalism

Islamic Exceptionalism is a book about the relationship between Islam and the modern nation-state by American author Shadi Hamid. The book explores the role that Islam has played in the development of the Middle East, as well as the currently ongoing conflicts there. The book is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a different Muslim country or other aspect of the situation.

The first chapter begins with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the 2013 coup against Mohamed Morsi two years later, and the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members by the Egyptian military. These are contrasted with the activities of the Islamic State. Hamid spends much of the chapter laying out the subject matter and structure of the rest of the book, which include the role of Islam in political affairs, the unique history and teachings of Islam, and the effects that this history and these teachings are likely to have. Hamid’s explorations of these questions leads him to question the mainstream liberal narrative of Whig historiography, democratic supremacy, and progressive determinism, though he never quite manages to reject this narrative. He contrasts Muslim countries which have experienced great political unrest, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, with those that have not, such as Iran, Indonesia, and Malaysia. He then explains the differences between contemporary Muslim countries and European countries in the 1950s, suggesting that what worked in Europe will not work in the Middle East. Hamid ends the chapter by contemplating the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Hamid goes into a history lesson of Islam in the second chapter, as the present cannot be understood without knowledge of the past. The idea of glorious achievements threatened by internecine killings permeates Islamic history from the beginning, and this coupling continues to shape the Middle East today. The decline and fall of the Ottoman caliphate has left a longing for the return of a caliphate, and ISIS has been more than happy to try to meet this demand. He compares the founding of Islam to the founding of Christianity, as well as sharia law to halakhic law. The relative flexibility and adaptability of Islam compared to other religions is explored in order to explain the simultaneous perceptions of Islam as both modern and medieval. The chapter ends with a discussion of the Christian Reformation, which segues into the next chapter.

The Islamic Reformation is the subject of the third chapter. Contrary to popular belief, Hamid shows that such a reformation has already occurred, as Islam adapted to modernity in a way that Christianity failed to do. The line of thinkers that led to Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is discussed alongside the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Salafism. That Islamism only makes sense in a modern context is an important point that Hamid makes here, which is an example of the larger truth that a term which describes everything really describes nothing. The founding and principles of the Muslim Brotherhood are addressed next, with emphasis on the differences between Banna’s view of Islam and the less observant practices of Muslims in prior centuries. The second half of the chapter returns to the 2013 massacre in Egypt, then goes back to Banna’s time and moves forward through the Brotherhood’s history of being suppressed under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat.

The fourth and longest chapter continues the story of the Muslim Brotherhood, detailing how its members have responded to the 2013 massacre. Here, Hamid turns to interviews with Brotherhood members, many of whom are now in exile to escape imprisonment by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The massacre changed the minds of many in the Brotherhood, whose stance on political change had always been to play the long game and make gradual gains over decades. While the leadership was largely unmoved by this, the younger rank-and-file became radicalized. The Brotherhood’s shift to nonviolence in the 1970s has always been doubted by some as merely a tactical move, and this shift may well be undone. Hamid presents the differing views on the nature of the state and political change of the Muslim Brotherhood versus the Islamic State, and most of those interviewed were not willing to support ISIS. The youths Hamid interviews have come to understand the need to break the Westphalian order, but Hamid cannot seem to grasp this idea.

The fifth chapter considers the case of Turkey, in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to take and solidify power after several cases of Islamist parties being banned. Here, the modern history of Turkey is covered, including the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, the role of Ataturk in transforming Turkey into a modern nation-state, and the enforced secularism of that project which alienated Islamists. Once more, the localist nature of Islamic law came into conflict with the nationalism and globalism of the state. The role and path of Erdogan in changing the secular nature of the Turkish state is discussed. No mention of the failed coup attempt against Erdogan is made because it occurred after the time of publishing, and the significant changes since then somewhat date this chapter.

The example of Ennahda in Tunisia is the focus of the sixth chapter, and it presents a much different outcome for Islamists there. Seeing the bloodshed in Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia conceded their Islamism and allowed more secular interests to govern in their stead in order to keep peace and order. Hamid portrays Ennahda as being in an impossible predicament; if they moderate, they will lose their base to a more radical party, but they can never moderate enough to convince secularists to accept them.

The stark alternative presented by ISIS to the whole debate over Islam, democracy, and the modern nation-state is the subject of chapter seven. Hamid shares an interview with a man whose son left Tunisia to join Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and then ISIS, eventually dying in battle there. The discussion of Tunisia continues in this context because a disproportionate number of ISIS militants come from Tunisia. Hamid correctly recognizes ISIS as a state because it has a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area and provides the common functions of a state, even if the rest of the world refuses to accept this reality. He shares another important truth here: moderates tend to lose in civil wars and revolutions because they lack both the fervor and resolve to do what the extremists on all sides will do. Though Hamid predicts the eventual downfall of ISIS, it may take some time and the motivations that led to its formation can lead to other such efforts in the future.

The book concludes by summarizing the previous chapters. The last chapter begins with the attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s offices and the reaction to them, which was somewhat muted among hardline Muslims. Hamid discusses the rise of nativist sentiment around the world and the role that it plays for those who would restore older forms of governance in the Middle East. He presents another important insight: that there are no such things as universal values, at least in practice. The contradictions of imposing a democratic process by non-democratic means are explored, but in some cases Hamid finds restrictions on pure democracy to be a necessity to prevent collapse.

Hamid’s insights into the inner workings of the region are not to be missed. But the Western liberal democratic biases of the author are inescapable. Hamid is unable to process the possibility that democracy is inferior to the older pre-Westphalian order, especially for the Muslim world. This is especially irksome, given the amount of evidence that he himself finds for this possibility. That being said, Islamic Exceptionalism is a highly informative book, especially for those with only a passing knowledge of Islamic history or current events in the Middle East.

Rating: 4/5