An old joke about libertarians is that they are fond of saying, “That works very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?” It’s an old joke that goes back before such a thing as libertarianism existed. It is often used to zing the excessively intellectual. The joke itself is a twist on the fact that strategy, based in theory, often fails miserably in the field. The world of theory is neat and tidy, while the real world is messy. Ideologues can’t grasp this distinction and live only in theory, which is the point of the joke.
No doubt, libertarians will take exception to this characterization, but this truth is an issue faced by all outsider politics. What often makes them outsiders is an excessive adherence to ideology or to a set of narrow demands. Their unwillingness to compromise makes them unappealing to most people. The various green movements are a good example of theory clashing with reality. You can talk people into being more environmentally conscious, but people are not giving up their cars to please mother earth.
Some on the alt-right suffer from this malady. The reaction by some of them to the British election smacks of that old joke about practice versus theory. Here’s Mike Enoch criticizing Nigel Farage as a gatekeeper, while offering a defense of Carl Benjamin, of all people. Richard Spencer went down the same road when he was on the same YouTube show this week. In both cases, they jam the results into their preferred moral framework, rather than analyzing the results in the proper context.
Farage is a single issue guy, who is first and foremost a politician. He is not a strategist or a political theorist. He is a pitch man, selling a simple idea. Britain needs to get out of the EU and begin functioning like a normal country again. Beyond that, he has no strong opinions on much of anything. In fact, he is willing to embrace the popular side of anything in order to eliminate it as an obstacle. His forays into meta-politics are always with an eye on influencing practical politics, which is where is he is best suited.
The way to think of this is to consider the doughnut shop. Political theory is a debate about how retail commerce, like donut shops, fits in with a preferred social organization. Are doughnut shop keepers bourgeois flunkies of the capital class, oppressing the proletariat, or are they an organic resistance to central planning? In the world of political theory, the choice of signage is not a topic of debate. The closest things come to the actual doughnut shop is having the debate in the doughnut shop.
Meta-politics is the debate and discussion of actual doughnut shops and the various ways of making doughnuts. This is the same as comparing the merits of anarcho-capitalism with other types of libertarianism. The practical benefits are described and compared, but in a largely abstract way. After all, the relative merit of one policy compared to another is similar to the comparison of one type of doughnut versus another type of doughnut. Often the people doing the comparing matter more than the comparison.
Finally, politics is the act of selling doughnuts. The guy running the shop is not all that concerned about the propriety of selling more cream filled versus plain, as his primary task is to sell doughnuts. In theory, having 85 types of doughnut on offer makes sense, but if it results in lots of waste, then having just the five most popular types is going to make more sense to the doughnut maker. This works in practice, so he is not going to care if it violate theory or rustles the jimmies of the food critics.
In this regard, a guy like Farage is the doughnut maker. He is focused on winning over as many people as he can to his single issue. Politics is a sales game, where the salesman is always trying to figure out the needs and motivations of the voter. His politics, therefore, have to be flexible enough to fit many situations. The good salesman removes all of the reasons to say no. He attacks the objections, rather than just pitch the benefits. In politics, the game is to avoid disqualifiers so the voter focuses only on the pitch.
That’s why Farage’s new party won big, while Carl Benjamin, Sargon of Akkad, and UKIP were humiliated at the pols. Farage is a likable guy, who avoids taking controversial positions on inconsequential issues. He maintains his focus on the one issue that matters to him, Brexit. Benjamin is a smarmy ideologue who never misses a chance to step on a rake. He embarrassed himself and anyone associated with him, by confirming all of the claims made by his critics. It turns out that there is such a thing as bad publicity.
The alt-right guys will contend that winning is pointless if it does not result in a change in policy or a change in the political culture. That is a fair point and something anyone voting Republican the last 30 years can understand. The GOP has won many elections, but delivered very little to their voters. In the case of the British election, this analysis does not apply as the vote was not an actual election. It was a test of the political atmosphere in Britain that will influence the upcoming struggle to find a new Prime Minister.
It’s why calling Farage a gatekeeper or part of the problem is pretty dumb. The election results give support to the Brexit hardliners in the Tory party and give cover to the moderates, who can now side with Brexit. Britain leaving the EU has enormous downstream consequences for nationalist movements all over the continent. The British leaving the EU strips away the taboo. It is no longer unthinkable for other countries to consider leaving the EU as an option to being ruled by Brussels.
The point of all this is that what we saw in Britain is a good example of why outsider politics remains on the fringe. Ideologues can’t understand why candidates don’t run as ideologues, refusing to compromise on anything. The alt-right guys want candidates to run as open and avowed racists. In the case of Farage, they wanted him to talk about the Paki rape gangs and knife wielding Muslims, rather than his main issue. They simply don’t get why valiantly losing is a bad idea, so they criticize guys like Farage.
It’s also why the Left has been so wildly successful, compared to their numbers. It has been popular for generations to accuse liberals of being unrealistic dreamers, but in reality they operate like cold blooded pragmatists. They win every small fight so it makes it easier to win the next small fight. They are like rats gnawing at the support cables of the status quo, knowing that one day the cables will snap. They never confuse political philosophy with retail politics and they never lose sight of larger goals when in small fights.
Farage winning the election is a small victory, but that’s what it takes to change the culture, winning the small battles. It is the cumulative effect of changing a mind here and a mind there, of normalizing a bit our stuff here and anathematizing some of the orthodoxy over there. It’s messy and boring, which is why ideologues don’t like it, but it is the only way dissident politics can change the culture and eventually change politics. What our side needs is more guys like Farage and fewer rigid ideologues scolding him.
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