Monday, 11 June 2012

Q + A with Simon Gibbs - ACTA Protest

It's fair to say that the good people at Libertarian Home play a far more active and relevant role than sites like this one in actually promoting small-state ideas to the general public. Simon Gibbs started the site a year ago with the specific aims of building grassroots campaigns, raising the profile of Libertarian ideas and getting them into more mainstream discourse.

It's a slow burner and bound to be punctuated by the occasional moment where even the most committed might stop and ask themselves "what's the point?". Far from content with carping and making wisecracks from the sidelines (ahem...) Simon and the gang travelled to London last weekend to protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a treaty with a stated aim of protecting and establishing international standards with regard to international property rights but like most big government interventions runs the risk of doing something entirely removed from its (stated) intentions.

I managed to catch up with Simon the day after the protest for a quick Q+A session.

1 - How did the protest go? Was it well attended and are you confident you got your message across?

I think we did quite well in the circumstances and the organizers did a good professional job of it. They obviously put a lot of effort in and got a decent number out. It is good for the anti-ACTA campaign to be able to point at the fact that numbers are turning out to show support, and there were perhaps a hundred present, but I think more could have been achieved by the official group. The protest was, unfortunately, positioned quite poorly from my perspective. The Smith Square site is well off the beaten track which rendered the protest more of a get together for activists than anything anyone would actually see. There was one camera there there, and Russia Today were mentioned, but very few members of the public actually saw the gathering. I am, however, quite sure that lots of great images were produced for use in later communications and I wonder if this was perhaps the focus of their plan.

The nicest moment came when the Anonymous group decided to march over to Parliament Square. That place was rammed. We were able to tag along, we literally followed the riot van,  and ended up leafletting the square while Anonymous stood around in the middle and held a meeting. I don't get very competitive, but it was faintly satisfying to know that we out did Anonymous by reaching more people than they did. Of course, we did see people going over to Anonymous with copies of the leaflet that they had been reading, that's because they had flags and the V-mask uniform that makes them easy to spot. I don't see libertarians donning a Libertarian Home uniform, so we'll have to live with that kind of thing.

2 - The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement sounds like one of those Statist interventions loaded with nasty potential consequences and probably poses more new questions than it seeks to answer. How dangerous is it and why?

As a good objectivist, I actually favour some of it's intentions. I do think that there is a problem, for example, with companies inventing a drug in one market only for it to be legally ripped off in another. The problem I have with it is that is transfers burdens from one industry to another based on the needs of the first. Society should reward the value people represent for each other and doing anything based on needs undermines that. Society ends up trying to filling an endless hole, not building anything like what it could build.  In more practical terms, placing unchosen obligations on anyone is  simply wrong. That violates the non-aggression principle which I know your readers will understand and endorse, so ACTA is something they need to be concerned for.

We went there though with a much broader message. The leaflet included a section on net neutrality, for example, which does much the same thing, tranferring the desires of users and publishers and turning them into obligations on infrastructure providers. Net neutrality basically regulates contracts. I included a little illustration of all the players involved in making the web happen and most of the laws we stood against on Saturday basically shaft one player to benefit another. None of them respect individuals' property rights.

3 - I'm just about old enough to remember when the defence of civil liberties was lazily caricatured as the haven of 'do gooders' and 'lefties' who didn't live in the real world. Do you sense that this is changing slightly?

I'm not that old that I can spot trends like that, and only recently became involved in politics after 9/11, but I can see that politics is dominated by the left. I think the right is about as strong numerically, but far less vocal and much more laid back. Right-Libertarianism seems to be growing, which is great because though we differ internally we're all basically correct in our opinions and that will become more obvious to people as the internet connects the mainstream population to the people with the best ideas.

4 - Since 1997, we've had a government openly disregarded personal liberty, followed by one that claims to be striking a 'balance' in this false argument between liberty and security, but produces similar results. How important is it to demonstrate the fallacy of this argument and continue the debate on more honest terms?

Talk of fallacies etc will only get you so far, and only with the most fanatical. David MacDonagh was kind enough to explain this clearly at the meetup on Thursday. Debating room style arguments about fallacies and epistemology will work well on the strongest, on the professional intellectuals, because they are equipped to readily absorb them and because they are true they will work and change minds, but we also need propaganda to get to work on people that don't know what epistemology is but who actively pursue a better world. That propaganda function is basically what we did yesterday.

5- It's clear that Libertarian Home has made good on the promise it made a year ago to become actively involved in grass roots campaining. What's the plan to develop this further?

Let's be clear. Libertarian Home, at the moment, is me. It's a website I put up to allow former Libertarian Party people to talk to each other and do stuff together but when it comes to arranging campaigns is basically me saying "guys let's do X" and then putting some evenings in. Don't get me wrong, Andy, Rob, Devika, Pavel, Clarissa, Richard and others have put in plenty of work too but the way it's set up limits things to me doing it with them, so I'm now the bottle neck. It can't go faster than me.

That's the limitation, let me tell you the strength: None of these campaigns were my idea. Frankly I feel a little uncomfortable getting the credit, but this is still a strength. The OccupyLSX trip was Andy Janes idea. On ACTA I basically asked "what might we do" and Rob Waller was basically assuming we should go and just attend and join in, so that was his idea. I organised a meeting and we did a few smaller things that were suggested by the people that came. All I've done is facilitate for others (and editorialise a bit because frankly I feel if I'm doing that I should get to add my opinion). This is a good pattern, I think, for Libertarians because here is a website that offers them help to organise a meetup, get people together for a protest, publish their opinion (I don't edit other people's blog posts, I just disagree in the comments), and actually I really enjoy it and will put work in to make it happen. As long as we are broadly on the same page ideologically, which we will be, and we can work together then I want to help facilitate it. That might means me literally putting work in to do it or it might mean providing access to the blog and social media outlets that activists are tuned into.

Longer term, I then want to take myself out of that loop. I want to make the website a platform where it isn't as personal to me and people have areas on there where they can work together and their work gets featured on the homepage and made visible in one place for other libertarians to see and join in with. Give me 12 months, and I will be facilitating at that much broader scale for people. Once that work is done, is can really scale and even turn a small profit, which I hope to use in a way the contributors will approve of and maybe scale it some more.

6 - If you can reach the public consciousness through these activities, does it negate the need for electoral participation in any way? Successful protests certainly produce better returns for one's resources than standing for election and losing your deposit ever could.

My preferred model is to have small parties that organise in regions. I think there is a big trust issue between libertarians that is only worse after the arguments over money that we had with the old Party. That trust issue can be gotten over with very small groups working together, but I admit the main issue is getting critical mass so that safeguards can be paid for. Actually I feel like a bit of a naysayer because I think people underestimate the challenge this trust thing is for a new party. People are going to throw eggs at you. I also worry that libertarianism needs to be maybe 10 times bigger before regional parties can happen, by which time we may forget arguments over money I suppose.

I think you are dead right that non-party campaigns are more effective, but actually libertarians need to be able to vote Libertarian and steal votes off the main parties. If we end up with a range of campaigning groups that are openly libertarian and two or three competing libertarian parties either regionally or overlapping nationally then this is as good as it gets.

Many thanks to Simon for his considered responses - be sure to check out Libertarian Home for a cocktail of high-brow discussion and grass-roots camapaigning.

In the meantime, take care and I'll see you back here on Bunny Island later in the week.


  1. Good post Daz; I do wonder whether such activities actually raise awareness among real grassroots people; it all seems a bit, dare-I-say-it, middle class to me, and I'm not being picky just honest. That was the problem I had with many such protests; the ordinary working class activists seem to be politely but firmly airbrushed out of the picture, leaving the more middle class protesters to control events and decide what is worth campaigning for (or against), with the working classes looking on as spectators and not much else. A party or movement without passionate working class support will, I believe in the end, go nowhere fast.

  2. Hi TC - thanks for posting.

    I agree with your analysis up to a point, but with one caveat. A movement that is exclusively for one small section of society, be it crony-capitalists, a small section of the working class, whoever.

    Any new politics will have to draw a wide base of support from a multitude of social strata and income scales. One of the things that appeals to me about Liberalism is its understanding that there are concepts that cut beyond how much an individual earns.

  3. Good reply Daz; I can get a bit fixated on class! As you say, there does need to be broad involvement in a successful party.

    Much of British society seems to me unfortunately based on things that shouldn't matter, but to lots of people seem to matter, like earnings or your accent or what class you are and where you live, and so on. I always think that if high social standing is the only thing you have going for you and not much else, you should be quiet about it!