Book Review: Rebel

Sat, 02 Sep 2017

With a goal of better understanding the appeal of Brexit, I recently read UKIP politician Douglas Carswell’s latest book: Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy.  

I enjoyed the book and found it a lot less controversial than I expected; it had a lot more in common with ideas of Bernie Sanders than anything I’d expect from Trump or Farage.  The most enlightening and enjoyable part of the book for me was his historical illustrations of his points, using examples of successful periods and failures from Ancient Greece and Rome, Venice, Holland, Germany, France, Britain, America and China, and discussion of the influence of different philosophers.

Carswell’s primary argument is that societies can only thrive when they maintain both independence and connectivity (internally and with other societies) and are able to prevent parasitic behaviour by members and outsiders.  I’m very much inclined to agree with his argument, though I’m not sure how helpful it is: just about any political action could claim to be improving either independence or connectivity.  Similarly, while we all do seem to think parasitic behaviour has become more widespread, it seems impossible to agree on whether particular policies will prevent or rather increase it.

He makes a classically conservative argument against excessive faith in ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘experts’.  I acknowledge that this faith may be misplaced, or exploited by those that wish to seize power, and scepticism is sometimes appropriate.  But I felt he was wrong to ignore how often a refusal to accept scientific evidence is itself parasitic behaviour, for example where people refuse vaccinations or refuse to reduce their carbon footprint, expecting others to wear the cost.

I’m more sympathetic to Carswell’s criticism of unsustainable debt-issuance by governments, which he likens to debasement of currency.  I agree that we can’t keep borrowing increasing amounts and forcing future generations to pay for it.  But the costs of making our our existence sustainable have to be shared fairly, which is why I don’t support austerity as it is typically practiced.  

Carswell had a lot to criticise about the UK’s political system (what he refers to as the Oligarchy) - where political parties, the media and the establishment conspire to maintain power and keep things from changing.  He also warned against excessive faith in overly populist leaders on the left and the right, who would inevitably lead to chaos and disappointment and a rush back to the parasitic establishment.  As with so much of this book, it was a worthwhile point, but unhelpful as a prescription.

I wouldn’t recommend the book if you’re looking to understand Brexit: Carswell had virtually nothing to say about how Brexit would actually put the UK in a better position, and seemed almost as critical of Westminster as he was of Brussels.  

But all in all, and despite those criticisms, I did enjoy this book as a general political and philosophical commentary.