A curse on free speech
They want to stop us marching, they want to stop us protesting. The censoriousness of government ministers exposes the limits of free expression under capitalism, argues Paul Demarty
There is an unfortunate proliferation of soi-disant free speech warriors, whose advocacy of untrammelled expression mysteriously stops at the borders of the Holy Land.
We could take, for example, Douglas Murray, an undistinguished anti-woke bully-boy, who tweeted on November 2 his horror that
UK Hamas supporters are now planning a “million man march” on Remembrance Day. They plan to defame our war-dead and desecrate the Cenotaph itself. This is the tipping point. If such a march goes ahead then the people of Britain must come out and stop these barbarians.1
“If” such a march goes ahead, with the clear implication that it should not, from a director of the ‘Free Speech Union’.
Americans may prefer the example of the notorious Bari Weiss, who earned her stripes attempting to get pro-Palestine professors fired, and then claimed to feel so intimidated by her colleagues at The New York Times that she cancelled herself. Having launched an online outlet called Free Press, she published much of the Twitter files material, but now has reverted to her undergraduate hobbies, pursuing pro-Palestine activists from one end of the internet to the other. Her website is now just a sluice of desperate Zionist apologetics.
Elsewhere, the old pattern is still in force. Nate Silver, the archetypal centrist data bro, chose this moment to worry about students’ attitudes to free speech, citing survey data from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (or Fire, formerly the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). The data seems to indicate that students are ‘asymmetrically polarised’ on free speech, with liberals and progressives far more in favour of denying exemplary conservative positions than the reverse.2
Of course, even Silver must concede that the conservative examples are far “spicier” than the liberal ones - apparently, the idea that transgender people are suffering from a mental disorder is more controversial than the idea that religious liberty is used as an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians - and one wonders what the results would have been if conservatives had been asked to vote on the principle that Israel is a settler-colonial state. That said, the illiberalism of the liberals is obvious, as it has been for years, and communists should not be shy of condemning and fighting against this degradation in political culture, especially where the left lamentably follows suit.
Despite its poor survey design, Fire is at least consistent in its advocacy, and has taken clear lines against attempts at suppression of pro-Palestinian sentiment.3 The same could not be said of the Weiss empire, as noted, nor of the FSU, which is apparently far more concerned with the government’s ‘conversion therapy’ legislation than anything so trivial as the right of ordinary people to object to monstrous crimes abetted by their own state. In short, as is obvious to all with eyes to see, the right’s free speech campaign is laughably hypocritical; the same must be said, alas, of many leftwing institutions now scrambling to defend the Palestinian movement when a moment ago they were busily demanding purges of supposed hate speech. The true, old-style liberal, free speech nerds - represented by Fire and Silver, who also criticise attacks on the Palestinian movement - are a very small, sad minority.
All of this is perfectly obvious - and has been for years. Left and right are quite symmetrically polarised on this, in spite of the Fire survey: ‘Free speech for me, prior restraint for thee’. We need to understand why this is the case, however. We were told that we were at the end of history, and that history terminated in a global society that respected ‘individual freedoms’ of this sort. We look around, and we observe instead only a spirit of censorious revenge. They don’t respect our speech - so why should we respect theirs? Why indeed?
There are a few classical liberal arguments for free speech, both as a legal regime and as a cultural value. John Stuart Mill argued from uncertainty - human knowledge is inherently limited, and there is no belief in which we can reasonably assume such absolute certainty that we can know that the contrary is false; therefore, suppressing opinion is to the detriment of society, since it tendentially increases the risk of error. This is not very much in the mix today, though one very forceful advocate of it - pertinently in the present situation - is Norman Finkelstein.
More common is the notion of the “marketplace of ideas”, cited by Fire, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade of ideas - that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”4 (Ironically, the quotation used by Fire is from the same judgment that gave us the “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” cliché, in which the august justice decided that anti-war agitators did not enjoy first-amendment protections.) From this point of view, the answer to bad speech is more speech - refutation, polemic.
The characterisation of public discourse as a ‘marketplace’ marks this out as an extremely bourgeois argument. Marxists have traditionally preferred to speak of the battle of ideas, given our particular lexicon of struggle. But it seems reasonable. There is nonetheless the empirical problem - it does not seem as though the best ‘product’ wins. Indeed, it does not seem as though any ‘product’ wins.
The complaints in the present bourgeois political scene about polarisation testify to this: creeping liberal censoriousness is at least partly justified with reference to the various pathological forms of public discourse, conspiracy theories, resurgent explicit racism, and what have you. We tried free speech, but look where it got us! On the right, even amidst all the free-speechifying of recent years, there is nonetheless the rediscovery of explicitly authoritarian and restrictive ideas of the polity, from neo-reactionary corporate monarchism to Catholic integralism, and ‘softer’ forms of each, all with a place for restrictive covenants on the press.
That, in the end, is also the trouble with Mill’s view: what if a correct idea is contradicted by a false one? We take it for granted that the correct one will ‘win’, but what if it does not? What if it tends not to? Then certain kinds of traditionalist reaction would seem to have a point - the truth is not what we are reaching towards, but what we are, in our hubris, ever falling away from.
There are good reasons for Marxists to reject the ‘marketplace of ideas’ version of the liberal argument. Mill’s version is a little more complicated, but the utilitarian interpretation of his case plainly fails on the historical record. This follows from the division of society into classes (what else?), and specifically its form in capitalist society, which both gives rise and gives the lie to these arguments.
Class societies are characterised by the exploitation of very large numbers of people by very small numbers. On the face of it, this is a pretty dicey proposition: presumably the large numbers of people could simply shake off their exploiters and get on with things. But they do not do that - or not very often anyway. Why?
The exploiting class has at its disposal, roughly, a carrot and a stick. The ‘stick’ is simple enough - if people get out of line, hang a few of them, pour encourager les autres. The ‘carrot’ is the whole world of phenomena that Marxists call, under different concrete descriptions, ideology. These are not so easily separated - even in the feudal age of the military aristocracy, there is a need for some section of the plebs to act as a military force, who must thereby be convinced to do so. Sometimes this ‘convincing’ is based on brute material interests, as when the feudal class offers protection to peasants against the raids of nomadic pastoralists, who would otherwise have overwhelming military superiority (horseback riding, advanced archery, and such).
Beyond that, we meet ideology - the means by which the prevailing, contingent hierarchy is made ‘natural’ to its victims. Various accounts of how this works abound in the Marxist tradition, from Lukács’s reification to Gramsci’s hegemony, to Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses. I do not propose to ‘pick’ one here, but note that these 20th century theories tended to downplay something that I think is important - that ideologies are necessarily propositionally false to some degree. Because they are necessarily false, they must be defended by extra-rational means: attachments to them must be built up that make people reluctant to abandon them. This is quite as true of the reification stemming from pervasive commodity exchange as of the ideological state apparatus sustained through endless, ritual repetition.
Althusser proposed, I think roughly correctly, that ideology has no history, in the sense that ideologies do not progress cumulatively like scientific knowledge. There is a pattern to their existence through time, however: a kind of punctuated equilibrium. An ideological paradigm can persist for a long time, before it exhausts its ability to deceive, at which point the bottom can fall out of it very rapidly.
In capitalist society, this combination - of no real history and of punctuated equilibrium - leads roughly to a cyclical alternation between a dominant, organicist conservatism and a dominant, ‘whiggish’ progressivism - the party of order and the party of liberty. Both promise to fix the unavoidable injustices of capitalism, either by attacking traitors, parasites and progressive fanatics (party of order) or the cruel vestiges of the pre-liberal past (party of liberty). What neither can do is to acknowledge the source of social strife in exploitation, so they must always fail, and must always alternate.
It is for this reason that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ no more tends towards equilibrium than any other market; competition, because it cannot be about the fundamental question, cannot decisively result in the victory of the ‘best’ ideas. And likewise there is no reason to suppose, after Mill, that free ideological competition shall result in greater social cohesion than tyranny and more-or-less controlled opposition, since our society is based in the last instance on robbery and violence, and therefore its cohesion can only be maintained by plausible fraud.
We communists fight for free speech, and other political liberties, because, along with the two dominant ideologies and their sibling rivalry, broad access to publication and consumption of media allows radical and revolutionary ideas to spread as well - ideas that can expose the fundamental contradictions of the wider social order. And suppose we are victorious, and achieve a viable socialist society, then Mill’s argument would apply - the working class would be faced with titanic decisions about social organisation, and would need to keep the way to the truth open permanently; and Mill is quite correct that this cannot be done without keeping the means of political conflict available to all.
In the meantime, however, the Fires of this world are onto a loser.