The Shibboleth of Capitalist ‘Democracy’: Free Speech


It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud? . . . . . . Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for the villains! No! mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity. Society owes protection only to peaceable citizens; the only citizens in the Republic are the republicans. For it, the royalists, the conspirators are only strangers or, rather, enemies. This terrible war waged by liberty against tyranny- is it not indivisible? Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assassins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people’s mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people’s cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counterrevolution by moral counterrevolution-are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve?

Maximilien Robespierre

One of the most common complaints of the right (particularly the ‘alt-right’) in addition to the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, is the idea that laws against hate speech, as well as a general atmosphere of ‘political correctness‘ which dominates the media, college campuses, popular politics, etc. is fundamentally illiberal because many feminists, critical race theorists, and other such ‘new left’ intellectuals argue from a position of postmodern narrative and against a notion of objective truth, contending that the legal, political, etc. systems of western society are systematically biased in favor of cis-gendered heterosexual white males and against all other groups.

As an empirical-materialist, I have some epistemological problems with the ‘intersectionalist’ position. However, I agree that the rhetoric of ‘free speech’ is quite problematic.

In the idealistic ‘libertarian’ view of freedom of speech/of the press, ideas compete in a ‘free market of ideas’ and the best ideas win out, whereas the ideological ‘losers’ are those ideas that fail to win popular support. Many people, inculcated in bourgeois ideology, believe that bourgeois freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, property rights, etc, are a defense against tyranny. Although it seems contradictory, these rights are given not because they can be used to challenge the elites, but precisely because they empower the elites. Equality with regards to legal or civil freedoms always disproportionately empowers those with the economic resources to best take advantage of those freedoms. Take for example the statement ‘we are all free to buy a ferrari’. It is technically true – the government has passed no law forbidding people from owning ferarris. At the same time we know that in reality only a small number of wealthy people can actually choose to buy a ferarri. There is an enormous difference between formal freedom and the actual ability to do something, because formal freedoms do not include the various restrictions that are part of the class structure of a capitalist society. Although this particular example involves sports cars, the same principle can be applied to more basic ‘freedoms’ such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In a capitalist society, the means of production are owned by capitalists, including the means of production and dissemination of information. This control is not total, and there is some room for dissent, however, there is still a systemic class bias. The wealthy have the resources to fund think tanks, media campaigns, political candidates with pro establishment views, etc, whereas the left has a few bloggers and maybe a podcast or two. The wealthy have the freedom to buy a megaphone and shout their ideas through it, and the rest of us have the freedom to scream ineffectually into the wind. Liberals implicitly recognize this when they advocate for campaign finance reform. However I agree with their libertarian critics who claim such reforms are ‘anti-freedom’ in that the freedom to spend money on social and political influence is as much a bourgeois freedom as the freedom of speech. In other words, there is ‘market power’, oligopoly, and monopoly in the ‘market for ideas’, and the barriers to entry in the information age are as high as the amount of money the wealthy are willing to spend getting their message across. Furthermore, a ‘marketplace of ideas’ requires debate participants to be acting in good faith: in other words, it requires them not to be trolls. The utilitarian justification for ‘free speech’ is that by hearing many ideas, the best ideas will naturally be the most convincing and ‘rise to the top’. However, ‘trolling’ does not cause a debate or discussion to converge on a good idea or even agreement: it actually derails and disrupts the discussion. It is for this reason that trolls are commonly banned from online message boards, and it is reasonable to adopt a similar policy in real life.

The terms ‘Freedom’ and/or ‘liberty’ in the context of American political speech are usually bereft of meaning; thoughtless and thought-terminating expressions of nationalistic jingoism. Insomuch as the American everyman thinks about ‘freedom’, he conflates the bourgeois idea of freedom with some genuine expression of the same. To most people ‘freedom’ means the ability to do whatever one wants without interference. However to libertarians and other such apologists, ‘freedom’ means something much more abstruse (and in my opinion, warped). In a stratified class society where a tiny minority of the population controls most wealth and property, pieces of private property (the atomic elements of our society) from the factories, office buildings, residences, and even the land and natural landscapes, are all owned by an elite minority of landlords and capitalists, while the vast majority only have their own capacity to perform work for a wage. By freedom, capitalists mean the freedom of property owners to do whatever they want with their property regardless of what the rest of society wants (even though their property literally consists of almost everything we see around us), and by ‘tyranny’ they mean the attempts of the general populace to use whatever means possible to rectify this unjust situation. Even if campaign finance reform were to be achieved (which is itself doubtful), it would not fundamentally change the nature of capitalist society. The wealthy have always had disproportionate influence over politics, society, the media, and public opinion, although recent developments have certainly made this more transparent.

To reference ancient Greek political theory, Aristotle believed that democracy meant the people would vote on issues directly. Aristotle termed a system where people elected their leaders, an ‘aristocracy’, since the ancient Greeks believed that any time there was an electoral system, the upper class would inevitably dominate it. This is because in a class society with inequality, the people being elected are almost always of a higher social class than the people electing them. In order to be elected, one has to say that they are better than the average and therefore qualified to lead. In a class society, the people who appear to be better are the more powerful, wealthier, and better educated section of society – in other words, the ruling class (or people who have their blessing).This type of control or influence by capitalists over capitalist society is not a ‘corruption’ of the system, but rather, the essence of it. To use the parlance of software engineering, “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature“.

READ: The Shibboleth of Capitalist ‘Democracy’ PART II


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