A worrisome trend in anglo-saxon societies is the way that freedom of speech as a principle has been recuperated as a rhetorical device by misogynists, “anti-feminists” and racists, while the left wing has more or less refused to defend it, often by rightfully pointing out that the whole free speech spiel of racists, transphobes and misogynists is mostly a convenient cover for rotten beliefs. Yet, this leftist deconstruction of the principle of free speech is often done from a negative, critical perspective, without postulating a positive and socialist freedom of speech. I find this trend worrisome for two reasons: (i) freedom of speech is an important principle to defend that actually has a long tradition in the socialist movement, and (ii) freedom of speech as a principle is extremely popular in western societies, even if people tend to be hypocrites when applying it at the practical level.
First let us deconstruct this new reactionary and “anti-progressive” freedom of speech that has recently been used against various social movements fighting for gender or racial equality. In the last decade or so, a constellation of youtube demagogues, rogue professors, sub-reddits, and self-help scammers have emerged under the umbrellas of “Men’s Rights Activists”, “video game activists”, “alt-lite”, “centrism”, and “classical liberalism”. Given that I am unaware of any label they would accept that describes them as a group, I will refer to them as the “alt-reaction”. One of the common threads that unites the alt-reaction is a belief that liberals/leftists have eroded the principle of freedom of speech. This belief is a reaction to leftists/liberals confronting cerain forms of speech (often racist and sexist) that the left deems problematic, which often results in doxxing, or administrative action (e.g. the firing of the utterer who made the problematic assertion).
One of the problems with this discourse around free speech is that the legal versus the practical aspect of this principle is often confounded. I will make a difference between the “strong program” and the “weak program” of freedom of speech. In the weak version, no utterances are criminal (with the exception of harassment), yet their legality does not hinder institutions from taking disciplinary measures against the utterer in the form of employment dismissal, economic coercion, or censorship enforced by private institutions (e.g. websites, newspapers). In contrast, the strong form of free speech is absolute, where the utterer cannot be penalized by any institutional mechanisms, whether employment dismissal, legal action or censorship. The weak form of free speech more or less exists in the United States, and Canada asymptotically approaches this state, given that the Canadian, legally binding definition of “hate speech” is fairly extreme (e.g. the literal advocacy of genocide), which excludes most garden variety racist or misogynistic statements. Given that the weak form of free speech more or less operates in the anglo-saxon sphere, the kerfuffle must be related to a perceived infringement of the strong program of freedom of speech.
First, the strong form of free speech has never existed historically. There hasn’t been any society that does not penalize utterances or statements deemed threatening, whether through legal means, such as criminalizing certain forms of speech, or through other, more indirect means, such as economic coercion (e.g. through employment or through a business contract) or by private censorship. So the narrative given by the alt-reaction that “Social Justice Warriors”, feminists, etc. have eroded the strong form of freedom of speech, is a cynical lie. Anglo-saxon institutions have disciplined throughout modern history people for saying the “wrong things”, from seemingly apolitical utterances that nevertheless constitute as harassment, to having unacceptable political stances. The only thing the alt-reaction can really point at is that some of the discourse they cherish (e.g. purposely misgendering people, advocating a white ethno-state, implying female intellect is incompatible with science, apologizing and encouraging for rape etc) is finally becoming unacceptable and therefore liable to be disciplined by private/public institutions. In other words, now that the people targeted aren’t communists but vocal misogynists and racist trolls, they cry pathetically and suddenly become “classical liberals”, “rational centrists“, etc. or whatever dumb buzzword they looked up in wikipedia.
However, even if I have very little sympathy for these people, I think they do point at something real. Namely that the weak program for freedom of speech is too abstract to protect most people in a practical sense. In capitalism, livelihoods are tightly coupled to employment, and therefore getting blacklisted or sacked due to having an “incorrect opinion” is an effective way to silence someone and therefore suppress the free exchange of ideas. The alternative to not “tow the line” so to speak is to become homeless and destitute. Many liberal think-pieces have retorted to the alt-reaction by claiming that freedom of speech (in its weak form) does not mean you cannot get disciplined by the employer, yet these think-pieces simply state this discipline is desirable. Although the wrong utterance can cause destitution, especially for more vulnerable demographics that depend on wage-labor to survive, mainstream commentators only care that freedom of speech is respected from an extremely abstracted and legalistic vantage point. Coincidentally, this is a common socialist criticism against liberal legalism, where the arguments that emphasize only abstract equality before the law, do not take into account how the law overwhelmingly targets the poor and marginalized. A similar argument could be made about the liberal, extremely abstract defence of weak freedom of speech, where they are merely satisfied by the existence of the abstract right rather than the practical realization of it. Incidentally, James Damore reflected that his autism might have blinded him from the possible repercussions of his diatribe, which also points about how disciplinary actions against taboo speech make people who are “neuro-divergent” or poorly socialized for whatever reason, more vulnerable to repression (even if Damore’s behaviour cannot be excused by his autism).
So, capitalism cannot even enforce the weak program of freedom of speech, given that it does not protect the individual from destitution if a taboo statement is uttered. Therefore, the only way to realize the principle of freedom of speech is through a socialist economy, given that a safety net in the form of public goods, such as housing or food, could shield an individual from ruination due to their unpopular opinions. While I can’t condone the “strong program” of freedom of speech, given that certain places must become psychologically safe spaces for their optimal function, such educational settings and social work spaces (e.g. a social worker shouting racial diatribes should be fired immediatedly), dissenting and taboo views, no matter how disgusting and reactionary, should be allowed to exist without the threat of material destitution. One (of many) of the issues of the old “bureacratic-socialist” movement, is that the principle of freedom of speech was not really respected, starting all the way back with the banning of factions in 1921 by the early Soviet state, and the violent suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, the latter which had as a demand, the freedom of the press. This disdain for freedom of speech has followed the movement all the way to the present, partly because of the historical heritage of marxist-leninism and maoism, but now making its way to more “mainstream” left as well. I think part of the reasons is that the early socialist movement became victorious in peripheral regions of the world where a culture of liberal democracy had not been cultivated, and instead socialists had inherited the culture of authoritarianism of tsars and empires. Yet, we must revitalize the early, socialist defence of freedom of speech, an issue that Marx was very passionate about. Not only because it is the ethical thing to do, but also, as a tactical issue, given that many people rightly identify with this principle.