Post Charlottesville: Freedom of Speech and Expression


I think we can all admit that the last year has been hectic, a man-baby reality TV star has nuclear launch codes and I’ve found myself having arguments with people that I never could have imagined having before. And in the past few weeks I’ve actually had to argue why letting Nazis, actual Nazis, organise is a bad thing. And it’s the same reply every single time, because free speech and free expression.

Because we all have the right to express any idea in the marketplace of ideas and if we can defend our position, argue well and appeal to the nobility of human reason - we will be heard. So if we all agree that the ideology behind fascism is repugnant, then why has it persisted and indeed, grown in the months following Trump’s election?

Access to Resources
Giving everyone the right to free speech isn’t the same as giving everyone equal access to the means allowing their speech to be heard. France: all information channels, national press and almost all regional press is owned by 10 billionaires. And as much as we like to think of the internet as a counter-power, Google is now using an algorithm that is supposed to limit the visibility of websites spreading “fake news” with the effect of reducing traffic on far left websites. Another example is the use of race-targeted ads on social networks by political campaigners to selectively influence voters.

A regime of rights that guarantees free speech in an unequal society is therefore geared towards spreading the ideology that favours the ruling class: speech is free but the megaphone isn’t. In that regard, one could go so far as to argue that not giving everyone equal means to express their opinion is censorship by default.

Equality of Ideas
The better ideologies don’t always win and free speech needs safeguards: If an ideology involves the suppression of free speech, not tolerating this ideology logically amounts to defending free speech. From that perspective, if we exclude the political context, a person attached to free speech should welcome the antifa and support the suppression of fascist ideology. In practice, the discourse emanating from the capitalist class and a good portion of the middle class is the exact opposite. This suggests that the ruling class cares about free speech only insofar as it can use this principle to maintain itself. The capitalist class will favour fascism any day of the year over a classless society. This is why antifa are portrayed as the real fascists or rather as “just as bad as fascists” despite them being a response to fascism. Notice it seems important for the capitalist class to act as though it is as foreign to the far right as it is to the far left, even though fascism is an exacerbation of the divisions created by capitalism, while the far left aims for a paradigm shift.

The inconsistency of the liberal stance on free speech reveals the underlying motives of the capitalist and middle class which broadcast this rhetoric. The far-right seem to uphold the principle of free speech merely as part of a political strategy, as a means to an end. Fascists are using free speech to promote an ideology that has a history of book burning and brutally silencing dissident voices. It is safe to say they don’t care about free speech and that they are consciously relying on liberal’s fear of a classless society to get a platform in the name of free speech.

Protecting the Status Quo
While some liberals understand that the game is rigged in favour of their ideology and will use the free speech rhetoric very cynically to cater to their own interests, this is not generalisable to everyone and the factors leading someone to adopt a liberal stance seem multiple and convoluted. Not being directly targeted by fascists and being oblivious to one’s own privileges certainly helps with favouring dialogue over direct action as a “strategy” of social struggle. The fear of social ostracisation that comes with defending tactics of a group presented as “just as bad as fascists” is another factor. The decades of demonisation of communism by a propaganda machine that generally excludes anarchism altogether and rewrites history to its convenience also plays its part. But this stance can also be rooted in the idea that there is too much to lose, on an individual level, by engaging in these tactics.

Rights within Unequal Societies
But what relationship does the anarchist movement entertain to the principle of free speech? I don’t think any anarchist believes that racism, sexism, homophobia or the hoarding of wealth by a handful of people at the expense of many could become acceptable if everyone had an equal voice. It is precisely because not everyone has an equal voice that these ideas are around, and it is the free speech rhetoric in the context of an unequal distribution of wealth that allows these ideas to stay around.

Meaningful Free Speech
While it is a principle enshrined in the law, free speech is immediately invalidated by the level of inequality we have today. Meaningful free speech would be a function of the way society is set up, a feature of a society based on democratic decision making and the culture coming out of this would ensure that oppressive ideas are short lived. In other words, In a democratic and non-hierarchical society, free speech would probably not need to be defended or even to be formulated as a principle. Free speech is an artifact of the struggle for cultural hegemony within a class society.

Public Space is Political Space
It cannot be said often or loud enough that ‘this is not normal’. In the same way the rhetoric of free speech for fascists must be challenged, this must likewise be translated into physical space. That means any time fascist groups attempt to organize and demonstrate this cannot be reduced to a manifestation of free expression.

Not Here for a Chat
A white supremacist rally is not a place for public debate over nuanced ideas. It is an attempt at intimidation, targeted specifically at oppressed groups and more broadly at the supporters of those groups. They are not demonstrating for their abstract right to say that whites are a superior race, they are there because they want non-white people out of their communities, out of their country and out of their way.

Social justice movements are not ideologically centred on the obliteration of another group of people, but somehow they have been described as such when they are willing to violently resist those that do. There is a profound difference in the slogans ‘don’t shoot’ and ‘blood and soil’ but if we only regard these as manifestations of abstract rights then all expression must be free as it has been divorced from the action it demands.

Inaction is Tacit Consent
Allowing fascist groups to control public spaces unchallenged means that we are giving them the ability to further harass, intimidate, assault and murder those who have already suffer under the institutional violence of a racist state. When the self-proclaimed freest country in the world elects an openly racist misogynist as their commander in chief, we cannot rely on state solutions, not that we ever could. I have been in Ireland for over 10 years and American culture is more pervasive now than it ever was. What happens there matters, when heads of state endorse hatred and sexism it is another step in legitimizing inequality.

Neutrality is a Myth
The hardest battle we have to fight is with liberal idea that political change can happen merely with the exchange of ideas and without the necessity of physical bodies getting involved. This is an illusion that comes from a standpoint of privilege where one does not have to deal with institutional violence on a daily basis. We don’t go to protests to have reasoned debates, it is a successive step of a revolutionary process. We sign petitions to show our numbers, we protest to show that we can mobilise, we engage in direct actions, such as strikes, to show the power of collective action and when our voices are not heard and we are met with repression we riot.

This is the adapted text from a speech given at the Teacher’s Club 24 Aug 2017: ‘DisUnited States - Anti-fascist resistance in the Age of Trump’.