In much of popular opinion (meaning not only on Fox News) contemporary progressives have increasingly become associated with a distaste for free speech — a cynical apprehension towards the freedom of discussion which once seemed integral to democracy
Loud radical posturing within private universities and the Western art establishment, has unfortunately come to taint the popular image a significant part of the world once held of progressives and the beleaguered left. As 21st century leftists , we wear stigma which by now are no longer new: the damages of the so-called “culture wars” that first spilled over from an insular and insecure academia, into the mainstream media and cultural establishments during the neoliberal Clinton 1990s.
Generations spoon-fed with Western cultural products, typical arguments and movie plotlines popularised in that period (my “millennial” generation along with the “zillennials”) came of age in the past decade, and began entering jobs in media fairly recently. Among our generations’ poets and writers, those who access the most prominent stages (while simultaneously claiming a marginalised status) speak the language of the Clinton era. That period once called “the End of History” (meaning the end of ideological conflict) by Francis Fukuyama, saw no irony in combining multicultural gestures and diversity politics with unprecedented North American cultural imperialism, while promoting a bootstrap neoliberal fiscal agenda for the world that destroyed cultures and left intellectuals, artists and workers without a present or a future.
In recent years, a host of primarily centrist-liberal and center-right magazines have appeared — among these Quillette 1, Areo magazine,“Unherd”, Triggernometry and others. They cropped up claiming an identity of being the embattled, genuine “old left” still in favour of free speech. These intellectual publications enjoy tremendous popularity, because they feed a thirst and fill a void unacknowledged by much of the left. Unfortunately, most of these recently risen publications end up either catering to young conservatives, or hope to reverse the “imperial cultural decline” threatened by the spread of certain mediocre discourses in the West, and meanwhile firmly advocate a faith in capitalism and all that is Western.
What most of these magazines’ preferred material and editorial lines often share in common in their analyses of the roots of contemporary censorship, is their avoidance of finding clear connections between the rituals of “cancel culture” and the psychology of the market. Yet the oneness of these forces manifests itself violently in the increasing insecurity and turmoil of our “liquid” society, driven by the new values of neoliberalism, its emptiness and social atomisation.
Reclaiming free speech debates from the Centre-Right: the time is ripe
We who wish to uphold the historic traditions that erupted in the Spanish Republic and the anti-colonial revolutions of the 20th century now sorely need our own non-academic vanguard publications in which to showcase writers who confront the damage done to societies on the receiving end of imperialism, with intellectuals and poets who also resist the cultural pseudo-intellectual imperialism as it is imposed on us in the name of progress.
The logic of contemporary censorship emerges largely from the unfettered market, allowing the customer or consumer to determine what item should be “cancelled” or even destroyed, even if the offending “product” happens to be an idea, a painting, a poem.
In the DiEM25 movement, this debate remains a recently opened Pandora’s box
De-platformers often claim to defend positions and values that belong traditionally to the left, while they resort to the traditional tactics of the right. For example, well before the innocuous-seeming Harper’s Letter “On Justice and Open Debate” rippled on mainstream radars, the conservative National Review reported how American economics professor Paul Krugman (who embarrassingly self-identifies as “left”) calls for a right wing economy professor from the University of Chicago to be fired from his teaching position, as penalty for having criticised Black Lives Matter.
‘‘De-platforming’’ as a tactic here and elsewhere significantly undermines discussions that could be won with arguments — like the facts behind militarisation of civilian police forces armed with weapons left over from the Iraq war. Deplatforming a Chicago Boys-era professor endows him and the debunked shock-doctrine ideas with an undeserved aura of the free speech dissident, allowing him the moral upper hand–whereas challenging his conventional, badly-founded arguments could have sooner have led to victory (rather than more petty bourgeois struggles between academics over tenure).
Perhaps more controversially, one can agree with those feminists who support the decriminalisation and legalisation of prostitution as another form of work, and find the “anti-sex-slaver’’ campaigns of politicians in Europe in recent years served as just another front for more xenophobia, deportations and wars against labour. The decriminalisation position makes a valid observation: self-proclaimed abolitionists often refuse to acknowledge the difficult economic decisions and survival-strategies of such women — who often may be supporting their families from abroad, when authorities and NGOs who cast these foreign women as helpless victims, move in “to the rescue’’, deporting them back to destitute home-towns in their countries of origin.
Still, we could learn new perspectives by attending or even “platforming” such debates. It totally undermines that important conversation, however, if otherwise sympathetic pro-legalisation feminists (often of my millennial generation) as if in an attempt to artificially speed the hand of progress, enact de-platforming campaigns against “abolitionist” feminists — simply on the grounds that “their time is up’’ or “they’re the status quo” thereby censoring opponents.
Let’s change the course of culture-warfare, away from a barren territory and back to a more creative arena, free of censorship
For if we accept conservative tactics, we present the adversary with a win-win situation, precisely at the moment when we should flourish, as the neoliberal and neoconservative establishment has lost all credibility, and the Empire finally risks dying from embarrassment thanks to the most vulgar presidential face it has worn in recent memory.
Many of those who dismissed the Harper’s Letter, insist that only conservatives fixate on “political correctness” “wokeness vs free speech” and “safe spaces” in rhetoric — particularly in established conservative platforms like Spectator Magazine, Fox, and L’Incorrect. Our in-house denialists of cancel culture fail to understand that political actors with a warrior-caste mentality on the right, know how to effectively find, identify and strike at the Achilles heel of an opponent, time and again, successfully. To deny “cancel culture” at this historic moment, means to deny the historic identity of the left, a movement of self-criticism — reducing us instead to self-glorification, that pastime of enlightened imperialists.
Rather than silence on censorship, or allowing these debates to remain the exclusive domain of the liberal-centrist vanguard’s publications (the so-called Intellectual Dark Web) we would celebrate an emergence of new magazines or publications true to the internationalist, anti-capitalist political tradition, while at once fearlessly discussing concerns about free expression vs censorship, critical of the censorship all too frequently embraced by many progressives to our own detriment.
The recent rehabilitation of proven fraud Francis Fukuyama, brought back onto the media pulpit by “resistance Journalism” happened because, rather than despite cancel-culture. Whenever we anti-capitalists abandon our commitment to free speech, it arms our enemies with great advantages.
Establishment neo-liberals who propagated Thatcher’s doctrine of “There Is No Alternative” have over the years directly hollowed out the shell of liberalism, and its values of open debate. Abbreviated as TINA, there is no slogan more unabashedly authoritarian — and yet its logic of imposed consensus is embraced by liberal centrists from Tony Blair to Emmanuel Macron.
If we now attempt to censor spokespersons of the neo-liberal establishment, we allow them to claim loyalty to those very principles they had forsaken: today many hardcore neo-liberals disingenuously claim to be the torchbearers of classical liberalism’s heritage, despite having brutally opposed the youth around Sanders in their project of reviving the Rooseveltian roots of social democracy.
The ghost of Gramsci
An increasingly fashionable contemporary right gains traction. We must take the challenge seriously, and have empathy. Young conservatives following pop culture anti-heroes like Jordan Peterson comically struggle to explain the origins of the “culture wars” with exhilaratingly paranoid theories about Neo-Marxist plots or even a subtle “Gramscian march through the institutions” behind the HR staff in major corporations and colleges. Think-tanks like the Acton Institute have spread the belief of Gramsci’s being the dark elf behind contemporary identity politics.
All these trends, unfortunately, have much more banal origins. If only Human Resources clerks studied and applied Antonio Gramsci! The current “culture wars” would never have gained such prominence: Gramsci, the Italian socialist writing from a Fascist prison, believed more than any of his comrades in dialectic and dialogue. He insisted that he found it infinitely preferable for the Right wing to have its intellectuals and ideas, however flamboyant or mediocre. For when the Right no longer can resort to the battle of ideas, it resorts to the repressive security State, in which we currently find ourselves surrounded and surveilled.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect DiEM25’s official policies or positions.
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