My goal in this piece is to offer a quick historical take on the new wave of struggles that have recently erupted around the foundational liberal democratic institution of free speech. The events that occasioned this intervention will no doubt be familiar to most readers, but a brief recap of the current terrain can’t hurt. As a newly militant faction of the student body has organized itself to resist the rise of an internet-savvy and increasingly mainstream fascist political movement – the self-styled alt-right – the practice of noplatforming has emerged as a vital facet of the radical left’s tactical response. Described by its proponents as a form of cordon sanitaire, and vilified by its opponents as the work of coddled ideologues, noplatforming entails the struggle to prevent political opponents from accessing the institutional means of amplifying their views. The tactic has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Indeed, mainstream liberal sensibilities have been so disturbed by the phenomenon that former US President Barack Obama was prompted to remark on it in the closing days of his tenure:
I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. (…) I gotta tell you I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view (…) Sometimes I realized maybe I’ve been too narrow-minded, maybe I didn’t take this into account, maybe I should see this person’s perspective. (…) That’s what college, in part, is all about…You shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say” (…) That’s not the way we learn either. 1
Obama’s remarks nicely crystalize the liberal tradition’s core understanding of the social utility of free speech. Free speech is positioned as the cornerstone of a proceduralist and utilitarian account of political and technological development, one that views the combat of intellectually dexterous elites as the crucible of social progress. The free expression of elite opinion is imagined as the indispensable catalyst to modernity’s ever-accelerating development of new knowledge, as the clash of unfettered intellects drives forward the engine of history.
John Stuart Mill was one of the first liberal political theorists to formulate this by now hegemonic understanding of the social virtues of “free expression.” Summarizing Mill’s original account, while offering some crucial correctives and qualifications, political scientist Michael Donnelly remarks:
This notion of freedom of speech, which has been broadly understood as the sine qua non of “democracy,” is typically rooted in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, who argued that because opinions – including (even especially) one’s own – were fallible, “the collision of different opinions” was necessary “to establish truth.” The apparently self-justifying notion of a marketplace of ideas therefore resonated with an emerging bourgeois class, reflecting Mill’s own belief that “free trade and free expression were two sides of the same coin.” Even so, Mill himself did not advocate widely inclusive public debate. In fact, Mill worried that the masses of people then organizing and agitating were (or would be) easily and uncritically swayed by a handful of charismatic and eloquent leaders. He therefore described an ideal kind of public discussion that generally excluded the majority of the population, though he had some hope of properly educating the working classes: “The prospect of the future depends on the degree in which they can be made rational beings.” Thus, as John Michael Roberts concludes, “Mill constructs not so much a rationale for free speech as a defence [sic] of the liberal form of the bourgeois public sphere” and “legitimates an ideological form of the capitalist state.” 2
Let’s dwell for a moment on the connection that Mill himself asks us to make between the “free market of ideas” and Adam Smith’s understanding of how markets work. In both cases, moderns are counselled to entrust themselves to the discretion of a judicious social megastructure, one that is said to emerge – contingently and spontaneously – as modernity’s hive of rational individuals exert their teeming bids for self-expression and self-actualization. Produced out of this mass of individual motives will be an optimal ordering of ends and means, one that would have been impossible to orchestrate from the vantage point of any one individual or group. In both cases – free speech and free markets – we are asked to believe that if we commit to the lawful exercise of individual freedoms we can be sure that the invisible hand will take care of the rest, sorting the wheat from the chaff, sifting and organizing initiatives according to the outcomes that best befit the social whole, securing our steady collective progress toward the best of all possible worlds. No surprise, then, that liberal commentary on the rise of the alt-right has cautioned us to abide by the established rules, insisting that exposure to the free speech collider chamber will wear the “rough edges” off ethnonationalist ideas, allowing their latent kernels of rational truth to be developed and revealed, whilst permitting what is noxious and unsupportable to be displayed and refuted.
Needless to say, the practice of noplatforming rejects this vision of history and the theory of knowledge on which it is founded, just as it resists the conceptualization of state power and political agency that it implicitly encodes. For in contrast to proponents of Mill’s mechanistic epistemology – a theory of knowledge that after all leaves open the prospect of revisiting the merits of slavery with a more open mind – practitioners of noplatforming appropriate to themselves the power to directly intervene in the knowledge factories where they live and work, “affirmatively sabotaging” 3 the alt-right’s strategic attempts to buildout its political legitimacy. And it is this use of direct action, and the site-specific rejection of judicial and administrative authority that it sometimes entails, that brings student activists to the attention of state leaders and other watchdogs of the corporate administrative complex.
We should not mistake the fact that these students have been made the object of liberal ire precisely because of their performative unruliness, because of their unwillingness to defer to the state’s claims to absolute administrative authority. For one thing often left unnoticed in celebrations of the freedoms afforded by liberal democracies is the role that the state plays in conditioning and trammeling the specific kinds of autonomy that individuals are permitted to exercise. Indeed, the autonomy of the liberal subject is much more intensely and extensively circumscribed than its proponents generally care to admit. The issue here is the centralized administration of social conduct, and the role that legitimate (i.e. police or security-state) violence plays in enforcing the rulings and dictates of courts, governments, and administrators.
The familiar set of representational tropes that have coalesced in recent media debates around noplatforming bring us to the heart of the matter here. For, over and over again, in critical commentary on the practice, the figure of the wild mob resurfaces, often counter-posed to the disciplined, individuated dignity of the accomplished orator:
[Person X] believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings. Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement. Given this set of assumptions, perhaps it is no surprise that the students behave like bullies even as they see themselves as victims. 4
These remarks are exemplary of liberalism’s elective affinity for a particular model citizen – a purportedly non-bullying parliamentarian agent or eloquent spokesperson who is able to establish an argument’s legitimacy with calm rationality. These lofty incarnations of “rational discourse” are positioned as the royal road to legitimate political influence. To be sure, some concessions are made, now and again, to the idea of “peaceful protest”; yet in the present climate even minimal appeals to the politics of collective resistance find themselves under administrative review 5. At one and the same time, champions of free speech constantly endorse specific kinds of expression. Some tones of voice, some placard messages, some placements of words and bodies are celebrated; others are reviled. In practice, the promotion of ostensibly “free” speech often just serves to idealize and define the parameters of public conduct. The elitist class politics of the public sphere become all too evident in the event that a speaker or writer makes a grammatical error or detours into an unintentionally idiomatic turn of phrase. The knives come out, and the speaker’s character and intellect – and with them their “fitness” to speak and appear in “public” – are immediately called into question.
With this broader framework in mind – one that is attentive to the coercive and elitist norms that shape and define the freedoms of the public sphere – I propose a simple thought experiment. In place of viral images of black bloc skirmishes with neo-Nazis, imagine that the alt-right’s post-election push for legitimacy had been resisted solely by the kind of scornful head-shaking and ruminative lip-biting that the broadsheet press seems intent on mandating. Imagine that instead of watching Richard Spencer’s explanation of a Pepe pin curtailed mid-sentence by a timely sucker punch, you were instead passively looking on as the alt-right’s eloquent spokes-persons addressed swelling public crowds, pausing once in a while to join Jimmy Fallon on the couch for a bout of disarming banter. Imagine that audience responses to televised debates failed to trend along the lines the technocrats forecasted, with crowds delighting not to the sound of “reasoned debate” but to the rasping timbre of fascist sloganeering. Granted you may as yet live to witness such events. But when and if you do, how will you respond? Will you stay at home, shuffling between fridge and flatscreen with worry beads in hand? Will you tacitly reaffirm your faith in the “guardians” of the liberal proceduralism that is currently presiding over the global destruction of the earth’s habitats and ecosystems? 6 Or will you take action, posting grammatically-flawless position statements to your timeline, and emailing formal refutations of fascist policies to your local representatives and newspapers?
Should you discover that you have exhausted the limited range of responses that liberal parliamentarianism opens up before you – and should you find that your pro-tests have still fallen on deaf ears – keep in mind that you have as yet other options available to you. Noplatforming is one such option. For in keeping with longstanding tactics of subaltern struggle, it rejects liberalism’s coercive channeling of social conduct. It maintains that political struggle can be waged through a diversity of means, insisting that alongside the individual and discursive propagation of one’s political views, communities can also act as collective agents, deploying their bodies, their capacity for self-organization, and their lived experiences of their working environments, to thwart the rise of political entities that threaten their wellbeing and survival.
To anyone conversant with the history of workers’ movements, recognizing the salience of such tactics is all but second nature. These forms of collective resistance lie at the heart of emancipatory class politics, in the core realization that in standing together in defiance of state violence and centralized authority, disenfranchised communities can find ways to intervene in the unfolding of their fates, as they draw together in the unsanctioned shaping and shielding of their worlds.
It is a telling commentary on the reach of liberal hegemony that so much media reportage seems unable to identify the history of these tactics, instead greeting the renewed rise of collective resistance with a combination of bafflement and recoil. We should note that the undercurrent of pearl-clutching disquiet that runs through such commentary also performs a subtle kind of rhetorical work, preemptively priming readers to anticipate and accept the moment when police violence will be deployed to restore “order,” to break up the “mob,” and force individuals back onto the tracks that the state has ordained.
There is, however, something new about the wave of struggles that have erupted around free speech. They supply further evidence that longstanding strategies of collective resistance are being displaced out of the hidden abodes of production – out of the factory systems where we still tend to look from them – and into what Joshua Clover refers to, following Marx, as the sphere of circulation, into the marketplaces and the public squares where commodities and opinions circulate in search of valorization and validation. Clover argues that it is in such spaces that the struggle for emancipation has now begun to unfold 7. Disenfranchised communities are adjusting to the debilitating political legacies of deindustrialization. As wave after wave of automation has rendered workers unable to express their resistance through the slowdown or sabotage of the means of production, the obstinacy of the strike has been stripped down to its core. And as collective resistance to the centralized administration of social conduct begins to play out beyond the factory’s walls, it increasingly takes on the character of public confrontations with the security sate. Workers, students and racialized minorities have begun to stand their ground in naked defiance of the corporate administrative complex. Iterations of the same phenomenon play out in flashpoints as remote and diverse as Berkeley, Ferguson, and Standing Rock. And as new confrontations fall harder on the heels of the old, they make an episodic spectacle of the deteriorating condition of the liberal social contract.
If it seems odd to compare the actions of students at elite US universities and workers in the industrial factory systems of old, consider the extent to which students have themselves become increasingly subject to proletarianization and precarity – to indebtedness, to credit wages, and to job prospects that are at best uncertain.
This transformation of the university system – from bastion of civil society and inculcator of elite modes of conduct, to frenetic producer of indebted precarious workers – helps to account for the apparent inversion of campus radicalism’s orientation to the institution of free speech. For as longtime observers of the radical left will recall, the same West Coast campuses that have been key flashpoints in the last wave of free speech controversies were once among the most ardent champions of the institution. The alt-right has taken no little delight in trolling student radicals over this apparent break with tradition:
Milo Inc.’s first event will be a return to the town that erupted in riots when he was invited to speak earlier this year. In fact, Yiannopoulos said that he is planning a “week-long celebration of free speech” near U.C. Berkeley, where a speech by his fellow campus agitator, Ann Coulter, was recently canceled after threats of violence. It will culminate in his bestowing something called the Mario Savio Award for Free Speech. (The son of Savio, one of the leaders of Berkeley’s Free Speech movement during the mid-1960s, called the award “some kind of sick joke”.) 8
Yet in grasping the causes of this shift we have to take account of the extent to which the universal summons to upward mobility, and the global promise of endless material and technological enfranchisement that defined the social experience of postwar modernization, have lately begun to ring rather hollow. The technocrats’ promises and assurances are losing credibility; there seems to be no end to the world system’s economic woes in sight, and no beginning to its substantive reckoning with problem of anthropogenic climate change.
In response, people are changing the way they orient themselves toward the centrist state. Indeed, in another instance of his welcome and ongoing leftward drift, Bruno Latour has indicated that moderns now find themselves confronted with the blowback of a catastrophically failed modernization project:
The thing we share with these migrating peoples is that we are all deprived of land. We, the old Europeans, are deprived because there is no planet for globalization and we must now change the entire way we live; they, the future Europeans, are deprived because they have had to leave their old, devastated lands and will need to learn to change the entire way they live. This is the new universe. The only alternative is to pretend that nothing has changed, to withdraw behind a wall, and to continue to promote, with eyes wide open, the dream of the “American way of life,” all the while knowing that billions of human beings will never benefit from it. 9
Apprehending the full ramifications of the failure of modernization will require us to undertake what the Club of Rome once referred to as a “Copernican revolution of the mind”. 10
And in many respects the alt-right has been quicker to begin this revolution than the technocratic guardians of the globalist order. In fact, it is evident that the ethno-nationalists look onto the same prospects as Latour, while prescribing precisely the opposite remedies. Meantime, the guardians of the “center” remain content to repeat platitudinous echoes of Mills’ proceduralism, assuring us all that – evidence to the contrary – the market has the situation in invisible hand.
This larger historical frame is key to understanding campus radicalism’s turn to noplatforming, which seems to register – on the level of praxis – that the far right has capitalized far more rapidly on emergent conditions that the center or the left. The current tactics of student radicals are coordinated in relation to the specific historical parameters of our own moment. And in understanding them it is useful to contrast them to the kind of tactics that student activists employed when the modernization project was at yet in full swing. It is no accident that it was in these days – the late-1960s and early-1970s – that campus radicalism’s devotion to free speech reached its zenith. Indeed, student activism’s commitment to the institution typified the kind of statist radicalism that prevailed in the age of decolonization, a historical period when the postcolonial state seemed poised to socialize wealth, and when the prospect of postcolonial self-determination was apt to be all but synonymous with national modernization programs.
In such a context, the institution of free speech afforded radicals both a platform from to which protest US imperialism with relative impunity, and an institutional lodestar by which to steer a course that veered away from the purges and paranoia of the Stalinist culture of command. The institution of free speech thus served as a harbinger of a radicalized and “socialized” state, one that was capable of executing modernization initiatives that would benefit everyone.
Almost half a century later, only the most reactionary political movements seem able to harbor this kind of faith in the self-determinative potential of the nation state. The center has long since sought to subordinate national sovereignty to the dictates of global financial markets, and the left’s experiments with national self-determination have been faltering at best. Yet the far right’s particular vision of national self-determination has been telling and chilling in equal measure. In contrast to the expansive and incorporative logic that prevailed in the heyday of postwar modernization – when Mills’ program of universal bourgeoification seemed apt to roll out over the entire planet, transforming the earth’s surface into a patchwork of independent modern nation states all locked into the same experience of ongoing social and technological enfranchisement – the enthnonationalist savior state is constituted around avowedly expulsive and exclusionary initiatives.
Theirs is the state reimagined as a gated community writ large, one braced – with its walls, borders camps, and guards – to resist the incursion of “alien” others, all fleeing the catastrophic effects of a failed postwar modernization project that has served to siphon off natural wealth to the benefit of the enwalled few, while unleashing the ravages of climate change and the impassive violence of the border on the exposed many. Their vision proves surprisingly consonant with the Pentagon’s current assessment of the situation, wherein the US military is positioned (marketed) as a SWAT team serving at the dispensation of an urban super elite:
Consequently, given the lines along which military and official state policy now trends, it would be a mistake to characterize ethnonationalist policy proposals as a whole-scale departure from prevailing norms. Indeed, it seems quite evident that – as Latour remarks – the “enlightened elite” have known for some time that the advent of climate change has given the lie to the longstanding promises of the postwar reconstruction:
The enlightened elites soon started to pile up evidence suggesting that this state of affairs wasn’t going to last. But even once elites understood that the warning was accurate, they did not deduce from this undeniable truth that they would have to pay dearly. Instead they drew two conclusions, both of which have now led to the election of a lord of misrule to the White House: Yes, this catastrophe needs to be paid for at a high price, but it’s the others who will pay, not us; we will continue to deny this undeniable truth. 11
In view of the prevailing trends, it is less surprising that factions of the radical left are returning full circle to the foundationally anti-statist modes of collective resistance that defined radical politics at its inception. Indeed, from a certain vantage it is hard to determine to what extent centrist policies actually diverge from those of the ethnonationalists. For while it doggedly polices the exercise of free expression, the globalist administrative complex demonstrates markedly less concern with securing vulnerable peoples against exposure to the worst effects of climate change and de-development. Indeed, it seems evident that the centrist state will more readily defend people’s right to describe the catastrophe in language of their own choosing, than work to provide them with viable escape routes and life lines.
And it is these foundational historical, ecological, and governmental issues that are at stake in contemporary free speech struggles. We should not mistake the fact that these are – ultimately – conflicts over policy rather than playful contests over theories of truth. For it is under the guise of free speech that the alt-right has made the bulk of its initial gains, promoting its genocidal xenophobic state through the disguise of ironic positional play, a “do it for the lolz” mode of summons that marshals the troops with a nod and wink. Indeed, it seems that the alt-right has managed to “hack” the institution of free speech, navigating it with such a deft touch that defenses of the institution are becoming increasingly synonymous with the mainstream legitimation of the alt-right’s political project.
In appraising the underlying logic of student radicals use of noplatforming, Walter Benjamin’s concept of “the emergency brake” suggests itself, though we can adjust the metaphor a little to better grasp current conditions. 12 For it is almost as if the student left has responded to a sense that the wheel of history had taken a sickening lurch rightward, by shaking free of paralysis, by grabbing hold of the spokes and pushing back, greeting the overawing complexities of our geopolitical moment with local acts of defiance. And it is in this defiant spirit that we might approach the free speech debates, arguing not for the implementation of draconian censorship mechanisms – if there must be a state, better that it is at least nominally committed to freedom of expression than not – but against docile submission to a violent administrative complex, one in which the institution of free speech is seamlessly and complicitly incorporated. For in the decades since the hopes of 1970s campus radicals made their way to the angel of history’s socioecological dumpster fire, free speech discourse and neoliberal global economic policy have worked hand in glove to present our disastrous civilization as a pristine and apotheotic realization of human potential.
In the context of these terminal trajectories, we have every reason to support efforts to break free of the increasingly draconian strictures imposed by our administrative overseers. The time for compliant faith in the wisdom of our “guardians” is behind us 13. We need modes of collective conduct that are capable of departing from the disastrous ends to which we are coercively channeled, and we cannot hope to develop such things if we are unwilling to seize the moments when defiance of the state’s individuating norms proves timely. We, modernization’s disillusioned and disenchanted, can begin deciding for ourselves, and amidst ourselves, how our responses to our geo-historical situation will unfold. One of the strongest political contributions that noplatforming has made at this time, and in this hour of need, is to show us that there are lines of flight and fight available to us.
The postwar modernization program is failing. The fights taking place on university campuses are indicative of the fact that the rot has reached the foundations. The question that should occupy us now is not how to resurrect the fallen totems; but rather how to salvage from the driftwood of the old order structures equipped to serve the interests of the many.
- Kingkade,Tyler. “ObamaThinks Students Should Stop Stifling Debate On Campus.” Huffington Post. 09 September 2015.→
- Donnelly, Michael. “Freedom of Speech and the Function of Public Discourse.” Present Tense A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, Vol 4, 1, 2014.→
- Spivak, Gayatri. “Herald Exclusive: In conversation with Gayatri Spivak,” by Nazish Brohiup. Dawn. 23 Dec 2014 →
- Friedersdorf, Conor. “The New Intolerance of Student Activism.” Atlantic. 09 Nov 2015→
- “Right to Protest?: GOP State Lawmakers Push Back Against Public Dissent” RT. 04 Feb 2017 →
- Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press, 2015.→
- Clover, Joshua. Riot. Strike. Riot. London : Verso, 2016.→
- Nguyen,Tina. “MiloYiannopoulos Is Starting a New, Ugly, For-Profit Troll Circus.” Vanity Fair. 28 April 2017.→
- Latour, Bruno. “The New Climate.” Harpers. May 2017.→
- Meadows, Donella, et al. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. NewYork: Universe Books, 1972→
- Latour, Bruno. “The New Climate.” Harpers. May 2017.→
- Benjamin,Walter. Selected Writings Volume 4: 1938 – 1940. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. p.401→
- Stengers, Isabelle. In CatastrophicTimes: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press, 2015 p.30→