Free speech and liberalism are two political concepts which are bound up together. With the rise of fascism and the far right in Western capitalist societies, the enemies of Communists have been trying to manipulate and extract advantages in Australian political discourse because of the dominance of liberalism as a political position in the media and in the academy.
In this essay I want to argue that the call for respect for, or the demand to maximise free speech has become a contested concept in capitalist societies, and is not simply a neutral concept, as we are instructed in our schools and by our liberal parents.
There are in fact two types of “free speech”, or “freedom of expression”. These two types of freedom of expression line up with the class struggle we experience daily under capitalism. There is free speech for the oppressor, and conversely, there is free speech for the oppressed. Both of these two types of free speech line up with the opposing classes of people that exist under capitalism. Currently, when the far right, or Nazis, or fascists, etc., call for expansions of free speech, they are doing nothing but calling for the expansion of ideological domination and oppression by the capitalist ruling class. The dominant ideology of liberalism under capitalism in Australia allows these demands, say from Pauline Hanson, or Fraser Anning, to appear as if they are politically neutral claims. In the same way as human rights are weaponised by the dominant imperialist powers to oppress the Palestinian people, and the Chavistas in Venezuela, the discourse of “universal” human rights are used as a cloak to mask the attacks that enemies of Communists make against our efforts to establish a free and equal society.
Liberalism, as a political ideology, tries to justify the dictatorship of the ruling class by claiming th rights that the ruling class enjoy are in fact universally possessed by both the ruling class, and the oppressed working class alike.
This is of course absolutely untrue. Look at the material conditions we have to suffer under, under capitalism. What would it take to advertise to demand a rise to Newstart on the enormous billboards in our city CBDs? It wouldn’t just take millions of dollars, it would also take a great degree of persuation to convince bureaucrats in the city local council, the owners of the properties on which the billboard space rested, perhaps the advertising executivies who paid the workers to install the advertisement. And, finally, it would take even greater amounts of resources to defend maintaining the billboard against removal, when the Murdoch Press eventually decided to attack us Communists for intruding on the territory that the capitalists usually enjoy exclusively in our major cities.
The barriers to gaining expression for the Communists are immense! Consider the opposite scenario: a capitalist seeking to advertise their new mobile phone, produced with slave labour, would already have all the personal and political connections to getting their advertisements on enormous billboards with easy approval. They already have massive teams of corporate bureaucrats who are trained in behavioural economics, who know how to design catchy slogans, etc., and can fit their colonising message in easily to the geography of a major city.
So it is absolutely not true that “free speech” as a human right is universal. It is absolutely contested, and a component of the class war we are waging every day in our work places.
Think of the uniforms we have to wear at work. The affective labour we have to carry our when serving customers: the forced smiles, the way we force ourselves to try and be interested in the concerns of people who are far wealthier than us, buying the commodities we are hocking that we will never be able to afford. We are literally compelled to alter and adjust the way we comport ourselves to the external world in order to scrape together the means of subsistence.
Finally, I would like to draw a parallel between Communist stuggle for rights for the oppressed from the works of Mao Zedong, and today. In Mao’s Combat Liberalism, Mao expounds a picture of liberalism under capitalist societies that is not typically heard of in Australia. The way Mao presents liberalism in his piece is a kind of personal attitude, or character of someone’s conscience as a revolutionary. I quite agree with what Mao is trying to say in Combat Liberalism. Putting it very quickly, Mao argues that liberalism is a kind of moral vice that is encouraged under capitalism.
Treating political discussions as a private matter, only to be dealt with as a matter of personal conscience between friends, is one moral vice that Mao singles out.
Another is not treating political debates and differences openly and transparently within party organisational life. The upshot of this second moral vice that I am outlining is that a liberal attitude to politics lends itself to gossiping and making decisions behind the back of formal avenues for debate and decision-making.
Another two critical moral defects of the liberal attitude to politics is to see a moral injustice, or attack on the oppressed, and do nothing, or ignore it. This is the “eighth” moral defect that Mao mentions. The one that follows immediately after is being undisciplined in the way one plans political strategy, and just going through the motions of political work with dogmatic religiousity.
Finally: and most crucially (and I realised I have presented Mao’s enumeration of the vices in an eclectic order), not to take up political issues that do not affect someone personally – that is, to only do political agitating on issues that only concern yourself. That is perhaps the moral defect of liberalism that plagues Australian society the most.
I want to call Mao’s picture of liberalism in this famous text a condemnation of laziness, but I think the deliberate way these moral defects are instructed to us in school and by our parents means that liberalism dosn’t come about as a result of the lack of action on the part of everyday people, it is something that is forcibly pushed onto us in our horribly inadequate political and civic education in Australia.
It is easy to appreciate how the moral vices of liberalism make the terrain for fascist demands around free speech easy for right wing forces to advance and win battles. The characteristic liberal response by the police against Fraser Anning and Egg Boy – to drop criminal charges against both of them – clearly smack of what Mao calls “slipshod” discipline in political discipline in political discourse in capitalist societies. I don’t mean to say that I approve of the police, and I demand greater proletarian morality from them, as if they are the defenders of justice, I mean to say that their decision to let both Anning and Egg Boy off was a calculated move not to offend anybody, because of the laxity of political education and experience of struggle that the average person has in capitalist Australia.
Finally, I want to point out that there is a name for the two political enironments where the oppressor, and conversely, the oppressed have control or dominance of the determination of the meaning and practice of “free speech”. Where the oppressor, the boss, the ruling class has free speech, this is called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, when the working class and the masses have control of the political discourse, this is called the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Both of these environments of class dominance are symptoms of who controls the means of production. Who controls the factories, the retail outlets, the service stations, the trucks, etc, etc.
Blair Vidakovich 14 April 2019.