Skip to main content

Class Struggle in the Terrain of Theory (or good lord why am I always writing posts on the limitations of the liberal doctrine of free speech?)

Drexel University's recent decision to penalize George Ciccariello-Maher because of pressure from multiple right-wing campaigns demonstrates why reactionaries understand how to fight a war of position, and thus pursue hegemony, better than most progressives. As Ciccariello-Maher himself pointed out in an article regarding these campaigns and his discipline, there have been more successful campaigns to silence leftists than the much publicized leftist activism aimed at shutting down Nazi rallies and alt-right speakers, and the former have received little if any attention from those liberals who are already hand-wringing over free speech.

In fact, one would think that it would be quite telling that white supremacists such as Philippe Rushton and Jordan Peterson have been able to retain their tenure whereas anti-racists such as Ciccariello-Maher, Tommy Curry, and Johnny Eric Williams have been slated for academic removal. The liberal self-righteous adage of "I will defend your right to speech even if I disagree with it" has mainly been used to defend conservatives and fascists, its representatives reacting with performative horror when activists assemble to shut down a Charles Murray event, but has cared very little when the academic freedom of those struggling for a better world free from white supremacy and capitalism have been targeted by fascists. An inference to the best explanation would be inclined to conclude that liberals disagree more with anti-capitalists than white supremacists, and that defending the latter makes them appear more magnanimous, more "forgiving" of their enemies in the fashion of those hypocritical puritans that colonized the upper Americas.

The larger point, however, is that the ways in which the liberal discourse of free speech has infected the mainstream left has resulted in a dangerous misunderstanding of what is at stake in spaces of knowledge production. The struggle in these spaces is not over "free expression": the value of these spaces has nothing to do with "free expression" but in what they are by definition––sites where knowledge is produced. The conservative right in the US has long complained, for example, about the knowledge that was being taught in science departments since certain elements of a scientific worldview threatened their mystified narrative of 6 Day Creation theory. The response to attempts to prevent biology departments from teaching "the doctrine of evolution" was not an argument for academic expression (which was, in fact, the language that was used by conservatives who suddenly became anti-censorship advocates overnight when they jumped on this campaign) but that they were teaching knowledge that was correct. In this sense, the struggle within such spaces has always been about what knowledge should be taught, what values are the most correct: overdetermination according to the ruling ideas of the ruling classes always mediated this struggle, which is why these spaces are also ideological state apparatuses, but even within this ruling class ideology there is a struggle for what makes this or that teaching more correct than another.

Within such a context, then, anti-capitalist progressives should have a singular goal: to struggle so that their ideological perspective is more compelling than any other, to combat all ideological elements that are in the way of this perspective, to encourage the production of counter-hegemonic knowledge. Such is the war of position within these contexts: it is a struggle that reflects the more brutal civil war operating in society at large which is often violent and pitiless. If you are committed to a coherent politics then you understand that academia is its own battlefield that reflects this larger civil war.

The thing is, the reactionaries seem to be better at grasping this understanding of the war of position than a lot of leftists, particularly those who are still under the impression that liberal doctrines of "free expression" and "anti-censorship" are a sacred duty for the left to uphold. In fact, reactionaries tactically uphold anti-censorship and free speech liberal ideology when it suits their needs––when their favourite speakers are talking on university campuses despite the fact that they despise critical thought––while pursuing a no-platforming strategy by unleashing online campaigns upon leftist intellectuals. The reason that they have been quite successful in their no-platforming without having to bring activists out en masse to protest the leftists they hate––that is, to carry it out mainly online or over the phone––is because they represent the ideological position of a significant faction of the ruling class and thus have some cache in the ideological state apparatus of the university as much as they hate learning. They are, despite the narrative they tell themselves, part of the status quo: they can no-platform over social media, pretend they aren't doing so because they have no bodies in the street, and act as if they are more "civilized" than those leftists whose no-platforming requires grass roots, on the ground organizing. And the liberal ethos will allow for this reactionary no-platforming, treating it as a better example of good behaviour than the angry masses attempting to shut down Charles Murray.

Unfortunately the liberal dogma that has infected left practice leads to an investment in banal moralism. "We must be better than these conservative hypocrites; we must show them that we are open to debate and defeat them on this level." The problem, however, is that such a statement is similar to pacifist moralisms about refusing to pick up the gun so as to show to the oppressor that the oppressed is morally superior: the morally superior pacifists still get massacred––years ago Ward Churchill called this "white pathology". If we recognize the fact that liberal dogma shares the coin with reaction, that liberalism is more antagonistic to socialism than it is to fascism, then we need to refuse the categories it attempts to propose unless, like the reactionaries, we are using them tactically. Within these spaces of knowledge production our aim should be to win the war of position… To do so we have to give up on these vapid moralisms. We are not "better than" our reactionary opponents if we uphold the rules of a liberal game that is rigged, that they are playing so as to affect genocide: historical perspective will not absolve a free speech warrior who did not fight against white supremacism out of moral purity.

Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the struggle for hegemony over spaces of knowledge production mirrors the more visceral civil war experienced by society's most oppressed and exploited. Those reactionaries seeking to claim these spaces with their speaking tours defend the right of police officers and vigilantes to gun down people in Black neighbourhoods and along the border with Mexico. They believe that miscegenation is "white genocide", that women should be on their back or in the kitchen, and that LGBTQ+ people are abominations (with the exception of Milo as long as he is a white supremacist, misogynist transphobe), and they want universities, colleges, publishing companies, newspapers, and television to justify this conception of reality. They know that liberals, as much as they classify them as the "enemy", are not their real enemy since they are well aware that the kind of people who see "free speech" and "anti-censorship" as morally superior to even preventing genocide are quite happy to accede these spaces in the interest of "debate". They do not really care about free speech since, like any coherent politics, they want these knowledge spaces to be defined by their reality and not that of their enemy. But when they are no-platformed they know that liberals will come to their rescue just as the ACLU has done for decades, spending more time and energy on protecting Nazis than the victims of Nazis.

No-platforming these people is thus a tactic in a larger anti-fascist strategy: it means we do not want academia to produce further justifications for all of the anti-people violence that is happening in the streets, that we want to reject the kind of justifications for slavery and genocide that intellectuals have produced en masse when these spaces have not been challenged by mass movements. Moreover, it should be seen as something that reflects what Badiou has called "the state of the situation". That is, universities and colleges should be places where rigorous knowledge is produced rather than platforms where anyone's opinion is as good as any other. The reactionaries believe that science departments should not teach science, and that the university liberal elite are "elite" because they don't simply accept the opinions of backwards ideologues as equal to rigorous research. On the one hand they argue that universities are places that teach moral relativism, an anything goes approach to truth, a world of "political correctness gone wild." But on the other hand they are in fact arguing for the reign of opinion over universality: they want their opinions to be seen as the most valid simply because they are their opinions. Large swathes of these people believe that studying a discipline is to be brainwashed and that book-learning is "elitism". Quite literally they are arguing that universities and colleges become spaces of ignorance, where magical thinking is equal to physics. In Eurocentrism Samir Amin called this kind of thinking a false universalism that, in actual fact, is nothing more than particularist culturalism.

Leftists have a long history of struggling for control over the means of knowledge production because we have known that these sites of production, being ideological state apparatuses, are battlefields where we can legitimate our ideology. Since we care about knowledge, rigour, and critical thought we have been able to claim some space on this battlefield and, as compromised by the overall liberalism these spaces are, win small but significant skirmishes according to the very logic of these spaces: rigour, research, intellectual discipline. The attempted reactionary take over of this space, that will be permitted by liberals who were never our friends to begin with, pushes in the opposite direction––away from critical thought, away from rigour, away from literacy, and into the realm of virulent opinion.

The so-called "liberal elite" know which way the wind is blowing when they witness these reactionaries win these no-platforming battles. When Michelle Jones, a former inmate who served her time for killing her child but had rectified and become an organic intellectual, applied for the doctoral program at Harvard she was prevented from entering the program despite the fact that qualified academics had chosen her as a top ranking contender. She was not barred from the program because of her merit (it was indeed decided that, despite her past, she did possess more merit than others) but because of the way that such a decision would be represented by the right wing press. "But frankly,"said one of the administrators responsible for overturning the decision made by the admissions committee, "We knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that PC liberal Harvard gave two hundred grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c'mon." (Liberals love to talk about merit almost as much as they love their "free speech", but when it comes to actually assessing merit the court of conservative opinion apparently holds sway even when a potential student, such as Abigail Fisher, possesses no merit beyond the colour of her skin!) And it is this statement about Jones that explains, more than anything else, the reason why liberals will crow about free speech when reactionaries are targeted but will remain silent when far more progressives are thrown under the bus by their institutions: they are terrified by the court of conservative opinion, the juridical fascism that is the shadow of their own existence.

Therefore, if we truly do want to wage a war of position within these spaces of knowledge production we must refuse to abide by the toothless liberalism that will always permit its ideological shadow––fascism, reactionary capitalism––more space than anti-capitalism which is this liberalism's real enemy. We need to defend our academics that are targeted for dismissal (Ciccariello-Maher, Curry, Williams, Taylor, and many others) while struggling against the reactionary ideologues who want to take their place in these very same sites. These spaces are never neutral; they have always been battlefields and any leftist intellectual movement worth its salt must understand the necessity of what Althusser called class struggle in the terrain of theory.