Friday, May 6, 2016

Three critiques of liberal discourse

1. The discourse is controlled by capital. Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, articulates a vision of discourse that has always been central to liberalism:
After all, the Constitution ensures our free speech...[and] the possibility of a genuine marketplace of ideas, one...of "deliberation and circumspection"; a marketplace in which, through debate and competition, we can expand our perspective, change our minds, and eventually arrive not merely at agreements but at sound and fair agreements. (145)
The subtext here - that good and virtuous ideas will necessarily prevail in the public discourse, absent government censorship - dates back to at least the early seventeenth century. Then, we saw the sort of controversies that largely shape our ideas about free speech today. Milton, for example, in protest of a law subjecting any publication to Parliamentary approval, made just the sort of argument we hear from liberal rationalists today: "Let [Truth] and Falshood grapple...who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"

The left's critique of this intellectual tradition has always been that under capitalism there is no such thing as a "free and open encounter" of ideas. What actually happens, under capitalism, is that good and virtuous ideas get drowned out by people with large platforms and expensive megaphones. Even if the government protects "a genuine marketplace of ideas", it will not be a free market when capital gives some people louder voices than others.

It is easy to misunderstand this as a narrow point about what happens when say a poor person tries to argue with a rich person, or about how the rich can deliberately and actively use their wealth to propagandize society. Both of those are problems, but the bigger problem is how capitalism passively and systematically gives advantages to favored ideas. No matter how powerless and marginal I am, and no matter how idiotic and ridiculous the thing that I say is, if it is something that the rich find agreeable, I am far more likely to get a platform and a megaphone. This means that our entire intellectual climate is constantly shaped and dominated by the interests of the rich.

A leftist understanding of discourse, as Chomsky writes,
focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects...It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. (Manufacturing Consent, 1)
The media (which Chomsky specifically has in mind here) is the most obvious ideological organ through which capital controls our discourse, but it must also be emphasized that literally everything that exists under capitalism, and that is subject to the power of the wealthy, also becomes an instrument for controlling our discourse. These "Ideological State Apparatuses", as Althusser called them, also include our religion, our system of education, our family, our laws, our politics, our unions, and even our general culture.

For this reason, what liberalism teaches us to think of as the "marketplace of ideas" is almost completely irrelevant to the state and evolution of our discourse. The way society talks and thinks about things, the problematic tendencies and ideas that dominate our culture, the proliferation of microaggressions and bigoted narratives, the erasures and framings and subtexts that liberal discourse policing fixates on constantly - all of this largely expresses the power and preference of capital.

This is not an exhaustive picture of how discourse works; for example, there are also fundamentally bio-psychological factors, like instinctive tribalism and various quirks of cognitive psychology, that not even the power of capitalism can overcome in our discourse. But even in cases like this, liberal rationalistic discourse is largely irrelevant (instinctive bias for example can generally only be overcome through personal therapy, not through logical argumentation or deliberate norm-setting). Ultimately, the only thing that can meaningfully impact the discourse is to tear down the platforms and turn off the megaphones. Everything else is shouting into a fugue.


2. The discourse is not personal. Jacques Ellul put it best:
[T]he individual must never be considered as being alone...All are tied together and constitute a sort of society in which all individuals are accomplices and influence each other without knowing it...The current flows through the canvasser (who is not a person speaking in his own name with his own arguments, but one segment of an administration, an organization, a collective movement); when he enters a room to canvass a person, the mass, and moreover the organized, leveled mass, enters with him. No relationship exists here between man and man... (Propaganda, 7)
This is perhaps the most difficult point for liberals to grasp. When liberal capitalism teaches us that the discourse is a "marketplace of ideas", it also teaches us that we are discourse producers and consumers, and that the discourse is ultimately a direct expression of our individual contributions. Implicitly, we are all potential John Galts of the discourse, and through sheer individual wokeness, savvyness, and force of will, we can "start a dialogue" and "stop the engine of the world."

This might very well be true in a discourse that is not dominated by capital - but for all the reasons given above, our individual contributions just don't amount to much. If the rich are not behind you, then at the level of society, no amount of interpersonal policing you do will significantly "improve the discourse", and no amount of problematic behavior will significantly deteriorate it.

Obviously, to say that individual discourse has no significant impact at the level of society is not to say that everything an individual says is good, virtuous, or defensible. For instance, we can condemn bigoted slurs for all sorts of reasons. Interpersonally, they are cruel and unfair; symbolically, they are an offense to anyone who has ever been hurt by them; logically, they often function as ad hominem; psychologically, they often express infantile and primitive neuroses; and so on. We can find these things deontologically wrong ("just wrong") or wrong on other grounds without also insisting on some additional theory about how problematic individual discourse impacts society.

Here, the point is merely that there is no reason to believe that it's ever the individual that is "driving", "fomenting", "perpetuating," or "enabling" problematic discourse. As Foucault suggests, we should think about discourse
...not from the point of view of the individuals who are speaking...but from the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse: what conditions...[does one] have to fulfil, not to make his discourse coherent and true in general, but to give it, at the time when it was written and accepted, value... (The Order of Things, xiv)
Those rules and conditions, of course, are set by the rich; they are the ones who decide whether discourse has "value" and who produce it and amplify it accordingly, again as outlined above. Discourse can (and I would say circumstantially should) be interpersonally policed for the sake of building and maintaining relationships, or as a matter of solidarity on behalf of people who are being victimized by problematic discourse, or simply for the moral and symbolic sake of speaking truth to power - but as a political project aimed at changing discourse on a social level, it is almost entirely impotent.


3. Most discourse is catharsis. Though the ideology of liberalism understands our discourse as a marketplace of ideas, and though elites in particular embrace this ideology (and are often even paid to do so), most people get the critique articulated thus far, at least intuitively. Most people understand that they are not and cannot be personally influential in our society - and for that reason, they get that anything they do to try to improve our discourse will be mostly inconsequential.

Nevertheless, most people still participate in our discourse as if what they say can significantly change the world we live in. How can we explain this? Here, I'll simply repeat the standard point of psychology that most irrational behavior is a form of catharsis. Human behavior can express coherent and logical reasoning, but just as often it expresses all kinds of internal drives and external stress. I think that Marx, when writing about another expression of human behavior that he considered irrational, gave us a good way of thinking about this:
Religion...is at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature... (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right)
Once we recognize the essentially religious grip that the capitalist "marketplace of ideas" ideology exercises on liberal society, it's easy to appreciate why people participate in it. Every day, people struggle with the powerlessness they feel under capitalism to improve their lives and make their world a better place. One of the few solutions to this that liberal society offers to us is the discourse: as Obama wrote, it is "through debate" that we may "eventually arrive...at sound and fair agreements." People take liberalism up on this, not because they expect it to accomplish anything, but simply out of desperation, or to express their exasperation - and more and more, as a form of morbid gallows humor.

The real solution to this, of course, is to overthrow capitalism - and insofar as we suppose that we have any discursive agency whatsoever, that is what we should advocate, in order to prepare a world where "Truth and Falshood" can "grapple" in a genuinely "free and open encounter". There is, on the other hand, a significant tradition of Marxist thought which maintains that if capitalism is overthrown, it will be overthrown not because of the advocacy of some intellectual vanguard - but because the material progress of history has created conditions in which capitalism can no longer survive.

I think that latter point is more true than we are often willing to accept - still, either way, to understand how capitalist ideology works is to understand just how limited discourse is as an avenue of resistance and change. Moreover, to recognize the primarily cathartic role discourse plays within capitalism is to judge it in an entirely different light. Liberalism rarely engages with this perspective, for obvious reasons - but the Marxists did, and its poets probably appreciated it better than anyone.


...Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!

...There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure.
That was my hope.

...You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think -
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth...
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance,

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.

- Brecht, "To Posterity (Excerpts)", 1939