Two strategies for defending free speech

Liberals think their strategy is the only strategy. They're wrong.

There are two strategies for defending free speech. Since everyone who reads this lives under the ideological domination of liberalism, it’s easy to conclude that there is only one strategy for defending free speech — the liberal strategy — and that this is the only possible strategy. Which explains why, if you don’t buy into the liberal strategy, liberals will conclude that you simply are not interested in defending free speech.

But once we unpack it, it becomes clear that the liberal strategy rests on all kinds of controversial assumptions, and that it’s entirely possible to imagine a different approach.

The liberal strategy

Liberals believe that the way you defend free speech is to argue that it is good and necessary. There are all kinds of ways you can do this — posts, media appearances, talking to friends, debating critics, writing to politicians, participating in demonstrations, and so on — but in every case, the first step is to get people to agree with you about free speech. Either some critical mass of people, or at least certain powerful people. Once you get them to decide that free speech is actually good, then they will make whatever changes we need to make in our society in order to secure it and defend it.

Though this approach might seem like the very definition of “how you enact political change,” it really rests on one of two assumptions:

  1. That our society — its economic system, its state and civil society institutions, and so on — can facilitate adequate preference about free speech without any preliminary changes. What I mean by this is that if we decide we want a healthy free speech regime, or even if we decide that we do not want one, our society is structured in such a way that personal preferences can lead to whatever outcome we like. Or,

  2. The liberal strategy may instead assume that other changes to our society do need to be made before it can facilitate adequate preference about free speech — but that counterintuitively, the best way to make those changes is to argue for free speech instead. Perhaps, for example, people simply do not want to make those changes on their own merits — but maybe they will make those changes for the sake of free speech, if you can only persuade them that free speech is good and necessary.

Logically, you have to assume one these premises for the liberal strategy to work. But what if neither of them are actually sound?

A socialist strategy

There are varying positions on free speech rights within the socialist tradition — some less sympathetic than others — but to simplify the comparison, I’ll just stick to those that approve.

A socialist analysis of free speech can begin with the observation that in a capitalist economy, wealth inevitably becomes concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. As this happens, the rich are able to leverage their vast resources and control of the economy over state institutions; if the state tries to constrain their power, they will ruthlessly dismantle whatever checks and balances have been set in place.

This inevitable concentration of wealth creates three serious problems for free speech. First, it gives the rich the ability to destroy institutional speech protections (in the law, in policy, etcetera) while increasingly depriving workers of any ability to maintain them. This places the public at the mercy of whatever discourse regime of the rich would like to impose. And second, it gives the rich a powerful incentive to find ways to suppress criticism of the system that has made them rich.

For this reason, premise (1) in the liberal strategy — that you can meaningfully defend speech rights without making any other preliminary changes to our society — simply does not hold. Conceivably, if the rich have imposed or tolerated some kind of censorious regime to enforce whatever cultural preferences they are entertaining at the moment, one can imagine them tolerating some kind of free speech campaign against this, and one can even imagine them deciding to relax and dismantle whatever institutional and cultural mechanisms of censorship that have been set in place. But the problem here is that under capitalism, it is the rich who get to make that decision. And even if they do decide to liberalize the culture, they can always decide to clamp down again.

The socialist strategy, then, argues that the fight for free speech must begin with the abolition of capitalism. Insofar as a persuasion campaign (of the sort contemplated in the liberal strategy) plays any role in our politics, it should prioritize calls for things like worker control of the means of production and the abolition of private property. Do that, and then you will be in a position to build an adequate and enduring regime of free speech.

One objection to this strategy — which I have gestured towards above in presence (2) — argues that even if one must first abolish capitalism to secure free speech, most people simply don’t want to abolish capitalism. Defending free speech, on the other hand, is much more popular; so instead of telling people that we need to abolish capitalism, you should begin by arguing that need free speech — and then, eventually, you can break the news on how we have to do it.

While there is a certain logic to this argument, there is little reason to believe that free speech issues are a major mobilizing concern among the public. Consider how many registered voters each of these issues among their top five most important:

Polls typically do not rank “free speech” among significant national issues, though “cancel culture” overlaps with such concerns; but regardless, it is very clear here that as always, people are most concerned about their material conditions. Their top issues are things like jobs and healthcare, and these, of course, relate quite directly to the problems of capitalism.

That’s why even if free speech is your primary and exclusive concern, the best thing you can do to defend it is to talk about how capitalism threatens their job security and denies them healthcare. Talk to people about their actual concerns, get them to understand these problems as problems of capitalism, and then, once workers have taken our society from the rich, you might actually have a shot at creating a free and healthy discourse. There’s an order of operations here, and the liberal strategy gets it completely wrong.