Two Examples of Enlightenment Misunderstanding: ‘Progress’ and ‘Free Speech’

Internet-Censorship-China

This blog looks at two cherished Enlightenment ideals – progress, and free speech – and shows why the narrow understanding of these and poor justification for these ideals as perpetuated by the old Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Bacon and JS Mill) and new Enlightenment thinkers grouped around the radical bourgeois-deviant website spiked-online is not just wrong, but potentially dangerous to society.

Progress

In the origins of the Enlightenment, old and new, the conception of ‘progress’ only entails that progress occurs when mankind increases his domination of nature.  There is no mention of human progress, no discussion of how such progress benefits mankind, it is taken as given.  In fact, as has occurred, the drive for progress has been a mixed blessing for mankind.  Life expectancy, living standards, and efficiency in many spheres increase with progress, but it also extracts a heavy penalty in terms of making work more monotonous and dulling to the senses to the extent that workers become mere appendages of the machine.  It is not that the aspiration to dominate nature is wrong, not at all, the problem is that this progress occurs within the context of exploitative and alienated social relations, those relations of the market.

Progress is really a drive to extract more surplus value from the worker, and therefore impoverishes him in relation to the alien power that is dominating him – capital.  Progress never shortens the working day, indeed it sometimes extends it in the case of white collar workers who now have smartphones and therefore do extra work on the train to work and at home.  The worker’s resistance to that is met brutally with coercion both in the factory and outside.  This concept of progress is therefore narrow, what we want is a society where increasing the domination over nature is truly of benefit to mankind straightforwardly, and that cannot happen until the social relations that underpin the capitalist mode of production are entirely changed.  It is only when labour is emancipated from capital, when people associate freely with one another in production, that progress can be experienced as a good thing, and therefore that mankind’s material progress at last exists in tandem with his human progress.

Tragically spiked-online that emerged out of an ex-Marxist publication, only defends the narrow definition of progress, not this Marxist version, so are making a bad problem worse.  For example, in an article entitled “Britain’s Runway Fiasco: The New Fear of Progress”, Blair Spowart begins by articulating his Enlightenment view of progress, says we need loads more airports, loads more roads, more trains, more everything, before concluding “Right now, much of Asia is living in the future – let’s join them.”  What Spowart neglects to mention is that China, I assume he is thinking primarily of China, is a One-Party state totalitarian police state.  No doubt Spowart doesn’t like those aspects of Chinese society, but what he cannot see from his narrow idea of progress is that the form of the state is necessitated by that mode of production.  If you have the hyper capitalist exploitation that drives “the future”, you have alienated labour, and you just have to have a highly repressive state regime.  The two go hand in hand.  You can’t have market growth without direct repression because workers rebel too much.  So it’s no good spiked-online saying they believe in “liberty” and “progress” – they have to choose one or the other.  I hope they choose the former, and reconceptualise progress in terms of what it does for liberty, not that it is in-itself unproblematically good.

Free Speech

This is spiked’s most famed demand, and it is a good one.  “Free speech, no ifs or buts.”  But rather than justify it in the narrow terms of JS Mill, it is far better to justify it in terms of majority interest.  The principle of majority interest clarifies when free speech is necessary to uphold and when censorship is justified.  Yes, I said it, sometimes censorship is justified.  The principle of majority interest is not the same woolly idea of “public interest” that is bandied about by Lord Justice Leveson in his demands to restrict press freedom, it is the opposite of that.  Public interest as defined by a committee or a judge is not the real interest of the public who are now being denied the choice to read or see what they want ‘in their own interest’.  The idea of ‘majority interest’ by contrast, is exercised by the majority themselves.  It is something they vote on.  Thus in 1985, print workers at The Sun censored the front page that was due to go out.  It depicted striking miners’ leader Arthur Scargill with his arm raised, with the headline “Sieg Heil.”  This was a debased attempt by the bourgeois press to portray Scargill as a fascist, when really he was just a state-socialist.  The workers decided not to allow that to go to print, and the next morning, that issue of The Sun had a blank front page.  This was a case of the majority interest prevailing although it was an act of censorship.

Another example would be the publications suppressed by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.  They banned some bourgeois publications and banned some rival Socialist groups from publishing because to allow that would be to allow counter-revolutionary forces to organise against an already vulnerable fledgling worker’s state.  This censorship was justified because it was in the majority interest.  This wasn’t dreamt up by the likes of Leveson, we know this was what the majority wanted because they voted on it.

By contrast to these examples of justified censorship, it is usually necessary to fight for free speech under capitalism because it is a weapon of ours against the ruling class.  This Marxist view of the importance of free speech is different to the Enlightenment idea that tries to justify it in relation to some abstract principle because we are talking about what humans need in the here and now to help them have better lives.  Thus all the student union bans in relation to speech are unjustified because they harm the majority.  At university, the majority need to be open to all ideas to expand their minds and hopefully contribute to the future.  And all the government laws against speech crime need to be repealed because they express a desire to cripple worker’s development as people.

The principle of majority interest stems from a recognition of human history as that of a species striving to be free, yet constantly caught up in antagonistic social relations.  The principle of majority interest is a way of uniting in theory when free speech works and when it hampers that overall process of liberation.  Of course, when labour is fully self-emancipated, you can have total free speech forever more.  But a realistic attempt to realise the Enlightenment ideal has to acknowledge there are occasions in the run up when sometimes censorship is the right thing to do.  And that can only be justified with a Marxist view of history.

 

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One thought on “Two Examples of Enlightenment Misunderstanding: ‘Progress’ and ‘Free Speech’

  1. I would tend to treat free speech as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It is an important means to allow the full and frank exchange of ideas, but it has a content as well as a form. It depends on context too, allowing football fans to chant whatever they like, is important because banter, however abusive is part of the give and take of attending a match.

    It would not however be appropriate to use the same criteria in public debate, where a formal commitment for people to say whatever they like in whatever way they like is insufficient. So if in debate the aim is through a free and open exchange to arrive at truth. A torrent of abuse or unsubstantiated insults, is not conducive to that and once someone has been warned it is reasonable to prevent them from continuing without infringing on free speech.

    As to the Bolsheviks suppressing their opponents during the Russian Revolution, that was from a position of weakness and a regrettable necessity should not be turned into a principle. The fullest exchange and contest of ideas would be the ideal means to work stuff out, but to hold it up as an abstract principle is just not honest about why in some circumstances that might not be possible. Restricting free speech is not ever something to celebrate and contains real dangers but a free-for-all is not always possible if someone is not committed to genuine engagement. Suppression might be justified under certain circumstances but that should generally be done with an public statement as to why this, specifically, is being done.

    The retort of “well who judges?” from free speech absolutists, is that we all do. So a debate in which someone is continually trying to divert from the topic under cons, might be treated as off subject and the person might rightfully be told to get back on it.

    Free speech is not just therefore allowing people to say what they want, when they want and in practice nobody really believes it should be. This goes beyond shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. There is a content, not just a form, to be observed for the most important aspects of free speech. The curtailment of allowing people to say what they want, has to be used sparingly and be openly justified though.

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