The below article is based on a speech the author delivered at ‘Dare to Dissent’, an online panel event organised by Southwark Transformed on Saturday 20 February.
It took centuries, but at last, it happened: in September, the National Trust announced that signs in almost 100 stately homes would acknowledge the role of slaves in producing that wealth. No historian denies these facts. And yet in response, dozens of Conservative MPs, members of the recently-formed Common Sense Group, signed a letter replete with antisemitic imagery, attacking the “elite, bourgeois liberals” whose judgement, they said, had been “coloured by cultural Marxist dogma”, and who were now attempting to “rewrite our history in their image”. Last week came a more sinister development to this story: culture minister Oliver Dowden summoned 25 nominally independent heritage bodies and charities to Whitehall for a “summit” at which they are to be castigated for “doing Britain down” – in other words, for exposing histories the state dislikes.
That censorious move was not without precedent. Four years ago, the universities minister Jo Johnson wrote to universities condemning them for allowing students to host events for Israeli Apartheid Week; at least one university reacted to the pressure by banning an event. Now, amid a pandemic that has made university finances even more precarious than they already were, education secretary Gavin Williamson has threatened to starve universities of cash unless they accept a definition of antisemitism that risks criminalising discussion of Israel’s systemic racism.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the British state should muzzle criticism of Israel at the very moment it attempts to whitewash its colonial history. Palestine is, after all, one of the few remaining sites in the world of active colonialism – and, of course, a former British colony.
Against this backdrop, the state’s decade-long Prevent strategy looks far clearer. In schools, local councils, universities and beyond, discussion of British colonialism and its afterlives has been chilled for years by a discredited conveyor belt theory of terrorism which pathologises dissenting views – treats them as a quasi-mental illness called “extremism”.
Some of this – not least when the government attacks institutions like the BBC – is covered with concern in the liberal press. Much of it is not, especially where imperial crimes are concerned. Julian Assange faces extradition not to Sweden, to face charges of sexual assault, but to the United States where he is to be imprisoned for revealing to the world facts embarrassing to some of the most violent people on the planet. In one video, American snipers laughed as they gunned down children as if in a video game. Now, the man who leaked it and many other horrors is to be punished, and scarcely a murmur of protest has been raised by the journalistic mainstream.
As one of the central institutions of the British state, the Labour party has been implicated in this troubled history. A list of proscribed organisations the party launched in 1935 equated as extremists the British Union of Fascists and the Anti-Fascist Relief Committee, in a manner not dissimilar to the Tories today. Good socialists saw the dangers of fascism in those years before the British establishment cared, and some called for alliances with Communists to fight it. They were expelled from the Labour Party. One of them was Aneurin Bevan, whose career surely makes a better case than any other for Labourism as a viable approach to socialism. He was booted out for supporting an anti-fascist popular front and readmitted only when he promised not to disagree with the leadership again. After the war, Labour MPs were again expelled for sounding a note of protest when Britain rushed into NATO, and a Labour government-backed American militarism around the world.
These global entanglements have been an enduring red line beyond which dissent quickly becomes disloyalty, and barbarian dissenters are cast as fanatics. Nationalisation and levels of taxation are often imagined as the central dividing lines between Labour’s right and left, but challenges to British imperialism have long elicited repressive impulses from both of the two main parties. When Blair’s goons dragged a Holocaust survivor out of the Labour party conference hall for the crime of heckling, he was expressing his opposition to the illegal invasion of Iraq. To fight the War on Terror, that government targeted Muslim communities with extra CCTV; called on Muslim children to spy on their parents; condemned Muslim women for their choice of dress. While their wars created refugees, ministers castigated lawyers for the crime of representing asylum seekers.
It is one of the great myths of British politics that the left is authoritarian and the right cares about freedom. For the right talk of freedom only when defending concentrated wealth and power from assault. The freedom of many who really need it – the impoverished and the marginalised, whose livelihoods might be ruined by the state or by capital – receives barely a passing mention.
The really disorienting thing is that these attacks on dissent coexist with state proclamations of concern about “free speech”. The same government that hauls charities into Whitehall to berate them for their dissenting histories announces, in the very same month, that it will appoint a new “Free Speech Champion” at universities.
There is a crisis, we are told, from students who organise against racists or deny platforms to bigots. It is as if the Londoners who defended their community at Cable Street, rather than the fascists they defeated, are to be condemned as the real enemies of freedom. Without irony, the government is to appoint a man who has expressed a desire to purge the BBC of “cultural Marxism” to monitor the BBC and protect free speech there. In parallel, free speech in universities is to be “championed” by a Tory MP with no experience of the universities sector, and whose appointment to chair the Office for Students was railroaded through to the despair of panel members.
What is going on here? More than hypocrisy, I want to suggest. These are no double standards, because the idea of freedom that the right defends is quite different from the one the left holds. I want to suggest that there is now a repressive conception of free speech at work in government, as follows: “free speech” is constructed as part of an Enlightenment legacy gifted to us by a cadre of philosopher-kings and imperilled by the ignorance of the rabble. Fanatics, extremists, loonies and the left, the colonised and non-white and their defenders – all are the enemies of Western freedom, and Western freedom must be defended from them. As in the mainstream discourse on the “new antisemitism”, power co-opts the ideas that once constituted radical challenges to it (antiracism, or anti-censorship) by reading them instead as the property of a reasonable public sphere menaced by savage hordes.
Last summer, when Black Lives Matter protestors tore down a statue and so began a national debate about accounting for the theft that propelled Britain to imperial dominance, columnists and then the prime minister accused them instead of shutting down debate with “thuggery”. That image – “thugs” – was used not about the people who kidnapped other human beings for slaves, but the activists who objected to it. Removing statues was akin almost to Stalinist airbrushing; it was “to lie about our history”, and so the defence of racist monuments became the noble defence of truth itself. The saga then moved to a confected panic about rescuing Rule Britannia from censorship. The challenge to Britain’s imperial past was represented as a challenge, by thugs, to British freedoms.
It is a mistake to assume that the long tradition in liberal thought of deep unease about democracy ended with the coming of mass suffrage in Europe. As soon as you understand freedoms as the precarious gift of elite wisdom, suspending freedoms for others becomes thinkable. Armed with this conception and its implicit racialised and classed coding, “free speech!” can easily become the rallying cry for the suppression of dissent.
Old traditions of dissent offer a more powerful vocabulary than free speech, which imagines abstract individuals battling to be heard in a marketplace of ideas. If the left defends Black Lives Matter or campaigners for Palestinian freedom with calls for free speech as a moral absolute, rather than calls for dissent as a challenge to power, we risk accepting a framing that champions absurd, offensive or provocative opinions as the right of any individual speaker. Perhaps they are. But the language of dissent says we are not all equal bearers of speech. Unlike free speech, dissent is not about defending on principle views we deem abhorrent in practice, armed with misquotes from Voltaire; it is about defending the right to challenge power, which has been at the heart of every small step of social progress in human history. To speak not merely of speech, but of dissent, is to bring power back into the conversation.
Capitalism and free expression are awkward bedfellows. We all know this really, but a vast ideological edifice is erected in our minds to deny it. Consider an ordinary weekday. When you wake up in the morning in a leaky flat, it may occur to you not to complain to your landlord, for fear of him raising your rent. When you go to work, you know not to trouble your boss if you want good pay and a promotion. When you get home at night, slump on the couch and open a newspaper, you have reported to you the agenda of a handful of media barons. All of these are free speech issues. They are also so thoroughly imbricated in the structure of our social relations that we barely register them as denials of freedom.
The right is mobilising to prohibit any attempt to loosen those bonds of power and inequality as an attack on freedom. Theirs is the freedom of the schoolyard bully to harass as he chooses; ours must be the freedom of emancipated people everywhere who seek to determine the course of their own lives without the oppressive intrusions of arbitrary power. Not by coincidence, that is the core of anti-colonial politics: the quest for self-determination. We are socialists because we want people to be free.
Barnaby Raine is a doctoral student at Columbia University and a faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Sign up to join his new class here.