So we’re now trusting the capitalist class, massive, unaccountable corporations, to decide on our behalf what we may listen to and talk about? This is the take-home message, the terrible take-home message, of the expulsion of Alex Jones’ Infowars network from Apple, Facebook and Spotify and of the wild whoops of delight that this summary banning generated among so-called liberals: that people are now okay with allowing global capitalism to govern the public sphere and to decree what is sayable and what is unsayable. Corporate censorship, liberals’ new favourite thing – how bizarre.
We live in strange times. On one hand it is fashionable to hate capitalism these days. No middle-class home is complete without a Naomi Klein tome; making memes of Marx is every twentysomething Corbynistas’ favourite pastime. But on the other hand we seem content to trust Silicon Valley, the new frontier in corporate power, to make moral judgements about what kind of content people should be able to see online. Radicals and liberals declared themselves ‘very glad’ that these business elites enforced censorship against Jones and Infowars. We should be ‘celebrating the move’, said Vox, because ‘it represents a crucial step forward in the fight against fake news’. Liberals for capitalist censorship! The world just got that bit odder, and less free.
This is censorship. There will of course be apologists for the corporate control of speech, on both the left and right, who will say, ‘It’s only censorship when the government does it!’. They are so wrong. When enormous companies that have arguably become the facilitators of public debate expel someone and his ideas because they find them morally repugnant, that is censorship. Powerful people have deprived an individual and his network of a key space in which they might propagate their beliefs. Aka censorship.
In essence, so-called liberals and sections of the political class now want corporations to do their dirty work for them. They want the capitalist elites to do what it has become somewhat unfashionable for the state to do: ban controversial political speech. What an extraordinary folly this is. To empower global capitalism to act as judge, jury and executioner on what may be said on social-media platforms, in the new public square, is to sign the death warrant of freedom of speech. What if these bosses decide next that Marxist speech is unacceptable? Or that Zionist speech is dangerous? In green-lighting the censorship of Jones, we grant corporate suits the moral authority to censor pretty much anything else, too.
People on both the liberal left and the libertarian right argue that what has been done to Jones is acceptable because this is simply a case of businesses deciding freely who they should associate with or provide platforms to. This is disingenuous. This was not a clean, independent business decision – it was a rash act of silencing carried out under pressure from a moralised mob that insisted Jones’ words are too wicked for public life. This isn’t the free market in action – it’s the bending of capitalist power to the end of enforcing moral controls on speech. There is one very interesting thing that will spring from this incident: we will witness the severe limitations of right-wing libertarianism. Libertarians’ obsession with the state, their belief that things are only bad if the state does them, means they are incapable of arguing against capitalist authoritarianism, and in fact even support it on the basis that this is the free market being the free market (even though it isn’t). Libertarianism is devastatingly ill-prepared for the new authoritarianism, for tackling the rise of outsourced censorship and informal intolerance.
For good or ill, the social-media sphere is the new public sphere. The expulsion of people from these platforms is to 2018 what a state ban on the publication or sale of certain books was to 1618. How can we convince the owners of social media to permit the freest speech possible and to trust their users to negotiate the world of ideas for themselves? This is the question we should be asking ourselves, rather than concocting more ways to encourage these corporate overlords to censor and blacklist.