In the wake of the recent violence in Palestine, of the ongoing ethnic cleansing that is yet again patently evident, I cannot help but reflect on the state of academia and the discourse of free speech that normalizes this ethnic cleansing while at the same time demonizing anyone who names it for what it is. Especially in the discipline of philosophy which, for so long, has pretended that it is the guardian of truth and critical thinking. Why is it that scholars who challenge dominant politics––who, to cite the old adage, “speak truth to power”––are maligned as being political whereas scholars who either explicitly support ethnic cleansing or implicitly support it with liberal “both sides are wrong” discourses are treated as rational? And why do scholars who are critical of this ethnic cleansing also defend their liberal and conservative colleagues who are not? The free speech absolutism of the liberal university not only stands in the way of rigorously thinking thought and challenging the state of affairs; it tends to capture critical scholars who should know better.
Without naming names I think I can indicate a tendency of free speech absolutism by way of an anecdote that many of us will find familiar. Somewhat recently, I noticed more than one self-proclaimed academic “leftist” decrying so-called “cancel culture” within academia by complaining that an “ideological monoculture” will hamper the development of even anti-capitalist research. The point was that a vibrant culture of debate is required for even anti-systemic work to be actualized, that if we eliminate reactionaries from academia our ideas will be impoverished because we require such debate to make our ideas stronger. While I do agree that line struggle makes anti-systemic ideas stronger, I think it is both illogical and egregious to claim that sanctifying the marketplace of ideas within academia is beneficial to the anti-capitalist left. In fact, it speaks to a general myopia that is a result of the “common sense” of liberal ideology. We can benefit from line struggle without valorizing this liberal notion of academia.
But let’s first examine why I claim this liberal position of an academic “open society” is illogical for anyone who calls themselves a “left” scholar. If we are communist or anarchist then we believe that, if we aren’t just treating our ideological commitments as abstract objects of research, the goal is a classless and non-heirarchical society. In such an imagined society liberal, conservative, and reactionary ideas would cease to exist because the class commitments behind these ideas would have also ceased to exist. Does this mean we would have created a society where intellectuals would become stupid since they would no longer, by the very definition of such a society, have to debate reactionaries so as to have “better” ideas? If the liberal marketplace of ideas no longer exists, as it would not in a communist/anarchist future society, would this mean that society would become stupefied? If the answer is yes, then we should not struggle for such a society and thus the entire reason for the existence of anti-systemic theory and philosophy would vanish overnight because the liberals would be correct: only in a liberal capitalist society could we ever have social evolution, through the mechanism of the marketplace of ideas, where in fact a liberal monoculture would mediate debate. Hence, anti-systemic progressives would have to reject the very end goal of their research commitments, unless they are prepared to argue that a communist society would, for some bizarre reason, retain racists, sexists, transphobes, and every other backwards commitment that the goal of their politics is meant to supersede.
The logic becomes even stranger when we look at the so-called hard sciences. Does an academic “mono-culture” result from treating Six Day Creation Theory as equal to Evolutionary Science in biology? Does such a “mono-culture” result in Astrophysics if we don’t keep revisiting the debate between the Ptolemaic and Copernican hypotheses? In these venues, when we recognize that academic investigation has to do with the process of truth, consistently revisiting perspectives that have been proven wrong and treating them as somehow “equal” actually gets in the way of academic investigation. In fact, it is entirely illogical to treat a reactionary who believes that Ptolemaic worldview as correct since this worldview contributes nothing to academic investigation and in fact stands in the way of such investigation. How can such voices can contribute to an “open society” of scientific debate when in fact they function to hold science back? They cannot. Their elimination from such investigation is not evidence of a “mono-culture”, since scientific investigation remains open and lively, but only that this investigation has shaken off the past.
So it should be with other disciplines: simply because those of us in humanities seek to eliminate backwards thinking (i.e. such as the idea that the Bell Curve has been widely disproven and we should no longer pay attention to it) does not mean we are justifying a “mono-culture” since multiple other ideas, beyond those that have been proven to be false, will be in operation in the future. It is entirely weird, and in fact anti-intellectual, to presume that we need to entertain and justify disproven ideas so as to make our own insights stronger, as if there won’t be other and future debates that have progressed further beyond what we are expected to retain––as if there cannot be a heterogeneity, always open to the future, that leaves conservative and liberal thinking behind us. This is, of course, utopian thinking because liberal thought is normative in academia: it is what is directing us to retain backwards ideas and treat them as equal in the first place. It’s why we even have to think this question.
Now let us consider why this question about such a supposed academic “mono-culture” is morally egregious. If a student or teacher from an oppressed population is in an academic community with people whose work denies their humanity then this is not a simple manner of critique and dialogue, it is an assault on their existence. At the very least it informs them that they are not fully welcome in the community (for how can you be “in community” with people whose work denies your right to participate fully as an equal), at worst it is an assault on their survival. If it is in the interest of “debate” or the “diversity of opinions” or some other such nonsense that scholars who argue that Western Civilization is superior to all other civilizations, or who argue that colonialism and slavery were also beneficial for human progress, or that patriarchy is good, or some other discredited nonsense… How does this outweigh the lack of safety and security that these opinions will necessarily generate? These are not merely neutral arguments that exist outside of social relations simply for the sake of an argument; they generate the ideological scaffolding for noxious anti-people organizations and politics.
Indeed, the normative way in which politics are discussed by liberal humanities departments, especially mainstream philosophy departments, should be treated as suspect. It is in fact quite common for utilitarian arguments concerning genocide, population control, and the Bell Curve to be tolerated in philosophy classrooms “for the sake of argument”––and thus for the sake of “the marketplace of ideas”––as if these are not political but merely abstract debate topics. To be clear, most professors who tolerate these arguments are liberals whose intention is to play devil’s advocate and perhaps show the virtue of critical thinking in overcoming these backwards positions. The problem, however, is that these same academics––along with their departments––are less likely to entertain arguments that challenge the status quo from a position of radical anti-communism. That is, when their students or colleagues teach that, for example, Israel is an Apartheid State guilty of ethnic cleansing, the US and Canada are settler-colonial formations that are structurally racist, or that communism is superior to capitalism, they immediately accuse these students and colleagues of being “political” and not “rational”. The fact that entertaining reactionary thought is treated as apolitical whereas entertaining progressive thought is treated as political should demonstrate that mainstream academia has a problem with thinking politics. Which, ultimately, is a failure in critical thought.
Within the discipline of philosophy this failure is especially egregious: despite the fact that liberal champions of the western canon have emphasized the Socratic maxim of “the examined life”, this failure to examine common sense liberal commitments, to interrogate the political decisions that determines their understanding of reality, should be treated as hypocritical. Instead they persist in this banal approach to philosophy, imagining that they are above politics when in fact they function according to unexamined ideological commitments. In fact, this illusion that they are above politics is licensed as neutral and thus “rational” because it is somehow free from “bias” when it is anything but. Those who express anti-systemic politics openly, especially if it is tied to their living existence, are often branded as being “biased” and thus irrational, whereas those who argue for liberal neutrality (or, worse, conservative reaction) pass as being rational and objective even though they are merely replicating different shades of the ruling ideas of the ruling class. The decision about what counts as neutral, rational, and free from bias is often an a priori political decision. It is a decision that happens well before class begins, before the university opens its gates, even before the vaunted marketplace of ideas. It is a decision that structures these spaces. What is truly irrational––in the broader sense of reason, in the sense of reason that even the ancient philosophers (despite all of their problems) understood––is the inability of scholars who police the liberal marketplace of ideas to recognize their own political decisions. That is, to examine their lives. Rather, they would prefer to examine what has already been examined, permit the repetition of tired debates that militate against thought and reason itself, and rarely perform the very first act of examination: a deep and thorough self-examination and criticism, a rigorous interrogation of the ideological assumptions they mistake as common sense. The result is an eclipse of the pursuit of truth by the regime of opinion. And this regime masquerades as rational even though it is ideological opinion, which is the very definition of irrationality. Indeed, the liberal marketplace of ideas upholds a terrible pseudo-truth: that opinions and truths are identical, the very definition of the irrational.
In any case, we are given departments and programs that are committed to this abstract and pseudo-rationality of the liberal marketplace of ideas. Such spaces cannot help but alienate students and scholars who come from oppressed and marginalized backgrounds, especially since the terms of their oppression/marginalization are transformed into abstract arguments whereas their own arguments are treated as “political” and thus biased and irrational. Those who have the privilege of absenting themselves from these struggles imagine they are rationally outside of them; their lives are not impacted by these politics even though their lives, and their opinions, impact politics. Those who do not possess this privilege––who are impacted but are not allowed to impact––are asked to subordinate themselves to the “diversity” of the liberal marketplace of ideas that has deemed them to be irrational.
If the aim of this liberal regime of thinking is diversity of opinion in an idea marketplace, we need to ask what sort of “diverse” community will result from a department or program where scholars from oppressed groups are largely excluded from the vaunted liberal dialogue? They are excluded because they either refuse to be part of these communities (since they feel unwelcome), are forced to leave these communities (from the stress of being made unwelcome), or just fall silent because every time they challenge their conservative and reactionary colleagues for being incorrect or wrong they are told it’s part of their duty as an academic to inhabit this kind of “dialogue” as part of being a proper scholar. For, despite all of the hyped-up panic of “cancel culture” it is rarely the conservative academic who is in danger of losing their job for their ideas––such academics are only punished when they break academic decorum, either refusing to play the liberal game of the marketplace of ideas or assaulting/harassing their students or colleagues. And whenever they are held to account for violating liberal norms they usually rant about political correctness, cancel culture, “wokeness”, and drum up the sympathy of their reactionary friends and even the liberal media as if it is “political correctness gone mad” that they are being disciplined for sexual assault, targeting colleagues with hate mail, or calling students racial slurs––to cite just a few common examples.
The truth, however, is that it is the left-wing scholars who are normally under threat, whose jobs and funding are targeted, for daring to call their colleagues racists and sexists, by publicly taking stances against state power, and for publishing work that funding bodies and university boards find threatening. George Ciccariello-Maher was fired from a tenured position at Drexel University because he mocked the notion of “white genocide” (i.e. the idea that there was a genocide against white people because of miscegenation) and faced a backlash of reactionaries calling the university and demanding his removal. Valentina Azarova’s tenured candidacy at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law was terminated because she was a supporter of Palestinian human rights. These are simply two examples in a long list of left-wing scholars whose job security has been rendered precarious because of right-wing pressure, often from non-scholars and conservative student groups who also complain about “free speech” when their ideas and actions are criticized or censured. This is less an example of hypocrisy and more of an example of partisans who understand that they are involved in a war of ideas and will use every mechanism, even the liberalism they pretend to despise, to achieve victory. They know that the marketplace of ideas, like the real world market, means enforcement and war; that it is always regulated even when––and especially when––it pretends it is not. This is why right-wing scholars such as Bruce Gilley complain about their free speech being violated when their credentials are questioned, while arguing that right-wing scholars should unite like NATO to push left-wing scholars out of academia. They know they are playing a game that liberals allow them to play, that they are invited participants in the faux-diversity of academia, and that they can feign victimhood when they are criticized while simultaneously working to marginalize and muzzle those scholars who challenge their backwards worldviews. The tactic is quite effective: when challenged or criticized they get to write opinion columns in the Wall Street Journal (or other similar periodicals) where they complain about being cancelled and wax eloquently about free speech, they are handed book deals by publishers keen to prove they care about free speech, their critics are marginalized as “illiberal” (a sin for progressives but not for conservatives), and the imaginary marketplace of ideas moves further rightwards.
All of this is to say that the end result is precisely the kind of mono-culture that liberal ideologues religiously believe the marketplace of ideas is meant to prevent. That is, all of the claims that we need to have ideologically diverse departments and programs because there would be a mono-culture otherwise ignore the fact that there already is a mono-culture. That mono-culture is a liberalism that permits reaction. Such a mono-culture works to largely stifle political debate while sometimes, by necessity because of its vaunted claims about critical investigation, allowing radical scholarship that it can eventually profit from. This allowance is always precarious because of the admission of reaction: when the conservative scholars come for “critical theory” or “critical race theory” or whatever they choose to target, the liberal university will sacrifice those scholars than can be sacrificed. The university is a site that can generate radical theoretical investigation because it permits the study of history and society and everything. At the same time, though, as an ideological state apparatus the university attempts to bind this investigation to the limits of the marketplace of ideas, neutralizing and profiting from radical scholarship. Hence, every radical scholar who has passed through academia and retained their radicalism––sometimes even contributing to work that will later be studied in university courses––knows that in reality the university systems of the imperialist metropoles are, as a whole, overdetermined by liberal ideology. And due to this fact, this overarching actual mono-culture, radical scholars either find themselves in an “undercommons” relationship to the university, as Moten and Harney put it, or become assimilated to and captured by the liberal mono-culture.
This liberal mono-culture is perceived as “diverse” because it is comprised of conservatives and liberals who generally get along, a miniscule number of scholars from oppressed communities who are still trying to stick it out despite the pressure, and some left-in-theory scholars who aren’t from oppressed communities who can abstractly challenge the positions of their reactionary colleagues in their papers but who will openly affirm that their own work is somehow better because of the debates with these colleagues. In fact this last category––the radical scholar who participates in the marketplace of ideas because their social circumstances permit them to get along in practice, despite what they write in theory––is useful for policing the liberal mono-culture of supposed debate and diversity. It’s easy for the Marxist or Anarchist or Abolitionist scholar who has never experienced serious oppression and exploitation to get along with conservatives and liberals, to become enamoured with the liberal university, because their very being is not challenged by their relationship with these colleagues. They are accepted as a legitimate scholar, though “eccentric” because the work they produce expresses antipathy to normative politics, because they are not the exploited and oppressed other––they look and act just like the conservatives and liberals. And then they trumpet the story that they benefited from some supposed heterogeneity of academic debate, from the comments of their conservative and liberal colleagues, and uphold the marketplace of ideas. They contribute to the liberal mono-culture narrative of diversity and do not even sense the very weird contradiction that they are in community with people who, in an actual revolutionary movement, would be classified as enemies.
They call their enemies colleagues.
The liberal and conservative scholars who set the terms for this faux-diversity might be accomplished scholars in their particular areas of specialty. While there are indeed those whose specialties are politics and history––who largely function as ideologue specialists for the ruling class (i.e. the political scientist whose work in counter-insurgency contributes to military think tanks, the historian whose work on particular historical figures contributes to the state’s sense permanence, etc.)––there are also many scholars who grant themselves the authority of social-historical interlocuters simply because they have the platform afforded by tenure. Hence, it is not uncommon to find an expert on Ancient Greek philosophy defend conservative views, and speak as if he is an expert on contemporary politics despite never having studied any rigorous scholarship outside of his field. Other examples abound. Despite the fact that philosophy departments have always taught that claiming authority in a field that one has no expertise within is an example of the fallacy of authority, liberal and conservative academics are allowed to expound on politics––both the politics of their institution and the politics of society––as if they have anything meaningful to say even when it is clear that they not having rigorously studied the debates and history of the phenomena upon which they are commenting. How treating these voices as a useful contribution to academic debate can be seen as meaningful demonstrates how impoverished the academic marketplace of ideas has become. It also demonstrates an elitist contradiction to this discourse that claims to oppose academic mono-culture and uplift diversity: if a community organizer with no academic credentials was asked to teach a class on social movements, despite knowing much more about social movements then our expert of Ancient Greek philosophy, most departments would argue that this organizer ought not to have an academic platform because they lack the credentials that should grant them admission into the academic space. Meanwhile, a professor of legal philosophy can teach a class on Indigenous relations with the settler-state without having read a single Indigenous political philosopher, let alone the history and arguments of anti-colonial theory. This is the vaunted diversity of the liberal university that claims it is not a mono-culture.
So let us return to the question of diversity and the fear of a mono-culture that supposed “left” scholars have raised. First of all, the liberal marketplace of ideas promotes a faux-diversity where shades of liberal and conservative opinions are dominant and where token left scholars are admitted as long as they do not question the default liberalism. Secondly, such a marketplace of ideas is in fact a mono-culture, because its boundaries are managed, but one that promotes itself as the opposition of mono-culture. Much like how the ideology of the free market promotes the myth of general equilibrium and freedom when in fact it is managed, most often violently.
Mill’s metaphor was apt, even if he was absorbed by its discursive constraints: while he believed, like Adam Smith believed about the free market, that the marketplace of ideas would result in the “good” out-performing the “bad”, we know that this does not happen in the capitalist market––nor does it happen in the marketplace of ideas. And as with the capitalist free market, where organizations like the WTO and the IMF actually step into enforce and manage its mechanics, the marketplace of ideas is similarly managed to be “laissez-faire”. Mill even proposed this management with his discussion of the Corn Dealer in the second chapter of On Liberty, or with his various discussions of British Empire where the suppression of the liberty and free expression of the colonized was conceived as natural and just. So when reactionary scholars such as Bruce Gilley argue for “free speech” so as to defend their disproven and reactionary ideas, while at the same time also argue that left-wing scholars need to be driven out of the university, they are not eccentric anachronisms; they are simply trying to protect that marketplace of ideas that has been exclusionary since its get-go.
Once we recognize that this marketplace of ideas thinking produces its own mono-culture, and that its claims regarding academic diversity are a myth, then we should revolt against the notion that a university determined by an anti-capitalist ethos––by a socialist ethos––is not necessarily the mono-culture liberal thinking tells us it should be. Why would such a university not be diverse simply because we eliminate certain spectrums of thinking that are wrong and backwards? Again, are the hard sciences a mono-culture when they no longer take seriously Six Day Creationists as fellow biologists, or Ptolemaists as fellow astro-physicists? If the ground of scholarship is correct ideas––which means we believe that there are also old and incorrect ideas from which we should break––should this also not mean a different kind of diversity, a diversity generated by future-oriented investigation that is not constrained by backwards and erroneous thinking? Because it is backwards thinking that truly stifles the diversity that matters: debate grounded in unfolding truth processes that seek to develop, and vigorously discuss new and challenging conceptions. The liberal marketplace of ideas holds this newness back because it always wants to make place for the backwards and erroneous, presuming that the latter will is only backwards and erroneous when it “naturally” vanishes rather than recognizing that these backwards ideas are kept in place by political struggle and that liberalism permits this struggle to persist.
The liberal claim to diversity of opinion was always a myth. It emerged in a world where the colonized and slaves were not imagined to be part of this diversity since they were not considered properly human. In this world of liberty and the “rights of man” and John Locke, the larger question of human equality did not matter because the only community of “equals” capable of expressing their liberty were individuals who were in general agreement about maintaining the colonial capitalist order. Such was the vaunted diversity of liberalism: a marketplace of ideas where only a limited sampling of humanity could participate. When the question of abolition was posed in these spaces––which was a rare occurrence because that marketplace of ideas was structured to keep all but a few abolitionists out––it was treated as an idea equivalent to the ideas of the advocates of slavery, with liberty for all invited to this table trumping the demand for equality. The larger question of settler-colonialism, and the legitimacy of nation-states to engage in colonial conquest and establish plantation orders in the first place, was never broached in these classic liberal spaces. Indeed, liberal progressives such as J.S. Mill (whose work represented the synthesis and apotheosis of classical liberal philosophy) could be sympathetic with abolition and suffrage to some extent, but was completely opposed to challenging the foundation of settler-colonialism. Indeed, Mill supported the abolition of slavery, just as he supported certain forms of suffrage, but in a manner that preserved the roots of Empire: he believed that British colonialism was just and necessary, that colonial tyranny of non-white populations was good for humanity as a whole, and thus was incapable of grasping that it was this very same colonialism that generated slavery in the first place. The patronizing attitude of liberal dialogue persists to this day; its vaunted “diversity” seeks to preserve the systemic and structural roots of inequality while arguing that it is providing the basis of social evolution.
But what about the possibility of a diversity that functions outside of the liberal myth of diversity? An explosion of new ideas and debates that can and should happen once we pass the threshold policed by liberalism? Can it not be the case that, once we break with old ideas and in fact suppress and reject these ideas as erroneous, we can have a diversity of thought that is grounded in truth rather than reactionary opinion?
It is in fact an uncritical commitment to liberalism, even amongst supposed anti-capitalists, that prevents these questions from even being asked. According to liberal thought, there can only be a narrow diversity of opinions within a liberal framework. The fact that such a diversity is already curated, that it is already bound within the rules of capitalist society, and functions according to the marketplace of ideas analogy is rarely questioned. Committed liberals work according to the fiction that “illiberal society” is monstrous because liberalism permits an “open society” of debate––that liberalism is essentially self-critical and open to all perspectives. Leaving aside the point, discussed above, that if we are to make a distinction between “truth” and “opinion” then being “open to all perspectives” is akin to treating a high school debate club as the model for a good society, such a commitment to liberalism betrays a willful ignorance regarding the very tradition of liberalism.
Liberal philosophy developed at the same time as settler-colonialism and slavery; its classical proponents developed their concepts of liberty while uncritically supporting this underbelly of modernity. Saidiya Hartman has demonstrated that the core conception of the liberal subject was constructed on the acceptance of natural slavery. Dominco Losurdo’s work on liberalism charts the ways in which liberal philosophy was consciously complicit in the colonial order. These are not whacky revisionist histories of liberalism. You only need to read what the original liberal philosophers write about colonialism, slavery, and race––and how they conceptualize their philosophy in this relationship, a conceptualization that is foundational to contemporary liberal theory––to realize there is something fundamentally flawed in the tradition. Take, for example, J.S. Mill’s treatment of colonialism. Although Mill was writing in a period later than Locke, and thus did not support African slavery as Locke did, his more “advanced” liberal theory was still based on an imperialist apprehension of the world. Mill defends British imperialism by likening the civilizations it has colonized to infants and barbarians in need of guidance of an advanced civilization. Far from being an aberration of his philosophy, this is precisely a core concept of classical liberalism: in On Liberty, Mill argues that European civilization at one point in time required tyranny to reign in an excess of liberty (i.e. Hobbes’ fictional state of nature) but that, since then, it has “grown up” and now can pursue a liberal society due to its maturity. By the same token, there are civilizations that are infantile and require illiberal control: the liberal conception of social evolution, rather than a conception of revolution and antagonism between the oppressed and the oppressor, is essential to liberal thought just as it is essential to justifications of colonialism.
Liberalism’s foundational relationship with capitalism and imperialism continues right up to the present order. Right up to liberal philosophers complaining that it is wrong to punch Nazis while, at the same time, associating “cancel culture” with the very fascism it refuses to confront. Right up to liberal philosophers refusing to say anything worthwhile regarding the obvious ethnic cleansing in Palestine. Hence, the notion that we should treat liberalism as a meaningful part of a revolutionary ethos should be treated with suspicion. While we can indeed say that aspects of liberalism should be examined seriously by revolutionary thought (i.e. some form of free discourse, some form of individual autonomy), we can also say that this does not mean the adoption of liberal categories of thinking any more than the borrowing from Aristotle and Plato by liberal philosophers means the adoption of Ancient Greek categories of thinking. That is, whatever insights can be gleaned from liberalism by anti-capitalist progressives are immediately transformed by a thinking that transcends liberalism. And this thinking does not speak the same language as liberalism: it speaks the language of revolution and, by speaking this language, necessarily rejects the marketplace of ideas, the harm principle, and the notion that free speech and expression can exist outside of class struggle without reifying the ideas of the dominant class.