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THE government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is a giant confidence trick and a crude attempt to incorporate into law a conception of free speech that serves the existing order.
Labour opposes it on the grounds that it would allow conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccination groups and Holocaust deniers to sue universities where the expression of these views was denied.
Universities UK, the collective body for higher education institutions, and the National Union of Students warn against the Bill, arguing that it is disproportionate and exposes colleges and student unions to legal action from groups denied a platform.
Universities UK os absolutely correct to warn that the Bill would clutter up courts with expensive and damaging minor disputes.
The Bill is a crude power-grab that would give extraordinary powers to a “director of freedom of speech and academic freedom” at the Office for Students, force student unions to police the new regime and institutionalise a legal framework to decide on “breaches of free speech.”
But beyond that, it is a part of the culture wars strategy that is actively pursued by the Tories, their government and some elements in our ruling class to build into our political culture the perverse notion that it is opinion which essentially divides us rather than whether we live by exploiting others or not.
One way to look at this present-day Tory inversion of traditional liberal ideas of free speech is to see it as a sign of the crisis in bourgois political thinking.
Our rulers and the bourgeois intellectuals who serve them are suffering a loss of self-confidence that arises from the systemic shocks their system has endured, including the 2008 crisis and the unfolding drama of a climate crisis, that cannot be disentangled from capitalist depradation and the logic of profit.
The Fabian Society is correct to warn that the government’s culture war is pitting working-class communities against each other.
The Fabians say, quite correctly, that these rows are fuelled by politicians looking to caricature movements for equality, by commentators who personally profit from controversy and by media and social media platforms who see commercial gain in the clicks and coverage the outrage generates.
“These fake controversies create division between people with shared economic needs,” they argue, “and they distract the public from a low-tax, low-regulation, libertarian worldview that few in Britain support.”
But it is more than that. It is impossible to disentangle contemporary counter-currents of opinion about free speech and culture war controversies without running into the enormous ideological elephant in the room that is the private ownership of much of the mass media combined with a firm ruling-class grip on the state-affiliated media.
By and large, academia is not a site of particularly intense class struggle. Things are hotting up as the pay and conditions of an increasingly proletarianised stratum of academics worsen, but the prevailing intellectual climate is one of liberal tolerance shot through with oddly intolerant strands.
Henry Kissinger famously remarked: “The reason that university politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small.”
In this, as in much else, the cynical strategist of US imperialism was wrong.
A crisis in ideas often appears first and is sharply expressed in the academy — but these questions can only be finally resolved by the exercise of working-class state power.
In the meantime, clarity of thought and the utility of political action would be greatly helped if Labour were to move beyond liberal posturing to tackle the foundations of reactionary ideas in the system of private ownership and the broad spectrum of ideas which support this.
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