When Elon Musk announced that he was going to attempt to ‘buy’ Twitter the response was predictably divided, but it still tells us something about the changed politics of much of the Left towards media and culture, and how this currently plays onto to a wider setting like that of the war in Ukraine. While Musk’s wish to control the social media platform was undoubtedly more self-serving than the ‘free speech’ agenda he offered, the suggestion that he would detach Twitter from censorship attracted widespread condemnation from left commentators. In a widely quoted piece, Robert Reich (former Clinton Secretary of Labor) argued Musk’s ownership of the platform would fulfill ‘the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue, and modern-day robber baron on earth’. Further, according to Reich, Musk’s relaxation of content-moderation rules would allow social media to be ‘dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science, or the common good’. Notwithstanding the fact that dictators do not generally welcome open media environments, many similar responses were found in the pages of media outlets owned by US or Saudi Billionaires (e.g. The Washington Post, Bloomberg The Evening Standard). Musk’s libertarian rhetoric simply made him the ‘wrong’ type of billionaire, doing the wrong type of capitalism.
The reaction to Musk reveals the extent of the Left’s volte-face on media and control. Remember the 1990s’ catch-cry ‘information wants to be free’, or the ‘Arab Spring’, where Western commentators uncritically championed the power of the internet to break open authoritarian societies and topple dictators? That’s largely gone from progressive politics. With the onset of Trump, Brexit and the like we now see many of those who once argued for informational freedom now argue for censorship, whether it be the ever-expanding regimes of fact checking for ‘misinformation’ or the blocking and removal of voices from social media for posts deemed ‘harmful’. If some of this is an understandable (albeit often disproportionate, unwieldy or weaponised) response to the rise of internet trolls, bots, conspiracy theories and a general unravelling of civil society, we ought to be careful about this merging of progressive politics with state or corporate power. We should question the degree to which larger social and political issues can be resolved by information control, or in fact whether such control ultimately exacerbates the very problems it attempts to address.
After 9/11 Western democracies pounced on the chance to increase surveillance and censorship powers as part of the ‘War on Terror’. Despite the fact that this new authoritarianism came via right-leaning neoliberal governments (Bush, Blair, Howard), the same tropes of safety, trauma and harm-avoidance used to ‘protect’ us from agents of terror also became central to progressive politics, here as a means of disciplining discussion and debate and propelling a cultural politics in which the importance of ideas or debate often became secondary to the potential of discourse to harm specific identities. The growing alliance of neoconservative political aims with these changed cultural frames of left liberalism culminated this year with the embrace of the Cheneys by US Democrats on the White House floor, cementing a partnership unthinkable (within mainstream politics) only a few years ago. Equally symbolic of this shift (and agonisingly real) is the ongoing incarceration of Julian Assange—the key figure in the politics of open information aimed at the disruption of state and corporate power—and the indifference of journalists and progressives to his fate. The importance of freedom of information as a political tool and the willingness to question institutional authority has in large part disappeared from the journalistic ethos.
Was it any wonder then that the liberal-dominated White House press pack almost outdid the neocons last month, haranguing press secretary Jen Psaki over why the United States wasn’t doing more to arm Ukraine? With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the desire for military intervention has similarly aligned progressives and neocons in policing dissenting opinion. Even more than in the Iraq war, there is little deviation from the pro-war position. The recent cultural and political shifts in how progressive politics understand media, information and free speech play a substantive role. In other words, there is an already existing framework for state and corporate control of information that has simply been mapped onto the Ukraine situation. The desire to control information and communication for the greater good is a legacy of the War on Terror and of COVID, albeit one that can be debated. In the case of Ukraine, on the other hand, the desire to restrict information and control debate is not even connected to public safety (terrorism) or public health (COVID) but acts simply to minimise dissenting opinion. Moreover, this is not an abstract debate about freedom of expression but goes to the heart of how the war in Ukraine might unfold.
There are several ways dissent has been closed down over the Russia-Ukraine war. Firstly, to the extent that there is any exchange of ideas in the public sphere, we see a policing of ‘left opinion’ so that anti-imperialist voices that question the role of the United States or NATO, or trace the history of conflict in the region, are written off as Putin supporters. Secondly, there is the censorship of Russian media, for example RT and Sputnik, the popular ‘Russians with attitude’ Twitter account (known for its sometimes sceptical take on Russian power), and many others. In Australia, radio programs carrying Russian content have been removed, and many universities have shut down research links with Russian scholars and research centres. A few weeks ago host Stan Grant’s expulsion of an audience member questioning the prevailing narrative on the ABC’s Q&A program indicated the unwillingness of the National Broadcaster to even debate alternative perspectives on the war. Grant’s justification that it was a ‘rogue question’ that caused psychological ‘distress’ to audience members revealed the administered nature of public debate as well as the weaponisation of emotion as a means to control what can be said. Finally, the continuous images of the war on televisual news generate emotional reactions while embedded reporters offer little by way of analysis. What impact does this sort of journalism have if it is primarily there to generate affective responses? Viewers are asked to witness scenes of suffering day after day but are unable to act. The combination of emotional distress and lack of agency disposes them towards supporting the single narrative offered—the further arming of Ukraine and the escalation of war with a nuclear power.
This means it is almost impossible within mainstream opinion to simultaneously acknowledge Putin’s insupportable actions and forge a path out of the war that does not involve escalation, and the further destruction of Ukraine. Cutting off access to Russian voices may stop propaganda, but it also stymies dissenting voices within Russia, and further marginalises Russian citizens so that pressure for change within Russia becomes more difficult because of their isolation. The narrowness of representation shapes a good/evil distinction that cuts off any prospect of negotiation out of the war. How can war be de-escalated now that Putin is labelled a war criminal who commits ‘genocide’, together with the demand that he be dragged to the Hague for war crimes? (The ready acceptance of ‘genocide’ as an accurate description of what is happening in Ukraine is especially egregious: it patently does not accord with any officially accepted definition, and detracts from those other contexts in which genocides have indeed been carried out.) Moreover, the suggestion that sections of the US military and intelligence services might welcome a protracted war, one that undermines Putin at the expense of Ukraine as it is slowly destroyed (as in Afghanistan in the 1980s) —is labeled by commentators as ‘pro-Putin’, diverting attention from the US military interventions and proxy wars of the last sixty years that have been carried out exactly with that level of extreme cynicism.
Like the neocons of the early 2000s, admittedly more through enactment of their structural position in the new economy than by any specific ideology, many of those who might be called the intellectually trained assume that the world is something that can be reshaped by intellectual technique—technological power/information/economic flow—transcending any historical or material resistance or limit. After all that’s how knowledge capitalism has taken hold of the world, regarding embedded social structures and established ways of life as things to be taken apart, albeit often with the aim of undoing past prejudices or exploitative patterns.
Putin’s ‘gangster capitalism’ was tolerated for a long time to the extent that the breakup of Russia and the flow of billions of dollars in and out of Russia could contribute to this new global setting. His invasion of Ukraine is the most awful kind of response, emerging out of this context—a revenge of history, though not the version Putin is using to justify his actions.. At the same time, other forces of reaction, in the United States, the Unite Kingdom, Hungary and France, have emerged. Will there be any attempt to understand what has created this reactive politics or will it simply be dismissed as bad information while the trajectory of global capitalism rolls on?
Timothy Erik Ström, 24 Mar 2022
This apparently old-fashioned land war seems to be exposing the extreme fragility of global capitalism, a system we have been told is the only possible future. This is a further rip to the fabric of these illusions, which have recently been cast asunder by an apparently old-fashioned plague, and some very cutting-edge climate catastrophes.