Censorship and the Crisis of Bourgeois Legitimacy

Censorship

In his early writings against censorship, Karl Marx proposed that it is insufficient to simply criticize censorship on the basis of how it depicts a limitation of our freedoms and rights. Far more important, he held, was the critical inquiry into the conditions for the possibility of censorship. Censorship, clearly, does not arrive out of thin air. It is produced by certain conditions which call it forth as a necessity for the dominant order.

In our age, where censorship is the order of the day, and expresses itself in diverse forms, we too must ask – what are the conditions which make this censorship necessary? While it is, indeed, essential to call out the hypocrisy of the enunciated values of the capitalist ruling class and the violation of these in reality, simply doing this is insufficient to help us understand, explain, make sense of, why it is that that censorship is so prevalent in the first place.

I think it is clear, when we observe the decaying trust in ruling institutions, in the media (which, for instance, only 11% of the population trusts), in politicians, etc., that the ruling elite have on their hands a crisis of legitimacy.

Censorship is, then, a clear product of a failure of bourgeois ideology, a deterioration of their hegemonic control over the spontaneous worldviews of the mass of people. The narratives produced by the ruling institutions of the capitalist class are no longer uncritically and spontaneously accepted by the mass of people.


Most regular Americans, especially the youth, intuitively understand that the media and other ideological apparatuses of the ruling class are not there to tell us the truth. Quite the opposite. Their whole purpose is to distort the world in such a way that it allows us to make sense of it through the narratives upheld by the ruling elite.

To employ a technical term we use in the Marxist tradition, their whole purpose is to systematically reproduce a form of false consciousness – a consciousness which turns the world on its head on the basis of superficial one-sided facts, distortions, and lies. Somehow Israel is the victim, China the imperialist, and Cuba the state sponsor of terrorism.

This is not simply a problem of epistemic hygiene, as the scholar Vannessa Wills has called it, but an objective social reality of the capitalist form of life. It is a system that, in order to reproduce itself and obtain the consent of the governed, requires that people understand the world in topsy-turvy ways. It is an order that requires a distorted refraction of itself in the realm of ideas, not an accurate, corresponsive reflection.

Working class Americans, and even some dissidents from more privileged classes, are beginning to intuitively understand this reality – even if it is not, or at least not yet, comprehended with the concreteness and systematicity a Marxist worldview can provide. Nonetheless, even these spontaneous and often incoherent forms of dissent find themselves under the boot of censorship by a ruling elite too fragile to allow any form of dissent on the principal issues of empire. They much prefer, and frankly need, a compatible form of dissenters (whether from the right or left) who might criticize politicians, capitalism, ‘the matrix,’ etc. but who on issues of imperialism fall faithfully in line with the narratives of the ruling class.

These issues of empire, corresponding to the Neo-imperialist stage of capitalism we find ourselves in, are the Achilles heel for the contemporary elite. The vast majority of those who have been censored over the last few years have been attacked and maligned precisely because of their challenges to the imperialist narratives. No one, that I know of, has been censored on the basis of calling for the raising of the minimum wage, for Medicare for all, or for loan forgiveness – important though these issues are for the vast majority of working-class Americans.

The voices which are censored are those that have challenged the narratives of empire on key issues such as the proxy war against Russia, the New Cold War against China, the unilateral coercive measures against Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and others, and of course, the most pivotal issue of our day, the genocide of the Palestinians by the fascist state of Israel, the U.S.’s colonial outpost in West Asia.

I speak today not as an outsider simply interested in issues of censorship, but as the director of an institute that has had to battle tooth and nail against censorship for the last few years.

Three years ago, when the July 11 color revolution “protests” in Cuba were occurring, we used our institute’s TikTok to dispel the imperialist myths aimed, as always, at regime change. Our following at the time was nearing 300 thousand, and the videos we were making were reaching millions of people. Within a couple videos discussing the situation our account would get temporarily suspended, a reality we faced throughout the whole summer. As is often the case, because they could not beat us at the level of ideas, their only option was censorship.

Within months the special military operations would occur, representing a new moment in the imperialist West’s battle against Russia. At the time, we used our Institute’s TikTok platform to push back against the NATO imperialist narratives painting Putin simply as a blood thirsty maniac. We contextualized the SMO in the long history of U.S./NATO expansion towards Russia, the war on the people of the Donbass since 2014, the expansion, backed by the West, of Nazi-Banderism and its incorporation into the Ukrainian state amongst other factors necessary to properly access the actions that occurred in February 2022 – all factors which in previous years the imperialist media, and various U.S. officials, themselves accepted.

For exposing these truths, challenging to the imperialist narrative, our account (this time nearing 400 thousand followers) would be permanently banned. In the subsequent year we would create seven new accounts, a few which also surpassed the 100 thousand follower mark, only to be banned as soon as we once again were capable of reaching millions.

As the investigative work of Alan Macleod showed, the year the censorship against the Institute started the Biden administration would force ByteDance (the Chinese company with the people-centered algorithms that allowed us to grow) to hand over management of their U.S. servers to the Texas-based company ORACLE, a company with intimate ties to the CIA. It was revealed in Macleod’s report that Oracle had hired a litany of former US State Department and Intelligence Operatives to manage the content for Tik Tok, as well as a few NATO executives for good measure. TikTok said that they deleted 320,000 “Russian accounts” which included many American socialist who have never been associated with Russia in any way, such as our Institute.

The censorship we have faced, however, has been far from limited to TikTok (an app that, although managed by the state department, has been unable to fully control the dissenting attitudes to imperialism the youth put out – the real reason why they have been moving to ban the app, and why, even though we’ve been banned more than seven times, we’ve been able to rebuild a new account with well over 200 thousand followers and with millions of views on various videos).

In the middle of February of this year, while we were covering the death of the West’s beloved far-right racist Navalny, we received news that our YouTube was demonetized. This was one of the central sources of revenue for the Institute – a place people would donate through and ask questions in our live broadcasts. This, of course, was a unique form of censorship – a targeting of the financial foundation which allows us to do the work we do.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg of censoring attacks we, and many others like us, have faced when our ideas not only challenge the dominant narrative, but do so in a way that reaches hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of people.

Social media has, as I have tried to outline in my recent writings, become one of the central ideological fields where the war of position, i.e., the war of ideas for the hearts and minds of people, has to be waged. It is an area people spend 3-4 hours a day surfing, and which is central to spontaneously developing the views people come to hold on relevant political issues. Despite its tubular character and the leakages of dissenting views that spring up here and there, it has become the most important apparatus of narrative control for the ruling class – a space where they can boost their narratives (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly through bots) and shut down the dissenting ones (again, sometimes directly through bans, sometimes indirectly through demonetization, and sometimes more insidiously, through shadowbans, as has occurred to various other directors at our Institute).

In the face of this censorship, it is the duty of Marxists to contextualize its emergence in the crisis of legitimacy and empire we have before us. It is also our duty, if we wish to win the war of positions, to use to our favor the gap between the lofty enunciated values of the ruling class (most of which are accepted in the common sense of our people) and the reality their order creates. The fact that, on one hand, the elite proclaim the right to free speech, media, etc., and that on the other, they censor all voices which challenge the dominant narrative (especially on issues of war and peace) is an objective contradiction we must explain to the American people, and exploit in our favor. We must help them achieve coherence in the dissenting attitudes they already hold – aid them in understanding why the ruling class and its institutions ought to be distrusted and challenged.

Lenin’s question – freedom (or freedom of speech) for whom and to do what? – must always be asked. Freedom, of speech or of any other kind, is an abstraction that contains an obscured class content. Freedom of speech for the elite is the freedom of their speech, their freedom to distort reality and keep us ignorant cogs in a machine they own, profit off of, and hope to continue to keep running.

Freedom of speech for us, the vast majority of people, is fundamentally rooted in the ability to speak truth to power, to challenge the narratives of those who cloak themselves under the auspices of ‘fighting misinformation’ while it is they who are the great liars, deceivers, and misinformers. 

This requires that we stand against censorship of all kinds, not just of those who already hold our Marxist worldview. Anyone challenging empire, regardless of how anachronistic their views might be, ought to have their rights to free speech and media protected. As Marxists, that is, as the ultimate enemies of the ruling order, we cannot stand in favor of the state’s cracking down of dissenting voices on issues of empire, even if, outside of those issues, we find some of these dissenters’ views abhorrent.

In our era of blatant censorship, us Marxists ought to defend the right to free speech endowed to us in our bourgeois constitution – even if we are able to understand, and explain to others, the systematic reasons why the capitalist ruling class will always, in times of crisis, have to violate the democratic rights it enunciates with its emergence on the historical scene.

Carlos L. Garrido is a Cuban American philosophy instructor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is the director of the Midwestern Marx Institute and the author of The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (2023), Marxism and the Dialectical Materialist Worldview (2022), and the forthcoming Hegel, Marxism, and Dialectics (2024). He has written for dozens of scholarly and popular publications around the world and runs various live-broadcast shows for the Midwestern Marx Institute YouTube. You can subscribe to his Philosophy in Crisis Substack HERE.

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