Political dominance or hegemony is sustained, according to Paul Piccone, in part through something which he called “artificial negativity”. To cut a long story short, a governing framework permits – and even, to a certain extent, generates – ritualistic episodes of opposition that paradoxically help it to strengthen itself. While they may appear threatening, these quasi-challenges really just work the muscles of the dominant paradigm.
Look up the phrase ‘artificial negativity’ in the dictionary, however, and you will probably just see a picture of Martha Spurrier, director of the U.K. human rights campaigning group Liberty.
Two days ago, I received an email from Spurrier informing me that “worrying threats to freedom of expression have emerged”. What could she possibly have been referring to? Perhaps the fact that a Member of Parliament had a show cancelled at the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe festival due to her having expressed gender-critical views? Or the fact that another MP was recently disinvited from a discussion at Reading University because of his views about the importance of limiting immigration? Or, maybe, the recent case of Adil v GMC, in which a surgeon lost his appeal against a Medical Practitioners’ Tribunal decision to suspend him for six months for having expressed some kooky opinions about COVID-19?
Of course not. Liberty “challenges injustice, defend[s] freedom and make[s] sure everyone in the U.K. is treated fairly“, but it defines “everyone” in a certain way. Gender-critical feminists, people who want secure borders and Covid conspiracy theorists fall outside of its rubric. No: Spurrier’s concerns were, it turns out, letters that were sent to anti-monarchist groups by the Home Office in advance of the King’s coronation to inform them of recent changes to the law and which were purportedly intimidating; those recent changes themselves, which are designed to stop Just Stop Oil and other environmentalist groups causing public disruption; and the arrest of a man who had made anti-monarchist comments at a proclamation ceremony last year.
I don’t wish to be misinterpreted, so let me make clear that I basically support the right of anti-monarchists to express their views, and of environmentalist groups to protest (though the devil is naturally often in the detail). But let’s not beat around the bush: anti-monarchists and environmentalists simply do not routinely face threats to their freedom of expression in the U.K. in 2023. Policing may have been a little heavy-handed at the time of the Queen’s death and the King’s Coronation, but aside from these (very rare) events one can say what one likes about the monarchy in Britain. And when it comes to climate change, it would be more accurate to say that environmentalists enjoy almost limitless privilege when expressing their views. Climate change is indeed one of the few subjects about which BBC editorial guidelines do not insist on impartiality, and the only difference between all four major political parties – Conservative, Labour, Lib Dems and SNP – is the pace at which they intend to transition to a ‘Net Zero’ economy. Pretty much the only people who face any realistic constraint on the expression of their views are in fact climate change sceptics (or ‘deniers’) – though they of course go into the basket alongside the gender-critical feminists, immigration hawks, Covid ‘conspiracy theorists’ and other people whose rights don’t really matter.
If Liberty seriously believes that the issues it flags in its email are “worrying threats to freedom of expression”, then it is living in a fantasy. Doubtless its members are sincere in holding to that fantasy, and one shouldn’t normally concern oneself with figments of the imagination of strangers. But this one has systemic consequences – and this brings us back to artificial negativity. The minor fuss currently being made over freedom of expression for anti-monarchists and climate change activists can be understood as having three basic functions within that framework.
The first of these is that it wrests control of the narrative concerning freedom of speech away from what I will fashionably refer to as modern ‘subaltern’ groups. Put bluntly, beliefs that women are women and men are men, that high levels of immigration are undesirable, that COVID-19 was the brainchild of Bill Gates, and so on, are popular among people of lower socio-economic status. These views may have their occasional ‘class-traitor’ defenders within the intelligentsia, but by and large they are most commonly perpetuated amongst members of the old working and lower-middle classes. Freedom of expression could be used as a tool, therefore, for these ‘low status’ people to challenge the nice, settled orthodoxies of their purported betters – but, crucially, not if their betters have meanwhile co-opted it into a phantom struggle (like the brutal oppression of anti-monarchists) that dominates the cultural airwaves. In this sense, this is a story as old as the hills, in which fine legal principle ends up being a tool by which the upper middle-classes keep the nice things to themselves and exclude riff-raff.
The second function this all fulfills is to get the juices flowing for the hegemon. The strange kind of Left-progressive managerialism-cum-authoritarianism of our ‘new’ governing elite is deeply opposed to freedom of expression of any kind, but it sustains itself by, and derives legitimacy from, an insistence that it is fundamentally interested in enshrining freedom broadly understood. Being against freedom of expression is therefore simply not a good look, and indeed at times even threatens to contradict that basic claim on legitimacy. This is nowhere more evident than the gender-critical feminist issue, where the fundamental contradiction between claiming to be for freedom while acting against the rights of women to express themselves is just too obvious to be explained away or hand-waved. How handy, then, to discover that actually it is the evil Tories who are against freedom of expression after all, and that Left-progressives can reclaim that rhetorical high ground for themselves once more.
And the third, related function is that it perpetuates the important myth that, because Left-progressivism is currently not in political power in the strictest sense in the U.K., it therefore lacks cultural – and, indeed, political – dominance. That the Conservative Party is in government and is apparently acting to suppress freedom of speech is crucial to that worldview, because it reassures those who hold it that they are fighting the good fight and that that fight needs to continue to be fought. Because the Tories represent the old establishment and are apparently acting to constrain the rights of anti-monarchists and green activists, there remains a pressing need to regain power – and exercise it. And thus the hegemon energises itself and strengthens its resolve – by finding reasons why it is not in fact the hegemon, and seeking justifications to reassert itself.
In a sense, of course, none of this should be surprising. That human rights activism should basically reflect the imperatives of the hegemon is really just the old Marxian critique of human rights law writ large: rights exist to produce the human subject upon which the economic base of society is predicated. Why would anyone be so naïve as to expect that human rights, such as that to freedom of expression, would be permitted to change the dominant paradigm?
And why indeed would anybody expect anything from Liberty other than an interest in the pet causes of the hegemon, which sustain its economic model? Take a look at its website. What Liberty is basically interested in is protecting the rights of migrants, protecting online privacy and shoring up social welfarism – the cornerstones, in other words, of what (again, to channel old school Marxists) one might call ‘late stage capitalism’. Its activities are completely transparent when viewed through that lens. All they are really about is providing enough artificial negativity for the system to sustain and reinforce itself. And thus human rights law, including the right to freedom of expression, is consigned increasingly to irrelevance.