"Freedom of speech" is a luxury good of the capitalist class -- those who live on the labor of everyone else and by doing this, exist out of reach of the realm of public opinion or general sentiment. Jeff Bezos doesn't need to care what we think of him. He could do whatever, say whatever, hold any gross opinion about the rest of us, and probably does. He is uncensorable, his liberties go beyond the "civil" to the stratospheric. His speech is outside reproach: that is, he has so much wealth that he need not himself ever speak for the content of any sentence he spoke would be subordinate to the form "richest person on earth." Hoarded billions on this poor version of the earth have a grammar more convincing than even the most eloquent sentences of any hundred-or-thousandaires.
For all toilers, from the hourly wage worker to the precariously employed freelancer to the salaried employee to the desperate job seeker, freedom of expression is always curtailed by the more noxious "freedom" of the "free" market. That is, we are "free" to sell our labor and we are "free" to be fired, replaced, spit out, thrown away, set "free" into a society in which profit defines all relations. We are, of course, also free to not sell our labor, which means for most people the freedom to give up the competition for survival (that is, the freedom to die). Even this horrible freedom of free labor can become more horrible in the racist and gendered machinations of our world, where unpaid labor and so-called surplus labor forces deepen the cruelty of capitalism’s life-extraction. This awful, deadly, false freedom is the only freedom of which much of the human earth can be certain right now.
This very simple state of things -- that as long as collective human needs are subordinated to inhuman profit no one can be free -- is the open secret of any conversation about free speech. The hypocrisy of omitting any mention of the inequalities that make speech truly unfree is glaring -- no letter demanding "tolerance" ever seems to be accompanied by a demand for a decent life for all. These calls for free speech don't even make a call for a moderate sort of proposal to make it illegal for bosses to fire workers at will or they forget even to ask for the small concession of universal health care not connected to work or income or spousal/familial status. Which is weird, of course, because making sure everyone has what they need to live would be the very best way to make certain that speech, opinion, expression, assembly, and thought could be free. Once that was taken care of, once no one had to bite their tongue for fear of losing housing, food, or health insurance, we could begin a robust and generative conversation about the boundaries of civil liberties.
Hanging out in the background of all this talk of freedom, too, is the constricting world economy, the massive loss of income and security by millions while the select few use the covid crisis as an opportunity to raid government coffers and stretch the stock market to fantastical heights, the ongoing forever wars, the egregious new border policies. Freedom now floods into the bank accounts of the billionaires and centa-millionaires, and the rest watch everything -- health, life, labor, dreams, opportunity, movement, the life of the very earth that is our home -- flood out. Remember this: all that you have lost and all that you will lose is going somewhere, to someone, and if you would like to know where, read the financial pages.
Further, the good, honest, admirable desire for "free expression" in this over-wrought stage of nearly-feudal capital has itself become a source of profit for these few. Having engineered platforms which invite the rest of us to share our feelings, opinions, and connections so that these might be turned into data and sold, then having, through these platforms, programmed the algorithms for addictive impact, a small group of would-be monopolists gild the toilets of their doomsday bunkers with the hard work of our brave or insipid or clever or shocking takes. What we so often think we are doing online when we are being free is instead working for free. The lowest thing of all low things is that these algorithms are perfected to make us miserable, triggered, paranoid, set against each other, alienated from our senses, our bodies, our proportion, deprived of the full potential and complexity of our thought, even deprived of the full capacity to remember or forget. Even for those who try to be careful not to fully trust their subjectivities to the tech-lords, thought can begin to take the form of the on-screen box that has been provided for us to fill, surveillance perched on every “like” button.
In the deadly free-unfreedom of capitalism, and in the false freedom arranged by the social media billionaires, the people have brought their real bodies to the real streets in a protest against intolerable conditions and in demand of real freedoms, like the righteous one not to be murdered for being black. They have been met with maga-hatted reactionaries yelling "Freedom," met, too, with federal stormtroopers fully armed as if what the United States needs to become "great" is a violent occupation of our cities by the military of the United States. Statues and monuments have more value to the government than the life or well-being of its subjects -- America lets freedom ring, I guess, for all statues that are free to stand free of spray paint while its people are brutalized and detained.
Thousands bravely take to the streets. But thousands, also, are falling into paranoid conspiracies as reality becomes unbearable. Basement arsenals amass. Unemployment benefits are running out. Rents are collected. Stones are bled. The virus spreads. The death counts rise. The prison and factory and warehouse doors are shut, the people still caught inside of them. The drones still strike. The data is still mined. It is more clear now than ever that real freedom -- the kind that comes from a world that belongs to everyone in it-- is the only ground of a bearable reality, and a shared, bearable, reality is the necessary ground for the entirety of the planet's life. The people of Portland, like the people of almost every city and town that took to the streets this summer, are using the wisdom of crowds to develop a theory -- of leaf blowers, umbrellas, skateboard shields, and courage -- of freedom, that is, a practice of how we can and must do more than merely hope to survive.