Liberalism’s War on the Internet
by Benjamin Studebaker
Over the past few weeks, the occupation of the capitol building by pro-Trump demonstrators has legitimated a raft of security measures. The War on Terror is now the War on the Internet. In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, liberalism has become aware of the danger posed to it by the internet. On the internet, discourse proliferates rapidly, in an uncontrolled and unmediated way. Many web users begin to develop positions which are incompatible with liberal pluralism, which paint their political opponents as enemies who must be comprehensively destroyed. During the 90s, 00s, and early 10s, the internet was not treated seriously by liberal theory. The triumph of the populists in the mid-10s forced liberalism to reckon with it. Now liberalism is trying to change the internet into something compatible with liberalism.
Liberalism is grounded on the idea that instead of having a state which is committed to one particular moral theory, religion, or worldview, the state will be committed to the “freedom” or “liberty” to create and choose one’s own values. These values are constructed through civil society organizations. There is a plurality of these organizations, offering a menu of different values. Traditionally, they include churches, universities, unions, social clubs, and so on.
The more intelligent liberal theorists recognize that it is possible for these civil society organizations to promote values which are hostile to pluralism, and therefore hostile to freedom as liberalism understands it. Max Weber condemned these organizations and their followers as “immature”, because in his view, they fail to recognize that their freedom to choose their illiberal values itself depends on the freedom which the liberal state secures. Much later, John Rawls called these same people and organizations “unreasonable”.
To deal with this, clever liberal theorists encourage the state to regulate civil society. By policing out organizations which are “immature” or “unreasonable”, liberalism offers a curated discourse, in which citizens are free to choose from among values which all happen to be compatible with the liberal state. The freedom, then, is a freedom to be liberal, to submit to the liberal state, because the liberal state has a monopoly on what counts as “mature” or “reasonable”.
Of course, if we become widely conscious of this, liberalism begins to look totalitarian, and the freedom it promises begins to look illusory. To make curated pluralism credible as genuine pluralism, the state must not be seen to enforce the curation. The curation must appear to be the natural consequence of reasonable, mature arguments winning out over unreasonable, immature arguments.
This is easily achieved during periods of liberal consensus, when liberalism has managed to create sufficient social stability that there are very few people who attempt to advance illiberal ideas. But when this consensus begins to break down, liberalism must find a way to regain control over civil society. This typically begins in finding a way to purge civil society without being seen to purge it.
The Red Scare is the classic example of this. It was not illegal, per se, to be a communist in the United States in the post-war era. But being seen to be a communist was toxic to advancement within most private organizations. Remaining inside communist organizations resulted in being blacklisted from other desirable organizations, and this caused those communist organizations to decline. In this way, the communist organizations were dramatically weakened without the need for formal state censorship.
Beginning in the 70s, there was another set of assaults on illiberal organizations which were deemed to be incubation spots for illiberal views. The state began gradually undermining the unions through clever “right-to-work” laws, which appeared to expand individual rights while in practice greatly diminishing the presence of the unions in society and consequently the contribution to value pluralism which the unions had made.
After 9/11, we went on a crusade against illiberal Islamic organizations. This crusade mostly took place outside the borders of the country, but it also directed a great deal of negative attention toward Islamic organizations operating within the borders of liberal states. Germany and France have begun an overt effort to bring Islam within the state’s religious regulatory system, in an effort to domesticate and liberalize Islam. If this effort is successful, Islam will become broadly indistinguishable from Christianity in these countries. It will not be banned, but the choice to be a Muslim or a Christian will become largely aesthetic and nonsubstantive.
Post-2016, the internet is the new threat to liberal reason. The internet began not as part of civil society, but as a rogue reincarnation of the public realm. In a public realm, private organizations do not exist side by side, giving people a choice about values. Instead, value disagreement plays out in a shared space. This public disagreement is much harder to contain within the silos of the many distinct civil society organizations which make up liberal pluralism. Over time, it grows more and more antagonistic, as different ideas compete for supremacy within the public realm.
This online public realm is principally responsible for our ability to articulate opposition to neoliberalism. This opposition manifests in both left-wing and right-wing varieties, but both varieties are incompatible with the liberal project because they suggest that a series of aesthetic choices, a “marketplace of aesthetics”, is insufficient to protect morally important values, like justice, truth, community, God, and so on. These left and right wing thinkers do not identify freedom in having a choice among superficially different but substantively identical values. They identify freedom with discrete things, like “ending exploitation and wage slavery” or “submitting to God”.
This is why, historically, old fashioned republics with public realms experience much more intense internal conflict. Liberalism seeks to avoid that internal conflict by replacing public realms with civil society. In the case of the internet, this means that the internet must be regulated without being seen to be regulated. This means the state cannot straightforwardly dictate what kind of speech is acceptable online. But it can partition the internet among a series of tech companies, and those tech companies can do that work for them. The tech companies are forced to do this work because their autonomy from the state depends on their willingness to do it. If they refuse to domesticate the internet, the media will be intensely hostile to them, and the state will regulate them and trust bust them. Over the last five years, this situation became increasingly clear to the tech companies. They have no choice but to play this role.
As the tech companies comply, we will be told that the internet is still free because we have a choice of which social media outlets to use. But all of these social media outlets will prohibit illiberal content. The choice will be aesthetic, and the tech companies will become new civil society organizations. These civil society organizations will be managed top-down by extraordinarily wealthy oligarchs, with ordinary members having no say in what kind of speech is permitted or banned. These oligarchs will, however, frequently ban content that high-profile influencers dislike, because this will enlist those users to support the private censorship regime. In this way, the influencers will mediate between the users and the tech oligarchs, and the tech companies will mediate between the citizenry and the state.
In this way, liberalism will reshape the internet into something compatible with it. It will make the internet intensely boring, and it will destroy this round of attempts to resist neoliberalism, in both its left-wing and right-wing forms.
It will be aided in this by influencers who have credibility with radicals. Currently there is immense pressure on right-wing influencers to break with Trumpism and aid this domestication. The left-wing influencers have, by and large, already complied:
It will work by labelling everything that is illiberal “fascism”. This process is already in motion and it is unlikely to be reversed.