Monday, November 21, 2011

If Money Equals Speech, Both Must Be Distributed

Given the recent Occupation evictions (and returns!) and the associated reports of police brutality (UC Davis, I'm looking at you), a few thoughts about rights and liberal democracy have been steeping in my mind. There is some symbolic merit in the rights to religious freedom, free speech, a free press, and free associated being collected at the beginning of the Bill of Rights. While I'm no Constitutional scholar, I cannot readily explain the historical reasons behind the composition and ordering of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. I do recall that the Bill of Rights formed a package of compromises, things that the colonies demanded be added to the Constitution before ratifying it. As that is the case, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Bill of Rights consists of some non-organizational necessary conditions for a liberal democracy. Let me give an example using the First Amendment rights.

The freedom from state religion or “religious tests” is crucial for any liberal democratic government. Religious freedom establishes a principle of liberty of conscience, the ability for every citizen to decide religious or spiritual matters for his/herself. Where there is no requirement to profess any particular religion as a condition for holding public office, there is no danger of interference between the church and the state. As such, public offices are essentially open to anyone, and religious matters, matters in which authorities can hold an irrational sway over their subjects, are excluded from much of public debate. Of course, none of this is to say that we can't find ourselves in the unenlightened position where public opinion about religion does what law is not allowed to do, as it has in the US. Nevertheless, the only thing stopping us there is ignorance and sheer bloody-mindedness. We don't have any Test Acts to repeal.

Free speech, the free press, and free assembly are all ways of keeping the government accountable to the people. When a citizen disagrees with a politician or a policy, he or she can make that disagreement known, in the tavern, in the papers, and in the streets. The speech act is the most basic form of political communication, but the free press and the free assembly allow for wider distributions and recirculation of ideas, opinions, and suspicions. First and foremost, these rights are the very stuff of liberty, the tools that allow us to denounce an administration, an official, or a law, and to do so publicly. Public political discussion is key because only by making our views known can we find out that we are not alone. Other people sometimes agree with us and think that there needs to be a change. Political leaders learn of public discontent and learn that they must adjust their decision-making or risk defeat in an election. Notice something here: voting is not enough in the way of political communication. The vote is a communicative act in a fixed system; it allows for only a binary expression (this guy or that guy, yes or no). Political discourse takes more nuanced forms and must be free and flexible enough to match the flow of ideas and opinions in the individual mind. No voting system can do that alone, so communicative acts must be a key political right.

These three rights (speech, press, assembly) are crucial for a liberal democracy just because they allow unmediated communication between the citizens and those whom the citizens elect to govern. Notice that these are also the first three freedoms to suffer as a liberal democratic government slips toward the police state. No movement away from liberty of speech, press, and assembly can be tolerated. The free press becomes the corporate media, the free assembly must have a permit from the police, and free speech becomes relegated to “free speech zones” well away from the targets of the speech. The Occupy evictions and the associated police brutality are chilling and clear reminders of these principles. In a country founded by revolutionaries on revolutionary principles, it is also a disturbing one. Still, once power is entrenched, those key rights to dissent and to discuss among ourselves and with our “elected representatives” dissolve like sugar in the rain.

To my mind, the final irony is that these communicative acts have been obviated by the prevalence of corporate influence. Where winning an election depends more on funds and less on popularity, the elected do not need to pay attention to the electorate. The only meaningful political strategy has become soliciting donations and funding by appeasing the most moneyed of people, and since Citizens United the most moneyed people are corporations. Of course, the problem predates that ruling. It begins in lobbyists and the gradual takeover of public space by private interests. Even before Citizens United, money bought air time and advertising space, and corporations were still more able to purchase those things than private citizens. Most importantly, where speech is a commodity to be bought and sold, the right of individuals to make their views known is essentially neutered. Corporate ownership of media is one example. Astroturfing is another.

For those not in the know, astroturfing refers to purchasing speech acts so as to generate the appearance of a grassroots movement. A private interest, or consortium of interests, pays agents to appear at rallies, post on internet forums and social media sites, and otherwise spread the ideas that they are paid to spread. An agent can maintain multiple online personas to swell the apparent ranks of the movement, and through those personas they can co-opt political discussions to flood out any speech or discussion contrary to the ideas of the employer. In information theory terms, astroturfing inserts a great deal of interference into any communication. The signal-to-noise ratio becomes problematic, and no one knows who is really saying what anymore. The Tea Party began in just this way, and they have astroturfers trolling the internet now.

If speech can be purchased in this way, the only way to restore something like liberal democratic free speech is a redistribution of wealth so that all citizens have the same purchasing power. Sound incoherent? Good, then let's get rid of corporate personhood and get some rights back.