Of Course Money Is Speech

Protesting that “money isn’t speech” misses the point of what money is.

Earlier this year, when protesters disrupted the Supreme Court on the anniversary of the Citizens United opinion, they trumpeted a familiar slogan: “money isn’t speech.” In the four years since the ruling, this phrase has been the linchpin of the liberal critique of American campaign-finance jurisprudence, the idiom of the movement to get “money out of politics.”

Yet there are profound limitations to a politics that attempts to distinguish between money and speech. While attempts to curtail corporate expenditures in elections are important, the Citizens United court inadvertently recognized a profound truth about the way wealth structures society. Money is speech, which is precisely why its distribution matters so much.

The Citizens United case, which struck down prohibitions on corporate (and union) campaign spending, was never so much a change in First Amendment case law as its logical endpoint. American courts have long conceptualized free speech as a wholly negative liberty, their sole concern the degree to which the government can explicitly intervene in the activities of citizens.

But this idea of free speech has always suffered from a contradiction, namely that the exercise of speech is always shaped by the economic situation of the speaker. As the Court put it in its landmark 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo:

Virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.

The Buckley opinion arose from a challenge to post-Watergate provisions in the Federal Election Campaign Act. Congress attempted to place strict limits on both individual contributions and candidate expenditures, but the Court rejected the latter, laying the foundation for Citizens United. Each verdict reasons that to see the First Amendment as solely protecting speaking is an absurdity. In the Court’s view, since one’s ability to speak is so tied to one’s wallet, the argument that money isn’t speech collapses.

And they’re right. But that should lead us to a truly sweeping and critical verdict: when there are class differences and maldistributed wealth, democracy and free speech can never truly exist. The possession of money determines one’s positive ability to act. To invert an aphorism from Anatole France, rich and poor alike have the equal right to hire high-priced lobbyists and purchase Superbowl ads.

In this way, money not only buys political power, it is political power. Its possession confers godlike capability, and its deprivation creates servitude. With money one can manipulate public taste, ruin one’s enemies, and build, destroy, and conquer.

It’s the reason the film industry can secure massive, budget-depleting tax refunds and Walmart can single-handedly block attempts at wage regulation; where the flight of capital is a sufficient threat to people’s lives, direct corruption of the political process is unnecessary. Without it, one cannot eat, create, or even choose one’s everyday movements.

All of this is rather obvious. Yet as economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis note, while the observation that capital confers power “may evoke the same degree of astonishment as the observation that dogs bark,” this truism is utterly unaccounted for by liberal political philosophy’s negative-liberty framework. Adding campaign expenditure restrictions, as American liberals propose, does little to alter this fundamentally naive assumption. Capitalism’s predation of democracy won’t let up because of a well-placed restriction on campaign giving.

If money shapes the contours of our life choices, and is the prime determinant of our possible acts, then one person possessing more money than another is no different from his having more votes. And if rights are only meaningful to the extent they can be exercised, granting an equal right to free speech would demand a massive redistribution of wealth.

Naturally, the Citizens United decision, though the inevitable progeny of a long line of cases, is an affront to democracy. It helped entrench corporate power, and the resulting tidal wave of new election spending shouldn’t be trivialized. Yet this is far more a product of economics than law. The excessive influence of the wealthy on government did not begin with Citizens United, but with the founding of the country. It is a function of an inegalitarian economic system, not anticorruption statutes.

The theory behind progressive opposition to Citizens United thus clouds our understanding of freedom. In September, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested Citizens United was one the Court’s worst mistakes, saying that “the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”

But just two weeks later, Ginsburg signed onto the Court’s judgment in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, which limited the reach of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In that case, the Court ruled that employers do not need to compensate employees for the time they spend standing in line for a mandatory security screening.

The Court held that because the workers had been hired to pack boxes rather than stand in line, they didn’t need to be paid for the parts of their job that did not involve packing boxes. All four liberal justices concurred. (So did the Obama administration, which had filed a brief in support of the temp agency.)

For Ginsburg, there is no contradiction in opposing Citizens Unitedand supporting Integrity Staffing Solutions, even if both ultimately reduce ordinary people’s agency. Jesse Busk, the temp worker who sued over the denial of wages, reported that he wished to be paid the $6.25 for his screening because “the job was exhausting — we would sometimes walk twenty miles a night — and I was eager to go home and get some sleep.”

But when Ginsburg speaks of “what our democracy is supposed to be,” she thinks only of an individual’s relationship with the state; economic democracy is a foreign concept, and Jesse Busk’s twelve-hour shift has no relevance. An employer’s power over an employee may decimate the usefulness of the rights Ginsburg values, but apparently because money isn’t speech, one has no right to it.

Liberal election reform efforts have taken many shapes, from matching funds schemes to proposals to distribute $50 vouchers to voters, each attempting to overlay a fair political process onto an unequal economy. Many of these policies would make a substantive difference in the level to which government power is purchasable, even if nearly all of them are likely to be declared unconstitutional by a conservative-majority Supreme Court.

But all progressive plans suffer from the same core weakness: they address only a tiny fraction of the ways in which wealth is politically important. When US Steel unilaterally laid off 545 workers last week, none had any input into this decision; when 95 percent of the “post-recession” economic gains went to the top 1 percent, the political power of the non-wealthy was stamped out even more.

By attempting to forge a superficially fair political sphere while leaving the inegalitarian core of capitalism untouched, liberals are therefore ensuring that the most pernicious antidemocratic forces in American life are untouched.

If Citizens United eroded American democracy, the central proposition of the ruling was correct. And as soon as money is recognized as speech, the incompatibility of political equality and capitalism is revealed. There can never be such a thing as free speech until economic resources are distributed equally.

A political process that limits corporate influence is to be striven for. But a politics in which capital doesn’t dominate requires an economy without a class system.

Can Jeremy Corbyn Change British Politics?

Is the rumpled, bearded left-winger doomed to failure and irrelevance, or can he build something befitting his ambitions?

Since the United Kingdom’s Labour party unexpectedly elected far-left socialist Jeremy Corbyn as its leader in September, British politics have been in utter disarray. Nobody quite knows what to make of the bearded vegetarian MP, who spent a forty-year political career in quiet obscurity before being suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the mainstream. After multiple decades during which the Labour party was led by business-friendly centrists, there has been widespread bafflement and surprise at the election of a hard-left anticapitalist who sports a Leninesque flat cap. Even Corbyn himself was shocked to find himself suddenly in charge of the party; he had originally only even put his name in the race because he thought there ought to be at least one far-left candidate.

But the election result itself makes a reasonable amount of sense. There has been widespread disillusionment among Labour party members for many years, with many having the sense that the party has ceased to provide meaningful opposition to Conservative party rule. The 90’s New Labour strategy, developed by Tony Blair, had been for the party to move its politics to the right, on the theory that English people would not tolerate left-wing radicalism as indicated through their repeated reelection of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Blair therefore totally remade the Labour party, chucking out most of its socialist commitments. Before, the party constitution had promised to: “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

Roughly, this amounted to a full endorsement of the principles of Karl Marx. Blair made sure the the language was changed to say instead that the party “believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential.”

One would struggle to come up with an airier, more equivocal mission statement. But under Blair, incorporation of the principles of the public relations industry became central to the party’s identity. Its actual policy suggestions were fewer and fewer, its politicians’ words were hollower and hollower. And as happened with Barack Obama, once the electorate discovered that uplifting rhetoric could not pay their rent, they began to sour on the deal. In 2010, they put the Conservatives in power, the Labor party has been shriveling ever since.

So the party was in a fairly inauspicious state when Jeremy Corbyn arrived on the scene. But that’s precisely what enabled his victory. Corbyn ran against three other candidates, all of whom were the very definition of the Oxbridge political establishment, stuffed shirts whom the public had a great deal of difficulty telling apart.

Against them, Corbyn stood out as something previously unseen among the political class: a human. His fashion sense tended toward rumpled beige sport coats and sweaters knitted for him by his mum. He was soft-spoken but warm and conversational, described as a wholly decent chap even by his ex-wives. And he seemed to offer something genuinely different from conventional Labour policy: full-blooded, uncompromising socialism.

In ordinary times, this would be a completely disqualifying characteristic. The whole point of Blair’s revisions had been premised on the public’s allergy to the word socialism, which they associate with all the world’s evils from welfare to gulags. But we don’t exactly live in ordinary times. Just as in the U.S., the financial crisis fueled the British public’s anger toward wealth and privilege, and David Cameron’s merciless austerity program had been cutting many of people’s most relied-upon government services. The existing Labour party had done very little to oppose this. Thus there were two choices for traditional Labour voters: total, permanent disillusionment or intra-party revolution.

Fortunately, a generation of young Labour supporters chose the latter, crossing the country to campaign for their unshaven leftist hero. The Corbyn campaign steadily picked up steam over the summer, and what had once been a 200-1 long shot suddenly seemed like a guaranteed victory. When election day came, Corbyn won in a massive landslide, earning nearly 60% of the vote. His closest competitor received only 19%.

Corbyn’s election threw Britain into turmoil, since it was so completely without precedent. Corbyn is a serious left-winger; he makes Bernie Sanders look like Ted Cruz. He proposed nationalizing the railways, printing new money to finance public investment, and massively increasing corporate taxes. He spoke in an entirely different rhetoric from previous Labour leaders, insisting on a “kinder” form of politics that prioritized the needs of the poor and the oppressed. The oppressed! Not a word typically used in conventional liberal politics.

Of course, every single politician since the humankind’s earliest days has promised a “new kind of politics.” If the quality of an officeholder were to be judged by the amount they insist they are fresh and different, every last Congressman would be a consummate statesman. The serious question is not what they say, for hot air is the currency of governance. It is what they actually end up doing.

Corbyn’s first week as leader did not go especially smoothly. Almost immediately, the press deluged him with accusations of sexism after he gave all four “top” posts in his shadow cabinet to men, though his cabinet overall was the first ever to be more than 50% female. Suzannah Moore of The Guardian said that Corbyn heralded a “new brocialism,” calling Corbyn “tone deaf” and “daft” on women’s issues.

Then there was the anthem. At a commemoration ceremony for the Battle of Britain, Corbyn stood in solemn silence as the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” was played, while others around him sang it. A monsoon of press coverage accused Corbyn of unpatriotic behavior, insisting that true Brits do not merely stand for the anthem, but bellow it out with fulsome exuberance.

A series of comparable mini-scandals followed. When Corbyn indicated he would consider kneeling before the Queen at a required ceremony, he was ribbed for compromising his anti-monarchist principles. When he stated that he would never consider using nuclear weapons, he was denounced for being too uncompromising of his anti-nuclear principles. With the press, Corbyn simply couldn’t win. The Telegraph went furthest across the absurdity threshold when it accused Corbyn of riding a “Chairman Mao-style bicycle.” Buzzfeed UK parodied Corbyn’s futile situation with a “choose-your-own-adventure” guide to being the new Labour leader, in which every decision one makes brings on denunciation from the media, no matter which side one chooses.

Yet after a few days, once the press had run out of fresh ways to call Corbyn a traitor and a communist, the dust began moderately to settle. Corbyn made his first appearance on the floor of Parliament, engaging in the traditional “Questions” session in which the leader of the opposition confronts the Prime Minister and asks him to answer for his various misdeeds. Usually it is a noisy ritual, with Members of Parliament booing and shouting at their opponents, and the Speaker of the House exasperatedly trying to maintain a semblance of decorum and exhorting his colleagues to please calm down and let each other speak.

But Corbyn’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions was atypical. He announced at the outset that he wished to do it “somewhat differently,” as he felt the public had become weary of the spectacle of garrulous MPs making animal noises at one another instead of engaging in sober-minded discussion of the issues of the day. This unexpected announcement somewhat hushed the Conservative side of the room, which had come fully prepared to pelt Corbyn with more than the usual hisses and cackles.

His glasses halfway down his nose, Corbyn calmly told the House of Commons that Prime Minister’s Question Time was henceforth going to be genuine and reasonable, and that he took his duty as the people’s representative seriously. In that spirit, instead of asking the Prime Minister questions of his own devising, Corbyn took out a list of crowdsourced inquiries from members of the public. Instead of Cameron having to argue against the shaggy socialist Jeremy Corbyn, he would have to argue against “Marie,” “Stephen,” “Paul,” “Gail,” and “Angela.” Marie, Corbyn said, would like to know “what the Government intends to do about the chronic lack of affordable housing and the extortionate rents charged by some private sector landlords in this country?”

The tactic worked. Corbyn caught the Prime Minister off-guard, and the Conservatives were unable to give Corbyn the public humiliation they had hoped for. By speaking in the people’s voice, rather than his own, Corbyn staked out the moral high ground and put the Tories on the defensive.

The negative press did not ebb much after the first Prime Minister’s Questions, but Corbyn had bought himself at least a modicum of legitimacy. He still had record disapproval ratings for a new Labour leader, and a large portion of the populace barely knew who he was or thought him a threat to the country’s wellbeing (or barely knew who he was except for knowing that he was a threat to the country’s wellbeing..) Yet the coverage became increasingly difficult to take seriously. It was almost universally acknowledged that Corbyn had done well at the PMQ session, thus pundits had to engage in impossible rhetorical contortions in order to spin the event negatively. “Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs wasn’t a disaster, which is why it will destroy him,” ran the Telegraph’s headline. Their argument was that “by setting low expectations then meeting them, [Corbyn] will blind his party to his terrible flaws.”

In the time since that first parliamentary session, Corbyn has managed to do a bit more to build public confidence. He has turned out to be an unusually good television interview subject, explaining his socialistic principles in warm and intelligible terms, with a good-natured sense of humor. Attempts to ruffle him on television have failed, despite one interviewer asking him questions like “You’re a religious leader, aren’t you?” and “Why don’t you just admit you hate the Tories?” The low-key style led The Guardian so far as to suggest that Corbyn has “changed the art of political interviewing.” And when Corbyn gave his first major extended interview, with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, The Independent reported that “people loved it,” and that “even Mr Corbyn’s strongest New Labour critics had to admit he gave a strong performance on the show.”

The change in interview and questioning style is notable, first, because it has somewhat dashed the hopes of Corbyn’s detractors that he would immediately crash and burn, and second because it may signal that he is, in fact, serious when he says that he is trying to do politics differently.

Naturally, it’s difficult to say from the early days of his leadership whether Corbyn is actually capable of being “transformative.” But he appears serious about an inclusive politics; he still holds regular public “advice sessions” at which people with issues concerning “housing, immigration or benefits” can come and ask him for help. His first action as leader was to visit a protest in support of refugees. He hasn’t backed down on any of his key commitments, from absolute opposition to nuclear weapons to a skepticism of military interventions abroad. Tens of thousands of new members have joined the Labour party, inspired by Corbyn’s optimism and humility, as well as his promise for the revivification of an authentic radical left-wing politics.

But Corbyn will inevitably face the problem that all idealists face when they achieve power: compromise is inevitable, and once you compromise on one thing, it’s a few small steps to complete capitulation. It’s very difficult to remain true to onself and simultaneously negotiate a morally murky set of political necessities.

One encouraging thing, though, has been that Corbyn seems policy-minded. He has decades of experience in the House of Commons (albeit in the very back of the back benches), and thus is likely to have few illusions about the task ahead of him as Labour leader. He has offered specific proposals for what he would do if Labour was in government, including giving an outline and timeline for how he would like to accomplish railway renationalization, and thus has set real goals that can be measured by their success or failure. Promisingly, he has now taken on an economic team including “rockstar” economist Thomas Piketty and Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, who will hopefully help him formulate an effective left-wing economic agenda, which can give Labour something to offer the British people.

Specificity of the proposals is crucial if Corbyn is going to succeed. If the entire reason people were disillusioned with Labour is that they did not know what they stood for, Corbyn must have a list of concrete things for which Labour does stand, that go beyond feel-good rhetoric about kindness, community, and honest politics.

Thus far, it looks as if he’s serious. Bernie Sanders could stand to take note of this; he himself has a tendency toward grandiose anti-inequality rhetoric, with the underlying proposals remaining cloudy.

But Corbyn has to be serious, has to be genuinely different if he wants his ideas to have a chance. After all, a significant portion of his party’s elected officials hate his guts, and think his election was a suicidal disaster. (Before the election, Tony Blair issued a desperate plea: “Even if you hate me, please don’t take Labour over the cliff edge” by voting for Corbyn, he wrote.) No matter how large his grassroots support may be among young people, unifying the party and defeating the Conservatives is a gargantuan task, and it won’t be accomplished with speeches alone; Corbyn has to build a real, serious base of power.

If one were to judge by the reactions of the Tories to Corbyn’s election, he just might stand a chance. Of course, all of them insist that he is unelectable, and that the Labour party has thoroughly discredited itself or committed electoral suicide. The U.S. National Review insisted that the Labour party had “set itself on fire” and the U.K. Daily Express said he “spells disaster for Labour.”

Yet in the same breath as they insist Corbyn is a ludicrous nonentity who has consigned his party to insignificance, Conservatives warn of the terrible threat he poses. When Corbyn was elected, Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that “Labour are now a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security.” Surely a bit of an overstatement of the risks posed by an ineffectual nobody.

Now that Corbyn is picking up a bit of steam, and shaking off the attacks, Conservatives’ warnings about the threat he poses increase in intensity. Each of their prophecies of doom should give the rest of us a little bit of hope.

Riots Aren’t Violence

It has become standard media practice to refer to rioting as “violence.” But the word “violence” must be reserved for attacks on people rather than property.

In replying to calls to condemn the violence of the Baltimore rioting this past spring, the standard progressive argument was as follows: it is unfair and hypocritical to ask for the disaffected of Baltimore to remain peaceful, given that they have been violently besieged by the police for many years. In the war waged by the police upon the poor, why should only one side be held to a standard of pure restraint? As Ryan Cooper at The Week points out, violence emerges in a context, a context of long-term structural poverty and despair for which those who chide rioters bear some responsibility. In a related vein, Scott G. Brown at the Washington Post defended violence as an occasional necessity in the pursuit of civil rights gains.

All of this is correct, but it misses a crucial point: when people get hurt or killed, that’s violence, but riots and looting in themselves simply aren’t violence to begin with. Violence is not committed against property, it is committed against people. The ethics of property destruction can certainly be debated, but to label it violence is to expand the use of the term in a way that dangerously blurs the distinction between the moral value of people and that of objects. Right and left alike are discussing whether violent protest is acceptable, without noticing that most of the acts under discussion aren’t actually violent. Setting fire to a police car may be shocking, but so long as the car is the only one harmed, we have chaos but not violence.

It’s important to maintain a clear concept of what violence is and isn’t, because true violence is such a deeply terrible human experience. Actual violence leaves people with brain damage, nightmares, disability, and trauma. The destruction of human bodies is a moral horror that simply cannot exist in the same category as the breaking of glass. Using the word “violence” to describe the smashing of a window (which is, it should not need saying, incapable of feeling pain) diminishes the term. Seeing harm to inanimate objects as violent also creates all kinds of definitional contradictions. What kind of harm to an object comprises violence? Is it a violent act to recreationally shoot a glass bottle with a BB gun? To take apart an air conditioner?

It is no surprise that the right wants to equate property and personhood. The wealthy, who live comfortable lives largely free of violence, enjoy pitying themselves by pretending that filing one’s taxes is like being tied up and held hostage. This conflation is what causes wealthy investors like Tom Perkins and Steven Schwarzman to start comparing Obama to Hitler every time he proposes a tiny hike in the marginal tax rate. If financial harm is the same as physical harm, then collecting a tax is the vicious slaughter of defenseless dollars. By making these sorts of arguments, conservatives trivialize the pain of every single victim of violence in recorded human history. Nothing that occurs to a business owner on a spreadsheet can ever approach the seriousness of even a minor bodily wound.

Expansive uses of the term violence are not the exclusive provenance of the right, however. On the left, many hold the idea that some uses of language are in themselves violent. A slippage occurs by which violence comes to apply not just to physical harm to human bodies, but to anything that can be analogized with such harm. Social theorist Judith Butler says the excluded “suffer the violence of derealization,” by which she means being disregarded, not being injured. Tabias Wilson at Gawker classifies as violence “the forced circumcision of blackness from queerness, and queerness from masculinities,” and says that discriminatory hiring practices constitute violence. This left-wing habit, of slipping from describing something as being like violence to describing it as actually being violence, trivializes violence just as much as the corresponding right-wing libertarian habit.

So words are not violence, and neither is looting. Violence is violence, actual physical harm to human beings. Yes, it’s important to point out the justifications for violence in self-defense of a community. But it’s even more important to point out the basic flawed premise: that police beatings and arrests, which are done to actual humans, exist in the same league as the stealing of televisions and bags of chips.