The president has been de-platformed on social media. The uncensored alternative to Twitter, Parler, is being strangled by tech giants as Apple and Google remove the Parler app from their stores and Amazon kicks it off its servers. A conservative journalist with a large following on Twitter reports losing 100 followers an hour, likely victims of what seems to be an all-out push to conduct a thorough purge.
Which makes me glad that First Things sustains a vigorous print publication with more than 25,000 subscribers. The woke Bolsheviks cannot strong-arm the United States Postal Service. Print magazines, unlike online publications, remain protected from Big Tech censorship.
Online readers of this column ought to consider taking out a print subscription.
The actions of Twitter, Facebook, and others represent more than the woke colonization of Big Tech. They represent the tech giants' assumption of one of the essential functions of a liberal democratic political order: Determining the proper balance between individual freedom and collective well-being.
Big Tech's power to define the limits of free speech is part of a larger trend, one that has shifted a great deal of political power away from elected representatives and into the hands of private actors.
This movement toward private power is one of many indications that we are leaving the modern era behind. In that era, social power was shifted away from traditional forms of life and vested in more purely political agencies. For example, social contract theory turned a nation’s solidarity into a political act rather than an inherited fact. We decided to have this or that form of government, and it’s the deciding that confers legitimacy.
Legal positivism played an important role in the rise of modern politics. This theory of law was outlined in the mid-nineteenth-century by the legal philosopher John Austin. He held that all positive law (the law backed up by the coercive power of the state) can be traced back to human lawmakers. We have rights and duties because those in positions of responsibility say so, and they have the power to back up their legal strictures.
In the English context, the common law approach gave authority to past precedent and conferred upon tradition an almost mystical significance. It was in that regard a holdover from an earlier view of political life, which held that there are customary, natural, and divine sources for rights and duties that are affirmed, specified, and applied in positive law. Austin’s view defined away those presumptions about the source and legitimacy of legal coercion.
Legal positivism became popular, in part because it dovetailed with the scientific mentality of the modern era. The content of the law is a question of fact—what have legislators stipulated?—not history, morality, or theology. But Austin’s view also reinforced modern ideals of liberalism and democracy, which sought to weaken traditional constraints on political reform and to empower governments to make those reforms. As the U.S. Constitution proudly proclaims, “we the people” establish our form of government, which is to be conducted by our representatives, who act in our name.
Technically, Twitter and Facebook break no laws when censoring content, just as Amazon acts within its rights when denying service to Parler (or whomever it wishes). Our law treats these entities as private enterprises, free to associate and contract with whomever they wish. But given their near absolute control of virtual communication, their actions have the power to decide the limits of free speech for society as a whole. In a real sense, they are legislating for the entire country, even though they are technically acting privately.
The consequences are post-liberal—not just because our freedoms are undermined, but because we become passive subjects of this corporate power rather than its source as voters, which is the ideal in a democratic order. Those who style themselves democratic socialists have long held that concentrations of economic power invariably undermine the democratic side of liberal democracy, the side that ensures our voices are heard. But Big Tech's recent actions go further than that. They take possession of the liberal side, which is the side that guards our freedoms.
We should not be surprised. Consider the rise of activist organizations, foundations, think tanks, and NGOs. This large and growing para-governmental apparatus initially emerged to aid (and influence) the democratic process. But over time it has supplanted it. The same can be said of the rise of the administrative state and the proliferation of international agencies. At present there is a private judicial system in which international business disputes are adjudicated. This is but one example of the migration of once public functions into the private sector.
I fear we are poised at a moment of transition. As an ideal, globalization has always been anti-political. It envisions market coordination and technocratic problem-solving, not political debate and deliberation. It is not a coincidence that Big Tech is at the cutting edge of the anti-political privatization of public life. Along with Wall Street, Silicon Valley is the most globalized element of the American economy. It is animated by the Davos mentality: Some issues are too important to be left to the people.
Which brings me back to First Things. Our print edition, unlike our online, iPad, and Kindle editions, cannot be censored by Big Tech. A prudent assessment of recent events tells us that taking out a print subscription is the wisest course of action. If you don’t already get the magazine in the mail, now is the time.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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