Mr Freedom’s at it again.
As George Brandis presented parliament with a bill to jail for five years anyone who discloses information relating to ‘special intelligence operations’, Tim Wilson was giving interviews to the press. But he wasn’t denouncing the Abbott government’s massive expansion of ASIO’s powers, an expansion that quite clearly criminalised journalism and whistleblowing and other freedom-type activities.
No, the Human Rights Commissioner was taking a stand on a different issue – the right of Wicked Campers to use sexist slogans on its vans.
Such seems to be his shtick.
Earlier in the year, Wilson hit the international media by denouncing racial discrimination laws as ‘bizarre’ on the basis that they prevented white people from using the term ‘nigger’. At the same time, he publicly backed the public service’s right to sack employees for using social media – the workers’ freedom of speech was outweighed, he said, by their obligation to their employer.
Or think of how Wilson campaigned long and hard on behalf of Andrew Bolt, a free speech martyr who was not fined, jailed or otherwise punished in any way whatsoever for his derogatory articles about the skin colour of prominent Indigenous leaders, while saying next to nothing about the refugees facing permanent detention without charge or trial on the basis of adverse ASIO assessments they are not permitted to see.
Even as Wilson goes into bat for Wicked Campers, the Guardian has published the first account of the conditions facing the Tamil asylum seekers detained on the high sees by the Australian government. These people – guilty of nothing other than fleeing persecution – are, it seems,
being detained in windowless locked rooms with men kept apart from their families against their will, newly released high court documents have revealed.
A statement of claim document submitted to the court by lawyers acting for 86 of the 153 asylum seekers also reveals that they have had no opportunity to deliver their protection claims – despite all claiming to be refugees – and had no access to a qualified translator despite almost all being unable to speak English.
These unfortunates seem rather less free (what with all the detention and all) than the proprietors of Wicked Campers. But where is the impassioned press conference from our commissioner?
You might protest that there’s only so much one lover of liberty can do. Wilson might be keeping schtum on refugees – but at least he’s taking a principled stand on the right to publically display slogans that others don’t like.
Or, at least, that’s what he says.
Here’s Wilson on the Wicked case.
Government shouldn’t be going around telling people what they can and cannot say, unless it leads to direct and explicit harm. […]
Just removing things that are offensive, while it may seem attractive, is a very dangerous precedent at least because people always have very different views about what is offensive and therefore should be limited.
On the face of it, not an unreasonable position. For a long, long time, laws about offensive publications were used to harass activists campaigning in the streets of Australia’s cities. It’s perfectly plausible to imagine legislation drafted with Wicked Campers in mind subsequently deployed against a van advertising a protest – or, perhaps, a campaigner wearing a Fuck Abbott t-shirt.
Such has been the basis for left-wing opposition to a reliance on the state when fighting against sexism or racism – increased state powers will, almost inevitably, rebound on the oppressed.
All well and good – except that, actually, Wilson wasn’t responding to a state crackdown. Here’s more from the same article.
In a statement, Wicked Campers said it wished to acknowledge the prevailing community opinion by painting over the slogan.
The company also committed to change slogans of an ‘insensitive nature’ on their vans over the next six months.
In other words, Wicked Campers got rid of its slogan because it was unpopular. Yes, some politicians muttered about new laws. But the company didn’t repaint its vans because of repression by the Nanny State but rather because activists mobilised against them. No infringement of free speech took place. On the contrary, large numbers of ordinary people who had previously been silent found their voice – the exact opposite of the Big Brotherish crackdown Wilson seemed to be describing.
Why, then, did Mr Freedom make this case a cause célèbre? The answer lies in this line:
Despite the success of the online campaign, Mr Wilson said people who disapproved should protest by not using the business.
For Wilson, freedom’s a market relationship, most perfectly expressed when an owner freely chooses to sell a particular commodity and a purchaser freely opts to buy it.
That seems simple enough, except that, under capitalism, the most important commodity is human labour power – something that has profound consequences.
The labour relationship is, on the one hand, a fair trade, with the employer generally purchasing labour power at its value. On the other hand, it’s simultaneously exploitative, since workers generate more value than their labour power embodies.
More importantly, in this context, workers only enter the wage relationship under certain circumstances – basically, when they have no other way of supporting themselves. That’s why, historically, the rise of capitalism meant the dispossession of the bulk of the population from the land, so as to create a class dependent upon the sale of labour power.
Marx puts it like this:
For the conversion of his money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must meet in the market with the free labourer, free in the double sense, that as a free man he can dispose of his labour-power as his own commodity, and that on the other hand he has no other commodity for sale, is short of everything necessary for the realisation of his labour-power.
The twin senses of freedom are thus fundamentally entwined, which is why the concept becomes so slippery. Capitalism depends on the destruction of feudal restrictions (so that people are, say, free to move around) but also on the destruction of feudal entitlements (so that people are economically compelled to sell their labour power).
Everyone knows Anatole France’s quip about the law treating the rich and poor equally when it comes to sleeping under bridges – and the same critique can be applied to notions of freedom (for, as they say, free speech is a lot easier when you own a newspaper). But we can make a stronger claim. Because the sale of labour power depends on this double sense of freedom, defending freedom (from a capitalist perspective) means defending disempowerment, since, if workers have other options available to them, the commodity of labour power will not circulate freely.
That’s why, for neoliberal ideologues, any protest or strike represents (in embryo, at least) an attack on freedom, an infringement on the logic of the commodity. From Wilson’s perspective, by campaigning against Wicked Campers, activists are undermining the fundamental relationships of a free (capitalist) society – which is why our commissioner duly leapt into action.
Of course, you don’t want to overstate the importance of theory.
Everyone knows that the IPA – Wilson’s old outfit – functions as an advocacy machine: corporate funds go into the slot and then, after a certain amount of clanking, whatever guff’s required comes out the other end (cigarettes are good for you! climate change isn’t happening! etc). Thus, on paper, the IPA supports open borders and opposes the government’s hysteria about refugees. But if you’re dependent upon the support of Abbott’s Liberals and the Murdoch press, you’ll do a lot better campaigning for Tony Bolt than you will speaking up for asylum seekers.
Nonetheless, the Left does need to think about freedom. It’s symptomatic of our marginalisation that the term’s increasingly deployed by conservatives rather than progressives. There’s an urgent need to reclaim freedom, to rearticulate the concept as a synonym for liberation rather than exchange.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!