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This morning I went to the Edmonton Public Library’s Leader-in-Residence panel on Intellectual Freedom. Toni Samek, Jim Turk, and Gail DeVos were the panelists and it was moderated by Alvin Schrader. I didn’t know Gail DeVos, but Toni, Jim, and Alvin have all been active participants in the intellectual freedom sphere - in libraries and academia more broadly - for a long time.

I found the whole experience highly demoralizing. As Toni pointed out, this debate comes to a head about every thirty years, dating from the Library Bill of Rights in the late 1930s, through the Social Responsibility movement of the late 1960s, the late 1990s, and again today. And it appears that every time this cycle comes up, the same arguments are rehashed again and again.

To a certain extent, this is unsurprising. Both the mainstream, hegemonic, liberal position on intellectual freedom and the social justice perspective on social responsibility are partial viewpoints caught within the limits of capitalist society. The racism, sexism, ableism, hatred of trans people, or Muslims, or Jews, are not accidental deviations from a “free” society of civil liberties and rational debate, but are structural requirements of a capitalist social order that profits off division, violence, and hate.

So when intellectual freedom proponents speak of civil liberties, freedom, democracy, and self-fulfillment/realization - when they are not in bad faith - they presume that these things somehow exist in capitalist society, that they are defending their existence in the face of extremism on one side or the other. But freedom does not exist in a society based on coercion; self-fulfillment/realization is precisely what is denied to workers alienated from the products of their labour, themselves, and each other. No amount of defense of “both sides” or “objectivity” or “fairness” can bring into being something so fantastic.

On the other hand, the social justice critique of the hegemonic liberal position is often little more than “yes, buts” - taking the liberal perspective for granted, but trying to get the other side to see the error of their ways. This is a classic example of a dialectical contradiction. More information or better arguments will not solve this problem, because the problem exists in reality, it is part of the fabric of capitalist society. Proponents of the hegemonic, liberal perspective are untroubled by the social justice arguments. When we bring up “safe spaces” they can take the broad middle road and ask us to have a bit of sober perspective.

The reason, I think, that we go through this “debate” every thirty years or so is that the problem of the contradiction between intellectual “freedom” and social responsibility is insoluble under capitalism; it can only be solved in a future society, one separated from us by revolution, and which can only be reached by way of revolution. That society would require us to take a larger perspective on the question, a perspective broader than either the partial viewpoints of intellectual “freedom” or social responsibility. A viewpoint that would take advantage of a new social structure to overcome the limitations of this one.

What would that look like? I think it would have to recognize that if libraries claim to have values, those values can either be progressive or reactionary (leaving out the discredited claim to value-free “neutrality”). Reactionary values would indeed require a radically different kind of library, but since libraries never claim to hold reactionary values, we can focus on the other alternative. Progressive values have long been part of the library discourse (whether that be in support of democracy itself or merely - as a recent New York Times article has it - civil liberties). But to have values means that we think those values are important enough to actively promote, support, and maintain. We can’t be satisfied simply with saying we hold progressive values. And yet, this is what we do when we give bandwidth, air-time, or oxygen to hateful, corrupt, or reactionary values. To claim a set of progressive values but to do nothing to uphold them is not having values at all - it is a return to the discredited notion of neutrality, but this time in bad faith.

And we don’t need to give bandwidth to other perspectives. Like collections, we needed to be comprehensive when there was no other communications channel, when information could be had through the libraries and almost nowhere else. But this is no longer the case. The Steve Bannons and Jordan Petersons of this world don’t need our help getting their message across. This is a change that clearly librarianship (like journalism) has found it difficult to deal with. In a world of limited bandwidth, an attempt at fairness, balance, “both sides”-ness might have been laudable. We did not have the luxury then, perhaps, of living up to our values. Now that bandwidth is abundant, to pay lip service to progressive values without doing more to uphold them is unconscionable.

Ideally, every library would decide for itself, among the collectivity of its staff, what its role is and what values it decides to uphold. However, we (library workers) are not in charge of our libraries. Our libraries do not serve their publics, they serve the universities and municipalities in which they are embedded, and who have goals which may be (often are) not in line with our professed values. But workers don’t have the luxury of quitting a workplace that doesn’t share their values (despite what proponents of the free exchange of the labour market maintain).

The hegemonic, liberal perspective might be understood as a deontological ethics - there are rules to liberal society (like the fairness of representing both sides) and we must uphold them. The social justice perspective is often a form of consequentialist ethics (if we host Jordan Peterson then we are causing harm to our public). Interestingly, I think this is the same distinction at play in arguments over the Williams-Osaka USOpen final. On the one side, we have those who claim that “there are rules in tennis that must be followed” (deontology), while on the other side we have arguments around the effects of structural racism and sexism (consequentialism). To take a larger view, we could say that professional tennis is a multi-billion dollar industry predicated on certain structures of race, gender, and class, which will never be overcome within the constraints of either the sport or capitalist society at large.

In his book Marxism and Ethics, Paul Blackledge argues that - despite Marx’s own claims to the contrary - Marxism holds a position of virtue ethics, in other words, what is the right thing to do? Blackledge writes, “Instead of focusing on the intentions of actors or consequences of actions, virtue ethicists insist that they key ethical question should be ‘what kind of person should I be?’” (p. 33). If we claim to hold progressive values, then we need to live up to those values, not sidestep them. If we want to be moral librarians working in moral libraries, then we need to take a perspective broader than both the deontological and consequentialist perspectives while, at the same time, bearing both those perspectives in mind.

Regarding a proposed Marxist ethics, Blackledge writes:

Marxist ethics therefore presuppose an unbreakable unity between the facts and the condemnation of exploitation and alienation on the one hand, and the means to an end of socialism on the other. While modern moral philosophy is a reified reflection of our alienated existence under capitalism, Marxism, both as an explanatory account of the dynamics of capitalism and as a condemnation of this system, is rooted in the collective struggle of workers for freedom. Practice does not and cannot follow theory in the way that modern moral theory would have us supposed, for it is universally true that we can theorize only from specific standpoints. Marx thus criticized liberal moralists for being unable to offer an adequate account of human action. By contrast, because he made his own standpoint explicit he revealed not only the limitations of modern moral theory, but also the unity, but not identity, of socialism, social science, and moral realism. (p. 97)

As I’ve done before, I’m calling for a partisan librarianship, one which decides on what a moral profession looks like, and acts according to that decision. But that decision has to be a collective one, a social one, and I’m afraid it will never happen within a capitalist economy, politics, and culture. A partisan librarianship must, therefore, also be a revolutionary librarianship.

Now, this in itself might sound complacent, as if we will need to wait for the revolution before doing anything. But I don’t think that’s the case. What we need, in the absence of a socio-economic structure which will allow for collective life, is an “intellectual politics” (in place of a non-existent intellectual freedom). We have to reject the rules of liberal society - the rules of fairness and “the marketplace of ideas”; indeed, we need to reject the market itself. And we need to reject the framing of the problem that we inherit from liberalism and from our parent institutions. For example, so many of our intellectual freedom discussions focus - as it did today - on the intellectual freedom of our users, the public; intellectual freedom is outward-facing. We should reject the exclusivity of that framing, and insist on dealing with the huge problem in our profession of the intellectual freedom of public library workers being sacrificed in favour of a liberal hegemony or the market (the library’s “brand”). An intellectual politics would insist on trying to live up to our values, even if we fail. A lot was said today about allowing different voices to be heard; we have to start with the voices of public library workers, or we can never hope to approach the kind of collective action needed for the thorough transformation into the society to come.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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