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John Locke has a lot to answer for. As I argue in Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship, Locke’s writings - especially the “Letter Concerning Toleration” provide the ideological justification for free-speech/intellectual-freedom maximalism. However, Locke’s philosophy is based on the presumption of a homogeneous society, a democracy made up solely of white male property-owners who can be expected to agree on all the things that matter; differences in fundamental values are reduced at one stroke to mere difference of opinion which, since they are trivial, are no threat to the white bourgeois patriarchy, and hence ought to be unfettered, unlimited, and certainly not subject to any constraint by the state.

But we don’t live in a world like that. We never did. Only by defining political life as a priori only belonging to white male landowners with a shared culture and set of values could Locke and other liberal philosophers claim to be speaking on behalf of all society. This was a mystification in the service of maintaining the power of the white male patriarchy, a power which they had just won, and which Locke’s political work justified.

This reduction of the richness and diversity of society, along with other aspects of Locke’s work, continues to form the basis of the dominant or hegemonic intellectual freedom discourse in librarianship. In Alvin Schrader’s recent piece for Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, he lists some recent challenges to the dominance of intellectual-freedom maximalism. However, he presents them all in the same light, as expressions of the same power dynamics (those who wish to speak and those who wish to prevent them), eliding the very important differences in social relations, power, history, and even severity. This elision ignores what is, I think, most important in each case. From my perspective this is the difference between constituent and constituted power.

Constituent power is a concept derived from Spinoza and others and developed by Antonio Negri, which posits that the political order of a society is based on a limiting of the (fundamentally unlimited) democratic life of the members of a community. A community has a collective power to determine its own values, its own culture, and act according to its own volition. The formation of a state, or constituted power, can only happen at the expense of this freedom of self-determination. Constituted power takes many forms, but it is always understood as the limiting of the fundamental self-activity of the community in question.

It is not surprising that libraries find the navigation of values (e.g. intellectual freedom vs. community empowerment) difficult: as state-funded organizations which are nevertheless oriented towards their publics, they occupy a site of tension or contradiction between constituted power (the state) and constituent power (the community). Libraries attempt to balance between these two poles through a deeply-ingrained, ideological commitment to “neutrality”, balance, and liberal plurality (again, of all of which derive from liberal philosophers like Locke). The conflict, for example, between enforcing state-mandated freedom of expression (seen most clearly in the American First Amendment) is in fundamental conflict with libraries’ stated value to engage with and be led by their communities, because the state is the embodiment of constituted power, while the community is the collectivity which makes up constituent power. These two powers are irreconcilable; libraries can only manage their balancing act by violating one or the other. The power imbalance between constituted and constituent power (constituted power is the only one with a police force, for example) means that in the long run, constituted power tends to win.

But there are other constituted powers besides the state: patriarchy, heteronormativity, transmisia, ableism, white supremacy - all of these are constituted in the liberal-bourgeois order. Incidentally, this is why the Canadian Conservative Party, the GOP, and Donald Trump appeal to them, and why Canadian Liberals and American Democrats are weak in their condemnation of them: political parties by definition are out to capture constituted power, and so they must not alienate the existing bases of that power. Schrader’s reminder of the long struggle of LGBTQ+ voices to be heard against the “public cacophony of discriminatory and hateful discourse” is well-taken, however, his perspective relies on Lockean pluralism, on the idea that all voices are ideally (or should be) equal, and that more voices is the solution to issues of power and inequality.

But, if Locke’s pluralism is based on a fundamental agreement as to values except where they (trivially) differ, then the Liberal conception of free speech/intellectual freedom is - ironically enough - based on the idea that words, voices, even ideas fundamentally don’t matter. The reason so many “challenges” to intellectual freedom appear to only come from the left is because the right, focused as they are on constituted power, aren’t threatened by speech, ideas, voices. What they care about is Power, the power of the police and right-wing militia to defend patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, and private property. The left, however, tends to be concerned with constituent power, with the belonging of all members of a community, their self-activity, and their flourishing. No-platforming is the exercise of constituent power against the constituted power of the right. Libraries can try to keep up their balancing act, but eventually they are going to have to choose a side. The choice, however, is not between intellectual freedom and no-platforming, or even between intellectual freedom and community, but between constituted power and constituent power.

By arguing that the challengers of a maximalist intellectual freedom position come from a place of ignorance as to the “Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] and Criminal Code frameworks within which [libraries] are statutorily governed and free speech is regulated”, Schrader explicitly sides with constituted power (literally, the power of the constitution). It is not, however, an ignorance of these frameworks that underpins no-platforming and challenges to room-bookings, etc. Rather, it is an urgent rejection of the undemocratic political institutions which govern us (the power of the state), in favour of a radical, fully democratic constituent power arising out of the self-activity of the collectivity of all members of society, but most especially those who have, historically, been excluded not only from the exercise of political power, but even from living their lives. As I argued at the Ontario Library Association earlier this year, liberal pluralism is all very well if no-one is dying and if we have an eternity to work out the consequences of any difference of opinion. Locke’s liberalism is predicated on this idea: as long as white male property-owners are free to live their lives, a pluralism of voices coming to a consensus is an affordable luxury. However, if we are to fully recognize the value of anyone other than white male property-owners, we also have to recognize that their lives are not being protected: the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls movement are two clear examples that people are being murdered. Climate change limits the amount of time in which we can come to a consensus. These two reasons alone are sufficient for constituent power to be justified in flexing its muscles on behalf of those whose lives are threatened by the patriarchy, white supremacy, and all the other vectors of constituted power.

Schrader refers to the unregulated nature of library profession in Canada. In the absence of this regulation, Schrader falls back on the CFLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom (and by extension the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). In this way, the lack of constituted power overseeing librarianship is corrected by reference to a higher constituted power. However, the lack of regulation in librarianship can be understood as a strength: rather than relying on the constituted power of a professional regulator or the state, librarians and library workers are free to define for themselves the values they want to espouse and the political positions they want to hold. The Charter of Rights and the First Amendment are a shield behind which librarianship likes to hide. The lack of regulation removes such a hiding place, forcing libraries and library workers to decide between constituted power and constituent power.

Rejection of constituted power - of the constitution - is a rejection of sovereignty, but it is not, then, an adoption of the Hobbesian “war of all against all”. Rather, it is a third option, constituent power, the self-directed activity of the multitude that guarantees the authentic flourishing of all members of the community. No-platforming and exclusion from events like Pride, are useful tools for constituent power. We rely on tools like these because,Unlike the state and the far right, constituent power does not commmand police protection. The motto of constituent power might well be, following Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, “the free development of each as a condition for the free development of all”. To me, this motto is fully in accordance with the values and missions of libraries, but it is absolutely antagonistic to the violence of constituted power.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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