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Last Friday, Greta Thunberg was in town, and local climate activists organized an afternoon rally. The rally was organized and led by young Indigenous people, and one of the questions that arose was whether much of the 10,000 strong crowd was there for Greta’s celebrity, or for the cause. Put another way, would the people who attended the rally return after Greta left to support and struggle alongside Indigenous people for land, sovereignty, and the planet. The answer to that question, what happens next, is one aftermath.

Two nights ago was the Toronto Public Library board meeting, which drew a large number of Toronto community members, including many trans people, who spoke, at great cost and risk, against the Meghan Murphy room booking. My friend and colleague Jane Schmidt spoke as well. All this speech was in the end ignored. The board voted unanimously to uphold the City Librarian’s decision. The decision was clearly taken well in advance of the various people who told the board their stories of harassment and assault, and for whom - until that point - the library had been a haven. Toronto Public Library, like Vancouver Public and Winnipeg Public, has lost the trust of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. And, as John Fink has asked, for what? What could possibly have been worth the cost. We shall see, in another aftermath.

In Black Reconstruction in America, a classic of social justice and of historical materialism, W.E.B. Du Bois’ concern is with the aftermath of the Civil War and “the part which Black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America”. He devotes the first two chapters to the condition of Black workers (both slaves and free) and poor immigrant white workers. He argues that, partly through competition, and partly through the desire to themselves become capitalists and/or slave owners, white workers could not see that the existence of slavery hurt everyone more than its abolition. Jobs, like all economic resources under capitalism, are artificially made scarce, in order to drive down wages which, as Marx points out, is not remuneration for work done, but the cost of reproducing the labourer. No such costs are lower than the enslaved worker, and so racial capitalism set white workers against the abolition of slavery. The perpetuation of Black dehumanization is as pernicious as the perpetuation of trans dehumanization. Du Bois notes that had the two rival struggles, for the emancipation of white labour and for abolition, joined forces, the combined movement would have been unstoppable. But this would have required white labour to see that its goal is not to improve the quality of white working class life, but to transcend wage labour and capital itself. The support for slavery by white working class leaders in this period is shameful.

It strikes me that trans-exclusionary radical feminism is in much the same position as those white labour leaders were: rights under capitalism are considered a scarce commodity. Like competition for jobs, competition for rights is seen as a zero sum game. If an immigrant gains a job, it must be at the expense of a citizen; if a trans woman gains a right, it must be at the expense of a cis woman. Both are lies told to reproduce capitalist social and economic relations. Trans exclusionary feminism cannot see that the solution is not to participate in this patriarchal-capitalist-devised competition, but to transcend it, to recognize that the struggle for rights is not a zero sum problem, that social justice can only be accomplished by a non-rivalrous understanding of rights. Non-rivalrous rights can be summed up in the difference between the socialist motto “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work” and the communist one, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

A similar zero-sum problem arises in the case of intellectual freedom. Librarians and “free speech” advocates believe that the job of the state (e.g. libraries) is to maintain some kind of consistent (“neutral”) balance between competing values and worldviews. This view of the role of the state arises out of liberal social contract theory of the 17th century, specifically John Locke, who saw the state as a moderating force standing above the competing interests of civil society, allowing space for pluralism and self-determination to prevail. As a component of liberal political theory, this view of the state is predicated on individualism and a notion of individual freedomm that rejects understandings of social determination, class allegiances, racism, sexism, etc. Such a political philosophy could only arise in the homogeneous “democracy” of Western Europe in which they only “individuals” taken into consideration were more or less the same: white, male, property owners. I go into more detail about this in my book, but my point here is that this centuries-old political philosophy designed by and for white, male property-owners is still the (conscious or unconscious) philosophy of liberalism and librarianship. From a social justice or leftwing perspective, we can and should reject both the kind of absolute individualism and the pluralist notion of the state assumed by the liberal philosophy of librarianship, which includes the hegemonic concept of absolutist intellectual freedom.

Instead, we have to take social structures seriously, as causal powers in their own right, that both constrain and enable the exercise of a freedom considered not as absolute but as in dialectical combination with what is necessary. I was not free to speak anything other than English as my mother tongue, because I was born into an English speaking family in an anglophone country. My ideas do not arise in some “intellectually free” vacuum, but are the product of social experiences and social relationships that existed before me and into which I was born.

We must also reject the idea of the liberal state: the state is not a force for mediating the conflicts between worldviews to allow pluralism to flourish. It is, as Marx wrote, nothing but the committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie as a class. Any purported neutrality, or mediatedness, or guarantee for pluralism on the part of the state is merely a figleaf behind which lurks the power of capital to create artificial scarcity in jobs and rights and to pit worker against worker and woman against woman. Any neutral, pluralist “guarantee of free speech” by the state only aligns with and supports bigotry and division.

A consequence of the liberal view of the state is that the state becomes not something that contributes to social justice, not something that helps create social justice, but merely something that makes it possible for civil society to create social justice: social justice is up to other people to do, at some time in the future. “Free speech” advocates like Jim Turk make this claim: that free speech is a necessary condition for social justice, that it is the job of library to make social justice possible for supporting free speech. In this view, libraries are not meant to commit to or work towards social justice, they are just supposed to wait for someone else to do it. As a librarian, I reject this view, and I know I am not alone in this.

The only way to do social justice and democracy is to do them, not wait for someone else to do them. This is as true of trans rights as it is of fighting climate change or instituting Indigenous sovereignty. All else is the kind of reformism that plays into the hands of colonialism, capital, whiteness, and patriarchy.

Individualism and the pluralist conception of the state, arising as they do out of a homogeneous class of white, male property owners whose values more or less align, were built on the exclusion of women, people of colour, queer people, disabled people, and a host of other people who could a priori be defined as non-citizens (and therefore political negligible). This leads people like Turk to reduce every objection to the liberal fiction of intellectual freedom as “offense”. At the TPL board meeting, trans woman after trans woman courageously stood up to demonstrate that what is at issue is not offense but harm, harm that could be avoided if we reject the zero-sum view of rights, and the necessity of capitalism for a hierarchy human worth. This courage, this demonstration of harm, was roundly rejected by the TPL board and Vickery Bowles. It was a shameful moment for the profession, if nothing else.

The reduction of real harm to offense shows that, in fact, the defenders of intellectual freedom and free speech don’t take speech seriously. They don’t understand how speech can have power to cause real harm, can whip up and inflame bigoted passions that have real material effects on peoples lives. Ironically, “free speech” is a position held by those who think speech fundamentally unimportant. The same is true of intellectual freedom: if all ideas matter equally, then no ideas really matter. As Shama Rangwala has argued with respect to the imposition of the Chicago Rules on Alberta campuses, ‘the university fundamentally regulates what kinds of knowledge are legitimate, and would cease to exist as such without these mechanisms. After all, the motto of the University of Alberta is Quaecumque vera: “whatsoever is true,” not “whatsoever meets the legal definitions of allowable speech.”’ If intellectual freedom is to mean anything in a profession concerned with texts, language, and ideas, we have to insist on a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate ideas. Where that distinction falls is a political problem we must not shy away from, for example, by ignoring criticisim and lecturing the critics of absolutist intellectual freedom.

Returning to the theme of aftermaths, the profession - and society at large - must decide what it is going to do. There are protests planned for the TPL event, and Toronto Pride is planning a counter-rally. The professional library associations are aligning one way or another, and those that are aligning with TPL and liberalism are being challenged by their members. As a profession, as Allison Trumble noted on Twitter, we have to figure out our relationships to our communities, to our associations, our institutions, and with each other. For academic librarians, this issue is coming in the form of campus “free speech” regulations and the necessary limits of academic freedom. We have to figure out how to ensure that public library workers who disagree with the positions of their leadership are able to speak freely without repercussion. It is not the least painful irony about the defenders of free speech in public libraries that such freedom is denied their own employees. There are many aftermaths, and they just keep on coming.

But I think this may also be time for a new beginning, a refoundation of the profession in Canada. Many of us are questioning the value of professional associations that mirror the hierarchies of our capitalist organizations and the state, are questioning the ability of associations to represent members, even the possibility of representation itself. While the eruption had been building for some time, I think the TPL event has exposed a serious rift within the profession, one that breaks down along lines of generation, class, and ideology, and probably along many other faultlines. To echo Chernyshevsky and Lenin’s famous question on how to make a revolution, now that this split has been exposed, what is to be done?


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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