Freedom as material; revolt as the last remaining speech

Lisa Tilley
3 min readFeb 20, 2021

Freedom of speech is a material condition determined by structures of power. The oppressed can shout their plight endlessly into the wind but if these words are not recorded, broadcast, distributed, amplified, paraphrased, repeated… did they ever speak at all?

We are already in dangerous times in which the material conditions of silence are an increasingly tighter shroud around those without wealth, those without an uncontested claim to whiteness, and those not easily placed as ‘woman’ or ‘man’ in the eyes of power.

The means of amplification belong to the wealthy and powerful and are used to secure and expand that wealth and power. The government, the national press, and other major institutions are structured in favour of the corrupt and the gilded; the dishonest and the frauds; those who seek to starve the poor, exclude the racialised, and constrict the conditions of existence for anyone who does not fit the proper frame of the national subject (white, hetero, cis, middle/upper class).

And today, there’s a coordinated move to pull the shroud tighter and suffocate the material conditions of speech further. Schools banned from teaching critiques of capitalism and critical work on race; a new authoritarian overseer of universities to shut down protests against academic racism, transphobia and other forms of intellectualised base bigotry. Nobody believes these moves are about freedom, unless they are paid enough on a Koch-funded platform to internalise the script they reproduce under their by-line. This is all, patently, about power.

Of course, we do all we can to negate this structural power. We do it through satire and memes and pile-ons and ridicule; by campaigning and organising and disrupting. But we negate it mainly by claiming a radical humanism and creating spaces of care and affirmation; we do it by being in community with each other and building from below the worlds they try to legislate against. It vexes them that, always already, we have love on our side, joy on our side, we have all the humour, life and wit on our side. It vexes them that, with all the wealth and power in the world, they can’t legislate possession of that love, joy and humour.

They have no comedians because eugenics is not funny; because bailiffs discovering the emaciated bodies of those declared ‘fit to work’ is not funny; because women suspected as ‘male-bodied persons’ being slammed against the cold tiles of public toilet walls is not funny. Hateful projects are as grim and humourless as they are corrosive and violent.

The only apt response to their authoritarianism now is to ramp up the resistance and become ungovernable. Now is the time (as it’s always the time) to find a louder voice and affirm the humanity of those they dehumanise. Now is the time (as it’s always the time) to link our struggles against the production of poverty, classism, all racisms, and transphobia.

Freedom of speech is a material condition and there are always material implications of speech. When they’ve taken the material conditions from us, freedom becomes (to echo Janis) just another word for nothing left to lose. Revolt is the only speech we are left with.

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