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Stop saying "we need to build alternative institutions"
A few brief thoughts on Lauren Southern's parents being banned from AirBnB for the crime of birthing a dissident. And why we need a Tipping Point law.
Written by Matthew Archer
In the latest example of Globo Corp “unpersoning”, AirBnB has apparently banned the parents of the political commentator Lauren Southern:
If you hadn’t yet got the memo (despite it repeatedly punching you in the face), this is precisely why we need to build alternative institutions. However, that call has become something of a trope amongst the anti-woke. Indeed, you see it stated multiple times in the replies to Ms Southern’s Tweet. It has become an unthinking meme. And it needs serious scrutiny.
After all, how precisely would we build a non-censorious competitor to the 75-billion-dollar AirBnB megalith? It’s not that alternative institutions can never be built (examples abound); it’s just obviously not always possible to do so. Even when it is, it might be wildly impractical, risky, or the least good option. It’s a war cry slogan, not a serious proposal for change.
Take one comparatively trivial example: staffing. We live in a world where 40% of US and Canadian academics would not hire a Trump supporter, only 7-18% of US undergraduates show “strong support” for free speech, 37% say it’s acceptable to shout down a speaker, and 44% agree that “people who don’t respect others don’t deserve the right of free speech.” But here’s the icky truth a lot of anti-woke types don’t want to hear: a large chunk of the people with these reprehensible views are much more intelligent than you. Indeed, it’s a sign of intelligence that they have figured out the social strategy that will allow for rapid advancement. And these people are precisely the type our AirBnB competitor will need to hire to grow. But even before our hypothetical business hit a billion-dollar market cap (at which point, by the way, it would likely be bought out by Globo Corp), we would be struggling to staff it with competent non-wokes under the age of 30.
Okay, abandon ship, you say. After all, perhaps we don’t need to go to the trouble of building anything, we can shop elsewhere! What do they say, “Go woke, go broke”? Of course, this is just more silliness. The vast majority of AirBnB’s current and potential customers don’t care one jot about such things. They just want a cheap weekend getaway in Ibiza or to share a cool apartment near the Colosseum with some local Italians who think three spoons of sugar is a vital ingredient in espresso. Normies are not going to boycott AirBnB in the same way you’re not going to stop buying goods associated with Israel.
Perhaps a company could go too woke, but have any actually gone broke? Have any even suffered serious financial difficulty? (That’s a genuine question — comments below, please). Perhaps a few hyper-woke films have bombed, but I can’t think of other examples. If AirBnB started cancelling more normal people, I’m sure this pithy maxim would hold. But as it stands, it’s just a rallying call for people who care about fighting wokeism. And most people don’t. Sure, they say they care when asked in a survey, and perhaps they change to voting for a centre-right party, but they have no skin in the game. Outside of elections and the occasional whacky headline about the TV chef Jamie Oliver “culturally appropriating” a recipe for Jamaican rice, nobody thinks about this stuff. It’s just you and your elite 115+ IQ friends.
In fact, the people being unpersoned are often so unlikeable or controversial that I would bet a handsome sum that one could easily manipulate a good section of the public into supporting such censorship. After all, how do you think it worked in Soviet Russia? You know, the one with proper communism.
So there are myriad problems with “we need to build alternative institutions”. Another one is that it’s rooted in a materialist view of the world, in the idea that the economy is the primary way we relate to each other. This was partly why left-wing radicals abandoned traditional Marxism in the first place. The excessive focus on the means of production overlooked the whole reason for the revolution. Likewise, “build alternative institutions” defaults us into a world view of warped economic premises: If we build it, they will come. But unless the product we build is superior, they certainly won’t come because, again, nobody really cares. (The reason alternative media are one of the few exceptions to this rule is obvious: though our writers might not have the most beautiful prose or the most succinct arguments, we swim against predictable and dull tides — we don’t need to be the most polished publication to be successful).
In short, outside of places where it makes sense (like creating new media), “build alternative institutions” is the type of thing I’d expect to hear from a juvenile free-market libertarian lurking in the corners of the anarcho-capitalist subreddit. It’s the clarion call of the 19-year-old neckbeard who is desperate to tell you how Mises’ praxeology proves your opinion is wrong.
The real way to win these fights is obvious: through the law. You don’t have to be a libertarian neckbeard to get angsty here. Liberals like Sam Harris staunchly defend Twitter’s right as a private company to kick off Trump and anyone who breaches terms of service. Of course, one could reply that Globo Corp’s terms of service are so purposively vague as to endanger most dissident opinion. At which point we’re back at “build a new Twitter” or, I guess, just buy Twitter and try to do better. But there’s surely a common sense go-between. Namely, when a company like Twitter or AirBnB becomes so big that it essentially functions as the town square or the short-term rental marketplace, it acquires new responsibilities.
I’m not going to pretend to work out the details in a blog post. I’ll let the lawyers argue over that. But I do want to address the aforementioned reply: “again, what gives anybody the right to dictate who uses a private company other than its owners? So what if it’s a big company?”
One reply is fairly obvious: size matters. Or, more precisely, market dominance and access matters. As Colin Wright found out when he was banned from PayPal and Etsy, it’s not like we can build new payment rails or a new bank overnight. Clearly, some private companies in this regard are operating services that should legally be regarded as inalienable rights (like access to a bank account and postal address). Though access to Twitter and AirBnB do not fall into this bucket, I see no reason why denial of service to Ms Southern’s parents should not be a criminal offence. It is not the same as forcing your local baker to make you a cake (something the UK Supreme Court compared to compelled speech).
Those opposing a Tipping Point law must do more than shout that freedom is important. They must demonstrate the consequences of refusing to legislate big tech, which, in our current world, looks a lot like being steamrollered by the prevailing winds of woke-ism. Today, the libertarian love of “freedom from” and the hatred of tyrannous majorities sounds more like unquestionable catechism than an empirical defence of a rational way to order a global society. It’s like libertarians have a Kantian faith that if only the rule of non-interference is universally applied, society will, ceteris paribus, be better, people will flourish more. But there is no ceteris paribus. Cultures change. And that change is accelerated by a steadfast commitment to corporate liberty.
Of course, COVID-19 reminded us that a sensible approach to negative liberty is vital. Carl Schmitt famously wrote that ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception’ — many of us are wary of future governments using the “new normal” to advance authoritarian policy. But would a series of mild legal commitments to people’s consumer rights when dealing with Globo Corp be anything other than common sense? Such laws would protect both left- and right-wing dissidents from the tentacles of corporate power.
Matthew Archer is the Editor-in-Chief of Aporia Magazine.
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