Populism Left and Right

SCOTUS, 2009
SCOTUS, 2009
The Citizens United opinion handed down by the Supreme Court in January gave corporations a much greater freedom to spend on elections, which in turn produced a tidal wave of sky-is-falling concern on the left, especially throughout the progressive blogosphere, about the political impact.

A Marxist acquaintance wrote me and others following the opinion under the heading “Corporations are free to speak, but are the people?”

A good question I thought, are the people free to speak today?

This supreme court decision is bad, I would agree. I don’t like it. But at the same time would it not be at least mildly delusional to reason that ‘the people’ don’t have more ability today to speak publicly and freely than ever before?

First let’s be clear on this point: just because you may not be finding a great audience for particular views doesn’t mean you don’t have the freedom to speak. Odd how political extremists and conspiracy theorists of all varieties are particularly skilled at immunizing themselves against this eminently reasonable observation.

Now regarding the freedom of ‘the people’ to speak (versus ‘the corporations’) consider YouTube.com. As of today YouTube is the fourth most trafficked site on the Internet globally, with stats like these:

70,000,000 total number of videos (March 2008)
200,000 individual video publishers (March 2008)
100,000,000 videos viewed per day (2006)
112,486,327 views for the most-viewed video on YouTube (January 2009)
The average length per video is 2 minutes and 46 seconds (2009)
The average age of individual video publishers is 26.5 (2009)
The average amount of video published every minute is 13 hours (2009)

Now the fact that YouTube is filled with mostly fun, silly, escapist, distracting stuff by the population (although there are certainly many intelligent gems in there) is not, I argue, because of suppression or oppression by an elite — whether a conservative or radical elite, depending on the color of the populist spectacles through which you may angrily look –, it’s because very few people are ever interested (even with educational exposure) to pursue serious political thought. Sad but true the tragic view.

The problem with leftist politics as I’ve come to realize rather painfully (“via negativa” as Hegel calls the path of critical thinking) over a long period of time (beginning in the experience of poverty), is that as philosopher Witold Gombrowicz points out, we on the left ‘do not realize’ we are ultimately, in the end ‘aristocratic in sensibility’ (e.g. in contempt for much of middle-class life) despite all the populist rhetoric about ‘the people’.

YouTube statistical sources:

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