Is the “Marketplace of Ideas” Actually a Useful Metaphor?

Black Cat on 2020-01-06

We’ve all heard the idea from the shitlibs: “you’ve got to beat them in the marketplace of ideas”.

We’ve heard the jokes too:

And, of course, the way that liberals use the phrase is ridiculous. We’re supposed to respond to genuinely evil people, committing hate crimes, with well-reasoned debate?

Of course we’re not going to do that.

What is interesting, though, is what the metaphor reveals about the discourse, if you are willing to entertain it: that, under capitalism, there very much is a marketplace of ideas. But, this marketplace is not freed and equal, as markets would be under socialism: it is filled with subsidies, regulations, and (mostly metaphorical) property claims enforced by centralized violence.

By subsidies, I mean that certain views are promoted — and this is more of an effect of the state than might be obvious.

The Overton window is maintained because content must proliferate to be seen. Content must do that on social media platfoms, because social media platforms are where most of the views are. Only certain sorts of content can proliferate on social media platforms, and this is biased in ways decided by those who structure the social media platforms — the platforms are not neutral.

To be more explicit: social media platforms use algorithms designed by monolithic corporations headquartered in southern California, and those algorithms are intended to be (and are) effective at shaping conversations.

Social media platforms are owned and maintained by monolithic corporations headquartered in southern California because of state-backed threats of violence. Partially, from the state using violence and economies of scale in guard labor to enforce other-wise. Partially, through a system of (violently- and centrally-enforced) regulations designed by big business for big business, and slanted to favor concentrated configurations of capital over distributed configurations.

By ‘regulations’, I mean that the real world is full of things you are not allowed to say. As a personal example, I cannot argue for the virtues of criminal actions as effectively as I might otherwise be able to, because citing my own criminal experiences would incriminate myself. The great irony of pacifism is that pacifists are only able to appear to have coherent positions because the threat of violence keeps their rhetorical opponents silent — but, then, of course: the state knows that pacifism serves it, even if some pacifists make the grand joke of pretending to be anarchists.

In the 1800s, many anarchists refused to defend themselves in court — just as many anarchists now refuse to call police or vote, under any circumstances. However, enough of these principled anarchists went to jail doing this that it was only the minority of “unprincipled” ones that got to pass on their traditions and ideas — and so, modern anarchists find this idea to be ridiculous.

To be clear, so do I.

But, I might not think it was so silly if many of the people I respected were doing it — or, if I could readily access any arguments in its favor. The reason why this practice died out had nothing to do with rational discussion leading to more and more people deciding that it was immoral or impractical, and everything to do with state-violence acting as a form of “natural” selection within the memeplex.

Pacifists, too, benefit from this sort of statist selection. Despite the idea being ridiculous, something that any remotely rational or serious radical would dismiss out of hand, it persists amongst some so-called anarchists because pacifists go to jail a whole lot less, because they’re less effective at direct action. This means that, in a certain indirect way, pacifism as a moral position benefits extensively from what are effectively violently-propagated state subsidies.

As for “property claims”, these too are present — intellectual property is nothing more than private property in ideas. This is even more monstrous than private property in general is, given that — at the least — private property in real things (land, tools, etc) gives an incentive for its holders to invest in improvements to those things.

I actually got one of these shirts for my dad for this recently past Christmas. I can personally assure you that some of these shirts really were printed and shipped out. It’s extremely anarcho-accelerationist

If you copyright an abstract concept, however, there is no productivity to be gained. It is a pointless and grotesque enclosure of our commonly-held culture.

So, in all these senses, there really is a marketplace of ideas. The issue is that it’s a capitalist marketplace.

However, within an anarchist social order, all of these factors — the subsidies, the regulations, the private property claims — would melt away. With that, we would have a transition from a capitalist marketplace of ideas to a socialist marketplace of ideas — one in which there were no property claims, no regulations beyond those few that we might create bottom-up, and no one powerful enough or incentivized to provide subsidies.

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