Directly following the recent San Jose protests against Donald Trump, The Economist published an article defending “free speech” against “overly sensitive” minority groups that “unjustly” silence their opposition through intimidation and physical violence. Much can be criticized about this article, but the current essay interrogates the author’s laissez faire idealism, problematic moral assertions, and undue criticism of left protesters.
Below, I define the “marketplace of ideas” as a location of social struggle constituted by actors with unequal capacities to manipulate the process and outcome of symbolic exchanges. Elites utilize their superior resources (money, social ties, etc.) to marginalize dissenting voices, manipulate public discourse, and maintain dominance. In response, subordinate groups are often left with few “legitimate” options and, consequently, must adopt unconventional, often stigmatized and ineffective, strategies to assert their voice (blocking traffic, interrupting speeches, etc.). Hence, the presence of social differentiation implies a) the unregulated marketplace of ideas envisioned by The Economist is unrealistic, b) elites, rather than leftists, exercise excessive regulatory power that unfairly disenfranchises opponents while undermining the role of merit in determining exchange outcomes, and c) the aforementioned criticism of activists is misplaced since their strategies reflect institutional disadvantages that prevent access through accepted means.
To begin, the aforementioned article makes several unfounded assumptions regarding the marketplace of ideas and notions of free speech. Specifically, the author(s) believe the marketplace is comprised of rational actors with equivalent resources and full information about debated topics. This egalitarian structure allows truth to emerge during unregulated competition on the basis of merit rather than coercion. Such “natural” outcomes are said to spontaneously occur and engender societal advancement. Thus, it is imperative that the marketplace remains unregulated to manifest the common good.
This position is an ideologically driven misrepresentation that masks the operation of power in public debates. The marketplace of ideas is composed of adversarial actors with dissimilar resources competing to popularize self-serving ideas and facilitate coalitions capable of achieving desired ends. In contemporary American society, labor disorganization coupled with extreme economic inequality lend the business community tremendous ability to influence what ideas are created, disseminated, and adopted by academics, civic leaders, policymakers, and the public.
To illustrate, economic elites are able to silence dissent from alternative press and community organizations through frivolous lawsuits that eliminate opponents from marketplace competition. In addition, corporate actors fund foundations and policymaking networks that produce favorable policy options that lobbyists/PACs promote to lawmakers and the electorate, respectively. Lacking equal resources, radicals, labor advocates, and minority are often unable to fairly compete in this process. Third, the business community overwhelmingly owns/controls mass media. This capacity enables related actors to determine the topics of public debate, consequently, marginalizing all ideas that threaten their privileged position. Fourth, corporate activists collaborate with legislators and executives to defund progressive think tanks and weaken tenure/academic freedom on state university campuses.
These examples demonstrate economic elites possess advantages that increase their capacity to influence marketplace exchanges. Clearly, such inequities imply regulation and/or resource redistribution are necessary to ensure ideas are selected on the basis of merit rather than coercion. In the absence of such reforms, contemporary leftists are basically forced to adopt nontraditional, frequently stigmatized strategies (i.e. occupying public space, public protests, civil disobedience, and/or violent resistance) to forcefully insert their ideas into public debates.
This dynamic reflects an unfair disadvantage that all but ensures critical perspectives will be excluded from popular dialogue and, if forcefully included, will be quickly rejected as illegitimate due to the method of entry. Painting protests as uncivilized, irrational, and illegitimate simultaneously redirects attention from the message while concealing the structural biases driving the adoption of such strategies. Instead, we should interrogate the disparities that permit elites to manipulate the marketplace, silence critical voices, and bolster oppressive social institutions that facilitate gross inequalities that undermine the standard of living for an increasing majority of Americans.
The Economist, right-wing pundits, and rank-in-file movement conservatives (extolling classical and neoliberal ideas) will object to this argument, insisting leftists unfairly control academia, the mass media, and policymaking. This position is grossly unfounded. First, universities regularly invite conservatives to speak, hire conservative professors, fund conservative campus think-tanks promoting related ideas, and financially support right-wing student organizations. In addition, business, economics, and political science departments commonly advance research agendas embraced by the conservative movement. Second, although certain ideas often associated with the left (wealth redistribution, women’s rights, LGBT equality, etc.) are advocated by certain news media outlets, these reformist ideas are always framed within the logic of capitalism and never threaten the existing power structure. Communists, socialists, anarchists, radical feminists, and queer theorists, espousing fundamental critiques of contemporary society, are never permitted access to such venues. Third, most lawmakers frequently ignore reformist policy recommendations from left-leaning academics while completely shutting radicals out of the decision-making process. Hence, leftist ideas are effectively marginalized and, therefore, prohibited from becoming influential.
In sum, the marketplace of ideas is rigged to benefit economic elites. This group largely determines market access, process, and outcomes. Critical perspectives are regularly ostracized because advocates lack resources to develop, promote, and popularize their ideas. In response, disenfranchised actors are forced to adopt strategies that violate the self-serving norms imposed by elites to structure and control market exchanges. Consequently, rather than accept the glib utopianism prompted by The Economist, observers should question the institutional biases that marginalize critical ideas, motivate nontraditional direct action, and sustain/augment contemporary social inequalities.