In 1919 in Abrams v. United States, the Supreme Court posited that truth could be tested out in a marketplace.[i] Later, in Whitney v. California (1927) Louis Brandeis wrote that the remedy to bad speech should be more speech, not enforced silence. For decades this was the orthodox free speech position on how to respond to “bad speech.”[ii] Finally, in 1953 in United States v. Rumely, William O. Douglas penned that speech competes for people’s minds in the marketplace of ideas. These separate statements made a cohesive line of thought on free speech in America: good and bad speech compete in an equal marketplace for the attention of the audience, and we recognize good speech because it will win purchase in the marketplace of ideas.[iii]
The notion that the solution to bad speech is good speech or that there is an equal place for them to compete has come under heightened scrutiny. Critical legal scholars, feminists, and race theorists have brought legitimate criticism to the fore and created a spirited dialogue around the First Amendment and the limits of free speech. This has become a particularly important and relevant conversation in recent years as there has been a resurgence in racist, sexist, and homophobic speech, what many would consider hate speech, in the public. As hate groups have become more open and more mainstream in response to the American political climate there has been a vociferous debate on what counts as free speech, who has it, and when it applies.
I argue that one cause of this problem in speech theory is that marketplace-based defenses of free speech commodify speech. Speech, according to these metaphors, is valuable for what it can be traded for – influence in the marketplace of ideas. However, good speech cannot respond to bad speech if it is devalued in the marketplace because of the speaker’s position within the marketplace. So today we’re going to explore the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas and argues that it must be rejected because of its commodification of speech. A Marxist understanding of what’s called reification shows how the marketplace metaphor is ultimately alienating.
Cindy Griffin argues that identity is property, and the marketplace perpetuates a system in which speakers are not robbed of the objects of their work but starved of their very being.[iv] Her position is that alienation is caused by the hierarchy present in discourse and is harmful to marginalized people because identity is at the heart of exchanges and production. Marginalized people are not stripped of their physical property but of their innermost selves in capitalism, which is the foundation of alienation. This is germane to the marketplace metaphor because what is being traded on the marketplace is not physical work but speech. Speech is not a physical product, but the marketplace metaphor treats it as such. Speech is much more akin to a representation of selfhood than a physical product of labor, but the marketplace metaphor is based on a liberal market of goods and services. Richard Parker writes that jurists have displayed a particular penchant for the metaphor of the marketplace,[v] but it has been heavily criticized in legal and communication literature.[vi] But none of the critics he mentions do so because of the alienating effect of the marketplace metaphor.
It might be easy for some critics to dismiss this critique of the marketplace metaphor because it is just that – a metaphor. And a metaphor is just a stylistic or poetic technique used to add “prettiness” to prose. But metaphors are not just ornamental. Metaphors are integral to our understanding of life and language. A metaphor is not just a bit of poetic flair. It works within the mind to create meaning. [vii] As William Franke says, “Metaphor can reach beyond all facts and objects within the world and redefine a world as a whole.”[viii] Metaphor, he argues, has the capability to “reconfigure reality.”[ix] Philosophers and theorists from Nietzsche[x] to I.A. Richards[xi] have postulated on the connection between language and metaphor and how metaphor guides us through the meaning of meaning itself. Metaphors are the ways in which we make sense of the world.
The power of a metaphor is the power of replacement. When one uses a metaphor, one mentally replaces one idea with another. A metaphor defines things by other things by saying, “this thing is this other thing.” It replaces one idea with a dissimilar idea and claims they are, in fact, the same. This is a powerful act of rhetorical reconstruction of discourse and reality. When one uses metaphorical language, one replaces the original idea with the “symbolic” one, redefining what it is. It gives a great deal of power to the rhetor, who is defining the situation on their own terms – the terms by which they are replacing the original idea with a new one. So metaphors construct reality. Our whole understanding of the world is based on negotiating the meaning of metaphors.
In a marketplace resources equal power. In the marketplace of ideas resources equal the power to be heard. So we must seriously consider what “resources” are in the marketplace of ideas. In the most idealistic scenario, resources are good ideas, or the ability to speak well. That is what should give a speaker power. But any honest person would admit that financial resources make a difference as well. A person can buy a bigger megaphone, if you will, to be heard by more people and amplify their voice or their ideas. But cultural hegemony cannot be ignored when one considers resources. If resources are a matter of power, then we must consider who has the most power in the metaphorical marketplace. White people have more power than People of Color because of systemic and structural racism that defines our culture. Men have more power than women because of similar reasons. Straight people have more power than LGBTQ+ people and able-bodied people more power than disabled people, and so on. If the marketplace is disciplined by power relationships, then “good speech” will not necessarily rise to the top like some kind of proverbial cream, but the speech of the powerful will drown out the speech of the disempowered. The marketplace is not a space where speech is sorted by “good speech” and “bad speech.” The marketplace is defined by hegemony and power relationships so that speech is disciplined by the position of the speaker, not judged by its content.
The marketplace does not allow for good speech to respond to bad speech because speakers are not equal in the marketplace. Speakers who would add “good speech” to the market may speak from a place of marginalization, so their speech automatically cannot be traded for as much influence. John Stuart Mill, the classic liberal theorist, wrote that if all of mankind were in agreement, minus one, we would not be justified in silencing that one, and silencing a discussion is an assumption of infallibility.[xii] Unfortunately, much of his advice was swallowed up in neo-liberal metaphors like the marketplace where, instead of thinking we can never silence one opinion, we allow opinions to be silenced if others are deemed more suitable, and if the majority settles on an idea then all others would fall to the wayside. The perfidious marketplace metaphor engulfed Mill’s guidance which was meant to be a great equalizer, but in reality, just strengthened systemic biases. The marketplace metaphor is a bastardization of Mill’s theory because it silences that speech that does not find footing in the marketplace, whereas Mill argued we are not justified in silencing any. Mill described a situation in which all ideas could be shared and vetted, but he did not describe a situation in which some ideas would be silenced because they could not find purchase in a metaphorical marketplace. Mill did not commodify speech in that way. Speech was valuable to Mill regardless of the influence it bought.
Legal scholas have long contested the marketplace metaphor for economic reasons, but not for the alienating, commodifying reasons I argue for. According to Parker, “The legal economists—led by Ronald Coase and Paul Brietzke—spelled out the omission of “transaction costs” as fatal flaws in this marketplace of ideas. First, they criticized the descriptive inaccuracy of the neoclassical conception” of a boundless, uninhibited free market.[xiii] Thus, they decry the marketplace as being cornered by special interests and affording protections to those groups at the at the expense of marginalized communities.[xiv]
The question of commodification is often a question of boundaries.[xv] There is endless debate over what should and should not be a commodity. This debate is informed by discussions of economic and monetary values, liberal ideals, notions of dehumanization and disempowerment, or the converse of that, agency and empowerment, alienation, and subjectification and objectification. For some it is a moral issue – there are some things, like life, humans, health, and liberty that cannot be valued with money or trade. And others see the ability to trade those things as the ultimate signifier of freedom.
There is also the question as to whether commodification means privatization.[xvi] Commodities are things that are traded, and they can be traded because they are owned. It seems antithetical to argue that public speech is a private thing. Certainly, commercial speech might be owned in this way, but public speech, is, by its very nature, public. And that is the speech that is supposedly weighed in the marketplace of ideas. But a marketplace is for privately owned commodities to be bought and sold. The marketplace not only commodifies speech but sets up an environment in which it may be privatized.[xvii] Privatized speech only plays into the imbalance of power of the marketplace. Those buyers and sellers in the marketplace that have more resources, such as their position in society, have more ability to buy and sell speech. So a metaphor that treats speech like a private commodity automatically privileges those who are from more powerful and resourced communities.
The most literal example of this is probably Citizens United.[xviii] In the infamous 2010 case, corporations were granted the rights of an individual. But the mechanism by which the Courts accomplished that was the literal commodification of speech. In Citizens United, money (in that case, donations) was considered free speech. In the most elementary sense, if money is speech, then those with more money can talk louder and longer. So when corporations were granted the right to free speech the way an individual has, the marketplace became tipped in their favor. A corporation has more “speech” at their disposal than the vast majority of Americans. In a marketplace where speech is literally commodified, owners are empowered.
Commodification is a matter of dehumanization and disempowerment.[xix] This is because commodification reduces the person (subject) to a thing (object). This is generally when the person is being commodified, but the pattern holds for speech. Commodification reduces speech (the subject) to a thing (the object). Markets are by nature corrupting and degrading.[xx] They degrade the nature of the thing they commodify into something to be bought and sold.
In more specific terms, the marketplace metaphor reifies speech. Lukacs describes reification as the process in which a person’s labor becomes something objective and independent of themselves. It becomes something that controls them by virtue of an autonomy that is alien to them. The marketplace metaphor defines speech as a product to be traded, or a product of labor. And products of labor lead to alienation. According to Lukacs,
There is both an objective and a subjective side to this phenomenon. Objectively a world of objects and relations between things springs into being (the world of commodities and their movements on the market). The laws governing these objects are indeed gradually discovered by man [sic], but even so they confront his [sic] as invisible forces that generate their own power. The individual can use his [sic] knowledge of these laws to his [sic] own advantage, but he [sic] is not able to modify the process by his [sic] own activity. Subjectively – where the market economy has been fully developed- a man’s [sic] activity becomes estranged from himself [sic]; it turns into a commodity which, subject to the non-human objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man [sic] just like any consumer article.[xxi]
In short, the subjective, or the ideal, in Lukacs’ terms, “labor” becomes objective. Reification is making a thing a thing. And when that ideal becomes objective it can be commodified, or bought and sold, and ultimately that devalues or estranges or alienates it from that person who produced it. The marketplace metaphor, then, is alienating. It estranges us from our speech by making it a product which we trade for other subjectives (like influence or attention) that are being commodified. So what ought to be a human interaction becomes a “thing” interaction and objects of human creation lose their human meaning and retain only a money value or meaning. The extreme state of such alienation is reached when a person becomes a substitution for money.[xxii]
Reification is a specific form of alienation. Alienation is, quite simply, “a process in which what should be familiar becomes strange.”[xxiii] “Workers cannot own what they’ve made.”[xxiv] Cindy L. Griffin describes alienation as a rhetorical category, dictated by a particular form of logic or reasoning rather than a strictly material experience. In other words, it is a discursive problem.[xxv] Alienation, she argues, is a result of hierarchies that are cast as a normal and necessary part of the social order, and they perpetuate rhetorical constructed identities that become material phenomenon.[xxvi] This is particularly germane to the marketplace metaphor because the marketplace metaphor establishes just those kinds of hierarchies. Some speakers are more privileged, or powerful, in the marketplace because of their position in society, be that because of socioeconomic status, race, sex or gender presentation, religion, ability, or other status marker. When these hierarches are perpetuated by the marketplace metaphor, it is alienating.
So language and alienation are intrinsically linked. According to Richard Wilkie,
Marx reasons that language symbols themselves are subject to alienation. Language symbol alienation, that is, the estrangement of human beings from their concepts and ideas as expressed words, appears to Marx to be the case of language symbols having lost or distorted their human referent. People, therefore, having lost such referential meaning in their language, will have lost or lost control of their own consciousness as well, since, as we have been told, language ‘produces’ consciousness.[xxvii]
Metaphors such as the marketplace, then, are incredibly powerful. If the metaphor itself is alienating, then Marx would warn us that we must be wary of our consciousness, because language, as a symbol, produces consciousness. These symbols, and the marketplace is doubly a symbol because it is a metaphor, and incredibly powerful.
Labor produces labor’s product and confronts it as something alien – as a power independent of the producer. Labor’s “realization is its objectification. In the conditions dealt with by the political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of reality for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and object-bondage; appropriate as estrangement, as alienation. So much does labor’s realization appear as loss of reality that the worker loses reality to the point of starving to death.”[xxviii] In other words, the work of a speaker, or in case the speech, becomes alienated from the speaker. The speech is reified.
Humanity’s estranged labor turns our species being into an alien. It estranges us from our own body. An immediate consequence of the fact that we are estranged from the produce of our labor is the estrangement from person to person.[xxix] When we commodity speech and think of it as a reified thing, or a product of labor to be traded, we risk alienating ourselves from each other and from ourselves as individuals.
Speech, then, must be valued not because of any kind influence one can barter it for or some value one can assess it for, as a marketplace metaphor implies. In that metaphor you compete for attention, and you trade your speech for power and influence in the public sphere. In the marketplace scenario marginalized speakers have been pushed so far to the edge that regardless of their inherent value they cannot access the power of speech. They cannot trade their speech for influence because the marketplace does not recognize the value of their speech because of their position in society.
An attack on free speech is an attack on marginalized identities first and foremost while the privileged get to continue speaking. If there is a threat to free speech, it is in the structures in which it has been ensconced for decades. The defenses and metaphors we have used to defend and define free speech have actually limited speech and speakers. We must decouple speech from the marketplace metaphor and value it because of the personhood it represents.
One of the most obvious responses to this critique of the metaphor comes from Richard Parker who reminds us that the marketplace metaphor is just that – a metaphor, and not an analogy.[xxx] Parker’s criticism shows a certain rhetorical naivete about the power of a metaphor and language. Parker also assumes an all-or-nothing attitude. If one rejects the marketplace, one must accept government regulation. That is not the argument I make. I reject the tyranny of the marketplace that leads to alienation.
The marketplace metaphor takes speech and turns it into a capitalist enterprise. A Marxist criticism of the prevailing metaphor in speech theory exposes the injustice and hegemony of that ideological framework.
In the marketplace those with the most resources have the best opportunity to trade. And resources are a matter of power. Power comes from money and social status. So those who are economically established or empowered because of their race, sex, or other social marker have a better opportunity to be heard. People from underrepresented populations are at the mercy of a marketplace that disempowers them. Their commodified speech is less valuable and cannot be traded for as much influence as their privileged competitors.
Reification is a particular form of alienation, and in the marketplace metaphor, speech becomes reified. People become alienated from their speech and from themselves in the marketplace metaphor because their value is diminished to what can be bartered for their speech, and the value of their speech is dependent on their status in society. It is an inherently unjust metaphor and a pernicious basis for free speech theory. It stratifies people into hierarchies which produces alienation. Commodification cannot be how we measure speech. We must value people not as things to trade, but as humans.
[i] Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)
[ii] Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)
[iii] United States v. Rumely, 345 U.S. 41 (1953)
[iv] Cindy L. Griffin, “Rhetoricizing Alienation: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rhetorical Construction of Women’s Oppression.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 80 (1994): 304.
[v] Parker, Richard A. “The Case of the Contentious Metaphor.” Free Speech Yearbook 44, no. 1 (2009): 1-14.
[vi] Blasi, Vincent. “Holmes and the Marketplace of Ideas.” Supreme Court Review 2004: 1-46.
— . “The Checking Value in First Amendment Theory.” American liar Foundation Research Journal (1977): 521-649
Fraleigh, Douglas M., and Joseph S. Tuman. Freedom of Speech in the Marketplace of Ideas. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997
[vii] Michael M. Osborn and Douglas Ehninger, “The Metaphor in Public Address.” Speech Monographs 29 no.3 (1962):225-226.
[viii] William Franke, “Metaphor and the Making of Sense: The Contemporary Metaphor Renaissance.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 33 no. 2 (2000): 148.
[ix] Franke, 138.
[x] Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.
[xi] I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, New York, 1936
– Interpretation in Teaching, London, 1938
[xii] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 20-21.
[xiii] Parker, 6
[xiv] Parker, 6
[xv] “Preface Freedom Equality and the Many Futures of Commodification,” Rethinking Commodification Cases and Readings in Law and Culture, Eds. Martha M. Ertman and Joan C. Williams (New York: New York University Press, 2005): 4
[xvi] Jacek Tittenbaum, Concepts of Capital The Commodification of Social Life (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2014): 171.
[xvii] Tittenbaum, 173.
[xviii] Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)
[xix] Margaret Jane Radin and Madhavi Sunder, “The Subject and Object of Commodification,” Rethinking Commodification Cases and Readings in Law & Culture, Eds. Martha M. Ertman and Joan C. Williams (New York: New York University Press, 2005): 8.
[xx] Michael J. Sandel, “What Money Can’t Buy The Moral Limits of Money, Rethinking Commodification,” Rethinking Commodification Cases and Readings in Law & Culture, Eds. Martha M. Ertman and Joan C. Williams (New York: New York University Press, 2005): 123.
[xxi] Lukacs, 87
[xxii] Richard W. Wilkie, “Karl Marx on Rhetoric,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 9, no. 3 (1976): 240.
[xxiii] James Arnt Aune, Rhetoric and Marxism. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994): 26.
[xxiv] Aune, 26
[xxv] Griffin, 296
[xxvi] Griffin, 302
[xxvii] Wilkie, 237
[xxviii] Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans by Martin Milligan. (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987): 71.
[xxix] Marx, 77-78.
[xxx] Parker, 8
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.