Disrupting “The Marketplace of Ideas”: Then and Now  

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The “better angels of our nature” that Abraham Lincoln talked about have always been in short supply on the American right.  However, that problem sometimes goes into remission, and people forget.

It became hard to forget with the rise of the Tea Party after the election of an African American president; and, from the moment it became clear that Donald Trump had to be taken seriously, it became impossible.  Under Trump, vileness reigns.

In conjunction with developments in ostensibly liberal quarters that have been percolating for years, the Tea Party and then the Trump phenomenon have made “free speech” issues problematic in ways that they have not been since the days when the United States was devastating Vietnam.

Back then, and now again, militants identified with leftwing ideological perspectives would sometimes violate liberal norms by disrupting or preventing public expressions of views they oppose.

The disrupters then were mostly students at elite colleges and universities; and their fields of operation seldom extended beyond the borders of their campuses.  With few exceptions, they were white and from upper-middle or upper class positions.

Some of today’s disrupters are students too.  To the best of my knowledge, they have never been studied systematically except at an anecdotal and impressionistic level.  Therefore, not much is known about them.

It would be fair to say, however, that, before they were radicalized, fewer of them than their counterparts sixty years ago were being educated to assume high-level positions in the American power structure.  It is even likely that some of them come from humble class positions, and that faith in the so-called “American dream” was rare in the world from which they came.

Their disruptions, like those in the preceding dispensation, raise philosophical questions of some moment, though, in their case, unlike before, those questions are seldom discussed, and the discussions that do take place are generally muddled.

This is unfortunate because, in today’s world, efforts to disrupt the marketplace of ideas are politically consequential; and, for assessing those consequences, having some purchase on the philosophical issues involved is indispensible.


Liberal political philosophy began as and has always been a philosophy of tolerance.  It emerged in the course of the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation, as the contending sides, having fought to exhaustion, sought to justify the sentiment famously articulated by Rodney King, “can’t we all get along?”

What began as an effort to justify an inevitable and grudging acceptance of religious diversity became, in time, a full-fledged celebration of diversity – in beliefs and ways of living – that has always accorded pride of place to freedom of expression.  As much or more even than freedom of religion, support for free speech defines the liberal worldview.

Theoretical accounts of that worldview are tantamount to theories of limited sovereignty.  They hold that there are areas of individuals’ lives and behaviors into which political authorities cannot rightfully intrude; that, in those areas, individuals enjoy immunities from coercive interference.

In time, liberals argued that those immunities extend beyond relations between individuals and governments into the broader sphere of civil society.  Thus the greatest of the classical liberal philosophers, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), called for shielding individuals not just from state interference, but also from “the moral coercion of public opinion.”

In the liberal view, what individuals do ought to be their own business – unless, there is some compelling reason for the state or the broader civil society to interfere.  The only kind of reason Mill and other classical liberals countenanced was the prevention of  (significant) harm to (identifiable) others.

Paternalistic reasons (making persons better off or preventing them from doing harm to themselves) are ruled out.   Interferences intended to shield people from feeling offended or disrespected are also ruled out, as are efforts to enforce morality or any particular vision, religious or secular, of the good life.  Even interferences intended to prevent harm to society generally, as distinct from harm to particular individuals, are proscribed.

It is therefore all but impossible, from a liberal point of view, to justify interfering with the free expression of opinions.   Opinions, like all matters of conscience, fall within what should be thought of as a private sphere, in which everyone is, so to speak, sovereign over him or herself.

This is not just an undefended stipulation.  It is a principled conviction, backed by arguments.  Those arguments fall into two broad categories: those that appeal to fundamental rights, and those that maintain that tolerance makes outcomes better.

A general and arguably fatal problem with rights based justifications is justifying those rights themselves.

In American politics, that problem is typically avoided — or evaded – by shifting the discussion away from rights claims in general to rights claims rooted in the U.S. Constitution.

Where rights come from is profoundly, perhaps fatally, mysterious.  But there is no mystery about where the First Amendment came from.  It came from Philadelphia – specifically, from discussions held there at Constitution Hall in the late 1780s.

Because, like other Constitutionally prescribed rights, the Second Amendment is worded in ways that make its implications unclear, it could be said too that it, or rather, its elaborations and embellishments, also come from the chambers of the Supreme Court in Washington DC.

There is therefore nothing arbitrary or groundless about it.  This is small consolation, however, for anyone seeking guidance when free speech issues arise.

For as long as there has been a Constitution, the complexities of First Amendment casuistry have commanded the attention of judges, legal theorists and ordinary citizens.

As their contributions to free speech issues have unfolded, it has become increasingly clear that most, if not all, positions that could be defended or criticized straightforwardly can just as well, be teased out of the words of the Constitution itself and the jurisprudence that has grown up around it.  All that is needed is sufficient ingenuity (or disingenuousness).

Legal traditions and Constitutional jurisprudence affect how issues must be addressed and how arguments must be made.  But substantively, they change little or nothing at all.

And neither do they suggest a way to defend liberal immunities generally.  Among other things, the U.S. Constitution does not address all matters of liberal concern.

This is a particular problem for the kinds of libertarians who, when they set out to justify their views, draw, as Thomas Jefferson and many other “founding fathers” did, on the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704).   Locke thought that rights came from God.

As a deist, Jefferson was loath to follow Locke down that road.  Deists believe that an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good Being did indeed create all that is, but that, beyond that, this Being had no further involvement in human affairs. The God of the deists was simply not hands on enough as to establish fundamental political or civil rights.

Nevertheless, when it seemed rhetorically appropriate, Jefferson was not beyond talking as if that was precisely what God did.

Nowadays, appeals to God of the kind Locke made centuries ago seem outlandish on their face, except perhaps in benighted regions still mired in antiquated modes of thought.  But notwithstanding Jefferson’s expectations, many such places survive in the Land of the Free.  And even in academic precincts, there are libertarians and others, neo-Lockeans, who justify individuals’ rights to own (control and gain revenue from) productive assets, and to exchange them as they please, in roughly the way Locke did.  They seldom invoke God directly, but they might as well.

More satisfactory justifications for at least some liberal immunities, especially ones pertinent to freedom of expression, eschew rights talk – Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) famously called it “nonsense on stilts” – in favor of justifications that depend on the purportedly beneficial consequences of freedom from political and moral coercion.

Bentham, a founder of “utilitarian” theory, influenced Mill, the author of On Liberty (1859).  Utilitarianism is mainly an ethical theory, but it also provides a way to assess social practices and institutions.  The general idea is that the best institutional arrangements are those that have the best effects on the wellbeing of individuals.

Mill took a version of that idea on board, defending tolerance generally and freedom of expression in particular on the grounds that, compared to any and all alternative practices, it is most conducive to promoting individual wellbeing – not always on a case-by-case basis, but as a general rule.

Mill never spoke of a “marketplace of ideas”; the expression was a concoction of    Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935).  But that was the idea he had in mind.

Decades after the thought behind Holmes’ expression began to resonate in American jurisprudence, it was demonstrated that, in ideal cases, markets do indeed produce the best of all possible outcomes in a well-defined sense of “best.”  However, the connections between what we now know to be demonstrable and the intuitions behind marketplace of ideas talk are attenuated at best.

What Mill thought, with regard to speech, was that the best ideas – the truest and most morally decent – are more likely to emerge when there are no restrictions on what can be said or otherwise expressed than when restrictions are in place.  Mill also maintained that, in addition to improving the level of public discourse, pure or unrestricted tolerance –tolerance of views as such, regardless of their content — also gives rise to a virtuous circle in which individuals become, as it were, more competent consumers in the marketplace of ideas.

This is not the place to evaluate Mill’s arguments – they certainly have their problems — except to point out the irony in the fact that, for many liberals, the general soundness of Mill’s defense of pure tolerance is, for all practical purposes, an article of faith, a tenet of a prevailing (liberal) orthodoxy.


This is also not the place to examine connections between liberal political philosophy, as it has developed over the centuries, and what “liberalism” has come to mean in American politics.

Suffice it to say that, while the connections are complicated, they exist.   Between On Liberty and other classical and contemporary articulations of liberal political philosophy and, say, the New Deal – Great Society political settlement, there are more than enough historical continuities and conceptual affinities to justify using the same name for both.

The two are not the same, but there are seldom reasons to be fastidious in shifting from one sense to the other.  This point is germane inasmuch as efforts to block or disrupt speech are always, on the face of it, illiberal; and because “first dispensation” speech disrupters were motivated by opposition to a war that was, and was perceived at the time to be, a war waged by liberals.

That perception waned even before Richard Nixon became president, and the still unindicted war criminal Henry Kissinger joined with Nixon to intensify the level of pointless and wanton destruction in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.  At the time, Nixon was considered the very antithesis of a liberal, an understanding that carried over to Kissinger as well.

It is relevant, though, that insofar as the operative standard is fidelity to the spirit and letter of the New Deal – Great Society settlement, Nixon was more of a liberal than, say, Barack Obama, much less Clinton or her husband or anybody else currently leading the Democratic Party.  It also bears mention that, even in his present state of decrepitude, Kissinger served as an advisor to Hillary Clinton.

In any case, it is understandable that students and others, fresh from the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and related civil rights struggles in the South, would let their horror at the death and destruction America was raining down upon Vietnam and its neighbors, and their hostility towards the liberals behind it, diminish their commitment to sacrosanct liberal protections of free expression.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that first dispensation speech disrupters were merely acting out.  They thought that insofar as they were destroying liberal protections, it was only, as it were, to save them.  In holding this view, they were not just blowing air; they had a certain take on liberal political philosophy behind them, and they had a distinguished philosopher adeptly expounding it.

Along with other greater and lesser eminences of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) came to the United States as a refugee before World War II.  Unlike many of the others, he stayed.

As an unabashed Hegelian with interests in Heidegger, Marx, and Freud, Marcuse was hardly a philosopher in the American vein.  However, back in the day, academics in the humanities, harbored a grudging respect for European scholars with good reputations in cosmopolitan circles, and so Marcuse was able to find a niche.

Leftwing American students were especially draw to anything with a Marxist flavor that bore the imprimatur of German or French respectability.  The United States never had much of an indigenous Marxist tradition to start with, and what there was had been largely decimated during the McCarthy era.  Marcuse’s arrival on the scene was a godsend.

Also, by the sixties, there was a developing convergence between longstanding Frankfurt School concerns with the role of media in late (overripe) capitalism, and ways of thinking that were emerging in the Anglosphere, according to which, as in the celebrated slogan of Marshall McLuhan, “the media is the message.”

Having come of age in Wilhelmine Germany, Marcuse was fascinated by the contrast between the ways in which, for example, news about atrocities committed by Germans during World War I were suppressed, while Americans could watch American troops committing atrocities against the Vietnamese every night on television.  He was confident that had the news gotten out in the Germany of his youth that support for the war would have quickly disappeared.  This did not seem to be happening in the United States, at least not rapidly enough for him to notice.

Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance” makes particular sense in that context.

Naturally, the way he set out to justify the concept reflected the Hegelian – or rather Left Hegelian – bases of his thought.   The Left Hegelians – Marx was one of them for a while — were a group of young German philosophers in the late 1830s and 40s who maintained that Hegel’s philosophy of history, at least in Germany at the time, had revolutionary implications.

From within that theoretical perspective, he argued that liberal tolerance was part of the Enlightenment’s emancipatory project, and ought to have culminated in a Revolution that would put Reason in control – initially in Europe and then throughout the world.

For Marcuse and other Frankfurt School thinkers, that revolution began in Russia, but then faltered in Germany and everywhere else outside the Soviet Union, where efforts to survive capitalist encirclement and to overcome economic and cultural backwardness gave rise to profound distortions which, so to speak, threw History off its track.

As a result, capitalism survived and even prospered; and pure tolerance, tolerance regardless of content, “turned into its opposite.”   It became a means for perpetuating an oppressive status quo.

How could this have come about?   Marcuse’s account is too obscure to say for sure precisely what he thought.  It is clear, though, that institutions that shape what eighteenth century philosophers called “opinion,” and that Marxist-leaning Frankfurt School dialecticians called “consciousness,” had everything to do with this remarkable transformation.

Nowadays, such concerns would lead critics to focus on inequality and the concentration of media ownership.  Marcuse cast blame mainly on the media itself.

Like McLuhan, he made much of passive viewers being bombarded with images on flat screens; seeing commercials in which, say, cartoon mosquitoes are decimated by bug spray followed by images in news reports of real Vietnamese peasants being decimated by American bombs.  Same presentation; same moronizing effect.

Marcuse would also sometimes invoke a more pedestrian metaphor according to which “pure” tolerance functions like an escape valve through which potentially revolutionary ideas lose their power to subvert the status quo.  Marcuse seems to have thought that were they directly repressed, as they would be in more illiberal regimes, pressure would build, and they would become dangerous.  Instead, they are effectively neutered, allowing authorities to tolerate them perfectly well.

What, then, is to be done?   For Marcuse, as for other Frankfurt School theorists, this is ultimately a question about the agents of social change.

For Marcuse and the others, the traditional Marxist view, according to which a proletariat, with nothing to lose but its chains, is the bearer of new social relations, no longer obtains.  For one thing, even by the end of the nineteenth century, workers had more to lose than their chains.  For another, when the world revolution Marxists envisioned stalled at the borders of the old Russian empire, there was no way, within the confines of the prevailing orthodoxy, to bring it back to life.

It would therefore seem that the Idea of Freedom has no way to get where it must go – unless an alternative agent, a substitute for a no longer revolutionary working class, could somehow take its place.

Some thought that Third World liberation struggles could rise to the occasion.  With the Vietnam War raging, and intimations of what Che Guevara called for – “two, three, many Vietnams” – in the air, radical students were on board.  Marcuse less so; he was sympathetic, but skeptical.

His reservations were not exactly those of an aging fuddy-duddy.  Quite to the contrary, this most unhippy-like of men, put his faith in the emerging counter-culture of the time.  Marcuse himself was more drawn to Goethe than to the Grateful Dead, but he had great hopes for sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Perhaps this was madness, but there was indeed a method to it.  To break out of a stultifying social order no longer capable of revolutionizing itself, one had to be outrageous in the way that only a genuinely counter-cultural current can be.

But this is more easily said than done, as Marcuse and his followers soon discovered; the system’s capacity to coopt just about anything turned out to be limitless.

Nevertheless, for a while, Herbert Marcuse was a household name, a media star.  His thoughts about transgressive behavior gained a wide audience, especially in student circles.  Disrupters of the norms governing the marketplace of ideas looked to him for validation and guidance.

It was not always obvious at the time, but it is nevertheless plain, especially in retrospect, that, throughout it all, Marcuse never opposed liberal positions at the level of ideal theory.

Their terminology and the philosophical underpinnings of their views were plainly different, but it would not be wrong, only anachronistic, to identify Marcuse’s views about what ought to be with Mill’s.   Where the thinking of the two part ways is over what to do in cases where real world conditions deviate significantly from those assumed in the ideal case.

Indeed, the position Marcuse became notorious for defending is of a piece with widely accepted ways of thinking about other social practices.  For example, pacifists and most non-pacifists agree that there would be no wars waged in a better possible world.  But, again, the actual world is far from ideal.  Pacifists think that the way to move it closer to the ideal is to act as one would under better circumstances; non-pacifists who value real peace think instead that wars must sometimes be fought to get to a point where they need be fought no longer.  Many of them also think that the pacifist way, if widely followed, could, and usually would, make matters worse.

Those who insist on holding sacrosanct the principle of non-interference in the marketplace of ideas are like pacifists; those who agree with Marcuse are like the non-pacifists most of us are.

Of course, this is only an analogy, but I would venture that the cases are enough alike that it could be argued, very plausibly, that, from a moral point of view, Marcuse’s position, though transgressive, is not especially problematic.  The problem with it is just that, in practice, it is counter-productive.

It is, by now, a familiar story: disrupt speeches given by defenders of indefensible positions and, before long, the disruption itself, not the positions that warranted what the disrupters did, is all that anybody wants to talk about.

This soon came to be widely appreciated.  When the disruptions ceased, as they did not long after they began, it was in large part for this reason.


Thus disruptive students and others who took Marcuse to have vindicated positions they were led to by sheer outrage and anger, and those who were radicalized by those arguments themselves, had no real quarrel with Mill’s or any other liberal philosopher’s defense of free expression.

Quite to the contrary: pure tolerance had turned into its opposite, and they saw themselves turning it back.

Or rather, trying to turn it back, but failing – inasmuch as their efforts deflected attention away from the ideas and arguments they wanted to force upon a marketplace of ideas gone topsy turvy, making free speech itself the issue instead.

There is no reason to expect that disruptions nowadays, a half century later, would not have the same consequences.  There is ample evidence corroborating this expectation.

The last time, though, the disruptions gave rise to interesting, even edifying, philosophical debates.  This time, such debates as there are have had mainly to do with dubious empirical claims that well meaning but muddle-headed people, responding to the outrages of the present period, have turned into dogmas.

Unlike before, the student left is no longer where the action is.  It does seem that “the times they are a’ changing” once again, but not nearly fast enough.  Even now it is far from clear that there is any significant student left at all.

Nevertheless, many of the most widely publicized efforts to disrupt or prevent the free expression of ideas still take place in privileged academic precincts. Trumpians who bloviate against “political correctness” make the most of this.  For anyone intolerant of silliness, it is hard not to sympathize with them.

In The Leviathan (1651), the greatest work of political philosophy ever written in the English language, Thomas Hobbes listed “glory” among the characteristics of human nature that, unchecked, would lead to a devastating “war of all against all.”  Glory causes persons to attack one another “for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other signe of undervalue, either direct in their Persons, of by reflexion in their Kindred, their Friends, their Nation, their Profession, or their Name.”

It could seem that Hobbes was describing a state of mind that has become common in some student milieus to such an extent that unaffected students and administrators intent on avoiding strife (and lawsuits) have become willing to proscribe expressions of ideas that some might find offensive.  Whether or not the ideas in question could be reasonably deemed noxious hardly matters.

This is not a matter of turning pure tolerance right side up in order to restore its emancipatory function.  It is pure and simple illiberalism.

Liberalism opposes state and societal institutions treating adults like children.  There is a liberal case to be made for protecting children from hurt feelings; for adults, there is none.  Neither is there a case for not treating college-age children like full-fledged adults.

What seems to have happened is that reasonable ideas about the importance of self-esteem in early childhood education have percolated up and beyond K-12 teaching into the ambient culture of colleges and universities, causing entire categories of persons to inveigh against treating themselves and others like the grownups they surely are.

There are, of course, important issues about how much to challenge young and not-so-young students, and about civility in the classroom.  These are pedagogical, not philosophical, concerns, however; they have no bearing on issues of free speech.

But with the Left goes missing, that point gets lost.  Politics abhors a vacuum.  With class politics out (except, of course, for the ruling class), identity politics rushes in, and liberal protections go by the board — as trifles, words, smiles, and the like become paramount concerns.

Combine that frame of mind with an ahistorical understanding of styles of politics reminiscent of historical fascism, styles legitimated and even promoted by Donald Trump and the miscreants around him, and what we get is antifa – a leftish variant of alt-right hooliganism.

Antifa illiberalism might be defensible if there were reasons to think that it helps to protect communities of color made more vulnerable than before by Trump’s assumption of power.  However, just the opposite seems to be the case.  This new dispensation of illiberal militancy makes the situation of vulnerable communities and persons worse.

Of course, it is far too soon to know for sure.  Therefore, let the debate go on.  Indeed, for Mill’s reasons, no debate should ever be closed — because, as he maintained, what seems patently false now could turn out, despite everything, to be true or partly true, and because even if does not, “the lively confrontation of truth with error” makes for better, more competent, consumers in the marketplace of ideas.

But even with all questions left open, and all conclusions regarded as provisional, we still sometimes have to judge and act.

In this case, that is easy.  It is more than clear enough that antifa is bad news; that, whatever else it does, it makes outcomes worse, for vulnerable populations especially.

The intolerance Marcuse defended was counter-productive too.  But then, the bad consequences were not all that grave, and the forms of militancy he defended did lead to advances in philosophical and political insight.  There are no redeeming political or philosophical benefits in the offing now.

There is a certain irony in this because, from the time of the French Revolution, and especially in the period around and after the First World War, there were lively and insightful discussions, on both the Left and the Right, about what violence is and about whether, and to what extent, it can be justified – not just philosophically, but also, mainly, politically.

Fascists, real ones, and others too promoted notions of redemptive violence, as indispensable means for replacing decadence with virtue, and for turning societies in the grip of decrepitude into vigorous, healthy political regimes.  These ways of thinking resonated far beyond the horizons of the hard Right.

Similar views emerged in the course of anti-colonial liberation struggles in the middle and later years of the twentieth century.   Franz Fanon’s masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, is a still widely read example.

However, there is no hint of any of this emanating out of antifa circles. They have no Marcuse; indeed, from a distance it looks like they only have ruffians and louts itching for fights.

Could they be provacateurs?   No doubt, some of them are.  After all, our deep state is on their case, and, as our second worst president ever would put it, only a fool would “misunderestimate” the FBI, or doubt the capacity of our  “intelligence services,” the CIA especially, to do democracy harm.

More likely, though, most of them are just unhinged.  They should be reined in and their energies put to better, more constructive uses, while there is still a chance.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).