Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Captive Public

The Captive Public
P. Schultz
July 12, 2014

            “The ‘marketplace of ideas,’ built during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, effectively disseminates the beliefs and ideas of upper classes while subverting the ideological and cultural independence of the lower classes.” From Benjamin Ginsberg, The Captive Public, p. 86.

            This quote summarizes Benjamin Ginsberg’s argument in his book, The Captive Public, the only book I know of that takes seriously, that is, explores, the idea of a “free marketplace of ideas.” As Ginsberg notes, like the tendency of any “free market,” the tendency of a free marketplace of ideas is to serve those who have the most power, the most resources: “in the realm of opinion as in most other areas, the laws of the marketplace usually, albeit not always, favor the interests of the upper and upper-middle classes.” [p. 88] And, hence, “The construction of this forum, or ‘marketplace,’ was among the most important events of modern western history.” [p. 87] As a result of such a marketplace, modern western nations need not rely on coercion as much as other regimes did and do in order to control or “pacify” the many.

            And this marketplace or its effects are pervasive, to say the least. As Ginsberg puts it: “It is the idea of the market more than any other western social institution that provides privileged strata with the capacity to define the universe of political and social alternatives for the entire society. In the United States in particular, the ability of the upper and upper-middle classes to dominate the marketplace of ideas has generally allowed these strata to shape the entire society’s perception of poltical reality and the range of realistic political and social possibilities. While westerners usually equate the marketplace with freedom of opinion, the hidden hand of the market can be almost as potent an instrument of control as the iron fist of the state.” [p. 89]

            And those familiar with Tocqueville and his concept of “soft despotism” might be forgiven for thinking that Ginsberg has not gone far enough here, that in fact the “hidden hand of the market” can be, often, even a more powerful instrument of control than “the iron fist of the state.”

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