As I wandered on the paths of different social media networks, I’ve noticed a rather interesting concept of the visualization of the political discourse. There, I learned about the „marketplace of ideas“ which argues that every and all political ideas have a „market stall“ where they advocate for their ideas. In their economic-orientated mindset, they claim that the „best ideas“, which are decided by the „customers“ acting within the market, reach the top and dominate the others. Looking deeper into it, the metaphor does reveals its weaknesses and a fundamental law: the marketplace can only exist in countries which allow the freedom to express one’s opinion and political affilitation freely without the fear of government reprisals. In other words: a lot of nation states in the modern world do not fulfill the requirement and are therefore excluded from the metaphor. The government has a monopoly which, if questioned, results in a variation of punishments – in the worst case: death.
Secondly, the concept assumes that there exists a similar demand and supply mechanism. Whatever idea appeals to the people experiences an „increase in demand“, but that’s a fallacy in itself: what about the people who are interested in another political idea, but due the circumstances they are just slightly in the minority (e.g. 48% against 52%, as it was with Brexit the case)? Moreover, not all „customers“ have access to the market either (i.e. the youth who is not eligible to vote, because they are 16 or 17 years old) which raises the question over the accurate representation of the „demand curve“. And, most importantly, if a perfect market is given as an imaginative place, then all information should be available to the people. The slightest distortion or limitation of access can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of either the election, popular referendum, or else. In the real world, the concept simply is not a good metaphor.
Lastly, if we assume that a perfect market would indeed exist – a thought experiment -, should some ideas then only be available as soon as the „demand“ increases or when it reaches a majority? After all, the current „suppliers“ may have a quasi-monopoly on the system that is in place right now. Consequently, new „market stalls“ find it either very hard or impossible to gain a „market share“. During the first phase, the very early one, they are in the minority and are possibly looked down upon by most of society or ignored (e.g. civil rights movement in the US and women rights movement in western countries). I’m sure that a majority of the people who went to an economic school once – as I did – are aware that entering the market with a unfavourable good is pretty much economic suicide. Following that logic, putting up a fight – probably called „marketing“ in this metaphor – is the only option, but that doesn’t lead to immediate success either. Naturally, the problem of „is it worth it“ emerges and, as the contemporaries would surely have said: „things, as they are now, are fine and do not need to be changed“.
Perhaps, I miss something here, but I find it hard to believe that it could accurately describe how political ideas work and how they are spread. That’s why I propose a different view on the topic: the political struggle. In the following paragraphs I’ll elaborate on the idea.
1st Phase: Wars and Revolutions
Political ideas can be better described as a struggle, because they face a variation of obstacles to get into the public eye. Whether these ideas are democratic or authoritarian, right or left, religious or atheistic – it doesn’t matter. As a new ideology it may not only have to fight against the current status quo, but also against other movements which seek to set up a different political and economical structure in the nation and/or worldwide.
Revolutions are one way to achieve political change, if everything else has failed before. In this case, I’m talking about violent revolutions like the French (1787-1799), the German (1848-1849), or the Haitian (1791-1804). The first two instances have failed; one ended in the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the other was crushed within a year. The Haitians, on the other hand, emerged victorious and were the first former slaves to found their own nation. In their struggle for freedom they waged war on the status quo at that time, and successfully overthrew it. As slaves, there was never a „marketplace of ideas“ for them to formulate their demands and rights, because they weren’t seen as equal. A different – yet similar and peaceful – revolution would later gain foothold among women to fight for equal treatment and rights.
The revolutions were a political struggle against the old order, and many of them occured across the globe. There are two more well-known revolutions: the Russian (1917-1923) and the US-American (1775-1783). Both ended in a success for the revolutionaries.
2nd Phase: A Young Democracy and the Struggle to Survive
After the first world war (1914-1918), Germany was forced to abolish its monarchy under Wilhelm II. and establish its first democracy. Very early on, it faced coup attempts from the far left (Spartakusbund/KPD) and the far right (monarchists/militarists) which resulted in a failure. The Weimar Republic (1918/1919-1933) was seemingly build on a shaky ground, and during its existence it was plagued by several economic and political crises. In 1923, the occupation of the Ruhrgebiet in Germany led to the Ruhrkampf (1923-1925) which started due Germany being unable to pay back war reperations. As a consequence, occupation armies of France and Belgium started to occupy the Ruhrgebiet. The German government was angered by it and ordered the workers to go on a strike and they promised them that they are still getting paid.
As the Ruhrkampf went on, more and more money was printed by the national banks which then led to a depreciation and hyperinflation. During this turmoil the national socialist worker party (NSDAP) under Adolf Hitler tried to gain power in the same way as Mussolini did (March on Rome) by marching on Berlin. However, for them it ended in a complete and utter failure. Hitler was imprisoned and his henchmen had to go into hiding.
Meanwhile, the government of Friedrich Ebert (Reichspräsident; 1871-1925) was able to put an end to the crisis along with Gustav Stresemann (Reichsminister des Auswärtigen; 1878-1929). For now, the political struggle between democracy and its enemies was over. And from 1925-1929 the government was relatively stable with a minority government called the „Bürgerblock“ tolerated by the SPD.
Then, in 1929, the economic crisis which started in the US swapped over to Germany and other countries around the world. Germany was hit the hardest, because it took many loans from US-banks for economic purposes. With the death of Friedrich Ebert in 1925, Gustav Stresemann in 1929, and the election of Paul von Hindenburg to the role of the Reichspräsident (1847-1934) a few years earlier, a supporter of the monarchy was in the highest position of the young German democracy. Heinrich Brüning (Zentrumspartei; 1885-1970) was the Reichskanzler from March 30th 1930 to May 30th 1932. Despite some political successes, the economic and political situation in Germany still got worse.
On June 1st 1932 he was replaced by Franz von Papen (Zentrumspartei; 1879-1969), he governed until 17th November 1932 and was responsible for the Preußenschlag (removal of the SPD led government in Prussia) and failed with a coup attempt due to the resistance of the Reichswehr under General Kurt von Schleicher.
Kurt von Schleicher (1882-1934) was Reichskanzler from 3rd December 1932 to 28th January 1933. He tried to be a „social General“ and approached the moderate forces (social alliance); an attempt by him to internally divide the NSDAP, which was the largest party in the parliament, failed. His supporters turned their back on him, and under pressure from conservative forces appointed Hindenburg Hitler to Reichskanzler on the 30th January 1933.
During the time from 1929 to 1933, the violence on the streets also erupted between the communists (Roter Frontkämpferbund, paramilitary force of the KPD) and the national socialists (Sturmabteilung/SA, paramilitary force of the NSDAP). The Reichsbanner – Schwarz-Rot-Gold was the paramilitary organisation of the SPD founded in 1924 to fight against both the communists and national socialists. In 1931, the Eiserne Front was founded by the Allgemeinen Deutschen Gewerkschaftbundes, the Allgemeinen freien Angestelltenbundes, the SPD and the Arbeiter-Turn- und Sportbundes.
The struggle of the different groups ended with the victory of the national socialists, as it is now well-known history.
Why is it important that you know it? Because this example shows how the fight for political dominance between different political parties and their ideas can look like. In this example in a young democracy. Political violence was in the early 20th-century not uncommon, as revolutions and street fights appearing at that time across the globe have shown. It can be best encompassed with the term „struggle“, because the parties and the ideas they stand for have to face battler over battle – either vocally through elections and approval, or phyiscally through violence on the street – in order to arrive at the top.
Alliances and partnerships were formed, and the status quo viewed Hitler and his party as the ideal tool to maintain their power. In their mind, they were convinced that they could tame the revolutionist on the far-right and wear down the NSDAP through parliamentary paperwork and the system itself. In 1934, during the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler annihilated the last internal opposition within the party – the SA-leadership and Ernst Röhm – as well as other potential opposition forces.
3rd Phase: The Struggle in the Modern World
Now, with all that in mind, we see that new ideas always faced a political struggle. Some lost during the early phases while others emerged victorious. Nowadays, it is luckily not that violent anymore, at least in western democracies and probably also in some 2nd-world countries. Only a few ideologies on the far-left and the far-right are still stucked in the early 20th century and often seek to either implement or drive towards a situation which is internally so bad for a nation, that they can go on the street and violently force a change.
However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a struggle going on for moderate ideologies which follow the rule of democracy and play the game. It has become a metaphorical battlefield, and on some issues the one or other side wins. Not necessarily due to the popularity of the position, but also due to a pragmatic and realistic approach.
Through intern and extern exchanges; a party, group or organisation is also able to make its proposals more attractive and feasible. Thus, they increase the chance of victory. If the policy works and actually improve lives, it will also make future proposals more likely to succeed and the popularity of the party, group or organisation increases. Unfortunately, deceptions and lies by either governing parties or misinformation from other participants lead to a distorted perception of reality by the closest followers who may be able to gather more support and still maintain their power or become the ruling or part of the ruling establishment. This negative side is what stops real progress from being done, and it paralyzes the system as a whole and is potentially dangerous in times of crises.
In two-party systems like the UK or USA, it even takes longer for popular positions to be implemented or recognized at all. In this case, it is a systematic issue which is caused by the power dynamics: if both parties receive money from private donors who then benefit from policies shaped for them, the people have little to no say. They can only change the government and hope for slight improvements and a different face representating them on the international stage. In order to change the system, a strong and widely organized movement is required which has to win the system war – metaphorically, of course – to finally progress further and exit the jo-jo effect once and for all.
In a multiply-party system which governs with coalitions, there’s also something dangerous: lobbyism. While itself is not inherently dangerous (different interest groups from workers to industry giving their expertise on various issues), it becomes dangerous when a few are preferably treated and have economically a lot of power to put more pressure on politicians. This dynamnic also halts or slows down progress, and changes – which are also systematically – have to be made to prevent such things from occuring over and over again.
It all comes down to the struggle of political ideas. A war cannot be won in a day, but the movements have the power to win battle after battle, and then finally emerge victorious in the war and end the oligarchic-like influences and power structures.
The Final Chord
A market is about competition, while the political struggle is about the destruction of the others ideologies/parties (electorally) either through peaceful and morally defensible methods, or through hawkish and immoral methods (as history has shown).
The anti-democratic elements of western democracies need to be destroyed through education, social policies and further democratization to ensure that they never win again in their struggle for power.
Modern democracies are a struggle of ideas as well; here, the battles are decided through discussions, exchange, availability of and access to information, pragmatism, scientific reality, but also negative sides such as misinformation, lies and deception.
Systematic changes require strong movements and a widely organized network, but like revolutions and wars in the past, battle after battle has to be won – some battles lost don’t mean that the war is lost either.