Patchwork and the Marketplace of Ideas

I received quite a long and meaty comment on my last patchwork post that I’ve kept trying to draft a response to, and I drafted it so much that it felt better to just make it into a post.

I’m going over a lot of previously covered ground here but hopefully this post will make clear how I see a lot of things slotting together.

The other day, snow.ghost asked:

How is [patchwork] not simply another version, albeit of a utopian and technocratic flavor, of the oft-repeated neoliberal econonomic meta-concept of the ‘marketplace of ideas?’ How are you going to ensure that there is some sort of superstructure or essential interconnectedness that creates stability or at least a flux / non-equilibrium that is not preloaded for a nasty form of future imperialism and future colonialism. It sounds like the implicit solution being suggested here is that market forces will protect from this (my citation for this being your “Ethnonationalism becomes ethno-isolationism and good luck surviving long with that outlook,” quip)? While the patchwork model may indeed be anti-fascist in some sort of imagined original state (ie, the exact moment the system is implemented) it is NOT anti-capitalist, nor is it somehow incompatible with neoliberal subjectivity and, by extension, the commodification of all subjectivities that are not fundamentally economic. The model relies on inherent contradiction and thus will inevitably degenerate to another form of the present capitalist moment, and thus is not in the long run necessarily inkompatible with fascism.

As I’ve written on numerous occasions on this blog, one of the most frustrating things about contemporary political thinking — particularly from the left — is that anything that has been even slightly touched by the wrong kind of politics is forever contaminated and must be abandoned. There also seems to be a complete lack of appreciation for the potentials of our present moment.

We see this all the time and, with regards to some issues, it hasn’t left the left with a whole lot of options. Everything is already something. Everything is already caught up in modernity’s auto-productive feedback loop. Simply pointing that out seems to be enough for people, who do so and then just wallow in their impotence, feeling clever.

“Is there no alternative?” Do you really care either way?

Patchwork, as I see it, is largely compatible with a lot of the arguments for postcapitalist futures that many leftist theorists have been making in recent years. However, at the same time, making explicit comments about geopolitics in these circles has become unpopular. It is not as prevalent a topic as it once was — most of the good stuff seems to be at least 40 years old, although there are some exceptions — and it seems like this unfamiliarity alone is what has people unnecessarily running scared. Patchwork, as I see it, just adds in a geopolitical and fragmentary twist to prevalent theories of postcapitalism, and this in itself freaks people out who have wrongly internalised the conflation of one-world globalisation with leftist utopianism — a leftist neoliberal tendency if ever there was one.

This invocation of the “marketplace of ideas” feels like a peculiar example of this same tendency. The expression is, fundamentally, an analogy — nothing more. It does not mean that freedom of expression is, in and of itself, “neoliberal”.

The history of the phrase is linked explicitly to the market due to its conception in the American supreme court related to the publishing industry, in which publishers of newspapers, books and magazines all — literally — engage in a marketplace, selling their ideas and perspectives. (At least, that’s the idea.) Taking the principle right back to John Milton’s Areopagitica, however, the founding principle of freedom of expression and publication is explicitly related to the freedom to proliferate ideas, whatever they are, and to make the means of proliferation more widely accessible.

The printing press is just one example of this, with pamphleteering being a cause of things good and bad since it’s invention. No one can deny that the printing press, and technologies like it, have been central to the proliferation of ideas that we now take for granted. It’s an obvious point to make. What’s made all the difference over the years has been who has been in control of these technologies and the worst people to control them are usually governments or the Rupert Murdochs of the world who monopolise them for their own propaganda, etc. The internet is a similar technological development that is increasingly under the threat of being consolidated under ever-increasing state control.

As such, this originally Miltonic sense of the “marketplace of ideas” is very different to the marketplace that we have today, ruled by monopolist media tycoons. In this way, it is not only an analogy but a myth. The Internet remains a space for proliferation but much of it has been coopted by markets as well (although I’d argue there’s still plenty of pockets of resistance.)

This was demonstrated most damningly in a recent viral video that highlighted the prevalent use of the so-called “Sinclair Script” (which, obviously, became a news item in its own right, memetically inescapable for a week or so in May of this year, further exacerbating the modern marketplace’s ouroboric nature.)

What this video’s virally ouroboric life-cycle demonstrates is the way that markets are always trying to keep up with our ever-developing communicative superstructure(s). Even when it is critical of the mainstream media, it becomes a part of the mainstream news cycle.

All this is to say, don’t need to ensure anything. This interconnected superstructure already exists and is expanding all the time. We can call it “The Stack“, if we want to, or we can call it something else. Whatever you call it, its implications for geopolitics are still unfolding as state powers seeks to monopolise these developments too, but they’re not yet set in stone.

This kind of communications superstructure, that we already use everyday, is key to patchwork. Again, as I’ve written here many times before, patchwork isn’t a call for everyone to bury their heads in their gated patch of sand and never talk again. In fact, I think patchwork would necessarily be more fluid and better connected than our currently dysfunctional world is right now. Connectivity and integration are not one and the same thing.

A large portion of my “Egress” post was dedicated to the plasticity of communicative capitalism that must come into play here. Drawing on Mark’s writings as well as Jodi Dean’s work, I wrote:

For Fisher and for Dean, the now-ubiquitous nature of our networked communication technologies is a demonstration of capitalism’s ability to capture and shape desire. In the decade since the launch of the first iPhone in 2007, communicative capitalism has seeded a biological basis for itself by infiltrating our hard-wired necessity to communicate with one another and by monopolising the contemporary technological means of doing so. This “biological basis” relates to Herbert Marcuse’s argument that, in an affluent society, “capitalism comes into its own” by permeating “all dimensions of private and public existence.” Dean’s communicative capitalism provides this process of permeation with a much-needed technological update and Fisher drew his line between Dean and Marcuse as he attempted to chart the continuous acceleration of this same process.

Marcuse argues that what is needed to counter these processes of permeation is the establishment of a biological foundation for socialism through the mechanisms of the Great Refusal: “the rationality of negation” inherent to art which is always a “protest against that which is.” That which is is constituted for Marcuse by contemporaneous norms and standards of morality, and so his analysis is tied explicitly to social taboos. He highlights the perceived “obscenity” of sexual liberation during his time of writing and the way this apparent obscenity contrasts with the normalisation of the obscenity of state and institutional violence. Marcuse then goes on to suggest that this structure of social morality, and therefore the human drives themselves, are inherently plastic.

The leftist desire for a one-world utopia is, I think, largely responsible for capitalism taking a hold of us quite so ruthlessly. It expands as we expand, previously along trade routes and now down fibre-optic cables, hitching a ride of our well-meaning coat-tails. Like state apparatuses more generally, capitalism can’t help but consolidate itself. Patchwork attempts to interrupt these processes by privileging communicative fragmentation over consolidation.

So, patchwork is less just another name for the “the marketplace of ideas” and more like a new name for that which the market has taken for its own ends — the production and proliferation of ideas as such, scaled up to the level of geopolitics. It’s an attempt to take back the space for experimentation that the market has eclipsed. It is a way of taking processes of deterritorialisation quite literally.

In this way, there is a Promethean bent to patchwork which, as with Milton’s argument for the printing press and freedom of expression, requires the means of State production and proliferation be seized — that is, everyone is able to form a state if they so please. That is the extreme level of fragmentation that the patchwork ideal advocates. (I am aware it is an ideal.)

The problem with the framing of snow.ghost’s comment is that it equates too many dynamics with their dominant processes and takes them as givens.

What is key here, again, is that whilst the market runs on a system of mythical meritocracy towards consolidation, patchwork is instead a fragmentation engine. I know in my last post I already invoked this sense of meritocracy, although the tongue-in-cheekness of that invocation was probably lost. The point I was trying to make is that all sides assume the other side will fail — or, I wish they did: the left are arguably too concerned about their own ideas failing to even come up with any.

Competition may be an integral part of a market, and therefore capitalism, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same thing. Patchwork only becomes compatible with neoliberal subjectivities, in my view, if you incorrectly make this assumption. The fact I have a preference and an opinion about best practices, which are hypothetically opposed to someone else’s, doesn’t automatically make me, or the patchwork model in general, inescapably capitalist. That feels like very lazy logic.

Let’s put it another way:

The neoliberalisation of the “marketplace of ideas” relates, I think, to the way the phrase has been used to further bolster the incessant celebrations of the market’s efficiency — i.e., “the market can solve everything!” If this does sound a bit patchwork-y, that’s no doubt Moldbug’s influence, thanks to his prefering neocameralism.

However, in line with what we have discussed above, the shifting of our use of language is nonetheless important here. I have already addressed this in a previous post, in which I wrote about the ways that this neocameralist framing can be useful for thought, irrespective of subjective political desirability:

[The language of neocameralism] allows us to describe processes of state dissolution in ways that are both familiar and entirely other to the current status quo. I have said previously that I believe patchwork to be an “eerie politic” in this way, invoking Fisher’s “eerie”, but in Moldbug’s specific imagining it is also perhaps like another concept of Mark’s taken to an extreme.

That concept was “business ontology”: “the idea that everything is folded inside a business reality system, that the only goals and purposes which count are those that are translatable into business terms.” Neocameralism, then, often comes across, to me, as a way to smuggle a new radical geopolitical perspective into acceptable discourse through the language of business — “To find ways out is to let the outside in”, etc. However, Mark wrote:

Up until the credit crisis, we bought the idea that business people somehow have a better handle on reality than the rest of us can muster.  But, after the credit crisis, that’s no longer tenable. And as I say in [Capitalist Realism], if businesses can’t be run as businesses, why should public services?

This is not, of course, a blanket rejection of all forms of “organisational management” (or whatever else you want to call it) — it’s mainly a suggestion that we break down the language of neoliberalism in order to be more resistant to neoliberal processes of subjection. We internalise its processes and preferences to the point of ontologisation. However, to reject “business ontology” isn’t the same as rejecting ontology as such, just as rejecting the “marketplace of ideas” shouldn’t slide into the rejection of having ideas.

snow.ghost’s invocation of the “marketplace of ideas”, even with everything discussed above aside, just feels like an attempt to reframe patchwork into the language of business. In this way, their anti-neoliberal comment nonetheless feels like it is built upon an inherently neoliberal argument. It eats itself in its self-neutralising business framing.

Mark’s conceptualisation of “business ontology” is an attempt to reject certain ways of framing reality which suffocate all that might hope to exist outside of its bounds. Patchwork may be like the “marketplace of ideas” — and explicitly so for Moldbug, perhaps — but, for this blog, it’s a chance to develop another productive kind of (head)space.

So whilst the comparison isn’t inaccurate, it does largely miss the point.

“(Head)space” is worth dwelling on for a moment here also, particularly for responding to the comment about subjectivity.

This blog’s view of subjectivity, via Foucault and Butler, is that it is formulated by the state’s processes of subjection, and so this blog has repeatedly considered the entangled fragmentations of self and state that patchwork likewise encourages.

Patchwork is a “rip it up, start again” approach, although it is not naive enough to think that anyone can truly start from scratch. If some patches are successful and others fail, that’s fine. As we’ve already said, that’s not “market forces”: that’s just the nature of experimentation.

The whole point of wanting to instigate patchwork is that large nation-states are becoming less and less well governed as state consolidation slides back down after reaching its zenith. How am I going to ensure things aren’t preloaded with imperialism and colonialism? The idea itself, as formulated by this blog, is already trying to respond (and go along with) post-imperial / post-colonial tendencies around the world, whether that be the Zapatistas or some other group.

With a transformation of the state, along these sorts of lines, I think we will see a transformation of the subject that is resistant to neoliberalism and which moves us towards the kind of collective subjectivity that Mark and others have called for.

That first requires an acknowledgement of the kind of neoliberal subjectivity that this kind of comment already seems to be informed by.

snow.ghost has written a further response to this post on their blog which you can read here.


  1. the “Stack” doesn’t actually/literally exist anymore than The Internet does, lots of differing machines and other actors, most not connected, many not able to talk to each other (hell every time my Windows updates it crashes some part or another of my computer), that said wouldn’t the Splinternet be a better match for yer project?
    as for the marketplace of ideas I took that comment to be pointing to libertarian/technocratic fantasy of systems of exchange that don’t have power (monopoly, military, etc) at their root but maybe I missed the point, see if this seems familiar:

  2. Wow! I just wanted to say I think it’s super-cool that you responded to my comment with a very thorough, very thoughtful post. I’d like to say, apologetically, that I wrote my comment really quickly, and I’d love to offer a response to your new post when I get a moment.

    1. Hey, no problem. Excuse any argumentative tone above. Blog mode is sometimes overly polemic. It was a good comment and, whilst I didn’t agree with it, I do appreciate you asking it to have the opportunity to flesh out why. Please do respond!

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