Fantastic adventures in ideology!

Wherein we examine the trials and tribulations of a mistreated concept: ‘ideology’

Breaking Bad provideth, yet again. So I was having trouble starting this week’s piece until I read The Onion AV Club’s recap of Breaking Bad S05E04, “Fifty-One”. There are (vague) spoilers in the next paragraph, so be warned.

Fans of Breaking Bad will be familiar with its protagonist-turned-antagonist Walter White’s ongoing descent into moral and psychological hell. In “Fifty-One”, Walt, thinking that he’s eliminated the last threat to his personal safety and the commercial safety of his crystal meth operation, addresses his partners Jesse Pinkman and Mike Ehrmantraut about a potentially serious obstacle to their operation. Mike counsels caution, even to the point of slowing production, to which Walt replies: “We’re not ramping down; we’re just getting started. Nothing stops this train. Nothing.”

The AV Club’s Donna Bowman concludes the review by noting: “That’s not a plan. That’s an ideology.” Reading that, I knew I had my hook for this column, because she captured the sense of “ideology” in a way that I haven’t seen in the “popular” media in a long time; that is, meaningfully and appropriately. I’ve been interested in the historical fate of ideology as a concept; in the last ten years or so, it seems to me to have undergone an unfortunate transformation. Today, “ideology” seems to be synonymous with “set of beliefs” or “outlook”. For example, even the Wikipedia article about ideology begins thus: “An ideology is a set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions”. It’s very common to see people compare the “ideologies” of political parties and to talk about which “ideology” they identify with the most, or which one most closely mirrors their own personal “ideology”. This is a negative development, and this month I’ll discuss why.

Toward a conceptual biography

“Ideology” has had an illustrious career the world over since at least the nineteenth century, and certainly since the twentieth century. A French philosopher named Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, Comte de Tracy coined the term in 1796, deriving it from the Greek “ideo-” (whose senses include “idea,” “form,” and “appearance”) and “logos” (whose incredibly broad range of senses includes “word,” “thinking” or “thought,” “ratio,” and “reason”) to name his “science of ideas”: a knowledge of how ideas themselves are formed. Destutt hoped to ground particular domains of ideas — the moral, the political, that of the natural sciences — in a domain common and general to them all.

“Ideology” quickly morphed into something very different: it ceased meaning something like “science of ideas”, and came to refer to a certain variety of false or distorted ideas. The falsity in question isn’t that of simple error, such as a faulty calculation or misremembering someone’s name; instead, in the nineteenth century “ideology” became the name for false ideas generated by some condition that characterizes an aspect or aspects of everyday life. Thus, “ideology” began to refer to false ideas that endure, and that to a great extent appear to be necessarily true because they derive from conditions that define the situation we inhabit. Here we meet Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose formulation of the term still resonates to some extent in our own uses of it today.

Here’s a rough schematic of Marx’s and Engels’ concept of ideology:

  • Ideology is natural. It arises from the constant human effort to produce and reproduce the conditions of its everyday material existence. “This mode of production should not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of … individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life” (The German Ideology 150)

    “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces.”
    -Friedrich Engels

    What does this mean, concretely? Here’s an example from the programme that I teach in: we begin the year by examining ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. It’s interesting to see how Mesopotamians, who lived in a very harsh climate in which agricultural yields were constantly under threat, had a rather violent cosmology and religion, whereas Egyptians experienced a much more beneficent cosmic and divine order through the fertile banks of the Nile River. Likewise, Inuit and Aztecs, Newfoundlanders and Brazilians, Mongolians and Germans, all need to eat, but they all do so in very different ways ranging from local/regional delicacies to food preparation to table etiquette. In other words, ideology arises as a very complex sphere—or perhaps sphere of spheres—in which people collectively interpret their existence: the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has a term – “social imaginary” – that can be helpful here. Taylor uses it to name the “ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper … notions and images that underlie these expectations” (Modern Social Imaginaries 23)

  • Ideology is experienced as natural. Its content appears to be self-evident. The experience of ideology is probably best described as a non-experience; it is invisible. Nobody experiences ideology as ideology, in other words, while living in it. We experience a symptom of ideology, however, when we feel the oddness of confronting other social imaginaries. These are experienced as not self-evident or natural but as weird, if not unreasonable or backward. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that this is crucial to ideology: “the way to recognize ideology at work is always through a denunciation of another ideology. There is never pure, naïve ideology. Ideology is always a gesture of denouncing another position as being naïve ideology.” (Interrogating the Real 61).
  • Ideology hides its materiality. Its objects appear to have come from nowhere at all—as do all notions that we call “self-evident”. For example, the freedom of choice in consumption, which many people today consider to be a fundamental and fundamentally important good, is prevalently held to derive from some truth about general human freedom and the essence of human beings more generally: for many people, where this freedom is not promoted, there is a “freedom deficit” to be corrected. The appropriate reply for Marx and Engels would be to ask: “What is the connection between this conception of freedom and the fact that you live in an economic system that needs the ever-increasing production and consumption of goods in order to function? Does humanity finally have the system that corresponds best to its true character, or is your conception of freedom an interpretation of a system that drives you to consume?” Marx and Engels want people to ask questions like this because they think historical analysis can show that social imaginaries depend more on contingent events—like unexpected technological transformations such as the printing press or the steam engine, or climatic changes, or demographic shifts, or the implementation or abolition of laws—than they do on fixed abstract qualities of human beings or of the world, which Marx and Engels hold to be interpretive abstractions in the first place.
  • Ideology recapitulates power dynamics. This is the chief reason why Marx and Engels are interested in developing the concept of “ideology”. What does it mean to say that ideology recapitulates power dynamics? First of all, it refers to a common historical and social event: the division of labour, in which the various tasks that contribute to the upkeep of a whole society are distributed among its people. For example, at an early moment in social development, the “division of labour inside a nation leads at first to the separation of industrial and commercial from agricultural labour, and hence to the separation of town and country and to the conflict of their interests. Its further development leads to the separation of commercial from industrial labour. At the same time through the division of labour inside these various branches there develop various divisions among the individuals cooperating in definite kinds of labour” (The German Ideology 150). Ultimately, argue Marx and Engels, some group or another within these divisions gains more power than the others. This group will — intentionally or unintentionally — exercise a predominant influence over the social imaginary in laws, in aesthetic tastes, in political institutions, even in the interpretation of religious doctrine and practice.
  • Ideology always involves misrecognition. The ideological production of social imaginaries ensures that the values of a particular group are abstractly accepted as universally applicable, even though they by definition can’t be practically realized for everyone. Hence Marx and Engels’ famous “history is the history of class struggle”: they argue in The Communist Manifesto, for example, that the “freedom” promoted by the bourgeois class—the freedom to own property, the freedom to compete and prosper, and so on—is a “bourgeois” freedom which working people may enjoy in the abstract but cannot and must not, as a whole group, obtain, because a universal accomplishment of “bourgeois” freedom would essentially mean the destruction of bourgeois society, which needs non-bourgeois workers to give it material support. At the same time, because ideology leads people to believe in the self-evident necessity of how things are right now, the various segments involved in what Marx and Engels call class struggle don’t necessarily see it as such; they see it ideologically. Bourgeois and workers alike have accepted a set of abstractions that do not tell a true story about their lives together on earth. What both classes do not see, for Marx and Engels, is that all human beings are collectively involved in the production and reproduction of everyday life, and that the various unequal distributions of power we’ve seen in history are symptoms of ideological misrecognition. That is why the notion of owners who are not workers, and workers who are not owners, was for Marx and Engels a mistake that has been made again and again in history; in fact, they characterized it as the mistake that has defined history. In their historical, political, and economic analyses, “ideology” refers to this mistake. The whole goal of Marx’s and Engels’ work is to strive for the mistake’s final eradication: to produce a non-ideological word.

Workers of the world, keep reading!

Some readers may at this point be expecting me to break off into an appeal for the Communist Revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the end of history. I’m not going to do that since, for one reason among many, I do not share an eighteenth-century faith which Marx and Engels (along with a broad range of decidedly non-Marxist people) hold: that history is a process of human improvement that will end with humanity finally liberating itself. I’m also not persuaded that “ideology” is the best concept to help us grasp the differences between our social imaginaries and the ways that they’re generated.

“[H]ow did we experience the moment of the disintegration of communism when finally we got rid of this totalitarian ideological indoctrination and returned to some ‘natural’ state of things? What was this natural state of things? The free market, multi-party elections, etc.? Precisely, this most spontaneous self-experience of how you are getting rid of some imposed artificial order and returning to some kind of, let us say, non-ideological natural state of things, I think, is the basic … gesture of ideology.”
-Slavoj Žižek

But I am interested in how “ideology”, which was a sensible, instructive, and fleshed-out concept in Marx’s and Engels’ hands, has been reduced to a word with no real sense. As I said above, it today sometimes seems synonymous with “outlook” or “belief system”; it also sometimes seems synonymous with “party platform”, as people will often talk about a political party’s “ideology” and whether or not it accords with their own. “Ideology” has become not only senseless: it has become obscurantist in its senselessness. In its transformation into a senseless word, it has concealed the occasion for its nineteenth-century formulation, which is that the relations we humans have to our own historical existence is inherently tangly and full of disconnects between what we think and do, and how we came to think and do those things. When “ideology” refers at worst to an unreasonable refusal to affirm a broad consensus, and encourages us to accept the consensus as self-evident, it no longer has a reason to exist.

Two centuries of ideology: Hannah Arendt once more (with feeling)

Next month, I’ll look at a twentieth-century version of the concept, in — here she is again! — Hannah Arendt’s indispensable work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). This book, which was written in response to the Nazi and Stalinist catastrophes, highlights an aspect of ideology that Marx and Engels did not imagine, at least in part because they lived almost a century before the right technological conditions for totalitarian politics came together. Arendt analyzes ideology’s inherently totalitarian propensity; its single-mindedness, its insane “logicality”, its capacity for destruction. Its logic is essentially Walter White’s: “Nothing stops this train. Nothing.” She concludes the book by warning that the totalitarian event “brought forth a new form of government which as a potentiality and an ever-present danger is only too likely to stay with us from now on, just as other forms of government which came about at different historical moments and rested on different fundamental experiences have stayed with mankind regardless of temporary defeats — monarchies, and republics, tyrannies, dictatorships and despotism” (Origins 478). For Arendt, ideology and totalitarianism are bound together. It is therefore imperative that “ideology” not lose its sense as a concept, and become interchangeable with “belief,” “outlook,” or “platform”. We’ll discuss further why in September.

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