Stuart Hall on ideology

“…the link between ideology and class is forged, not because the former directly ‘expresses’ the latter, but by the way of a more complex process in which a specific disposition of class power is unconsciously transferred or displaced into the unstated premise of an argument, which then structures the whole of the logic apparently beyond the conscious awareness of the so-called ‘author’…”  (Hall 1986 p51)

Hall, S. Variants of Liberalism in Donald J and Hall S.1986

DONALD, J. and HALL, S. eds. 1986 Politics and Ideology. Milton Keynes, England. The Open University Press.

Also look up HALL, S. The Rediscovery of ‘Ideology’: Return of the Repressed in Media Studies in Gurevitch, M. et al (eds.) 1982.

GUREVITCH, M., BENNETT, T. CURRAN, J. & WOOLLACOTT,J.(Eds.) (1982) Culture Society and the Media Methuan Ltd., London

Note to self: Dig out my old materials for the OU course DE354 Ideology and Belief (long gone so will need to check the details) which had a useful categorisation of theories of ideology placed on a continuum from negative to positive conceptions of ideology.

Foucault and the role of the intellectual

The final section of the interview discussed in a previous post, Truth and Power, deals with the role of the intellectual. This is particularly of interest  to me because of current discussions of the public role of intellectuals and Bauman’s writings on the appropriate role of sociologists. Foucault talks specifically about Left intellectuals who had considered themselves to be offering universal truths based upon their analysis of the subject-object of universal history, the proletariat. The assumption had been that an obscured, collective form of this universal truth is embedded in the fate and experience of the proletariat. The intellectual is claimed to be the bearer of this universality in its conscious, elaborated form (page 126).  This pretension is exposed as unsustainable and its period is now gone, according to Foucault, and intellectuals need to find another basis upon which to forge the connection between ‘theory and practice’. We are no longer able to pronounce upon the universal, or a once and for all truth. As intellectuals we are now obliged to work, to theorise and ‘practice’ within the specific locations of our experience and knowledge – housing, education, the laboratory, family and sexual relations, and so on. Here we deal with problems that are specific to us and different from those of others. The forms of knowledge, explicit and tacit, formal and informal, and the types and degrees of reflectivity and ‘cognitive surplus’ vary. The problems that specific intellectuals confront are  not universal. They are not, for instance,  the terrain and experience of a putatively homogeneous, cohesive and collectively conscious class, either first hand or at a remove.

Having said that, Foucault believes none the less that intellectuals since the 1960s have been drawn closer to the proletariat (a term he still seems happy to use!) and the masses, for two reasons. Firstly there is a common context to their disparate real, material, everyday experiences and troubles. Secondly, and related to the first, they are often confronted (albeit in different forms) by the same adversaries – the multinational corporations, the judiciary and police apparatuses, the property speculators, and we could add to Foucault’s list the new and growing accretions of neoliberal managerialism, hedge fund managers, ’embedded’ Goldman Sachs alumni in undemocratic layers of State and government, interpenetrating networks of politicians, State executives and major corporation leaders – in fact the whole cancerous excrescence of corrupt and suppurating undemocratic forms and modes of corporatism.

In this sense Foucault sees that the age of delusional universal intellectuals has given way to a more realistic age of ‘specific’ intellectuals. There seems to be some, useful, overlap here between what Foucault is describing and Gramsci’s notion of ‘organic’ intellectuals. It also hints that intellectuality itself is situated and located in its material circumstances and in its forms of reflexivity. Universalism is now replaced by the over-arching system that all specific instances are part of and from which are constructed their specific problems, opportunities, and possibilities for understanding and action. This is not a relapse into universality since the ‘system’ is itself not universal or fixed. It is historically contingent and changeable. It is the exposure and demonstration of this fact that is crucial; the fact of historical contingency, the fact that what seems unalterably real today, what we are persuaded  is ‘just the way things are’, has in fact had a history, it could have been different and can be different. As a matter of fact, it will be different, one way or another.

In the circumstances Foucault describes, every individual’s activity is a basis for politicisation. Every corresponding  form of knowledge is capable of lateral connection, of the linking of one focus of politicisation to another.

Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists, have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicisation of intellectuals. (127)

To this list we could  add teachers, administrators, accountants, in fact any occupation to which the addition of the prefix ‘radical’ does not seem completely ludicrous or oxymoronic. And how about the fertile and fulminating hoards of trade unionists and the myriad and variegated ranks of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals?

Foucault singles out for particular significance the University and the academy. It is here, manifest in the feeling of crisis in the university sector, that the antennae of the educationally situated intellectuals feel the currents and reverberations of their specific experience, problems and struggles but also have the resources to see and forge the lateral connections with distant and other instances of struggle and politicisation and their situated ‘particular’ intellectuals.

However, Foucault points to obstacles and a danger. We have a disparate and dispersed collection of only potentially networked specific intellectuals. The danger identified is that of

… remaining at the level of conjectural struggles, pressing demands restricted to particular sectors. The risk of letting himself (sic) be manipulated by the political parties or trade unions apparatuses which control these local struggles. Above all, the risk of being unable to develop these struggles for lack of a global strategy or outside support: the risk too of not being followed, or by only very limited groups. (130)

So the focus of the specific intellectual is on his or her own particular experience, problems and issues and the attempt to understand and make sense of these in order to have some control, some exercise of autonomy, some say on how they perform their function. This does not necessarily and automatically link to others, their experience and problems, their specific location of potential politicisation. Foucault considers that each intellectual has a three-fold specificity. Firstly, class position (“whether as a petty-bourgeois in the service of capitalism or ‘organic’ intellectuality of the proletariat”); secondly, the conditions of their life and work linked to their intellectual field (professional practice, research or laboratory, etc.) but also the political and economic demands to which they must submit or rebel, in university, hospital, whatever their work location; and thirdly, “the specificity of the politics of truth” in our society. It is here, Foucault feels, that the specific, sectoral  intellectual can have wider effects and implications, beyond the narrow concern with their particular circumstances and problems. This is the ability, as a consequence of their more sectoral concerns and struggles, to challenge the ‘regime of truth’ that that is “so essential to the structure and functioning of our society”.  My way of understanding this, although it no doubt misses a lot of the subtlety and nuance of Foucault’s thought, is that in the act of critiquing his or her own disempowerment, alienation and dissatisfaction, the specific intellectual is calling into question some of the pervasive and powerful assumptions and procedures that bring the specific circumstance being critiqued into being – organises, regulates, legitimates and justifies, sets in motion myriad self-fulfilling and self-reproducing processes and routines, creates a whole ecology of attitudes and behaviours, and so on. But this ‘regime of truth’ and its strategies are not entirely specific to one sectoral set of problems, obstacles and site of resistance. Each act of critique and/or resistance has the potential to challenge and undermine these assumptions and the ‘reality’ they both produce and maintain. Perhaps the most valuable contribution intellectuals of all types and shades can make is, ultimately, to challenge the constitution of the reality they are fighting against and, if nothing else, expose its historicity and contingency and open up the possibility to common consciousness that things can be different and it is not counter to common-sense or Utopian to both hope for change and actively to strive to achieve change.

It seems to me there are some parallel strands here with Bauman’s ideas on the tendency for intellectuals to have shifted from being legislators of knowledge in the service of the State to being interpretors of knowledge in the service of the public domain with a distinct emancipatory intent. I’ll write a piece on the similarities and differences between Bauman and Foucault in due course focused specifically on the role of intellectuals and the nature of knowledge.

The last post and this are a commentary on chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980. I’d be happy for any help on clarifying Foucault’s ideas in this chapter and on what its contemporary significance might be for today’s crisis in education and intellectual life. The whole article is available for download at but for some reason the pages are in the wrong order, first to last. They can be printed in the correct order of course.

Truth and Power

Foucault outlines his ideas on truth, power, ideology and the possibilities of political action quite clearly in an interview he took part in in 1977, reproduced a chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980.

In the last post where I outlined a few provisional thoughts on ideology I noted Foucault’s critique of ideology, that it implies there are ideas, beliefs, discourses, that are in some way non-ideological. If ideology is defined as distortion or mystification, then this implies that it is possible to have undistorted or un-mystified forms of knowledge – truth. This is Foucault’s objection. Eagleton (Ideology: an introduction Verso 1991 page xii) denies this is fatal for the concept of ideology by pointing out that we can brand Pol Pot a Stalinist bigot without having to appeal to some metaphysical certitude about what not being a Stalinist bigot would involve. I’m not sure this entirely refutes Foucault’s position on ideology and in any case he uses the term in his writing occasionally without it seems any qualification or provisos. It would be interesting to examine these examples of the concept in use by Foucault and see if they accord with any of the 16 definitions listed on pages 1 and 2 by Eagleton. Perhaps another post. In the meantime it is useful to identify the main points Foucault makes in the ‘Truth and Power’ interview and any interesting implications and consequences.

Early in the interview Foucault is asked about the relationship between structuralism and the events of history. Structuralist analysis downgrades the actual messiness of historical events or,  in perhaps in the more familiar language of structure and agency, leaves out agency. For instance, one criticism of Althuser is that his theory reduces individual actors to simply ‘bearers of structure’, programmed cultural dopes. Foucault asserts he is an anti-structuralist in this sense but warns against prioritising historical events and ignoring structure.  History, as a chronology of events, has no meaning of itself but is intelligible and susceptible to analysis ‘down to the smallest detail’. But the intelligibility must be sought in the struggles, strategies and tactics evidenced in historical events. Against certain forms of structuralism that look for coherence in systems of meaning, the structure of communication or even the logic of contradictions, he claims these cannot account for conflict.

Here I believe one’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history that bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power rather than relations of meaning. (p 114)

This introduces the centrality of power to his thinking. At the time he was wrestling with the notion of power the French left saw it as located within State apparatuses and the Right saw it in constitutional and legal terms and questions of sovereignty. For the Right the ‘other’ was Soviet socialist power denounced as totalitarianism. For the Left the power of Western capitalism was denounced as class domination. This is about as far as an analysis of power got at that time. The detailed mechanics of power, at the level of events and history was not addressed. 1968 changed all that for Foucault when the concrete nature of power became visible  as revealed in the daily struggles at grass roots level  engaged as they were in the fine meshes of the web of power. This moved the analysis of power out of the realms of traditional political analysis in to the realm of civil society and private life.

It is on page 118 that Foucault addresses the issue of ideology specifically where he identifies three drawbacks:

1) It always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth. I disagree with this but concede it depend on how you define ideology in the first place.

2) The concept of ideology necessarily refers to something of the order of a subject. I’m not entirely sure what this means in detail but if it means that individuals are implicated in ideology, as its target in some sense and as its effectively (the effects it produces) then I see no problem.

3) Finally he claims that ideology always relates to some sort of more fundamental determinant such as the economy. Here he seems to be invoking what I now consider to be an outdated old Marxist base-superstructure model.

He does not see these three problems with the concept reason to abandon it but says that it should not be used without circumspection and, as mentioned earlier, he continued to use the concept himself. He seemed to have had a certain traditional Marxist concept of ideology in mind, a conception that derives from a range of other Marxist assumptions he takes issue with. But there are more developed conceptualisations of ideology that avoid these but, in preserving the centrality of the nature and operations of power, would not be incompatible with Foucault’s analysis of power.


Increasingly my reading and thinking about the current state of affairs – austerity policy, neoliberalism, the occupation movement, ‘there is no alternative’, discussions and projects about free and open universities, the critique of education, in fact criticality generally – has turned me back to a consideration of the nature of ideology. My preferred approach to ideology has always been as a process rather than this or that political ideology or system of thought or as any sort of more-or-less organised and coherent way of thinking, world view or totalising theory.

My starting point is that we necessarily live in a world of meaning made available to us through a series of symbolic systems pre-eminent amongst which is language although there important and powerful material and visual symbolic systems too. We make sense of the world and act in it within a multi-layered cultural universe. This determines both our unconscious and automatic habitual behaviours and our conscious actions, those that we recognise as motivated, purposeful and of which we can give an account in those terms. This dichotomy is rather crude as quite often our conscious behaviour is influenced by our unthinking common-sense behaviour – routine, embedded, taken for granted – and can be seen as, in some instance, sublimations, and in others post hoc rationalisations.

Language mediates our relations with the world and others, and structures and gives meaning to our experience. It is a part of culture which more generally gives us recipes for understanding and for behaviour. All our problems are constructed within and through culture and solved or accommodated within and through culture. There is no by-passing this fact. It is the human condition.

I will be digging through my old readings and notes to come to a clearer understanding of how I now think about ideology and its relevance for critical action and ’emancipation’. Emancipation as a concept needs a bit of work of course and I think Bauman’s ideas on freedom and unfreedom will be relevant. I will be reviewing Gramsci’s ideas on how ideological processes shape common-sense and colonise culture and Althusser’s on how ‘ideological apparatuses’ construct our identities and subjective experience through a process of interpellation. Stuart Hall’s writings on ideology also influenced me a great deal when writing my Ph.D. thesis. I think I will need to look at Elias’s work on the meaning-making process and ideology. Foucault will be hard to ignore too. I have always found his critique of the very idea of ideology to be compelling. His problem with ideology is that it implies there are ideas, beliefs, discourses, that are in some way non-ideological. The problem remains if we understand ideology as constructing a distorted or skewed account of reality as this implies the possibility of an undistorted account of reality – the ‘truth’. This view depends on the possibility of establishing the ontological and epistemological ground on which one must stand in-order to access the ‘truth’. The position I take on ideology as a process is that it doesn’t just produce ‘accounts’ of the world. It also produces to some extent the material and social reality of the world as a social and material construction. It doesn’t so much produce a distorted version of the world as a particular version of the world. Ideologies are ‘true’ to the world they produce, construct, and ‘realise’. Since it is a cultural, political (in the broadest sense) and material process ideology cannot be seen as just a set of ideas that claim to be true. Even if we see ideology in this way it is not clear how we could establish its distortions of existing reality since it has produced the reality we are trying to judge it against. The implication is that we can only critique ideology in terms of other possible realities that also would need to be constructed, realised, through a similar ideological process. And, given that we have to start from where we are, an alternative reality has to be a potentiality within the possibilities of the current reality. If nothing else this means building upon and reforming or revolutionising existing forms of knowledge and institutions. At this point ideology seems to be the common term, the denominator, of all aspects of the historical social process; it looks as if it can be removed without loss of conceptual and analytic clarity.  Maybe, but I would want to hang on to it as it makes it clear that different forms of power and their distribution are key to understanding how historically contingency is to some extent and temporarily foreclosed and one version of reality, one set of social relations and cultural forms, one world, is what we are living in and have to confront and critique rather than another. The objective of critique is to expose and demonstrate the process and how power operates within it to produce, sustain and legitimate a reality that seems to offer no alternative and in so doing make other possible worlds thinkable and offer some idea of what would be involves in bringing it about.

Language and culture, common-sense and intellectual ‘terms of engagement’ are indispensable but always the contingent outcome of historical processes shaped by relations of power and inequalities of symbolic and material resources. In this sense everything is an aspect of ideological process to some extent. It is the aspect of what Norbert Elias calls ‘the meaning making process’ that is most intimately connected to and influenced by ‘power’, its interests and its agents. The ideological process is power in action – the way it shapes lives and actions and recruits us to its version of reality, legitimates that reality and brings it about culturally and materially by shaping the social processes and relations that, reproduce and maintain it.

The ideological process, broadly conceived, works on many levels, has many modalities and operates in different time frames. It is a sedimentation of culture and practices from the past that still echo in the present. It is innovation captured, co-opted and seconded, neutralised or adapted. It operates via certain geographies and materialised discourses – the separate boys’s and girls’ entrances and play grounds at some schools, the gradations of status and influence inscribed in office geometries, décor and facilities, the reserved car parking spaces for senior management and executives, the different rationales invoked for paying some high wages and others low wages. It operates through the taken-for-granted framing of issues and policies – both in terms of concepts defined and the relations between them and in reductive and partial perspectives that we are persuaded describe and explain all we need to know to understand and act. It establishes what can and cannot be thought.

Bauman sees the role of sociology as tearing away the veils that hide and disguise the operations of power that naturalise the social relations and the world we live in. Today this is the marketised capitalistic world Mark Fisher (Capitalist Realism) and Zizek speak of. Bauman does not see sociology as having any legislative privilege in this for the very good reason it cannot offer any certainty or recipes for specific action. There is always a deficit that must be made good via politics of one sort or another. Sociology can however develop and offer a reading and understanding of social reality that helps make possible and contributes to a discussion of other possible worlds and how to achieve them. No particular worlds, good or bad, are guaranteed. The project is emancipatory with respect to current forms of exploitation, inequality, alienations and forms of wasted lives and, as Bauman calls it, collateral damage. But there will always be a trade-off between freedom and security and there will always be forms of power and constraint in various personal and institutionalised forms. So emancipatory and critical sociology exposes the ideological process by necessarily being within it and offers the possibility of intervening in the ideological process in order to produce alternative realities.

To be continued …


Zero growth and austerity as opportunity

This post is initial thoughts and ideas on a new research project. The post degenerates into a set of notes that will be fleshed out over the next few weeks and various issues will become the topics of further posts.

It looks like we will have flat-line growth for another 4 to 5 years due to the economic crisis by which time the evidence we are closing in on the ecological buffers and unsustainable reliance on fossil fuel, oil in particular, will be even more irrefutable. In a recent talk by John Hollway in which he discussed three ways we can start both imagining and living in a way that is not dependent on monetary relations and consumerism he pointed to the role of necessity in Greece and Argentina as the driver for beginning to organise socially and live differently.

Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity Without Growth demonstrates very clearly that we are in a confronted with a seemingly impossible dilemma  between social and economic collapse if we don’t continue to grow (as defined by GDP) on the one hand and ecological collapse (leading to social and economic collapse) if we do. His book is concerned with defining a new form of macro-economics that is based on new definitions of prosperity that does not rely on continuing capital accumulation and consumption of consumer goods. The sort of decoupling between economic growth and the throughputs of energy and material that is needed to preserve the rate of growth capitalism needs will be impossible to achieve. The only alternative is to devise a zero growth economy and find new ways of defining and achieving prosperity and a meaningful and satisfying way of life.

We seem to have achieved a zero growth economy.

Survival, Greece, Argentina, Detroit, etc. How are people adapting through necessity – the wasted lives and collateral damage of globalised and deregulated capitalism. Growth me return in the short to medium term but the ecological horn of the dilemma will kick in as some time. With peak oil this could be well before the end of this century. If so a zero growth economy and life style will only be delayed. The conditions we now face may just be a dress rehearsal for what the current younger and subsequent generations will have to deal with as their enduring reality.

Opportunities in terms of investigating new ways of living, new ways of deriving meaning, satisfaction and fulfilment from life, new ways of relating to one another, new forms of sociability and conviviality, new understanding about the social function of work, a new understanding of the public sector and civil society, new forms of citizen local, national and global citizenship. Empirically, what is happening already as a reaction to and accommodation of austerity – philosophically, culturally, economically and socially. What is the significance of this for imagining a more generalised non-growth economy and way of life. What are the implications of this for education, given the massive and cumulative investment in indoctrinating individuals socially and psychologically into the world based on monetarised social relationships, mediated through the language and ownership of consumer goods, carried out by the marketing and advertising industries explicitly and government policy and subtler forms of ideological indoctrination.

Related resources:

One small Greek island’s relentless struggle to get by

Prosperity without growth’m currently reading Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, now a book published by Earthscan but started as a report for the now defunct Sustainable Development Commission where the original report can still be downloaded, Prosperity without Growth? – The transition to a sustainable economy.

I haven’t finished the book yet but it is very interesting. It grapples with the logic of capitalism, consumerism and the deeply flawed economics that assumes growth and measures it in GDP.  The two things I think are not covered in the book that I think are central to the discussion of the social logic of consumption are the role of marketing and advertising and the extent that consumerism creates dependencies through bot deskilling and the destructions of aspects of social life that were to some extent at least relatively independent of cash relations and the consumption of consumer goods. These are to some extent the ‘cracks’ in capitalism and the rule of money that John Holloway writes about some of which are the revitalising of older forms of sociality and doing things together for one self and others. Cooking meals rather than consuming ready meals would be but one  small example. We have a lifestyle of rushing and time pressures that, combined with the loss of the knowledge, habits and routines of cooking and communal  eating, creates a market for consumer goods that are not quite the positional ans status consumption Jackson speaks of. The main point is, I think, that consumerism does not only depend on status, identity and telling each other social narratives based on the symbolic language of possessions and aspects of lifestyle and the forms of inclusion and exclusion these imply. Consumerism also creates forms of dependency based upon the destruction of relatively autonomous aspect of life that existed outside the cash and commodity nexus and by a range of forms of de-skilling. Jackson seems to have bought into the idea that human beings are essentially constituted to be novelty seekers. I am more inclined to think that this is a potential and propensity that is an emergent property of the development of consciousness, symbolic language and detachment (in Norbert Elias’s conception of the term) and is therefore something that can be developed and ‘naturalised’ by social and ideological processes rather than seen as constitutive of human nature. If this is the case humanity’s endless seeking for novelty may not be another nail in the coffin of imagining and working towards a better sort of society and way of life.

Tim Jackson also based his Ted Talk on the book

Or at the Ted Talk web site

Can austerity save the planet?

At a recent talk by John Holloway at the Space Project in Leeds he mentioned a number of ways that people and communities around the world were organising politically to resist the ‘restructurings’ being used to bail out the banks and sovereign debt. He also gave examples of how people were surviving massive increases in costs, decreases in income and very high levels of unemployment at precisely the same time benefits and services were being cut, citing some of the things going on in Greece. Coincidently a couple of days later an article was published about Samos, a Greek island, covering this exact topic.

As I was thinking about this I also received a number of reports about the progress of the current talks in Durban ( about climate change and the attempts to come to some new international agreement now the Kyoto agreement is coming to the end of its time span. It seems clear that several of the rich countries, for instance Canada and the USA, are resisting any new agreement in, one would suppose, what they see as their national interest. I’m convinced that the warnings about the consequences of climate change, peak oils and so on, are correct and that sooner or later circumstances will force some sort of draconian reaction by governments. Given their current perspective is driven by narrow self interest (and when I say ‘government’ I mean of course the corporatist amalgamation of politics, the State and business) I see no reason to hope this will not also be the case when we are running into the buffers. Militarism, a diminution of democracy and war are just as likely an outcome as some sort of national and peaceable agreement on how to cope with the coming disasters. Rather like Stalin’s attempt at achieving communism in one country, there may be attempts to circle the wagons and attempt continued western style growth in specific parts of the world and let the rest go hang. The German military establishment has already produced a report anticipating a number of possible future scenarios and their military implications. One conclusion is that the German government may well have to dilute and even abandon its position on human rights in order to achieve the strategic alliances and partnerships it will need to secure energy supplies. It’s hardly surprising there has been a recent renewed interest in Carl Schmidt’s theory (  on exceptionalist government power, the idea that in periods of exceptional danger, in states of emergency, governments have the right and responsibility to adopt a dictatorial mode beyond the law.

But of course growth is the issue and the problem.  What would a non-growthist way of life look like? This is were I need to read Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity without Growth’. As it happens the way of life we need in the west is probably very similar to those that are emerging as a response to austerity programmes. As Holloway says, there is no point in making demands of politicians as they do not have any answers or the power to grant our demands. In fact to make demands concedes that they have the power and we are the supplicants. And it means that, in principle, we wait on them.

This is why it is so important to see how the Greeks and others are taking their lives into their own hands and getting on with the job of living without money, without the props of and services of the consumerist society, and finding new meanings, new satisfactions and new values to live by. What may be thought of as a temporary survival strategy to hang on until the good times return may turn out to be an enduring solution to the deeper environmental problems we confront and, in the process,  a new sort of ‘good times’ will also emerge.