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 …