Ideology

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 …

 

Prosperity without growth

http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_jackson_s_economic_reality_check.htmlI’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  http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_jackson_s_economic_reality_check.html

Occupations as human mic

Process is politics at Occupy Wall Street – Salon

I have recently become aware of the so-called ‘human microphone’, a tactic adopted by the Wall Street occupiers when their use of megaphones was banned. A great description of how this works can be found on the excellent Literary Kicks blog Occupy Wall Street: How the People’s Mic Works. I think the human mic is a powerful metaphor for the growing number of occupations spreading around the world, about 2000 I think at the last count. One of the complaints about the occupations that is becoming increasingly common is that there are no clear objectives or set of alternative policies. This is entirely unreasonable. Who these days can claim (truthfully  and realistically) to have clear objectives or a well thought out and realistic strategy for getting there?  Our government, the US government, the EC Commissioners? The only clear and thought-out strategy there is any evidence for at the moment seems to be Goldman Sachs’ strategy, by a combination of recruiting influential politicians as advisers and consultants and taking over governments’ economic policies via their (unelected)  place men and alumni ‘technocrats’. (See What price the new democracy? Goldman Sachs conquers Europe for an account of the Goldman Sachs Project).

For a number of years now there has been much hand wringing and regret about the atrophy of civil society and the demise of public spaces for open and democratic discussion. The pervading acceptance that the current system is the least bad and that there is no alternative (TINA) – the basis of the argument that we are now in a ‘post political’ era – leads to and legitimates the conclusion that all that remains to be done is the find the most efficient and managerialist methods of administrating capitalism and consumer society. Life’s shit and the best we can do is to make it a bit less smelly for the docile and deserving. The importance of the occupations, at this stage of the game at least, is to open up and re-politicise spaces in civil society, to develop both a negative critique and exposure of the lies, corruption, injustice,  hypocrisy and inhumanity, to make visible the human face and experience of those that suffer as the ‘collateral damage’ of the system, and (although I am rather ambivalent about some aspects of this) to smoke out and make visible to all the links between corporate power, political complicity and the state ideological and material apparatuses of repression.  At the same time, and more positively, the occupations are fantastic experiments and demonstrations of citizens ‘doing it for themselves’ – providing tentative intimations of different sorts of non-hierarchical and consensual organisation, of alternative values and forms of sociality and conviviality. It is through networks of city occupations, alternative educational spaces like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Space Project in Leeds, through initiatives like the Really Open University, and more recently Tent City University and the Bank of Ideas (to name but a few) that the critiques, ideas and values are transmitted and amplified  into and throughout the public domain through mainstream, citizen and social media, coalescing into an ever widening and deepening public awareness and debate about the state we are in, and the systems of interest, power and irresponsibility that  got us here. Where we are denied the ‘megaphone’ of meaningful and effective representation in our defective, subservient and co-opted political system the human microphone of the new and growing radical and critical spaces is becoming a formidable weapon.

Saramago quote #2

Today, calling a government socialist, social democratic, conservative, or liberal is to ascribe power to it, that is, purport to identify something in it that is not really there but in some other place far out of reach – a place where you can see the filigree outlines of economic and financial power, a power that invariably eludes us when we try to get closer, that inevitably counter-attacks if we whimsically wish to reduce or regulate its domain, subordinating it to the common good. In other, clearer, words, then, what I’m saying is that people do not choose a government that will bring markets within their control; instead, the market in every way conditions governments to bring people within its control.

The Notebook,  page 19 Clear as Water

What do we want? What is possible?

The right leaning media have been criticising the occupation at St Paul’s  in London for not being able to specify an alternative to the system they are against and, specifically, that their demands are poorly and inconsistently articulated. One possible response to this is that their objective is to keep the focus on the issues around the bankers’ responsibility for the economic collapse and the apparent immunity of the top 1% and their hangers-on and immediate collaborators to the consequences of their actions while the remaining 99% are bearing the financial and ideological brunt.  The occupiers’ actions provide a rallying point for discussion and further action and is drawing in ever larger numbers and organisations. The TUs are getting involved and there is even the possibility that Christians will form a defensive ring of prayer around the occupation to shield it from violent eviction!  The movement may not yet have a coherent set of ideas about an alternative society and how to get there but it is at the very least enabling and encouraging a space of dissent and resistance that leaves open a range of possibilities.

None-the-less, that discussion will sooner or later have to coalesce into a reasonably concrete vision of objectives and how to achieve them, in practice. It is difficult to over emphasise the considerable obstacles to doing this. I am currently working on some ideas about how to think about this and what the practical and political possibilities are. For the moment I will just list the conceptual resources I am starting to work with, in no particular order.

John Holloway’s ideas on Crack Capitalism and the possibilities for developing alternative modes of behaviour and ways of doing that resist reproducing the social relations of capital. Part of what I am doing is building on a critique of these ideas.

Zygmunt Bauman’s take on ‘liquid modernity’, the fact of irreducable uncertainty and what the role of sociology and socilogists should be.  This relates directly to his ideas on freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’ and the possibilities of going beyond the naturalisation of the current system and promoting a dialogue, even a poly-logue, that makes thinking about and enabling alternatives that are emancipatory.

Slavoj Zizek’s view of what is possible as laid out in the Afterword –  Welcome to Interesting Times – of the paperback edition of Living in the End Times.

Norbert Elias’s ontology of ‘levels of integration’ and how, in a social developmental context, this creates increasingly far flung and dense networks of dependency and interdependency that help explain the relative lack of opportunity and power chances at the lower levels of integration (limited in autonomy, opportunity and mobility) and the relative autonomy and immunity of the higher levels of integration including, in Baumans’ terms, the free floating, trans-state and seemingly immune highly mobile global elites. It is difficult to see how much progress can be made towards a radical restructuring of society without taking these far flung networks of dependency into account.

I think to way forward for me will to be to produce a summary and critique of these thinkers ideas and then see to what extent some sort of synthesis may be of possible that is conceptually, empirically and politically useful. Maybe this is a project that could be conducted collaboratively in some way – perhaps via presentations, discussion and workshops in the sorts of spaces for resistance that are opening up?

 

Saramago quote #1

“And I would ask the political economists, the moralists, if they have already calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to wretchedness, to overwork, to demoralization, to infantilization, to despicable ignorance, to insurmountable misfortune, to utter penury, in order to produce one rich person.” José Saramago. The Notebook page 56 The Question