Saturday, April 16, 2022

Ideology: tentative conclusions

The curriculum vitae of ideology as a concept has followed the trajectory of social theory. 

It originated in Destutt de Tracy’s project of educative social reform. Ideology was here the science of ideas, of which political economy was a central extension. The goal was to realize society as a totality of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges or contracts of exchange, and to do so by enlightening the consciousness of social agents, so that they could see what they were trying to do and do it in the most rational way possible. 

The critique of ideology was born with the critique of political economy. For Marx and Engels, the ideological project was doomed to failure. Consciousness lags behind practice and cannot grasp all of the ramifications of practice. We know not what we do, and our aims and intentions do not so much determine our acts as express our retrospective efforts at self-justification and self-understanding. The ideals of market exchange are not realized in market exchange, of necessity, since the “society” of exchangers is only possible on the basis of non-exchange: the exploitation of labor-power. 

This materialist critique of ideology, however, is radically indeterminate – and hence inadequate – for the forward-looking project of the revolutionary transformation of the mode of production. Lukács tries to turn this inadequacy into a virtue with his theory of class consciousness. He presumes that Marx’s theoretical critique of political economy also has the effect of making transparent to the proletariat their demiurge-like position at the center of society. In proletarian class consciousness, conscious self-justification and self-understanding catches its own tail and turns thereby into a prospective knowledge of how to transform society in accordance with human intentions. A new ideology is born – communist ideology – but one with a distinct advantage over Destutt de Tracy’s bourgeois ideology: it can actually grasp the totality of social relations and thereby transform them at will.

Mid-twentieth-century social theory takes Lukács’s hypothesis seriously, but also takes a generic humanism seriously enough to generalize the hypothesis to all human agents. What was in Lukács’s hands a partisan ideology of communist militancy becomes an omni-historical fact of human life: the social construction of reality. When this is operationalized, however, it becomes immediately apparent that, rather than transparency and conscious control, the result is an ever-renewed and massive opacity of social institutions. Made by “us” and re-makeable by “us,” they constantly confront us as made by others and resistant to any change we can initiate. With the generalization of ideology, “the level of the sociology of knowledge is reached – the understanding that no human thought … is immune to the ideologizing influences of its social context” (Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, 9). The social world becomes the world of meaning, and ideological division becomes the interminable contest between different meanings of the world. 

In this context, the critique of ideology reasserts itself, but not by reference to social dynamics that frustrate our efforts at conscious control and that falsify our normative ideals. Instead, ideology critique is the critique of every value, every meaning, by reference to a posited counterfactual: another world is possible. Our allegiance to this world – that is, this world’s legitimacy – is undermined by the rational projection of another world, a world free of coercion and temporal restraints, a world where rational conversation would be the only determinant of meaning and value. The entire Marxian problematic is here flipped on its head: whatever frustrates our efforts at conscious control and falsifies our normative ideals is hereby identified as itself ideological, and only the nonexistent society of voluntary and mutually beneficial relations is non-ideological. Ideology critique has taken the place of ideology (in Marx's sense of the term).

There is a shortcut from this moment to the present, a wormhole that takes you from Adorno and Marcuse to neo-Kantian ideal theory in a heartbeat, but I want to take the scenic route. Althusser reasserted Marx’s multi-level conception of society even as he emphasized the relative autonomy of the ideological superstructure. This seems like a return to a path not taken, since it opens the door to analyzing the distinct effectivities of different institutions and practices and reinstates Marx’s distinction between what we are and what we imagine ourselves to be. At the same time, though, by seeing ideological institutions as the key to the reproduction of labor power, Althusser magnifies the stakes of controlling the educational apparatuses. His writings were received in the Anglophone world in tandem with Gramsci’s prison writings, with their attention of culture, their emphasis on coalition politics, and their analysis of civil society. No war but culture war seemed to be the lesson. The long march through the universities had begun. 

I’m not being dismissive. Gramsci, Althusser, Therborn, and Hall seem to me to be immensely promising resources. One of the reasons they are so promising, however, is that they provide the tools for analyzing ideology-discourse as ideology

Ideology qualifies and it authorizes. It qualifies individuals as agents of a particular sort, and thereby qualifies them to act in particular ways. It enlists individuals in projects of world-creation and world-maintenance and world-destruction by calling on them according to this name or that: son, comrade, doctor, m’lady. But it also thereby authorizes particular courses of action or practices. It rationalizes, legitimates, justifies.

Kathi Weeks and Sandra Harding are quite explicit about the qualifying work done by standpoint theory. As Weeks says, 


a standpoint is a collective interpretation of a particular subject position rather than an immediate perspective automatically acquired by an individual who inhabits that position. … Thus a standpoint constitutes a subject, but one which does not rely on a transcendental or natural essence. A standpoint is a project, not an inheritance; it is achieved, not given. (Constituting Feminist Subjects, 136)


Qualifying as a feminist is not automatic. A collective practice of calling one another feminists is required, and such a collective practice is neither indiscriminate nor bound and determined by a pre-existing code of attribution. Hence, as Harding drives home, 


it cannot be that women are the unique generators of feminist knowledge. Women can not claim this ability to be uniquely theirs, and men must not be permitted to claim that because they are not women, they are not obligated to produce fully feminist analyses. Men, too, must contribute distinctive forms of specifically feminist knowledge from their particular social situation. ("Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is 'Strong Objectivity'?"in Alcoff and Potter, eds., Feminist Epistemologies, 67)


What emerges here also is the imperative edge of ideological qualification. You must qualify, and if you qualify, you must live up to certain expectations. 


To be a subject is to be subject to certain norms and expectations, of course, but the particular imperative that accompanies the feminist standpoint requires a significant amendment to Therborn’s universe of ideological interpellation. In addition to existential and positional ideologies, we must recognize that political ideologies – e.g., feminism, liberalism, nationalism, Labourism, etc. – operate according to a different set of imperatives. 


Like inclusive ideologies, political ideologies qualify individuals as members of a social world. Like positional ideologies, however, they also acknowledge the oppositional partiality of this social world. To qualify as a feminist is both to be part of a collective subject and to be excluded from and opposed to another collective subject, whether this is conceived as the world of men, the patriarchy, the traditional family, or whatever. But to be a feminist is also to claim that everyone ought to be – in some sense of ought, which we must yet articulate – a feminist. 


The same imperative to be or become qualified is found in all political ideologies, but not always in the same mode. Some political ideologies are explicitly local in the socio-historical mode of address. The imperative to be or become a Lib-Dem is not addressed to or entertained by anyone outside of England and Wales, and even within these domains there is no pretense that it is addressed to everyone. Hegemonic political ideologies – say, Congressism in mid-century India or Zionism in Israel – may address and seek to qualify nearly everyone in a nation or area, but with a much more limited address abroad. 


Other political ideologies, however – liberalism, feminism, Marxism, fascism, Islamism – operate at a different level of generality. These are the ideologies that are often referred to as ideologies as such. They are not confined to any given local or national space, and address themselves, in principle at least, to everyone in the world. This universal address – the hailing of anyone and everyone – need not be univocal. Marxism qualifies factory workers and peasants differentially, for instance. Nonetheless, no one is permitted by Marxism to be a non-participant in the relations of production or the revolutionary process. The feminist standpoint is a political ideological project with the same universal aspirations. 


But ideologies do not just qualify individuals as subjects. They also authorize subjects to act in certain ways. And what is so striking about standpoint theory as an inheritor of the theory of ideology is that as a project it authorizes its subjects to know, to speak as knowers, and to recognize one another as sources of knowledge. 


In retrospect, I think we can appreciate how novel this is. The original liberal project – and the first self-conscious ideology – authorized its subjects to want things, to prefer one state of affairs to another, and to exchange with one another in pursuit of their desires. The Marxist project – the first self-critical ideology – authorized its subjects to make things, and to cooperate with and struggle with one another in the effort to create a new world. The standpoint project authorizes its subjects to interpret themselves and one another, to produce feminist and resistant knowledge, and to speak from their experience. If Althusser’s and Gramsci’s analyses of ideology functioned ideologically to authorize ideological struggle in the universities, standpoint theory authorizes us to treat the whole world as if it were a research university.


The irony is that this has led, in the actual university, to the recovery of “ideology” as a concept, the recovery of “ideology critique” as a project, and the call – by philosophers even! – to attend more carefully to social theory and social movements. Mills – on the basis, I think, of his own reading and re-reading of Marx and Engels on ideology – calls for more attention to “ideal-as-descriptive-model” theorizations of “the reproductive dynamic” of actual systems of oppression ("Ideal Theory as Ideology," 168-9). This would include, though it is not reducible to, tracing “the consequences of oppression for the social cognition of these agents, both the advantaged and the disadvantaged” (169). Mills’s recommendation of non-ideal theory presupposes but goes beyond standpoint theory insofar as it proposes not simply beginning the knowledge project from a particular social position but also mapping social positions themselves. 


Haslanger goes even further in this direction I think. Her criticism of Shelby’s “high road” approach to ideology critique issues in the claim that “systematic racial injustice” – and we can extend this to any social system, I think – “is explained by the systematic looping of schemas and resources that occur in practices and the structures they form. Practices are guided by ideology, i.e., a racist cultural technē. But the ideology is not an independent causal factor… To focus entirely on ideology would be tantamount to explaining why the temperature of the room remains constant by simply pointing to the fact that the thermostat is set at 68F” ("Racism, Ideology, and Social Movements," 14). 


To end on a programmatic note, I’d like to outline some lessons I am taking away from this:

  1. Inquiry into and criticism of ideology always takes place in ideology. We will get nowhere unless we recognize our own situatedness and orientation as inquirers and critics. 

  2. Our location and orientation as subjects qualified by ideology is downstream from the institutional structure of society, the distribution and ordering of rule-generating practices. Hence, one’s location and orientation are not adequately accounted for by listing one’s identities and political affiliations. 

  3. These institutional practices are themselves material-social in their constitution; that is, they organize social relations among people around material resources and powers. The basic question of social theoretical inquiry is: Who can do what to whom at what cost?

  4. Inquiry into and criticism of ideology, if it is to get anywhere, must base itself in a social theoretical account of the material-social bases of practices and the location of the subjects of ideologies in these practices. Haslanger’s example – “that individuals share racist beliefs because they live in a world in which certain groups get the good stuff” (13) – has the form of a general truth. 

  5. Hence, social theory has to take into account the ideological positioning of the inquirer, but the study of ideology has to base itself in social theory, and social theory cannot be reduced to ideology critique.