Saturday, April 16, 2022

Is the Frankfurt School's approach to ideology critique ideological?

Geuss is a sympathetic, meticulous, and reasonable reconstructor of ideology critique as it is  advocated and practiced by the Frankfurt School of critical theory. That ideology critique emerges from his The Idea of a Critical Theory in such a state of hopelessness and helplessness ought to be the final nail in the coffin of the Frankfurt School’s  paradigm in this respect. Either Geuss has badly mischaracterized this aspect of the tradition – which is unlikely given his sympathy, meticulousness, and reasonableness – or else this aspect of the tradition is beyond resuscitation.

Geuss makes clear that Herrschaft, for the Frankfurt School, is essentially hegemonic in the Gramscian sense or voluntary in the Boétian sense. “‘Herrschaft.’” Geuss writes, is power to exercise normative repression,” where “normative repression” is the “frustration of agents’ preferences which makes a claim to legitimacy that is accepted by those agents because of certain normative beliefs they hold” (16). The dominated, on this account, consent to their domination, by definition. More than this, they think their domination is right or good in some sense. As Geuss puts it, “repression is ‘normative’ if the agents are prevented from pursuing their interests by a set of normative beliefs they accept,” and Herrschaft is just the asymmetrical power of normative repression (34-5; my emphasis). The normative beliefs of the dominated, therefore, are the source of their frustration or repression. The claim of legitimacy, in other words, is not just a claim made by the dominant, but is fully accepted by the dominated.

This does not necessarily mean that the legitimacy belief is the basic normative belief, however. The dominated may consent to their domination and believe it to be good because it seems to them the most reasonable means of realizing an independently held normative belief. They may believe that God’s will should be done, and that mortal flesh is weak, and that this weakness requires, therefore, a firm government by a divinely ordained minister, and that the royal line of the Hohenzollerns happens to provide this needed government here and now. The legitimacy of Carol I is not basic to their moral worldview, and their joyous consent to his rule – and the consequent frustration of their pursuit of their own interests – is not entirely personalistic, but depends upon more fundamental moral beliefs, together with some basic factual judgments about the royal succession, etc. 

Nonetheless, this is a very strong version of the voluntary servitude thesis. The normative beliefs of the dominated are the fundamental cause of the repression they experience. The dominated suffer from “false consciousness” and from unfreedom, but “the ‘unfree existence’” from which they suffer “is a form of self-imposed coercion,” since its “‘power’ or ‘objectivity’ derives only from the fact that the agents do not realize that it is self-imposed” (58; emphasis in original). 

This last claim, that the objectivity of their unfreedom is self-imposed, must be expanded upon. Not only is ideological false consciousness the primary cause of the repression experienced by the dominated, it also gives rise to “real social oppression” that is “objective” (74), in the sense that a group of rational agents would arrive at a consensus judgment that it exists – i.e., it is not imaginary or ‘in the heads’ of the oppressed (72). This “objective power” cannot be “automatically resolved by critical reflection” (74). The dominant have an interest in the maintenance of the oppressive status quo, and “established social institutions” are not undone simply by people losing faith in their legitimacy (75). 

However, the Frankfurt School is committed to the notion that the objectivity of these social institutions and the conservative interests rooted in them are consequences of self-imposed ideological coercion. Even if “enlightenment does not automatically bring emancipation in the sense of freedom from the external coercion exercised by social institutions” (75), enlightenment is a prerequisite of freedom from external coercion because external coercion is the house that false consciousness built. False consciousness has constructed an objective, institutional world, and that world will not be torn down by critical theory alone, but critical theory is a prerequisite to that tearing down, just as false consciousness was a necessary prerequisite for the building. Consciousness comes first in both cases. 

This also seems to be the presupposition of Rahel Jaeggi’s rethinking of ideology and ideology critique, although she is more equivocal ("Rethinking Ideology," in B. de Bruin et al. (eds.), New Waves in Political Philosophy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). When she analyzes the way in which freedom and equality are ideological in capitalism, she claims that “the labor contract, as a precondition for the market exchange, is at once the embodiment of freedom and equality as well as a means of generating inequality” (68; my emphasis). The notion that practices embody ideas is ambiguous, but Jaeggi’s language generally states that ideas “inform,” “leave their imprint on,” “maintain,” or “constitute” social practices or institutions. These word choices all suggest an ideas-first account, in which ideas are expressed in or at least shape practices and institutions.

To be fair, thought, this is not the whole story. Jaeggi also claims that ideology critique “establishes the link between the normative ideals of freedom and equality and the actual properties and conditions of the institutions that claim to be guided by these ideals” (70; my emphasis). This suggests that ideas come second, as ex post justifications, rather than first, as ex ante intentions

But this passage also leads into one of the most surprising moments in Jaeggi’s depiction of ideology. She follows the above description of ideology critique’s operation with another description, according to which ideology critique exposes how “the ideological understanding of the freedom of contract puts one of the contract parties at an advantage” (70). This implies that it is not the practice of the wage contract itself but the ideological understanding thereof that puts the workers at a disadvantage. To my eye, this casts her previous statements in a new light. Ideological versions of ideals like freedom and equality take hold of practices, it seems, and “leave their imprint” on them in the sense of twisting them or distorting them so that they produce the opposite of the proclaimed norms of freedom and equality. Jaeggi concludes, therefore, that ideological “norms (as in the above-mentioned case, the values of freedom and equality that are constitutive for civil society) are effective, but as effective factors they have become inconsistent or deficient” (75). 

If this is right, then, Jaeggi’s position is somewhat distinct from the Frankfurt School position reconstructed by Geuss, but it may be a distinction without a difference. False consciousness does not necessarily come first for Jaeggi, since it may result from attempts to justify existing practices. However, once ideological justifications exist, they shape or reconstruct the practices from which they emerged, and are effective insofar as they make the practices into engines for producing the opposite of the declared justificatory values. Ideology has rebuilt the objective, institutional world, and that world will not be torn down by ideology critique alone, but ideology critique is a prerequisite to that tearing down, just as ideology was a necessary factor in the reconstructing of the world.

I think Jaeggi and Geuss both get caught up in the defense of ideology critique as a practice in its own right, and thereby trap themselves. They wish to defend the honor of the practice, and to underscore its importance. Thus, Jaeggi claims that “The critique of ideology is not something that stands outside of social reality that is regarded as a constellation of delusion and deception; it is the instance that confronts us with the problems and contradictions of this reality in a way that is at the same time a ferment of their transformation” (80). Geuss is much more restrained, concluding only that “the construction of an empirically informed critical theory of society might be a legitimate and rational human aspiration” (95). His other work since The Idea of a Critical Theory, however, has consistently maintained the value of ideology critique as a part of “a political philosophy that can be taken seriously.” (Geuss, “Realism, Wishful Thinking, Utopia,” 233; see also, Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics.)

This investment in the utility or even necessity of ideology critique encourages the critic of ideology to emphasize – and perhaps to overemphasize – the importance of ideas to the construction and maintenance of domination. In this sense, the critic of ideology falls back into the position and characteristic errors Marx and Engels diagnosed in the ideologists. Ideologists, as superstructural workers, have a tendency to exaggerate the effectivity of their product, and to see themselves as closer to the center of social life than they really are.