Sunday, May 17, 2009

In defense of ideology critique

In many recent interactions I've encountered some resistance to the idea of ideology, and hence to its critique. To put it as briefly as possible, the thought motivating ideology-critique is that "there is nothing radical about common sense." Theories of ideology typically claim that there is widespread deception and/or unfreedom in society at large, wherein many common understandings of the social field tend to be preservative (rather than critical or illuminating) of the existing order.

Many feel that theories of ideology are inherently elitist, anti-democratic, 'top down', patronizing, and unfair to the oppressed. According to this objection, nobody (least of all theoreticians) 'has the right' to claim to know how other people's affects, desires, preferences, interpretive frameworks, conceptual repertoire or understandings of history get shaped. Ideology, according to this faux-populist line of criticism, is usually nothing more than the musings of an elitist theorist claiming to know the 'true interests' of the masses, whose critical capacities are allegedly suffocated by 'false consciousness'. Refrains like following are not uncommon: Who are they to tell the oppressed that they don't understand what's really going on in society? How dare they claim to know what motivates people!

Now I want to defend the project of ideology critique, so I clearly do not agree with the lines of objection elaborated above. Nonetheless, I think this kind of objection is founded on some legitimate worries and it often issues from political convictions that I am sympathetic to.

The worries that motivate the objection, it seems to me, have to do with a healthy skepticism about any social theory which makes sweeping claims about motivations and desires opaque to the immediate consciousness of social actors. I mean, if someone told you they had a psychoanalytic social theory that explained all of your motivations and actions by reference entirely to things that you've no awareness of at all, you would be rightly be skeptical. When functionalist social explanations get out of control, when they end up with no relevance whatsoever to the actual lived experience of people as they themselves understand it, we ought to be skeptical. (It's also worth noting here the obvious problem with any extremely strong theory of mass deception: it forecloses the possibility of having a critical theory that could explain it by claiming beforehand that deception all pervasive).

Now the political convictions motivating this worry (which I'm sympathetic to) often issue from a concern to resist what Jacques Ranciere has called "hatred of democracy". This tendency toward 'hatred of democracy' is exemplified in many traditional sociological theories about social movements, which explained the actions of protesters/activists as nothing more than the 'eruption of emotion' and the spilling-over of affect. According to these conservative ways of thinking about protests the participants in social movements were irrational, responding to gut-level affective emotions (i.e. rage, fear, etc.), and were not to be thought about as fully autonomous agents. In other words, 'hatred of democracy' here goes hand in hand with elitist slanders against democratic upswells as 'mob rule' or 'populist rage', etc.

Now it is not a stretch for a shoddy theory of ideology, even one issuing from genuine Leftist concern for emancipation, to morph into versions of the conservative views above. There is a risk in undertaking the project of ideology critique, since many radical social theories can begin to have similar tendencies to systematically explain away people's actions in terms of external manipulations of their affects, desires, etc.

The trouble, however, is that things here are very complicated. While I share the worries listed above as well as the politics underlying a rejection of conservative 'hatred of democracy', if we take these admissions as grounds for completely throwing out any theory of ideology full stop, I believe we are making a very serious political error.

This is why. Let me borrow from Raymond Geuss's clear and concise (from his recent book Philosophy and Real Politics) account of ideologiekritik to make the point.

I think anyone on the Left would agree that "power, in various forms, is an important feature of human societies".

Now what I'd like to add is that "power can be used indirectly to shape opinions, attitudes, desires, and thus to manufacture what looks like 'consent', and in this form, power is not so easily visible."

For example, consider the arms or oil industries who can use their "financial power to influence newspapers in the direction of generating a climate of fear that will be conducive to higher governmental expenditures on weapons, or oil companies can fund research directed at showing that climate change is not caused by the burning of fossil fuels".

Now, "in a society in which powerful social agencies have a strong interest in commercializing as many aspects of human life as possible, it would not be surprising if people came to think that the existence of a 'free market' in health care, education, organ transplanting, or the adoption of children was 'natural' and required no further comment, scrutiny or explanation. This belief would be a reflection of how things appeared to be in this particular society".

The really nice point that Geuss makes here is that "the effects of power are less visible because they operate on amorphous initial states rather than against a distinctly constituted opposition: after all, who 'initially' would have any view whatever about the connection between global warming and fossil fuels?" In other words, that people do not see certain features of the social order as contingent, potentially being different, as an 'open question'... is due to the operation of power.

The example he gives to make this point is health care:

"If I claim that all human societies have a free market in health care services, this is an empirical claim that can easily be shown to be false".

"But on the other hand, if I focus your attention on the various different tariffs and pricing schema that doctors or hospitals or drug companies impose for their products or services, and I become morally outraged by “excessive” costs some drug companies charge, it is not at all obvious that anything I say is straightforwardly false; after all, who knows what “excessive” means? However, by proceeding in just this way I focus your attention on narrow issues of ‘just’ pricing, turning it away from more pressing issues about the acceptance in some societies of the very existence of a free market for drugs and medical services. The more outraged I become about the prices the more I obscure the underlying issue."

The upshot of this example is that we can clearly see that ideology functions at its strongest when it forecloses certain questions, and thus obscures the contingent features of social life in a way that causes them to appear natural or inevitable.

In bringing his discussion of the issue to a close, Geuss claims that "there is probably little to be said in general about how power relations operate, since their influence on the formation of beliefs, desires and attitudes is a complex question". In other words, any adequate theory of ideology must be sensitive to the complexity and contingency of specific conjunctures.

Notice that while Geuss has only offered examples that appear to rely upon the purposive actions of individuals seeking to actively maintain the existing order, this need not always be the case about ideology. This goes back to the issues raised in my previous post on Marxism and 'conspiracy theory'.

Chanthal Mouffe has made a similar argument that is helpful here, precisely because it makes clear that ideology need not be defined in terms of the purposive actions of individuals. She argues that "the social is the realm of sedimented practices, that is, practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution and which are taken for granted, as if they were self-grounded". Moreover, she claims that "what is at a given moment considered as the ‘natural’ order –jointly with the ‘common sense’ which accompanies it –is the result of sedimented practices; it is never the manifestation of a deeper objectivity exterior to the practices that bring it into being.” To be sure, more needs to be said here, but I think this makes the point sufficiently clear that the faux-populist objections raised at the onset do not hold.

The upshot of all of this, then, is that if there is such a thing as ideology, we cannot uncritically hoist up and valorize the spontaneous beliefs and preferences of individuals in contemporary societies. It won't help that the attempt to do this under the banner of 'democracy'. We cannot simply assume that ideology critique is elitist, and that 'each person knows what's best' and leave political theory at at that. Any emancipatory politics must critically engage the way society functions, and that means critically engaging why certain beliefs are widespread and why certain political questions are foreclosed by the very language and vocabulary that prevails in dominant discourse. If pursuing these questions risks telling people that their means of interpreting themselves and the social field are mistaken, this is a risk that any critical political theory must take.

To sum up, any critical politics must begin from the thought that "there is nothing radical about common sense".

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