Ideology helps us to explain how unequal and unjust social relations are maintained in society. More specifically, the concept has been central in attempts to explain how economic and social inequalities in capitalist societies are justified and appear to be normal. If capitalism only works in the interests of a small number of people, as many argue, the majority have to be convinced that the capitalist system is natural. So despite the failings of capitalism, such as economic and social inequality, exploitation of workers, and so on, ideology prohibits any alternative perspectives from being taken seriously. Theories of ideology attempt to explain why people who are disadvantaged by the capitalist system seem to make concessions for it.
We encounter ideology in situations in which unequal social relations appear to be normal and difficult to challenge. For example, ideology plays a role in how we might think about situations such as poverty, and emerges in questions such as: are the poor to blame for their poverty? Have they made bad choices? Or is poverty produced structurally by a distribution of wealth that favours an elite social class? Capitalist ideology tends to answer these questions with the view that, like everyone in society, the poor are individually responsible for their own life situation. This means that the capitalist system, which many argue works by concentrating wealth upwards into the hands of the wealthy few, is not the cause of poverty. In this example, ideology takes the form of a dominant social value: individualism. Individualism is seen as good because everyone can pursue his or her own interests, and capitalism is the only system that allows this pursuit.
Ideology has been theorised in three basic ways:
Ideology as false consciousness
In the first, ideology is understood as false consciousness. This means that belief in the system is derived from cultural messages that cover over and obscure the reality of exploitation. We could call this the ideology as ‘rose coloured glasses’ view. For example, we might enjoy owning a number of digital communication gadgets, such as smartphones, tablets, and/or Ipods. The prevailing view is that these digital devices are environmentally clean and green. However, this is far from the reality. These gadgets contain many hazardous materials, such as chromium, mercury, and cadmium. The rapid development of digital gadgets means that devices that are only two or three years old become redundant. This rapid development has produced an e-waste crisis, in which millions of tonnes of e-waste globally has found its way into landfill. In many instances, this e-waste is exported from wealthy nations to dumps in poorer nations. In this example ideology covers over this wasteful and hazardous aspect of digital gadgets, as well as the devastating health effects of the hazardous materials upon the world’s poor. Challenges to ideology, in this first sense, involve exposing the illusion with the truth.
Ideology as a set of social practices
In the second, theorised by the French political philosopher, Louis Althusser, ideology is less an illusion that is vulnerable to truth than a set of practices and ideas that are produced within social institutions such as the church, media, and the school. In this second sense, ideology doesn’t involve conscious thought and false knowledge about the social world. Instead, ideology is understood as a social mechanism that produces subject positions; this to say a place in the social world from which we live our lives. These subject positions include, for example, student, teacher, cleaner, CEO, and so on. The point is that ideology invests such subject positions with social meaning. A teacher, for instance, makes sense of their actual social position by imagining how this relates to the social world as a whole. The teacher’s imaginary can be politically conservative, conformist, reformist, or revolutionary. The point that Althusser makes is that even though our subjectivity is institutionally produced, we feel as though we are free. This is what he calls, “bourgeois ideology”. By this he means an ideology that makes us feel as though the social world is there for us to express ourselves, rather than us being mere functionaries for the system. In this second sense, ideology can never be overcome since it plays an important role in how we understand our place in the world. Progressive social change involves challenging “bourgeois ideology”, that is an ideology that equates freedom to the pursuit of financial gain, with ideologies that promote the common good.
Ideology involving beliefs and fantasies
In the third theorisation, instead of understanding ideology as a problem of knowledge or the imaginary, ideology is thought to involve our beliefs and fantasies. Ideology attempts to assemble a coherent account of the social world by focusing on one aspect of things and taking this as an account of the whole. Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, sets forth this theory. This partial construction works as an object of fantasy, and displaces the real conditions of social inequality. For Žižek, the citizenry no longer believe in the integrity of politicians or that capitalism is the most apt economic and social system, but they act as if they do believe. Ideology today has thus become cynical. The capitalist system has become the grounds for the expression of pleasure and enjoyment. Žižek includes everyday examples to demonstrate this view. Part of the purchase price for a Starbucks coffee, for instance, is donated to help poor children. Along with the product, buying a Starbucks coffee thus involves doing good, and makes the consumer feel that their purchasing produces positive benefits for others, in this case poor children. But Žižek points out that the enjoyment derived from this “ethical’ form of consumption covers over the very capitalist system that produces poverty in the first place. The point in this instance is that ideology works by investing consumption with enjoyment, and even though we know that people suffer and that there is exploitation in the world, the very system that produces this suffering remains unchallenged.
Georg Lukács – ideology “appears, on the one hand, as something which is subjectively justified in the social and historical situation, as something which can and should be understood, i.e. as ‘right’. At the same time, objectively, it by-passes the essence of the evolution of society and fails to pinpoint it and express it adequately. That is to say, objectively, it appears as a ‘false consciousness’. On the other hand, we may see the same consciousness as something which fails subjectively to reach its self-appointed goals, while furthering and realising the objective aims of society of which it is ignorant and which it did not choose” (History and class consciousness (1971), Cambridge: MIT Press, 50).
Louis Althusser – “In a class society ideology is the relay whereby, and the element in which, the relation between men and their conditions of existence is settled to the profit of the ruling class. In a classless society ideology is the relay whereby, and the element in which, the relation between men and their condition of existence is lived to the profit of all men (For Marx (2005), London: Verso, 236)
Slavoj Žižek – “[…] we have established a new way to read the Marxian formula ‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’: the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what the people are doing. What they do not know is that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but still they are doing it as if they did not know. The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called the ideological fantasy” (Mapping ideology (2012), London: Verso, 315-316).
- What are the ideologies that inform the role of being a student in a classroom?
- What are the dominant ideologies (the ideologies that “everyone” accepts) about being a student?
- Can you think of any alternative ideologies to explain that subject position (of being a student in a classroom?)