Ideology Now – part 1

This post was contributed by Eliane Glaser, Honorary Research Fellow in Birkbecks Department of English and Humanities.

On Saturday 28 April a diverse group of academics, journalists, commentators and students gathered in Gordon Square to explore the role of ideology today. The premise of the conference was the strange death of ideology within political discourse. When politicians use the word ‘ideology’ now, it’s invariably an insult. Politics is supposed to be pragmatic, consensus-building, about doing ‘what works’.

But is the narrative of the death of ideology itself an ideological move? Are ideologies and agendas still in operation, just under cover? Is ideology today primarily a covert force, creating a topsy-turvy world in which appearance is the very opposite of reality? In my book Get Real I lament the fact that Conservatives boast that they are the party of the poor, BP petrol stations are coloured an environmentally-friendly shade of green, and our TV screens are filled with celebrity chefs baking sourdough as sales of ready meals soar.

Is it time to revive ideology critique, both inside and outside the academy? And is it time to restore overt ideologies to our political culture? Since the financial crash, the Occupy movement has revitalised citizen activism. But would that movement be more effective if it embraced overt objectives and ideals?

These are some of the questions I set out in my introductory remarks, before handing over to Esther Leslie, professor in political aesthetics at Birkbeck. Esther gave a wonderfully rich and provocative talk in which she simultaneously illustrated the workings of ideology in culture today and also critiqued the very notion of ideology, arguing for a version of the term that is more rooted in social being and action. Matthew Beaumont, who teaches English at UCL, then did a fascinating reading of disaster films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, arguing that at a time in which capitalism is in crisis, these films enact Fredric Jameson’s observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.  

Two former heads of policy at Number 10 reflected on ideology in political culture. Ferdinand Mount, author of the newly published The New Few, was head of policy under Margaret Thatcher, and he argued for a post-ideological liberal democracy which allows for a diversity of positions. Nick Pearce, director of the IPPR and head of policy under Gordon Brown, made the case for a single ideology: social democracy.

After lunch, author and Guardian columnist Steven Poole exposed the financial metaphors that pervade everyday speech – with philosophy lecturer and activist Nina Power pointing out during questions that, conversely, capitalism is often clothed in humanising language. Author Dan Hind described how the ‘end of ideology’ thesis has obscured the rise of a single ideology, market capitalism, and pointed to new, non-hierarchical forms of public discussion and protest as the way forward.

We had two highly stimulating papers on ideology in architecture and theatre by writer Owen Hatherley and lecturer in theatre and performance at Birkbeck Louise Owen. While Owen Hatherley identified the ideologies embedded in a whole range of architectural styles, Louise Owen detected ideologies lurking beneath what passes as theatrical realism today.

In the final session, a lively and politically-engaged talk by Nina Power linked Althusser’s theory of interpolation to the current behaviour of the police and judiciary in ‘public order’ cases, and argued that protesters attempting to defend the public good are being penalised in the name of an imaginary ‘good’ public. And Renata Salecl, professor of law at Ljubljana University ended the conference with a brilliant and entertaining puncturing of contemporary assumptions about reality and wellbeing. 

What I loved about the conference was the way in which the papers linked theoretical analysis with urgent issues in today’s politics and culture. The perspectives were unusually broad for an academic conference, and the discussions over coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner were engaged and convivial. I was left with the positive sense that there is a great deal more to say on this subject; that in the contemporary world, reports of ideology’s demise are both symptomatic and premature.

All the papers are available to listen to online via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company.


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