Ideology Now – part 2

This post was contributed by Nina Power, from the Department of Philosophy at Roehampton University.

What do we mean by “ideology” today? Is it possible to identify forms of contemporary ideology, or is the very discourse of ideology itself an ideological remnant of an earlier period? In the latter instance, we might talk about ideologies, plural, indicating perhaps a clash of grand narratives, communism v capitalism in the context of the Cold War perhaps being the most historically obvious: here “ideology” comes to stand in for something like a rigid set of beliefs about the way the world ought to work, which usually incorporates some kind of folded-in theory of human nature (capitalism’s idea that people are ‘naturally selfish’, for example, and that ‘markets’ are the best way of managing this ‘fact’). This understanding of ideology is frequently argued to be over, and we are imagined to now be living in an uncertain post-ideological period, where competing fragmentary ideas jostle amongst each other for perhaps temporary precedence.

Against this familiar story, we could return to the image Louis Althusser picks up from Pascal – the idea that belief is not something that pre-exists action, but something that follows from it: not believe and you will be a good Christian, but rather kneel in prayer enough times and then you will believe. Here ideology is conceived as a material practice, reinforced by repetition and a context in which that repetition has a framework to support it. Spinoza poses the problem in a slightly different way in his theory of knowledge: here ideology is something like a way of understanding the world that ‘works’ but is false – not an illusion exactly, which is sometimes where discussions of ideology end up, but a way of structuring what happens in such a way as to make it seem superficially plausible (thinking that the legal system is ‘fair’ for example, because you agree with its verdict most of the time, while not stopping to ask larger questions about who benefits, the plausibility and nature of the laws themselves, or the likely outcomes for those accused of ‘breaking’ them).

In my paper on the ideology of law and order I picked up a slightly different idea: that ideology is perhaps rather not thinking about something really, really hard, in such a way that it doesn’t come into vision at all, except for if and when it directly affects you. Here it seems to me that the law is precisely this kind of gigantic purloined letter, indirectly conditioning what we do (or really what we don’t do), but not being visible for the most part (the same of course goes for its agents, the police and its buildings, prisons). So while we might know on one level that the police are rarely, if ever, held accountable for the people who die in their custody, for example, the idea that this might be because of a combination of police violence and corruption, racism and legal unaccountability is pushed behind the idea of individuals – the rotten apple police officer, the hint of suspicion that the victim was most likely up to no good, and so on. Otherwise the whole edifice – state ‘protection’, ‘justice’ ‘equality before the law’ – starts to look shaky…it seems to me that the law and its enforcement is most definitely hidden in plain sight, and just as following the economic crash, all the mystified terms of economic skill were revealed to be little more than a pile of Ponzi schemes with some computers attached, the law, used ever-increasingly against those who are protesting against the effects of the austerity measures imposed as a result of the crash, and always used against those the police deem to be ‘pre-criminal’ in one way or another is a form of contemporary ideology we would do well to pay much closer attention to…


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