Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology, pt. III

See Part II of this series here.

Historical consciousness develops along with the material forces of history, and not through abstract rationality, as Hegel thought. Today, the mass of rational human subjects discovers their environment not as something self-alienated – that is, produced both by themselves and for themselves, as Hegel’s conservativism led him to regard in his own Enlightenment culture – but rather as an environment imposed with the hegemony of capitalism’s cultural, political, social, scientific and economic spaces. This point, of course, does not disprove the dialectical synthesis of Hegel’s view – it only adds to it a necessary material dimension. The mass of human subjects is entirely subordinated to the hegemonic rationality of the bourgeoisie, in the logical space carved out by capitalism. The reality of this logic is based entirely on abstractions, fictions drawn from the material forces of history and distorted in order to perpetuate the cultural authority and political power of the bourgeoisie.

Because the social existence of the proletariat is not at the same time its existence within a proletarian culture, ideology is driven into the working class, rather than revealed, in the last, to be something of themselves and for themselves. Althusser calls this driving force “interpellation”, which also means ‘hailing’ or ‘calling-forth’. Ideology calls us forth in the same way that police officers do when they hail you (‘Hey, you there!’). In the eyes of the Repressive State Apparatus, your existence is only as an abstract quantity, until so hailed, at which point said existence is qualitatively transformed, in this case, into that of a suspect.[1] It is the same with ideology.

This is, perhaps, the trickiest part to grasp of the philosophical puzzle concerning the functioning of ideology. Ideology hails us from the very instant we are born, at which moment we take on the label of being a son or a daughter, hence starting us towards developing a consciousness of ourselves as within the bourgeois family unit. Althusser makes some rather paradoxical comments at this stage about the nature of ideology: first, claiming that “ideology has no outside,”[2] meaning simply that the illusion of ideology is ever present, the task of science (specifically, of historical materialism) being to shatter this illusion; and second, that ideology “has no history,”[3] which makes sense if we consider that history belongs to the material processes which, in the last instance, determine particular ideologies, and are beyond them. If there is an outside of ideology, it is in the material processes of history. The history of ideology, because imaginary, is necessary immaterial.

Marxist science studies material processes and the most general dialectical laws that govern them. It does not deal in abstractions or imaginaries. However, it is necessary to understand the expression of the general laws in the imaginaries as well, in order to fully grasp the functioning of ideology. Individuals hailed by ideology are hailed as individual subjects. What does it mean to be a subject? Althusser offers an instructive example, in the case of Christian religious ideology:

… there can only be … a multitude of possible religious subjects on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute, Other Subject, i.e. God… God thus defines himself as the Subject par excellence, he who is through himself and for himself (‘I am that I am’), and he who interpellates his subject, the individual subjected to him… i.e. the individual named Moses. And Moses, interpellated-called by his Name, having recognized that it ‘really’ was he who was called by God, recognizes that he is a subject, a subject of God, a subject subjected to God, a subject through the subject and subjected to the Subject. The proof: he obeys him, and makes his people obey God’s Commandments.[4]

The God of the market is a many-faced God, but the general laws of ideology are the same. Ideology mirrors itself in its subjects, and individual subjects mirror themselves in ideology. Xenophanes of Colophon once remarked that, if oxen and horses had a religion, their gods would be painted with hooves[5] –Althusser adds that the oxen and horses would recognize themselves as real oxen and horses only on the condition of their semblance with their behooved gods. This generally holds true in the case of commodity fetishism under capitalism. The forces of capitalist production become fetishized, inscribed with a certain commodity value, and this recognition is doubled by that of the workers, who recognize themselves as commodities – that is, they recognize their embodied labour as obeying the logic of the commodity value-form. They recognize their labour power as a quantity of money, which can be exchanged with other commodities.

Fetishization occurs when the concrete or use-value of a product is invested entirely with abstract and imaginary quantities, detached from the actual processes of production that created the product in question, as in the transformation of productive processes by capitalism into commodity-production. Ideology overflows with the logic of fetishization, producing facts and formal logics completely separated from the material processes that gave rise to them. Religious iconography provides an overwhelming wealth of examples, but we may also observe this in the case of scientific revolutions, where old hardened dogmatists have often struggled not to give up belief in some entities, once thought real, which came to be thoroughly disproved in the face of new evidence; such was the case in Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen in the 18th-century, having first observed the process of oxidization, against which one Joseph Priestley defended the old theory of dephlogisticated air to the bitter end.

Under the general logic of fetishization, what-there-is is completely detached from how what-there-is is produced. The chemical dispute of Lavoisier and Priestley was but a trite example compared with the more devious ways in which ideology and fetishism combine in capitalist society to carve out imaginary divisions between concrete individuals. We often hear of the fetishization of gender, and race. The history of the western fetishization of Asian women, for example, extends back to the 15th-century, taking an upturn in the 18th, at the dawn of industrial capitalism, when European – mainly British – trade with Japan and China sharply increased. The sexual stereotype of Asian women as exotic and submissive is directly tied to the colonial history of western imperialist powers; this is an example of fetishization, because it leads to a valuation and, fundamentally, a misrecognition of individuals, having nothing to do with their material reality. Naturally, elements of the ideological apparatus combine in various ways. The fetishization of Asian women in the early days of British imperialism combines with the existing bourgeois ideology of the family, which envisions women as an extension of private property.

Fetishization becomes particularly dangerous in the era of capitalist globalization. The façade of multiculturalism is paraded before the material reality of capitalism’s cultural hegemony. As capitalism conquers the cultural sphere, the logic of the fetish becomes a way not only to misrecognize others in an imaginary way, but also to misrecognize oneself. Consider the self-experience of a transgendered person. At a certain point, their material reality as an embodied subject breaks with the ideological categories of gender imposed by capitalism and the rise of the state in institutions extending property rights into persons, which are typically identified as the structures of patriarchy.[6] Similarly, the proletariat exists for the most part under the stupor of bourgeois ideology driven by the culture industry; fetishization is driven by consumption, and it often takes some earth-shattering material event, such as a general strike or a steep and prolonged economic crisis, to shake workers from the consumption of their own manufactured submissiveness to exploitation. Both are conditions for the reproduction of capitalism’s productive forces.

The only way to break definitively with ideology and the logic of fetishization is with a scientific view consistently grounded in material reality. This is precisely the project of dialectical materialism. Just as with the example I gave of the transgendered individual, the revolutionary proletariat has the potential break with ideology by discovering its material reality. The science that aims at this is inherently revolutionary, because the material reality of the proletariat as a class is one and the same with the motor force of history, which is a real material force. The material reality of the transgendered person is as an individual; the material reality of the working class is as a collective. This thesis underlies the science of historical materialism.

As was seen in the case of the Christian religious ideology, the condition of the unity of individual subjects was external, subjected to and imagined to be of God’s will. With the working class, this condition of unity is intrinsic to their very material reality. The functioning of ideology disrupts the ability of the proletariat to recognize its own material reality, by carving up relations between individuals with imaginary divisions and distortions. Fetishization serves both to multiply and crystallize these divisions.

This misrecognition is at the heart of the functioning of ideology, which aims to root the building class consciousness of the proletariat out like a weed. But weeds will drive through every crack, and so too with the revolutionary will of the workers.

We have only to take on the additional task, as builders of the subjective factor of the revolution, i.e., of the revolutionary party, to attack ideology wherever it exists. This can be done only by subjecting ideology and ISAs to a consistent material critique, revealing the productive forces and reproductive dynamics underlying them.


Postscript – on the subjective factor, the revolutionary vanguard party.

Some of you might be asking, what of the subjective factor of the revolution – the need for a revolutionary vanguard party, to combine with the objective, material factor of the mass of workers and their incipient class consciousness? Is this Subject another form of Absolute, like God, unique to a particular form of ideology? Any worker who believes this will have gravely misrecognized their material reality. Hegel says,

Self-consciousness is in itself and for itself when and because it is in itself and for itself for another; that is, that it is recognized as such.[7]

This recognition is accomplished when the subjective and objective factors enter into a unity – when the mass of workers definitively combines with the theoretical understanding and advanced consciousness of the revolutionary vanguard. This recognition is possible because it accords with the material reality of the proletariat; it is historical because this material reality is also the motor force of history. Thus, articulating the Marxist philosophy of ideology does not force us to abandon the subjective/objective factor distinction, but rather reminds us that the relation of these two factors is dialectical in nature, with each pole interpenetrating with the other.

[1] Althusser (2009), 48.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 52-3.

[5] Ref. in Alan Woods & Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt, 2nd ed. (London: Wellred Books, 2012), 42.

[6] Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), especially Ch. 2-4.

[7] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), §178. My translation and emphasis.

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