Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology

This is the first of a multi-post series based on a leadoff I gave June 10th, 2016, for a Montréal branch of Fightback: the Canadian Section of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). It approaches the question of ideology from a perspective largely inspired by the structuralist Marxism avowed by Louis Althusser in the late 60s to early 70s.

A prefatory note: Althusser occupies the slightly uncomfortable historical position of having simultaneously given structuralism is clearest theoretical formulation as a critical theory, while demonstrating its limits. Naturally, one asks of the question of ideology, a cui bono – that is, an ideology for whom? from the perspective of which subject? Structuralist critique cannot stand against itself without coming undone – from the perspective of a subject yet to come, or a subject in a different historico-factical situation, what is taken as the material of a science is called ideological, and vice versa. Let it be said that Althusser’s always was an explicitly partisan philosophy. “Class struggle in the field of theory” was for him definitive of philosophy. Thus, that the following presentation is presented from the position of the proletariat as the subject of history, that is, as its motor force, an a priori assumption of the science of historical materialism, should not be considered as a substantive critique, but merely as a partisan difference (with empirical consequences).


Let’s begin with a quote, from the Preface to The German Ideology (1845-6/1932), to help us define our scope.

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.[1]

Our question is a philosophical one: what is ideology? And how does it function? It is also a practical one. How does ideology relate to the oppression and exploitation of the masses in capitalist society? What sorts of material conditions give rise to ideology as an extension of bourgeois power? And, perhaps most importantly, how does one differentiate between ideology and scientific fact? These will be the guiding questions of our present discussion.

First: what is ideology? As Marxists, we are materialists. We are not the sorts of vulgar materialists, who, like Feuerbach, would reduce all of the realm of ideas to the level of material reality, while at the same time holding that the essence of what is material only becomes real in ideology, for example, in Christian theology.[2] Engels skilfully detects this contradiction in Feuerbach’s thought in the 1886 work on the latter.

For Feuerbach, our ability to conceive of an idea so grand as the gods, and to base entire religions around them, showed that ideas somehow have a greater reality than matter. Feuerbach once said of the emergence of rational thought in human subjects as we evolved from the apes, that he agreed with the dialectical materialist view “going backwards, but not forwards”. As dialectical materialists, we argue that rational thought, that consciousness itself, is not beyond matter, but is instead the highest realization of matter. Religion does not surpass matter; religion, at base, has a material reality.

In the same way, ideology has a material existence. This is one of the theses on ideology argued by Louis Althusser, in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”.[3] Ideology exists in the rituals and practices of concrete individuals in material institutions: priests in the Church speaking hocus pocus (‘hoc est corpus meum’) over the Eucharist; Wall Street bankers who perceive the world through the spectacular calculations of bourgeois economics, shuffling about in a panic as the market fluctuates, in a virtual microcosm of the anarchy of capitalist production.

However, if this was all that there was to the substance of ideology, then it would be enough that we seize all of the factories tomorrow in order to topple bourgeois ideology wherever it exists. This is clearly not so. Ideology is an element of the superstructure of bourgeois society. The superstructure is dialectically related to a society’s material base. So, how we function materially produces in us a certain consciousness – ideas about how we ought to function – which we then apply concretely as a way of organizing our labour, along with the productive forces in society. Marx describes the dialectical relation between superstructure and base in The German Ideology, and Althusser further develops this idea in his own work.

This is how, by owning all of the means of production in society, the ruling class also comes to dominate society ideologically. Here, we should recall Marx’s well-known slogan: the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of its ruling class.

Now, how does ideology function – and what does it function to do? The first part of this question, according to Althusser, was not adequately considered by Marx, who instead answers to the second part of the question. Says Althusser,

… it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that ‘men’ ‘represent to themselves’ in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there. It is this relation which is at the centre of every ideological, i.e. imaginary, representation of the real world. It is this relation that contains the ‘cause’ which has to explain the imaginary distortion of the ideological representation of the real world.[4]

Let’s make this a little more clear. If workers represented their real conditions of existence to themselves in ideology, then they would eventually, without fail, develop an advanced class consciousness, simply as a result of the material social relations of their labour. They would recognize themselves as a collective force and will, rather than as individuals, with relative ease. Wouldn’t that simplify the task of the revolutionary party! So, it isn’t the real conditions of the base of society that workers represent to themselves in ideology, but rather the imaginary representations of those conditions, which make up the superstructure of bourgeois society.

For the most part, the working class is not awake to the reality of their exploitation. This is the result of a manufactured social reality imposed by the ruling class, which produces in workers a submissiveness to exploitation. It is not that workers know themselves to be exploited and are unaffected by this fact, but rather that the bourgeois ideology produces a consciousness in individual workers which leads them to believe that their material exploitation is in fact the best of all possible worlds. Ideology is principally a force that reproduces capitalist relations of production, by representing to individuals a positive understanding of themselves as within the framework of capitalist production.

This was the point already made by Marx: “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce.”[5]

To be continued

[1] Marx, The German Ideology (1932). My emphasis.

[2] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy (1886), §2-3.

[3] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970) in On Ideology (New York: Verso, 2009), 39.

[4] Ibid., 38.

[5] Marx (1932), Part I. A: “Idealism and Materialism”. My emphasis.

Advertisements

“A Brief Essay…” published at The Blasted Tree

Today I’m thrilled to announce that an essay I previewed a few months ago on this blog, “A Brief Essay Against All Murder, and the Death Penalty”, has been published by my friends over at The Blasted Tree. You can read the essay on their website here.

The essay itself was originally written in my journal, then posted to my blog, dating February 11th. By ‘the essay itself’, I mean the essay not including the postscript, which is now included in full in the publication by The Blasted Tree.

As the postscript itself indicates, I continue to hold that the essay itself is self-sufficient as an argument against the question set forth by its context, namely that expressed by its title.

Another excerpt.

The title of the essay provides the reader with an approximate thematic summation of the essay’s content. In doing so, the title also offers a sufficient, and possibly necessary condition, for the rendering of a context in which to situate the exact sense of the essay itself. Along with the creation of this context, naturally I take it that the body of the essay itself is a simple sufficient condition for the comprehension of the content of the essay. That is simply to say that the essay is what it is, simply. Taken together, the title and body enjoin a further sufficient condition stating their conjunction as a simple condition of their own comprehension. All of this is to say that the postscript is entirely an afterthought, and a clarification. Strictly speaking, I take it that there is nothing said in this postscript that is not said as such in the essay itself, taken together with its title, which situates one’s reflections about the essay’s content. This postscript is only an extended reflection. Its eventual conclusion is none other than the unresolved question already set forth by the essay itself. It is exactly for the reason that this question is, necessarily, simply unresolved, that justice at the limits of its means of implementation – where it finds itself – finds itself without ground.

One would possibly be expected to give an argument as to what makes a title a sufficient condition for the rendering of a context for an essay, as well as what makes the body of an essay a sufficient condition for the resolution of its content. For the condition of the claim that each of these taken together enjoins an understanding of their conjunction, self-sufficiently entailing a comprehension of the work as a whole, seems to rest on these. Minimally, for either of the independent conditions stated of the title and body of the essay, one could say that each constitutes for itself a necessary condition for its own comprehension, which is for each their particular rendering of a context or content, respectively. This much could be said of any essay, as any piece of writing takes both its own body and title as at least a necessary part of a complete understanding of what it is said to be, or to be about. A title is an accessory, a maquillage, disclosing behind it a face and an inner working. We are not without such accoutrements, and neither are our writings, which are only our bodies of words.

 

Infection and the Death of Reason

It’s been some time since I’ve updated my Academia.edu profile with any of my more recent work. Along with some notes for a recent conference presentation, I’ve uploaded a draft paper on self-sacrifice, authenticity, death and the infection structure in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. 

Infection [Ansteckung], for Hegel, has to do with the communicability or speaking-out of the subject, its interpenetration with the other, and its subsequent self-realization as Spirit.

A select excerpt from the paper follows – the full paper is available online here.

Reason in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit binds the ‘I’ to its body. Reason is bound to the individuality of the ‘I’; through each movement of self-consciousness as Reason, the ‘I’ attempts to escape itself, willing, as it were, that the maxim of its action would become universal law (to paraphrase Kant). As such, the individual embarks out onto the world first carrying the law of the heart (the law of his own heart, presupposed as the law of all hearts insofar as they are beating) whose claim to the world is then thwarted by competing claims made by the many other hearts. Beginning with this movement, self-consciousness as Reason learns the self-defeatingness of its individualism. Every movement of Reason is a movement of self-negation; every movement is a death for self-consciousness. This need to transcend itself through its own individual death is a necessary step towards the self-certainty through which Spirit first appears in its actuality. Otherwise than Reason’s deference and anxiety over its own death, Georges Bataille rightly says that Spirit “assumes death and lives with it.”[1] Death shapes Spirit’s universal actuality, imparted in part by Reason. Hegel’s phenomenological self-consciousness needs to watch itself die, in order to self-actualize as Spirit.

[1] Georges Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice” in Yale French Studies, No. 78, On Bataille, 14.

captain of the silver team (a sonnet)

never was a piano player but
for keys unlocked in sleepless nights stars of
possibility. never was a star
but i was captain of the silver team.

never came back home very often but
never left much in return. and all that
i have, thoughts of whys, of being and time,
i have nothing, the nothing, to discern.

never was a creature of concern but
for every second that i lived. and now
when the thought of me vanishes, then, when
i wonder, how far i’ll have gone to go.

for never was that it ever will be
everywhere everything was becoming.

#Ghomeshi: or, Justice, God of the Godless

Canadians have had their gaze fixed on the sexual assault trial of Jian Ghomeshi since it began last February. A Toronto court today found Ghomeshi not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one count of forced choking. (It’s important to note that Ghomeshi has a second sexual assault trial pending for June, this time with only a single complainant).

Justice Horkins’ 26-page verdict on the Ghomeshi trial is available here. I’ve personally had a lot of difficulty thinking any clear thoughts about the verdict, besides just anger, frustration and sadness. This is what most stood out to me in the judge’s verdict…

“There is no other evidence to look to determine the truth. There is no tangible evidence. There is no DNA. There is no ‘smoking gun’. There is only the sworn evidence of each complainant, standing on its own, to be measured against a very exacting standard of proof.” ([131] p. 23).

“The standard of proof in a criminal case requires sufficient clarity in the evidence to allow a confident acceptance of the essential facts. In these proceedings the bedrock foundation of the Crown’s case is tainted and incapable of supporting any clear determination of the truth.” ([140] p. 25).

My thoughts: we need to seriously consider our standards of “truth” and “truth-acceptance” in the science of jurisprudence, especially in criminal trials of this nature. The very thought that there is a concrete, determinate and independently real “truth” to the matter seems, to me, fundamentally misguided. The presumption of innocence – widely considered a crucial aspect of a fair criminal justice system – appears to have failed to actualize the goal of justice in this case. This, because this presumption not only places the burden of proof on the Crown and Ghomeshi’s alleged victims – more importantly, it puts survivors, rather than their assailants, on trial.

Our justice system is as pervasively Christianized in this respect as countless other liberal occidental institutions. Failing to speak the truth, in full knowledge of it, when called upon as a witness, is already called a sin, in Leviticus. Obviously the implication is that the notion of absolute truth, metaphysically, is as distant from us as knowers as God is.

I do not know what is to be done. I only know that I am made sick by the godless, who create themselves in the image of gods, in the name of a god called, “Justice”.

The “smoking gun” Justice Horkins is looking for, as I see it, is the justice system itself. And the DNA he is looking for is only its own genealogy.

When radical therapies are not at all rad.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by a Toronto law firm over allegations that psychiatric treatments administered at a former Ontario treatment facility, involving radical therapeutic theories and practices, constituted a rare form of psychological torture for many patients. Patients exhibiting psychopathological tendencies actually showed higher rates of violent recidivism as a result of receiving treatment than psychopaths incarcerated in federal prisons.

Interestingly, the Toronto law firm that’s filed the class action suit has claimed that the methods used at the Ontario psychiatric facility had “no basis in science”, while a former research director and her colleagues hold that “[t]here is no doubt that the therapeutic community … was based on sound clinical experience and a solid theoretical understanding of the contemporary literature on the treatment of criminal offenders” (Harris et al., 1994). We can be critical of science in more fruitful ways, without maintaining such stringent demarcation criteria.

The methods used at Oak Ridge were based in part on radical psychiatric theories, not unscientific ones. However, after reading some of the former institution’s publications, I can say that the higher rates of comorbidity of certain types of mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia) with psychopathological behaviour does not seem to have factored into the rates of violent recidivism considered in their outcomes data. Moreover, the thought that massive doses of LSD and other psychotropics, extended periods in isolation and sleep deprivation could easily induce schizophrenic breaks in patients, deemed “glib” (op. cit), and resistant to coercion. Furthermore, Harris et al., fail to realize that the comorbidity of schizophrenia and psychopathy is also higher among violent patients, compared to nonviolent ones (Nolan et al., 1999).

Now, let’s just remember that the matter of ‘having a scientific basis’ is importantly different from the matter of consent, and the violent and coercive implementation of measures established in accordance with scientific beliefs on subjects who, by and large, are not in a position to give consent…

  1. Harris, Grant; Rice, Marnie; Cormier, Catherine, “Psychopaths: Is a Therapeutic Community Therapeutic?” in Therapeutic Communities (1994) 15(4), 283-299.
  2. Nolan, Karen; Volavka, Jan; Mohr, Pavel; Czobor, Pál, “Psychopathy and Violent Behavior Among Patients With Schizophrenia or Schizoaffective Disorder” in Psychiatric Services (1999) 50(6), 787-792.

Excerpt from upcoming, “Postscript to ‘A Brief Essay Against All Murder, and the Death Penalty'”

Just in case anyone doubts that the essay is precisely that. An excerpt from its upcoming postscript. The postscript is intended both as a defense of the main arguments of the essay, as well as a defense of the essay itself as an essay, au complet.

To the question belongs the time that it interrupts. To the question belongs both the question of its own time, and the timeliness of a someone. This latter, most directly, is what one can say is called into question. The former, the question of the time of the question, would rather be called into the question. How so? Does it emanate from a history, an echo from a paused moment, like slamming on the brakes, or the stinging skull of forcefully coughing with a severely congested cold? We cannot say. The history belongs to the question, and not to the essay itself. Neither does its meta-analysis belong to this postscript. There is always that which escapes the question. Forgotten histories, moments unrecalled or hardly lived in the first place, and tales of violence lost. A cross-examination of these, forced into place by the question as an injunction – that is to say a command – is only prismatic, imperfect as the pure light shone through it, disjointing and refracting, refracted and disjointed outwardly at angles every bit as violent as the violence suffered by the witness. Violence always exposes itself as a history. It is forced to. It is chased into a corner until there is a history given to satisfy the command of the question. A court issues its verdict always as the trial of violences untold.

The one I condemn is always a witness. They are the witness of time, of an entire life and a history. They are its only witness. Without them, time stops. For them, yes, it is true, but this most assuredly does not negate the truth-value of any of the foregoing statements. For they are a light, a unique perspective of truth, of an unfolding delimited by what is opposed to it and therefore shared by me. But the question interrupts this relation, this sharing, lest we forget. And in this interruption one finds, in suspension, a tendency towards (dis)possession. They are a light called into question. A light held in view and perused for shadows, deprivation and lack. We should note that deprivation also bears the connotation of moral depravity, of condemnation under widely accepted norms of justice, whether they be imposed socially, civically or legally. For Aristotle, deprivation (στἑρησιϛ) was deformity: in a human being, fallenness from a rational natural essence and a failure to cultivate a properly virtuous ethical character. Aristotle’s Organon, in this way, is a body of work of Platonic bioluminescence. But I digress. The guilty is a being found wanting of life, which is to their nature. The witness is a light, is all of history. And if she will not speak, cannot speak, or will not or cannot speak correctly (before the court of the question), then the former joins with the latter into a singularity. Without being suspected of the infraction called forth by the question of justice, the witness is the guilty, the guilty is the witness. All lights suffering violence and violently shining out, a reaction to blind us, we who dare to ask the questions, those issued by the justification of the question of justice, and to do violence there either by speaking them aloud or in our heads to ourselves (for we are all the jury, who silently await that we may one day render our verdict). All lights flashing in shadows cast, casting blindness. The only use of the court is that the bodies have left the room. A violence every bit as furious, gross and entangled as if it had been sexual. A hall for negotiating truths from lies, lies from truths, all subsumed by the narrative structure of the question.