Thursday, 25 November 2004

Ideology - A first exploration

This short paper is an exploration of the concept of ideology and its significance. I wrote it for my political philosophy class.

In this short paper, I will examine some ideas about ideology. I will try to explore some of my own ideas about the nature of the relationship between society and ideologies, and take a look at the ideas of Louis Althusser and others on this topic. I will hereby keep the following questions in mind: What is ideology? What do we need ideologies for – or, if we don’t, why do we create them? What is the importance of the unconsciousness when it comes to the success of ideologies? What is the relationship between the individual and the collective? How do ideologies manage to permeat society? What is the relationship between ideology and totalitarianism? In the end, I will take a brief look at some of the current developments with regard to these issues.

I am well aware of the fact that these are all questions that cannot be answered easily. I therefore focus on exploring these questions, rather than answering them. I will basically use this paper to wander around, explore some of my own ideas, and perhaps connect them to some of the things I studied before.

In order to be able to live together, human beings have always created systems that provide guidance for and conduct the way they manage to do so. These systems construct the shape of the collective, which we usually call society. As a rule, societies are composed of both conscious and unconscious elements. On the one hand, they are shaped by the ideas of certain influential groups or individuals about the way they should look like. On the other hand, though, one of the main features of societies is that they contain an element of unpredictability; they cannot be completely created, since they are always partly shaped by certain influences that cannot be controlled. An important aspect of any human society is the fact that it needs its individual members to share certain beliefs and thoughts with regard to that society. These beliefs serve to legitimize the system, and by doing so provide the system with its raison d’etre. As a rule, people are not conscious of the fact that these beliefs are merely beliefs; in fact, they are powerful because they are usually perceived as self-evident (if perceived at all).

Such a set of beliefs can be called an ideology. Ideologies are usually not fixed beliefs; in stead, since they legitimize constantly changing systems, they themselves change as well. Nonetheless, they are powerful because they are not perceived as changing ideas, but as absolute, factual explications for certain situations. In order for the individual members of a society to participate in and adjust themselves to the system, it is necessary to provide them with an ideology that is not perceived as such (for if it would be perceived as ‘just’ a set of beliefs, it would also be regarded possible to believe other things – a system would then lose its self-evidence, and its necessity). A system, therefore, cannot exist without a commonly shared, unconsciously accepted ideology.

The idea that ideology operates largely through the realm of the unconscious has been explored in-depth by Louis Althusser (1918 – 1990). Althusser was a marxist philosopher who questioned the very concept of ideology. Influenced by the ideas about the human psyche of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981), he did not simply accept Marx’ notion that ideology is a false understanding of the way the world works. According to Althusser, ideology is what we construct when we enter what Lacan called the ‘symbolic order’ – ‘the social world of linguistic communication, intersubjective relations, knowledge of ideological conventions, and the acceptance of the law’[1] (as a matter of fact, this symbolic order is exactly what I referred to when I was using the word ‘system’ above). Althusser states that ‘ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’[2] – ideology therefore does not necessarily reflect any real situation; it is only the representation of the way the individual interpretes, explains and legitimizes his present situation. Apparently, there is a psychological need for ideologies – they provide the individual with a frame of reference. They are not necessarily false, but they do not reflect any real situation; therefore, whether or not they are true or false is irrelevant – they exist, and that makes their contents (whatever they may be) automatically true in itself. When, for example, an ideology states that the world is flat, that ideology becomes the frame of reference by which everything is interpreted – personal life and society become constructed around this idea, whereas the ‘true’ shape of the world is completely irrelevant, for it influences nor individual lifes, nor society (in fact, from a postmodernist point of view, one could argue that the only thing we can be sure of is of the fact that different, contradicting interpretations exist – whether or not they are true does not concern us; the only things that concern us are the social and psychological implications of these interpretations). Ideologies provide people with certainty about an existence that does not provide any certainty, and thereby replace that very existence. Our beliefs and interpretations become our very being, so to say. To mention just one example: in a society in which we are constantly, through all kinds of means, taught that our existence is based on our role as consumer, we perceive ourselves as such – our happiness becomes dependent on whether or not we can purchase what we are chasing after (of course, in a capitalist consumer society we can never succeed in this, because as soon as we have purchased the object of our desire, it looses its significance as such and is replaced by something else – happiness becomes a constant promise for the future), and our very being consists in this chasing after something, which we have come to see as our natural condition.

Ideologies are more than just powerful frames of reference. As Althusser rightly observes, ‘ideology has a material existence.’[3] By conducting the beliefs and interpretations people have, they inevitably influence the society in which those people live; in this way, ideologies get their concrete shapes. Although different individuals may interprete situations differently according to their own symbolic order, these symbolic orders are to a large degree shaped by the prominent beliefs and myths in a certain society; ideology therefore consists, despite (or perhaps thanks to?) the powerful influence it has on individuals, primarily in the realm of the collective. Ideology in fact is the way the collective manages to remain significant for its individual members, since it makes them adapt to the collective. Ideology, therefore, serves both the collective and the individual. Individuals need a certain kind of existential security; one could argue that perhaps certain beliefs ought not to be questioned, since they prevent people from facing their existential Angst (if too many people in a society would be uncertain about and even afraid of their very existence, that society would probably cease to exist in its present form). We can look at it from a Hobbesian point of view and say that ideology basically is the shape the social contract between the individual and the collective takes; both need it for their existence.

Ideology permeates every level of society. Its material existence, as Althusser would say, can be found virtually everywhere. In a capitalist consumer ideology, for example, everywhere we go we are reminded of the fact that in order to be a full member of society (in order to be really happy, so to say) we have to purchase this or that item (needless to say that these items are primarily ideas: if we buy a certain softdrink, what w really buy is an image[4]). Foucault’s notion of discourse is very useful here. According to Foucault, ‘discourse is generally used to designate the forms of representation, codes, conventions and habits of language that produce specific fields of culturally and historically located meanings.’[5] Ideologies always exist in a discourse; any form of communication within a certain society takes part in this discourse and is influenced by it. As we have seen, this is to a large degree an unconscious process; ideologies are powerful exactly because they are unconsciously accepted as self-evident truths.[6] I want to mention briefly the crucial importance of education and socialization in this. Education can be seen as the introduction of children to the social discourse and its ideology, and even as making the ideology self-evident – that is exactly why education is such a powerful instrument in establishing a certain political ideology.

As I argued, people expect a system and its ideology to take away their existential uncertainties. If, for whatever reason (poverty, a weak government, external threats, economical insecurity, et cetera), a certain system is not able to do so, we usually see totalitarian ideologies taking over. This was, among many others, the case in late 18th century France, in early 20th century Russia and Germany, in late 20th century Iran. Why are such ideologies able to gain large popularity? Because one of the main features of totalitarianism is the fact that it promises people complete, absolute truth (whether or not it actually succeeds in giving people this is another issue…). Especially in an age of uncertainty, this is what many people long for. In situations of experienced threat, whatever shape that threat may have (whether or not the fear is realistic is, of course, irrelevant), personal freedom is usually regarded as something of less importance than security – social security and existential security often come together. In such situations, ideologies that provide absolute truths are much more attractive than pluralistic ideologies that acknowledge other opinions. If a totalitarian ideology manages to convince people of the truths it offers (by a charismatic leader, effective propaganda, et cetera), people throughout history have proved to be willing to change their view in change for security. The danger lies in the way the ‘missionaries’ of totalitarian ideologies successfully manage to abuse the uncertainty and fear of people and manipulate their feelings and beliefs (for example, by creating a sense of urgency – ‘if we don’t act right now, it will be too late!’) to gain power. Eventually, once they succeed in taking over power and establishing a system in which their own ideology is the one and only truth, paradoxically they can only maintain this system by creating even more fear amongst the people – any potential enemy of the system will be get rid of (usually, these ‘enemies’ are more or less randomly picked individuals), and the fear that is consciously created in this way is the only way the totalitarian ideology (which is, after all, a created, ‘artificial’ ideology – as opposed to ideologies that have grown more or less ‘organically’) can be controlled and remain powerful. This has been the case in basically any totalitarian system so far.

It would be interesting to apply some of these ideas on present-day political and sociological developments. For example, it is striking that the fear and uncertainty of individuals that permitted created ideologies like national-socialism, communism and islamism to become powerful is basically the same as the fear that has been permeating American society over the last few years, and that is currently also permeating, to varying degrees, several European countries. People are afraid, they feel a certain threat, and they are willing to give up many of the rights they have achieved (such as personal freedom) in change for security, for a ‘control’ of the threat. This fear is being met whether by, in the case of for example the United States, existing governments that increasingly turn towards totalitarianism, or, in the case of some European countries, by populist opposition movements promising solutions for all kinds of vague social problems, usually by picking a scapegoat and blaming it for these problems (which is also a striking feature of totalitarian ideologies; in case of problems, there is also someone else to blame). Both do the same thing: while promising people to take away their fear, they in fact institutionalize this fear, because that is exactly what gives them their power. The only thing they really take away are individual’s rights – we have seen where this can lead to.

Ideology is, in its basic form, not a necessarily bad thing. I would argue that its social and psychological significance is not only big, but also to a certain degree something desirable, because it provides individuals with a basic structure – a frame of reference that prevents them from their existential fear. This structure may be imaginary, it is in the same time very real, because of this significance.

Nevertheless, because of the fact that to a large degree it operates in the realm of the unconscious, ideology is also potentially dangerous. It can easily be used to legitimize repressive, totalitarian and murderous regimes. Therefore, to prevent us from making the same mistakes as we did in the (recent) past, it is absolutely necessary to become aware of the unconscious, ideological presumptions we all have. Although it may seem threatening, questioning ones basic beliefs can be the best security there is. By doing so, we prevent ourselves from falling in love with the promises of totalitarianism again; we may even become aware of the fact that social responsibility and humanity need not have so much to do with ideology, but only with the acknowledgement that the other person is, in fact, a person – regardless of his ideology.







[4] Coca Cola is in fact the perfect example of the platonic worldview – it is an idea, a constant promise; its material shape is just an irrelevant reflection of this idea. See for an interesting view on this use of ideology Naomi Klein: No Logo (Picador, 2000).


[6] It would be interesting to link this idea of ideology and discourse to the Jungian psychoanalytical idea of the collective unconsciousness. For Jung, the collective unconsciousness is not connected to (power) structures in society, but we cannot deny the fact that even the archetypes proposed by Jung are influenced by his views on, for example, women. Symbols are powerful because they exist in the collective unconsciousness; the collective unconsciousness is powerful because it exists in an ideological discourse. The two should not be separated, but connected. I therefore do not agree with Jung when he says that archetypes transcend time and cultures; indeed, I think archetypes are powerful exactly because of the fact that they exist within a certain discourse. See

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