Sunday, 17 December 2017


Coke ideology

2254 words, 11 min read

One of the fundamental questions of human existence is the basis on which we interpret reality, make subsequent decisions and perform resulting actions. How do I know what is happening in the world, how do I react to that reality and what actions do I take on the basis of these reactions? These questions have been at the heart of philosophy, theology, economics, politics and many other forms of human endeavour for millennia and remain open problems to this day, to which many answers are offered but which each one has to answer for themselves, or that each one will at least have unconscious answers to that drive their choices.

In the above context, a particularly negative role is played by ideologies, which are injected between a subject and the reality they inhabit and which distort their choices. Instead of a subject engaging with reality and deriving choices on its basis, an ideologised subject takes the tenets of their ideology as a source of decision making. Instead of their own understanding of reality, which ideology suppresses, distorts and supplants, the ideologised subject derives decisions and actions from their ideology. An ideology that taught the impossibility of fire would see its followers proclaim it while burning to death in blazing house.

If ideologies are at odds with reality, why would anyone follow them though? Why would anyone act on a basis disconnected from reality? I believe there are several reasons for this: First, it is increasingly difficult to tell reality from ideology, both because of the inherent challenges of knowledge that epistemology has been grappling with since antiquity (e.g., the ultimate impossibility of going beyond my own experiences) and because of the growing complexity of global interconnectedness and the impossibility of experiencing all relevant events for oneself. Second, even a direct engagement with reality (as far as epistemologically possible) that would seem free from ideology would not be free from some a priori conceptual framework of beliefs not derived from reality (e.g., repeatability, causality, falsifiability), which leads to the obvious question of what makes one set of beliefs an ideology while another set is a valid conceptual apparatus necessary for engaging with reality.

In other words, how do we recognise ideologies so that we may avoid them ourselves and so that we may help others not become entrapped by them.

In fact, the original intention of the French philosopher Antoine Destutt de Tracy, who coined the term ideology during the French Revolution, was to devise a rational system that could counter what he saw as the irrational mob rule of the day, i.e., precisely not what is understood by ideology today. However, already Tracy’s initial opponent, Napoleon Bonaparte, used the term ideology in a derogatory way. Karl Marx then picked up Napoleon’s use of the word and directed it against the ideological patterns employed by the capitalist bourgeoisie he challenged. Ideology has since been a mainstay of marxist analysis, in particular by thinkers like Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Žižek, who see ideology as a means of control, effected by imposing a set of action-oriented beliefs whose scrutiny is prohibited and which are placed above experience.

Eagleton presents a variety of definitions of the concept in his 1991 book “Ideology: An Introduction”, starting with the most widely-held one, formulated by John B. Thompson:

“A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalising and universalising such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which might challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unspoken but systematic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself. Such ‘mystification.’, as it is commonly known, frequently takes the form of masking or suppressing social conflicts, from which arises the conception of ideology as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions. In any actual ideological formation, all six of these strategies are likely to interact in complex ways.”
While the reference to a “dominant power” may render the above definition too narrow, as Eagleton and other have argued, its focus on the denigration of challenging ideas, the exclusion of rival forms of thought, the obscuring of reality and the offering of imaginary resolutions can readily be recognised in ideologies regardless of whether or not they come from a position of power.

With such a broadening of the scope of ideology, and given the challenges of distinguishing it from other sets of ideas or beliefs, it is no surprise to see Louis Althusser argue that we are all “ideological subjects”, that being ideological is inherent to being a subject and that “man is an ideological animal by nature”. Althusser also points to a particularly insidious pattern employed by ideologies, where fictitious relationships are presented as real, to further ulterior motives:
“But it is by an apprenticeship in a variety of know-how wrapped up in the massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of production in a capitalist social formation, i.e. the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited, are largely reproduced. The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is ... lay), where teachers respectful of the ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ of the children who are entrusted to them (in complete confidence) by their ‘parents’ (who are free, too, i.e. the owners of their children) open up for them the path to the freedom, morality and responsibility of adults by their own example, by knowledge, literature and their ‘liberating’ virtues.”
Kaustuv Roy then takes Althusser’s theory and identifies a pattern in ideological beliefs which is that of being lacunar, of leaving “holes” in the legitimacy and truth of the discourses constructed from them:
“The proposition “modern education promises equal opportunity for all” is not, on the face of it, a false or untrue proposition. It is, after all, one of its basic premises. At the same time, we know that existing property relations, differential schooling, elite behaviour, and social prejudices all falsify this “true” proposition. Again, consider the proposition “the law takes precedence before anything else.” This is not untrue in its purely rational form, yet, we know that many things including social, political, and financial power often determine which way the law moves. [...] In other words, they are pre-aligned toward certain effects. The above are examples of “lacunar discourse,” meaning that they cover up or hide a lacuna. A number of propositions which are not untrue suggest or lead up to other propositions which are operatively and pragmatically untrue. In other words, the former cluster create an aura of “truth” that point toward and suggest legitimacy for another set whose assumptions are simply not true. In a restricted and more useful sense, ideologies can be seen as lacunar discourses that offer legitimacy to a wide range of assumptions by starting off from reasonable propositions.”
Slavoj Žižek uses a similar example of falsehood admixed with truth as a starting point of his analysis of ideology:
“[T]he starting point of the critique of ideology has to be full acknowledgement of the fact that it is easily possible to lie in the guise of truth. When, for example, some Western power intervenes in a Third World country on account of violations of human rights, it may well be ‘true’ that in this country the most elementary human rights were not respected, and that the Western intervention will effectively improve the human rights record, yet such a legitimization none the less remains ‘ideological’ in so far as it fails to mention the true motives of the intervention (economic interests, etc.).”
While most critiques of ideology see it as a mechanism of manipulation that some impose on others, Žižek thinks of it in a rather different way:
“[I]deology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relation to our social world, how we perceive each meaning and so on and so on. We, in a way, enjoy our ideology. To step out of ideology, it hurts. It’s a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it.”
Given such ubiquity of ideology and its being a constituent part of human nature, the question becomes not one of how to avoid ideologies that may be coming my way from afar, but to strive for a recognition and avoidance of ideological patterns in thought and action. This realisation is present already Eagleton’s analysis, who, as a Marxist, sees the danger of ideologisation even in movements close to his own world view, instead of only in the capitalist system that is opposed to it.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the recognition of ideologisation and attempts to counter it can arise in all contexts, even the one that Althusser used as the ideological case study par excellence - the Catholic Church. This is a strong theme in the thought and actions of the current pope, Francis, who has frequently spoken about and decried ideologies both outside and within the Church.

Looking at the Church, Francis’ homily from 23rd October 2013 is a particularly cutting critique:
“Faith passes, so to speak, through a purifying apparatus and becomes ideology. And ideology does not attract. In ideologies there is no Jesus: his tenderness, love, meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Always: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of ideology, he has lost faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought, of that ... And this is why Jesus says to them: ‘You have taken away the key to knowledge’ [Luke 11:52]. The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and even moralistic knowledge, because they closed the door with so many prescriptions.

Faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases people away, drives people away and takes the Church away from people. But it is a serious disease, this of ideological Christians. It’s a disease, but it’s not new, is it? Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose faith and prefer ideologies. Their attitude is: to become rigid, moralistic, ethicist, but without goodness. The question may be this, right? But why can a Christian become like that? What happens in the heart of that Christian, of that priest, of that bishop, of that Pope, who becomes so? Simply one thing: that Christian does not pray. And if there is no prayer, you always close the door.

They do not pray, they abandon faith and turn it into a moralistic, casuistic ideology, without Jesus. And when a prophet or a good Christian reproaches them, they do the same thing they did with Jesus: When he came out of there, the scribes and Pharisees began to treat him in a hostile way - these ideologues are hostile - and to make him speak on many subjects, trying to ensnare him - they are insidious - to surprise him in a few words out of his own mouth. They are not transparent. Eh, poor things, they are people soiled by pride. Let us ask the Lord for grace, first: do not stop praying, so as not to lose faith, remain humble. And so we will not become closed, we won’t close the way to the Lord.”
If you are reading the above and are not a Christian, it is worth saying something about prayer, lest is may sound like something archaic or even ideological. Prayer here is, I believe, to be read as a conscious attitude of being close to God and of seeking to love in every present moment. This is consistent with how Francis speaks about it and also with Jesus telling his disciples to pray always (cf. Luke 18:1). Prayer here is an attitude seeking closeness with and responding to reality, i.e., a fundamentally anti-ideological attitude.

Another key to countering ideology according to Francis is to place the encounter with others ahead of ideas or ideologies. E.g., during his trip to Cuba in 2015 he said: “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” In fact, this reminds me of the suggestion Eagleton makes about how one might become freed from an ideological belief, where he too points to the power of evidence and of encounter with other persons: “If someone really does believe that all childless women are thwarted and embittered, introducing him to as many ecstatic childfree women as possible might just persuade him to change his mind.”

Looking at the above I have the impression that, instead of thinking that there are some specific, well-delineated ideologies that need to be avoided and countered, I need to recognise that I too am steeped in ideology and that I may not even be aware of that being the case. What can I do about it? Having seen ideological patterns of discourse laid bare, I can strive to recognise them and counter their closed, narrow and restrictive mode by contrasting them with evidence and experience. And, I can direct my attention to those around me so that I may relate to and discover each person instead of letting ideologies become filters through which I see them. As Žižek says though, it will be hard and painful, but it strikes me as a fight worth fighting.