Ideology is an often misunderstood term, associated with –isms (communism, liberalism) that have a somewhat negative connotation involving, as Freeden puts it “artificially constructed sets of ideas, somewhat removed from everyday life” that the powerful use to manipulate the masses. But that definition doesn’t do ideology proper justice. Everyone is an ideologist. If a person has some understanding of the political world he or she is part of and has opinions about it, that person is an ideologist.
Ideologies inform peoples’ interpretation of the world around then, and thus, peoples’ actions. It’s about the individual making sense of the world, but ideologies don’t have to make actual sense, or reflect what is best for an individual. People can twist the meaning of any given social or political situation or message to fit their own ideology. Regardless, ideology, even misguided, misinformed, or contradictory, is vital to functioning in society. People wouldn’t know how to act otherwise. A pattern of thinking is required.
Freeden asks, why, then, if ideologies are so vital and ubiquitous, are they so reviled and criticized, associated with brainwashing and false dreams? He suggests it’s because the word has been carelessly and imprecisely used.
Antoine Destutt de Tracy coined the term ‘ideology’ just after the French Revolution with the desire to study ideas. That concept was a familiar one for the time, when the positivists were focused on studying society empirically, verifiably, and precisely using the scientific method, like any other science.
Modern science knows the “range of human thought and imagination” can’t be reliably predicted by scientific research, but Destutt nonetheless pointed out the need to better understand ideology, which is the point of this book.
The German Ideology – Marx and Engels. This important early work concluded that the philosophies that were in vogue in German at the time didn’t help people come to terms with the real world. Instead, they concealed reality and thus constituted ideologies. It was Marx and Engels view that ideologies serve the purpose of smoothing over contradictions in the world and an individual’s circumstances to make them seem only natural. Ideology is a sublimation (a way to justify thoughts and actions that distort reality) that maintains social unity. Facing the real world would mean facing the “dehumanizing social relations under capitalism” and the collapse of society.
“Morality, religion, metaphysics,” they are all distortions of reality that help people make what they think is better sense of the world. For Engels, the priests and other purveyors of ideology could manipulate themselves and their followers without intending to distort reality or deceive themselves, but the deception could also be intentional.
I’m confused at the top of page 6, however. Freeden says “ideology was one manifestation of the pernicious effects of the division of labour. In this case, the division of labour caused human thought to be abstracted from the material world, producing instead pure theory, or ethics, or philosophy.” I understand theory, ethics, and philosophy are forms of ideology, but how did the division of labor cause them? As I think about it more, the division of labor requires a lot of cooperation and accepted norms that are purely inventions of man to make social interaction easier. Those norms came about through groups of people developing theories and codes of ethics. They are ideologies. I think I understand. The division of labor is a construct, and constructs are full of ideologies.
Marx and Engels also made an association between ideology and class, that “the ideas of the ruling class were the ruling ideas.” I immediately think of What’s the Matter with Kansas, and how, depending on who is in power — right-wingers or liberals, business elites or crusaders for the working class — their ideas would eventually become common wisdom, and it takes generations for that common wisdom to change.
Rulers can use ideology to rewrite history and control the masses through the authority of the state. And by running interests through the filter of ideology, they can become thought of as naturally truthful. Think about the Nazis, who tried to maintain the illusion of a unified politics through its laws and propaganda to further cement their ideology in the minds of the German public.
The division of labor analogy makes even more sense when Freeden discusses how the dominant members of society are able to convince workers that it is good and natural to work their asses off for next to nothing in the service of their bosses. Remember rural Kansas anyone? People are conditioned to worship money, to think that having money equals having dignity, and it is perfectly inevitable that one has to work in exchange for money and dignity. But none of that is natural at all. For Marx, understanding ideology could lead to the rejection of norms by the ruling class for the benefit of ruling class.
Page 7, paragraph 2 provides an excellent summation of the Marxist approach to ideology. Marx doesn’t seem evil. In fact, he seems intent on freeing the human mind so society can live up to its potential. As Freeden states, Marx’s ideas have been “vulgarized.”
To go with Marx, these five things must hold true:
Marx believed that actual truth, as opposed to the ideologically influenced beliefs that run the capitalist world and obscure reality, was attainable. There was a true nature of human relations that would emerge after ideology was eradicated, Marx contended, which many interpreted as an ideology in and of itself. And indeed, finding the truth isn’t as easy as it sounds. Take the example of the protest from earlier in the chapter. The truth is: ‘I’m looking at a group of protestors protesting.’ But how one reacts to the protestors is all a product of their ideology.
Marx’s view also requires that ideology be dispensable, that humans can function without it. He believes that when truth is discovered, ideology will naturally disappear.
Marx also contends that ideology simply needs to be gotten rid of. All ideologies have no value, basically, so distinguishing between them is useless. Just get rid of ideology in favor of truth for the benefit of the people. “Present defects were worth deploring, not exploring.”
Freeden clearly disagrees and sees the benefit in exploring the depths of ideology to understand the political world people actually live in today.
Marx’s view also requires ideology to account for most, if not all of the political world, that it is ideology entirely that mutes contradictions and keeps the established order of things. Freeden says this can’t be taken as a given as there are many examples of physical force being “necessary to hold ideology in place.”
Finally, it has to hold true that the “role of ideologists has been exaggerated,” that, even though ideology has its origins in whole classes of people, it is intellectual ideologues as groups or even individuals that form the hierarchical structure of society.
So what can still be learned from Marx’s “emphasis on unmasking ideology?” Four things:
- Social and historical circumstances mold political ideas. (People are a product of their environment.)
- Ideas matter. Marx thought ideology was a harmful illusion, and clearly, ideological ideas are extremely powerful and must be taken seriously.
- Ideology is vital to functioning politics, be it dehumanizing or not.
- The truth isn’t always visible on the surface. Ideology doubtlessly contains hidden meanings that need decoding. They certainly aren’t the full reality, as Marx would agree.