I’ve just been reading a couple of interesting books, both of which are concerned, in their own ways, with ideology. One is Owen Jones’ excellent study on The Establishment,1 whilst the other is Christian Fuchs’ critique of social media.2 For some strange reason, whilst I was reading Jones’ book I started thinking about Downton Abbey, which has recently completed its fifth series plus the obligatory Christmas episode.
I’ll come back to Downton Abbey in another post but here I want to concentrate on Jones’ and Fuchs’ books. As its title suggests, Jones’ book is a critical analysis of the British Establishment (and, to quote the subtitle, how they get away with it.) Although for any seasoned socialist or Marxist there are few surprises, what is interesting is Jones’ analysis of ideology; or, to be more precise, the process by which neo-liberal ideology has been propagated throughout society over the last 40 years or so. This not only includes the right-wing media, but also what he calls the ‘outriders’, who are the thinkers and intellectuals who lay the philosophical foundations for future political and economic change. So, in the 1970s the ‘outriders’ would be those economists and political theorists who, drawing upon the work of writers such as Hayek and Adam Smith, started to formulate both a critique of Keynesian economics and the political settlement that had accompanied it since the Second World War; and a neo-liberal alternative, that was based on free-markets and individualism. Although these ideas, and, in many cases, the thinkers themselves, had been around for many years, it was only in the 1970s and the crisis of both Keynesian and the post-war settlement that the ‘outriders’ were able to seize their chance: their moment, embodied in the person of Margaret Thatcher, had finally arrived. As Jones notes in his book, the ‘outriders’ were somewhat taken by surprise that their ideas were suddenly given such prominence and turned into the new political and economic orthodoxy from the 1980s onwards.
If we were Althusserians we would probably argue that the ‘outriders’ and the media, along with the educational system and the political class itself, form an ideological state apparatus. But, to paraphrase Zizek, who cares about (or has even heard of) Louis Althusser nowadays?3 Be that as it may, I think Jones simultaneously identifies the critical point about The Establishment and skirts around it. And, in his own way, I think this is what Fuchs does too in his critique of social media. As Fuchs rightly points out, far from being the emancipatory and democratic tool that many of the proponents of social media hype it up to be, social media is largely controlled and manipulated by the giant web corporates such as Facebook and Google who treat their users as commodities to be exploited and sold to other corporates. Of course, it’s not as simple as this, and as Fuchs himself acknowledges, there are inherent contradictions even within the corporates themselves and the way that social media can be used to subvert them. However, he is, in my view, right to show how social media can be seen as both a process and an ideology to propagate (and prop up) capitalism (0r, as other writers have put it, semiocapitalism).
However, one of the problems that many Marxists and those ‘on the left’ have with the concept of ideology is that they still tend to see it as something rather peripheral to what ‘really’ matters, i.e. the economy and the political system that sustains such an economy. Furthermore, it’s always their opponents who mystify us (and themselves) with their ‘false consciousness’ (the classical Marxist definition of ideology), whereas they see things as they really are. But as writers of a Lacanian persuasion, such as Zizek and Laclau, have noted, this distinction between ‘false’ and ‘true’ consciousness is itself false: all consciousness is false. In other words, consciousness is based on a misrecognition; and this is linked to the fact that consciousness is a function of the ego, which is itself a set of imaginary identifications. The problem is, there is no way out this false consciousness: this is how we live and negotiate our lives, including those who critique ideology as false consciousness. And we could argue that ideology is nothing other than social (false) consciousness, and is again something which we cannot escape from. As Althusser (whom nobody reads anymore) put it all those years ago: ideology is an imaginary relation to the true conditions of existence – and there’s no getting away from it.
There is, however, another problem when it comes to ideology (of whatever political persuasion) and, again, I think this is something both Jones and Fuchs fail to grasp. Fuchs’ answer to the corporates’ control of social media is to struggle for a truly free (socialist) society in which the Internet (and the economy) belongs to everyone. Jones’ answer is similar: to fight for a different kind of society which favours everyone and not just the rich few. In other words, beyond the pain, the injustices, the struggles of today there lies the promised land of tomorrow (although in many cases this looks suspiciously like a return to some mythical past). For the neo-liberals this is the promised land of free markets and unfettered individualism, whilst for Marxists and others on the left it is the promised land of the classless and equal society. For Nazism it was (and still is?) the promise of the New Man. In all ideologies, there is a transcendental core that points to a New Life, which justifies the means to get there, even if this ends, as it always does, in some variation or other of the Holocaust – either literal or symbolic (or both).
The irony is Fuchs is already skirting around the problem which he then chooses to ignore: this is that, to take up his dialectical materialist argument, the dialectic is a never ending process. In other words, there is no ‘final’ realisation of self-consciousness, no actualisation of the self, no realisation of a classless society; Aufhebung goes on for eternity, the struggle is endless. What sustains it is the transcendental core, the promise, at the heart of ideology; the paradox that the means justifies (0r rather sustains) the end.
- Jones, Owen. The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It. London: Allen Lane, 2014. [↩]
- Fuchs, Christian. Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage Publications, 2014. [↩]
- In in the introduction to his seminal work, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek comments on the strange death of Althusserian. [↩]