• Radical Politics and Ideals

  • By Juha Koivisto | 27 May 09
  • In the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy Marx regards law, politics, religion, art and philosophy as “ideological forms“ in which social struggles are fought out (MEW 13, 8). Recalling the earlier analysis in The German Ideology, Engels later called them “ideological powers“ (MEW 21, 302). The primary force is, for him, the state. For Wolfgang Fritz Haug (1987, 61), the concept of ideological powers facilitates the “attempt at an historical-materialist theory of ideology“.

    To put it briefly, the approach of Haug and of the Projekt Ideologie-Theorie (PIT) can be understood as a rethinking of the concept of contested practices and discourses, inaugurated by Gramsci and Althusser, and, with the help of Engels’ (MEW 21, 302), the concept of ‘ideological powers’ (ideologische Mächte). They rework, so to speak, the neutral conception of ideology as contested practices or discourses by critically examining forms of socialisation (Vergesellschaftung). The approach focuses on the critique of practices and discourses which reproduce social relations of domination by generating consent through ideal socialisation ‘from above’.

    The ideological powers are by no means solid formations, capable of fulfilling their socialisation function without friction. On the contrary, they are, from the start, plagued by internal controversies and struggles; the contradictions of society can be contained only by absorbing them into the orbit of the ideological powers. In so doing, the contradictions become translated into specific ideological struggles, i.e. struggles shaped by those ideological forms. The socialisation ‘from above’ becomes realised – to the extent that it does – in and through these ideological struggles between different or even antagonistic forces.

    For Haug and PIT, the critical point is to grasp that the development of an ideological power also contains the development of a specific discursive sphere of ‘celestial’ political, juridical, moral, religious etc. ideas and values. The point here is that inside the ideological powers ideological struggles are fought in relation to these ‘celestial’ ideas and values (God/King/Fatherland, ‘Law and Order’, ‘National interests’ etc.). These are strings on which the political actors play there tunes. That is, to carry on the struggle, the actors must “place themselves – ‘from below’ – in relation“ to these ideas and values (ibid. 94). In so doing, mundane economic or social interests are transformed via political projects into ideological articulations, producing distilled and displaced ideological struggles over social contradictions and relations.

    The duplication of the ideological powers into concrete practices and “celestialised images and values“ (ibid. 95) renders them somewhat unstable. For instance, the values of an ideological power can be turned against itself; thus it is possible – as the Reformation shows – “to appeal to God or to lay claim to the Holy Bible against the Church“ (ibid. 95). Further more ideological powers encounter problems whenever their practical interests clash with their celestialised aspirations. “When social antagonisms articulate themselves within this split, those from ‘below’ may aggregate anti-ideological (e.g. plebeian) elements to the invoking of supreme ideological values.“ (ibid. 96). Of course, even anti-ideological plebeian expressions of disillusionment do not have a prescribed and fixed political meaning, to say nothing of a revolutionary ‘essence ‘: “Make love, not war” can also turn into “Make love, not revolution”. The concrete meaning is not given, but is established in antagonistic processes of articulation.“ (ibid. 96-7)

    There are, however, counter-tendencies reinforcing the stability of the ideological powers. Most importantly, ideological struggles are always pre-formed, because, after all, ideological powers have the advantage of defining their parameters. The struggles tend to become translated into the ‘language’ of the particular power within which they are fought; so, for example, struggles fought within the domain of law take on the form of juridical dispute. They become, in other words, particularised according to the division of labour of the ideological powers, confined to their limits. As such, they are hardly capable of challenging the ensemble of unequal social organisation which the powers incarnate. So, even though the ideological struggles may render the realisation of the socialisation ‘from above’ very complicated – for instance, their outcome “will never be totally one-sided“ (ibid. 97) – they do not put an end to it.

    We can illustrate some of the above points by an example of what Haug calls “the antagonistic invocation of community“ (ibid. 88-98). When, in the course of history, the development of privileges begins to decompose old forms of solidarity, the disadvantaged will lay claim to them. In this process the communitarian elements begin to function as values to which not only the disadvantaged but also the advantaged relate their projects.1 This supplements what we said above in one important respect: ideological values are brought forth not only by the ideological powers but “it is the force below that decisively contributes to the constitution of the celestialised“ (ibid. 95).

    The invocation of communitarian elements emerging from different, even antagonistic, quarters is the antagonistic invocation of community – or “the ideological restitution of community“ through which the real “disintegration of community stabilises itself“ (ibid.). Of course, these elements will be articulated differently in various opposing discourses and projects; nevertheless, they exemplify such “concepts, values, forms“ in which “the antagonistic claims (…) necessarily meet“ (ibid.). These “concepts, values, forms“ constitute a site for the interaction and competition of antagonistic forces. In this site the “ideological presents itself as a kind of ‘anti-matter’ in relation to domination and exploitation; at the same time, however, the ideological reproduces and eternalises its respective ‘anti-matter‘“ (ibid.) – that is, the domination and exploitation within the society.

    What further complicates and extends this “law of complementarity“ (Haug 1993, 19), active in the ideological, is that there are different competing/complementary ideological powers corresponding to the differentiation in modern societies: “every sphere confronts me with a different and opposing yardstick“, as Marx puts it (MEGA I.2, 282-83). Rather than being dysfunctional, these contradictions between moral and economic imperatives, religious and political aspirations etc. can be functional for domination, since these competing claims complement each other and provide avenues for the displacement and weakening of defiance.

    It is crucial in this respect to study how symbolic representations of gender relations, attained through various compromises, articulate this complementarity. Historically, the formation of the ideological powers may be preceded by male domination and, as far as the symbolic responses to it are concerned, it is then a question of ‘ideological relations antedating the ideological powers’. Accordingly, the pre-state ‘horizontal socialisation’ is not a Shangri-la but has its own forms of domination (often men vs. women is articulated together with old vs. young) and symbolic compensation.

    With the development of ideological powers the gendered relations of domination and their symbolic representations multiply and cross-fertilise each other, creating relations of resonance between various instances, as in the case of the Christian Holy Family and its earthly counterpart, where the sacralisation of the family familiarises the sacred (Haug 1993, 200). Generally speaking, male domination leads to ideological re-articulations of gender relations where the oppression of women finds its compensation in ‘motherhood’ and other patterns of non-instrumental conduct related to ‘Home’ as opposed to war, politics or economy. Accordingly, even morality has two genders, as Frigga Haug has pointed out (1984). Indeed, these real-imaginary gendered relations, articulated as they are with the practices of various ideological powers, regulate everyday life in a very intricate way:

    “The practical and active filling up of gender-specific spaces by individuals produces the sexual subject-effect. (…) Thus, while sexual instinct functions as the motor in those spaces of action, it becomes the agent of order.“ (Haug 1993, 201)

    Accordingly, monitoring and regulating oneself in relation to the spaces created by gendered relations generates identity and social stability – though surely not without friction and contradictions.

    However, as already noted, an ideological symbol of community can also be articulated as a protest against oppressive relations. The revolutionary Mexican peasants fought the landowners under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe (see ibid. 199). She is the ideological symbol of community precisely by representing the opposite of the rulers; she is a woman, a non-white morena or sometimes an Indian. Her humble figure is appropriated and celestialised by the church, producing a figure that is experienced as representing and uniting ‘the people’ by transcending the three most serious forms of domination: gender, class and ‘race’.

    As Haug points out in his article on ‘anti-ideology’, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony can function as a guideline in countering these perils and forming an historical bloc in anti-ideological perspective (1995, 343). Starting from Gramsci, he has tried to develop a conception of structural hegemony (1981) to take into account the new – though in the USA more familiar – situation where there is no “political representative of the working class available as a hegemon“ (1981, 170). What Haug means by structural hegemony is a “hegemonicstructure without a classic hegemon“ (ibid. 172). This structure is not obtainable simply through political tactic but only through a long-term cultural articulation of different “social, political, and cultural forces“ (ibid. 170) which respect each other’s autonomy.

    However, it is not just a question of a mechanical addition of social forces but of individuals who are themselves, as Gramsci put it, ‘historic blocs’. The aim is to help individuals to empower themselves, i.e. develop their own social capacity for action through these articulations. Structural hegemony is like finding the solution to a crossword puzzle where the traversing columns represent various social movements and issues: the stakes are both the possibilities of many-sided individual development and the most urgent social and ecological problems facing us. – At present the emergence and growth of Die LINKE in Germany poses the question to what extent it could become a hegemonic articulator enabling the building of a new ‘historic bloc’ (see e.g. Solty 2007 and von Lucke 2007).

    Some ways of ‘bringing us together’ are urgently needed if we are to oppose growing economic inequalities, military ‘solutions’ and ecological threats, not to speak of lesser evils. But how to do this in an anti-ideological perspective? There are several conceivable perils. First of all, as has already been noted, there are no guarantees that plebeian anti-ideological re-articulations entail increased social capacity to act, that is, empowerment, in an emancipatory sense. They can also lead to refined forms of domination by getting people to bind themselves to subalternity. For example some plebeian articulations may model sexuality in a way that isolates male workers from other groups. Secondly, leaving the terrain of ideological powers and their cherished values, without a struggle, to one’s opponents to re-articulate them would concede formidable power to them. Indeed, “every project of transformation must (…) necessarily intervene in the field of ideological articulations.“ (Haug 1987, 97) Thirdly, there is the possibility that a collapse of ideological values leads to a breakdown of their protective function for the weak and to a radicalisation of domination (Haug 1993, 89-90): after all, discourses of community – though an imaginary one – can enable solidary forces that function as a check on violence. Thus, for example, Nietzsche’s demolition of the ideological values of morality and religion was celebrated by German fascism because it helped justify the replacing of moral values like ‘equality’, ‘love of neighbour’ and ‘humanity’ with other less peaceful moral values (Zapata 1994, 209-210).

    Critique of ideals is an integral part of the theory of ideological forms and practices. As Gramsci noted, the task is to give a “new form” to aspirations articulated in the form of ideals, “to regenerate these aspirations” and “not to destroy them” (Notebook 1, § 29). The Marxist perspective of critique, repossession, and worldliness aims at their transformation into coherent and sound goals for action. “Materialism, therefore, is not at all lacking in ideals” wrote Max Horkheimer in 1933: “They are determined beginning with the needs of commonality and are measured by what is possible in the near future with the available human resources. However, materialism refrains from conceiving of these ideals of history, and thus also of the present, as being independent of people.” (GS 3, 105).

    In Brecht’s Me-ti the figure of Marx says to the workers: “Beware of people who preach to you that you have to carry out the grand order. These are priests. They’re reading something in the stars which you’re supposed to do. Now you’re here for the grand disorder; then you’re supposed to be here for the grand order. In fact, for you it’s still about ordering your affairs; […] Beware of becoming the servants of ideals; if not you’ll soon become the servant of priests.”2



    1 In this connection, a critical analysis of the recent communitarianism debate in philosophy would be very interesting.

    2 “Hütet euch vor den Leuten, die euch predigen, ihr müsstet die Große Ordnung verwirklichen. Das sind Pfaffen. Sie lesen wieder einmal irgend etwas in den Sternen, was ihr machen sollt. Jetzt seid ihr für die große Unordnung da, dann sollt ihr für die Große Ordnung da sein. In Wirklichkeit handelt es sich für euch doch darum, eure Angelegenheiten zu ordnen; […] Hütet euch, die Diener von Idealen zu werden; sonst werdet ihr schnell die Diener von Pfaffen sein.” (GW 12, 507)




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