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How ‘Ideology’ Can Hold Us Stuck in Place

What it means is that when we begin to coordinate our lives according to an ideological worldview, it begins to generate a social world that can look a lot like the image presented by the ideology.”


The term “ideology” or “ideologue” are among the most readily-available pejoratives in political discourse. Often when we call someone an ideologue, we are lumping them into the same kinds of groups as “fundamentalists” or “dogmatists,” making it shorthand for someone who lacks the intelligence or integrity to question their views sufficiently. Yet, at the same time, we often invoke the term ideology in a more neutral sense. Sometimes, we draw on the rhetoric of post-modern culture and suggest that “everyone has their own ideology,” which is a nice of way of suggesting that there is no way of getting past one’s own intellectual and moral limitations. At other points, we simply use ideology as a term to describe any collection of plausible (or implausible) ideas about how the world does—or better yet—should operate. Indeed, the sheer number of ways the term can be used can seem overwhelming; in his fantastic book IdeologyTerry Eagleton lists six possible meanings in the opening chapter alone. 

In this article and in its subsequent, companion piece, I want to interrogate the concept of ideology in more detail to help clarify its parameters. Because I do not think the neutral interpretation of the term is very interesting, I will largely ignore it; examining what it means to adopt an ideological worldview in the descriptive sense is a topic for another article. More importantly, I want to examine the apparent contradiction between our post-modern tendency to be ever more cynical on the one hand and more dogmatic on the other (already discussed briefly in an earlier piece for Arc Digital). My argument will be that the retreat from complexity I described in the earlier piece can be understood as the entrenching of ideology in our lives.

The Classical Definition of Ideology

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an “eternal law.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology 

The classical definition of ideology was given by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels as early as their book—appropriately titled—The German Ideology written in 1845 and 1846.In this early book, they gave a rather simple (but nevertheless) powerful definition of ideology as the “ruling ideas” held by the dominant class in society. One might be tempted to interpret ideology as, therefore, consisting of little more than propaganda directed from the top downwards. And Marx and Engels suggest that it may sometimes be just that. When the Koch brothers would spend millions of dollars to propagate pro-capitalist sentiments, they were engaging in a kind of ideological dissemination. But even in its early form, the nature of ideology was more complex than that. Marx and Engels go out of their way to stress that ideological dissemination is not largely about organized efforts to spread ideas that help the rulers hold onto power. Instead, ideological ideas emerge from the social conditions quite independently of the conscious activities of those involved in them. So in slave societies, such as those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, it seemed obvious to commentators like Aristotle that some people were just naturally destined for servitude. By analyzing how some people were “natural slaves,” Aristotle not only justified the world, but he also claimed to be neutrally describing it. Fast forward several centuries later, and Marx and Engels argue that something similar happens in capitalist societies. For instance, striking disparities in wealth and power, which are at least partly the product of violent appropriation, colonization, and imperialism, were explained away by Locke as another natural process, where those who worked harder gained possession of the land. Locke’s labor theory of value comes to serve as justification, through attempted description—never mind its many conceptual and historical limitations (well-described by Connor O’Callaghan here).  

If we come to see ourselves as living in a society where each of us is nothing more or less than a mini-entrepreneur organizing our personality and existence as social capital, then we may well end up with a lot of individuals living such a lifestyle.

One of the important things to note about this account of ideology is critical theorists never intended to suggest that getting past its limitations was simply a matter of pointing out that the world did not conform to its parameters. Of course, it is necessary to point out that just as there are no “natural slaves,” the British did not happen to come into possession of the North American continent through working hard to build fences and grow tobacco. But we need to also recognize how the impact of ideology generates “real abstractions” in society itself. This complex idea was taken up by commentators like Theodor Adorno and the other theorists of the Frankfurt School. What it means is that when we begin to coordinate our lives according to an ideological worldview, it begins to generate a social world that can look a lot like the image presented by the ideology. If we come to see ourselves as living in a society where each of us is nothing more or less than a mini-entrepreneur organizing our personality and existence as social capital, then we may well end up with a lot of individuals living such a lifestyle. If we come to believe that it is pointless to seek to change the world in any fundamental way, then it may, very well, become very difficult to actually change it—because people feel a sense of powerlessness in the face of the system. This is what Mark Fisher artfully called the “capitalist realism” that dominated the late 20th and early 21st century: an era where many agreed with Margaret Thatcher that there was no alternative to neoliberal governance. The problem, of course, is that ideology can generate a society in its own image, but it cannot ever overcome its limitations as a human-all-too-human system of ideas, which we parrot and replicate. This means that its domination is always incomplete, even when we feel it is omnipresent. 

Conclusion to Part I 

These classical theories of ideology had many virtues in insisting that we overcome what Adorno called the tyrannical idea that the world we live in cannot be changed for the better. It offers a tremendous reservoir of conceptual tools for thinking through how ideology operates to both define our thinking about the world and, simultaneously, limit our capacity to transform it. But the classical theory was always constrained by the need to think of ideology as a mostly oppressive force, which we either surrendered to or struggled to resist. It certainly can be, but that underestimates the appeal ideology can hold for many of us, particularly when living in a strange digital environment where there is an ever-greater temptation to retreat from complexity. In the next article in this series, I will take up this theme in considerably more detail through an analysis of ideology and post-modern culture. I will also apply some of the ideas to more down-to-earth political events.

Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof

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