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Ideology is Good, Actually: Zizek and the Capitol Hill Incident
“We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real lifeprocess, we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also. necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process. which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus, no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.” -Marx and Engels in The German Ideology
Zizek’s classic remarks within Pervert’s Guide to Ideology that “I am already eating from the trash can all the time, the name of this trash can is ideology” has stuck with many as representing the obfuscatory powers of ideology. Ironically, Zizek’s pop philosophy has been generally conceived of as a reversal of his actual position on this Marxist concept. People imagine Zizek to say that ideology blinds an individual to the world’s true, objective situation through false consciousness. For Zizek, this model of ideology is outdated. If the realm of ideology exists purely within a disruption of knowledge, a lie that obfuscates the truth, then we exist in a post-ideological society. We live in a society where no one believes anything, and everyone is cynical (and ideology cannot trick those who are so cynical). Yet, for Zizek, ideology goes deeper than this traditional reading. There is no “real” objective world that can simply be revealed through the traditional model of ideological critique. There is no “unmasking” of a lie whispered by the capitalist into the worker’s ear, which reveals the truth. On Zizek’s account, ideology works on an unconscious level, generating a group fantasy that even structures the “real” which traditional ideological critique attempts to reveal. Ideology is present in the realm of the unconscious and how the libido is moderated (through the symbolic) before conscious thought is even rendered possible.
The Capitol Hill protest, or insurrection, or coup (or whichever empty signifier you wish to attribute to it) represents a wondrous confirmation of Zizek’s philosophical project. The ideological position that “they do not know it, but they are doing it” is seen on proud display in the goalless, chaotic mob which temporarily occupied the American temple of democracy. There seems to be a desire to project onto this mob a grand plan for a fascistic takeover, which may have been inches away from succeeding. Yet what we see in the actual content of the belief systems of those who joined the crowd was an ironic illegible fascistic static. No coherent goal or plan. No way of getting even close to achieving the various incoherent goals and objectives that populated the crowd. Is this not ideology functioning expressly when there is a lack of knowledge?
Those in the mob simply showed up as they were told to by their father: Donald Trump. Simply put, there was no goal because they had all trusted their father to figure it out for them. The ideology is not in the beliefs themselves but the base-level reality that structured the vast array of beliefs that populated the crowd. Now it becomes evidently clear, with Trump’s subsequent denouncement of these protests and an acceptance of the election results, that if Trump had a plan, it no longer exists. And what happens to the Oedipal triangle when one’s father abandons them? If the fascistic movement just experienced fatherly abandonment (something which Freud saw as the greatest loss a person can experience), how can we see it as functioning, let alone as a salient threat with salient goals that may immanently destroy American democracy?
Unless, of course, one sees the Oedipal triangle as not applicable. Maybe this fascist movement is a Deleuzian rhizome with no central point that it necessarily operates from, developing into a multiplicity of equal and non-hierarchical connections that all must be severed for the root to die. It seems as if many who perceive the fascist threat as on the brink of causing a civil war have projected this belief of rhizomatic fascism onto their enemy. This is ironic considering how connected fascistic forms of social organization are to the Oedipal triangle and the nuclear family, and how far away they are, for Deleuze and Guattari, from the rhizome. If fascism is, as Deleuze and Guattari conceive of it, the desire to be ruled, who do these fascists connect this desire to after Trump has abandoned them? As we will find out in the next few months, the answer will vary depending on the fascist you ask. The movement, becoming more splintered than even before Trump’s abandonment, will cease to be a “movement” but revert back to its idle state, which can again be integrated, crudely, into the liberal democratic system as a voter block to be micro-targeted to.
Ideology not as a specific corrupted belief, but as the presence of a lack of beliefs, which is itself corrupted by the commodity form, is undoubtedly an explicit rejection of the perceived “traditional” reading of Marx that claims ideology to be a system of false beliefs that run contrast to reality (as seen in Mannheim and others). How can we go beyond this understanding? Enrich it while appreciating the work of Zizek’s philosophical project, especially as it relates to the combination of the psychoanalytic unconscious with bourgeois ideological mechanisms. While I greatly appreciate Zizek’s philosophical work and his rejection of the concept of ideology as false consciousness, how Zizek positions himself concerning this more “traditional” reading of Marx generates a commonality between these two strands of Marxism that is faulty: both view ideology as pejorative. This negative view of ideology prevents us from fully coming to terms with the specific nature of the protestors’ belief systems and their ideological affects. Why is it the case that so many in the capitol hill crowd desired to be ruled? What positive elements of the production of these protestor’s social world came to constitute their fascistic impulses? In a certain sense, I wish to have my cake and eat it too, see these protestors as operating under unconscious drives towards a desire to be ruled as well as viewing these drives not as constituted by a lack of information, a poverty of knowledge, but a positively constructed social reality.
This criticism of Zizek is similar to the criticism levied on Marx: In Marx’s obsession with critiquing and rejecting bourgeois political economists, he began to share some of their fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of the capitalist market. Marx takes for granted the views of Ricardo and Smith that a capitalist market is a “free for all” of different small capitalist firms who buy their inputs and sell their outputs on an unregulated market that sets these prices based upon the amalgamation of a multitude of independently acting small capitalist firms. Marx imagines that this inevitably leads capitalism to its destruction, as the market is not a “rational” system as Ricardo and Smith imagine but chaotic and irrational. Marx misses, of course, our contemporary reality in which the market is not a “free for all” among many different small capitalist firms, which certainly does lead inevitably to collapse but a planned economy based upon a few large firms who have intimate control over the share of the market related to the inputs they buy from and the outputs they sell to (see the book The People’s Republic of Walmart for more on the planned nature of the contemporary capitalist market).
Digression aside, Zizek falls into a similar trap with this “traditional” reading of ideology as being synonymous, or at the very least inter-related, with false consciousness. Zizek takes for granted the possibility of a reading of Marx in which ideology does not necessarily function as a pejorative but explains the beginning point of all consciousness. Following this, our goal is not to imagine the “end of ideology,” but the end of ideological conflict. Zizek takes an essential point from Althusser, that to imagine a post-ideological world is itself an act of ideology.
For Althusser, Ideology is the product of human beings’ practical lives, and science is a detached, objective method for truth generation with no direct reference to this ideological process. But how could this possibly be the case? Is it not Marx who claims that “one basis for life and another for science is a priori a lie”? Althusser admits the “ideological past” of science but nonetheless views science as necessarily leaving a distance between it and its elements derived from ideology. Both of these thinkers (Zizek, Althusser) position themselves against the traditional view that ideology is false consciousness. Yet, both still fall into the trap of viewing ideology as pejorative, something which deceives the subject that has fallen under its spell.
We must remove ourselves from the bourgeois idea of lack where there is an objective reality for us to attain and grasp (the Platonic sunlit realm of the forms), which is only denied to us through ideology and false consciousness. Instead of viewing ideology as cutting one off from this accessible, universal, idealist reality, we must understand it as a positive, productive capacity that constitutes a social reality. Of course, the bourgeois social reality is inherently contradictory, yet it is not predicated on a scarcity of information, a deprivation of the real world in-itself. To imply that this is the case runs into the necessarily anti-Marxist idea that scarcity is a natural phenomenon and not merely a product of production.
One must see ideology as the life’s working of an individual as it is imbued by encounters with the physical world. Marx writes in The German Ideology that
this method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation or abstract definition. but in their actual empirical process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life process is described (i.e., once the empirical work has been completed) history ceases to be a collection of dead facts, as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract) or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.
In this sense, false consciousness is not a necessary quality of ideology, but a product of ideological conflict and the division of labour, where one’s limited – or potentially non-existent – phenomenological encounters with the mode of production can not hope to help one understand its inner machinations.
False consciousness only becomes truly such, from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears. From this moment onwards, consciousness can really flatter itself that it is really conceiving something without conceiving something real: from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of “pure” theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc.
The capitalist mode of production positively produces a social reality that reinforces itself. This does not allow those whose free, subjective labour capacity encounters capital (and is subsequently bought up by it to produce surplus value) to understand this straightforward economic relationship. Capital grafts itself onto the social reality that is a direct product of this encounter (between free, subjective labour and objective capital) and pre-supposes itself as the origin point, the predicate which is required lest there be no social system that is legible. The early capitalists understood good and well the opposite nature of this relationship: that it is not the free labour-capacity of an individual which presupposes capital but the reverse. Capital, and the reproduction of capital, is entirely contingent upon subjective labour-capacity.
Marx’s claim that an object’s exchange value (commodity) is derived from its Value (socially necessary abstract labour) is an inherently revolutionary concept. Marx’s caveat that we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it demonstrates that the product is contingent not upon the social system (capital) but upon labour (the labour which grows the wheat, which does so regardless of the social system which surrounded it). It does not matter whether the labourer produces the wheat imagining it contingent on the divine right of kings and the body of the despot, or the employer-employee relationship and the body of capital itself; they will still till the wheat the very same. In all of these cases, their social reality indicates to them directly that the particular social world in which they exist within is what allows them to produce a product. In reality, what it is contingent upon grows from a capacity, a power, stemming from their very fingertips. All socially necessary labour is fundamentally equal insofar as it functions as a portion of the total aggregate of socially necessary labour in a society. You cannot break this labour down into different categories of skill, or of different sectors of the economy, or of different types. This has been true throughout all of history, yet it only becomes a legible concept at the dawn of capitalism. The body of capital is the perceived source for producing the product in the contemporary case that we must argue against today. In many cases, this argument is emboldened by highlighting the contingent nature of the social realities that seemed so sure to humanity for so long but then died out following the emergence of the new system.
Here, we can see the reason for Marx’s hatred of bourgeois intellectuals who, instead of analyzing capitalism as equally contingent and transcend-able as the previous economic system (feudalism), saw it as the end point of human social organization, the newfound permanent base of our social reality. It is easy to understand how many have interpreted the rage exercised by Marx (in The German Ideology and elsewhere) for this manifestation of bourgeois ideology as meaning that (1) ideology is a pejorative for those who believe capitalism to not be contingent and (2) necessarily connected to false consciousness. Marx’s critique of ideologists (here one can replace “ideologist” with “intellectual who embodies the social milieu of a system” and preserve the primary meaning) was that they did not understand their world view to be contingent upon a social/material structure, as opposed to universally valid. Marx cannot possibly hope to render his own science as an exception to this criticism. To do so would be to fall into the same trap he is accusing many of the ideologists. Marx is aware of the historical determination of his analysis. It is the fact that Marx’s work is historically contingent that creates the baseline critique he extends to bourgeois ideologists. My position refutes the “traditional” reading of ideology that Zizek is working to critique but in a radically different way.
What is required here is not an objective reality that can be drawn from the realm of the forms. It is not a world view that is purely rational and logical, as opposed to all previously articulated views contingent on a social world imbued by material production (whether bourgeois, or feudal, or ancient). As Aristotle understood, humans are inherently social animals; Plato’s goal of pure self-sufficiency is delusional. In Capital Volume 1, Marx speaks of Aristotle and his expressions of economic value. Saying that
he clearly enunciates that the money form of commodities is only the further development of the simple form of value – i.e., of the expression of the value of one commodity in some other commodity taken at random; for he says: 5 beds = 1 house is not to be distinguished from 5 beds = so much money.
Aristotle, though, stops right before being able to understand the existence of an equal thing, a “common substance” that connects the value of a bed with a house. For Marx, he does so due to the antique/ancient society he existed in. Living in a society whose mode of production was slave-based, Aristotle was unable to conceive all labour as equal and equivalent (and subsequently generate an idea of Value). Aristotle’s general encounters with the mode of production and the subsequent ideological belief that slave labour is below that of free labour denied him an ability to understand Marx’s economic category of Value (value produced by abstract, socially necessary labour).
The brilliancy of Aristotle’s genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered, in the expression of the value of commodities, a relation of equality. The peculiar conditions of the society in which he lived, alone prevented him from discovering what, “in truth,” was at the bottom of this equality.
We do not wish to do away with ideology. Instead, we search for the early developments of an ideology of the proletariat. It is a reality that is imbued and contingent upon a social world, an encounter with production, etc. but is aimed towards the dissolution of the current economic system. For instance, in What is to be Done? Lenin considers the ideology of the proletariat as considerably valuable to the socialist project. This viewpoint, for Marx, is fundamentally a scientific one. To not recognize that (1) capitalism is equally as contingent and transcend-able as previous economic systems and (2) that there is an immanent proletarian tendency to overthrow this system renders one’s analysis unscientific. Marx’s science is a Hermeneutics of emancipatory intentions. This science recognizes class struggle in the capitalist system and reacts by understanding the system as contingent and transcend-able. Most bourgeois ideologists are unable to recognize this tendency and are therefore unable to be scientific.
This is admittedly a controversial position, as Marx typically refers to ideology as a product of the dominant economic system. How could it be the case that Marx’s position was ideological if the dominant economic system was not communism? This is because Marx recognized the capacity that ideologists of the bourgeois era had to fully comprehend the historical development towards communism and subsequently take the side of the proletariat (as many feudal ideologists had done on the eve of the French revolution). The ideologist who recognizes the historical tendency towards the end of the capitalist economic system and embraces the development of a dictatorship of the proletariat through an analysis that comes from a bourgeois milieu, from encounters with the bourgeois mode of production, is even an apt description of Marx himself.
Marx’s science is not separated from ideology. Marx very openly utilized bourgeois political economists (Ricardo, Smith) as the source for the most basic economic categories for which a scientific analysis was possible. It is only during the onset of capitalism, in the early attempts by bourgeois political economists to critique feudalism, that the economic categories of Labour, Capital, Market, and Value become legible as the primary methods for which the economy is to be analyzed. Marx’s critique of Ricardo and Smith is not of the economic categories they utilize but their inability to see capitalism as equally temporary and contingent as the previous systems they were critiquing. In the same way, bourgeois political economy first came to understand the feudal, the ancient, and the Asiatic societies as soon as the self-criticism of the bourgeois society had commenced. As Hegel believed, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings” only “when the shades of dusk are falling.” Only when these categories are used to critique capitalism itself that science in the Marxian sense becomes possible. This is not a science that has been exorcized from any material conditions – for if it had been, it would be idealist and not materialist. But it also does not fold into a crude historical relativism for which there is no “objective truth” that can reach back in history and better understand these historical processes retrospectively. One cannot have it both ways; of a science with Popperian positivism which makes itself clear outside of historical necessity and a Marxist materialism in which one’s social reality – the very foundation of social consciousness – is contingent upon the mode of production.
Even the natural sciences, for Marx, are contingent upon the material conditions they grew out of. In The German Ideology, he writes that
Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this “pure” natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men.
The general orientation of any science is necessarily ideological, which is to say that it is material. We can think of Andre Bazin’s critique of Marxist historian George Sadoul’s idealism as similar to Marx’s critique of Feuerbach. Sadoul viewed the history of cinema as beginning outside of scientific discoveries and physical experiments with technical objects. Cinema being understood by Sadoul as an idealistic phenomenon, that “the concept man had of [cinema] existed so to speak fully armed in their minds, as if in some platonic heaven.” It is precisely in the treatment of cinema as a purely idealist phenomenon that required Sadoul to develop an idealist position on the subject.
We can see here that we must avoid idealism by embedding science directly within the working of ideology and rejecting the positivist position that science functions based upon abstract principles that are not historically contingent. It is not ideology itself that we wish to free society from, but merely ideological conflict. Ideology is not a pejorative that obfuscates and prevents the individual from seeing what is truly there. Even when Zizek agrees that there is no underlying “reality” that we are attempting to unmask through ideological critique, he still depends upon ideology as a pejorative, an illness that must be cured.
Where does this analysis stand concerning the capitol hill protests? It appears as if it makes our analysis of the fascist’s ideological beliefs more Deleuzian than anything else. Zizek views ideology as functioning through a ‘lack’ of belief. The protestors’ baseline social reality is ideological, mainly through how their libido is mediated by an unconscious “theatre of representations” that produces the symbolic. Where this leaves Zizek’s philosophical project is a critique of ideology purely in its unconscious manifestation. Ideology is a negation, and its critique is the negation of the negation (hence one of Zizek’s books which is titled Less Than Nothing). But what if there is far more to the functions of the unconscious than this negation? More than simply dream, tragedy and myth. In a certain sense, this lack radically limits our capacity to understand the social mechanisms which intimately shape the protestors’ decisions and desires that drove them to show up on January 6th. It severely limits our capacity to understand exactly why the want Trump to rule them . How can we view ideology as a positive construction of social reality? A social reality which, nevertheless, functions primarily through the unconscious, yet is invested directly in the world; laid out to bare for all to analyze in social production. In this way we dodge the issues that effect both the “traditional” Marxist reading of ideology and Zizek’s, while also maintaining the use of Zizek’s idea of ideology as functioning not through the explicit thoughts of subjects but through their unconscious.
Deleuze and Guattari’s method of analysis integrates desire into (or alongside) the material infrastructure and sees these two processes (the production of desire and the production of the economy) as fundamentally inseparable. One may view this as an idealist position that breaks from Marx’s materialism. Still, Deleuze and Guattari argue that it is, in fact, a more radically materialist position that can explain why our desires, beliefs, actions, etc., are shaped and controlled by the political economy. I will further elaborate on this position in the premium episode for this week, which can be accessed for 2$ a month on patreon.com/livagar (both in written form and audio form) as well as accessed in written form for 2$ on both medium and substack.