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Notes on Marx and the Project of Ideology

October 16th, 2011

Today I pulled together some loosely connected thoughts I’ve been sorting out.  I’m working on a print publication–for now things will get posted here.  I’m writing a lot, but mostly I do my editing on People’s Plaza, in the cold, on limited battery power, etc., behind the Teach-In booth.  It’s an experiment.

I’m acutely aware of right-wing polemics, so I always feel like it’s dangerous to mention Marx today. The fact is that Marx theorized extensively about what is going on right now, but at the same time, merely mentioning his name leads us to an ideological trap. In the popular consciousness, Marx is synonymous with authoritarianism and the Communist State (which is not the same as the theoretical socio-political organization of communism—a distinction most people don’t seem to make). The following is simply a list of points I want to make. Apologies for how they might read or flow together:

Marxism is not an ideology—in fact Marx critiques ideology itself. Marx analyzed the concept of capital, reflecting on its history and future. Part of his importance is that he saw political economy and our social relations as interdependent. Ideology is the system of ideas that mediates how we all work in society as social subjects. To reject Marx completely is to say that political economy is autonomous and that we are free to act as social subjects independently of it. Who can seriously argue that this is true?

Marx’s ideas as a whole are imperfect. To paraphrase Peter Singer, author of Marx: A Very Short Introduction: Marx created a painting of capitalism, not a photograph. There are many aspects to Marxist thought, only one of which is a call for revolution. By no means does that sum up his agenda, nor does the historical outcome of this one facet invalidate everything else he said.

Marx’s thought is centered on the Hegelian concept of humanity’s liberation as the goal of history. He saw that capitalism did not accomplish this, but would in fact lead to more oppression. Thus, communism is not theorized by Marx as a system of oppression, but rather as one holding the potential for freedom.

Our awareness of the mechanics of capitalism is extremely sophisticated today, in part due to Marx’s influence. That is, even those in power think in Marxist terms in order to be better capitalists. Right-wing rhetoric claims that socialized medicine, welfare and other extensions of public funding push us dangerously towards communism. Marx’s claim was that capitalism would gradually lead to class warfare, where the masses would overpower a rich ruling class. The presence of social programs in a capitalist economy makes more sense as a band-aid for the failures of capitalism. It’s absurd that the ruling class would be building towards communism. The essence of communism is common ownership of wealth and the means of production. These things are not given up by the ruling class. What the ruling class can do, however, is create a charitable element within the system to give the illusion of security. To me, the socialist element of our society is a concession to do just this.

Ideology essentially consists of a system of messages we receive and act on. Marx theorized that these messages work so that we keep ourselves working within the system’s parameters, even to the point of unknowingly helping to build the system so that it remains oppressive. Slavoj Zizek argues that much of the time, we do know what our actions are supporting, but we do it anyways. This means that even though the system is the root problem, it makes us part of the problem. We then grow aware of our role as citizens, and that awareness then needs to incorporate itself back into us-as-part of the problem. Once we understand this, we will take no bullshit from anyone.

Ideology’s project is to keep us functioning within a social system. Therefore, the problems arise not in that we are ideological, but in how. Ideology becomes oppressive insofar as our social relations are mediated by power. That is, the systems of power in which we function work to keep us oppressing ourselves. It is the project of ideology to keep us thinking of things such as the economy and the political process as natural and unchangeable. The phrase “you can’t fight city hall” is one such example of an ideological message.

As we grow up, we are socialized to function in a human community. That is a natural and timeless process. What is not natural for us, I think, is incorporating such a large number of abstractions into our systems of thought. If not for civilization, maybe we would not have anything to call ideology—it would be very simply referred to as culture.

Freedom and Capitalism: A Brief Note

October 9th, 2011

I saw a bumper sticker, blue and white with the little Obama logo, that read: “I’ll keep my guns and freedom, and you can keep the change.” I despise what the Right has done with the word freedom. It almost seems a dirty word, yet the concept is close to my heart. So it was with Karl Marx. It sucks that the existential crisis I have been in for the last ten years was being theorized about since at least the mid-nineteenth century. And today, protesters are occupying Wall Street for security in a system that doesn’t work and has never worked:

Capitalism seems different [than feudalism] because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs. This is not because they have chosen badly. Nor is it because of the physical limits of our resources and technology. It is because the cumulative effect of countless individual choices is a society that no one—not even the capitalists—has chosen. Where those who hold the liberal conception of freedom would say we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says we are not free because we do not control our own society.

Economic relations appear to us to be blind natural forces. We do not see them as restricting our freedom—and indeed on the liberal conception of freedom they do not restrict our freedom, since they are not the result of deliberate human interference. Marx himself is quite explicit that the capitalist is not individually responsible for the economic relations of his society, but is controlled by these relations as much as the workers are.

Peter Singer, Marx: A Very Short Introduction, p. 91-92.

This “cumulative effect of countless individual choices” is the playground of ideology—a sort of organized societal schizophrenia. Ideology is full of contradictions, giving the media plenty of ground to call the protesters a bunch of idiots who don’t know what’s good for them, or at best don’t know exactly what they want. It’s obvious that things are not right; it’s too bad that it takes a crisis in the middle class to see it, because by the time it gets to that point, the problems all seem hopelessly obscured. Not to mention the fact that the lower classes have been struggling so long, they don’t even notice anything’s different.