Politics

Ideology: Does Prejudice Guide Interpretation?

With the continuous discourse on ideology that is often accompanied by words such as terrorism, globalisation or imperialism, the definition is not only ambiguous but has an unsavoury association to other terms that are themselves vague. Indeed, there certainly exists an adverse meaning to ‘ideology’ as being a belief system that legitimises a doctrine for violence and subordination. But what exactly is ideology? An ideology is said to be, “[a] cultural representation of the social order that makes this order seem immutable and supremely legitimate… placing it beyond change by human agencies, outside the history of human actions and social relations, and beyond the framework of material constraints, which are its ultimate determinants.”[i] According to Karl Marx, ideology or the superstructure is a conceptual method of social organisation. The collective are enticed into believing in ideological and material values, the latter of which is merely invented by the bourgeois; the oppressed are thus inadvertently supporting the ruling class’ domination. “Everyone believes his [bourgeois] craft to be the true one… [i]n consciousness – in jurisprudence, politics, etc. – relations become concepts.”[ii] Thus the superstructure contains a collection of historically retained ideas that legitimise the dominate classes.

Conversely, Michel Foucault analysed ideology – what he later names discourse – as a social function of truth that authenticates social stratification and hierarchical arrangements, whereby “like it or not, it [ideology] always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth.”[iii] Power in discourse can only emerge effectively when interpretation is no longer needed and is automatically processed as truth, which prompts repression and power. However, power in discourse is not always negative, but provides a pleasant and a productive network that efficiently conditions and closes the gap between politics and culture. This distinctly coincides with the superstructure, for not only are the elite exercising dominance over the masses but ideology exists because citizens desire it. Eric Hobsbawm highlighted the existence of what he referred to as the imagined national community,[iv] namely that the values set within ideological beliefs are merely invented to hold the administration of a State together by motivating a national character and providing political and social cohesion. “Politics is so deeply rooted in the native genius of each nation that the continuity of separate political traditions constantly resist the levelling forces at work in the social and economic spheres of modern life.”[v] However, this does not make the nation ‘unreal’ but should instead be viewed as a concept that enables, “[e]xperience and the interpretation of the world.”[vi]

Ultimately, power requires recognition.

“The relationship between power and identity is most obvious in the new concept of the nation: the nation, first as a community of equal individual citizens and then as a community founded upon a shared culture, becomes the legitimate locus of power… strategically, identity not only legitimizes power but provides also an effective instrument for mobilization.”[vii].

The legitimisation of ideological constructs often involve Othering or the proposition that x is more legitimate than y within essentialists categorisations, which is the view that all properties in an entity must contain the same attributes. Jean-Paul Sartre claims that the anti—Semite creates the ‘Jew’ by becoming an object representing what is loathed and thus causally becoming the very purpose or reason for his being and identity.[viii] The belief in the existence of properties or characteristics that are either universal or essential consequently legitimises these properties that are apparently eternally fixed. For instance, if the properties in x are eternal or essential, than it must be that the properties in y are not and in such instances, the legitimisation of x leads to the domination or subjugation of y. Membership thus requires the acknowledgement that certain properties within the entity are eternal or essential, leading to recognition and thus power.

Nevertheless, subjugation is not always violent and can contain positive elements that are tolerated even by those being subjugated.[ix] As an instrument for political and social development, the ideological attitudes to modernisation have often been used as an apparatus in Turkish political rhetoric. Ziya Gökalp, a Turkish sociologist and political activist who influenced Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, claims that there are two functional processes of modernisation that have caused such massive structural changes in society. “The first was in culture-nations (Durkeim’s term for societies) where the advanced division of labor was creating an occupational group structure in which individuals were incorporated… the second level was that of civilisation, which Gökalp saw as the supranational grouping to which different nations belonged and in which they related.”[x] Atatürk believed that secularisation and modernity will gradually relegate the position religion has in both politics and society, yet, along with many secularists, this imagined interpretations of the possible future has thwarted the possibility of understanding alternative social and political processes. Instead, radical fundamentalism and religious and cultural revivalism are interpreted as a retrograde condition where people are reverting back to the old and inferior position because of their failure to adapt to the precipitating social transformations.

“The sense that religion has no place in contemporary politics is evidence in common claims that people “retreat” or “take refuge” in religion to escape so-called rapid socio-political change. The implication of this language is the theopolitical actors and movements are at odds with historical necessity (almost pathologically so), and should not be as predominant as they are.”[xi] Modernity has paradoxically increased the vitality of religion. Originally thought to be unsympathetic to culture and society, globalisation has instead provided the room for religious and cultural development. Andrew Davison labels this as interpretative perplexity; what we once thought to be clear becomes more perplexing than originally presumed.[xii] Davison attempts to analyse the meaning behind these political prejudices (made especially by political scientists who engage in policy assessment), particularly the convincing idea of historical development and the saturation process of social and political globalisation. Prejudices regarding the apparent direction of secularism have interrupted a better comprehension of theopolitics (theocracy) in contemporary political discourses.

Instead of acknowledging these prejudices and attempting to work comparatively, political theorists and scientists have adopted methodological attitudes that only justify secularisation. Thus, using hermeneutics to explain the interpretation of political language and the deeper expressive meanings behind these interpretations, Davison references Hans-Georg Gadamer’s idea that prejudice guides interpretation.[xiii] Though some have argued that cultural change and development through global expansion and modernity threatens the existence of past traditions and long-established customs, others maintain that it is a necessary historical process that improves the conditions of society. “[P]atterns of behaviour identified as modern tend to prevail over those considered to be traditional… when universalistic norms supersede particularistic ones.”[xiv] Emile Durkeim was an early figure who sought an understanding of the function and significance religious has vis-à-vis maintaining the balance of society. Structural functionalism is a social systems paradigm that analysis how smaller elements in society play a functional role in the whole of the social system.

According to Durkheim, collective representations are conditioned ideals, a type of intellectual and emotional semiotic interaction within a group or society that legitimise shared historical meaning. “It is also a symbolic resource: an actor who does not conceive of him/herself as a link to an historical chain cannot elaborate a discourse of legitimization or a teleological vision that gives a sense to his actions’ he/she cannot give a meaning to his/her present combats.”[xv] According to Lowell Dittmer, symbols transcend objective interpretations and are no longer dependent on referential meaning, thus extending space and time.[xvi] Symbols become the autonomous link between a political structure and political psychology, whereby “[s]ymbols tend to merge with ‘language’ on the one hand and with the substantive ‘reality’ that language represents on the other.”[xvii]

Semiotics expose features of cultural symbolism and the interaction with belief-systems since group symbols can illustrate peculiar features that the materialist approach to social analysis may not achieve. It can provide a useful introduction to the influences and properties of a given culture by reducing communication to symbolic exchanges. “Although it is legitimate to treat social relations – even relations of domination – as symbolic interactions, that is, as relations of communication implying cognition and recognition, one must not forget that the relations of communication par excellence – linguistic exchanges – are also relations of symbolic power in which the power relations between speakers or their respective groups are actualized.”[xviii]

While Sartre believed that all people are essentially free and are built by nothing but the choices that they make, identity and recognition plays a pivotal role in current political and social dynamics that therefore makes it wholly deterministic. This dichotomy between individuality and the deterministic social environment is that the latter can facilitate the decision making process and since individuality or freedom is isolating and thus fearful by extension, or at the very least the co-deterministic environment substantiates this fear of individuality so as to endorse conformity, what eventuates is the diminishment of one’s humanity.[xix] To overcome this fear and escape from freedom, the individual makes one choice and that is to submit to the precipitating social environment; thus identity becomes symptomatic of this conformity and ‘being’ or individuality becomes unconscious and identity inauthentic. This is particularly effective in a social environment that lacks agencies that support individual autonomy, such as education and justice. Thus prejudice becomes a product of this dynamic between the individual and society and is utilised as a socio-communicative tool to interpret the dialectic of nature and historical determinism, albeit the formula is paradoxically detrimental to a just social environment since state legitimacy can be undermined by exclusive identity politics and antagonising relations between citizens and the state.

 

[i] J. Oppenheimer, “Culture and Politics in Druze Ethnicity”, 1:3 (1977) 623
[ii] Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976) 101
[iii] Paul Rabinow, The Foucault Reader (London: Penguin Books, 1984) 60
[iv] E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Sine 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 159. See Also Benedict Anderson’ ‘Imagined Communities’
[v] Lucian W. Pye and Sidney Verba, Political Culture and Political Development (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998) 111
[vi] Martin Sokefeld. Struggling for Recognition: The Alevi Movement in Germany and in Transnational Space (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008) 22
[vii] Ibid., 29
[viii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate
[ix] Martin Sokefeld, op. cit., 30
[x] Andrew Davison, Secularism and Revivalism in Turkey: A Hermeneutic Reconsideration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) 111
[xi] Ibid., 2
[xii] Davison, op. cit., 114
[xiii] Hans-Georg Gadamer is a German philosopher who wrote Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method).
[xiv] Pye and Verba, op. cit., 12
[xv] White and Jongerden, op. cit., 13
[xvi] Lowel Dittmer, “Political Culture and Political Symbolism”. World Politics 29:4 (July, 1977) 577. To extend space and time is to emotionally – rather than rationally – accept words to be true even if it is clearly to be proven false, i.e. Holocaust deniers.
[xvii] Ibid., 558
[xviii]Pierre Bourdieu and John B. Thompson, Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard University Press (1991) 37
[xix] Jean Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason

3 thoughts on “Ideology: Does Prejudice Guide Interpretation?

  1. Hi Sara,

    Your post is chock full of ideas.

    “An ideology is said to be, “[a] cultural representation of the social order that makes this order seem immutable and supremely legitimate… placing it beyond change by human agencies, outside the history of human actions and social relations, and beyond the framework of material constraints, which are its ultimate determinants.”[i] According to Karl Marx, ideology or the superstructure is a conceptual method of social organisation. The collective are enticed into believing in ideological and material values, the latter of which is merely invented by the bourgeois; the oppressed are thus inadvertently supporting the ruling class’ domination. “Everyone believes his [bourgeois] craft to be the true one… [i]n consciousness – in jurisprudence, politics, etc. – relations become concepts.”[ii] Thus the superstructure contains a collection of historically retained ideas that legitimise the dominate classes.”

    So what caught my eye: “collectives are enticed into believing”, and I wondered how this enticement works where does it get its power. In the past this has had a lot to do with religions telling people how to live, so that they can obtain immortality, and perhaps it still does.

    I think our Capitalistic society fetishizes a way of life. When I say ‘fetish’ I mean the idealization of the real, where items/programs/apps become idealized, (no stilettos required) valued beyond what they are in them self.

    I agree with Marx. Capitalism organizes our value system, it fetishizes consumer ideals by making them part of a self sustaining narrative about an ideal life style. Our ideological values then are our material values fetishized. The ‘enticement’ becomes a desire for the good life, as presented by the dominant narratives in society.

    There is a shift in this progression, which I think may be due to advances in media. The increasing (p)revalence media over the last 100 years has made it a major capitalistic tool. And, with the introduction of the Internet, the narrative of power, of what is to be desired, has become radically democratized. Challenging the reigning ideologies for dominance…

    Like

    • What is compelling above all else that it would be enough to capture a community of people into believing in a social order that legitimises power? It is difficult to say and there are a plethora of various ideas from Machiavelli to Hobbes, but I have always held the opinion that it subjectively rests under the banner of fear and in some instances for good reason. Fear of death, fear of aloneness, fear of separateness or being ostracised, hated, attacked, whatever the situation or circumstances people somehow are willing to sacrifice their freedom to cuddle into the safety blanket of the herd. And why not? It is society that helps shape our understanding of the world but as Erich Fromm states, “[m]odern man is in a position where much of what “he” thinks and says are the things that everybody else thinks and says; that he has not acquired the ability to think originally – that is, for himself – which alone gives meaning to his claim that nobody can interfere with the expression of his thoughts.” That is the primary difference here, ‘identity’ and whether it is genuine or whether it is merely the result of a social organisation developed precisely to ensure you think you are an individual yet blindly following the masses.

      The marketing tactics of today and strategies to compel people to buy unnecessary items all function under methods that manipulates society into believing that something pointless and unnecessary is actually necessary, even making people believe that they cannot live without it. It is exactly as you say, it ”fetishizes consumer ideals by making them part of a self-sustaining narrative about an ideal lifestyle,” but its capacity to do so rests in the mind, the emotions, knowing the individual finds this ‘good life’ through others and thus the more others have an iphone or Nike shoes, power thus rests in the rewards for having such material, namely that of others who themselves are blindly following and approve that you have them. Suddenly, you have a group of people legitimising unnecessary material and even defending it tooth and nail. Now pretend that the iphone or Nike shoes is female circumcision? It is the safety of having an identity given to you – just as Othering furnishes a neo-nazi with the legitimacy necessary to continue his ideological belief-system – along with the social or communal processes that develop and form a bond and thus happiness is found in the absence of freedom, in the approval of the group who they themselves and unawares desire the same thing.

      It is, basically, stupidity.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Semiotics and Political Legitimacy | Summa Amare

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