Ideology: A marxist perspective

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'If the essence and appearance of things directly coincided, all science would be superfluous'. Does Marx's dictum lead to novel insights?

The purpose of science is to discover the nature of reality concealed under surface appearance. Based on this definition, Marx makes the above assertion - if things appeared exactly as they are, there would be no need for science to remove the veil of appearance. Social science, therefore, is the search for the real nature of society, underneath all of its visible, external façades. If the reality of society is easily observable in our everyday experience, then there is no need for scientific reflection on society, as Marx defines science. The idea that society has an 'appearance', which is not the same as social 'essence', forms the starting point for the Marxist discussion of ideology. Ideology is what allows a society to persist, even though the essence of that society may contain contradictions.

It is important to note that the difference between appearance and reality is not due to some form of false belief or faulty vision on the part of the observer. The appearances are caused by the reality. There is no 'mistake' in the observance of society, because it is the nature of society that the essence projects a certain appearance. It is the nature of a mirage that it is an illusion, it is not a case of 'faulty vision'. A person with normal vision will still see a mirage, as it is the very essence of the mirage which creates the illusion.

Marx was primarily concerned with the nature of the capitalist mode of production. The cardinal tenets of Marx's theory of the essence of capitalism are: Only expenditure of labour creates economic value, in proportion to the amount of labour expended; workers do not receive the whole value of what they produce - capitalists enjoy profits due to surplus value, for which the worker is not paid; labour power is the only form of capital investment which creates profit. (1) The social appearance, on the other hand is: An object is worth what it can be exchanged for in the market, i.e. its exchange-value; workers appear to be paid for all of their labour; capital is seen to 'create' profit. There is clearly a marked difference between the appearance and essence of society. Marx uses the idea of 'commodity fetishism' to explain this difference.

'Commodity fetishism' is the vision of objective value in commodities especially money, as the commodity of exchange. Under a society with exchange, the only way people can gauge value is during the exchange process. For example, in the labour market, a worker will agree to a contract with an employer for a certain wage per time period. The worker feels that he is being paid for all of his work, and the employer feels that the value of the labour-power employed is worth the wage. The actual value of the labour is more than the wage, as the employer will eventually extract a surplus value when the product is sold. The cause of this commodity fetishism is the nature of the exchange process. The result is that some aspects of the appearance of society are the 'inverse' of its essence.

The notion of 'inversion' is very important to Marx, as it sums up the idea that the capitalist mode of production contains contradictions. The contradiction is between the essence and appearance. Marx goes so far as to say that 'everything appears as reversed in competition' (2). Ideology 'conceals the contradictory essential relations...because it is based on a sphere of reality which reveals the contrary to its essential relations' (3). The role of ideology, therefore, is to hide the essence of society as it contradicts the appearance, which is beneficial to the ruling class at the time. As ideology is based on the 'phenomenological sphere', or the sphere of 'appearances', is fulfils its role by reinforcing the appearances of society, thus further burying the 'essence'.

It is useful to compare the predominant ideologies associated with feudalism and capitalism. In a feudal society, the fact that the surplus labour of the serf is obvious by the fact that he/she will spend some of his/her time producing for the lord directly. The exploitation is blatant, and in order to avoid uprising, ideology takes a religious form, where servitude is seen as a way of guaranteeing a successful after-life. In the feudal case, the ideology can not hide the contradictory and exploitative nature of society, and so its role is justification rather than concealment. Essentially, though, the role is the same as under capitalism - to help the unequal and contradictory social system survive.

In comparison, ideology in a capitalist society takes the form of 'commodity fetishism', and several 'principles implicit in all exchange'. When people enter the market, they enter freely as equals, each with their own property, and concern for their own self-interest. Marx explains the existence of these 'principles' as such, 'Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity...are constrained only by their own free will,...they contract as free agents. Equality because...they exchange equivalent with equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham (self-interest), because each looks only to himself.' (4) Each of these principles is inherently linked to the exchange process, and so each one contributes to 'commodity fetishism'. The essence of society is one of inequality and unfreedom, as there is inequality between the propertied and propertyless classes, and that workers are not free to withhold their labour-power from the market. In order to survive, a worker must sell his labour to the capitalist class. The ideology of the exchange market conceals this essence.

Marx's model of ideology is not a simple conspiracy of the capitalists to make sure that the workers live by the ideology so that they do not realise the contradictory nature of capitalism. The ruling class are also subject to the illusions and appearances of the mode of production as much as the exploited class. Again, this encourages the persistence of the capitalist mode of production. If the essence of society was not hidden, not only would the workers feel resentment at being exploited, but also the exploiters would lack the composure for confident rule.
It has already been stated that social science can be used to uncover the essence of society. This does not mean, however, that science ends the contradiction. Just knowing the contradiction in the essence of society does not stop there being a contradiction. Even when you understand a mirage, you still see it. This means that something more is required for an end in the contradiction of the mode of production. The essence of society must be directly changed, before the contradictions can be removed.


Up to this point in the discussion of ideology, the definition has been a very negative one - ideology conceals the contradictions between the appearance and essence of society, and therefore benefits the status quo and the ruling class. The examination of class struggle in relation to ideology brings in a more positive view. During periods of social calm, the ideology of society remains largely unchallenged. In a class struggle, however, the dominant ideas are associated with the ruling class, and are open to criticism. By criticising the existing ideology, the dominated class puts forward political views. These views will be backed up theoretically, and these form the basis of a 'class ideology'. There will then be 'ideological conflict' between the fundamental classes of society. A basis for this development of the idea of ideology can be found in Marx: 'a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.' (5) We now have a very different place for ideology in society. By looking at class struggle, it appears as though all classes may put forward an ideology in the form of political views. These views challenge the existence of the social ideology which hides the contradictions of the mode of production.

The links between the formation of a class consciousness and its ideology are very close. A class consciousness can be conceived as an ideology opposed to the dominant ideology of society. Georg Lukacs puts forward a thesis showing the difference between the class consciousness of the proletariat, and the ideology in which they must survive, which is that of the bourgeoisie. Clearly, the life of a member of the proletariat is highly infected with bourgeois ideology. The consciousness of the class as a whole, however, is the way in which it fights the ideological battle against the dominant class. Class struggle takes an ideological form, and there are large obstacles for the proletariat to overcome. This is due to the fact that the way in which members of society conceive that society has already been infected. This is based on the interpretation of ideology as part of the way in which people relate to society.

The ideological battle between classes is for 'hegemony'. Antonio Gramsci puts forward this concept as the 'ideological domination' of society. Hegemony is created in the domain of the superstructure, by forming alliances with other classes so that an ideologically dominant class can rule by consent. In order for the proletariat to gain hegemony, it must wage a 'war of position', where 'organic intellectuals' of the working class put forward a new ideology, and try to gain support for it from other classes and social forces.

These developments of the Marxist views begin to confuse the terminology initially adopted by Marx. Ideology was initially found to be the way in which the contradiction between essence of society and its appearance is hidden. By saying that a class can 'have' or 'put forward' and ideology confuses this matter. What the class is putting forward is not an ideology in the above sense, but political, ethical or philosophical arguments against the persistence of the social contradictions. Louis Althusser makes the claim that ideology is part of the relation between the individual and society. He says, 'an ideology is a system of representations endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society' (6). This means that people 'act consciously though ideology', but ideology itself is unconscious. This by itself agrees with Marx's views on the affect of ideology. Commodity fetishism and the acceptance of the status quo are largely unconscious. Althusser drifts away from the views of Marx when he makes the claim that there will still be ideology, even in a classless society, because there will still be the need for people to relate to society. Marx clearly has the view that in a classless society, there will be no ideology, for the reason that the appearance will be equal to the essence of a classless society.

In order to allow Althusser to make these statements, we must realise that he uses a different concept of ideology. To illustrate this point, an argument from Cohen is useful. Cohen claims that Marx has a negative view of science, in that it always exposes contradictions between appearance and essence. Marx criticised the economists of his time for using simple notions of price and production which are 'obvious to the simple businessman'. Cohen claims that those economists were scientists, but that they were neutral. Although there were not revealing any contradiction between essence and appearance, they were producing useful theory on the way economies function. This type of social science will not 'wither away' under a classless society. Similarly, it is this type of ideology which Althusser claims will exist in a classless society. People will still need to relate to society. In a classless society, however, that relation will not contain a contradiction.

This development of the theory of ideological theory from Marx through Lukacs, Gramsci and Althusser, provides a full view of how ideology is framed in Marxist thought. Marx starts the development by showing that ideology is what hides the contradictory essence of society. Gramsci expands on this by showing how this allows for capitalism to persist, and by suggesting new strategies for the leaders of the proletariat. Ideology functions as part of the superstructure, along with the pursuit of social science. Social science, in the negative form conceived by Marx, pulls back the cover of ideology to reveal the nature of the 'essence' society. By ruling out the economists of his time as 'unscientific', Marx left only himself and his disciples as true 'social scientists'. It is ironic that he does so. If, as he predicted, the proletarian revolution occurs, then, according to the dictum in the question, his own branch of expertise would be 'superfluous'. This would leave only those who he condemned as 'non-scientists' to take up the banner of social investigation.

References:
G. A. Cohen, The Withering Away of Social Science in his Karl Marx's theory of History.
K. Marx, Capital vol. iii, p. 209.
J. Larrain, Marxism and Ideology.
K. Marx, Capital vol. i, p. 172.
K. Marx, preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
L. Althusser, Marxism and Humanism in his For Marx p. 231.