‘Theories of Ideology: The Powers of Alienation and Subjection’ reviewed by Lucas Miranda

Reviewed by Lucas Miranda

About the reviewer

 Lucas Miranda has a Masters in Political Science at Florida International University. He …

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In Theories of Ideology: The Powers of Alienation and Subjection, Jan Rehmann provides a well-elaborated exposition of the most important schools and theoretical perspectives that have been, in some way or another, influential on the development of theories of ideology. The central argument of this book is that theories of ideology ought to be re-visited and redefined to analyze neoliberalism in the current epoch of high tech capitalism. The importance and central place which ideology holds in Marx’s writings has, understandably, never been a matter of contentious dispute among Marxist scholars. However, analyses and interpretations of the actual content of the ‘ideological component’ (and how it relates to other classical Marxist propositions) have varied tremendously both within and beyond Marxism. Theories of ideology marked a turn in Marxist research as they started to reflect more seriously upon what has been perceived as the materiality of ideology and the efficacy of its unconscious effects in shaping social patterns of everyday life. This is the core premise of a Marxist structuralist approach to ideology (known mostly through the theories of Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci). Thus, when discussing theories of ideology we are at bottom discussing a debate which has become a sine qua non of all social sciences: the subject or individual agency as opposed to the alienating societal structures which diminish individuals’ autonomy.

Rehmann provides a well conceived framework which includes, but is not limited to, academic fields such as Critical Theory (Frankfurt School), psychoanalysis (focusing on the unconscious functioning of ideology in practice), (post)structuralism, and postmodernism. Indeed, one of the major features of this book is how Rehmann’s analysis encompasses virtually the whole scope of contemporary political thought. Ideology is viewed differently by these fields and thus each has its own take on its social meaning; namely, on the relation (and formation) of ideological subjects vis-à-vis structural constellations of hegemonic powers.

Rehmann starts with a terrific exegesis of the most fundamental formulations and concepts constituting the underpinnings of classical Marxism. This is the most introductory chapter of the book and yet it presents a very thorough synopsis of Marxism. The reason why Rehmann takes his time to go more in depth with this chapter is that even a superficial understanding of thinkers like Adorno or Althusser still requires more than a superficial understanding of Marxism. Most importantly, Rehmann dispels the notion that Marx believed in some sort of material determinism. Instead of isolating ideological forms from practical life, Marx and Engels argued that ‘consciousness could only be understood as an integral part of life-process’ (25). I wish, however, that Rehmann had mentioned (mostly for reference purposes) Engels’ letters [ss1] on Historical Materialism where Engels himself elaborates upon this misconception and makes a very good case arguing that Marx never denied the dialectical relation between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’.

Rehmann then moves to explain how it is rather Lenin who is to be blamed for the ‘opposition of ‘material’ and ‘ideological’ relations [which] led to the identification of ideology as ‘ideas’ and therefore overlooked the materiality of the ideological’ (9). Lenin still perceive the realm of superstructure (i.e., ideology) as mere disembodied ideas or ‘false consciousness’. In the next couple chapters, Rehmann discusses how the Marxist concept of ideology was employed and/or interpreted by important thinkers who extended Marx’s criticism of capitalism to the political and cultural conditions of the mid twentieth century (e.g., Lukács, Adorno, and Wolfgang Fritz Haug).

The next chapters cover the central themes of the book: first, how ideologies function through social practices, collective patterns, or daily individual habits; and second, the contradictory development from Marxism to Postmodernism. Contrary to classical Marxism’s formulation that ‘life determines consciousness’, these studies have recognized the resilience and active nature of ‘the ideological’ over social and political realities. Discussing Gramsci, Rehmann focuses on explaining that ‘the concept of ideology represented for Gramsci a transition to the elaboration of the more specific categories of hegemony” (134). Then, moving to Althusser, Rehmann presents different accounts of how ideological apparatuses perform by already inducing the perpetuating means of their own conditions of possibility. By laying down these two arguments, Rehmann can now shed light on his ultimate concern (shared by these thinkers): how the material dimension of ideology furthers the means of domination employed by hegemonic structures to ensure the present political order, and secures the present relations of power (and their apparent legitimacy): thus perpetuating the hegemony of neoliberalism.

Added to that, his most poignant criticism is ultimately directed at poststructuralism and postmodernism. Rehmann argues that both have ‘become an ideological component of neoliberalism’ (10), i.e., ‘counterrevolutionary forces’ to use Marcuse’s words. Postmodernism, Rehmann argues, has abandoned the traditional and normative political concern with the concept of ideology and thus ‘focused almost entirely on texts, detached from the material-ideological settings and practices in which they are embedded’ (218). The problem is that when any sort of structuralism (‘post’ or not) employs the concepts of discourse, knowledge, or power in place of ideology, they offer no analytical tool to critically examine which political factors or interests are at play in the conflict of classes, i.e., in the struggle for hegemony. Rehmann aims his criticism mostly at Foucault’s and Butler’s de-materialization and de-naturalization of social life. These serve as examples for Rehmann to explain how postmodernism reduces all social phenomena to the symbolic realm of texts and arbitrary shifts of signification. Rehmann’s critical take on these issues should indeed be open for larger discussions serving both the intellectual health of political theory and the political health of social life.

It is particularly commendable that Rehmann, coming from a relatively far-left position, goes over these sensitive issues (such as gender-theories) in such a strong critical way. Any Butler fan, however, would have to be very disingenuous to deny or completely dismiss Rehmann’s claim that these postmodern projects are indeed prompting the de-materialization of social life, neglecting the ideological, and ultimately obscuring actual political agendas. Moreover, it becomes clear that Rehmann’s focus on the materiality of ideology and criticism of poststructuralism converge on how they contribute to the perpetuation of neoliberalism and, by the same token, how they undermine and/or suppress alternatives of resistance from below. After all, Rehmann’s central concern is to understand ‘people’s voluntary subjection to alienated forms of domination, the consent to conditions restricting their capacities to act’ (5). Hence the themes of ‘alienation’ and ‘subjection’ are rightfully in the subtitle since these are the major ideological processes (embodying the conditioning mechanisms) of any agent-structure dynamic.

In this light, we can see why the main challenge of all theories of ideology must be to not allow their concept of subjection to develop into an anti-humanist reductionist argument portraying individuals as ‘mere effects of social structures and ideological apparatuses’ (221). Rehmann’s insight is to discern how this problem also arises outside the postmodern camp. Hence, Rehmann’s criticism of Althusser’s theory. Althusser perceives agents as always already subjected to an omnihistorical concept of ideology as ‘the universal element of history’ (162). Focusing on this controversial and totalizing view of ideology, Rehmann leads his analysis to the fundamental question of “how Althusser can explain resistance and struggles if he considers human beings as completely entangled in, and formed by, ideological practices’ (153).

Rehmann’s challenge, therefore, to future ideology theories is how a critical analysis of the perpetuity of hegemonic structures can address ideological conditioning processes (e.g., alienation and subjection) without undermining the agency of individuals. Marxist studies cannot forget that social praxis require individuals ‘who must intervene into the ideological forms of existing class-societies’ despite being “necessarily co-determined by them’ (145). This is why such individuals need ‘a strong ideology-critical philosophy of praxis that helps to think through what it is doing and to historicize its own ideological involvements’ (145). Gramsci, for instance, presents dialectical concepts such as ‘common sense’ to represent ‘a battlefield of contradictory tendencies’ as being part of social realm (127).

It is imperative that every Marxist project understand this contradiction in order to execute a political plan according to the dialectics of its theory. But most importantly, as Rehmann points out, ‘to obscure or to neglect a theoretical understanding of this contradiction would only lead to a passive dialectics that produces endless splits and defeats’ (127). However, he does not elaborate much further on this issue, and I believe it is crucial to do so. Marxist political projects that have anti-dialectical tendencies prove not to be Marxist at all. For in not being critical of their own praxis and not historicizing their own ideological conditioning, they betray their revolutionary disposition and turn their ideals into the basis of a new oppressive hegemony.

In chapter 8, Rehmann introduces the greatest surprise of the book and, arguably, one of its best chapters: Pierre Bourdieu. Rehmann posits that not only Gramsci but also Bourdieu’s sociology can remedy the pitfalls of Althusser’s ideology-theory model. In Bourdieu, ‘we find what we missed in Althusser’s approach, namely a dialectical relationship between ideological fields and habitualised dispositions of everyday life’ (236). In other words, Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ rescue the agency of political actors and give some autonomy to their political activities. Habitus is to be understood as a ‘dynamic process of creation by the subjects themselves … an “art of inventing” that produces an infinite number of practices that are relatively unpredictable’ (237). As Rehmann discusses Bourdieu by revisiting Gramsci and Althusser, this chapter crystalizes the book’s central point: ‘ideology takes hold in everyday life … ideology is continuously supported by habitualised everyday patterns’ (239). In my view, Bourdieu expands the horizon of the theory of ideology in a conciliatory way by bringing together the humanist ideology of young Marx and the historical-materialistic science of his later writings. Bourdieu’s framework truly recognizes the crux of any Marxist project: individuals will always be subjects determined by their historical circumstances as well as determining agents of their own history. Only by understanding and acting upon this, can Marxist ideologies overcome their own ‘false perception of reality’ and enable the political conditions for a true hegemonic shift of power.

To conclude, Theories of Ideology is an excellent book for anyone who wants to get immersed in contemporary political theory. But it is also a very important book for reflection upon the intellectual health of political theory and the political health of social life which always accompany one another. Rehmann’s work is not simply a survey of theories of ideology but— most fundamentally—he is elaborating a critical argument concerned with the present political predicament of capitalism and how scholars (particularly Marxists) should theorize upon it (while understanding that this very endeavor exemplifies ‘ideology in practice’ ‘through social practice’). Rehmann exhorts scholars to reinterpret how the ideological and the political ought to be theorized through a structural lens and in a postmodern age. Rehmann makes the timely and astute observation that in a world marked by transformative forces such as cyberspace and globalization, ‘a renewed critical theory of ideology has a dual task that is both deconstructive and reconstructive’ (219); then, Rehmann completes his thought with a sentence which I believe encapsulates the entire theme of this work: ideology-theories ‘should re-interpret the productive insights of postmodernism in the framework of a historical-materialist theory of hegemony and ideology’ (219). We must stay vigilant for any political theory that may be complicit with oppressive hegemonic structures. In fact, it is by doing so that we assert ourselves more as conscious-political animals than interpolated-ideological subjects.

[another review of this work is at: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2014/1016]


 [ss1]Letters?

30 November 2016

One comment

  1. I’d like to thank the reviewer for answering the question I posed in the previous post, which was: whether the post-Althusserians mentioned here actually solve the problem of the connection between subjective (human) agency, which makes world history happen on a pragmatic, everyday basis, and the sudden leaps of world-historical change, which appear to happen without self-conscious human agency, even if subjective agents are necessary to make them happen…

    If I am reading correctly (and I am always glad to stand corrected), the answer here appears to be that: 1) ‘individuals will always be subjects determined by their historical circumstances as well as determining agents of their own history’ and that 2) there is a dialectical interaction between the more-or-less self-conscious subject and the structural over-determination of the superstructure (ideology) which interpellates those individuals as subjects in a given world-historical situation. This answer would be consistent with Marx’s answer to the question, also cited in the previous post, viz.: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” Etc. (“18th Brumaire,” IP edition, 15.)

    But this answer was written in 1850 or so, after the 1830 (Louis Philippe) and 1848 (Napoleon III) French Revolutions, when the ‘bourgeois social revolutions’ still appeared to be succeeding, and before the 20th C. totalitarianisms (Stalinist and Nazi) made clear that there were circumstances (in Stalin’s Great Terror, the Moscow show trials, the Gulag, the Nazi death-camps etc.) in which, as Adorno pointed out, subjective freedom can be eliminated altogether. (‘The difficulty of representing fascism is that, under it, subjective freedom ceases to exist’—paraphrased, I think, from “Minima Moralia”), therefore rendering the Young Marxist theory of subjective agency problematic, at best.

    Althusser’s (Stalinist?) description of ideology then would describe a situation in which individuals are ‘hailed or interpellated as subjects’ (by the police-line-up method: ‘Hey, you! subject!’ Huh? Who, me? ‘Busted!…’ etc.) and then reduced (by concentration camps, torture, terror, etc.) to mere ‘effects of structure’ in a totalitarian system so all-encompassing there is effectively no ‘outside’ (or ‘inside,’ either!) to that totalitarian system. And hence no place for the dialectical agency of the subject to have any effect on the all-encompassing, structurally over-determining totalitarian system. And whether so-called ‘neo-liberalism’ (i.e. the contemporary multinational capitalist system) might not be a ‘soft’ version of that totalitarian system, in which subjective freedom ceases to exist (as suggested by Adorno and Horkheimer in ‘Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” and by Foucault in “Discipline & Punish,” among others) is another question that might be asked of the post-Althusserian reviewer, if you please, and thank you.

    So I’d like to rephrase the question: Where does the dialectical agency of the individual subject come from? if the subjective agency of the individual can be eliminated ‘from outside’ by the structural over-determination of the totalitarian system? (as described in Althusser’s model of ideological interpellation and by Stalinism Nazism and neo-liberalism etc.), and also can be eliminated ‘from inside’? (by brainwashing, terror, torture, etc., as described, for example, in Orwell’s “1984”)–leaving only ‘subjects’ like, for example, the Old Bolsheviks, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, et al, who, at the Moscow show trials, were made to stand up before the tribunal and convict themselves of completely non-existent crimes, of which they may have even been made to believe themselves guilty, simply by reciting scripts essentially dictated through their mouths by the Soviet prosecutor and the Soviet Communist Party.

    I’m asking: Can we still hold to the Young Marxist theory of a dynamic dialectical subject of history (whether a class subject or an individual subject) that makes progressive change happen, when faced with the existence of totalitarian systems, whether of the Stalinist, Nazi, or ‘neo-liberal’ type?
    If so: How does the Young Marxist subject survive the Gulag and the Nazi death camps? If not: What new type of subject can be hypothesized to survive the contemporary conditions of the post-Stalinist, Post-Nazi, neo-liberal etc. totalitarian systems?

    I admit I don’t have the answer to this question! So I invite any response, thanks…

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