By Brett Nicholls @minorpolitics

In the most general sense, an ideology is a framework of concepts and ideals for understanding our place and the place of others in the social world. What is most interesting, and compelling, about concepts of ideology is that they attempt to deal with the relationship between ideas and politics. Ideology is a term that assumes that there is a direct relationship between truth claims (our knowledge of the social world) and politics (our place in the social order). Theories of ideology maintain that knowledge is never innocent; truth claims are produced in and through the social order and have implications for it. The term is frequently linked with a descriptive. Examples include: “neoliberal ideology”, “bourgeois ideology”, leftist ideology”, etc. When we use terms such as these we are saying that a specific framework of concepts (neoliberal, bourgeois, or leftist) is making a specific claim about the existing social order. So for instance the term “neoliberal ideology” means a neoliberal framework of concepts that works to justify the existing social order. This is how ideologies work: they justify the social order.

It is important to recognise that in popular discourses today “ideology” is, for the most part, a negative term. If someone claims a particular belief or practice is ideological they usually mean that it is not grounded in reality. In other words, they mean that these beliefs and practices are driven by an agenda, or they are doctrinaire rather than practical. The claim is that the advocate of a particular ideology is slavishly conformist rather than practical and free. Consider the following examples from on-line news sites. In the first two, the term is employed to make the case that 1) this politician can be trusted because he isn’t ideological, and 2) that ideology is bad for economic growth. In the second two examples, ideology is employed negatively to 3) criticise a union official for selling out and 4) as a charge against a conservative political view.

  1. “Joyce is easy-going, funny, and not ideological. He is well-liked in Parliament across the parties” (“Steven Joyce becomes Govt’s ‘everywhere man’”).
  2. “More advanced economies have tended to be less ideological in their approach to economic development” (“Peter Lyons: We’re still far from a rock-star economy”).
  3. “The most prominent left union official in the country has signed on with the main political force in the country binding workers to capitalist ideology” (“Matt McCarten’s new job”).
  4. “Her sneaky form of attack manifests an ideology-based compulsion to undermine democratic institutions in NZ” (“Ambassador Benavidez disrespects NZ unions and media”).

Interestingly, the claim of the virtue of not being ideological in the first two examples ought to be treated with suspicion. In fact, we could argue that ideology is clearly present when politicians claim that they are not ideological. They are claiming that it is possible to make political statements about the economy and social life without a framework of concepts and ideals. As we have seen, from the perspective of critiques of ideology this would be impossible.

Concepts of ideology help us to explain how the social order is justified. Since the social order consists of many unequal power relationships, studies of ideology generally consider how unequal and unjust social relations are maintained in our society. So a claim by a politician that they are not ideological can be understood as a manoeuvre that covers their assumptions about social life and the capitalist economy. More specifically, the concept has been central in attempts to explain how economic and social inequalities in capitalist societies are justified and made to appear to be normal. If capitalism only works in the interests of a small number of people, as many argue, the majority have to be convinced that the capitalist system is natural. So despite the failings of capitalism, such as economic and social inequality, exploitation of workers, and so on, ideology prohibits any alternative perspectives from being taken seriously. Theories of ideology attempt to explain why people who are disadvantaged by the capitalist system seem to make concessions for it.

We encounter ideology in situations in which unequal social relations appear to be normal and difficult to challenge, and in situations in which the claim is made that decisions are based on facts alone and nothing else. For example, ideology plays a role in how we might think about situations such as poverty, and emerges in questions such as: are the poor to blame for their poverty? Have they made bad choices? Or is poverty produced structurally by a distribution of wealth that favours an elite social class? Capitalist ideology tends to answer these questions with the view that, like everyone in society, the poor are individually responsible for their own life situation. This means that the capitalist system, which many argue works by concentrating wealth upwards into the hands of the wealthy few, is not the cause of poverty. In this example, ideology takes the form of a dominant social value: individualism. Individualism is seen as good because everyone can pursue his or her own interests, and capitalism is the only system that allows this pursuit.

Ideology has been theorised in three basic ways:

1) In the first, ideology is understood as false consciousness. This means that belief in the system is derived from cultural messages that cover over and obscure the reality of exploitation. We could call this the ideology as ‘rose coloured glasses’ view. For example, we might enjoy owning a number of digital communication gadgets, such as smartphones, tablets, and/or Ipods. The prevailing view is that these digital devices are environmentally clean and green. However, this is far from the reality. These gadgets contain many hazardous materials, such as chromium, mercury, and cadmium. The rapid development of digital gadgets means that devices that are only two or three years old become redundant. This rapid development has produced an e-waste crisis, in which millions of tonnes of e-waste globally has found its way into landfill. In many instances, this e-waste is exported from wealthy nations to dumps in poorer nations. In this example ideology covers over this wasteful and hazardous aspect of digital gadgets, as well as the devastating health effects of the hazardous materials upon the world’s poor. Challenges to ideology, in this first sense, involve exposing the illusion with the truth.

2) In the second, theorised by the French political philosopher, Louis Althusser, ideology is less an illusion that is vulnerable to truth than a set of practices and ideas that are produced within social institutions such as the church, media, and the school. In this second sense, ideology doesn’t involve conscious thought and false knowledge about the social world. Instead, ideology is understood as a social mechanism that produces subject positions; this is to say a place in the social world from which we live our lives. These subject positions include, for example, student, teacher, cleaner, CEO, and so on. The point is that ideology invests such subject positions with social meaning. A teacher, for instance, makes sense of their actual social position by imagining how this relates to the social world as a whole. The teacher’s imaginary can be politically conservative, conformist, reformist, or revolutionary. The point that Althusser makes is that even though our subjectivity is institutionally produced, we feel as though we are free. This is what he calls, “bourgeois ideology”. By this he means an ideology that makes us feel as though the social world is there for us to express ourselves, rather than us being mere functionaries for the system. In this second sense, ideology can never be overcome since it plays an important role in how we understand our place in the world. Progressive social change involves challenging “bourgeois ideology”, that is an ideology that equates freedom to the pursuit of financial gain, with ideologies that promote the common good.

3) In the third theorisation, instead of understanding ideology as a problem of knowledge or the imaginary, ideology is thought to involve our beliefs and fantasies. Ideology attempts to assemble a coherent account of the social world by focusing on one aspect of things and taking this as an account of the whole. Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, sets forth this theory. He argues that this partial construction works as an object of fantasy and enjoyment. The effect of this is that the real conditions of  social life under capitalism, such as economic and political inequality, are displaced. This displacement takes many forms. Žižek includes many everyday examples to demonstrate this view. We can point to the citizenry no longer believing in the integrity of politicians, or the rather perverse phenomenon of businesses selling consumer products with the promise of donating some of the profit to charities. Žižek maintains that examples such as these reveal that ideology today is cynical. So in the case of this second example, we know full well that there is poverty in the world at the same time that we enjoy consuming products that are unavailable, or out of reach for the poor. Žižek points out that the enjoyment derived from this “ethical’ form of consumption covers over the very capitalist system that produces poverty in the first place. This means that people no longer believe in the system but they act as if they do. Or, more accurately, enjoyment displaces resistance. The capitalist system has become the grounds for enjoyment. In fact, we can say that today we are compelled to feel bad about ourselves if we don’t enjoy things. Much media today is founded upon this ideology. The point in this instance is that ideology works by investing consumption with enjoyment, and even though we know that people suffer and that there is exploitation in the world, the very system that produces this suffering remains unchallenged.


Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) – “Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process” (The German ideology (1972), New York: International Publishers, 47).

Georg Lukács (1885-1971) – ideology “appears, on the one hand, as something which is subjectively justified in the social and historical situation, as something which can and should be understood, i.e. as ‘right’. At the same time, objectively, it by-passes the essence of the evolution of society and fails to pinpoint it and express it adequately. That is to say, objectively, it appears as a ‘false consciousness’. On the other hand, we may see the same consciousness as something which fails subjectively to reach its self-appointed goals, while furthering and realising the objective aims of society of which it is ignorant and which it did not choose” (History and class consciousness (1971), Cambridge: MIT Press, 50).

Louis Althusser (1918-1990) – “[…] ideas, or representations and the like, which seem to make up ideology, have, not an ideal, idea-dependent or spiritual existence, but a material one. […] every ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete subjects (such as you and me)” (On the reproduction of capitalism (2014), London: Verso, 184, 188).

Louis Althusser – “In a class society ideology is the relay whereby, and the element in which, the relation between men and their conditions of existence is settled to the profit of the ruling class. In a classless society ideology is the relay whereby, and the element in which, the relation between men and their condition of existence is lived to the profit of all men (For Marx (2005), London: Verso, 236).

Slavoj Žižek – (1949 – ) “[…] we have established a new way to read the Marxian formula ‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’: the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what the people are doing. What they do not know is that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but still they are doing it as if they did not know. The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called the ideological fantasy” (Mapping ideology (2012), London: Verso, 315-316).

Slavoj Žižek – “Intelligent conservative democrats, from Daniel Bell to Francis Fukuyama, are aware that contemporary global capitalism tends to undermine its own ideological conditions (what, long ago, Bell called the ‘the cultural contradictions of capitalism’): capitalism can only thrive in the conditions of basic social stability, of intact symbolic trust, of individuals not only accepting their own responsibility for their fate, but also relying on the basic ‘fairness’ of the system – this ideological background has to be sustained through a strong educational, cultural apparatus. Within this horizon, the answer is thus neither radical liberalism à la Hayek, nor crude conservatism, still less clinging to old welfare-state ideals, but a blend of economic liberalism with a minimally ‘authoritarian’ spirit of community (the emphasis on social stability, ‘values’, and so forth) that counteracts the system’s excesses” (In defence of lost causes (2008), London, Verso, 2).

Discussion Questions

What are the ideologies that inform the role of being a student in a classroom?  What are the dominant ideologies (the ideologies that “everyone” accepts) about being a student?  Can you think of any alternative ideologies to explain that subject position (of being a student in a classroom?)