In the last entry I concentrated on distinguishing between Marxist ideology critique and poststructural positions. My aim was to alert researchers to tensions between these two approaches to critique, and hence to encourage those who wish to adopt WPR to consider if their work might reflect some of these tensions. In the process I hope I clarified what poststructural researchers mean when they object to, or declare their intention to move beyond, “ideology critique”. I now wish to consider how the concept “discourse” enters the theoretical picture and whether its usage automatically frees those who use it from “ideology critique”. I also canvas the offerings of a new group of “ideology critics” to see if their “reworkings” of “ideology” offer some common ground with poststructural accounts. 

According to Purvis and Hunt (1993), one of the distinctive features of contemporary post-Marxism is the displacement of the concept of ideology by that of discourse. Colpani (2021: 10) attributes the replacement of ideology with discourse to the self-identified post-Marxist, Ernesto Laclau. Laclau and (Chantal) Mouffe furthered the break, initiated by Gramsci, in which ideologies are no longer pre-formed systems of “ideas” that “political protagonists wielded in the class struggle” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 491). The focus in their account shifts to the place of the subject in the reproduction of ruling relations, “the way in which the interpellation of subject positions operates systematically to reinforce and reproduce dominant social relations” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 473). 

According to Larner (2000: 12), “it is a short step from ideology to discourse”. It involves a move from Gramsci to Foucault, and from neo-Marxism to post-structuralism.  She elaborates the theoretical distinction involved in the shift from ideology to discourse:

“In post-structuralist literatures, discourse is understood not simply as a form of rhetoric disseminated by hegemonic economic and political groups, nor as the framework within which people represent their lived experience, but rather as a system of meaning that constitutes institutions, practices and identities in contradictory and disjunctive ways.” (Larner 2000: 12)

But, of course, the term “discourse” is used in many, many ways (see Bacchi 2005) and I think it fair to say that not all these usages match the characterization offered by Larner. I’ll dare to be provocative and suggest that in some accounts “discourse” actually turns out to be a near synonym for “ideology”, used in the pejorative sense of classical Marxist accounts (see previous entry Sept 2021). 

Vivian Burr (1995, chapter 5) explains that there are at least four meanings of ideology operating in contemporary social analysis, and that the old Marxian notion of ideology as false consciousness is generally rejected by contemporary theorists. Some time ago, I wrote an article on “policy as discourse” (Bacchi 2000) where I suggested that there is actually, at least in the policy-as-discourse literature, slippage around some of these issues. Specifically, I (2000: 51) identified a tendency among some theorists to treat discourses as resources marshalled by those “in power” to contain and constrain those described as “lacking power”: 

“In policy-as-discourse analysis, there is a tendency to concentrate on the ability of some groups rather than others to make discourse, and on some groups rather than others as effected or constituted in discourse”. (Bacchi 2000: 52; emphasis added)

I also noted in that article the tendency among policy-as-discourse theorists to continue to use the term “ideology”, indicating that “Interests, or power blocs, operate as sometimes unnamed actors in policy-as-discourse analyses” (Bacchi 2000: 53).

Where the new terminology (i.e., “discourse”) is adopted, the perspective advanced often continues to accept a view of power as repressive and of domination as produced by specific groups or interests. As Keller (2011: 48) notes in his assessment of Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis, such research “implies that the researcher knows and unmasks the ideological and strategic use of language by ‘those in power’ in order to ‘manipulate the people’.” It is this view that I sometimes see creeping into applications of WPR, a direction that concerns me.

As I forecast above, I would now like to introduce a selection of authors who are involved in resurrecting “ideology” as a useful theoretical concept. Put simply, these authors argue that it is possible and necessary to move past earlier Marxist conceptions of ideology in order to understand the operations of power in contemporary social relations. I intend to single out a few of the “new ideology critics” to explain what they do differently. I will also draw attention to what I consider to be lingering vestiges of Marxist “ideology critique” in these accounts. Specifically, I find an adaptation of a version of “false consciousness”, accompanied by an assumption that researchers are epistemically privileged in their ability to “see through” “ideology”. I agree here with Sankaran who concludes that the “new ideology critics” reproduce an understanding of “ideology” in which ruling relations are perpetuated because, in various complex ways, the masses are “in the grip” of “a collective epistemic distortion or irrationality that helps maintain bad social arrangements” (Sankaran 2019: Abstract).

The German Professor Rahel Jaeggi (2009) might be described as leading the current interest in this revival of “ideology”, with the publication into English of a chapter entitled “Rethinking Ideology”. As Prinz and Rossi (2017: 344) point out, Jaeggi understands “ideology” in the context of the “entangled relationship between diagnostic analysis and criticism”. The researcher begins with a diagnosis of what is “wrong” in the world, indicating a realist philosophical stance. With the diagnosis in place, it becomes possible to criticise belief systems that reflect this “wrong reality”. Jaeggi (2009: 76) emphasizes that she is not saying that people are deluded or that their ideas reflect a “cognitive deficiency”, but that their ideas reflect a “deficient reality”. So, we end up with a “necessary false consciousness” (Jaeggi 2009: 68). Claiming that it is possible to describe a “reality” as “wrong”, I suggest, presumes access to the “truth” of a situation, indicating the epistemic privilege that troubles those who critique “ideology critique” (see previous Research Hub entry; 30 Sept. 2021).

Along related lines, Bianchin (2021) accepts that ideology “may be said to be ‘simultaneously true and false’”. 

“It is true to the facts because it represents existing power relations. It is false because it represents the latter as natural, rational, universal, and thus beyond contestation”. (Bianchin 2021: 186)

The reference to “facts” indicates the realist starting point for the analysis. Ideological beliefs are said to result from “systematic distortions in the process of belief formation that can be traced back to existing power relations” (Bianchim 2021: 86). Ideology critique becomes transformative through exposing the “epistemically causal history” of ideological beliefs and unveiling their “delusional nature” (Bianchin 2021: 187). Given this explanation, I find unconvincing the claims that this perspective presumes no “epistemic privilege”, nor that it “allows belief formation to undergo systematic distortions without crediting agents with pervasive irrationality” (Bianchin 2019: 328). 

Haslanger (2017: 149; emphasis added) starts from the premise that “problematic networks of social meanings constitute an ideology”. Hence, she accepts from the outset a pejorative understanding of ideology that presumes the ability to pass judgement on what (in “reality”) is problematic and what is not problematic. She states that “ideology functions to stabilize or perpetuate unjust power relations and domination and does so through some form of masking or illusion”, suggesting the inability of the masses to “see through” these deceptions. The task of “ideology critique” is to reveal “this distortion, occlusion and misrepresentation of the facts” and to draw attention to “the unjust conditions that such illusions and distortions enable” (Haslanger 2017: 150). Ideology critics, hereby, are credited with an ability to identify and expose “distortions” (untruths). 

Haslanger makes “ideology” largely synonymous with “culture”, though I cannot see how “culture” would be equated with “problematic networks of social meanings”. She is particularly interested in exposing how “culture” sustains patterns of racial and gender injustice. This focus on “culture”, arguably, could be seen to align with the emphasis in Foucauldian-influenced accounts, such as WPR, on “unexamined ways of thinking” (Foucault 1994: 456). However, in these accounts, there is no suggestion that social actors are being deceived nor that researchers have privileged access to some “truth” about the workings of the world. In Haslanger (2017: 152), by contrast, individuals “in the grip of an ideology fail to appreciate what they are doing or what’s wrong with it, and so are often unmotivated, if not resistant, to change”. In her view, they are not “stupid or ignorant” but “complicit”, failing “to appreciate the wrongs in question” (Haslanger 2017: 160). In addition, Haslanger’s (2017: 157) descriptions of the operations of ideology tend to rely on a conception of power as repressive as opposed to the productive understanding in Foucault-influenced accounts (see previous Research Hub entry; 30 Sept. 2021): “For example, the interstate highway system in the United States was constructed largely to serve the interests of affluent whites”, described as “those in power”.  

With the “new ideology critics” mentioned above (i.e. Jaeggi, Bianchin and Haslanger), Celikates (2018: 206) starts his analysis from realist premises. He states that “critique has to be based in an analysis of social reality and its contradictions”. He also identifies as “one of the main tasks of critical theory” to “analyze and bring to the agents’ attention the distortions that block them from addressing and overcoming obstacles to emancipation” (Celikates 2018: 212). 

These four recent proponents of “ideology critique”, I suggest, display vestiges of the classical Marxist position. Specifically, individuals continue to be portrayed as “deluded” by “distortions”, perpetrated by select “interest groups”. Moreover, critical researchers are positioned as able to undertake the task of “unveiling” these “distortions”. 

Koopman (2011: 4) identifies Foucault as “one of our most important and viable alternatives” to the resurrection of these again-fashionable forms of grand theorizing and ideologiekritik”, purveyed under the names of Freud and Marx, Lacan and Althusser, and most recently Zizek and Laclau. He argues that 

“… in contrast to these massive theoretical apparatuses, which would propose to yield extraordinary explanatory power, Foucault offers us a cautious and skeptical empiricism, according to which the work of thought is a difficult labor, and one that is always stacked up against the heavy weight of the historical past that conditions us”.

Koopman (2011: 4) makes a case for the advantages of Foucauldian genealogical analysis, which brings contingencies to light, over against the reliance “on invisible necessities characteristic of Ideologiekritiken”. As Veyne (1997: 156) explains, there is no “prime mover” in Foucault. Nothing exists transhistorically: “everything is historical, everything depends on everything else” (Veyne 1997: 170 fn 7). As a result, Foucault’s accounts have the effect of denying that there is a “single profound and sinister story” to tell about current relations of power and domination (Koopman 2011: 7). 

The proliferation of born-again “ideology critique” accounts is a curious phenomenon that I suspect may be connected to current debates about “fake news” and the desperate desire to have a “truth” to offer in its place. In the following entry I consider the phenomenon dubbed “postcritique” as another, quite different, response to this “ontological anxiety” (Lorenzini and Tazzioli 2017: 29). Having spent two long entries insisting on important distinctions between Foucault-influenced analysis and “ideology critique”, this next entry will come as something of a surprise. There I intend to consider the “postcritique” argument that there is more that unites these positions than separates them, and that it is time to move on from “negative critique”.  


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