[OPE] Ideological contradictions, doublethink and social theory - Gramscian musings

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sun Aug 23 2009 - 00:11:15 EDT

The relative incoherence of bourgeois ideology these days signals that the
polity is unable to articulate a constructive, positive vision for how
society should be or should become, and make the presuppositions of that
vision explicit - a vision that could unite the people. And it is unable to
convince people of this.

In consequence of that, the focus is primarily on the lowest common
denominators of what we are against, and not what we are for, such as the
"limits of what we can tolerate". In turn, that leads to a preoccupation
e.g. with human cruelty (e.g. the holocaust), something most people are
against, and therefore with "human rights", which presumably everybody would
be in favour of. Francis Fukuyama with his "end of history" merely
rationalises this stance with philosophical rhetorics, meaning essentially
that there is nothing beyond liberal democracy, and indeed the implication
is that as soon as you admit there is something beyond an eternalized and
naturalised liberal democracy, you tread on totalitarian territory, because
it would mean imposing a social ideology on others, and making them
subservient to a collective purpose.

The real question that is overlooked, however, is why it is so difficult to
articulate a positive view of how society should be, and that takes us to
the contradictions of the neoliberal stance.

Neoliberalism, however defined, is not simply an economic position according
to which competitive commercial activity always delivers the best allocation
of resources via the market, but also a cultural ideology. This is often
ignored by the Left, because it is itself just morally and culturally
confused as its opponents.

The problems in this context already start with the very notion of freedom,
since if the "freedom to" is the freedom to follow your own individual
destiny, people will take that opportunity, regard it as legitimate, and
demand the right to do so, irrespective of how that coheres with their
obligations to the society that sustains them; it leads to a certain amount
of nihilism ("who cares?" and "why not?"). And if the "freedom from" is
conceptualized as the freedom from constraints on personal self-realisation,
people will aim to overturn and criticize all the limits on their own
activity, regarding those limits as unjust and unfair. In a sense, that can
be quite radical and revolutionary, be it at the expense of regarding the
outside world as something that exists to service your needs.

This however has the effect of eroding any shared morality which the legal
system is supposed to reflect, which in turn impels the state to invoke ever
more regulations to control social behavour, often in very illiberal ways,
not positively, on the basis of a consistent vision of a shared morality,
but negatively, and more or less ad-hoc, in reaction to manifestations of
behaviour regarded as intolerable. This spreads a culture of fear, since the
transgression of a rule is no longer a transgression of "what is right" -
since there is little agreement about what is right - but an action which is
regarded as carrying a consequence one should be afraid of. As a corollary,
to "bring people into line", you have to make them afraid of something,
intimidate them, since they are not interpellated by moral arguments the
premises of which they contest.

Furthermore, if economic competition is actively promoted as a good thing,
the first logical result is a proliferation of competiting interests - not
just in business but universally in society - and the loss of social
solidarity with anybody outside one's own interest group. Then it is also
logical, that it becomes much more difficult to unite people, because they
have learnt that they should be competing, rather than cooperating for the
common good of all. They no longer "compete to cooperate" so much - except
if this serves their self-interest - but "cooperate in order to compete",
and often this is a matter of having to, rather than a choice. The only
limit to this competition, beyond those forms of cooperation which are
absolutely and minimally essential to survive, is when its results begin to
endanger the existence of all, and this kind of thing is often specified in
terms of "threats" - security threats, environmental threats, and so on.

The second overall result of competition is that the strong - however
strength may manifest itself - defeat the weak, with all kinds of different
justifications such as "smart life choices" versus "bad life choices",
leading to social differentiation, increased social stratification, and a
massive increase in socio-economic inequality. The realm of choice expands
for some, at the expense of being reduced for others, according to the power
and influence people are able to muster. Effectively social classes begin to
form in society with completely different interests, divergent cultures and
separate life-worlds, so that there are "insiders" and "outsiders" in every
sphere of society.

This again is not conducive to unifying the people around a positive vision
of how their shared social existence should be, and that leads to all kinds
of attempts to impose models and examplars of desired behaviour on others,
but this often does not appeal to them, or even is alien to their own
experience. If that leads to a postmodern moral relativism, its root cause
is the inability to relativise matters, because in reality, the real
life-situations of different groups of citizens are increasingly so
different, that they cannot even agree on a shared framework for evaluation.
It does not help a great deal to retreat to fundamentalist principles, if
people do not even share those principles.

What is the general outcome of this socially fragmenting neoliberal society,
in which people think that they can have rights, without social duties, and
choices which are merely preferences? Not merely a misalignment of the
individual and the social, such that people try to meddle piecemeal in other
peoples lives, in order to compel them to behave in certain sorts of ways,
or alternatively become indifferent to the plight of others; and not simply
that people are held responsible for things that they cannot be held
responsible for, while they are not granted (or recognised with) the
responsibility for the things for which they really carry responsibility. It
is that the real agenda people have, increasingly diverges from their stated
agenda, and that the truth about society or your own actions can scarcely be
told clearly anymore, only alluded to, even if one is not lying - not
because people cannot publish their opinions, but because increasingly they
are locked into partisan interests which are irreconcilable with any general
interest. The casualty is not merely trust, but the honesty on which trust

It is characteristic of all ideology, as Marx noted, that a sectional
interest is represented as a common interest, and a common interest is
represented as a sectional interest, but if this is carried through to the
nth degree, it becomes totally unclear what the real interests are, to the
point that it becomes a puzzle to work out what the real motivations behind
actions and policies are. This gives rise to all kinds of discussions about
"accountability" and "stakeholders" but, in fact, despite the surface
appearance of rationality, the disputes are resolved according to the
relative power that people have, a clash of wills. The trick is to remain
clear, confident and steady about your own agenda, and sow confusion among
the opposition about what it is. This makes deception and doublethink a
routinized practice. But that does not really raise the standard of
democratic discussion, benefiting from a genuine dialogue in which all
aspects of problems are seriously considered, rather it leads to the end of
the Enlightenment, since without a genuine dialogue, democracy is a dead
letter, and in a cultural chaos, nothing can be learnt in any cumulative
sense anymore.


Once I had a love and it was a gas,
Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass
Seemed like the real thing, only to find
Mucho mistrust
Love's gone behind.

- Blondie, "Heart of glass"

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Received on Sun Aug 23 00:14:32 2009

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