Atelier 11, article 7

© Terrry Eagleton :
(excerpt from Ideology, London: Verso Press, 1991)

Chapter 2: Ideological Strategies

Before advancing any further, it may be as well to ask whether the topic of ideology really merits the attention we are lavishing upon it. Are ideas really so important for political power? Most theories of ideology have arisen from within the materialist tradition of thought, and it belongs to such materialism to be skeptical of assigning any very high priority to consciousness within social life. Certainly, for a materialist theory, consciousness alone cannot initiate any epochal change in history; and there may therefore be thought to be something self-contradictory about such materialism doggedly devoting itself to an inquiry into signs, meanings and values.

A good example of the limited power of consciousness in social life is the so-called Thatcherite revolution. The aim of Thatcherism has been not only to transform the economic and political landscape of Britain, but to effect an upheaval in ideological values too. This consists in converting the moderately pleasant people who populated the country when Thatcher firs arrived in Downing Street into a thoroughly nasty bunch of callous, self-seeking oafs. Unless most of the British have become completely hideous and disgusting characters, Thatcherism has failed in its aims. Yet all the evidence should suggest that the Thatcherite revolution has not occurred. Opinions polls reveal that most of the British people stubbornly continue to adhere to the vaguely social democratic values they espoused before Thatcher assumed office. Whatever it was that kept her in Downing Street, then, it cannot primarily have been ideology. Thatcher was not where she was because the British people loyally identified with her values; she was where she was despite the fact that they did not. If there is indeed a dominant ideology in contemporary Britain, it does not appear to be particularly successful.

How then did Thatcher secure her power? The true answers may be a good deal more mundane than any talk of hegemonic discourses. She was Prime Minister partly on account of the eccentricities of the British electoral system, which can put a government rejected by most of the electorate into power. She set out from the beginning to break the power of organized labor by deliberately fostering massive unemployment, thus temporarily demoralizing a traditionally militant working-class movement. She succeeded in winning the support of an electoral crucial skilled stratum of the working class. She traded upon the weak, disorganized nature of the political opposition, exploited the cynicism, apathy and masochism of some of the British people, and bestowed material benefits on those whose support she required. All of these moves are caught up in ideological hectoring of one kind or another, but none of them is reducible to the question of ideology.

If people do not actively combat a political regime which oppresses them, it may not be because they have meekly imbibed its governing values. It may be because they are too exhausted after a hard days work to have much energy left to engage in political activity. They may be frightened of the consequences of opposing the regime; or they may spend too much time worrying about their jobs and mortgages and income tax returns to give it much thought. Ruling classes have at their disposal a great many such techniques of negative social control, which are a good deal more prosaic and material than persuading their subjects that they belong to a master race or exhorting them to identify with the destiny of the nation.

In advanced capitalist societies, the communications media are often felt to be a potent means by which a dominant ideology is disseminated; but this assumption should not go unquestioned. It is true that many of the British working class read right-wing Tory newspapers; but research indicates that a good proportion of these readers are either indifferent or actively hostile to the politics of these journals. Many people spend most of their leisure time watching television; but if watching television does benefit the ruling class, it may not be chiefly because it helps to convey its own ideology to a docile populace. What is politically important about television is probably less its ideological content than the act of watching it. Watching television for long stretches confirms individuals in passive, isolated, privatized roles, and consumes a good deal of time that could be put to productive political uses. It is more a form of social control than an ideological apparatus.

This skeptical view of the centrality of ideology in modern society finds expression in The Dominant Ideology Thesis (1980), by the sociologists N. Abercrombie, S. Hill and B.S. Turner. Abercrombie and his colleagues are not out to deny that dominant ideologies exist; but they doubt that they are an important means for lending cohesion to a society. Such ideologies may effectively unify the dominant class; but they are usually much less successful, so they argue, in infiltrating the consciousness of their subordinates. In feudalist and early capitalist societies, for example, the mechanisms for transmitting such ideologies to the masses were notably weak; there were no communications media or institutions of popular education, and many of the people were illiterate. Such channels of transmission do of course flourish in late capitalism; but the conclusion that the subaltern classes have thus been massively incorporated into the world view of their rulers is one which Abercrombie, Hill and Turner see fit to challenge. Fro one thing, they argue, the dominant ideology in advanced capitalist societies in internally fissured and contradictory, offering no kind of seamless unity for the masses to internalize; and for another thing the culture of dominated groups and classes retains a good deal of autonomy. The everyday discourses of these classes, so the authors claim, is formed largely outside the control of the ruling class, and embodies significant beliefs and values at odds with it.

What then does secure the cohesion of such social formations? Abercrombie et al.s first response to this query is to deny that such cohesion exists; the advanced d capitalist order is in no sense a successfully achieved unity, driven as it is by major conflicts and contradictions. But in so far as the consent of the dominated to their masters is won at all, it is achieved much more by economic than by ideological means. What Marx once called the dull compulsion of the economic is enough to keep men and women in their places; and such strategies as reformism -the ability of the capitalist system to yield tangible benefits to some at least of its underlings- are more crucial in this respect than any ideological complicity between the workers and their bosses. Moreover, if the system survives, it is more on account of social divisions between the various groups it exploits than by virtue of some overall ideological coherence. There is no need for those groups to endorse or internalize dominant ideological values, as long as they do more or less what is required of them. Indeed most oppressed peoples throughout history have signally not granted their rulers such credence: governments have been more endured than admired.

The Dominant Ideology Thesis represents a valuable corrective to a left idealism which would overestimate the significance of culture and ideology for the maintenance of political power. Such culturalism, pervasive throughout the 1970s, was itself a reaction to an earlier Marxist economism (or economic reductionism); but in the view of Abercrombie and his co-authors it best the stick too far in the other direction. When one emphasizes, as Jacques Derrida once remarked, one always overemphasizes. Marxist intellectuals trade in ideas, and so are always chronically likely to overrate their importance in society as a whole. There is nothing crudely economistic in claiming that what keeps people politically quiescent is less transcendental signifiers than a concern over their wage packets. By contrast with the patrician gloom of the late Frankfort School, this case accords a healthy degree of respect to the experience of the exploited: there is no reason to assume that their political docility signals some gullible, full-blooded adherence to the doctrines of their superiors. It may signal rather a coolly realistic sense that political militancy, in a period when the capitalist system is still capable of conceding some material advantages to those who keep it in business, might be perilous and ill-advised. But if the system ceases to yield such benefits, then this same realism might well lead to revolt, since there would be no large-scale internalization of the ruling values to stand in the way of such rebellion. Abercrombie et al. are surely right too to point out that subaltern social groups often have their own rich, resistant cultures, which cannot be incorporated without a struggle into the value-systems of those who govern them.

Even so, they might have bent the stick too far in their turn. Their claim that late capitalism operates largely without ideology is surely too strong; and their summary dismissal of the dissembling, mystificatory effects of a ruling ideology has an implausible ring to it. The truth, surely, is that the diffusion of dominant values and beliefs among oppressed groups in society has some part to play in the reproduction of the system as a whole, but that this factor has been typically exaggerated by a long tradition of Western Marxism for which ideas are allotted too high a status. As Gramsci argued, the consciousness of the oppressed is usually a contradictory amalgam of the values imbibed from their rulers, and notions which spring more directly from their practical experience. By lending too little credence to the potentially incorporative functions of a dominant ideology, Abercrombie and his fellow-authors are sometimes as much a danger of over-simplifying this mixed, ambiguous condition as are the left Jeremiahs who peddle the illusion that all popular resistance has now been smoothly managed out of existence.