Ideology and "Psychology", was Re: identifying with the enemy

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Fri May 18 20:48:07 PDT 2001

[I sent this post prematurely, though what was included contains the core of my argument.]

John Gulick wrote:
> Doug:
> >But how about the ... bartender I overheard in Toronto saying that Bill
> Gates >deserved "every penny" of his fortune? That's a different kind of
> weird. Why do people think that way?
> Gulick:
> Doug raises a crucial question. Steeped in a populist outlook, much of
> the U.S. "left" (such as it is) clings to a vulgar "propaganda" model
> of what ideology is and how it works.

First, the bartender in Toronto is not in the least weird. He is wrong, very wrong, but he is as rational as those leftists who confuse being wrong with being weird or irrational. The world is filled with irrational acts and irrational conceptions and theories, but "irrational person" simply makes no sense. This is my reason to begin with for saying that Zizek's _question_ was silly. But as this thread tends to show, the question is rather worse than silly, it is aggressively reactionary. (Please note that it is the question, not Zizek, that I am terming silly and reactionary. To assume that because his questions are silly he is would be to accept his Miltonic/Thatcherian premise of a world made up of isolated individuals, with social relations merely being the additive result of the acts of those individuals.

The assumption that the bartender is weird or irrational is also the assumption that (a) social relations are unintelligible and (b) that he/she who calls the bartender irrational or weird has the divine knowledge of individual essences that (as I suggested in an earlier post) Hamlet quite cogently refutes. You can study that bartender from here to eternity and you still won't have an inkling of "why" he thinks as he does.

I suspect this confusion between being wrong and being (somehow) "wrong as a person" -- irrational or weird -- was at the source of Gordon's absurdities on the POW/MIA question. (As I pointed out at the time, he is probably quite wrong, empirically, in his demographics, but for the purposes of the present argument we can assume he is correct in his rough-and-ready sociological description of the "believers" in the myth of the MIAs.) He assumed that if his "trailer-park and tract home" people were _wrong_ about the MIAs, then they were, as people, weird or irrational -- i.e., that one could only respect them as people by somehow or other respecting the content of their beliefs. But that is outrageous condescension. Doug, in his frequent references to my arrogance, etc. also illustrates this trap -- I comment on the _content_ of someone's thought, _not_ on the person, Doug replies by commenting on my alleged psychology rather than on the content of my argument.

John's distinction between propaganda and ideology is crucial, despite his expression of it in what seem to me erroneous psychological terms). Propaganda always (in so far as it is successful) speaks to and depends on the ideological assumptions of its targets, but it not only does not form that ideology, it doesn't even particularly contribute to that formation of ideology. Ideology, roughly speaking, is common sense. Barbara Fields is very good on this. She writes:


All human societies, whether tacitly or overtly, assume that nature has ordained their social arrangements. Or, to put it another way, part of what human beings understand by the word "nature" is the sense of inevitability that gradually becomes attached to a predictable, repetitive social routine: "custom, so immemorial that it looks like nature," as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote. The feudal nobility of the early Middle Ages consisted of people more powerful than their fellows through possession of arms or property or both. No one at that time, not even they themselves, considered them superior by blood or birth; indeed, that would have been heresy. But the nobleman's habit of commanding others, ingrained in day-to-day routine and thus bequeathed to heirs and descendants, eventually bred a conviction that the nobility was superior by nature, and ruled by right over innately inferior beings. By the end of the fifteenth century, what would have been heresy to an earlier age had become practically an article of faith. The peasants did not fall under the dominion of the nobility by virtue of being perceived as innately inferior. On the contrary, they came to be perceived as innately inferior by virtue of having fallen under the nobility's dominion.

p. 106


This is perhaps a good moment to say a few words abut what ideology is and what it is not; because without an understanding of what ideology is and does, how it arises and how it is sustained, there can be no genuinely historical understanding of race. Ideology is best understood as the descriptive vocabulary of day-to-day existencem through which people make rough sense of the social reality that they live and create from day to day. It is the language of consciousness that suits the particular way in which people deal with their fellows. It is the interpretation in thought of the social relations through which they constantly create and re-create their collective being, in all the varied forms their collective being may assume: family, clan, tribe, nation, class, party, business enterprise, church, army, club, and so on. As such, ideologies are not delusions but real, as real as the social relations for which they stand.

Barbara Jeanne Fields, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America," New Left Review, May/June 1990.


In this context let's look at the first exchange between Miles and Doug. Miles wrote:

==== Subject: Re: Ashcroft's prayer circle

Date: Thu, 17 May 2001 11:45:11 -0700 (PDT)

On Thu, 17 May 2001, Doug Henwood wrote:

> Carrol Cox wrote:
> >If you go back through the LBO archives you should be able to find a
> >number of replies from Yoshie and me to Zizek's silly question about
> >to explain all the weird things people do.
> Right. Humans are so transparent. You can tell exactly how they'll
> think from how they act, and how they act from...what was it Carrol?
> I forget now.
> Doug

Okay, here's another tack. Look at all the weird trajectories a single leaf takes when it falls to the earth! Clearly a through understanding of gravity must be able to provide a precise mathematical representation of this single object's movement. In fact, we're doing a pretty good job if we can identify typical patterns of falling objects in general. If we focus solely on the "weird" individual, we run the risk of missing the general pattern. That's my beef with Z. bringing up this "weird" behavior thing here.



And Doug replied:


Date: Thu, 17 May 2001 14:55:38 -0400

Miles Jackson wrote:

>Okay, [clip]
> That's my beef with Z. bringing
>up this "weird" behavior thing here.

Except that leaves don't have brains and/or psyches.


Doug, with all his training in literature and rhetoric, certainly must know how to take a metaphor or analogy as given -- that is, recognize the point of comparison. And the point here is the relationship between a general rule and a particular instance. The fact that humans but no leaves have "brains and/or psyches [i.e., immaterial souls]" is quite irrelevant. The relevance is that the behavior of the particular instance cannot _clash_ with the general rule, _but neither can it be described by that general rule in its particularity.}

Doug believes that the individual soul, unlike the path of an individual leaf, can (maugre Hamlet) be completely known, and on the basis of that complete (I would say divine) knowledge of individual souls one can additively build up a knowledge of social relations (which have no existence by themselves but exist only through the individual actions of these human souls.) He then gets confused, and believes that those who deny the possibility of such knowledge are claiming that the individual soul is completely transparent and hence (I guess) doesn't need to be known or something like that. I can't really make much since out of his reference to transparency. It seems to me that that is what he and Zizek are claiming.

In any case, in contrast to the radical individualist theories of human social relations put forth by Thatcher, Zizek, Fitch, & Henwood, theories which lead them to see humans as weird and irrational, I take my stand with Fields. The ideological errors of ordinary humans are not weird or stupid or irrational at all but the result of spontaneous human intelligence doing the best it can to describe the reality of its sourroundings. The bartender's analysis of the _appearances_ of life under capitalism make more sense than do the analyses of Henwood, Fitch, Cox, etc. because the bartender has his eye (quite properly until something allows him to learn better) fixed on appearances, while Henwood, Fitch, Cox, etc. to the best of their ability are trying to understand the reality that expresses itself in but is not identical with those appearances.

The bartender's thought (like the leaf's motion) must not contradict what we know about the human brain (or rather, the human organism: see Damasio), but even if we were to achieve complete divine knowledge of the human brain and/or psyche, we would not be one step closer to understanding why the particular bartender thinks as he does. For that we need to analyze the social relations which form that thinking.


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