Marxism in the Marketplace of Ideas


"The right words are worth a hundred regiments" - V.I. Lenin

In "Capitalist Ideology in Anti-Capitalist Politics" I observed the effect the dominant ideology, as defined by the capitalist class and its social system, has on many anti-capitalist forces in the United States and other places under capitalism's influence.

That article's primary focus was on the material effects of capitalist ideology and how it can be countered in action.

The focus of this piece is on how left wing forces can counter the influence of the dominant ideology in discourse, when engaged in action among others and in their publications.

In this time of great unrest it is important that left wing groups be able to use what material means they gain to shift people's mode of thought, replacing old assumptions which bind people to propositions limited by what seems possible in the political, economic, and social systems as they are, with new methods of thinking which lead them to challenge their assumptions and fight for the "future" many leftists assert "is possible".

This is a chance to lead.

Again, key to this is a basic understanding of what Marx observed in regarding ideology in The German Ideology and other works.

According to Marx and other materialists, the consciousness of people in any system is rooted in the environment in which they exist. Those who control the means of producing that environment are those who formulate the widespread consciousness of the people. This consciousness represents more than just what seem to be isolated opinions on certain issues, such as the legitimacy of global warming. Societies make-up socializes the individual and becomes internalized such that it becomes the mode of thought through which they judge nearly everything they encounter in the world.

In capitalist societies, the dominant consciousness is primarily controlled by the few people fortunate enough to own and direct the means of production. When this is observed, it becomes apparent that underlying the consciousness of many is ideology. In capitalism, capitalist ideology is the dominant ideology, and it frames peoples consciousness according to it's assumptions.

This is incredibly important for those who wish to propose an alternative to capitalism, as any communication concerning an alternative will be interpreted by most of those receiving it using the method of thinking capitalist ideology has given them. To keep one's message from being lost in translation requires an effort to break down the assumptions of capitalist ideology and to present the message so that the alternative ideology is, explicitly or implicitly, recognized as intended by those receiving it.

The need for such intentional use of language has been long recognized by those engaged in strategic communication within the boundaries of capitalist politics.

Liberal cognitive linguist George Lakoff documents this in his book Don't Think of an Elephant!

Written in response to the Democratic Party's inability to present a meaningful set of values independent of a stronger Republican set, Don't Think of an Elephant! is a basic guide to "framing" debate.

"Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world," writes Lakoff. "They are part of what cognitive scientists call the 'cognitive unconcious' -- structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense.... All words are defined in relation to conceptual frames."

This being understood, a well formed strategic message intentionally uses words which compose a frame.

Lakoff uses the phrase "tax relief" as an example. The mere combination of those two words assumes taxes are an affliction from which people have to be relieved.

Further, frames are based on values.

The reason conservatives rail against taxes for social programs can be traced to their idea that the society is comprised of isolated individuals, each of whom are solely responsible for their economic well-being. Progressives, on the other hand, recognize society as more than a mere collection of individuals, with different social groups and institutions which have policies reflecting those groups' disparate power relations.

There are certainly parallels between modes of thought and ideology and what Lakoff writes about messages being understood in relation to frames and those frames being based on values.

Framing is important to any political organization, but the use of frames is quite complex for those wishing to replace the entire dominant ideology. This is because the values on which frames rest, originating from the social situation as it exists now, are themselves understood in relation to the dominant ideology.

Indeed, Lakoff presents values as resting on moral differences, a view indicated in my previous article on ideology as often dependent on a subjective view of reality which largely ignores socialization as well as ideological influences' fluidity. Those who aim to replace the capitalist system must have a timeless theory with which to judge contemporary values.

The contemporary ideas of philosopher Slavoj Zizek can be coupled with Lakoff's ideas to compensate for the latter's oversight.

Drawing from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a book which owes much to the philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Zizek addresses the issue of people's conception of word's meanings and ideologies' role in determining them in his work The Sublime Object of Ideology.

Zizek explains that words like "peace" or "freedom" have much of their meaning determined by the context which ideology gives them.

This is fairly easily recognized the broader the concept addressed by the word. For example, the words "good" and "bad" are nearly meaningless without a context. "Peace" and "freedom" are not as open to interpretation, but are still vague enough that what they mean is reliant upon a person's mode of thought and the ideology behind it.

Drawing from Laclau and Mouffe, who are in turn using the terms rooted in a grander philosophical tradition, Zizek refers to these words as "floating signifiers" which can only be "anchored" by their relation to other ideas in an ideology, which becomes a "master signifier."

It is understood that what is at stake in ideological discourse is the interpretation of messages in the terms of a specific ideology – the way they are interpreted being set in a frame reflecting that ideology's mode of thought.

Zizek gives examples of a few word's meanings when "Communism" is the ideology acting as the master signifier: "'Freedom' is effective only through surmounting the bourgeois formal freedom, which is merely a form of slavery; the 'state' is the means by which the ruling class guarantees the the conditions of its rule; .... 'war' is inherent to class society as such; only the socialist revolution can bring about lasting 'peace'; and so forth."

What are the practical means the Communist can employ to further his or her ideology in discourse then?

We exist in an age in which even the greatest cynic often unknowingly assists in the propagation of capitalist ideology. To engage in revolutionary strategic communication now requires one to break down messages formulated using the dominant ideology while simultaneously building a new set of references which efficiently highlight where the dominant ideology's definition of a word contradicts the reality.

Observe the word "democracy," for the purpose of illustration.

Linked to "freedom," democracy is currently incomplete for the Communist. There are a great number of social institutions, most of them economic, in which the idea is not yet employed. To the average person using the mode of thought found in capitalist ideology though, we live in a society that is democratic.

Communists would do well to describe our current democracy as a "capitalist democracy," especially when conflicts arise in contemporary society which lay bare current differences in power between capitalists and all other people – where the assumed definition of democracy contradicts the lived experience. The controversial use of the police to forcefully remove a group of people from a capital building, for example, ought to be referred to as an aspect of capitalist democracy.

When the phrase "capitalist democracy" is repeatedly used in this way, the word democracy is broken down and a redefinition which better reflects reality is possible.

As describing the current system as a capitalist democracy immediately introduces the notion of different forms of democracy, the ability to effectively use the word democracy where it is not currently used grows.

It becomes easier of Communists to promote the idea of a "democratic economy" which is not yet realized. Further, the introduction of the idea of a democratic economy also implicitly observes that the current economy is not democratic.

This concept also links nicely with the idea that union representation stands for "democracy in the workplace." Cohesion is present and more and more words' concepts are affected.

"Freedom," an aspect of democracy, can also be transformed.

It has been said that, whenever a person spoke of freedom in his presence, Lenin always asked "freedom for who?"

This question was rooted in an observation Marx made in Capital. Capitalists' "free market" meant workers may be free to seek work, but are also "free" of the possessions (means of production) necessary to make a living. Capitalists benefit a great deal more from freedom defined as such, essentially claiming a "freedom to command."

By focusing on self-determination it is possible to show that the amount a person can do with their freedom is limited by secondary factors. A person whose parent's could not save money for his or her college, for example, does not have the same freedom to determine his or her future career as someone whose parent's could save. The capitalist that owns a majority of the commercial property in a certain city district has a great deal more freedom to determine what types of businesses are eventually built in that district than even the majority of people who live there, no matter who they elect to represent them.

In opposition to capitalists' freedom to command others, Communists stand for "equal freedom," focused on a net increase in people's self-determination and best understood philosophically as positive liberty.

Nearly every message can be broken down and redefined this way.

By recognizing and adapting to the fact that one's own messages are often interpreted in frames reflecting the mode of thought the current, dominant ideology gives people, one can communicate a great deal more effectively.

Such practice cannot replace activity taken to gain the material means necessary in producing our social environment, those institutions which produce media and otherwise, but it is an essential strategy to employ alongside that work.

(Author: Yes, this article's title was meant to be ironic).

Photo by The unnamed/c by 2.0/Flickr

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • Great article.

    Posted by greenpagan, 05/04/2011 4:21pm (7 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments