Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 3

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 1

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 2

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 3

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 4

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 5

Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 6


Ideological Regions

In describing the dominant ideology of capitalist social formations, Poulantzas notes the particular importance of juridical-political relations. He states that the dominant ideology has a variety of ideological regions such as juridical-political, moral, aesthetic, religious, technocratic, and so on. The dominant ideology will be characterized by the dominance of one of these regions such that all other regions are articulated in relation to it. This “articulating region” will fall to the one which is best suited to mask the real relations of exploitation and therefore best serves the role of cohesion (1973:210–215). For capitalism, the juridical-political is the articulating region.

In his last book, Poulantzas (1980) discusses the role of the law in juridical-political ideology. He argues that the law “materializes the dominant ideology” (1980:83). It does so in such a way that social relations are mystified as individual relations. Since the law itself is unknowable to all but intellectuals of the state, the people become further mystified. As such, the law reproduces the division between intellectual and manual labor, condensing it in the state. In a particularly illuminating passage, Poulantzas points out that no one should be ignorant of the law — that is the fundamental maxim of the modern judicial system, in which no one but the state representatives are able to know the law. This knowledge required of every citizen is not even a special subject of study at school (1980:89–90).

Poulantzas’ argument that the juridical-political masks the real relations of dominance/subordination is convincing but is only a restatement of what has previously been pointed out by McPherson (1961) and others. What is less convincing is that the articulating region is necessarily that region which best serves to mask these relations. There is no internal mechanism in this schema, which explains how such a region becomes the articulating region, only that it will not correspond to the dominant instance of the social formation. Poulantzas’ argument is excessively functionalist, lacking class or historical contingencies despite the fact that he cites Weber’s historical analysis of the role of juridical-political ideology in the origins of capitalist formations (1973:212).

The articulation of ideological elements within the dominant ideology is a key issue, and, in our view, masking contradictions is not an adequate explanation. Juridical-political notions dominated the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie before the capitalist formation came into being. Thus, it could not have been functioning primarily to mask contradictions in this yet nonexistent social formation. The incipient juridical-political ideology of the rising bourgeoisie was aimed as much at exposing and destroying the dominant (i.e., political) instance of the feudal formation as it was at bringing about favorable conditions for a new social formation based on a capitalist mode of production. The articulating ideological region would appear to arise out of class struggle not structural determinism. Moreover, class struggle between competing dominant classes and class factions may be more important in determining the articulating region than struggle between the dominant and dominated classes (cf. Abercrombie and Turner, 1978).

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We find the lack of historically contingent, causal arguments to be the central problem with the theory of ideology as elaborated by Althusser and Poulantzas. As a result the theory tends to lapse into explanations based upon stagnant functionalism or simple domination by capital and/or the state. We agree with Giddens (1981) who claims that under this approach human agents tend to appear “as ‘cultural dopes,’ not as actors who are highly knowledgeable about the institutions they produce and reproduce” (1981:18; see also 15–25, 42–47, 215–220). Of particular importance is the lack of an adequate analysis of ideological struggle as a causal factor in theory. This is especially true of Althusser, but even Poulantzas’ analysis of struggle (most evident in his later works) is plagued by severe limitations. In general, these limitations are the ultimate reduction of all struggle to class struggle and the placing of class struggle within the framework of the dominant ideology.

Before reviewing recent works which start with the insights of Althusser and Poulantzas, we will briefly outline the key elements of their theory (condensed from Poulantzas, 1973:199– 224; 1983:63–93).

  1. Ideology consists of a relatively coherent ensemble of representations, values and beliefs. This ensemble reflects the relations of agents to the conditions in which they live in an imaginary form.
  2. At the level of lived relations, ideology serves as the horizon of agent’s experience. Thus, ideology is necessarily false and inadequate for providing scientific knowledge.
  3. Ideology is materialized in rituals, rules, styles, fashions — i.e., the way of life for a society. It is present in all activities and indistinguishable from once lived experience.
  4. These material practices interpolate subjects to insert them into practical activities that support the social structure while the structure itself remains opaque.
  5. At the level of a social formation, there are ideologies, which correspond to classes, and the dominant ideology, which is a product of class struggle. The dominant ideology typically will be most consistent with the ideology of the dominant class.
  6. The unity of the dominant ideology reflects the unity of the social formation reconstituted on an imaginary plane. By presenting their lived experiences to subjects as part of a relatively contradiction-free coherent ensemble, the dominant ideology provides cohesion to the social formation.
  7. The dominant ideology is characterized by an articulating region which best serves to conceal social contradictions. Under capitalism, this is the juridical political region. It is materialized in the law.
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It is clear that Althusser and Poulantzas have overcome many of the shortcomings that have hindered Marxist theoretical development. The following theorists attempt to reconstruct this theory of ideology in such a way as to resolve some of the remaining shortcomings. To a notable degree, each work stresses the causal importance of human agency, no class ideologies, and multi-faceted struggles.


Recent Theoretical Developments: Therborn, Laclau, and Urry


Goran Therborn, in The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology (1980), has both expanded upon and trenchantly criticized Althusser’s (1971) theoretical work on the structure and function of ideology. Although he locates his essay in a theoretical “conjuncture of Marxist discourse on ideology opened by Althusser” (1980:7), Therborn notes the necessity of “a break from the lingering restrictions of Althusser’s problematic” in order to facilitate “a shift or broadening of the object of inquiry from the role of ideology in the reproduction of exploitation and power to the generation, reproduction, and transformation of ideologies” (1980:10). Note that Therborn has shifted the object of study from both “ideologies in general” and the “dominant ideology” to particular ideologies and their interrelations. This theoretical departure allows Therborn to address conflict between ideologies and ideological transformations. This is accomplished by (1) introducing into the notion of interpellation the potential for conflict, (2) noting the material forces, which govern the relative power of competing ideologies, and (3) distinguishing between various dimensions of ideology and the manner in which these enter into ideological debate.

Therborn (1980) accepts the Althusserian emphasis on ideology as a process of interpolating subjects through largely unconscious psychodynamic processes (1980:2). He defines ideology as “that aspect of the human condition under which human beings live their lives as conscious actors in a world that makes sense to them to varying degrees” (1980:2). However, Therborn develops a very different sense of the duality of that process. He argues that Althusser’s couplet subjection-guarantee “allows no room for any dialectic of ideology” (1980:16) and should be replaced by “subjection-qualification” (1980:17).


For Althusser, the definition of a “subject” as an actor or creator of something is an imaginary relation that makes the real relation of subjection possible. Therborn argues that subjects really are creative actors in that ideology not only subjects them to relations of exploitation but also qualifies them to “take up and perform (a particular part of ) the repertoire of roles given in the society into which they are born, including the role of possible agents of social change” (1980:17, emphasis added). For example, although the educational process subjects students to a “hidden agenda” which serves to reproduce acquiescence to exploitative relations, it also qualifies students as agents of social change by providing them with the writing and analytical skills necessary for the development of counter-hegemonic ideologies.

Ideological conflict is generated by a lack of correspondence between subjection and qualification. This can happen in one of two ways. “New kinds of qualification may be required and provided, new skills that clash with the traditional forms of subjection. Or, conversely, new forms of subjection may develop that clash with the provision of still needed qualifications” (Therborn, 1980:17).

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Therborn has improved upon Althusser’s static notion of subjection guarantee by allowing for change through the actions of “qualified” subjects. The potential for change corresponds to the degree of non-correspondence between the mechanisms of subjection and those of qualification.

Another important theoretical advance is Therborn’s conceptualization of the individual character of all ideologies. According to Therborn, each particular ideology includes a simultaneous definition of self and other, which he refers to as ego and alter ideologies, respectively. For example, Therborn refers to sexist ideology which requires both a positive definition of the male “ego” and a negative definition of the female “alter” Therefore, feminist ideological struggles entail a simultaneous redefinition of both alter and ego and, thus, potential conflict between men and women. Yet ideological struggles are never this clear-cut. Each individual subject consists of the articulation of multiple ego and alter ideologies. The crucial aspect of ideological struggle is the articulation of a given ideology with other ideologies.

The functioning of subjection-qualification involves three modes of ideological interpellation which correspond to the answers to three fundamental questions: (1) What exists?, (2) What is good?, and (3) What is possible? The answers to these questions provide “successive lines of defense of a given order” (1980:19). Therborn uses poverty to illustrate his point. First, the existence of poverty can be denied (or minimized). If this fails and the existence of poverty must be admitted, it can be argued that poverty is just since the poor are all inept or lazy and deserve no better. Third, if the existence and injustice of poverty must be admitted, it can be argued that a better social order is not possible or at least not under current conditions.

Therborn’s typology points out the limitations in other theories of ideology, which do not recognize the distinct ways these levels function. The traditional “liberal” approach to the study of ideology concentrates on “legitimation” and “consensus” or, in the above terms, on “what is good,” ignoring the fact that this question is premised on a certain definition of reality, that is, “what exists.” The traditional Marxist critique of “liberale” theory recognizes this problem and has been generally successful in reintroducing debate concerning the first question. Yet, Marxists have often intentionally de-emphasized the question of “what is possible?” due in part to the criticism of nonscientific Utopian Socialism found in Marx and Engels (1969:134–136). We feel this is a mistake and that Therborn has opened up an important arena of debate for a theory that is aimed at pressing beyond “liberal” reforms (for example, see Kiser, 1985; Kiser and Baker, 1984).