Recent Developments in Marxist Theories of Ideology – Part 4

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


The Material Matrix of Ideology

Therborn defines ideology as a discursive practice that is inscribed in a non-discursive material matrix of affirmations and sanctions. Discursive and non-discursive practices are always empirically intertwined; however, he argues that analytically separating the two is essential to an understanding of ideological conflict and transformation (1980:33). Any ideology disposes the actor to develop certain modes of thought and rationalities deriving from that ideology. Acting upon these rationalities will result in material consequences. The consequences of one’s actions are evaluated along the dimensions of whether they were advantageous or disadvantageous in comparison to an alternative set of beliefs. It is this material matrix, which determines the relative power of ideologies (1980:33–35).

The concept of a material matrix of affirmations and sanctions gives substance to the notion of the “materiality of ideology,” while avoiding Althusser’s radial claim that ideology is only material practices and not ideas. It also provides a framework for Althusser’s notion of “guarantee,” addressing the material conditions, which contribute or do not contribute to the achievement of this guarantee.

Therborn retains Althusser’s conception of ideology as lived experience but rejects the implication that experience of social relations is necessarily imaginary. Ideology for Therborn is not restricted to illusions and misrecognition. Therefore, he rejects the distinction between science and ideology (1980:4). He notes that the science-ideology dichotomy rests on the notion that an individual’s perception of one’s lived relations either corresponds (science) or does not correspond (ideology) to reality. Therborn criticizes this opposition between science and ideology as only echoing the traditional distinction between true and false consciousness. He claims these are a “utilitarian residue in Marxism, which should be rejected, explicitly and decisively, once and for all” (1980:5).

Therborn’s argument (1980:4–10) leads to a position we can characterize as “normative relativism.” He holds that it is an untenable assumption “that normative conceptions are given in the reality of existence and are accessible only through true knowledge of the latter” (1980:5). Instead, Therborn states that interests are constituted in and by ideology depending upon the material matrix of affirmations and sanctions. Consequently, all class interests are only subjective, there being no objective interests determined by real conditions, which lie beyond conscious recognition.

We consider Therborn’s point to be well taken, but it has two major shortcomings. First, he does not sufficiently specify the relation of the matrix of affirmations and sanctions to the “real” structurally determined positions of classes in production. Secondly, Therborn’s theory suffers from not incorporating Poulantzas’ conception of ideology as constituting the horizon of one’s experience. Because of this omission, he cannot explain how one’s lived experience does not provide adequate knowledge of the “real” social structural relations, such as classes and modes of production.

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Although much of Therborn’s work on ideology suffers from his emphasis-abstract classification at the expense of detailed analysis, he has advanced the discussion of ideology in significant ways. His choice of taking particular ideologies and their interrelations as his object of analysis, as opposed to Althusser’s emphasis on “ideology in general,” has allowed him to theorize about ideological conflict and change. In denying the idea of real class interests, he also denies that ideology involves misrecognition. The concept of ideology, broadened in Althusser’s reconceptualization from false consciousness to recognition/misrecognition, is further broadened by Therborn’s conceptualization of it as definitions of reality, their normative evaluations, and the assessment of conceivable alternatives. A movement away from an exclusive emphasis on class ideologies also characterizes Therborn’s work. This tendency is taken further in the recent work of Laclau and Urry.



The work of Ernesto Laclau (1977a, 1977b, 1982) epitomizes the transformations that have occurred in Marxist theories of ideology within the Althusserian framework. Laclau retains Althusser’s emphasis on the ideological interpellation of subjects as the unifying principle of ideology. However, he argues that the process of interpolating subjects through “hailing” does not always result in subjection to the existing social order but also characterizes anti-hegemonic ideologies. Laclau claims, for example (1977a:101), that hailing occurs in communist discourse, such as Marx’s famous finale to the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all countries unite!” He criticizes Althusser for reducing all ideology to the dominant ideology by concentrating on “ideology in general.” Laclau is more concerned with how particular ideologies are created and transformed and with specifying the interrelations between these diverse subjectivities.

Laclau also broadens the referent of ideology (even more so than Therborn) to include non-class interpellations such as those which form the basis of popular-democratic struggles. These are struggles between the power-bloc and “the people” (all groups outside the political power bloc), as well as struggles against racial, sexual, and ethnic oppression. According to Laclau, this is a complete break with the class reductionism that characterized Althusser’s theory.

Ideological Articulation and Hegemony

For Laclau, the meaning of particular ideologies depends on their position within the totality of ideological discourse. Therefore, the most important feature of an analysis of ideology is an explanation of the non-arbitrary ways in which various ideologies are interrelated. In order to do this Laclau implements and elaborates Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. According to Laclau, “hegemony is not an external relation between preconstituted social agents, but the very process of discursive construction of those agents” (1982:100). This process of constructing social agents involves the unification of the diverse interpellations (gender, class, race, etc.) which characterize any individual by a “specific articulating principle.” This gives each of these interpellations a specific meaning in relation to all other interpellations. Hegemony is the imposition of an articulating principle upon an ensemble of social relations linking them together.

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In his earlier works (1977a:108–109, 1977b:164) Laclau argues that this articulating principle must belong to a class defined by its position within the dominant mode of production in a social formation. More recently (1982:100), he has allowed for the possibility of non-class articulating principles becoming hegemonic. In doing so, Laclau stresses the importance for Marxist theory to incorporate the analysis of non-class subjection and struggle. He leaves open the question of ultimate class articulation to historical rather than functional analysis. This is a vast improvement over Poulantzas’ analysis of the “articulating region.”

The implications of Laclau’s discussion of hegemony is that ideological struggle cannot be viewed as a process of counterposing a pure Marxist-Leninist “working-class” ideology to the dominant “bourgeois” ideology. Instead, it involves (1) dislodging certain elements that have been articulated into the discourse of the dominant class (e.g., democracy) and (2) defining these elements in relation to a new articulating principle. We find Alan Wolfe’s (1977) analysis of the contradictions between liberalism and democracy is an example of the former, while Herbert Gintis’ (1980) discussion of the meaning of liberal democracy is a proposal to do the latter.

Laclau views the dominant contradiction in the social formation as that between “the people” and the power bloc (1977a108). Therefore, the outcome of ideological struggles between classes depends on the ability of each class to present itself as the authentic representative of “the people” (i.e., the “national interest”) (1977b:161). Through his reconceptualization of the nature of hegemony, Laclau is able to account for both the existence of many competing partial ideologies (pluralism) and the fact that the articulation of these ideologies in a specific manner is accomplished via struggle and the resulting hegemonic ideology.



Although Laclau rejects much of Althusser’s theory of ideology, he retains the definition of a social formation as consisting of three levels or instances: economic, political, and ideological. John Urry’s (1982) recent analysis of the structure of capitalist social formations abandons the classification for one that stresses the importance of Gramsci’s (1971) concept of civil society. Urry severely criticizes Althusser’s basic theory of the instances of a mode of production, particularly the concept of an ideological instance. Whereas Althusser (1971:129, 131; 1970:138, 178–179, 320) was attempting to rescue the base/superstructure analogy from its stagnant Stalinist interpretation, Urry is arguing that the “notions of base/superstructure, or of the economic/political/ideological, should be placed once-and-for-all in the dustbin of history” (1982:153). These notions lead to three crucial problems in Marxist theory: (1) the failure to recognize the importance of separating reproduction from production, (2) the improper conception of an ideological instance (or dominant ideology) as unified in the same sense as the state or production, and (3) the overextension of the state to include all ideological apparatuses. According to Urry, Althusser’s three relatively autonomous instances can be abandoned without falling back into economic reductionism. Capitalist social formations should instead be conceived of as comprising the state, production, and civil society. Urry claims that the concept of civil society avoids the problems associated with the ideological instance. We will review this concept and examine its implications for the theory of ideology.

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Civil Society

Urry defines civil society as the “site where individual subjects reproduce their material conditions of life” (1982:6). It consists of three spheres — circulation, reproduction and struggle. Jointly these spheres comprise that set of social practices in which agents are constituted as subjects. Under capitalism, these spheres of civil society are separate from production (and the state). The separation of civil society from production derives from the fact that surplus labor takes a value form which creates “a separate realm of circulation in which surplus-value is realized, a sphere of exchange in which all commodities, including that of labor-power, are bought and sold” (1982:29). Furthermore, capitalist production and the state each have a distinct unity, based on the production of surplus value in the former and a monopoly of organized forces in the latter, but civil society has no such unity. Urry argues that Althusser’s concept of the ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) overextends the state, depriving it of its distinct nature and robbing theorists of an important conceptual tool. He suggests that much of what Althusser considers ISAs and most of what orthodox sociology is concerned with (such as relations of race, religion, gender, and generation) should be viewed as institutions and practices of civil society.

This does not mean that civil society is completely autonomous from production or the state. Production is connected to civil society through the circulation of capital and labor-power. The medium of this circulation is money. Likewise, the state is connected to civil society through the circulation of power and ideology. The medium of this circulation is the law (1982:115–116). The concept of the law operating as a medium between the state and civil society is an intriguing idea, but underdeveloped. Relations between the state and civil society outside of the law (such as illegal repression) have no place in Urry’s conception. Nor does he explain the role of lawyers and judges (the organic intellectuals of legal discourse) in popular-democratic struggles, a role which Poulantzas (1980) considers substantial.