Handbook for Democracy: Ideology

The first basic power technique addressed in this handbook was force; the second was economic control.  The third basic technique is mental control or ideology.  These are general categories and we can fit most, if not all, of the rest of the power techniques that we’ll discuss under them: elites control people by coercing them with force, compelling them with economic incentives, and/or conning them to conform.

There are many specific techniques that fall under each of these broad categories, but ideology is perhaps the most varied is its control devices, especially in our post-modern, media-saturated world.

Unlike the compulsion of force or incentive, ideology is aimed at getting people to willingly control themselves.  We’re not talking about mental control through hypnosis, subliminal messaging, computer-brain interfaces, or other fictions that are the stuff of conspiracy theories.  We’re talking about the basic fact that ideas, along with semi-conscious and subconscious psychological factors, guide and control human behavior, and all of these are subject to external influence.  Ideology, then, means elites guiding the behavior of large numbers of human beings by controlling, or at least having hegemony over, the ideas and beliefs that they use as guides for how to act.  Not mind control, but simply myth, propaganda, and advertising; these create in the demos what Marx called “false consciousness,” or a set of beliefs that support a society that ruins and despoils the lives of common people, but which they willing endorse anyway.

All societies tell stories; groups of people create and spread narratives that help them understand and orient themselves to their natural and social world.  The stories that a society tells itself direct it’s members to act in some ways, but also close off some possible courses of action by preventing them from being thought in the first place.  These narratives take different forms: some make up a group’s background lifeworld of shared understandings, some are discourses about more immediate concerns, large and small; some are descriptive, some are normative.  All help to make a society what it is.

Whereas earlier, less technological societies mainly relied on religion, ancestor worship, tribal norms, or at most the virtue ethics of the res publica to establish controlling ideas, during modernity the media channels and institutions for spreading ideas have proliferated and so created a multiplicity of techniques and institutions of ideological control: from books and newspapers, to film and television, to the internet and social media; from schools and churches, to universities and think tanks, to foundations and advertising firms.  The very proliferation of means of communication may help explain why the world in the early years of the 21st century seems stuck and unable to make progress, for currently there are a great many methods for ideological stabilization of society in its current state.

Ideology works to undermine democracy in multiple ways.  Ideas influence behavior, so getting people to buy into the system makes them controllable and exploitable.  This can be done by convincing common people that the current system is advantageous to them, even when it is not; or you can convince them that it is natural and unchangeable, so that they think there is no alternative.  Either way reduces impulses and forces of resistance and therefore forestalls systemic social change and revolution.  While I would try to offer an inclusive list here, ideology can work its pernicious effects in many other ways: it can be used to help divide and conquer the working class; to get people to submit to their own labor for exploitation; to promote consumerism that both distracts the people and profits elites. It can also shape basic perception as well as the formation of identity.

The mere existence of common ideas, or even of social norms, is not the problem, of course; every society will share ideas and create norms, and no society could exist without them.  The problem arises when social narratives get controlled, or at least dominated, by those who have power, and who distort them for their own purposes — rather than leave them to emerge and evolve in a bottom-up, natural way with the input of the people in society generally.  To paraphrase Marx, those who control the means of production also control the means of production of ideas.  They then propagate ideas that are to their advantage, such as the “great chain of being” in the Middle Ages, or the work ethic in modern capitalism.


There are so many different forms of ideological control in our heavily mediated society that I couldn’t do them all justice here, and many of them will be discussed at length in their own entries of the Handbook.  In current American society one of the strongest is work ethic, which I have discussed elsewhere in detail, but which illustrates one basic way in which ideology functions: ideology often universalizes upper class experience and thus establishes non-universal standards to which all must nonetheless conform.

The work ethic holds that capitalism produces equal, or at least widespread, economic opportunity, so that anyone who works hard and develops and applies his or her talents will be rewarded with greater income and social mobility roughly in proportion to their efforts and abilities; very talented individuals who apply themselves may even become wealthy.  Now, consider that this is pretty much the experience of a person born into the upper class: on reaching adulthood, he or she only need apply the pre-existing capital wealth that they’ve inherited (or otherwise can access through their families) in moderately clever ways for that capital grow.

Many economic opportunities will present themselves to such persons — but those opportunities are due to being a member of a social class that provides certain beneficial circumstances: social connections, attendance at the right schools, access to the right social and business circles, a pre-existing stock of available money (which elites did not themselves earn but received through inheritance, favorable loans, or as favors or gifts), and so on.  The degree of success in life of someone born into economic privilege does pretty much depend on how well they work to exploit the opportunities that they have, so one would expect an ethic of personal responsibility to take root among such a class of people; and to a lesser degree the class right below them also has some fruitful opportunities, so the work ethic will appear realistic to them too.

But that does not describe the experience of the working and poor classes, who are not born into wealthy families, do not receive large inheritances, must take on massive debt in order to attend higher education, begin their careers in the default position of being unemployed, often struggle to find work on an indifferent labor market, and once employed must devote most of their income to meeting basic expenses, and have limited capability to accumulate savings.  People in the working class are with certainty not rewarded according to their work: the upper-class skims as large a portion of the proceeds of their labor as they can.  Whether working people have good, comfortable lives depends on social policy and whether productivity gains are distributed more equally, or less.  The strong tendency in capitalism is less.


One might think that the best way to counter ideology is through critical thinking, but that’s not the case; the basic counter to ideological control is to identify the ruling class of society and distrust everything it says or does.  One has to start from sociological premise that society has a ruling class, and then look for the ideas that it uses to give itself power and advantages.

Why not “critical thinking”?  Whatever that means to different people, in advanced modernity critical thinking itself tends to get co-opted into limited, system-compatible channels.  While critical theory of the Marxist stripe, such as the Frankfurt school critique of the culture industry, is definitely needed to combat ideology, it has unfortunately not been effective at a mass level and has only worked for a few intellectuals.  Unlike the Frankfurt school, most of what currently passes for “critical thinking” does not challenge the rule of economic elites.  It mainly consists of two things: 1) the simplified accounts of scientific inquiry of neopositivism/scientism — which is actually part of the ideological structure of modern technocracy; or 2) the cultural critiques of identity politics, which are without a doubt valuable for achieving inclusion into current capitalist mainstream society, but which in their focus on race, sex, and gender privilege have tended to make the most important form of oppression, class privilege, a secondary concern.  Identity politics’ main aim is now the inclusion of excluded groups into the current, meaning capitalist, society.  By prioritizing that goal over eliminating not only identity but class privileges, they have made themselves compatible with the continued rule of a capitalist elite, and even promote the capitalist ideologies of equal opportunity and meritocracy.  Furthermore, some forms of “critical thinking” even descend into conspiracy thinking unmoored from facts and context.

One of the best methods for individuals to counter ideology is to look at what elites say, at any story society tells, and ask: does this story lead to the general well being, the public good of all?  Or does it benefit the top, or primarily so?  As a basic rule of thumb, those parts of the social narrative that do the latter should be suspect as part of the ideology that controls common people.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, for the upper class tries to justify policies that benefit it by saying at they serve the public good.  For example: the market is the best economic arrangement for all, even though it creates great inequality and impoverishment; tax cuts for the rich trickle down to create widespread prosperity; an upper class of privilege is necessary to stabilize society.  One only has to have average or better bullshit detectors to see through these ideological falsities.  Other good rules of thumb: whenever it is claimed that a policy or institution can only benefit the public by first channeling money to those who are already wealthy, it is a threat to democracy; it is cronyism and corruption justified as somehow in the public interest.

So that’s how individuals can start freeing he selves from the mental grip of the upper-class ideology that misleads them.  But how does a critical mass of the common people, as a group, so free themselves?  That is, how does the working class arrive at a class consciousness, wherein it sees common threats clearly?  One problem in our current, media-driven environment is the creation of a mass class unity when the upper class controls the means of public communication and information.  The question isn’t, how do we create a class consciousness without using mass media, for while that would seem morally pure, and respectful of individual autonomy, it’s also impossible.  Select individuals can free themselves from false consciousness this way, but to build a critical mass capable of political action which can actually ensure autonomy for common people ay large requires controlling a critical mass of the mass media, to spread pro-demos messages and information, and to organize.  So the question is, how does the demos acquire control over enough media of mass communication in order to counter upper-class ideology and create a common, shared consciousness?  Which amounts to, how can the people educate themselves for democracy?

The only way that that seems possible, surveying history, is for activists and organizers to do the painful work of building and organizing the common people into a social and political movement — in particular organizing a strong labor movement — and, as part of that, carrying out education efforts.

Lastly, the aim of countering ideology should not be to get rid of all narrative.  That is merely an adolescent individualist fantasy of a world without rules.  The aim should be to bring an end to the dominance over narrative by the ruling class, and to bring about the bottom-up, inclusive, authentic, democratic creation of society’s shared stories with contributions from all.

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