Can Europe Make It?

Three forays into ideology in the age of post-truth politics

Attempts to wrestle with fake news and post-truth lack a concept of ideology to tell us not only what is believed, but why, and suggest how to move on.

Rachel Johnson
12 April 2017
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Trump refuses to answer a reporter accused of spreading 'fake news',January, 2017.Gary Hershom/Press Association. All rights reserved.In an age of so-called ‘post-truth politics’ and ‘alternative facts’, the question of ideology has become pressing. Following Donald J. Trump’s election, many journalists and scholars looked for explanations. Did the electorate really believe the outrageous falsehoods that his campaign was based on, or was there something else at work? The same goes for the proliferation of fake news – how do we understand the fact that such unreliable sources can wield influence in the public sphere?

If the only issue at stake here were an absence of truth in politics and journalism, the solution would be simple: politicians and journalists need to check facts (and stick to them), and the public needs to maintain a critical stance and boycott unreliable sources.

However, this solution may rely on an outdated model of ideology: the theory that ideology is simply people being told and believing inaccurate information. Many scholars argue that ideology functions in a far more complex way than this. If we want to understand and combat post-truth politics, do we need to update our understanding of ideology first?

I will summarise three theories of ideology whose application could take us further towards coping  with today’s predicament. In doing so, I will have to omit the contributions of several other important thinkers, such as Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Stuart Hall, Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler. I recommend that readers wanting a more comprehensive overview of the subject read Theories of Ideology: The Powers of Alienation and Subjection by Jan Rehmann.

Karl Marx – ideology as an expression of class relations

One of Marx’s most important texts in this regard is The German Ideology (1845). We can begin to understand the essence of this text by examining this key passage:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.


Portrait of Karl Marx, 1865. Wikicommons/ John Jabez Edwin Mayall - International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Some rights reserved.There are two key points here: one concerning who has power in a society, and one concerning the nature of that power.

First of all, those who control the means of production (i.e. owners of companies, political leaders etc.) also control, overall, the dominant ideas in that society. By the same token, those who don’t control the means of production (i.e. the workers) are subject to these dominant ideas.

We can sum up this state of affairs with the term ‘class relations’ or ‘material relations of production’: some groups, or classes, own the means to produce commodities and circulate ideas, while others do not. Marx’ and Engels’ thinking seems close to the notion of ideology as false consciousness: the working class appear to be duped by a ruling class who have the power to spread whatever falsities help them maintain control.

With the second point, however, we see that things are more complicated than a ruling class simply telling lies and the exploited class believing them. Instead, these dominant ideas are themselves expressions of ‘the dominant material relationships’. What this means is that the dominant ideas are themselves determined by the material relations of production. Ideology is a projection of the material relations between classes (who owns what).

Although still on the tricky terrain of ideology as false consciousness, Marx and Engels have introduced an important nuance. If ideology is an expression of material relations, then thinking of ideology in terms of ideas or consciousness is not sufficient. Rather, one has to start by considering the relations of production, and treat them as the source of ideology. In this model, if we are to undermine the ruling ideology – such as the ideology that allows the proliferation of ‘alternative facts’ – we would have to analyse and disrupt the economic structures from which the ruling class draws its power. [This thinking led Marx to write his most famous work, Capital (1863-83)]

In terms of combating fake news, for example, a Marxist theory would argue that it is not enough to approach the issue only on the terrain of ideas. Rather, it would advocate looking behind the false headlines to the relations of production that allow such headlines to circulate in the first place. Instead of pointing out that a publication is inaccurate, we would ask who owns that publication, and what relations between different classes (e.g. media moguls and the working class) are being expressed and exploited. In Marxist theory, fake news is an expression of the interest of the ruling class. Therefore, undermining it needs to take place at the level of class struggle, of undermining the very relations of class that permit fake news in the first place.

Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus

Fast forwarding we come to Louis Althusser, whose ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (1970) interprets and updates Marx and Engels’s theory of ideology (with the help of several thinkers, including notably Vladimir Lenin).


Louis Althusser. Flickr/Arturo Espinoaa. Althusser’s text has three key contributions, most of which re-interpret classical Marxist theory:

  1. He highlights the fact that class relations determine ideology only in the last instance.
  2. He locates ideology in material apparatuses – institutions such as religion, education, government and media.
  3. He theorises the way in which ideology ‘interpellates individuals as subjects.’

The first point is important to bear in mind since, as we saw earlier, Marx’s writing on ideology is liable to be misunderstood as a theory of workers being brainwashed by the ruling class. ‘Determination in the last instance’ means that we need to consider the whole variety of factors that contribute to the development of society, the ruling ideology and the effects of ideology on people. According to Althusser there is no straight line between class relations, the ideology that is projected by them, and people’s beliefs. Rather, we can say that the projection of class relations onto ideology is actually refracted by several other factors. Althusser goes into this theory in more detail in his essay “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (1962).

The second point helps us to understand this process of refraction, and to elaborate on the ‘material existence’ of ideology. Althusser argues that ideology does not just come from economic structures (class relations) but also exists in, and is influenced by, really existing institutions. He calls these ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (ISAs) since they are usually related to the State and make up the site of ideology. The various ideological state apparatuses include: the religious ISA (churches), the educational ISA (schools), the legal ISA (law, courts), the political ISA (the political system and its parties), the communications ISA (the media).

To engage with Althusser’s third contribution, we need to understand the key word for his theory of the functioning of ideology, ‘interpellation’. Interpellation is usually described in terms of call and response. The example Althusser gives is that of a policeman shouting ‘Hey, you there!’ and an individual turning round to answer the call.

That moment of recognition (turning round to answer) is the sign of successful interpellation. Through interpellation we recognise ourselves as subjects of a certain ideological formation, and we recognise our place in the world, as designated by ideology. In Althusser’s example, the individual recognises themself as subject to the law and therefore responds to the policeman’s call. In such instances the individual has a set place in relation to an ideological state apparatus (that of a subject) and is expected to engage in certain practises as a result (turning around).

Considering this in relation to post-truth politics, we can think of the apparatuses in which it is most manifest, such as the government and the media. As a citizen I am expected to respect the will of the government, even if its power is based on ‘alternative facts’ or false promises. As a consumer of news, I am expected to read and engage with the media, even if it publishes blatant untruths. The only way out of this, in Althusser’s model, is to dismantle the apparatuses themselves and thereby totally refuse any position in relation to them.

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'Leave' bus in Brexit referendum.(N.B. For a recent update on Althusser’s theory of ideological state apparatuses, see ‘Postideological Market Apparatuses: The Interpellations of Advertising and Unpayable Debt’ by Maria Kakogianni (2012, currently only available in French).

Slavoj Žižek and the ‘secret’ of ideology

Fast forwarding once more, and we reach the last stop on this tour of theories of ideology: Slavoj Žižek. We’ve passed thinkers such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault to name but a few. I can only recommend that interested readers take the time to explore the works of these other important theorists.

While Žižek has had a bad press recently, his theory of ideology has much to offer for understanding our current conditions of existence. In his first English-language publication, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), Žižek re-interpreted both Marx and Althusser in a way that clears a path for the analysis of post-truth politics.

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Slavoj Žižek at Occupy Wall St.Žižek argues that Althusser’s account of ideology as interpellation ‘aim[s] at grasping the efficiency of an ideology exclusively through the mechanisms of imaginary and symbolic identification’. In other words, Žižek charges Althusser with assuming that ideology completely interpellates us, and that we uncritically accept the position that ideology designates for us.

Žižek responds by arguing that interpellation actually functions through a lack of total identification between the individual and ideology. In other words, ideology actually works when we don’t fully recognise ourselves in interpellation’s call. According to Žižek, as long as an ideology is experienced as containing something ‘senseless’ – a ‘secret’ – that we cannot totally comprehend or identify with, it will have authority over us.

Therefore, the power that post-truth politics holds lies in our belief that there is something more to it – that it is part of an elaborate scheme of ideological control. Once we abandon this belief we can realise the senselessness of the situation: Trump really is an idiot (albeit one with a lot of power and money), and some journalists do care more about clickbait than truth, and so on.

If we put this together with the lessons of Marx and Althusser, we can define ideology as: the belief that institutions hold authority due to their possession of some secret knowledge rather than the material fact of their owners’ and leaders’ privileged position in the hierarchy of class relations.

This may be the end of this article, but it is only a beginning of the work we need to do on ideology. We need to continue to build our comprehension of the ideological formations that have contributed to our democracy stalling and a politics of post-truth taking its place. It is not enough to say that people are simply naïve, or that speaking the truth in public will resolve all our problems. We need to look to economic structures, ideological apparatuses and the obscene senselessness of power if we are to understand, and ultimately undermine, post-truth.

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