Posted by: Dan | June 27, 2012

Ideology Lecture

[This is the transcript of a lecture I recently delivered for a course a friend of mine is teaching at Regent College, Vancouver.  Any kind of engagement with this material is most welcome.]

Lecture 12/Jun/25 – Our Ideological Captivity


The subject of this lecture is “ideology.”  “Ideology” is a loaded term that has meant a lot of different things – when it was first introduced during the French revolution, it was used as to discuss “the science or study of ideas” then it came to denote a kind of false consciousness or set of false beliefs (as in Marx’s classic text, A Critique of the German Ideology) and, while it retains much of that sense in popular-level discourse, it now is used as a way of referring to “the set of beliefs by which a group or society orders reality so as to render it intelligible.”  I will begin with this definition when I consider the form and role of “ideology” within our current context.

Before I get into that, however, we need to note that there is no non-ideological way to speak about ideology.  What I am about to say is not a series of “facts” or an expression of some kind of “detached objectivity” but is, instead, a particular ideological perspective on ideology.  This is inescapable, in part, as I hope to demonstrate, because all language is inherently ideological.  Similarly, we ourselves, as subjects, are also inherently ideologically constituted beings.  As far as I can tell, there is no escaping ideology – we cannot get around it or outside of it.  We can only engage it from within.  Therefore, I will present one perspective on the matter – the one I find most compelling – but it is up to you all to determine if this position is one that you find persuasive.

Having said that, I will explore five theses within this lecture:

  1. Ideology is that which creates and recreates our world every day.
  2. People – especially those with power – have a vested interest in creating a certain kind of world – one that favours their power.
  3. People with power employ a number of tools in order to impose the world they wish to inhabit onto others.
  4. The powerful are largely successful in imposing their world onto others, and most people, either willingly or acritically, accept the world created for them by the powerful.
  5. We will propose an alternative ideology that creates our world in a way that does not favour the powerful but favours those who are oppressed and abandoned by the powerful.

Most of my focus today will be on the first four points.  Much of the rest of the course will be devoted to filling out the fifth point.

Thesis One: Ideology is that Which Creates and Recreates Our World Every Day.

I began with the most common dictionary definition of “ideology” as “the set of beliefs by which a group or society orders reality so as to render it intelligible.”  I think that it is worth exploring what this is saying in more detail, especially since many powerful voices today want to suggest that “ideology” is a thing of the past and that we now live, at least in the supposedly enlightened West, in a “post-ideological era”.[1]  The key thing to realize here is that any and every system of meaning is simultaneously, according to the definition I am using, an ideology.  At this point, I am trying to remove the idea that ideology is something “good” or “bad” from our way of thinking.  I may think some ideologies are “good” or “bad” or “better” or “worse” but in making that distinction, I am, of course, engaging in an ideologically-loaded judgment.  Notions of “good” and “bad” are tied into our systems of meaning.  The form of Christian theology, the system of meaning, I have pursued is an ideology.  So is Nazism.  So is Libertarianism.  So is humanitarianism.  So is any religion, philosophy, ethics, or science.  It’s all ideology.

This is just as true of narratives and stories as it is of doctrines and philosophical systems.  There has been a significant shift to “narrative theology” and a focus upon telling and embodying stories within much of contemporary thought – from Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument in favour of “small stories [petit récits]” over metanarratives in his book, The Postmodern Condition, to the writings of so-called “postliberal” theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, to the writings of evangelical New Testament scholars like N. T. Wright – but a renewed focus upon narratives does not remove us from the domain of ideology.[2]  In part, this is because any and every story is created to highlight certain events, certain people, or certain conclusions.  This is just as true of “history and “biography” as it is of novels and folktales.  The authors chose to focus upon some things, leave other things out, begin in one place, end in another, present the information in this way instead of in that way, chose this word over that word, and so on.  This is why some literary critics of the Bible, especially in light of Robert Alter’s ground-breaking book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, refer to the Bible as “fiction”.  Referring to a text as a “fiction” does not mean that the content of text does not refer to people, places and events that existed in a manner similar to the ways in which the people, places, and events of our lives exist.  Rather, it means recognizing that the story that is told to us about those people, places, and events is one that has been selected, crafted, arranged, and related by people with a particular purpose.  For this reason, all stories are inherently ideological.

But, as I just said, this is only part of the reason why narratives are ideological.  On a more fundamental level, all stories – just like philosophies, theologies, and propositional arguments – are ideologies because all signification is ideological.  To say that any one thing represents, signifies, or stands for some other thing is, itself an ideologically-loaded decision.  It both reflects and further entrenches a specific system of meaning.  For this reason, language itself is ideology par excellence.[3]  Through language we create meaning.  We decide this is a “person” that is an “object,” this is “me” that is “you,” this has “feelings” that does not, that this is a “higher need” and that a “lower need” and so on.  Essentially, we use language to structure the world.  This is also why different languages have been observed to structure the world in fundamentally different ways.  To cite just one study done by a professor at Stanford: people who speak different languages also have different ways of conceiving of such seemingly basic and universal things as space, time and colour and these differences are rooted in the different structures of their languages.[4]  Hence, by the means of language we actively create the world in which we live.  We decide that this is a “tree” that that is a “desk” that I am a “person.”  By doing so, some sort of order is crafted out of what would otherwise be (literally) unspeakable chaos and the world is constantly made and made anew.  As Louis Althusser states: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.  What is represented is not real relationships but the way in which those relationships are imagined.”[5]

This, by the way, is why I believe that some earlier civilizations were not entirely wrong to believe that there was power to be found in naming people or things.  It’s just that it is not the name itself that possesses the power – it is that giving things names makes them into what they have been named.  We are “human beings” because we say we are.  Animals are “animals” because we say they are.  And on and on it goes.

But there is more to ideology than this.  Ideology does not merely remain within the domain of signification or of ideas.  As Althusser also emphasizes, it has a “material existence.”[6]  This occurs in multiple ways.  First, ideology finds its material existence within us.  What we think about things impacts how we act, what we do, what we bless, what we curse, what we pursue, what we avoid, what we value, what we despise, what we love, what we hate.  We are all the embodiment of the ideologies to which we adhere.  That we may adhere to more than one, even when those ideologies are in conflict, is made apparent by the contradictory actions we perform.  So, we may pursue one or more ideological trajectories but we also quickly discover that other ideologies have invaded us like body-snatchers.

Indeed, ideology is the very thing that constitutes us as subjects.  What do I mean by this statement?  I mean that our very sense of “self,” of the “I” to whom we refer when we speak about ourselves, or the identities to which we lay claim, are all the result of the functioning of ideology.  We are made into subjects by the ideological stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  To once again employ the language of Althusser, ideology is that which pushes “individuals” (i.e. non-defined entities) into being and becoming subjects – even though, as Althusser also notes, every individual is always-already a subject because that individual is born into subjectivity.[7]  However, as we shall discover when we explore our third thesis, the production of subjectivity is also a form of subjugation.  We are subjects and we are subjected.

This, by the way, is what I think the biblical prophets were on about when they repeatedly tried to remind their listeners that who you worship will define who you will be – we become what we worship.[8]  Hence, according to the prophets, if you worship stones that are deaf and blind, you will become, for all intents and purposes, deaf and blind.  If you worship their God, “the living God,” however, you will become more fully alive.  Hence, N. T. Wright appropriates this way of thinking and argues that those who follow Jesus today are engaging in a movement that is one of becoming more truly or fully human.[9]  Make what you will of that – and you should engage that argument critically – the point here is that the prophets are make the same essential point as Althusser.  Ideology creates subjects.

There is a multitude of other ways in which ideology possesses a material existence.  I will briefly mention three more ways here.  First, we should mention money.  Apart from our decision to treat money as money, there does not seem to be any reason why a plastic bill or metal coin shoule be able to be exchanged for any other object.  Why is this book worth twenty dollars?  Why can I give a few bills to a merchant and receive a set of tools?  Not because there is anything inherently valuable about the item that is being used as money.  No, this sort of transaction is possible because we all agree to pretend that the items we use as money have this or that material value.  Hence, participating within a monetary economy is the expression of a particular kind of ideological fiction.  We all agree to pretend that this book is worth twenty dollars or that this set of tools is worth a few bills.  It is like a game of the Emperor’s new clothes – the Emperor’s new clothes really are fabulous and stunning, as long as everybody is busy pretending that they are.  However, as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us: we are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.[10] ,Just as we saw how language shapes the world and our selves, so we must be cognizant of the ways in which our participation in this material expression of the ideology of money impacts how we conceive of and act towards ourselves and others.[11]

Secondly, I mention the nation-state and the establishment of borders and boundaries.  Nation-states exist because we agree to pretend that they exist.  There is nothing in the world that makes me conclude that this is “Canada” that is “The Democratic Republic of Congo” and that is “France”.  When I look at images of the earth taken from space, it looks nothing like the map of nations found on a globe.  I see no borders.  Only the ideologies we create cause these things to be materialized in our actual practices.  Yet, these fictions are real enough to cause walls to be built between the “United States of America” and “Mexico,” or within “Palestine.”  These ideologies produce wars, mass incarcerations, and have a very material existence.

Third, as has been noted by scholars from Frantz Fanon to J. Kameron Carter, race itself is another example of the material existence of ideology.[12]  Creating racialized subjects was a means by which Europeans could justify and perpetuate things like slavery, conquest, and colonialism — not only in Africa but also in the territories we now occupy.

I could go on and on, and I’m sure you can think of your own examples, but the point should be established that ideology, rooted in language and in our own selves, has a very material existence.  It does, indeed, make and remake the world every day.

As I was thinking about these things, I (playfully) thought that this may be what the biblical authors mean when they talk about people as “the image of God.”  Just as, in Genesis, God creates the world, names things, and brings order out of some primordial chaos, so we do the same.  We call this “light” and this “dark” and so they are light and dark.  We call this “human” and this “animal” and this “matter” and so they are.  On and on it goes, chaos is ordered, and so the world comes into being and is constantly made anew.

Thesis Two: People– especially those with power – have a vested interest in creating a certain kind of world – one that favours their power.

My comments on this thesis will be quite short but it is needed in order to transition to the more detailed points that should be made regarding Thesis Three.  I have just noted that we are like gods, in that each one of us has the ability to create and recreate the world anew every day.[13]  Therefore, we should ask: why do we live in the world in which we live instead of any number of other possible worlds?  Why is the world different than the world I would like to create for myself?

A series of short remarks will help us to answer questions like these in our subsequent theses.  First of all, I have already noted that a lot of people are invested in various ideologies, overlapping, competing, and contradictory ways of giving birth to the world.

Second, because we are able to communicate with one another in a way that comprehends this – unlike, for example, the ways in which we can communicate with bees or jellyfish or dark matter – these various ideologies and worlds run up against one another and their differences and contradictions become apparent not only at the level of signification but also in concrete actions and material relationships.

Third, because of the ways in which these embodied ideologies run up against one another, a good many people try to impose their ideologically-constituted world onto others.  This occurs for any number of combinations of reasons.  A lot of people seem to be afraid to consider that they may be wrong about what they believe and so they try to convince others that the world they make is the one true world.  If others cannot be convinced, they are often marginalized, oppressed, or outright killed – with good moral justification, at least according to the ideologies espoused by the ones doing the marginalizing, oppressing, and killing.

But, of course, there is more to things than this.  As far as I can tell, people prefer to live in a world that favours them.  A world designed to not only meet their needs but to fulfill their desires – desires for status, for wealth, for power, for purity, for innocence, for righteousness, for pleasure, for affirmation – a world that, if it falls short of putting them at the centre, at least puts them at the pinnacle.  And, here’s the catch, a good many people are so keen to live in this kind of world that they are willing to attempt to create it, even if that means that others are deprived not only of wealth and power and status, but also of righteousness and purity and innocence and affirmation.  And they don’t stop there.  They are even willing to deprive others of life itself.  Not content to stop there, they also deprive others of the lives of their children.  All the while justifying this course of action.  As Erik Prince, the founder of the largest mercenary force in the world, Academi (previously known as Blackwater, XE and other names), once said when asked how he sleeps at night: “I sleep the sleep of the just.”[14]

Hence, we arrive at the fourth point – those who already possess wealth and power – and status and righteousness and all those other things – desire to create an ideologically-constituted world wherein all those things are affirmed and even further entrenched.   I am not arbitrarily selected one group over others at this point – the wealthy and the powerfully are particularly well placed to impose their ideologically-constituted world onto others.  It is they, as we will see, who have the resources, forces, and tools necessary to make their ideology dominant, if not hegemonic.  It is these tools, and how they operate that we will explore in our next thesis.

Thesis Three: People with power employ a number of tools in order to impose the world they wish to inhabit onto others.

It is at this point that we will see how some people are able to influence others to accept, internalize, or, at the very least, submit (in life or in death) to an ideology that has not been created with their interests in mind.  This is done through a whole variety of “soft” and “hard” forms of power.  “Soft” forms of power are ways in which power is exerted over others without the outright use of physical force – through education, or religion, or family structures, for example.  “Hard” forms of power deploy force – operating through institutions like the police, or the army, or the courts, or prisons.  Other institutions straddle the line between “hard” and “soft”.  Social services are a good example of that.  As we shall see, all of these things are structured in such a way that they discipline people to accept, internalize, or submit to the ideology that is been crafted by the wealthy and the powerful to serve the wealthy and the powerful.

I will focus mostly on the soft exercises of power here.  The forceful functioning of armies and prisons is more readily apparent and we will talk in more detail about the police and penal system in a later lecture.

Once again, Althusser is helpful in our discussion of these things.  He refers to those institutions that operate by “hard” power as “Repressive State Apparatuses” and those that operate by softer forms of power as “Ideological State Apparatuses.”[15]  Within this grouping he includes institutions of religion, education, family, law, politics, communications (like the press, radio, and television), and culture (like literature, art and sports).  I won’t go into detail about all these things.  For example, I think most of us are fairly well equipped to understand how religion has often operated to affirm the rule of the wealthy and powerful few over the dispossessed many – hence, for example, the Christian Church was deeply implicated in the perpetuation of the trauma, physical and sexual violence, and even genocide pursued by Settlers from the past to the present in relation to the First Nations peoples of Canada.  This is just as true of the mainstream corporate media, which (more and more explicitly these days) acts as an instrument for the dissemination of propaganda that serves the interests of the powerful.[16]  I expect you have already been exposed to a critical perspective on these things.  Therefore, instead of focusing here, I wish to highlight the ways in which the education system, the family unit, and social service institutions operate in a manner that helps people to internalize and accept an ideology that favours the powerful.

Beginning with the education system, I want to step back into history a little bit.  One of the consequences of the French Revolution, both in France and elsewhere in Europe, was a massive uprising against the Church.  This occurred largely and appropriately because the Church operated as one of the primary tools employed to present, affirm, and strengthen an ideology that was designed to support and strengthen the power and the wealth of the aristocracy, while also exploiting, abusing, and dispossessing the peasants, labourers, and artisans.  During the middle ages, the Church was deeply implicated within feudalism, benefited from feudalism and, even when the Church began to reform itself, still sought to align itself with the powerful over against the poor.   Hence, Martin Luther, who aligned himself with wealthy and powerful princes who were tired of surrendering some of the wealth to Rome, writes the following of the peasants:

if a man is in open rebellion, everyone is both his judge and his executioner…  Therefore let everyone who can, smite; slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you. [17]

In many ways, the Protestant Reformers – who, like Luther and Calvin, were often involved in approving of the killing of the so-called “Radical” Reformers – were simply those in the Church who were able to maintain their association with power, and modify their ideology accordingly, when the empire was collapsing and European nation-states were being born.

Therefore, the French Revolution and the spread of the Enlightenment lead to an understandable and sustained assault against the Church in Europe – both Catholic and Protestant.  However, as a new ruling class rapidly emerged – as the bourgeoisie sold out the proletariat in order to elevate their own status in conjunction with the aristocracy, leading to the rise of the hybrid capitalist class – a new ideological tool needed to emerge to replace the Church.  If the Church helped people to normalize and internalize their subjection to the nobility, so now an institution was needed to help people to normalize and internalize their subjection to the capitalists.  This gap was filled by institutions of public education which emerged and spread during this time and which continue to play this role in our present day.[18]

Take, for example, a current high school.  What is the content of this institution?  It is not, as we may have assumed, the material that is taught to the students – as we all know, this is often (but not always) irrelevant.  When was the last time you needed to calculate when a train going 70mph would pass a train traveling the opposite direction going 90mph?  When was the last time you needed to know the official flowers of all the provinces?  Instead of viewing the curriculum as the content of an high school, I want to suggest that we consider the students as the content.[19]  The essential task of a high school is “to-make-a-young-body-docile.”[20]  What high school teaches us is not so much Math and English and Science but to follow rules, to respect and unquestioningly obey authority figures, and to learn and accept our place in the social body.  Hence, young people are formed into a certain kind of subject – docile workers as well as good and obedient citizens.  By learning to unquestioningly obey our teachers and the rules of the school – go here at this time, complete this work by that time, don’t talk back, do as your told, realize that you do not and cannot run the show  – we learn to unquestioningly obey our future bosses, along with the police, social workers, and political leaders.  Of course, those who play along are rewarded and those who do not are punished.  We learn to take for granted and accept this system of reward and punishment, both when it is applied to our own selves and to others.  We normalize this as a social standard and so, when we transition out of school we apply the same principle – those who are punished or do poorly must be bad, lazy or stupid, whereas those who do well must be good, industrious, and intelligent.  In this way, high school trains us to view the world through a certain set of lenses – lenses that favour the interests of the powerful.

Of course, by saying this, I don’t mean that the curriculum is entirely inconsequential.  The powerful, after all, are those who have the authority to establish the curriculum.  This is part of what Michel Foucault means when he reverses a famous dictum and asserts that “power is knowledge.”[21]  Those with power can determine what counts as valid knowledge, what counts, as a valid way of speaking, who counts as a valid speaker, and who and what does not.  Hence, they do influence the curriculum.  This is why, for example, I grew up in Canada, took history classes in public school, and never once learned anything of substance about Canada’s ongoing abusive colonial existence.

The family unit operates in a similar way.  Indeed, imperial powers have always had a vested interest in the pursuit of “family values.”  Caesar Augustus, who was the first and greatest of the Roman emperors, made this a fundamental component of his rule.  Families were to be both encouraged and protected, adultery was to be punished, sexual propriety and fidelity was to be maintained, and the authority and of the firm yet compassionate father was to be affirmed.  If you read some of his decrees and remarks out of context, you would think they were being made by the Moral Majority or George W. Bush or the Pope.

This “focus on the family” serves multiple purposes.  First of all, like the education system, it teaches children to unquestioningly submit to an all-powerful authority figure that is said to have their best interests in mind.  “Honour your father and mother,” but most especially your father.  Obey and you will be rewarded.  Disobey and you will be punished.  Thus, hierarchical relationships, rooted in punitive measures, are inscribed into a person’s way of understanding the world from the earliest days of their youth.  As that child grows, all of this will simply seem “normal” and “natural.”  That things should be arranged this way will be “common sense.”

Secondly, a focus upon family values shifts the topics of debate away from a focus upon class or economics or a more systemic or structural mode of analysis.  If people are talking about adultery, or sexuality, or the role of a parent in raising a child – and if these are the central political issues to them – then they won’t be focusing upon why some people have power and others do not, why things are structured so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and so on and so forth.  Hence, for example, the Conservative Christian theologian, R. R. Reno can argue that demonstrating a true “preferential option for the poor” actually means providing the poor with a shining light on what it means to be a good father and husband.[22]  Thus, poverty is addressed in a way that has nothing to do with economics, power, justice, wealth distribution, or access to that which is live-giving.  Obama’s recent affirmation of gay marriage is another good example of this.  Obama spent his first four years acting even more rapaciously and right-wing than George W. Bush.[23]  Therefore, to try and draw public attention away from these issues – issues of war, economics, unemployment, civil liberties, torture, and the transfer of public wealth and power into private hands – Obama is trying to bring the discussion back to a matter of family values.

Thirdly, having and caring for a family is one of the primary ways in which people are made to accept and participate within the status quo.  With families come mortgages, car payments, money set aside for college, and a whole host of financial responsibilities and, all too often, debts.  When people are working like slaves to pay for their mortgage they want to spend what little time they have off with their spouse or kids.  They lack the time and energy needed for any kind of sustained and active resistance – and the penalties for resisting seem that much more intimidating.  If I go to jail who will care for my family?  If I have a criminal record, how can I get a job that pays enough to provide for my family?

Once again, by establishing certain hierarchies as both normal and good, by establishing certain priorities and foci for political discussions, and by encouraging people to engage in a kind of life that makes resistance all but impossible, this serves to help people accept, normalize and submit to an ideology formulated by the powerful for the powerful.

The final example I want to look at is the area of social services – what some people have referred to as the poverty industry or the “non-profit industrial complex.”[24]  I think this example is particularly important because so many different techniques of surveillance, discipline, and control are coordinated and brought to bear upon “consumers” or “clients” in this industry and also because I think it has become an increasingly prominent way of maintaining social control – and I would hazard to guess that it will only become more prominent, both because the industry is looking to expand and because the number of people who are poor is likely to increase over the coming years.  I should also add that this example is important to me personally because I have spent the last twelve years working within this industry, so there is a lot of blood on my hands.

We will have more to say about the broader category of “charity,” and the way it functions in order to sustain and strengthen a death-dealing status quo but for now I want to focus upon the social services industry and the way in which it perpetuates the ideology which creates a world that favours the powerful.

At first this suggestion may seem counter-intuitive to us.  Don’t social services – shelters, drop-ins, soup kitchens, health care clinics or counseling services available to those who are experiencing poverty and homelessness – don’t they operate from an ideology that differs from that which is favoured by the powerful?  Don’t they try to tell us that all people are valuable?  Don’t they try and say that everyone should be cared for, no matter whom they are, no matter what they’ve done, and no matter what they have?

That, I think, was some of the thinking that gave birth to many social services, and this kind of language is still prominently displayed in ad campaigns and in conversations with the public and other donors – who, after all, will then be able to feel that they are “different” and “righteous” and not sold-out to rapacious economic or social relations with others if they throw some alms to a charity – but it is critical that we observe how exactly this sort of thinking plays out within the practices of social service agencies.

Essentially, I wish to argue that there is no significant difference between this rhetoric and the ideology of the powerful.  In fact, they work very well together.

Within our contemporary context, the powerful create a world in which all people are valuable… but they are only valuable to the extent that they contribute to the economy.  People are valuable when they help to maintain things as they are or, rather, maintain the current trajectory of things and help the rich get richer and the powerful get more powerful.  Social services are a worthwhile investment because they help people who have either dropped out of this trajectory or never been able to fit well within it, to become reintegrated and transformed from “non-contributing” members to “contributing” members of society.  Contribute to the economy, get back into the workforce, become a renter or a property owner, build up your credit-debt – do your part!  Hence, services have become focused upon training and medicating people, not in order to restore them to some general space of “normality,” or of health and happiness, but in order to normalize them to the world created by the powerful and to make them feel healthy and happy within that world.

Hence, statistics become the judge of whether or not a social service will expand or fade, live or die.  If you have statistics that demonstrate you are reintegrating people into the status quo, you will live and grow.  If you have been side tracked by other things – say, for example by advocating against the structures that produce poverty in the first place (and there is a law in Canada that states that social services can only spend 10% of their time and resources engaging in advocacy) – and if you do not have high numbers related to the criteria for success that are imposed upon social services, you will fade and die.

This is true not only when agencies receive money from government but also when agencies rely upon philanthro-capitalists or transnational corporations for funding.  The government will not fund agencies pushing for structural change, and corporations will also not fund agencies that are critical of their corporate practices.  Sure, the Royal Bank of Canada will give you money, but if you comment on any of their practices – trying to get homeless youth out of downtown, investing in the tar sands, sponsoring genocide in the Sudan – that money is going to disappear very quickly.  The message is very clear to social service agencies and their workers – make a difference in the life of this or that individual by slotting him or her back into the status quo, but never question the status quo; in fact, if you want money, you better praise the righteousness, generosity, and humanitarian spirit of those who have the money you need to operate.

But things are even more incestuous than that.  There is no “us” and “them” that exists between social service agencies and the powerful.  As agencies grow, the Board of Directors becomes populated by the wealthy and powerful.  CEOs from finance, banking, mining, and arms manufacturing, not to mention police officers and former or current government officials, all sit on prominent positions in Canadian social services – from Covenant House Vancouver, to the Salvation Army, to the Yonge Street Mission.  It is these folks who set the trajectory for the development of an agency, not people at the front-line, and certainly not the people whom an agency claims to serve.  Beyond the Board of Directors, those who are needed to “manage” and “lead” social service agencies of a certain size are increasingly coming out of business school and they are far removed from any kind of sustained criticisms of the ideology of the powerful.  They simply take it for granted. [25]

Social services also perform an important role in countering any dissent or resistance or any other ideologies that would resist the world of the powerful.   I once had a friend from El Salvador suggest to me that the reason why Welfare exists is to prevent the poor from revolting.  If people who are poor are left to literally starve to death, they will rise up.  They will riot.  They will strike back.  Therefore, the welfare system is a way of keeping people from engaging in any resistance – you are still poor but not as poor as you could be and so you do what you are told to do because you are scared of losing the little bit that you have.

Even at the level of staffing agencies, dissent is neutralized.  Many people who care, who try to “be the change they wish to see in the world,” enter into work in these agencies.  By doing so, they end up becoming neutralized.  Their time and energy is spent working within a system that reinforces and perpetuates the status quo, instead of investing that time and energy in working towards a more significant structural change.

Thus, we see how even those institutions that are said to be opposed to the ideology of the powerful are actually deeply entrenched in that ideology and serve in the creation and strengthening of the world that ideology brings into being. This, then, overlaps with our fourth thesis.

Thesis Four: The powerful are largely successful in imposing their world onto others, and most people, either willingly or acritically, accept the world created for them by the powerful.

I will be brief here because I have already explored a fair bit that is related to this point in my remarks about social services.  Becoming engaged in social services is a way to feel like one is making a difference when one is not.[26]  Here we see how insidious things are, for, as I know from firsthand experience, many people involved in social services – most especially (and almost exclusively) at the “front-line” level – are thoughtful people who are more critical of the way that things are in the world of the powerful.

Sadly, it seems to me that much of the general public has been so well trained and disciplined by the ideology of the powerful – and disseminated by means of the family unit, the education system, the media, etc. – that they cannot imagine any other world.  Often, it seems, that they do not desire any other world for, as I mentioned, there are certain rewards to be gained from playing along and the punishment of those who do not is also plain to see.  Hence, a good many people go through life thinking that the world created by the powerful is the world itself, thinking that what has been imposed upon them is “natural,” and thinking that living in this way is simply what it means to live.[27]

Thus, we often see people or groups with power appealing to “nature” or to “reality” in order to try and support the world of their making.[28]  They want their way of viewing things to be considered “common sense” or “obvious”.  As Althusser states, their ideology desires to impose “obviousness as obviousness.”[29]  Therefore, within patriarchy we see how women are said to be biologically or naturally or divinely-mandated to be inferior to men.  Within colonialism, we see how people who are not white or of European descent are said to be not fully human, or more savage than those who wish to subject and enslave them.

Debates about sexuality are a good contemporary example of this.  Sexual identities or relationships or practices that fall outside of the domain of hetero-normativity are said to be “unnatural”.  This statement is made even though a wide range of sexual identities and actions are found within the lives of animals and plants.  “Nature,” then, is only said to be “natural” when it fits within a particular ideological conception of what nature is!  This leads the Slovenian cultural theorist, Slavoj Zizek, to conclude that there is no such thing as “nature” – nature is simply ideology operating at its finest – nature is what we name “nature,” nothing more, nothing less.[30]  That which we take to be “common sense,” that which we take to be “natural” is simply a reflection of our ideological captivity within a world created by and for the powerful.

For the most part, as far as I can tell from my own experiences and from the experiences of others whom I have known, it is almost impossible to break people away from their entrenchment within this ideology.  However, we do not cease striving to do this and this is the final point I want to make in relation to this: we must be more critical of our own efforts than of anything else because, all too often, we may mistake that which is death-dealing for that which is life-giving.  I have suggested how this operates within social services and this should warn us that our other efforts, perhaps efforts that are considered more “radical”, may also be deeply implicated within the interests of the powerful.

Those who are students have church history should already be aware of how missionaries and priests – who thought they were doing radical work in the service of the kingdom of God – often functioned as the shock-troops of colonialism and we need to be cautious that we are not doing the same in our own time and place.  Take one example: the phenomenon of “guerilla gardening.”  Basically, “guerilla gardening” is when a group of people go into an empty lot, often in a rundown downtown neighbourhood (usually without legal permission and at night), and transform it into a community garden.  The civic authorities generally turns a blind eye to this practice.[31]  Why is this?  Perhaps it is because “guerilla gardeners” function like the shock-troops of gentrification.  It may be possible that our intentional Christian communities in neighbourhoods that are experiencing poverty are operating in a similar manner.

Beyond that, we need to ask ourselves if we are really making a difference in our other practices.  Perhaps we are just posturing.  Perhaps we are engaging in symbolic, but utterly insignificant, acts.[32]  Perhaps our marches, rallies, signs, and street theatre, are simply ways for us to feel good about ourselves despite the fact that nothing is different.  Perhaps even some of our core beliefs – like a commitment to nonviolence – are actually things that end up helping the powerful instead of things that resist them.[33]  We need to question everything and, if we are critical of others, we need to be twice as critical of our own practices.

Thesis Five: We will propose an alternative ideology that creates our world in a way that does not favour the powerful but favours those who are oppressed and abandoned by the powerful.

This thesis will be explored during the remainder of our course.  You will hear a variety of ideological positions and they will not all be the same – even Dave and I disagree about some things – but I think you will find the core commitment expressed here to be common to most parties.  It is important to observe this: as we try to live lives committed to serving Life and resisting Death, we must learn to make alliances and friendships with those who may think and see differently than us but who share the same goals.  We are many but all too often divided by our ideologies.  The powerful are few but united in their ideological outlook.  Therefore, while we will be proposing a few different ideological perspectives on these matters in this course, we must remember that these are not the only Life-serving and Death-resisting ways of being in the world.  Others have found other ways.  If we unite with them, the world can be made anew.  Let us do so, while there is still life left in the world.

In this regard, I would offer a final caution about trying to persuade others that the world we wish to create is the “real” world.  As far as I can tell, our world is just as ideologically-constituted as any other world and, as we observed above, it is the powerful who wish to lay claim to “the real” to “the natural” and to stories about origins.  It seems to me that any who wish to lay claim to such things are both naïve and at risk of simply turning their efforts to create positive change into a new totalitarianism.  What we are fighting is an ideological struggle.  An ideological struggle that is, as we have seen, very much historical, material, and embodied.  We wish to be free – in our bodies, in the here and now – and to gain this freedom we must be liberated from our ideological captivity within a world created by and for the powerful.[34]

[1] This argument seems to be made repeatedly by the powerful, at different stages of history, and history progresses and continues to prove it wrong.  Cf., for example, The End of Ideology: The Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties by Daniel Bell and The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama.  For a critique of the belief that we are living in a post-ideological age, cf. Žižek, esp., The Sublime Object of Ideology.

[2] Cf., for example, Why Narrative?  Readings in Narrative Theology edited by Stanley Hauerwas and L. Gregory Jones, and The New Testament and the People of God by N. T. Wright.

[3] Coming to this conclusion is part of the reason why semiotics and linguistics have gained so much attention in philosophy over the last one hundred years.  Cf., two pick just two of many examples, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language.

[5] Cf. “Ideology and the State Ideological Apparatus”available online here –

.  Accessed 12/Apr/26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Even though, as Althusser notes, individuals are always-already subjects of one kind or another.  This distinction between “individuals” and “subjects goes back to Greek political philosophy which distinguished between zoe (bare life) and bios (political life).  Cf., especially, Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, wherein he wrestles with this supposed distinction and its implications.  Others have also followed Althusser down this trajectory and tried to reimagine this binary – notably, Deleuze and Guattari in their talk about people as “desiring machines” in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia.  In many ways, it seems to me that this language – “individuals,” “zoe”, “machines” – all are failed efforts to get speak about something outside of the ideological limitations of language (a struggle I also experienced in writing this lecture).

[8] Phrases like this are fairly common in biblical studies, I believe I first encountered the idea in the writings of N. T. Wright (cf., for example, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship), but G. K. Beale has a book dedicated to the theme – We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.

[9] He often repeats this point.  Cf., to pick just one example, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. There are some things I find troubling about this ideological perspective, not least the implication that those who do not follow Jesus or Christianity in the way that Wright imagines are somehow less human or less-than-human, or, perhaps, not even human at all (this, by the way, is what Wright believes to be the end-state of those whom he believes are damned to hell – cf. Surprised By Hope). Given that we are now equipped to see how the history of Christianity has been full of violent expressions of patriarchy, colonialism, slavery, and hetero-normativity – all of which find their justifications in positing the other as less-than-fully-human in some way – one should, today, be more cautious about thinking this way as we have witnessed the material ways in which this ideology is expressed.

[10] This remark is made in his introduction to Mother Night.

[11] A point well explored in detail in David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.

[12] Cf. Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Carter’s Race: A Theological Account.

[13] Above I playfully suggested that this may be what it means to be “made in the image of God,” but, really, I have no way of knowing if bees or elephants or jellyfish or Japanese maples or oceans or subatomic particles or dark matter also engage in this sort of activity.

[14] Cf. Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, pREF.

[15] Althusser, op cit.

[16] Cf., of course, the classic text by Chomsky and Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.  To understand the role that the mainstream corporate media has played in supporting a colonial and violent perspective against the First Nations peoples of Canada – from the past to the present – cf. Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Anderson and Robertson.

[18] Althusser, op cit.

[19] Here I am following the lead of Brian Massumi. Cf. A user’s guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, pp24-26.

[20] Ibid., 25.

[21] Cf. the essays and interviews collected in Power/Knowledge and The Archaeology of Knowledge.

[22] Reno’s focus is androcentric.  I wrote a detailed response here:


[23] For example, he continued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while expanding into Pakistan, bombing Libya and assisting the first American-backed coup in Latin America since the 1980s (in Honduras); he received than any Republican contender has ever done, and he has also given more money to Wall St. than any other president – transferring public wealth into private hands; he has also continued the American practice of torture and illegal incarcerations, leaving Guantanamo open and developing another torture centre in Bagram; he has passed laws that make it legal for America to kill its own citizens anywhere in the world without any form of trial, and laws that permit any person to be indefinitely incarcerated without a trial and without any evidence being provided; he has increased the militarization of American police and the criminalization of dissent; he has been the most anti-whistle blowing President to yet take office; and has, more blatantly than even Bush, basically been transferring publicly held wealth and power into the hands of private individuals and corporations.

[24] Cf., for example, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, ed. by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.

[25][25] I have written on this subject in more detail in a lecture I delivered in Toronto.  Available online here:


[26] I should temper that statement by saying that one can and does make a difference in the lives of certain individuals, for which many people are grateful, but in terms of making a “big picture” difference, one is not only not making a difference but is contributing to everything one is trying to resist.

[27] Heidegger offers some great reflections upon this in Being and Time when he talks about “the they” or “the they-self” which is what Heidegger considers to be an inauthentic life or living a life that is owned by another.

[28] Cf. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacrum and Simulation, 19, 22, 36.

[29] Op cit.

[31] When a practice meets no resistance from the Powers it is worth asking ourselves why that is and what that says about our practice.  I tend to take acts of repression and forceful pushback from the Powers as a sign that we may actually be onto something in what we are doing (the more repression or force we encounter, the more we may be onto something).

[32] Here, I would suggest that we employ the criticisms made by Guy Debord (in The Society of the Spectacle), and by Jean Baudrillard (in both Simulacrum and Simulation and Symbolic Exchange and Death) in order to look at the ways in which our own resistance is “spectacular” or a simulacrum – a copy without an original.

[33] Cf. Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill and How Nonviolence Supports the State by Peter Gelderloos.

[34] NB: in this lecture I have not said a lot that is specifically focused upon the content of the ideology constructed by the powerful – the system of meaning and valourization it uses, the language it prefers, core doctrines, central practices, and so on.  This is, first and foremost, because we ourselves are the content of that ideology.  However, these things will be addressed in more detail in the remainder of the course.


  1. Again DanO, this is so very well written and I am really looking fwd to future lectures and more about thesis 5. Btw, I don’t recall the reference to R. R. Reno in the earlier draft that I read, is that new? How did the students respond, was there discussion or disagreement (as if any one could disagree!). Blessings and hope to make it to Van soon and talk in person.

    • Some discussion. Fair amount of skepticism from the students. I think this sort of analysis is so far outside of their range of experiences and thinking that the first response is always a “Yeah but…”. Rather than sitting with the criticisms the gut reaction is to defend that which has been criticized (how can education, family, social work be bad? Isn’t there a lot of good going on in those place? Etc., etc.). That’s okay though. I used to think and react that way to this sort of thing when I was first exposed to it.

  2. […] Read more… […]

  3. Only waded in partially but I like where you are heading. I am planning a series in Fall at my church that will attempt to re-frame ‘priestly holiness’ as navigating these questions (ie the conflation of idolatry and ideology). I may crib some stuff here. In any event I will try and work through the rest and hopefully have a few more comments.

    • Interestingly, today my friend and I will be doing our lecture on purity codes and how they operated as means of normalizing oppressive social structures within the day-to-day lives of the members of the groups of people who fell under the domain of the Second Temple (drawing on the thinking that “leprosy” in Jesus’ day was a social disease more than a biomedical condition, and drawing on Fanon’s stuff about colonization/mental illness but tying that to colonization/demon possession).

      • I think it is precisely because (biblical) holiness theology (at least as I read it in the Pentateuch) literally stands at the transitional space of boundaries. This is why idolatry is so tempting because it enacts a particular power over that boundary. So the hope that I hold out is in the ’empty space’ of holiness that keeps it open to ‘life’ (trans-versing and re-aligning boundaries). This might all be a little thin and it may fall into a now well-worn path of postmodern de-centering, dispossesing, blah, blah, blah but we’ll see where it goes.

  4. Also, in case you have not looked at it Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject would fit well into this overall line of thinking and really is quite accessible without dumbing down Lacan.

  5. Sorry, I meant to tack these poems by Georg Trakl and Kevin Hart on the end of my comment above (or did I and you expunged it? that’s been happening to my blog comments lately, maybe a hint that I aughta just keep my opinions to myself!?). Anyway, you know how Heidegger once thought that maybe poetry could redeem language, save the world, save us? Well, there at the end, as he just sat quietly in the back of the cathedral at mass every sunday, leaving early without consuming, consummating, the Eucharist, acting as if he was watching a play by Muller or Beckett where “every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” Of course he knew that he had made terrible terrible mistakes, but by then he had lost faith in language and so he refused to speak anymore. Still, he came over and over again to witness the washing of the hands, the bread held up, the wine poured out, the priestly prestidigitations, the ringing of the bells, but he never stayed long enough to see whether word could become flesh and blood, or whether language was no more the ‘house of being‘ than a church was the ‘house of God,‘ whether silence was only the dead space between signifiers, an arrangement of the dark voids among signs and symbols.

    A Winter Evening, by George Trakl

    Window with falling snow is arrayed,
    Long tolls the vesper bell,
    The house is provided well,
    The table is for many laid.

    Wandering ones, more than a few,
    Come to the door on darksome courses.
    Golden blooms the tree of graces
    Drawing up the earth’ s cool dew.

    Wander quietly steps within;
    Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
    There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
    Upon the table bread and wine.

    The Word, by Kevin Hart

    Say wood and everything is clean again.
    The word is all around you, like the night,
    Impossible to grasp. Your mouth is dark.

    A splinter found its way into your quick.
    That old tree slit by lightning won’t be moved.
    Last year’s thin rain froze hard inside a trunk

    And now a honey flesh shines through cracked bark.
    Your mouth is dark. Go far into yourself,
    Let quietness gather there, then say the word.


  6. Wow! What a powerful, thought-provoking, and engaging essay/lecture! I have toured many of these cites in the mountains of thought and philosophy many times before, but rarely with this depth of interconnected ness and thematic meaning. It is truly an apocalyptic tour, exposing the principalities and powers at work even within my own agendas. Thank you for this.

    That being said, I have thoughts all the way through about some of the scenic overlooks we visited that are not always congruent with every aspect presented here… no surprise… But my thought processes and research tend not to be as well disciplined as these. And so I am not prepared to offer either a line-by-line rebuttal or a comprehensive review. Still, the overall impression is one that resonates deeply with me.

    So, by way of reaction, let me offer a couple general thoughts and see if sparks bounce here:

    At the end of the post, I really want to see some positive option exlplored with some real depth. I have the idea that we are all Bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians who write and respond here. And though I know this will be simplistic sitting next to this post, I sense we could analyze more deeply the Jesus who claims to be the Way the Truth and the Life…. I am betting the minds that produce the level of critique I read here are equipped to explore the inside of that and such statements.

    I have looked at the creation of the world (thinking thesis 1 here) by the words and unfolding narrative of the creator as world making. The language is more atomic than the atoms. He who is sovereig speaks, and what he speaks is his world ordering, world creating sovereignty. We who bear his image, take our part in his sovereign world ordering work. We who build/order/create for our own agendas (typically the powerful esp), are like parasites on the True creator’s world. Beware of a judgment to come!

    If this stuff is the atomic substructure within which the world operates, then what we say (and thank you N.T. Wright – symbolically do) in service to the creator has real impact on the world God makes. It may look impotent, but do not underestimate a dead Jew just because he was crucified! If God was at work in him before that moment, then vindication will come.

    I have been aiming to live and talk (but especially enact dramas) of a prophetic symbolic act nature. I call them “proph-o-dramas”. If I lay seige to a brick, I look stupid, crazy, impotent, whatever… and I get marginalized, (man I hope my boss doesnt read your blog and figure out who I am!!!) etc. etc. etc…. And my faith is not really blind, but it sure is risky! But I am on a learning curve here, and perhaps I am just way off base. But I am ever increasingly puting my life into this effort. And I am closed off by my bro’s and sis’s from the Church more all the time because of it!

    I am working in a mental health field now… in the lower ranks. I am one of those front-liners you write of. I am very expendable. I am also complicit with the imperial haldol invasion of the minds of those who do not fit into the social fabric neatly. I too, and deeply troubled by what I see there.

    And I do not mean to excuse myself one bit by questioning this final point, but the analysis must face it all the same: isn’t the postmodern, deconstructing, incessent questioning and uncovering of evil continually running the risk of blaspheming the Holy Spirit? Just what is the difference there? I mean, what if haldol is really needed? at least in some cases????

    In the mean time, I am learning to resist. Hoping to find The Way… groping, as my dad would say.

    I take a measure of confidence in St Pauls words that creation groans as it waits for the apocalypse of the sons of God. I continue to believe that the mere bearing of His image is key to creations true ordering response.

    Thank you for this post.

    blessings from Texas

  7. thanks, dan, for your generosity in sharing your lecture material. reading this makes me really want to join your course… i want to lean in on the alternatives you and dave are proposing! i don’t suppose the lectures are taped (with the off-campus environment and all)?!

    i appreciate especially your critique on social services. praying for strength & wisdom for you and your community to live out a more life-giving way.

    miss you brother.

  8. The Mercy Seat, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds…

    I don’t know where or how I absorbed this sort of ideology – maybe it just comes of being born into a family experience of fairly extreme powerlessness, in which the imposition of power by the powerful is so very clear. Purity codes, haldol, crucifiction – all communities find ways of insulating themselves from powerlessness, don’t they. I look forward to hearing all about the alternative ;)

  9. […] litet för-tips kommer redan nu, ge gärna Dan´s föreläsning om ideologi en halvtimme i lugn och […]

  10. Hey Dan,

    I really appreciate this post, and would love to have more conversation about it. Is there any way to contact you more private fashion?


    • Hi Dave,

      I’ve sent you an email so feel free to reply to me by that means.

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