Friday, September 19, 2008

The Essence of Ideology

The following scene from The Wire is in my estimation brilliant, not just because it reveals the functioning of the drug trade, but more importantly it reveals something essential about capitalist ideology.



As Bodie states, after a lesson on the fundamentally rigid hierarchy that characterizes both the chess board and the drug trade, that a "smart ass pawn" could not only make it through the game but get to be queen. This statement describes his own perspective of his situation: a lowly soldier in the drug war who believes that his intelligence and perseverance will ultimately see him through to the end. This idea, an awareness that the odds are stacked, that most of us wont get rich, coupled with a confidence that the odds do not apply to us, is the the fundamental ideology of capitalism. It is in a sense what Althusser meant when he wrote that ideology interpellates individuals as subjects, as much as we are aware of the historical conditions that define and limit our situation we believe that they do not apply to us, that we transcend them as a kingdom within a kingdom (to cite Spinoza, Althusser's point of reference).

Althusser thought that his applied to all ideology, but it seems to be in many ways specific to capitalist ideology. After all capitalist ideology disentengles power from any specific condition, all those motley ties; one does have to be descended from a particular family, a particular race, or background to have money. The only thing that characterizes the ruling class is money. There is no barrier that keeps us from changing our class position. Thus, we all fantasize that we will one day be rich: as the New York State lottery used to say, "It could happen to you."

Many progressives or leftists are constantly frustrated that the working class fails to vote their interest, supporting tax breaks, like the "death tax," that do not apply to them. I think that this is because they, or we, do not identify with our interests, our specific position, we identify with the fantasy. We are all the "smart ass pawn," the exception, the person who makes it rich, or to take an example closer to home, gets tenure in a job market that increasingly eliminates tenure track jobs for temporary or adjunct work. This makes it very difficult to construct politics that address systematic failures, like that of health insurance or the mortgage industry; most of us believe that such bad things happen only to others.

In case you are wondering how things turn out for Bodie (spoiler alert for those who have not seen Season Four):



15 comments:

Hasana said...

As Omar says, "money has no owners, only spenders."

unemployed negativity said...

You wouldn't happen to know the episode name and number of that quote, 'cause I could really use it. I know that its season 4. The Wire essay should be done soon. If you think that you might have time, I will send you and Will a draft.

mofo said...

What are yu talking about? The odds are not stacked against you anymore than it is anyone else. You said yourself that there was no "condition" that holds the poor workers down. They can choose to move "classposition" any time they want. This is what makes capitalism great. There is one catch though: you have to be clever and driven. But everybody dont have the same intelligence and many are too lazy. But thats reality and there is no way you can change that with the fantasy of the socialist ideology. Make the best of what you got instead of feeling jealous of the people that are smarter than you.

mofo said...

One more thing. These are things that are conditioned BY NATURE, not the "evil" capitalist system. Take responsibility for your own life and your own actions instead of blaming it on "society" or "the system". Geez, its like some people havent learned anything in these last fifty years. Socialism doesnt work!

unemployed negativity said...

I am so glad to have my first conservative comments. Welcome.

Markus said...

Yeah thats what I thought. You can babble as much marxist pihlosophy you want. But you cannot argue against OBJECTIVE REALITY.

unemployed negativity said...

You are right, pihlosophy is no match for OBJECTIVE REALITY.

So from what I understand, I can either take responsibility or blame nature. Whatever I do, I should not say anything critical about capitalism as a social system. It doesn't even exist, it is just nature.

That might be the essence of ideology.

Markus said...

Name one system that has made it more possible for you, and everybody else, to realize all your desires and ambitions in life than capitalism? Just look at the difference between the US and the soviet union and you see how ridicilous that question is. There is no contest. Why are you complaining? Because you have some naive notion of "fairness" based on the fantasies of a crazy old man from the last century? A fantasy that has failed again and again when it has been put into practice. You should ask yourself why. You cannot exceed HUMAN NATURE.

Markus said...

Look, i dont mean to be so hard. I just want to know where personal choice and responsibility comes in in your marxist philosophy. You commies always make it out to be some sort of conspiracy "holding you down". But couldnt it just be as simple as people being too lazy or too dumb? Where does free will come into this?

Markus said...

I mean, take the guy in the clip. It is sad and everything that he was a drugdealer and that he ended up dead. But: He made a personal choice to be a drugdealer and spend all his time selling drugs when he could have been in school instead. But he was too lazy and wanted to make alot of money fast. Thats was his choice and he had to take the consequences of that. I mean you cant ignore that fact. But marxist do exactly that.

I have never been able to get a straight answer from you guys about that fact.

unemployed negativity said...

Don’t worry about giving me a hard time. I am curious, however, as to why bring up all of these rather basic questions about Marx, or Marxism, in regards to a post that is making a slight point that is both intra-Marxist, working within certain problems of Marxist philosophy, and not that Marxist, since it deals with a certain understanding of the subject that is indebted more to Spinoza than to Marx.

Many of the objections that you raise are based on philosophical/political positions that are in my view untenable. The differences between our positions would take more than a comment on a blog to clarify. The idea that capitalism is a system in which individuals are held responsible and accountable for their actions is just not true. Responsibility, like everything else in capitalism, is unevenly distributed to say the least. (The current economic crisis and its bailout bears witness to this). When most people talk of responsibility it is usually the responsibilities of others that they are discussing. We tell ourselves that the sweatshop worker, drug dealer, etc. made a choice thus absolving ourselves in considering our complicity in their condition.

The common thread that connects, in this case, Marx, Spinoza, David Simon (the creator of “The Wire”) and myself is that people are profoundly shaped by the institutions, power relations, and histories that simultaneously enable and constrain them. This view does not lead to an abdication of responsibility, in a sort of bad conscience where everything is already justified, but a deeper sense of responsibility, in which it is not just a matter of taking responsibility of one’s individual actions but the world that makes one responsible

unemployed negativity said...

I think the idea that someone "chooses" to a drug dealer is itself somewhat naive. Beyond that, however, I do not think that Simon is talking about drugs at all in these passages. Bodie (the characters) reflections could be those of any number of workers in America, who find themselves laid off after years of loyal service, who recognize too late that the game is fixed. Loyalty is an entirely one sided proposition.

Markus said...

Well, the post was about how the "odds are stacked" against you right? So i wanted to stand up for free choice.

Yes thats the standard bleeding heart line. Sure, we should be nice towards people around us and give charity to churches and so on. But we cant save everybody! I have enough with just dealing with the people in my own life. I cant carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. At the end of the day it still comes down to individual responsibility. No matter how much you twist and turn it around there is no avoiding that.

So instead of preaching that its "societys fault" that people are in a bad place, why not just teach them the importance of individual responsibility? Wouldnt that be more effective if you want to help people? But that would obviously make you a conservative, not a commie.

Markus said...

I mean, i have worked damn hard to be where i am. It was in no way easy for me either, but i did it. You can do it too if you want. Its not my fault that you are not in a good place. I could try to help you, but there is only so much that i can do. At the end of the day it still comes down to your own ability and willpower. I just cannot see how it can be in any other way. Can you? Seriuosly, can you?

Markus said...

I dont mean you specifically.