(DIARIST'S NOTE: This diary was originally written in the 1990's as part of a book manuscript. But it remains as relevant today as it was back then.)
How do unequal social relationships maintain themselves?
Overtly repressive societies such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union depend upon blunt police force and military power to maintain their social relationships. Challenges to the existing social structure are simply hunted down and liquidated.
In modern bourgeois society, however, the use of armed force is unleashed only in the rarest of instances, after all other methods have failed. One of the most remarkable things about capitalism has been its ability to compel people, without using overt force or repression, to conform to the social roles which allow the bourgeois class to exist and prosper. If the bourgeois mode of production is a dictatorship, it certainly appears to be a benevolent one.
The concept of “hegemony” explains this ability to reproduce unequal social relationships without resorting to physical coercion. Through a series of intertwining social relationships, bourgeois society is able to maintain the conditions for its existence and to reproduce these conditions.
Marxism grew out of the tradition of philosophical materialism, which holds that thoughts and ideas are the products of material circumstances. It is not surprising, then, that in his writings Marx rarely mentions the effects of ideology and ideological struggles, except as part of his criticisms of philosophical idealism.
In contrast to the German ideologists, Marx declared that philosophical ideas and theories were mere abstractions, and could not be trusted to give an accurate picture of human society:
Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life.Marx concluded that the thoughts which humans have about the world is a part of that world, and that ideology is a component of social reality just as economics, politics and family structures are:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of man, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of humans, appears at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behavior. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Humans are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.—real, active humans, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of humans is their actual life-process.Engels adds:
If the further question is raised; what then are thought and consciousness, and whence they come, it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that humans themselves are products of Nature, which have been developed in and along with their environment.Marx illustrates the interaction of ideology with material reality through the use of an analogy:
Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations.“Thinking and being,” Marx summarized, “are thus certainly distinct, but at the same time, they are in unity with each other”:
The imaginary creations of the human brain are the inevitable sublimations of the material process of existence, which can be observed empirically and which depends on material causes. Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all other forms of ideology and the related forms of consciousness thus lose the independence they appear to have. They have no history or development of their own; it is only people, developing their material production and mutual material relations, who as a result come to think different thoughts and create different intellectual systems.As writer Thomas Sowell points out, “Marx’s theory of history was based on a principle later applied in physics by Einstein—that the position of the observer is an integral part of the data.” And, since each class of people in human society is in a different social position, each will experience a different viewpoint and ideological outlook on what they observe.
Thus, Marx concluded, there are no “objective” ideas. Ideological or philosophical arguments over what actions are really “true” or “just” are irrelevant, since “truth” and “justice” are only what humans make of them—the definition of “justice” varies according to the changing social circumstances of the human beings who are attempting to define it. As Marx says:
The whole problem of the transition from thought to reality, and thus from language to life, exists only as a philosophical illusion; it is justified only to the philosophic mind, puzzling over the origin and nature of its supposed detachment from real life.Marx did realize, however, that ideological conflict was a fact of life in any class-divided society. Since the ruling class creates and maintains the social structure that allows it to thrive, existing socio-economic relationships reflect its interests. And, since ideas and theories tend to conform to existing social structures and frameworks, the majority of the intellectual outlooks which are developed in bourgeois society tend to accept bourgeois social conditions as a “given”, and thus tend to reinforce and preserve them. As Marx writes:
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 ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.The Marxian view of ideology, then, is consistent with the dialectical and naturalist philosophical view held by Marx; existing social conditions are the framework within which ideas and theories must arise, but these ideas and theories are at the same time a component of these conditions, and can act to change them. In this manner, Marx writes, ideas themselves can become a force that alters existing social reality: “The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons—material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” Thus, “theory” and “practice” are not separate things, but two poles of a single interrelationship.
After Marx’s death, his dialectical viewpoint was abandoned and replaced by the “scientific Marxist” or “economic determinist” framework. In this point of view (and particularly in that variant of it that was codified by the Leninists), the distinction between “base” and “superstructure” mentioned by Marx was taken literally; the economic base directly determines the ideological superstructure, and ideology has no impact on human affairs—ideas and theories are simply automatic “reflections” of the thinker’s economic conditions. As writer Carl Boggs puts it:
In stressing the role of objective conditions, scientific Marxism accepted as axiomatic the notion that politics, ideology and culture were reflections of the material “base”—i.e., that they were elements of the “superstructure”. Subjectivity was regarded as mere “appearance”, with little independent or continuous existence of its own; ideology was thus understood as the distorted expression of social reality, as a form of rationalization or “false consciousness”.This concept of “false consciousness” plays a crucial role in the Leninist view of social change.
Leninist economic determinism held that human thoughts and ideas are derived from the specific economic circumstances within which these humans find themselves. This point of view takes literally Marx’s aphorism, “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.”
Since economic systems are divided into classes, and each of these classes finds itself in a different set of economic circumstances in relation to each other, these differing economic circumstances must, according to this view, produce in each class a distinct thought pattern and ideology consistent with their distinct economic conditions. In capitalist society, the owners are driven by their economic circumstances to defend capitalism, while the workers are driven by their differing economic circumstances to embrace socialism.
When the Leninists looked at the socialist movement as it existed shortly before World War I, however, they could find only the reformist Social Democratic Parties—the militant revolutionary movement was small, weak and cut off from the masses of working people. In the period 1917-1921, when social upheavals broke out in Italy, Germany and Hungary, revolutionary communist hopes that “the revolution” had at last begun were dashed by the death of these movements, brought about by a lack of mass involvement and broad popular support for militant organization.
In order to explain why the workers were so unwilling to embrace revolutionary communism despite the fact that, according to economic determinism, their economic positions should force them to do so, the Leninists had to resort to the concept of “false ideology”. The working class’s rejection of revolutionary communism, it was argued, is caused by a “false consciousness” which is imposed upon them by outsiders, and which these workers accept as their own. Rosa Luxemburg argued that the German, Italian and Hungarian revolutions had failed because the Social Democratic leaders had “betrayed” the workers, and had led them into the false ideology of liberal reformism. Lenin argued that the working class movement had been led astray by the trade union movement, which had produced an “aristocracy of labor” whose interests were closer to the capitalists than to the workers. All of the Third International Communists concluded that the capitalists had succeeded in corrupting the working class movement, infecting it with a “false consciousness” which hid from them their “real” interests.
This conclusion became the starting point for the Leninist theory of revolution. Lenin ruefully concluded that ”false consciousness” and ideological corruption had forever removed the revolutionary potential of the working class. As he says:
The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.
Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is—either bourgeois or socialist ideology.This left the Leninists with a dilemma; if workers could not develop a revolutionary class consciousness on their own, how then were they ever to attain it and thus make the revolution? Lenin’s answer was simple—the workers would obtain their revolutionary consciousness by having it brought to them by a dedicated core of communist theorists, by what he called “professional revolutionaries, irrespective of whether they have developed from among students or working men”.
This is the basis for the “Marxist-Leninist Party”, the elite cadre of trained dialectical materialists who interpret the economic laws which govern human society and who train the “backward sections of the masses” in these insights, all the while protecting them from “demagogues” who would lead them astray into the path of “false consciousness”. The Leninist parties do not aim to interpret the working class’s ideology—rather, they aim to create and control it. Thus the slogan of the Revolutionary Communist Party; “Create public opinion, seize power!”
The Leninist viewpoint was attacked vehemently by the section of the revolutionary movement that came to be known as “left-wing communists”, “neo-Hegelian communists” or, more commonly, “council communists”. Rather than a paternalistic party acting on behalf of the working class, the council communists called for worker self-emancipation, using the ideologies and direct actions developed by the rank and file workers.
Lenin, the council communists pointed out, assumed that human ideas had no impact at all on the development of human society; they were mere reflections of changes which had already taken place in the economic sphere, and were doomed to follow slavishly behind these economic changes. This was a return to the “mechanistic materialism” which had been criticized by Marx and Engels, who never believed that theories and ideologies had no impact on social development. It was a mistake, Engels declared, to assert that “because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history, we also deny them an effect upon history.”
Ideas, Engels writes, could not be simple reflections of existing economic relationships. Any ideological system, he notes, “must not only correspond to the general economic position and be its expression, but must also be an expression which is consistent in itself, and which does not, owing to inner contradictions, look glaringly inconsistent. And in order to achieve this, the faithful reflection of economic conditions is more and more infringed upon.”
Other critics have also attacked the Leninist reliance on “economic determinism” and “false consciousness”, saying the two concepts are inconsistent with each other. The Leninists assert that the lack of proletarian class consciousness is brought about by the superimposition upon them of a “false ideology” by the capitalists. By asserting this, however, the Leninists are depicting the workers’ ideology as coming from some place other than their own economic circumstances—they are seen as products of the capitalists’ economic situation, not the workers’. The admission that the workers are capable of accepting an ideology that not only does not reflect their own economic class interests, but is actually in conflict with them, can only lead to the conclusion that the ideology of the working class is not determined by their economic circumstances, and necessitates the rejection of economic determinism.
Further, in order for workers to fall victim to a “false consciousness”, there must exist some “true consciousness” which the workers “should” possess instead. The concept of a “true ideology”, however, is subject to the very same criticisms which Marx heaped upon the philosophers and their notions of eternal Truth and Justice—the concept is a-historical and fails to take into account the effects of changing social conditions. As Steven Shulman puts it:
The presumption is that workers have some identifiable set of objective interests, that these interests all coincide, that Marxists accurate recognize them, and that the workers unfortunately don’t.Ironically, in their “economic determinist” attempts to discount the effects of ideology on human society, the Leninists have in effect created their own ideology and have decided what the working class “should” think. The Leninist high priests have thus effectively closed off any analysis of capitalist society that does not fit in with their orthodox framework. As the Italian council communist Antonio Gramsci points out, “The deterministic, fatalistic and mechanistic element has been a direct ideological ‘aroma’, emanating from the philosophy of praxis, rather like religion or drugs in its stupefying effects.”
These presumptions render the concept of false consciousness inherently idealist; objective interests, after all, are as variable as the possibilities for the future, and therefore can only be specified with respect to a hope or a belief about how the future will unfold.
Rather than viewing the ideological struggle as a mere sub-category of the economic class struggle, the council communists have come to view both as an interpenetrating part of the other. All social relationships and ideologies, the council communists concluded, form a network of domination, which they referred to as a “hegemony”. If this hegemony is to be overcome and overthrown, then all of its facets must be attacked and undermined—and, since ideologies form a part of this social web, they must be attacked and undermined as well. Gramsci notes:
For the philosophy of praxis, ideologies are anything but arbitrary; they are real historical facts which must be combatted and their nature as instruments of domination revealed, not for reasons of morality, etc., but for reasons of political struggle: in order to make the governed intellectually independent of the governing, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another.By rejecting the Leninist notions of “economic determinism” and “false ideology”, the council communists were thereby forced to examine the capitalist “intellectual mode of production”, the process whereby the ruling class controls and directs the process of conceptualization and theorizing in order to prevent an alternative conception from being established.
Together with the problem of gaining political and economic power, the proletariat must also face the problem of winning intellectual power. Just as it has thought to organize itself politically and economically, it must also think about organizing itself culturally.
The process of intellectual hegemony falls, naturally enough, to the “intellectuals”, those who deal with abstract concepts, theories and ideas. In capitalist society, the category “intellectuals” includes such diverse occupations as psychologists, writers, motion picture producers, artists, educators and teachers, scientists, philosophers, political theorists and anyone else who has the fundamental task of transferring ideas or outlooks from one person to another. “These intellectuals are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’,” says Gramsci, “exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.” It is the intellectuals and the philosophers who have the role of justifying the world-view of the ruling class and of moderating that of the oppressed classes.
It is important to note that “hegemony” does not mean mere propaganda. Many times, the intellectuals who help to justify bourgeois social relationships are not even consciously aware that they are doing so—they may believe that their line of thought is completely independent of existing social structures, yet by accepting certain portions of the existing intellectual paradigm as “given”, the effect of their intellectual activity is to support the existing social order.
Nuclear physicists, for example, are not overtly political in their goals, but by accepting the intellectual frameworks of “natural laws” and “cause and effect”, they implicitly give weight to the capitalist view of economics as determined by the “invisible hand” of the “impersonal laws of the marketplace”. Biologists, by accepting the Darwinian notion that biological development is brought about through impersonal processes of evolution, accept and support the bourgeois notion that humans have little control over the direction of their social development within the natural process.
Psychologists and psychiatrists sincerely believe that they are attempting to cure the mentally ill by helping them to “adjust” to society. By accepting the present form of “society” as a given and by “treating” any “maladjusted” persons who reject it, however, psychiatry gives support to the bourgeois ideology that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds and that it is those individuals who reject it which must be cured, not the social conditions which bring about this dissatisfaction.
The institutions of education are, of course, vital in the bourgeois process of ideological hegemony. Primary schools are the most important means (outside of the family) by which young children are socialized to accept prevailing social norms as “given”. The curricula of primary schools are tightly regulated and controlled, and it is no accident that those who clamor for a return to teaching “traditional values” and the “three R’s” are usually political and economic conservatives. For the most part, the educational system in the United States has two major social functions—to educate people in the social conventions of the society within they must live, and to provide the intellectual and technical abilities which will enable workers to perform their jobs after they graduate.
Of course, the most visible of the instruments of ideological hegemony in the United States is the mass media. The press and, even more so, the television, provide most Americans with nearly all of the information they will ever obtain about the world around them. By circumscribing the information we receive and the alternative viewpoints we are exposed to, the mass media can have a powerful influence on what people think, believe, and are willing to act upon.
Again, it should be stressed that this process of hegemony is not merely a system of overt propaganda, in which the media deliberately disseminates false information in order to mislead people. The process is much more subtle than that; it works, not by forcing others to adopt a particular point of view, but by limiting all potential outlooks to those consistent with current social relationships—a process referred to by Noam Chomsky as “manufacturing consent”.
Bourgeois society makes the promise of “free speech and free press”, but the economic realities of capitalism effectively eliminate these possibilities. In essence, capitalism guarantees freedom of press—to anyone who has the resources to own one. As Marx noted:
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 mass media outlets may honestly believe that they are impartial and objective, but in reality they cannot change (or even consciously acknowledge) the fact that they are themselves large corporate entities, and are subject to all of the economic pressures which limit the viewpoints of any other large corporate entity. The existence of the media as an economic entity prevents it from viewing social reality in any framework that does not recognize or accept economic entities such as itself. The media cannot think in a non-corporate way precisely because they are corporations, and they are organized as corporations because without these economic resources, they would be unable to survive in a market economy.
In essence, the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie can be viewed as a sort of “secular religion”, in which existing social structures and relationships are deified and treated as an inescapable and unalterable part of reality. “The productions of the human brain,” Marx writes, “appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relations both with one another and with the human race.” The capitalist’s universe is dominated by the will, not of God, but of the Marketplace; the will of God was interpreted by the priests, but the will of the Marketplace is interpreted by the business owners. It is, Marx says, “a religion of everyday life”.
It is in this web of ideological hegemony that we can see the secret of the bourgeoisie’s elimination of dissent without the use of overt police force. As Bertell Ollman points out:
Capitalism differs from all other oppressive systems in the amount and insidious character of its mystification, in the thoroughness with which it is integrated into all its life processes, and in the degree to which it requires mystification in order to survive (all other repressive systems rely far more on direct force).This is not accomplished merely through manipulation or falsehood, however. Instead, it is accomplished through a process of gathering (and therefore presenting) all information within the context of an existing social framework, thus making it difficult for people to think thoughts which fall outside of that framework. As Ollman points out, the bourgeoisie’s ideological justifications cannot be blatant propaganda or total lies, for if they were nobody would believe them and they would fail in their purpose:
Bourgeois ideology offers explanations that are sufficiently in touch with the real world to permit life to go on and indeed for real progress to be made in some sectors. Though neither clear nor definite, there are limits, however, to what it can explain and what people will accept.Because of the limited scope of bourgeois ideology, viewpoints always arise which reject the accepted socio-economic paradigm. In each area of ideological hegemony, insurgencies occasionally arise which challenge, either explicitly or implicitly, the accepted bourgeois world-view. In education, students have organized to demand a greater role in determining what is learned and how it is taught. In the media, a number of small “alternative” publications have attempted to expound new viewpoints, while the rise of “public-access TV”, the Internet, and the proliferation of video cameras and computerized desktop publishing is increasing the ability of non-corporate sectors of society to disseminate their own point of view.
The ruling class, of course, is resisting all of these challenges. Sometimes, however, the capitalists themselves are forced to take actions which undermine their own ideological justifications: the New Deal, in opposition to the bourgeois religion of “laissez faire”, produced a massive governmental intervention in the economy, in essence saving the marketplace from itself. Bertell Ollman writes:
In the most recent period, the expanded economic role of the state . . . which was made necessary by the increasingly serious disruptions of the market, undercuts people’s belief in the market as a natural phenomenon, and with it their acceptance of their place and rewards in life as facts of nature.It is obvious that, if capitalist hegemony is to be undermined, it must be attacked in the intellectual sphere as well as the economic, racial, sexual and political spheres. To learn how to do this effectively, however, we must further examine the capitalist’s “religion of everyday life”. To help in this task, Marx introduced the concept of “alienation”.
The word “alienation” appears throughout Marx’s writings (particularly in the earlier, more “hegelian” works). Unfortunately, in the Leninist conception of Marxism, the concept of alienation has been almost completely lost (perhaps because Leninist “economic determinism” is itself a form of alienation).
Most people, even those who call themselves “Marxists”, have little understanding of the concept. “The existing confusion over the term ‘alienation’,” writes Ollman, “has reached the point that many people use it to register simple dissatisfaction or, worse, feelings of social maladjustment.”
To Marx, the term “alienation” had a very specific intention. It was used to signify a division which attempted to separate and treat as independent two things which were in reality inextricably united, and to give that artificial division a reality that it doesn’t have.
In the Marxian world-view, things are seen in their totality as a series of interpenetrating dialectical relationships. That humans are, on the whole, unable to see this process of mutual interaction is due to the aims and goals of their social organization, which are based upon mutually antagonistic classes and social relationships.
The ruling class accomplishes this by constructing a system of abstracted human relationships which come to be viewed and accepted as “real”. For instance, capitalist ideology declares that the economic circumstances of human beings are the result of the demands of an impersonal “Marketplace”—a marketplace which compels some people to do one thing and other people to do something else.
In reality, of course, it should be obvious that “the Marketplace” is merely an idealized abstraction which doesn’t exist in reality—it is merely an idealized version of the actions of human individuals. Like all other idealized abstractions (“History” or “Human Nature”), “the Marketplace” is incapable of independent action and cannot “do” anything:
History does nothing; it “possesses no wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is humans, real humans, that do all that, that possess and fight; “history” is not a person apart, using humans as a means for its own particular aims; history is nothing other than the activity of humans pursuing their aims.Marx compared this process of giving a human creation the ability to control human actions to that of a person who, one day, carves an idol from a piece of wood and then credits that idol with the attribute of having power over human beings, and falls down and worships it.
In nearly every case, this alienated ideological construction places humans in a passive role, and places a creation of human society in the active role. The marketplace is viewed as an entity that produces human actions, rather than the other way around. Marx compares this reversal to the Roman mythological figure Cacus, who steals oxen by dragging them off by the tail into a cave, making it appear as if the oxen have walked out of the cave rather than being forced into it.
The essence of alienation is that this abstraction comes to be viewed as an existing part of reality, as something which confronts human beings and forces them to act in certain ways. Marx writes:
Their mutual relationship appears to the individuals themselves as something alien and autonomous, as an object. . . The social character of activity appears here as an alien object in relation to the individuals.Alienation, Marx concluded, is the “consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power over us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations.”
The Leninist economic determinists are unable to move beyond this alienation, since they view “economics” as a “thing” which exists apart from humans and which, through “natural laws”, determines the actions of humans. The “scientific Marxists” fail to recognize that the concept of “economic laws” is as much an abstraction from human experience as are “history” or “the marketplace”.
Marx never made this mistake. He asserted that humans are the source of everything in society—that all social relationships and institutions are the creations of humans, and that humans can consciously act to change any of these social relationships and institutions. “Though Marx generally organizes his findings around such non-human factors as the mode of production,” Bertell Ollman points out, “his theory of alienation places the acting and acted-upon individual in the center of this account.” Engels puts it more simply: “Economics deals not with things but with relationships between persons, and, in the last resort, between classes.”
By using alienating forms of ideology to present capitalist outlooks and institutions as unalterable “given” parts of reality, bourgeois hegemony prevents the rise of any system of thought which rejects these institutions, and makes any such system of thought seem unrealistic and “utopian”. Ollman notes that such alienation has an effect on the development of socialist ideology among the working class: “Communism is seldom if ever opposed because one holds other values, but because it is said to be an unrealizable goal.”
Nevertheless, Marx concluded, the separation of humans from each other through alienation could not continue forever. Humans are completely dependent upon each other for their existence, and this dependence necessitates direct face-to-face interaction, without the mediation of alienating abstractions. “Humans,” writes Marx, “are in the most literal sense of the word a zoon politikon; not only a social animal, but an animal which can develop into an individual only in society”:
The real active orientation of humans to themselves as a species-being, or their manifestation as a real species-being (i.e., as human beings), is only possible by their really bringing out of themselves all the powers that are their as species beings.“By ‘community’,” Ollman adds, “Marx has in mind a sincere and multi- faceted relationship binding each individual to everyone else in society.”
Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.
Bourgeois ideology, of course, asserts the opposite—that people are “rugged individuals” who are most free when their activities are isolated from everyone else. The capitalist concept of atomistic, self-supporting individuals, however, ignores reality. Humans cannot live independently from other humans. Not only are they dependent economically on what other humans have produced, but their very existence is dependent on a sexual and family bond between humans, which cannot take place without a social structure.
Direct face-to-face bonds between people are made difficult in capitalism, which uses alienating social institutions to mediate between inter-personal ties. The producer and the consumer, for example, rarely relate to each other directly as human beings in capitalism—they can only relate impersonally through the marketplace. “Such direct bonds,” Ollman says, “can only come into existence after all artificial barriers to the mutual involvement of people have been torn down.”
In order for alienation to be overcome and for people to relate as true social individuals, the alienating structures of capitalism must be torn down. Among these alienating constructions is capitalist economics, with its concept of impersonal economic laws.
Marx, therefore, saw communist revolution not so much as an economic program or an ideology, but as a necessary consequence of and prerequisite for the transcendence of human alienation. This transcendence, he pointed out, was only possible within the framework of the abolition of private property and the wage system:
The positive transcendence of private property as the appropriation of human life is, therefore, the positive transcendence of all alienation—that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social mode of existence.Thus, a society of freely-interacting human beings is not possible until the alienating structures of capitalism are destroyed. Those who see Marxism as simply an ideology or a socio-economic system are missing the point. As Marx himself writes:
Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement; and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for humans; communism therefore as the complete return of people to themselves as a social (i.e., human) being—a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed materialism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism, equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between human and nature and between human and human.
Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.Marxism is concerned with the destruction of alienating social institutions and the creation of new, humanistic relationships in their place. And, as we have seen, this is the same goal of every other radical social movement—to put social institutions under the free control of the humans involved, and to have a society of freely-interacting human beings.
Economics is, therefore, not the only sphere in which alienating social structures prevent free human action. Indeed, every social relationship which we have examined in this book is at root a relationship between groups and classes of people, mediated by a social construction that appears to “cause” these interactions. Just as the classes of worker and owner are forced to relate to each other through the social institution of the economic marketplace, the classes of men and women must relate to each other through the social institution of the family, racial and national classes are alienated from each other by artificial national boundaries, and those who wield political power are insulated from those who have none through the institution of the state.
Each of these non-economic class relationships developed into alienating institutions in the same way as economics. Ollman says;
In each instance, the other half of a severed relation, carried by a social dynamic of its own, progresses through a series of reforms in a direction away from its beginning in man. Eventually, it attains an independent life, that is, takes on “needs” which the individual is then forced to satisfy, and the original connection is all but obliterated.Bourgeois hegemony maintains the social institutions under which each class victim of alienation reproduces the conditions for this oppression by their own actions. The workers can only live by selling their labor power to bosses in the marketplace, and thus must accept the social institutions of wage labor, private ownership and exchange which reinforce the marketplace, and thus continues their own exploitation. Women must relate to men through family and gender roles, and thus accept and reinforce these roles for the next generation of women. Environmentalists who criticize industrial pollution must nevertheless operate within the framework of industrialism, and thus insure that industrialization will continue and cause more environmental damage.
This process of ideological alienation is reinforced in turn by the interlocking system of bourgeois social relationships, which reinforce and propagate each other. This web of ideological and institutional restraints, this network of bourgeois hegemony, is how the capitalist class stays alive in a world of lopsided social relationships.
Since all spheres of human society—economic, sexual, racial, national—are alienating and tend to reproduce each other, the total system of bourgeois hegemony can only be broken by attacking each institution. Just as economic alienation can only be broken by an “economic class consciousness” (i.e., by an understanding of the relationships of humans to the means of production), racial alienation can only be broken by “racial class consciousness” (an understanding of the relationship between differing ethnic classes), and sexual liberation demands “gender class consciousness” (an understanding of the way men as a class relate to women as a class).
Each oppressed class must develop a full picture of its social position and how this position is maintained and reproduced. Once it is seen clearly that all of these repressive social institutions and relationships are socially-produced—not inevitable natural “givens”—the possibility can be raised of changing these social relations and institutions through conscious willful actions. In other words, the possibility arises of revolution.
There is, we have noted, a tendency among critics of existing society to look at the social structures which most directly affect them. Radical feminists, for instance, examine the relationship between genders. Anarchists examine issues of power and control. Latino, African-American, Native American and other racial or ethnic activists focus on these national relationships. Traditional Marxists and Leninists focus on the interaction of economic classes.
Each of these particular outlooks is, however, incomplete and misleading. In a real functioning society of human beings, these “sub-structures” interpenetrate to reinforce and reproduce each other. In the workplace, an economic struggle takes place between capitalist and worker. At the same time, an authority struggle rages between employee and employer, while racial and gender struggles break out over racial and sexual issues.
In the educational institutions, these same struggles occur. The children of wealthy people are trained to assume roles of authority and leadership, while those from poorer families receive “vocational training”, and learn to accept the authority and discipline of the workplace. Women are conditioned for “female” roles, while everybody is socialized into acceptable sexual, racial and national roles.
In the nuclear family, some are dependent on the wages and income received by others, and this economic relationship reinforces the authority the wage earner holds over the rest. Women are assigned sexual and family roles to play, and men are assigned quite different roles. Unwritten rules concerning friendships, playmates and marriages reinforce the “socially accepted” relationships between families of different ethnicity, religion or class.
Some social critics have spent most of their time discussing which of these various forms of exploitation and repression appeared “first”. Engels gave the accepted “Marxist view” on the matter when he wrote, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that divisions along gender lines were the first “class” distinctions. The whole matter is, however, a pointless debate that does nothing to help us understand and change the actual conditions of today. To do that, we need to look at how present social relationships interact without worrying about which was chronologically “first”.
Other theorists have wasted their time and effort in debate over “whose oppression is the most oppressive”, and therefore which liberation struggle is the “most important”. This is another useless exercise, but one that has a fairly simple solution—the most oppressive relationship is the one you feel most oppressed by.
Prime offenders in both of these categories have been the traditional Leninist “economic determinists”. Contrary to the assertions of the Communists, however, the source of the bourgeois class’s power is not merely that it controls capital and thus places workers in a disadvantaged economic position. The ruling class’s power comes from the fact that it is able to implement and reproduce a number of alienating social relationships which safeguard its position of privilege, and that it is able to defend these social relationships from the attempts of the oppressed to change them.
The primary sanction for people to stay within their assigned roles is “negative reinforcement”; by venturing outside of “accepted” social roles, people cut themselves off from various social needs and desires. For instance, a worker is not forced to labor at a wage job and thus produce surplus value for the capitalist, but if she doesn’t she receives no wage income and thus cannot buy the necessities of life. A person who refuses to accept the established norms for family roles will not be able to marry and have a family.
The study of non-economic relationships explains how the capitalist system is able to maintain itself without resorting to physical coercion. These alienating relationships, between men and women, between order-giver and order-taker, between straight and gay—all serve to condition people to accept the bourgeois order of things as a natural, inevitable and inescapable part of reality.
Through such a system of hegemony, bourgeois society succeeds in compelling people to fit themselves into the accepted roles, and thus to modify their own behavior in ways that serve to protect and propagate these social institutions.
However, since social relationships in bourgeois society are geared towards serving the needs of the ruling elite rather than social needs, fitting oneself into the acceptable roles often means that some individual social needs remain unfulfilled. Any unmet needs, whether the need for shared decision-making, for free sexual roles, or for national self-determination, can become a potential source of people who reject bourgeois society’s established social roles. Whenever alienation is overcome, and existing social institutions are seen to be human creations rather than unchanging conditions of life, a radical consciousness results.
Furthermore, the desire to alter one set of social relationships can bring with it the possibility of seeing the limitations of others, and of substituting an entirely new social structure (one that is better-suited to the needs of freely- interacting individuals) for the existing one. In other words, it brings the possibility of a revolutionary consciousness.
The realization that a revolutionary consciousness may result from a number of different social conflicts opens bourgeois society to a unified attack. In essence, revolutionaries find that they must undermine all existing social relationships and put new social relationships in their place—the bourgeois cultural hegemony must be replaced by a new counter-hegemony.
The tactics of the traditional Marxists and Leninists are entirely unsuited for this task. No alliance of progressive forces can be maintained while any one element of this alliance continues to view itself as “more basic” or “more important” than the others. Inevitably, the rest of the movement will fall under the control of the strongest element, and the necessary broad-based movement will collapse. Only a wide-ranging social movement based upon autonomous but complementary components can hope to defeat bourgeois hegemony.
Such is the problem with Leninism and “scientific Marxism”. By asserting that the economic struggle between workers and capitalists is the “most important”, traditional Marxists ignore (or, worse, attempt to take over) the other struggles for human liberation—anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc. By asserting, for example, that racism exists only to serve the needs of capitalism, and keeps racial minorities in an inferior social position so they can be economically exploited, the “economic determinists” ignore the fact that the reverse is also true—capitalism exists to serve racism, and racists use unequal economic relationships as a way of keeping racial minorities weak and powerless. It is true that economic factors have a large impact on the structures of racism, but it is equally true that racism has a large impact on the structures of the economy.
Even in the “economic battleground” of the workplace, the conflict between workers and owners is not merely economic, not solely a haggling over wages and hours. Workers also organize and fight for such non-economic goals as decision-making power, the ability to freely express their own creativity at work, and even the ability to have fun on the job. When workers at a plant strike to protest sexual harassment on the job, or to demand day care centers at the workplace, or even the right to play checkers in the lunch room, they are fighting for more than mere economics; they are fighting for the right to determine their own destiny and to have control over their own circumstances. This fight extends into every sphere of bourgeois society, and forms the basis for every anti-bourgeois social movement.
Some social critics have begun to recognize the need for coordinated action against the ruling elite, and have attempted to unify the analyses of different social movements. The eco-feminists, for instance, combine an environmental and a feminist analysis in their programs, while the anarcho-communists enhance a Marxian economic analysis through an anti- authoritarian critique.
If bourgeois society is to fall, however, it must be attacked simultaneously on all of these fronts by a concerted, multi-faceted revolutionary front. While all of the various social dissident movements—feminists, anarchists, environmentalists, gay activists, socialists—must carry on their own struggles under their own direction, they must also grow together to form a cohesive movement with complementary goals. Bourgeois society is not an edifice with a “cornerstone” which, if removed, causes the whole structure to collapse. Rather, it is a teepee—remove any one of the supporting poles, and the others will prop it up. Remove all the poles, and a new structure can be built in its place.
Bourgeois hegemony can only be replaced through a socialist viewpoint; not merely “socialist” in the sense that the economic process must be controlled socially rather than by individual owners, but “socialist” in the sense that it is the conscious desire and activity of all members of society. The revolution must grow to encompass, not merely the economic means of production, but the entire mode of social life, including its familial, sexual, racial, national, gender and authority roles. The entire process of humanity’s interaction with itself and with its surroundings must be brought under the willfully-directed control of the totality of that society. It must be truly social-ist.
Such a socialist revolution can only consist of a series of interlocking “counter-hegemonies”. To combat capitalist hegemony in the workplace, it is necessary to replace the institution of the marketplace with direct cooperative production and exchange. To combat the hegemonies of men over women and straight over gay, sexist and heterosexist institutions must be replaced by freely-chosen personal relationships. To overthrow the hegemony of the nuclear family, free sexual relationships are a necessity. To end the destruction of the natural environment, industry must be transformed from a force of and for itself into the consciously-controlled tools of human beings. To break the grip of alienating ideology, education must be turned from a institution for training and socializing people into a personal learning experience. In every case, free and conscious personal relationships must replace the existing social restrictions.