Monday, May 09, 2011

Quilting point

"The class character of an ideological discourse is revealed in what we could call its specific articulating principle. Let us take an example: nationalism. Is it a feudal, bourgeois or proletarian ideology? Considered in itself it has no class connotation. The latter only derives from its specific articulation with other ideological elements. A feudal class, for example, can link nationalism to the maintenance of a hierarchical-authoritarian system of a traditional type - we need only think of Bismarck’s Germany. A bourgeois class may link nationalism to the development of a centralised nation-state in fighting against feudal particularism, and at the same time appeal to national unity as a means of neutralising class conflicts - think of the case of France. Finally, a communist movement can denounce the betrayal by capitalist classes of a nationalist cause and articulate nationalism and socialism in a single ideological discourse - think of Mao, for example. One could say that we understand by nationalism something distinct in the three cases. This is true, but our aim is precisely to determine where this difference lies. Is it the case that nationalism refers to such diverse contents that it is not possible to find a common element of meaning in them all? Or rather is it that certain common nuclei of meaning are connotatively linked to diverse ideological-articulatory domains? If the first solution were accepted, we would have to conclude that ideological struggle as such is impossible, since classes can only compete at the ideological level if there exists a common framework of meaning shared by all forces in struggle. It is precisely this background of shared meanings that enables antagonistic discourses to establish their difference. The political discourses of various classes, for example, will consist of antagonistic efforts of articulation in which each class presents itself as the authentic representative of ‘the people’, of ‘the national interest’, and so on. If, therefore, the second solution - which we consider to be the correct answer - is accepted, it is necessary to conclude that classes exist at the ideological and political level in a process of ar ticulation and not of reduction.

"Articulation requires, therefore, the existence of nonclass contents - interpellations and contradictions - which constitute the raw material on which class ideological practices operate. These ideological practices are determined not only by a view of the world consistent with the insertion of a given class in the process of production, but also by its relations with other classes and by the actual level of class struggle. The ideology of a dominant class does not merely consist of a Weltanschaung which ideologically expresses its essence, but is a functioning part of the system of rule of that class. The ideology of the dominant class, precisely because it is dominant, interpellates not only the members of that class but also members of the dominated classes. The concrete form in which the interpellation of the latter takes place is a partial absorption and neutralisation of those ideological contents through which resistance to the domination of the former is expressed.

"The characteristic method of securing this objective is to eliminate antagonism and transform it into a simple difference. A class is hegemonic not so much to the extent that it is able to impose a uniform conception of the world on the rest of society, but to the extent that it can articulate different visions of the world in such a way that their potential antagonism is neutralised. The English bourgeoisie of the 19th century was transformed into a hegemonic class not through the imposition of a uniform ideology upon other classes, but to the extent that it succeeded in articulating different ideologies to its hegemonic project by an elimination of their antagonistic character: the aristocracy was not abolished, in the jacobin style, but was reduced to an increasingly subordinate and decorative role, while the demands of the working class were partially absorbed - which resulted in reformism and trade-unionism. The particularism and ad hoc nature of dominant institutions and ideology in Great Britain does not, therefore, reflect an inadequate bourgeois development but exactly the opposite: the supreme articulating power of the bourgeoisie’s. Similarly, ideologies of dominated classes consist of articulating projects which try to develop the potential antagonisms constituting a determinate social formation. What is important here is that the dominant class exerts its hegemony in two ways: (1) through the articulation into its class discourse of non-class contradictions and interpellations; (2) through the absorption of contents forming part of the ideological and political discourses of the dominated classes. The presence of working class demands in a discourse - the eight-hour day, for example is insufficient to determine the class nature of that discourse. The political discourse of the bourgeoisie also came to accept the eight-hour day as a ‘just’ demand, and to adopt advanced social legislation. This is a clear proof that it is not in the presence of determinate contents of a discourse but in the articulating principle which unifies them that we must seek the class character of politics and ideology."

Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism - Fascism - Populism, NLB, 1977, pp. 160-2