Sunday, July 30, 2017

Theories of Ideology and Sciences of Belief Systems

Around the time that I left the SPUSA, I conceived a non-fiction writing project which I think I will be laying aside. Tentatively entitled "The American Ideology," the aim would have been to try to identify a set of ideological presuppositions that would be both peculiar to citizens of the United States and nearly universal among them. I still think it would be a worthwhile project, but not necessarily the best use of my individual efforts.

Theories of ideology play approximately the role in Marxism that epicycles did in Ptolemaic accounts of the solar system. While important, foundational hints were provided were provided in Marx's work--the first chapter of Capital on commodity fetishism, the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and of course The German Ideology, left to the gnawing criticism of the mice and published posthumously--it was never his top priority. Nor should it have been. As of his death, working-class political parties had been formed in all the countries in which advanced capitalism had taken hold (including Britain and even the United States), and these parties were growing and advancing in their theoretical and practical comprehension of capital. The proletarian revolution was on the march. Ideology--the ruling class's mechanisms of deception and self-deception--would no doubt be overcome. The future was bright.

The concept of ideology takes on an importance to Marxist thinkers in direct proportion to the apparent distance of the proletariat from fulfillment of its imputed historic role. Lenin wrote "Imperialism and the Split in Socialism" at a moment when he thought he would not live to see a revolution. Gramsci's notebooks were written in a Fascist prison. Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" functions as a postmortem of the 1968 French uprising and his own party's dubious role in bringing about its defeat. Theories of ideology derive sophistication from the depths of their authors' despair.

Theories of ideology are important and necessary if one aims through politics to hold onto a long-term hope for victory, and to trace a reasonable-seeming path from defeat to victory. The important phase here is "long term." If there is no long term, or at least no reliable promise of it, then theories of ideology no longer serve a purpose for political tactics. It may be nice to understand why people believe what they believe, and how it feels to believe the things they do, even if those beliefs are ultimately self-destructive--a radical extension of empathy--but unless one has a path forward for shifting those people from false consciousness to true, that knowledge is of limited utility. In a short-term perspective, it more useful to be able to assess whether, on the basis of a grouping's current set of beliefs, it is possible for them to be inspired to take beneficial action. Such a judgment may well be entirely independent of one's judgment of the truth value of those beliefs.

So I am setting aside the "American Ideology" project. One of the more useful things to come of it, however, was reading Towards a Science of Belief Systems by Edmund Griffiths. I say this even though I consider the book itself to be flawed, precisely insofar as the author holds to a notion of the scientificity of a certain form of Marxism. This blog post will not be comprehensive critical analysis of the book. But I will highlight some of what I regard as its strengths and weaknesses.

A strength is his definition of "belief systems": "a set of propositions held to be true, to which some emotional charge (affect) is attached and which gives more or less cogent expression to a general sense of how the world is." (§3) But this in turn reveals a weakness, namely his insistence upon the phrase "belief systems" in lieu of "ideology." For example, he writes, "Among Marxist writers, meanwhile, ’ideology’ is correctly used in a sense that is both broader and narrower than ‘belief system’: broader because it also includes, for instance, the arts, and narrower because it refers only to phenomena that are seen determined in some way by a mode of production." (§3) Both the narrowness and broadness that Griffiths imputes to "ideology" as compared "belief systems" seem dubious to me. The broadness because, by emphasizing the propositional content of belief systems, it downplays the importance of phenomena, such as the artistic works, from which it may be difficult to extrapolate a belief system's propositional content, but which may be essential for decoding its affective meaning for believers. And the narrowness because, if Marxism is taken seriously as a science, then in the final analysis every phenomenon is ultimately "determined in some way by a mode of production."

In general, Griffiths seems motivated by a kind of anxiety about the scientificity of Marxism. By electing the term "belief systems" he wishes to hold open the possibility of participation in his proposed new science by people who do not accept Marxism, and thus might be repelled by the term "ideology" and its associations. Yet he himself holds to the truth of a certain kind of Marxism, and devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 5) to articulating the possible relationships between "belief systems and the materialist conception of history."

(A secondary problem here is that "materialist conception of history" ought not to be treated as singular, or as identical with Marxism. The latter has already been shown by Plekhanov in his Development of the Monist View of History, which shows how Marxism borrows from and extends insights from earlier forms of historical materialism. That there can be other materialist conceptions of history is central to my emerging world view, i.e. one that would dispense with the dualism between "man" and "nature" implicit both in Marx and in his putatively "monist" predecessors, as can be found for example in this passage from "The Critique of the Gotha Program": "Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. the above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.")

From his definition, Griffiths identifies two topics of analysis that are essential to analysis of belief systems. One would be the affective dimension, and to this his book contributes far less than might be hoped. The other is the propositional content and how it hangs together through a combination of explicit and implicit beliefs. This hanging together is described through what he terms "descriptive logic," that is, analysis of how believers actually reason, rather than an attempt to impose prescriptive, formal logic onto the propositions of a belief system. The power of this methodology can be seen precisely in that it can be applied to Griffiths himself.

Let us take, for example, a statement of Griffiths that I find factually false, since these can often serve as entry-points to the implicit reasoning of a belief system:

"It may seem odd that no well-developed science of belief systems has yet to be put forward within Marxism, and that the most thoughtful and interesting Marxist writers have not typically devoted a great deal of their attention to belief systems – certainly much less than they have given, say, to the arts. There are book-length studies of artistic and aesthetic questions by such prominent Marxists as Plekhanov, Lukács, and Trotsky; and a number of brilliant Marxist thinkers have done their best work precisely on the arts (Caudwell, Max Raphael). Belief systems have not been so favoured. There is Kautsky’s stimulating book on early Christianity, there is some outstanding work by Marxist historians and other scholars (Rodinson, Christopher Hill, Peter Worsley)... but, in general, Marxism’s knowledge of aesthetics and the arts is considerably in advance of its grasp of belief systems." (§108)

I have already given a brief criticism of Griffiths' differentiation of "aesthetics and the arts" from "belief systems," but the factual errors of this passage go deeper. At best it represents an incomplete bibliography, at worst a blind-spot: One can use the author names given to reconstruct some of what a fuller bibliography of Marxist theories of belief systems would include. For example, Plekhanov’s Monist View contains much material in this vein; his oeuvre has been incompletely translated into English, but Griffiths’ fluency in Russian denies him this excuse. Lukács’ work includes not only History and Class Consciousness, but also Eclipse of Reason. From Trotsky: The Stalin School of Falsification, Their Morals and Ours, and In Defense of Marxism are all must-reads for examples of reconstructions of the belief systems of others and their articulation to class interests. Then there are the missing names (Gramsci being the most glaring omission).

A bit of "descriptive logic" goes a long way in reconstructing Griffiths’ apparent blind-spot. In the following reconstruction, I follow Griffiths' convention of italicizing those propositions which are directly quoted from the work of the believer, leaving the implicit steps in the reasoning process in plain text:

  1. Marxism is true.
  2. If Marxism were true, then we would be on the way to the proletarian overthrow of capitalism and creation of communism.
  3. We appear to not be on such a path.
  4. In the history of Marxism, apparent failures of the proletariat to fulfill its historic mission have been explained with reference to theories of ideology, which claim to account scientifically for belief systems.
  5. None of those theories of ideology accounts well for the present world political situation.
  6. Thus a well-developed science of belief systems has yet to be put forward within Marxism.

I would thus argue that Griffiths succeeds partially in his aim, in developing a theory of ideology (though he does not call it that) whose power is not dependent upon agreement with the author's Marxism, and that this power is demonstrated precisely insofar as the methodological insights of descriptive logic can be applied critically to Griffiths himself. Extension of this study can include the further elaboration (and formalization) of descriptive logic, but would also need to attend to the comparatively weaker portion of Griffiths' work, the study of affect. As with his gloss on Marxist theories of ideology, there are bibliographical gaps that provide a hint as to directions for future research. For example, there is a substantial Enlightenment and proto-Enlightenment literature on the relationship between reason and affect. Spinoza and Rousseau stand out to me as its pinnacles of achievement. Comparing this literature with the literature of modern experimental psychology to see how well it has held up would be a worthwhile endeavor for someone who wished to study the affective nature of belief systems (or ideologies--I am convinced that the terminological distinction is largely a matter of taste.)

There is far more of value to be found, in embryo, in Griffiths' slim little book, and I may return to my notes on it for other entries. But I would argue that, at this moment, the study of ideologies has more ethical and aesthetic import than political significance. And so for the time being, I hope to be able to turn such of my energies as are available for writing away from the essayistic and back toward the fictional.

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