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back to Therborn, eventually


For the past while now I’ve periodically thought to myself that I’d like to revisit Goran Therborn’s great and short book The Power of Ideology and the Ideology of Power (I may have that reversed), and to revisit it specifically in relation to aspects of the covid pandemic. (My notes from when I read it are here, I've not reread them yet. I briefly talk about this as well in this short post on some thoughts I had reading Jan Rehmann's ideology book.) I don’t know when (if?) I’ll actually get around to that as I’m snowed under with other work and family stuff but I thought I’d at least take a few minutes now to jot down what I recall from it and some preliminary thoughts that might inform and enhance that eventual revisiting.

In one section Therborn talks about how ideology always makes claims in relation to three fundamental questions: what is (not) good, what exists (or doesn’t exist), and what’s (im)possible. He builds on this later to present a list of six basic orientations toward existing predominant institution, I forget all six but it’s things like finding one’s self adequately represented by authorities, being deferential, being afraid, being resigned. These orientations all foster the operations of the institutional machinery of top-down power - they’re orientations of loyalty, so to speak, or equivalents to loyalty. (I’ll add that these are subject to sudden shifts or reversals when the context changes - loyalty to an institution that is being re-organized, demoted, or demolished can end up being a source of social movement mobilization, I have a chapter on this in an edited volume where I draw on Therborn. Note to self: look that over again as well when/if I get around to rereading the Therborn.)

As I recall Therborn treats, or at least is easily read as treating, ideology as a matter of communication, claims-making, and that certainly has a role: we see claims-making occur often in the world. I think the framework is more powerful, though, if expanded to include a kind of common sense prevalent in times and places, a common sense which has elements beyond communicated ideas. (I should say, those elements can themselves be communicated.) I mean basically conclusions from experience, which is to a significant extent institutionally constructed. I’m thinking in part of this bit by Peter Burnham. He writes that government’s “public rejigging of bureaucratic practices”can “change expectations regarding the effectiveness and credibility of policy making.” This means that “one of the most potent forms of ideological mobilisation” occurs through “changes in the form in which state policy making is carried out (capitalising thereby on the ideological effects of changed material practices).” This is in the context of what Burnham calls depoliticization, understood “as a governing strategy.”

I think ideology is a category that cuts across both “governing strategy,” on the one hand, and on the other, for lack of better terms, systemic inertia or system reinforcing feedback loops on the other. What I mean by the latter is that I think capitalism has or creates a kind of centripetal force: one effect capitalism has on society is to tend to foster its own reproduction. (Søren Mau’s forthcoming book Mute Compulsion is relevant to this; I’ve read the dissertation it’s based on, which is superb but not the book yet.) I’m unsure if people who write about ideology treat it as cutting across these two domains, including Therborn. I should say as well that I mean the two as a continuum and/or a difference in analytical perspective rather than a sharp distinction. In any case I think the concept of ideology at least as Therborn discusses it can apply across those domains. His analysis can apply to deliberate and explicitly communicated claims about Therborn’s three fundamental questions to unconscious, implicit answers to those questions, answers which arise in people’s individual minds and collective intellect as we navigate capitalist society. Alright enough for now, onto other work.



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