Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view

on 14 October 2007 at about 23:08

Originally posted at CEMP

This lecture started to develop ideas about the relationship between media and society. A key concept in understanding theories about the media, and the influence of media on society, is that of 'ideology'. This lecture looked very broadly, and therefore very selectively, at the history of our ideas about 'ideology' over the last 150 years.

We looked at the Berlin Wall and its fall in 1989 to illustrate some of the ideas; we explored 'Marxism', because Marxist ideas have been an incredibly important part of the foundations of our ideas about media and ideology; and so therefore we saw a long procession of dead white men.



In part one of this lecture, we looked back at important Marxist ideas about ideology and society.


The Berlin Wall is a joke.

Holy Moly have a website and weekly email which take an 'irreverent' and foul-mouthed take on celebrity gossip. A couple of weeks ago, on 28 Sep 2007, they listed the following item in their email:

Nasal Herr

Welsh acting scarecrow Rhys Ifans, the man who is in no way sleeping with Sienna Miller, was once asked to house-sit for friends and enthusiastically agreed, having recently been evicted from his latest hedge.

On their return, the homeowners were greeted by an extremely apologetic Ifans who confessed immediately that he'd been a naughty boy. Returning from a drunken night out while they were away, he'd noticed a small box on the mantelpiece with a lump of cocaine inside. Rhys being Rhys, he promptly crushed and hoofed the lot.

Ifans did wonder aloud why it was grittier than most coke he'd had before, and immediately offered to replace the stash.

"Better fuck off to Germany then," said the homeowners. "That was a piece of the Berlin Wall that we got in 1989."

In the lecture this got a little titter, and it has a mixture of absurdity and horror about it. Why have a piece of the Berlin Wall as a souvenir? Crushing and snorting it seems almost a sacriligeous act - reducing the icon of 20th century conflict to celebrity decadence. [It's worth pointing out at this point that we have no evidence that any of this is true :) - we merely quote Holy Moly for the interestingness of their email]

We asked what does the Berlin Wall mean to us? Some suggestions were: "Freedom"; "reunification"; "the end of communism". These ideas all help us to think about ideology.


The Berlin Wall on YouTube

Here's a clip of some of the history of the Berlin Wall that some random person has put on Youtube:

So the key point is that the wall represented the divide between two different ideological and economic systems: capitalism in the West, and communism in the East. The contest between capitalism and communism is a good way to approach ideas about ideology.

So let's go back to the source - communism as an economic and social system evolved from Marxism; Marxism is what we call that set of ideas (ideology?) derived from Karl Marx's critique of capitalism.


Karl Marx 1818 - 1883

So here's the beardy guy who has influenced so much of every aspect of human life today.

Karl Marx


Karl Marx - key facts

In a capitalist society, we have to go to work and earn money, in order to buy the stuff we need. It is based around property, ownership and money. Marx argued that this will always lead to exploitation and inequality. He proposed that 'socialist' societies would be fairer. Instead of property and private ownership, everyone has shared ownership of the products of their labour, and so everyone works, not for money, but for the good of society and for satisfaction, brotherhood and comradeship. Marx was nothing if not compassionate.


Base and superstructure

Let's look at Marx's analysis of society. Marx split 'society' into two parts: the base and the superstructure.

Base and superstructure


So the 'base' refers to the 'political economy' - that is, whatever economic system a society is based on - such as capitalism, or socialism, or feudalism, etc. This defines how economic relationships work; so in capitalism, you have private ownership, commerce and currency, employment with employers and employees, people who own corporations, and people who work for them.

The 'superstructure' refers to the social institutions in a society which play a part in spreading cultural values: the family, religions, the educational system, and, crucially for us, the media. Of course, the media was a very different thing when Marx was writing in the 19th century - no TV or cinema existed. The place of the media in the superstructure has grown to prominence over the last 150 years.


The base determines the superstructure

To say that the 'base' determines the 'superstructure' is to say that our economic systems are the main driver for the cultural values we have. Here's how Marx and Engels put it The Communist Manifesto:

"What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes in character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class".

Engels, F. & Marx, K., 2004, The Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin, p30

Our 'intellectual production' - that is, the cultural ideas and values of society - change as 'material production' changes. In a capitalist society, the 'material production' is based on working to earn a living, in order to participate in the ownership of private property. Hence, the cultural values in a captialist society reflect the needs of that economic system: having a work ethic; valuing private property; aspiring to acquire more money; etc.

Here's a diagram to illustrate:

The base determines the superstructure


A Communistic Revolution

Marx analysed capitalism, and argued that it inevitably created inequality, resulting in the exploitation of the workers. Working classes, whom he refered to as 'proletarians', give their labour for wages, but the fruits of their labour are enjoyed by the owners (employers) of the factories and workhouses.

See Marxism 101 for more detail on how the capitalist system drives inequality, and ideological values.

Here are Marx and Engels again:

"Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win."

Engels, F. & Marx, K., 2004, The Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin, p52

Marx's project was to encourage the working classes, or 'proletarians' to overthrow their masters, the 'bourgeoisie' in a revolution. Nothing short of revolution would do.


Who are the bourgeoisie?

So, these bourgoisie, why do we call them this ugly French word? Broadly speaking, we might refer to the 'middle classes' as the bourgeoisie. Here's a clip of Stephen Fry on Room 101. The second item, in which he chooses souvenir plates as a candidate for Room 101, is worth watching - look out for how he describes the Daily Mail...


Fry has infinitely fascinating things to say about aesthetics and beauty, but we're interested in his description of the Daily Mail as a symbol of all that is 'bourgeois, defensive and aggressive'.

Today, the middle class is a slightly different animal than in the 19th century. Today the middle class is huge - most of us in this university get to call ourselves middle class. We don't have to engage in hard labour. We still have a working class - we often call them 'chavs' - and when we do we're effectively expressing our contempt for another class. The idea, much touted, that we live in a classless society today is sadly untrue.

In the 18th century, the middle class was a slightly different thing. In 'Capital' Marx charted the change from a feudal society to a capitalist society. According to Marx:

Bourgeois and proletarian ideologies

Marx argues that these two different classes have different ideologies - or sets of values. The proletarians must be subservient, while the bourgeoisie believe themselves to be superior. The proles must have a work ethic, while the borgeoisie are entitled to a life of luxury by accident of birth. The proles are commoners with no rights, no votes, no say, while the bourgeoisie are 'genteel', better, and in charge. These things appear to be natural and true - the way of the world.

So when we say that the base determines the superstructure, we mean that these different sets of values come about because of the underlying economic system. These values help to reinforce the status quo - which is exactly, of course, what the borgeoisie would like to see continue. After all, why would they willingly give up their privileged position in society?


False Consciousness

So, if Marx wanted to foment a revolution, in which the workers took control of the 'means of production', he believed it was necessary to inform the proletariat of their condition. He thought that once they realised how they outnumbered the borgeoisie, and how they were being mercilessly exploited, they would throw off the shackles and revolt.

This begs the question - why didn't they realise it already? What stops the working class from realising they are being unfairly exploited?

Marx's answer was 'false consciousness' - the idea that the workers are decieved about their own powerlessness. The ideological values that operated in society kept the workers from understanding their potential. Once they were informed, and told of their unfair exploitation, the scales would fall from their eyes.

We might speculate whether, if Marx were alive today, might he see the all-pervasive media in our society, as part of the way that this 'false consciousness' is perpetuated?


The failure of Marx's project?

No matter how much we may be persuaded by Marx's arguments, some facts are rather awkward as we look back on history:

Although the 20th century saw more carnage, butchery and murder than at any other time in human history, and some of the participants were communists, the fact is that the two world wars were largely a fight between capitalism and fascism. The communists indeed, were fighting on the same side as the 'allies' of the West.

So what went wrong? Is something more complex going on?


The Frankfurt School

We leap to the 1930s and 1940s. Marx's ideas have been very influential. Bastardised versions of his 'socialism' have been implemented in Russia and elsewhere. Fascism rises in Europe. A group of intellectuals based in Germany are convinced that Marx's ideas were too important to reject, and set about re-examining his arguments, and trying to account for the world they found themselves in.

The stakes were extremely high. These intellectuals were based in Frankfurt, and they were mostly German Jews. They had everything to lose, and as we know, being a Jew in Germany in the 1940s was usually fatal. Among their number were Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and others. They witnessed the rise of totalitarianism and fascism in Germany - which had hitherto been a capitalist democracy.

A key idea they proposed was that fascism was the logical consequence of capitalism: capitalism run wild leads to monopolies; when the state takes control of the monopoly, you have totalitarianism. They saw the 'political economy' changing before their eyes, and yet still the workers did not take control, and bring about a glorious socialist revolution.

So they re-examined the base and the superstucture, and switched the causal relationship about: they argued that the superstructure determines the base:

The superstructure determines the base


The superstructure determines the base

To say that the 'superstructure' determines the 'base' is to say that the cultural life and values that operate in society are what permit and perpetuate the economic means of production.

This effectively places ideology right at the centre of all social relations: social, political, economic, technological, etc. It is because the culture we live in reinforces certain sets of values that the economic relationships we have continue.

Adorno and Horkheimer wrote an important essay in 1944 called 'The Culture Industry'. By this time the cinema was established, and they were deeply critical of the films that were shown. The film industry was just another part of the capitalist means of production, churning out mass entertainment, which the workers watched willingly. After expending their hard labour in the day, they relaxed by watching movies which were characterised by escapism and romantic shlock. The masses, they argued, were stupified and pacified by these films. Their imaginations were numbed, and any thoughts of the discomfort of their lives, or chances to revolt, were stamped out by this entertaining drivel. They really were quite disparaging. Poor old Hollywood.


The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Let's look at another clip about the Berlin Wall. This is a news item produced by ABC.


The fall of the Berlin Wall is an important moment when peoples in several countries that had been under communist regimes really did revolt. We might think of the rise of the media in the latter half of the 20th century, especially Television, as playing a part in ensuring that the populations were exposed to the values of the consumer society, just over the wall. Why should these people, having seen the glorious bounty of the West and its capitalist mode of production, put up with their masters, whose political leadership had led them to live in comparative poverty?

This clip shows some of the Graffiti from the Wall. You can see at one point, trees on the western side of the wall, with lovely, juicy consumer goods hanging from their branches...


It is a rather cruel irony, that the best illustration of how exposure to alternative 'values' and 'ideologies' might be a factor in leading to revolution - the Marxists' best hope - is actually a moment when it is communism that is overthrown, rather than vice-versa.

The Frankfurt School were onto something when they stressed the importance of the superstructure. But where communism did take hold, it slid into totalitarianism, and nearly everywhere, it has collapsed. Cuba and China are amongst the few places where communist regimes still hold on.


The Ideological State Apparatus

The Marxist project to diagnose and fight capitalism continued, even as capitalism entrenched itself ever further into the fabric of the West. Louis Althüsser (1918 - 1990) a French Marxist, published a paper in 1970: 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses'.

The Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) is Althüsser's attempt to account for how members of a society are inculcated with the values necessary for the status quo to be reinforced.

A rather caricatured view of the ISA can be seen in this clip from Pink Floyd's The Wall, a film directed by Alan Parker (1982).


Note how the boy dreams of revolt, and burning the school and the teacher - but of course it is just a dream, which will never be realised - the ISA sees to that.

The educational system is characterised in this film as a machine for producing the drones necessary for the continuation of the capitalist system. Stamp out creativity and individuality, and 'socialise' people into functional members of society.



Althüsser's ISAs work through 'interpellation' - the idea that the ISAs are there to determine us as individuals. The idea is similar to what sociologists call 'socialisation', or even 'structuration' when they want to sound scientific. As we are born into the world, we are exposed to ISAs such as family, religion, education, and of course the media, all of which determine what we think of as normal.

We might think of this as the most extreme manifestation of a desperate Marxism... and it really highlights one of the key weaknesses in the ideas we've seen so far.


Stupid passive masses

Many of the ideas we've encountered share a problem: they try to deal with human behaviour at a macro-social level, from the rarified air of intellectual mastery, and in so doing, they treat the rest of us human beings as stupid, passive masses. Interpellation is a 'passive' device - you are interpellated, or determined, by your environment. You have no choice, freedom or agency of your own. The Frankfurt School, too, assume that the masses watching those Hollywood films, are being made stupid, and are somehow entirely passive - they absorb the ideological values of their society as though they are sponges. And the very idea of false consciousness requires that people are, frankly, stupid.

Indeed, it is another cruel irony that the hectoring of the Frankfurt School and other Marxists scarcely sounds any different to that symbol of all that is 'borgeois, defensive and aggressive' - the Daily Mail - yelling from the sidelines about how the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and the poor stupid masses can't be bothered or are too stupid to do anything about it.

Perhaps this is where the Marxist project to understand ideology failed to bring about the dream of equality that characterised its inception?



In part two of this lecture, we looked briefly at (possibly?) more helpful ways of thinking about ideology in contemporary society.


Determinism is too simplistic

The idea that ideology is something that happens to us, either because of the economic system, or because of the superstructural elements like education and the media, or even because of the great clunking hammers of ISAs, is too simplistic, because it forgets that human beings are imaginative, choice-making creatures with almost unbounded ingenuity.

We need something a little more complex to help us. Enter Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1937).



Gramsci was not just a Marxist intellectual - he was also a revolutionary, who led the Italian Communist Party and fought against Mussolini's fascists.

He's one of those very few people we could pick out, like George Orwell, who not only wrote and intellectualised about the injustices of life, but also put their money where their mouth was and tried to do something about it. Orwell didn't just write newspaper articles and books, he got a gun and went to Spain and fought the fascists. Gramsci spent the last 11 years of his life imprisoned by Mussolini.

His intellectual contribution was the idea of hegemony. So far we've seen that perhaps there might be two ideologies (one proletarian, one bourgeois), or just one big ideology, encompassing our entire society like a wet blanket. Neither of these ideas explains how ideology changes or evolves - which of course it must, since our cultural values and our political systems do change and evolve.

Hegemony is the name Gramsci gives to the notion that cultural values are constantly being fought, contested, and won, and in the process, they change. A 'spontaneous consensus' emerges as this process goes on. So whenever there is 'unrest' amongst the workers, the ruling classes must somehow meet that 'unrest', not just through brutal repression (because that didn't work for the Communists when the Berlin Wall fell), but also by persuasion, giving an inch here, taking an inch there.

The useful thing about the idea of 'hegemony' is that it acknowledges the place of dissent, negotiation, and contest. This forces us to think a little harder about how these contests occur. A useful way to think about this is to drop the whole 'ideology' business and think about 'discourses' instead.



Our world is filled with discourse - the ability to say things. Media-makers get to make a lot of discourse and reach large numbers of people with it. I get to make a lot of discourse by being a lecturer standing in front of 150 people and telling them stuff. We all get to make discourse every time we say things to each other. Graffiti artists make discourse on train stations and Berlin Walls.

We might think of hegemony, then, as the resultant - and ever-changing - outcome of the product of all of these discourses. Some of us have more influence on it than others, but none of us are ever out of the loop.

Indeed, it makes a lot of sense to place our emphasis on 'discourses' instead of 'ideologies'. We might even go so far as to say that our contemporary, media-saturated society is dominated by discourse.



Another key idea, another Marxist. Jean Baudrillard (1929 - 2007) contributed a key, complex, controversial idea to the debate about ideology, discourse, and the values that operate in a society.

You may be familiar with Baudrillard's work from the following shot from the Matrix:

The Matrix


Baudrillard's suggestion in Simulacra and Simulation, which he developed in other essays such as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place is deliberately provocative and controversial: there is no real world out there any more... there is only a simulation.

It would be wrong to think that Baudrillard means that the world is really like The Matrix film. Rather, we might think that what he's getting at is that our experience of the world is now totally mediated, or simulated - it consists only of discourse.

Our knowledge and understanding of wars, for example, at least for those of us who don't have to die in them, is indistinguishable from video-games. We can switch off the war, and forget about it, just by switching from the news to Who Want to Be A Dancing Celebrity Not Me Get Me Out of This X Factor, or logging onto

More than that - we consume discourses too. We consume media commodities, just like we consume clothes and cars and music and sex and food.


The Consumer Society

Here's an old clip, again featuring the Berlin Wall:


Perhaps it is indicative of the cosumer society in which we live that a corporation can quite happily co-opt the events of the collapse of communism, the 'liberation' of East Germany, and the conflict of the Cold War, and just add their logo to it in order to add value to their brand, and sell us some telecommunications.


The End of History

That the huge significant events of the 20th century can be condensed to a 60-second ad, and that we can countenance the idea that our lives are mere simulations constructed out of discourse, is perhaps what has led to the ability to think that we have reached the 'End of History'.

Francis Fukuyama (1952 - ) is a political economist and has been influential in the development of Republican politics in America. In 1992, he suggested in his book The End of History and the Last Man that it will no longer be possible for alternative systems to capitalist liberal democracy to ever arise again:

'What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.'

Fukuyama, F., 1993. The End of History and the Last Man, London: Harper

This is an extraordinary idea, and it presents us with some problems.



We've seen that 'ideology' as an idea has been almost used up - it seems to have meant anything from 'common sense' to 'the way of the world' to 'any political system' to 'a shared set of values'... indeed we live in an age which is often called 'post-modernity' in which no ideologies bring us together any longer. Religion has declined; the family has broken up. Perhaps the only things which truly bring us together any more are the soap episodes we discuss around the watercooler, the meaning of 'Lady Di's last smile'.

And since 'ideologies' have lost their notional grip on our shared cultural lives, perhaps it is possible that we forget to worry about the rise of fascism or totalitarianism. When we vote, if we vote, we choose between the leaders of political parties, with no ideological or 'policy' difference: we vote on whether we like them; whether their PR works for us; whether, as consumers, we feel happy 'buying into' them. If we can be bothered.


The Wall

And finally, perhaps Baudrillard and Fukuyama give us salutary warnings by proclaiming the end of history, the triumph of the mediated world: perhaps we should not be complacent about the triumph of the liberal capitalism of consumer society:

Banksy does Palestine

The wall, built in the last few years, separating Israel from Palestine. Banksy - graffiti artist at large - turns yet another manifest barrier between opposing ideas and peoples into a site for discourse.

Go Home

As reported by The Guardian

Banksy also records on his website how an old Palestinian man said his painting made the wall look beautiful. Banksy thanked him, only to be told: 'We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.'

Readings and Further Resources

You can flesh out some of the simplifications in this lecture by reading:

Strinati, D., 1995. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, London: Routledge, chapters 1 to 4.

Bignell, J., 1997. Media Semiotics: An Introduction, Manchester: Manchester University

Gripsrud, J., 2002. Understanding Media Culture, London: Arnold, chapter 2.

See also: UK Media Culture and the Media Timeline

Finally, at the start of the lecture, I asked you to write down a few key words that summed up your ideas about 'ideology'. What I forgot to do was ask you to do the same at the end! If you had, would those key words and ideas have been different, the second time around? If so, perhaps you've just witnessed the power of discourse - my power to influence the way you think about ideas - or my part in the ISA that is the machine of education.... Power will be one of the themes to which we'll return in this lecture series.

[Original] Comments

awesome…I know this lecture is a simplification but it’s been really helpful to seat my disparate chunks of understanding into a wider context. Thank you.

I wish you had taught me :)

Emma, joe is teaching you :) I mean he just did. this si the power of the network space. We all put stuff up and we all benefit from each other’s stuff. This way we learn loads. Now try an article that will tecah Joe something

So now go and read the Monsters and the Mall post again. If you didn’t understand it the first time, this post might help.

Can we pick up any of hte other ideas here and incorporate them into our understanding of onlein culture and behaviour. For example, I note that the web upsets many of the fixed ideas that maintain a stable-looking society. It promotes rapid change perhasp? And in doing so starts to make disagreement seem the norm more than agreement. It is also a new location for experiential marketing and therefore simply an extension of the market; a renewal of capitalist ideas. You might think of this when considering the evil capitalist Google versus Tims post on

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  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
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