Dominant ideology

From Academic Kids

The dominant ideology in Marxist or marxian theory is the set of common values and beliefs shared by most people in a given society, framing how the majority think about a range of topics, from art and science to politics. It precedes and overlaps with the idea of a paradigm. Compare with Gramsci's hegemony.


Ideologies in history

In feudal societies, the dominant ideology took religious forms, such as Christianity, making sense of nature and society by means of traditional teachings, established authority and faith.

In capitalist societies, the dominant ideology takes a secular form, founded on property rights, but extending to rights in general, and other iterations of a fundamental individualism. It can also extend to include representative democracy.

Class conflict

The dominant ideology is understood by Marxism to reflect or serve the interests of the dominant class in that society - if the dominant ideology conflicted with the legitimacy of the dominant class's rule, then society would have to be in a state of war with itself, with the dominant class appearing as an illegitimate occupation force. This theory is summarized in the slogan: The dominant ideology is the ideology of the dominant class.

One way to understand marxist revolutionary praxis is that it seeks to achieve just that situation of social unrest in which the ruling class is seen as illegitimate - a necessary precursor to achieving the aim of overthrowing the dominant class of capitalism, the bourgeoisie. The ideology of the working class has to achieve dominance, in order for the working class to become the dominant class.

Two versions

There are two distinct, rival models offered by Marxists to characterize the operations of the dominant ideology. A crude summary of both models follows:

Top down

In the first model, ideology is constructed in a more or less deliberate fashion by bourgeois or petit-bourgeois intellectuals. Since the bourgeoisie owns the media, it can select which ideas are represented there, and selects just those ideas which serve its own interests.

The working class is overwhelmed by the barrage of bourgeois ideas, since it owns no media of its own, and perhaps because it lacks intellectuals of its own. It adopts a bourgeois outlook on its own exploitation (sometimes termed false consciousness) and loses its political independence as a class.

Bottom up

In the second model, ideology emerges spontaneously at every level of society, and simply expresses the existing material structure of that society. Members of every class construct their own understanding of the society, based on their personal experiences. Since those experiences are primarily of capitalist social relations, their ideology tends to reflect the norms of capitalist society. Here the content of, for example, a newspaper is determined not by the prejudices of the relevant media mogul, but by the social narrative to which both proprietor and reader contribute. Workers in this model are not passive victims of brainwashing.

The working class begins to experience and express a different type of social relation, one that challenges the legitimacy of capitalism, with the birth of trade unions. Workers gradually achieve successes by taking a collective approach to their individual problems. This new material structure in capitalist society forms the base of a new ideology, one which expresses the interests of workers and which is contradictory to the dominant ideology. Certain Marxists term this phenomenon "embryonic class consciousness".

Critical note

In Marxist theory, a particular class comes to dominate society when that class is a progressive force powerful enough to overthrow the previous ruling class. For example, the great bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries occurred because the bourgeoisie had become the standard-bearer for social progress, the universal class. The bourgeoisie gradually began to lose its progressive character and became increasingly reactionary once it came to power (since it began to support the status quo rather than seek further social progress). As a consequence, the dominant ideology may contain an admixture of socially progressive and regressive elements. Therefore, Marxists do not reject everything and anything related to the dominant ideology of capitalism; rather, they agree with its progressive elements and criticise its regressive elements. In other words, Marxist critiques of the dominant ideology of capitalism are not normally crude rejections of their content, but rather of their limiting, capitalist form.

Vulgar versions of such marxian critiques, in which both form and content of bourgeois rights are devalued, have been deployed by repressive states to justify denying their citizens basic human freedoms. It is a matter of controversy between Marxists and their critics whether such outcomes are necessitated by the theory, or are rather perversions of the theory.


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