Critical Reflection 4: the notion of Ideology

15 04 2010

What is democracy? Communists are said to have claimed that the Soviet dictatorship was the only true proletariat democracy, while Hitler and Mussolini are both said to have believed that their respective systems of governance were higher, more real forms of democracy (Shields, 1958: pp 29).

Democracy can be understood simply as a system of governance. Its roots lay in Plato’s Republic emerging from the Greek word demokratia – rule of the people (ibid). However, this definition is hardly exhaustive and as such, fails to capture its complexity when we consider that democracy, as defined by the Merriam-Webster (2010), “is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation”. The Oxford English Dictionary (2004) maintains this definition but adds that a “democracy is a state of society characterized by a formal equality of rights and privileges”.

It is difficult to realize such a system even when we live and abide by said system here in Canada. Perhaps it best materializes itself in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter), which establishes a national code of practice within Canada. In this respect, Democracy can be considered an ideology in Gramscian terms as it “provides people with rules of practical conduct and moral behaviour” within the state (Simon, pp 58).

In his analysis of hegemony, Antonio Gramsci (1971) identifies the state as one of two superstructures of power; the other is civil society (Gramsci, 1971: pp 12). Unlike other Marxians prior to him, Gramsci did not perceive power as a top-down process. Rather, he saw power as a force exerted via the process of hegemony, whereby the cultural values of the ruling elite became the common sense of the masses. In this way, much like Foucault (1980), Gramsci suggests that power is best understood as a relation. As civil society adopts these ideologies as common sense, and therefore general practice, they passively contribute to the maintenance of the status quo and sustain the power of the elite.

Hegemony is expressed though consent and coercion (Simon, 1991: pp 12). The Charter is an imposed form of legal coercion that enforces discipline on all members of society with the consent of its members. It is coercive in that members must abide to it or they will suffer legal consequences. It is consensual in that subscription to the Charter provides consent to the ruling elite. Thus, the Charter represents an instrument of an overarching hegemonic power.

This is not to say that the Charter is neither purposeful nor valuable. The Charter protects the basic human rights of Canadians and perhaps it represents those of other societies and nations at large. Though, as will be discussed below, this latter view may be considered imposing and ethnocentric. The Charter is used as a means of illustration to show that hegemony and power need not always be considered pejoratively. It also shows that the process of hegemony is hinged upon the passivity of civil society and their reluctance to question the ways in which power is imposed and behaviour is regulated.

Perhaps one of the effects of such coercion though, is that it establishes a dichotomy of appropriate behaviour. That is to say, if one does not comply with democracy or the rules suggested by it, and certainly the agents that purport it, than one must be wrong and for that reason deviant. The imposition of such a standard presupposes its supremacy over any other socio-political system of governance and suggests ethnocentrism.

In creating this dichotomy and advocating it in concert with other supporters of democracy who bear a control over the flow of information, Edward Said (1993) proposes that a new form of imperialism has emerged. Cultural imperialism, as he calls it, is expressed when the dominant power is further aided by the capabilities of such channels of dissemination that them to rule a territory from a distance in their ability to disseminate information over large areas without having to physically enter the borders of another nation or leave their own (Said, 1993: pp 6-9).

It seems as if Said’s worries are premised on a cultural studies perspective (Hall, 1980), which might question the type of information being imbued upon recipient nations. More specifically, from this perspective, Said is expressing anxiety over the information that might be excluded and the implications of such on the recipient.

I recognize the need for concern in this area. Communication created in and disseminated by one social system and input into another may not represent the cultural values of the recipient. It is logical to infer that such incongruence could result in a degradation of the unique culture of the recipient’s land. However, Said pays little respect to recipient nation’s agency and makes a number of assumptions in doing so.

Said assumes that the content will be understood as it is intended by the sender or in the same way it would in its home territory; second, that it will be absorbed by the recipient nation in such a ways so to form an extension of the sending nation. I concede that in support of Gramsci’s thesis, when receiving nations buy into incoming content foreign content, be it print or television, or actively seek out content on the Internet, an argument can be made that civil society willingly consents to the dominant power. However, I question Said’s anxiety until I have the opportunity to look further into how recipient nations manage incoming foreign content and what it is that they do with it.

Democracy is a socio-political system of governance. The notion of governance implies a head of state and a code of conduct. The notion of a system implies that the state serves a particular function. For a system to function, it must have boundaries and order. These boundaries are shaped through ideologies that are, in Gramsci’s eyes, purported by the state and absorbed unquestionably by the majority of civil society. Therefore, democracy is an ideology. It, along with other ideologies, need not be viewed through a negative lens, though much of the discourse surrounding ideologies suggests otherwise. The point to be made here is that ideologies involve politics of exclusion. That is to say, they exclude those which fail to conform and assume supremacy over them.

Works Cited:

Foucault, M. (1980). Truth and Power. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (pp.109-33). New York: Pantheon.

Gramsci, A. (1971). The Intellectuals. In Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

Hall, S. (1980) Cultural Studies: two paradigms. In Media, Culture and Society 2, pp 57-72

No Author, (2010). Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved March 1, 2010 from Merriam Webster Website: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy

Barber. K. (Ed) (2004). Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press

Said, E. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage.

Shields, C. (1958). Democracy and Catholicism in America. Toronto: McGraw-Hill

Simon, R. (1991). Hegemony & Ideology. Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (pp. 22-29 & 59-67). London: Lawrence& Wishart.

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