Dull Compulsion of the
The Dominant Ideology and Social Reproduction
One of the most influential ideas amongst many Marxists, the
Left and social theorists is what Abercrombie, Hill and Turner
refer to as ‘the dominant ideology thesis’.1 This thesis has it
‘that modem capitalist society … maintains and reproduces itself through the effects of a “dominant ideology” which successfully incorporates the working class into the existing social
system, thereby perpetuating its subordination’.2 Indeed, the
dominant ideology thesis is not so much a ‘thesis’ as a self-evident truth amongst a majority of the Left. The reproduction of
relations of domination and subordination, it is claimed, cannot
be sustained without the effects of a dominant ideology. Thus
Mandel argues that
To consolidate the domination of one class over another
for any length of time, it is … absolutely essential that
the producers, the members of the exploited class, are
brought to accept the appropriation of the social surplus
by a minority as inevitable, permanent and just.3
There is no need to labour the point here, but it should be clear
that such a view attributes an enormous power to the dominant
ideology as a necessary force in social reproduction. It is
precisely this attribution which Abercrombie et al make the object of their critique.
Ideological Incorporation – an empirical problem
The popularity of the dominant ideology thesis can be seen to
arise, in the main, from the need to explain the failure of the
class struggle to materialise into the revolution predicted by
Marx. Not only has revolutionary consciousness remained under-developed and has not spread throughout the working
class, but, more than this, many Marxists began to suspect that
the working class were actually accepting their subordination.
Much hinges on what is meant by ‘acceptance’. Relevant here
is the distinction which Mann makes between ‘pragmatic’ and
‘normative’ acceptance. In pragmatic acceptance ‘the individual complies because he perceives no realistic alternative’ ,
whereas in normative acceptance ‘the individual internalizes
the moral expectations of the ruling class and views his own inferior position as legitimate’. Mann goes on to note that
‘Though pragmatic acceptance is easy to accommodate to
Marxism, normative acceptance is not, and the unfortunate
pOpularity of the latter concept has contributed to the inadequacies of much modern Marxist theory. 4 These inadequacies
refer to those tendencies in theories of social reproduction in
which the assumed normative acceptance of the working class
‘explains’ their pragmatic acceptance, and in which the assumed normative acceptance is assumed to be a product of the
For Abercrombie et al whether or not the working class accepts the dominant ideology is essentially an empirical
The dominant Ideology – What Is It?
Prior to assessing the empirical evidence relevant to the acceptance or otherwise of a dominant ideology by the working
class, Abercrombie et al were frustrated in their task by the absence of definitive statements as to what the dominant ideology
actually is. Texts which make frequent reference to the power
of ‘the dominant ideology’, ‘ruling ideas’ or equivalent notions,
rarely provide these concepts with adequate substance. In view
of this problem, Abercrombie et al construct a dominant
ideology which, in the main, satisfies what many might consider a dominant ideology to be. Their construction includes a
range of beliefs which are held by various fractions of the
capitalist class, for example, the right to transfer property by
inheritance, existing principles of capital accumulation, etc.,
and beliefs which, while not necessarily those of the capitalist
class, might nevertheless be seen as relevant in justifying the
subordination of the working class, for example, deference to
authority, the neutrality of the state, etc. The beliefs included in
their construction are classified under four broad elements
which constitute the dominant ideology. These four elements
are the ideologies of accumulation, of state neutrality and welfare, of managerialism, and the penetration of bourgeois
ideology into working-class culture.
On to the evidence …
Drawing upon a wide range of survey data and ethnographic
studies on working-class beliefs relevant to, for example,
property rights, ownership, profits, the means of accumulation,
the occupational structure, the distribution of income, the right
to manage, the responsiveness of the state to ‘demands from
below’, the electoral system, individualism versus collectivism,
respect for hierarchy, deference to authority, etc., Abercrombie
et al find little empirical support for the dominant ideology
thesis. They note that ‘value dissensus can be found throughout
the working class’, and conclude that ‘social order cannot be
explained ~rimarily by ideological incorporation and value
In order to avoid possible confusion I want to make it absolutely clear that I too reject the dominant ideology thesis, and
that I accept much of Abercrombie et aI’s arguments, particularly their emphasis on the power of economic compulsion
and state coercion in reproducing relations of domination and
subordination. However, I cannot accept their interpretation of
the empirical data relevant to whether or not the working class
accept the dominant ideology. This interpretation suffers from
what might be called a ‘one-dimensional’ concept of ideology.
What I mean by this is that Abercrombie et al treat all the
beliefs they identify as constituting the four elements of the
dominant ideology as being of equal ideological value. Thus,
while there is little support amongst the working class for excessive profits and incomes, and little support for the idea that
profit should be the motor of economic activity, Abercrombie et
al admit that the empirical evidence does suggest a consensus
which accepts both the occupational structure and the structure
of incomes. They further admit that this ‘implies some endorsement of the meritocratic version of inequalitl … an agreement that inequality ought to be meritocratic’. Even though
there is disgruntlement with the manner in which the
meritocracy works, it is nevertheless judged in terms which
strongly suggest acceptance of bourgeois values. Mann notes
that ‘almost all persons, of whatever class, will agree with
statements like “It is important to get ahead,”.7 Significantly
Abercrombie et al observe that ‘large numbers of people agree
… on the significance of education, training and skill as criteria
of economic worth and social honour’. 8 Further, these criteria
are soaked in dominant definitions of ‘merit’, ‘ability’ and ‘intelligence’, which are closely bound up with the development
of identities and expectations. The acceptance of ‘inequalities
based on meritocratic principles’ is, in my view, the acceptance
of part of an underlying ‘ideological framework’, or ideological core at the centre of the dominant ideology.
Similarly, while it can be agreed with Abercrombie et al
that ‘the conduct of industrial relations reflects value dissensus,
the rejection of hierarchy and submissiveness … ‘ ,9 it also
reflects, again by their own admission, ‘on the labour side,
ideas about what is a just wage… ‘.1O This not only reflects acceptance of meritocratic principles, but the very acceptance of
the idea of ‘a wage’ implies the acceptance of the domination
of capital over labour, and of the division between employer
and employee. Again this is basic, it is a core element of the
underlying ideological field. It is this element which
legitimates the existing principles of accumulation, even
though the ‘surface’ ideologies of accumulation are widely
rejected by the working class. Further, in conjunction with the
acceptance of meritocratic principles, it implies the acceptance
of the existence of a managerial level.
The empirical evidence on working-class beliefs, I am
claiming, can be interpreted in a way which suggests that the
working class accepts core elements of the dominant ideology,
which I have identified as acceptance of meritocratic principles, and acceptance of the domination of capital over labour.
These core elements provide the ideological framework within
which the dissensus referred to by Abercrombie et al is located.
Additionally there are deeply-embedded ideological
elements within the working class, which though not classspecific are nevertheless class-relevant, in that they can be seen
to have a role in diluting class antagonisms, and in fragmenting
working-class solidarity. These elements include sexism,
racism, aspects of nationalism, cold war ideology and antiSoviet/anti-communist sentiments. I would thus conclude that a
majority of the working class do accept a dominant ideology, at
least in the manner in which I have identified it Whether or not
this ‘acceptance’ confirms the dominant ideology thesis is quite
The problem of commitment
In order to satisfy the requirements of the dominant ideology
thesis it is not only necessary that the working class accepts the
dominant ideology, but more than this, it is necessary that this
acceptance is sufficiently powerful to secure the reproduction
of class domination. In other words the ‘acceptance’ of the
dominant ideology must approximate something like a commitment to the dominant ideology.
As I have argued extensively elsewhere, there are
methodological problems involved in surveying beliefs, attitudes, values, opinions, etc. 11 Responses to questionnaires
and interviews are not necessarily valid indicators of an individual’s beliefs, values, etc. Further, questionnaires and interviews are widely regarded as unreliable. Far more important,
however, is that questionnaires and structured interviews are
particularly insensitive to registering the degree of commitment
to the particular responses recorded. It is not enough to enable
respondents to declare the degree of their agreement/disagreement with particular questionnaire items. What is required is an
indication of the degree of correspondence between
questionnaire items and the respondent’s own priorities. In
other words the survey data drawn upon by Abercrombie et al
was generated by the administration of questionnaires which
contained items of relevance to the dominant ideology. The extent to which these items corresponded to what is most relevant
to the concerns of the respondents is another matter altogether.
As Mann emphasises, ‘we have to consider not only a person’s
stated attitude but also its importance for him. ,12
With this in mind, Mann has closely scrutinised relevant
ethnographic studies. He suggests that ‘beliefs might not be of
great significance for the respondents’ .13 He cites research by
Veness which drew upon schoolchildren’s essays ‘describing
imaginary “successes” in future life’ .14 He notes that ‘it seems
probable that, though lower class children may endorse general
platitudes about the importance of ambition, these have little
relevance for their own life-projects’ .IS
Indeed, one searches in vain for empirical evidence which
supports the dominant ideology thesis. The required degree of
ideological motivation appears to be absent amongst a majority
of the populations of advanced capitalist societies. Rather, one
finds, as Simonds has observed, an ‘absence of belief’. He continues,
… Passivity, resignation, bewildennent and confusion,
disorientation, and marginalization have all been more
consequential elements of effective systems of social
domination than false consciousness in the strict sense
of the word, and the conditions that produce and
reproduce such incapacity are largely publicly identifiable features of the social environment, not some
mysterious process of class brainwashing or collective
I would prefer to talk of an ‘ideological difference’ amongst a
majority of the subordinated, but, in agreement with Simonds,
this indifference is attributable in the main to forces more
powerful than the dominant ideology. Those ideas which are
foregrounded in the consciousness of the subordinated tend to
be directly relevant to the practical and immediate demands of
the everyday life-world as experienced, and bear little relation
to the ideas embodied in the dominant ideology. Wellershoff illustrates this point in commenting on life in Germany in the
immediate post-war period.
The only problems that really mattered were those to
which solutions could be found within one’s own sphere
of action and did not have to be sought via circuitous
political routes or in some later transformation of
society. Should one rent an apartment or build a house,
change employers or wait for promotion, get divorced or
remain together – these were the decisions that
preoccupied people. Anything more than that, anything
that was not mana~eable or ‘achievable’, was considered too remote. 1r
explaining the wide discrepancy existing just priot to the 1987
General Election, between opinion surveys on the one hand,
and voting intentions and behaviour on the other. It is irrelevant
to the particular point I wish to make here that almost all items
on opinion surveys, together with the policies of the major
political parties, fall within the framework of the dominant
ideology. The internal contradictions and flexibility of the
dominant ideology do allow for the kinds of ideological differences existing between the major political parties. Under the
assumption that the subordinated are ideologically motivated,
one might have expected a landslide victory for the Labour
Party. Results of opinion surveys showed a remarkable consistency in that time and again 70 per cent or more of those surveyed indicated support for the kinds of policies advocated by
the Labour Party, and opposition to the bulk of the Conservative Party programme.21 Yet random samples of adults from the
same population made it quite clear that the Conservatives
would be victorious.
It can be argued that in focussing on the ‘manageable’ and
‘achievable’, and in being ideologically indifferent, the subordinated are serving the interests of dominant groups through
their lack of commitment to opposition. However true this
might be, it remains a far cry from the view that the subordinated are positively incorporated into the social system via
their commitment to the dominant ideology. No, Wellerschoff’s
reference to the ‘manageable’, the ‘achievable’ and to the
finding of solutions ‘within one’s own sphere of action’, is a
reference to ‘what is possible’, that is, to the power/powerlessness of the individual. The consciousness and commitments
of the subordinated say far more about their relative powerlessness in the total order of things, than about the influence of
the dominant ideology.
However, the kind of commitment to the dominant ideology
required by the dominant ideology thesis is to be found
amongst dominant groups and their middle-class subordinates. 1S As Giddens notes,
… the level of normative integration of dominant groups
within social systems may be a more important influence upon the overall continuity of those systems
than how far the majority have ‘internalised’ the same
Moreover the impact of the dominant ideology on dominant
groups and their middle-class subordinates affects the subordinated – not as ideology, but as practice. Quite simply
dominant groups and their immediate subordinates occupy
positions of power which enable them to enact at least some of
their ideological commitments. It is through this enactment that
the dominant ideology becomes materialised.20 But as I have
already argued, the acquiescence of the subordinated to the social system, and their participation in social practices inscribed
with the dominant ideology, has very little to do with their acceptance of the dominant ideology. Those occupying subordinated positions, though relatively powerless, are nevertheless
able to draw upon some resources to enact their commitments.
These commitments, however, tend to bear little relation to the
Consciousness, motivation and needs
One of the problems confronting those operating within the
theoretical framework of the dominant ideology thesis is that of
Those subscribing to the dominant ideology thesis could argue that opinion surveys cannot be taken seriously, or that the
reason survey results did not translate into votes was the lack
of credibility of the Labour Party, or that the surveys failed to
address the ideological damage suffered by the Labour Party
by virtue of its association with gay issues, or on account of it
being allegedly in the grip of the ‘loony Left’. Although there
is some truth in each of these possibilities, the essential truth is
missed, namely that intentions to act (as in voting), even where
ideological choices exist. may be for reasons other than
That this is so is borne out by that rather common occurrence in electoral politics in Britain: the voter who votes for
one party in a local election, and for its opposition in a general
election. Ah! The ‘floating voter’. Of course, are not the
majority of floating voters ideologically uncommitted?
Wainwright’s discussion of election results in Harlow is instructive here. Having won the parliamentary seat from Labour
in 1983, the Conservatives increased their majority in 1987.
‘Little of this rise,’ she suggests, ‘can be attributed to the middle-class voters who live in surrounding villages.’ She continues:
… The local Labour Party calculates that at least three
thousand skilled or semi-skilled workers in employment
voted Conservative for the first or second time. Carol
Haslan describes the response of such converts to
Labour canvassers: ‘They saw our policies more as a
threat than a benefit; they thought that if others were
going to gain through more money spent on services,
they would lose out’ It is insecurity as much as
prosperity which explains this view. All the major firms
in Harlow … had cut back on jobs. There had been a little new employment in retailing … and in warehousing,
but most of this was part-time. A significant number of
workers felt they had something to hold on to, and they
did not trust Labour to offer anything better…
All this points to a pragmatic shift to the Conservatives … rather than a deep ideological attachment to
Thatcherism. Indeed, in local elections throughout the
eighties, many of these same people in Harlow have
continued to vote for a Labour Council whose policies
are dominated by the radicalleft 22
We can anticipate one typical response to Wainwright’s comments: ‘Just as we thought It’s the “I’m alright, Jack – fuck
you” morality. This is Thatcher’s ideological effect.’ No doubt
there are those so entrenched in their orthodoxies that they will
be unable to embrace alternative explanations. But surely the
time has come to pay serious attention to the consciousness of
the subordinated – not for reasons of engaging in that selfrighteous exercise of ideology detection, but for reasons of
finding out the kinds of motivations people have, and what the
bases of these motivations are.
Wainwright hints at a privatistic, pragmatic motivation
amongst a section of the working class, and suggests that this
motivation is rooted in a need for security, or the avoidance of
insecurity. Similarly, and consistent with Wainwright’s view,
Annstrong et al observe that ‘deflation weakens workers’ resistance … fear is the key. Workers rightly believe that opposition
may lead to redundancies or closure, and that it may be impossible to get another job. ,23 In the context of high unemployment and cuts in welfare benefits and provisions, Annstrong et
al argue, it becomes
… more imperative for people to hold down a job. The
more intolerable being unemployed is, the worse pay
and conditions people will accept. Cuts in entitlement to
benefits strengthens the link between work and the
ability to acquire enough goods and services to survive.
They thus help reinforce the central discipline which
capitalism imposes on workers – the need to work for
their employer on their terms in order to obtain a
The very need to survive would appear to be a prime pragmatic
consideration amongst at least some of the subordinated, underpinning their acquiescence to unfavourable work conditions,
and to oppressive marriages and family life. Whether it be
wanting to avoid material insecurity, ‘holding onto the little
security one has’, or ‘making hay while the sun shines’, the
underlying motive remains the same. Then there are increasing
numbers of unemployed, the retired and the low paid, who are
materially insecure, and are compelled for reasons of survival
to give more or less continuous attention to the practical
problems imposed by poverty.
We are hard pressed to find a strong commitment to the
dominant ideology amongst the more affluent section of the
working class. As Williams has noted of this section, ‘ …
politics … are interpreted as mere generalities, mere abstractions, as at best rather boring interferences… ,25 No matter how
disturbing these observations may be to the Left, they must
nevertheless be reckoned with if we are to understand the kinds
of motivations, priorities and preoccupations existing amongst
the subordinated. Further, I have intimated that the motivations
of the subordinated are for the most part needs-based. Eventually I shall argue that the reproduction of relations of domination and subordination occurs principally through the
‘manipulation of needs’. We can begin to see how this
manipulation works in considering contemporary patterns of
Until recently, Habermas has argued, the social system
promoted and supported two complementary patterns of
motivation: ‘family-vocational privatism’ and ‘civic privatisrn , .
The former steered people toward ‘a family orientation with
developed interests in consumption and leisure on the one
hand, and in a career orientation suitable to status competition
on the other’.26 The encouragement of an orientation toward
family and career is at one and the same time an encouragement away from the development of an active interest in
politics. The system thus steers people into civic privatism or
political abstinence. From time to time we are invited to register a vote in electoral contests amongst parties whom we are to
entrust with ‘bigger’ matters while we get on with our own
lives, exercising consumer choice and pursuing careers.
But, as a consequence of social changes resulting from
changes in the economy, Habermas argued that ‘the market +
administration cannot satisfy a whole series of collective
needs’.27 In particular, Habermas notes, ‘possessive individualism’ and ‘status achievement’ are ‘now losing their
basis as a result of social change’.28 Habermas not only has in
mind material needs, but also identity needs. Both are important sources of human motivation. Thus Habermas observes
… fragmented and monotonous work processes are
making increasing inroads even into sectors in which
previously a personal identity could be formed by way
of the occupational role. An ‘inner-directed’ motivation
for achievement is less and less supported by the structure of the work process in areas of work which are
dependent on market considerations; an instrumental attitude to work is sg-eading in the traditionally middleclass occupations… 9
To this we can add that the breakdown of traditional communities and their replacement by depersonalised urban space
further undermines another source of support, once available,
for the development and maintenance of identities. Even so,
Williams has argued that an ‘effective identity’ is available to
the more affluent subordinates.
… the identity that is really offered … is a new kind of
freedom in that area of our lives that we have staked out
inside … wider determinations and constraints. It is
private. It involves, in its immediate definition, a good
deal of evident consumption. Much of it is centred on
the home itself. 30
Williams goes on to note that this new freedom offers an
‘unexampled mobility’, hence his reference to this pattern of
motivation as ‘mobile privatization’ .
But what of those who are unable, through lack of money,
to take up this route of identity formation?
We have already seen how material insecurity can affect
motivations. On top of this opportunities for a meaningful life
beyond survival are scarce. In pursuit of meaning individuals
turn inwards to themselves and to others, drawing upon
depleted self-resources already heavily taxed with the burdens
of daily survival. For the majority meaning is sought in those
power-bound, privatistic spaces, in which there is the possibility of exercising some autonomy. Even so, such efforts are
difficult to sustain – their success would seem to be dependent,
at least, as Logan has argued, on a minimal ontological security
and sense of personal worth.31 These are the very identity
needs which the social system can no longer satisfy, both for
the poor and increasingly for the professional classes. In a
sense then, support for these identity needs is sought from
others similarly positioned in the social totality. Interpersonal
demands tend to be experienced as ‘excessive’, and social
relationships in which ‘meaning’ is sought, themselves become
permeated with tension, thereby generating additional
problems rather than providing the meaning, comfort and support originally sought
The privatism of social withdrawal, a possibility anticipated
by Habermas, which is, as Held suggests, ‘both a product of,
and (an) adaptive mechanism to, contemporary society’, becomes ‘a pre-occupation with one’s own “lot in life”, and with
‘the fulfilment of one’s own needs’ .32 This preoccupation, in
contemporary society, tends to become intensified. Habermas
family-vocational privatism has given way to a self-seeking
mobile privatism for some, and to a self-maintaining privatisrn
for others. Both forms of contemporary privatism are also
forms of civic privatism. For Habermas the failure of the social
system to continue to support family-vocational privatism
amongst a majority could lead to a ‘legitimation crisis’. ‘A
legitimation crisis,’ Habermas states, ‘must be based on a
motivation crisis. ,34 Thus Habermas, quite sensibly in my view,
sees the legitimation of the social system as being rooted, not
in the force of ideology, but positively in the support it attracts
by virtue of supplying the motivational needs of the majority,
and negatively through civic privatism. In contemporary forms
of privatism the social system continues to generate and support the self-seeking motivations of the more affluent subordinates. Self-maintaining privatism, however, is indicative of
the failure of the social system to meet the material and identity
needs of an increasing minority who are becoming surplus to
the requirements of the social system.
In the light of the patterns of motivation prevalent amongst
the subordinated, the preoccupation with ideology amongst
many on the Left appears to be misplaced. The consciousness
of the subordinated is best understood not in terms of ideology,
but more in terms of needs-based motivations. This is consistent with my earlier observation that the subordinated are essentially ideologically indifferent This indifference, as
Wainwright and Williams have indicated, may surface from
time to time (as in general elections), amongst those pursuing
self-seeking life-styles, as a ‘disposition’ not to oppose the social system. Amongst those caught up in self-maintaining
privatism, one might expect an ideological disposition which is
non-supportive and even opposed to the social system. But
with energies and consciousness being directed toward the
practical demands of everyday life, and toward those matters
over which the individual can exercise some control, these
ideological dispositions rarely develop into commitments. In
probing this further, we shall see that the dominant ideology
thesis, in addition to its inadequacies already exposed, by exaggerating the power of ideology in social reproduction, underplays the power of economic necessity and state coercion.
As such the dominant ideology thesis displays an insensitivity
to the lived experience of the most subordinated. While it is
true that the reproduction of relations of domination and subordination can only be disrupted by effective oppositional practices inscribed with oppositional viewpoints, the failure of such
practices to materialise, I shall argue, is a consequence of the
power of economic necessity and state coercion, in conjunction
with the absence of effective agencies of opposition.
The difficulties involved in identity formation are intensified in milieus that in their communicative infrastructure are simultaneously demanding – because differentiated – and impoverished. 33
As more people are being thrust toward self-maintaining
privatism, and are thus vulnerable to the intensification of selfcrises (and with no hope of radical changes in their circumstances), we can perhaps understand the search for peace, and for
relaxation and diversion in inexpensive entertainment as a
In briefly considering some aspects of contemporary forms
of privatism, I have suggested that the traditional pattern of
Social reproduction and the manipulation of needs
To act implies ‘the power to act’, and as Giddens puts i~
‘resources are the media through which power is exercised’.3
Our actions thus reflect the resources we can draw upon. More
importantly, since the najor resources enabling action are ‘so-
cially available’, and since their availability is controlled by
dominant groups, we can say that our actions also reflect the
resources we cannot draw upon. In other words, to act implies
both the power to act and our powerlessness to do otherwise.
Money, in capitalist societies, is the major resource enabling action. For the vast majority, money or its exchange value
in terms of material goods, is available only in relations of
dependency on an employer, and/or an employed partner,
spouse or parent, and/or on the State. To secure our own survival we are forced into a relation of dependency. This alone
binds us in time and space, and the resulting spatial and temporal structuration of our lives imposes limits on our potential
range of action. The employed, for example, may earn enough
money to meet their own survival needs, and those of their
dependents. The use-value of money which is available for
beyond-survival purposes is severely restricted by lack of time.
The unemployed, on the other hand, find the use-value of time
restricted by their lack of money and other material resources.
Under present arranges in capitalist-patriarchal societies,
our very need to survive keeps us in subordination, thereby
enabling relations of domination and subordination to be
reproduced. Abercrombie et al thus claim that
… In late capitalism, as in the early variety, compulsion
remains an important condition of system integration
and of pragmatic apathy as an element of the subordinate culture. Compulsion is most obviously founded
in the structure of economic relations, which oblige
people to behave in ways which support the status quo
and to defer to the decisions of the powerful if they are
to continue to work and to live. 36
This is not to say that there is no resistance to the experience of
oppression in relations of forced dependency. Giddens warns
… we should not conceive of the structures of domination built into social institutions as in some way grinding out ‘docile bodies’ who behave like the automata
suggested by objectivist social science … all forms of
dependence offer some resources whereby those who
are subordinate can influence the activities of their superiors. 37
Indeed there is considerable evidence of individual resistance
in relations of forced dependence, as in the case of absenteeism
from work, industrial sabotage, wives refusing the sexual
demands of their husband, children lying to parents, etc. Some
of this resistance becomes collectivised as in the proliferation
of women’s groups, or in strikes. However, as I have already
stated, it is only through effective collective oppositional action
that structures of domination can be changed. The question
arises as to why it is that the most subordinated do not display
a consistent willingness to participate in collective oppositional
A partial answer to this question has already been provided
in the earlier discussion of privatism. For the most subordinated the expenditure of energy involved in ‘doing what it
takes’ to maintain survival, leaves the individual with ‘an
energy deficit’. As Adorno and Horkheimer noted, ‘the individual who is thoroughly weary must use his weariness as
energy for his surrender to the collective power which wears
him out’. 38 Further, whereas once the realm of necessity may
have provided minimal support for identity needs and meaning,
this is far less the case today in conditions of unemployment,
deskilled work, and family relations overloaded with expectations. The devouring of energy in pursuit of the satisfaction
of identity needs contributes to the energy deficit. In these circumstances the prospects offered by the realm of freedom, including our freedom to participate in oppositional practices,
falls under what Seve refers to as ‘the intuitive evaluation … of
the possible effects of the act and the needs to be satisfied.’
This, he argues, ‘can be seen to be one of the most simple and
universal regulators of activity. ,39 The relation between the
possible effects of an act and the needs to be satisfied, he stresses, is not to be ‘considered in isolation’, but as ‘mediated by
the overall structure of activity’.40 The latter, as I have claimed,
is ‘essentially mediated by the laws of the social formation in
which this activity develops’. 41
It would seem that ‘the intuitive evaluation’ to which Seve
refers, incorporates knowledge of resource availability, including knowledge of self resources, and the anticipated expenditures of time and energy. The kinds of efforts required to participate in oppositional activity, and the likelihood that these efforts are unlikely to result in the immediate satisfaction of unmet needs, may be sufficient to deter participation. The
withdrawal into private power-bound spaces, where some
autonomy, however trivial, can be exercised, is for many, a
more attractive alternative.
The realm of economic necessity leaves the most subordinated without the resources to engage in sustained oppositional practices. For those more favourably positioned in
relations of forced dependency there is less incentive to oppose
the social system. More than this the potential forces of opposition are weakened by their own fragmentation and by the
State’s repressive practices. Abercrombie et al remind us that
… economic force is not the only form of compulsion,
since the State’s coercive potential also has a significant
role … The essence of this sort of compulsion … is that it
need rarely be manifest in action, since it is the potentiality of physical force which serves to maintain order
for the most part.42
In recent times the State has been more willing to ‘manifest
this potential’, as in the coal dispute of 1984-5, Wapping, the
six counties in the north of Ireland, etc.
The reproduction of relations of domination and subordination
can be explained without recourse to the dominant ideology
thesis. The subordinated are materially rather than ideologically incorporated into the social system. Above all this
material incorporation is powered by economic compulsion
and the State’s repressive machinery. The resultant manipula15
tion of survival and identity needs ensures, for the most part,
that individuals pragmatically acquiesce to the social system.
However, all of this does not mean that we can forget about
Consistent with the empirical evidence and the arguments
presented thus far, there are two areas in which ideology
remains significant in social reproduction.
1. Dominant rather than subordinate groups display a commitment to elements of the dominant ideology. The positions of
power occupied by the dominant (capitalists in relation to
workers, males in relation to women, whites in relation to nonwhites, adults in relation to children) enable them to enact
elements of the dominant ideology. The subordinated experience the material consequences of this enactment. The·
value of ideological analyses of social institutions, social practices and discourses, resides not so much in helping the subordinated cleanse their minds of ideological contamination, but
more in challenging the dominant.
2. The reproduction of relations of domination and subordination is helped by the absence of an effective opposition. An
analysis of this absence is beyond the scope of this paper (I
recommend Claus Offe’s work as a useful starting place for
such an analysis).43 Needless to say several factors have to be
taken into account. What we can be sure about is that effective
oppositional politics requires the sustained and committed participation of many more people than currently involved
Broadening the participatory base of oppositional politics will
require changes in the organisational structure of agencies of
opposition in order to make participation sufficiently attractive
to entice people out of their privatised worlds. If this can be
achieved the forces of opposition will be better placed to engage in the ideological struggle necessary to win support, and
maybe some participation, from those not yet involved.
The development of committed support for oppositional
politics is most likely to arise if the agencies of opposition are
united, and offer a credible and attractive alternative. By this I
do not mean that political programmes must be compromised,
as for example in the case of seeking electoral support by
tailoring programmes in ways to attract the safe middle-ground
of public opinion. To do this is to divest the programme of its
oppositional content Credibility develops from the relentless
public display of commitment to oppositional alternatives, and
from the unwillingness of agents of opposition to compromise
principles. Attractiveness comes from demonstrating the
relevance of politiCal programmes to the experienced needs of
the vast majority. As Adams put it:
… most people will not struggle, never mind vote, for
abstract things. They will not fight for ideas. They will
fight to win material benefits to improve the quality of
their lives and guarantee the future for their children.44
This suggests that if oppositional agencies are to win committed support, then the ideological struggle must be rooted in a
sensitivity to the needs deficit which characterises the contemporary experience of subordination, and in ways which retain a
vision of a qualitatively different future. Adams states it very
… If I have learned anything I have learned that you can
only proceed on the basis of people’s support, and that
you can only enjoy that support if you are approaching
people at a level and on ground which they understand.
You have to find a common denominator between what
you want to do and what people feel needs to be done.45
An effective opposition is, amongst other things, always an
effective ideological opposition. It seems to me that the latter
involves vigorous and continuous ideological contestation in
the public sphere, not only in challenging the dominant, but
also in the advocacy of oppositional alternatives. I appreciate
the difficulties this entails. The public have been fed on
ideological discourses which are unable to disclose the intelligibility of opposition. The long history of the under-exposure
of oppositional discourses in broadcasting, for example, makes
it all the more difficult for the isolated voices of opposition to
offer the public an interpretation of events which enables the
transformation of populist oppositional sentiments into a
coherent oppositional framework. Unless these difficulties are
overcome, opposition is likely to remain fragmented, isolated
Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill and Bryan S. Tmner, The
Dominant Ideology Thesis, Allen and Unwin, 1930.
Tom Bottomore, ‘Foreword’, ibid., p. ix.
Emest Mandel, Introduction to Marxism, Pluto, 1982, p. 29.
Michael Mann, ‘The Social Cohesion of Liberal Democracy’, in
Anthony Giddens and David Held (eds.), Classes, Power, and
Coriflict: Classical and Contemporary Debates, Macmillan.
1982, p. 375.
Abercrombie et ai, op. cit., p. 153.
Ibid., p. 145.
Mann, op. cit., p. 378.
Abercrombie et ai, op. cit., p. 145.
Ibid., p. 147.
Ibid., p. 145.
Conrad Lodziak, The Power of Television: A Critical Appraisal,
Pinter. 1986, pp. 75-86.
Mann, op. cit., p. 386.
Ibid., p. 378.
Ibid., p. 382. The research to which Mann refers is T. Veness,
School Leavers: Their Aspirations and Expectations, Methuen,
A. P. Simonds, ‘On Being Informed’, Theory and Society, Vol.
11, 1982, pp. 593-94.
Dieter Wellershoff, ‘Germany – A State of Flux’. in Jurgen
Habermas (ed.), Observations on ‘The Spiritual Situation of the
Age’ , MIT, 1984, p. 356.
Lodziak, op. cit., pp. 86-92.
Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, Macmillan, 1979, pp. 86-92.
I have argued (op. cit., pp. 86-92) that Hall’s work on the
rightward drift in British politics readily fits this framework. See,
for example, Stuart Hall, ‘Authoritarian Populism: A Reply to
Jessop et al,’ New Left Review, Vol. 151, 1985, pp. 115-24.
This was so prior to the Labour Party’s ‘successful’ campaign. In
a survey taken in Britain on a sample representative of the total
adult population in 1984; 85% were opposed to reduced spending on health and education; 64% opposed the development of a
two-tier health service; 89% favoured government job-creation
schemes; 69% supported ‘a programme whose first priority is
combating unemployment rather than inflation’; 70% were in
favour of price controls; and 72% supported import controls, and
believed the gap between high and low incomes to be too great.
From British Social AUitudes: the 1984 Report, cited in James
Curran, ‘Rationale for the Right’, Marxism Today, February
1985, p. 40.
Hilary Wainwright, ‘The Limits of Labourism: 1987 and
Beyond’,NewLeft Review, vol. 164, 1987, p. 42.
Philip Annstrong, Andrew Glyn and John Harrison, Capitalism
since World War II, Fontana, 1984, p. 408.
Ibid., p. 412.
Raymond Williams, ‘Problems of the Coming Period’, New Left
Review,vol. 140, 1983,p. 16.
Williams, op. cit.
See Josephine Logan, ‘Ontological Insecurity in Women’, Reflections, no. 52, March 1985, pp. 1-41. See also her ‘The Privatized
Individual in Contemporary Society: the Problem of Existential
Needs’, Reflections, no. 54, June 1985, pp. 1-50.
Held, op. cit., p. 158.
Haberrnas, ‘Introduction’, in Habermas (ed.), 1984, op. cit., p.
Haberrnas, 1976, op. cit., pp. 74-75.
Giddens, op. cit., p. 91.
Abercrombie et al, op. cit., pp. 154-55.
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the
Theory ofStructuration, Polity, 1984, p. 16.
Theodor Adomo and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso, 1979, pp. 152-53.
Lucien Seve, Man in Marxist Theory and the Psychology of Personality, Harvester, 1978, p. 321.
Ibid., p. 340.
Ibid., p. 319.
Abercrombie et al, op. cit., p. 155.
Claus Offe, Contradictions of the Welfare State, ed. John Keane,
Hutchinson, 1984. See especially the essays ‘The separation of
fonn and content in liberal democracy’, pp. 162-78, and ‘Competitive party democracy and the Keynesian welfare state’, pp.
Jurgen Haberrnas, Legitimation Crisis, Heinemann, 1976, p. 75.
Cited in David Held, ‘Critical Theory and Political Transformation’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 4, 1982, p. 159.
Jurgen Haberrnas, ‘Problems of Legitimation in Late
Capitalism’, in Paul Connerton (ed.), Critical Sociology, Penguin, 1976, p. 381.
Gerry Adams, ‘Presidential address at Sinn Fein Ard Fheis,
1987‘, cited in The Irish Democrat, December 1987, p. 5.
Gerry Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Brandon, 1986, p.
Ibid., p. 382.
LEFT CURVE No. 12
INTERVIEW WITH FREDRIC JAMESON by Jay Murphy; PAINTING, PETROLEUM, POLITICS,
PROFITS: U.S.-Mexico Cultural Exchange by Shifra M. Goldman; HAVANA BIENNIAL AND ART IN
LATIN AMERICA by Elizam Escobar; PUERTO RICAN DIASPORA DOCUMENTARY PROJECT by Frank
Espada; ‘WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE’ by Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge; “THE ARCANE WRITTEN
WITH A BLOWTORCH AND A NAKED EYE” by Jack Hirschman; THE GUILTIES ABROAD: MARK
TWAIN AND PALESTINE, by Hilton Obenzinger; ANTI-POP BUT NOT IGGY-POP by R.G. Davis;
BIFURCATED MEDITA TIONS OUT OF A BLANK DECADE by Csaba Polony; MISe. WORKS,
NOTICES, ETe. (“Give Them Shelter-It’s Not for Everyone” by Karla Forsbeck of ADPSR-Nor Cal; Haiti
Update; Eye Gallery Update by Tom Ferentz; POETRY by Michel Durand, Boadiba, Dewe Gorode, PJ. Laska,
H.D. Moe; Continuum a film by Dominic Angerame, text by Ronald Sauer; Reportfrom Germany: “The Other
America,” “My Fatherland is International,” “Art and War-1939-89” by Reinhard Schultz; “There is no Inferior
Culture” by Jacques-Stephen Alexis).
PO Box 472
OAKLAND, CA. 94604
Subs.: $15 (3 issues)