Sunday, 31 July 2011

Interpellate This!

Ideology is not simply in the heads of human beings it is material in nature, in order for a belief to be held the minds of the masses it must first of all shape the lives of the people as a whole. Only in this way will the ideology retain its hegemonic status and continue to function in spite of what thoughts might go through the heads of certain people. It could be argued that the Saudi state preceded capitalism on the Arabian peninsula and so it played a large role in the way it emerged in the Middle East, though it might be more nuanced to say that the state can be deduced from the structural needs of capitalism. The state-repression in Saudi Arabia has guaranteed the free reign of capital. But it takes more than the repressive agencies of the state (e.g. the military and the police) to protect the social order and to reproduce the existing social relations of production. This is where Islam as ideology comes into the picture as embodied in the institutional forms of the state apparatus, which ranges from the family and schools to corporations and the media.

Osama bin Laden was born into the Saudi bourgeoisie, his father was the head of a company which built 80% of roads in Saudi Arabia and has done rather well out of the relationship between the Saudi ruling class and the US government. The life Osama bin Laden led mirrors the contorted relationship between corporate base and Islamic superstructure in Saudi Arabia, the transition from Saudi oligarch to radical Islamist. Initially it might seem as though a thing is defined by its function in the arrangement, while a hammer may be used to knock nails into wood it can also be used to bash someone's head in. But it is not that the hammer has been removed from it's intended usage, rather it is defined as a torture tool when it is used as one. So we might understood bin Laden's place in ideology as defined not as the "leap" from his privileged origins to his life of fanaticism. Rather we should designate him in regards to what exact function his actions played in the world, the impotence of Islamist Terror and the way al-Qaeda contributed to the ideological constellation in the West.

At the end of the Cold War the grand narrative that the US was in a war with the Soviet Union finally drew to a close as "shock therapy" swept Russia clean of really existing socialism. The interests of capital that were invested in that narrative were now deprived of a way to make sense of the world and, in particular, the actions undertaken by Western governments. Eventually a new narrative had to open up and the attacks of September 11th 2001 heralded a new narrative of the "War on Terror". The ideological development served the Bush administration, the liberal commentariat and even al-Qaeda. It gave the government and the media a meaningful way to report on global events for public consumption. It also sells papers, boosts approval ratings for politicians and provides a way for Islamists to recruit young angry men in the Middle East. The materiality of all of this was the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Osama bin Laden became the face of international terrorism as the constellation shifted from anti-Communism to counter-terrorism.

Louis Althusser developed a fascinating account of the way individuals become the subjects of ideology. It is through interpellation by the state apparatus in the process of socialisation that the individual is hailed. The individual recognises themselves in this call of a grand Subject capable of legitimately holding them accountable. The grand Subject might take a form appropriate to the context, from God and the Nation to the King and the Ulama. The media, as well as educational institutions and corporations are the materiality of ideology and each is a segment of the state apparatus. Ideology is not just belief in the heads of politicians, it is in the fabric of society and the practices of life on a day-to-day basis. It is more like the Freudian unconscious, it is not just a residue but it is central to the way we imagine our relation to specific experiences. This is the way ideology becomes engrained in the minds of citizens. Only through shaping the material can ideology shape people, so that the system and by extension the world can be understood in unquestionable terms as almost a natural phenomenon.

Ideology does not primarily involve theoretical explanations of 'how the world works', so much as provide accounts of who individuals are and where in the political world such individuals fit. In this ideological process, the relation of the subject to the world can become distorted as the subject is ascribed a functional role (as a citizen, a voter etc.) as if it is chosen by them. Thus, we find a man can go from an upstanding member of society from a respected family to a wanted criminal. The places we hold in such structures are politically decisive, whether it be in the pecking order in a corporation or in kinship as a son or a mother. People will perform as if these roles are the free realisation of their subjective potential. It took many years for Osama bin Laden to go beyond just the conservative reading of the Qur'an which he delved into as a student of economics. The notion of the autonomous individual is a product of ideological misrecognition. As Marx wrote in The Brumaire "Men make their own history, but not of their own free will not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted."

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