How do ideas have power?
The main way that ideas are understood to have power is by ‘manufacturing consent’. This is an idea mainly developed by Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky out of the thinking of the early C.20th Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.
Manufacturing Consent is a process that attempts to align the understood interests of the mass population with the actual interests of the elite or ruling group in society. The process is intended to replicate the values, attitudes and convictions that the elite or ruling group expresses (rather than actually holds) in the mass population at the expense of that population developing values, attitudes or convictions of its own.
This replication of values and convictions means that the elite or ruling group can then take any action or implement any policy knowing that the mass population has already consented to it. That consent having been manufactured in them by the conquest of their values and convictions by the elite.
In their book Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman summarise the process thus:
The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.
The means of Manufacturing Consent
There are four main means of manufacturing consent.
- Generative Propaganda – that attempts to create new values and convictions in the audience. This is very difficult and is thus a weak form of manufacturing consent.
- Re-enforcing Propaganda - that attempts to strengthen, highlight, or raise awareness of pre-existing values and convictions in the audience. This is easier and thus a stronger form of manufacturing consent.
- Common Sense – This is not ‘good sense’ but rather the set of incompletely thought through values and convictions we all hold that come to us from the attitudes and experiences of those around us. The most powerful form of manufacturing consent because it is not normally possible to work out where an individual part of the ‘common sense’ has come from.
- The colonisation of the imagination – wherein the understanding of that which is possible is limited to only a certain ‘acceptable’ range of discussion. This is most common in discussion of political and business life.
There are two main theorists that we need to deal with; Antonio Gramsci & Louis Althusser.
The main line of thinking on ideological analysis of the media comes from Marxist thinkers. The first wave of theory on ideology was founded around the Base-Superstructure model. This is a deterministic model that suggests that the Base (the means and type of economic production) determines the Superstructure (all culture and society). For a capitalist society, therefore, the capitalist mode of production would determine the superstructure and all culture and society would be a means of oppression of labour (the proletariat or working classes).
This Base-Superstructure model is simple, static, and implies both direct oppression and the passivity of the oppressed. For these reasons and for its determinism it is not very useful as a means of studying ideology.
The two ideas to deal with in this are; Althusser’s ‘Interpellation’ and Gramsci’s ‘Hegemony’. In each case the analysis grows from the realisation that in every society there is a ruling group (an elite), which seeks to maintain and replicate (that is perpetuate into future generations) itself. This ruling group cannot stably sustain its dominance through force, violence, and the threat of such alone. What this ruling group requires it that the dominated (the ruled) consent to the rule of the elite. What the ruling group need is to manufacture in the dominated consent to their rule and its maintenance and replication. It is in manufacturing this consent that Ideology and Representation come into play.
If we take Althusser’s Interpellation first, we know that interpellation works on the basis of getting the dominated to ‘misrecognise’ themselves as the authors of the ideological content of a media-text rather than the targets of it (which in truth they are). This is crucial because if the elite can bring the dominated to the point where the ideology (worldview) of the elite is also the (mistaken) ideology of the dominated then the elite will have succeeded in manufacturing consent to their rule. Representation comes into play in this area because the elite (i.e. the ruling group in a society) will generate/create representations of themselves in media-texts and ‘interpellate’ the dominated to misrecognise themselves in that image – to see themselves, wrongly, as members of the elite.
We can see Interpellation in action in the USA where a majority of people believe they earn just a bit more than the mean average salary. This is, of course, mathematically impossible but it is ideologically inevitable. That a majority of Americans have come to believe this is the effect of Interpellation. Representations of the elite have been presented to the dominated and they have been ‘interpellated’ to misrecognise themselves in those images.
Louis Althusser tried to deal with the problem of the passivity of the oppressed in ideological analysis. Althusser was convinced that ideology, rather than being a veil draped over the oppressed, structured peoples lived experience; meaning that ideology played a part in every person’s life from the outset.
Interpellation – Althusser developed the idea of Interpellation, meaning ‘hailing’ or ‘calling’, as a way of explaining how ideological power works. Interpellation implies a process in which a media text ‘hails’ the reader and invites the reader to ‘misrecognise’ themselves in the text and positions the reader as a ‘sovereign autonomous individual’ who cannot be the subject of ideology but must be the author of ideology. Thus the reader actively participates in the ideology of the text.
Turning to Hegemony we must remember that the basis on which it works is that the ruling group (re)present themselves to all the other groups in society as the only group in that society capable of/ willing to organise and run that society so that the needs, wants, and desires of the other groups in society are meet – and that no other group is capable of such government. To this end it is crucial that a majority are of the opinion that they earn ‘slightly more than average’ as this means that they, wrongly, believe they are benefiting from the way in which society is organised rather than being exploited by the way in which society is organised - the very purpose of that social organisation. Representations, of the ruling group by the ruling group aimed at the dominated are crucial to the operation of Hegemony.
Antonio Gramsci lived and worked before Althusser and was concerned with the static nature of the base-superstructure model. His ideas on hegemony were intended to deal with this.
Hegemony – The idea behind hegemony is that not only does the elite impose its will through ideology but also through the presentation of itself as the group best placed and suited to provided for and meet the interests and aspirations of all other social groups, the purpose of this presentation being to establish consent to the rule of the elite as natural (as part of the common sense). This presentation is constantly being re-established and, apparently, re-negotiated as social development occurs. The elites hegemonic presentation will grow to include previously excluded social and status groups (or contract to exclude previously powerful groups) as and when useful to the elite.