Ideology does not reside primarily in stories invented by those in power to deceive others,
it resides in stories invented by subjects to deceive themselves.Zizek
The first concept we need to understand in order to go through the matrix is ideology.
Ideology is often incorrectly understood to mean something like a personal belief system – something that the other guy over there has, not me! However, ideology is a wider and quite different concept than ‘belief’ that is attempting to capture something much more fundamental about human history and behavior.
Religion is a set of beliefs that an individual HAS. Ideology is a set of practices that a group of people DO.
So – is impossible not be in an ideological formation! If you’re not in an ideology, you’re in the loonie bin, because you just aren’t recognizably human anymore. Being in and doing an ideology is the precondition for individual self-conscousness.
It doesn’t really matter what your personal beliefs and opinions are when it comes to ideology. They can be many and varied, but they’re going to be based on a set of shared assumptions and definitions specific to that ideology. (There is plenty of room for disagreement and variety within ideological formations). These subjective assumptions within ideological practices are supposed to be unconscious and unquestioned, if they’re working right.
Ideology is something that we do, with others.
And we are always doing it, and have always been doing it. Every social formation in history has a recognizable, categorizable, analyzable ideology. Ideological formations precede our genesis, and produce us as individuals through the process of our upbringing and education.
If you live in the 21c and you’re reading this on a screen, you are doing capitalist ideology right now! There’s no real escape from capitalist social practices. Even the most militant political sects are completely subservient to price mechanisms, even the most radical attempts at building autarkies and small scale communes are still in some sense connected to and influenced by capitalist structures. The farthest away you can get from capitalist social practices right now is either the few remaining indigenous tribes (which don’t want anything to do with you), or the few remaining besieged peoples republics.
There are many ramifications to the impossibility of ever being without an ideology. One is that there just is simply no ‘neutral’ perspective whatsoever. Politically, epistemologically, ontologically, theologically, scientifically – sorry, it’s not there! There’s no such thing as a neutral perspective. The illusion of neutrality is actually just you being unaware that you were born and raised into an already ongoing social project – which is to say a political project.
Anytime anybody claims to be ‘unbiased’, they’re lying to both themselves and you. Anytime anybody claims to be being completely objective – they’re full of shit. There’s always a subjective component to any objective pursuit, and that subjective component is always socially mediated and historically produced. To be a symbolically inscribed primate is to be forever biased. Bias is constitutive of being human – something that pre-exists and structures any and all subjective experiences.
So – all human beings who have ever lived have been in and doing an ideology, and to be in an ideology is to be a being with both a purposeful orientation, a social function, and an inscription into the network of language that mediates and interprets any possible subjective experience.
To be completely free of ideology is to be a vegetable, catatonic.
Neutrality is impossible.
Understood correctly, ideology is an extraordinarily powerful concept, vital to any thinker’s toolkit. You can pick out lies and disinformation a mile away with this one, and as a discourse/information filter it’s unbeatable. Unlike a lot of concepts in our times, it isn’t obsolete, because there is no other, better concept to replace it with yet. Any discourse/practice formation that claims to be ideologically neutral isn’t really being honest with itself. It is crucially and debilitatingly unaware of its own status as an ideology, of its own history, and of its function within the wider society of which it is a part.
Ideology is always something that we are in, so there is always an ‘outside’ of that ‘inside’. The ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are connected to one another via a kind of tunnel – an ongoing process of reciprocal argumentation and conflicts of interests.
We can call this shape – ‘social antagonism’, and it’s a feature of humans doin thangs, not a bug. Every social formation in history has always been structured by social antagonisms.
So that’s where we’re goin here – to the other side of capitalist ideology.
The structure of Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ is an excellent demonstration of this kind of ideological ‘shape’. Our macguffin is Col. Kurtz, a well respected commanding officer during the Vietnam conflict who starts to take a little too much discretion over his command, then goes rogue and disappears into the jungle. The movie follows another officer, Capt. Willard, as he journeys up a river into Cambodia in search of Kurtz, his mission being to tie up loose ends.
When Willard finally meets Kurtz, we get a brilliant display of the parallactic structure of ideology. Kurtz is now as fully ‘outside’ of the ideology he started in as he can be. As the charismatic leader of an ad hoc jungle cult he is very much doing a different ideology than when he was following the orders of the US military apparatus, or at least, so it appears.
However, instead of finding a jungle god at the height of his influence and power, Willard finds a shell of a man, lurking in shadows, unable to defend himself and seemingly indifferent to his own continued existence. In tearing out his own internal ideological inscription and going as far as he possibly can in changing his ideological practice, Kurtz has somehow lost something absolutely vital. The ideological formation he started in was an intrinsic part of who he was, and on the other side of it instead he is something new – no longer Kurtz at all.
The conversations that Willard and Kurtz have at the climax of the film are directly through an ideological parallax structure. Rather than two, opposed ideologies talking to one another across a gap separating them, we have two ‘sides’ of the same ideological formation, talking through a hole in that same formation – a ‘line-of-flight’ that both connects and separates the two sides.
Kurtz’s chaos cult in the jungle is still a part of the imposition and expansion of American Imperialism, and the resistance to it.
Kurtz flees into the jungle to try to escape ideology, but having gone to the end in doing so, he finds that there is nothing outside of it. With ideology, there is Kurtz, without it, he is a husk. No matter which direction he turns, he cannot escape ideology – and this realization is why he has finally, in the heart of darkness, lost any reason to keep living.
There is no escape from ideology.
Kurtz will always be an ideological creature who is doing an ideology, and Lord of the Jungle is just the flipside of the decorated Colonel.
‘The horror’, indeed.
There are always multiple, diverse lines-of-flight ‘around’ or ‘through’ ideological structures like this, so this reading of the movie immediately suggests several other different movies with similar structures. We can imagine a movie where Kurtz is now operating a plantation, or has joined a Vietcong faction.
Although these would be very different movies and I’d love to watch them – the wager of ideology is that we’d still get something very much like this same parallactic structure in these hypothetical ‘Apocalypse Nows’. When Kurtz and Willard meet, no matter where Kurtz is now, it’s still always also going a meeting between Kurtz and his former self. Between two opposed sides of the same ideological formation.
To return to the original question then – ‘is there an outside of capitalist ideology’, the answer is well, not really – but there is an ‘other’ side, and the process of trying to escape. Once you can see ‘through’ it, you’re as outside as you can get as an individual – but only if we’re engaged in a counter-hegemonic project with others do we ever really get fully outside. This outside will always be linked to what birthed it, and what it is trying to overcome.
As we go through the matrix we’re going to get to a place where we can see ‘through’ capitalist ideology, but a true alternative could only emerge through the stabilization of a genuinely new social project that was able to become self-sufficient, auto-reproducing, and hegemonic. There have been many attempts to do this throughout the last century and a half.
These projects usually only appear to us through a filter of ideological programming and propaganda, so it’s quite difficult to figure out what actually happened and how things worked. The study of these projects is itself an extremely useful tool for extricating one’s mind from capitalist ideology.
Ideology and Geology
If we are always in ideology, we should be able to find similar parallactic structures in most fields of human endeavor. When we look at the competing geological concepts for the new epoch we’re all in, we can indeed find something like the structure of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and its implied counterfictions.
First we have the Holocene. This epoch began about 12,000 years ago. This is still the ‘official’ geological concept of our age – linked to the birth of agriculture. The Holocene is/was – we now know, a relatively stable period of the global climate system relative to its history and its future.
Next we’ve got the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene tries to capture the fact that this is now a human centric, human dominated planet. Rather than a planet driven primarily by geological and evolutionary forces, the concept of the Anthropocene acknowledges that humans are now for the first time in a dominant, biosphere shaping role.
The concept of the Capitalocene acknowledges the same shift in our geological epoch, but maintains that the ‘Anthropocene’ concept implies we have more control over our collective destiny than we actually do at the moment. The Capitalocene claims that it is now economic processes that shape the planet, processes that we ourselves have little influence over, even though these processes are nothing but our own productive activity.
Finally we have the concept of the Cthulucene, which maintains that both the Anthropocene and the Capitolocene remain too human-centric. If we are now a structural part of the biosphere now, then we are also decidedly not what we once thought we were. The Cthulucene tries to capture something open-ended and evolving in ourselves. In trying to comprehend who we are now, what we are doing and what we have done, we encounter something alien in our own humanity. In the Cthulucene, the very definition of what a human is is now fluid and undefined, something in transition, something new, something other than what we were, something unknown.
This basic matrix of current geological concepts – Holo/Anthro/Capitalo/Cthulu – gives us a crucial look at the parallactic structure of the status of our ideological moment. First with the Holocene we have the continuation of the status quo as it sees itself (a utopian fantasy), and then we have three different ways to try to conceptually capture the ongoing planetary rupture with this paradigm. Which of these concepts will become predominant is in flux, still undecided, and which is ultimately more correct is irrelevant to the ontic existence of the four positions, their relations with one another, and what the analysis of them can tell us about our lives and conditions.
While the temptation is to cling to Holocene subjectivity, the fact that we now have contradictions playing out in our geological concept itself is just a symptom of the apocalyptic crisis we are living through. A return to the Holocene is impossible. The rupture has already happened, and if we are going to be able to navigate it, we are going to have to enact a rupture with our Holocene selves.
To briefly return to our filmic example, the classic Kurtz encounter would be a good example of a Cthulu-esque rupture, our hypothetical plantation Kurtz would be an encounter with the Anthropocene, and Vietcong Kurtz would of course be the view from the Capitalocene.
That there are three different conceptual attempts to capture this rupture points to the radical openness of our historical situation. If we are not Holocene humans, we do not know who we are anymore. The Anthro/Capitalo/Cthulu matrix captures this new, shocking ambiguity. What were we, if not human? What are we now? What do we need to become?
Ideology and Economics
Economics is a field that is perpetually political, and it is here that perhaps we can see ideology most clearly. While there are interminable subdisciplines of this field of research, we can identify four macro-theoretical edifices.
First, the Austrian school conceptualizes the ideal society as totally market driven, the ‘freer’ the better. Von Hayek and Bohm Bawerk were two of the leading theorists of this school. Moderate versions of Austrian ideas are a contributing factor to the neoliberal project and to the Neoclassical terrain. At its most extreme, the Austrian school of thought points towards anarcho-capitalism – a society run completely by market mechanisms with no state at all. If that sounds like anything other than utopian lunacy to you, or you think that the ‘government’ is the source of everything bad in the world, then you’re already under the influence of the Austrian school.
The school of Neoclassical economics is less math/state averse than the Austrian school, and relies on a subjective theory of value called marginalism (itself an Austrian invention). Milton Friedman was one of the big influential names of this school. Neoclassical econ considers central bank control over the money supply to be a necessary tool in maintaining and stabilizing the capitalist system, something unacceptable in the Austrian framework but obviously necessary IRL. This theory models itself on the way the hard sciences see themselves, and as a result does not consider the history of itself or the history of economics to be a necessary part of its own discipline. This, plus its heavy reliance on mathematical models grounded on, shall we say somewhat controversial assumptions, has made this school’s predictive track record fairly non-existent.
Nonetheless, Neoclassical economics has been the dominant school of thought in the west for the latter half of the 20c, and has been used as justification to forcibly impose abstract neoliberal developmental models on weaker countries around the globe. Neoclassical hegemony began to unravel after it completely failed to predict or explain the financial crisis of 2008.
The Keynesian school – named after its primary theorist, John Maynard Keynes, argues that strong state social programs are a crucial part of having a stable capitalist system. Keynesianism arose in response to the Great Depression, and was the underlying rationale for the New Deal in the 30s, ultimately resulting in the great post-war compromise. While Keynesianism does and has worked very well, especially in Canada and the Euro core, it’s also only something that rich developed countries can really do well, and it’s efficacy also relies on broader historical factors. A more heterodox version of this school is actually now being tested in practice – the last two years have seen a sudden deployment of Modern Monetary Theory, a Keynesian offshoot, by central banks around the world. MMT hypothesizes that we really can just print infinite money, forever. We’re finding out how this works now!
Finally we have historical materialism, a field of research first discovered/invented by Marx. Histmat is qualitatively different from the others in many ways – it insists that economics and politics cannot be understood separately, that economic formations themselves cannot be understood without also understanding their historical genesis, and that a truly scientific value theory can only be objective. Historical materialism has been assumed to be a dead research paradigm in the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as a result its influence has been largely confined to academia and political micro-sects. Despite its relative obscurity in the ‘first’ world, it continues to be a driving force for autonomy and development in the ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds.
Although it is notorious for being a nest for radical politics and the source of 20c revolutionary atrocities and failures, histmat doesn’t actually have a lot to say about socialism, anarchism or communism, because what it actually is is just the study of the history of all social formations, and especially that of capitalism. The radical politics only come in if we assume that some of histmats primary conclusions are true, the biggest one being that as a particular kind of economic system, capitalism had a specific historical beginning, and that as such, it cannot possibly last forever – but it is perfectly possible to be just about anywhere in the political spectrum while still relying on histmat theoretical resources. In fact, because of the uniqueness of this theoretical terrain, it has resources that are available nowhere else, and many, many political paradigms have to rely on it, covertly or otherwise.
The concept of ideology was originally generated by historical materialist research. We know about ideology because we can study the genesis of the capitalist system, and the way in which its (our) ideology began to come into being. It is because there is a clear and obvious shift in ideologies to study in our not-so-distant past that the concept of ideology came into existence in the first place.
While it should be obvious to you, dear reader, where this author’s sympathies lie, there is a broader point about ideology that I’m trying to make here, which is that there is no neutral, impartial way to observe any of these fields. You can see histmat from the perspective of Austrian/Neoclassical/Keynesian economics (full central planning is impossible due to information deficiencies and inefficiencies/an objective theory of value is unnecessary and impossible/we can stabilize capitalism indefinitely with state social programs – respectively) or we can see the former from Histmat’s perspective (they all lack an objective theory of value and a scientific framework for understanding the history of social systems, and are therefore all very partial snapshots of much bigger structures and processes) – but what we cannot do is see the field of economics from a neutral perspective that is somehow outside of it. If you’re a primate and you’re reading this, your perspective is already shaped and influenced by one of these research fields.
Ideological parallax is, again, constitutive of the field of economics as such. These competing theoretical terrains, as hostile to one another as they can be, actually need one another’s perspectives. A sophisticated view of the whole terrain of economic theories could only be attempted by schooling oneself in all existing theoretical edifices, and anyone trying to do this will inevitably run into ideological parallax structures.
Ideology and the Sciences
Now, just because there is no neutral perspective or ‘without’ ideology doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a scientific fact. There are plenty of facts, and facticity is and must remain the bedrock of all scientific endeavor. However, what it does mean is that there’s no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. Facts do not interpret themselves – another reason why having solid concepts is so important.
Facts are generated by scientific practices, which are also always social practices – ie; ideologies. All scientists and experts are also always in an ideology, and it is fairly common for them to actually not be aware of this themselves, given the ubiquity of the ‘neutrality=objectivity’ assumption. Scientists are never neutral observers, because being a neutral observer is impossible. This doesn’t make the facts that scientific practices generate any less factual, but it does mean that by approaching sets of facts with different conceptual angles, one can always draw differing conclusions. The facts are always conceptually mediated, and therefore, the same set of facts can always generate different theories in different contexts.
As a result, scientific theoretical terrains are not and have never been static terrains of pre-given, indisputable facts. By studying the history of any scientific field, it’s easy to see that there’s no neutral perspective. Rather than a monolithic block of experts, in every field we always have competing interpretations internal to theoretical edifices fighting over the same experimental results and facts. Eventually one of these paradigms will win out, but then another cycle begins again as new theories compete within the new paradigm. In the realm of the quantum what we seem to have is the math, and a multitude of attempts at conceptual interpretations that have yet to coalesce into anything more than an eclectic cluster of incompatible speculatory vehicles.
The concept of ideology can help us understand the scientific reproducibility crisis. If ~70% of practicing scientists have failed to reproduce the results of other scientists, and over 50% have failed to reproduce their own results – well, whadya think? Do you think maybe their concepts suck?
There are many contributing factors to the reproducibility crisis, but one of the biggest is that there is an underlying crisis in the ideology of scientific practice itself. Understanding a scientific theoretical terrain necessitates also understanding the genesis and evolution of that theory, and under the guiding dogmas of nominalist empiricism, scientists are not taught to do this. As a result, many end up without the conceptual resources to generate multiple productive interpretations of their own results, and without the historical understanding necessary to really grasp their theories as evolving structures. If a scientist isn’t aware that they are in and doing an ideology, this will end up being extraordinarily detrimental to their practice in the long run.
There is also no agreed on ‘meta’ framework for how to relate scientific terrains or fit them together. Instead of an increasingly unified and unifying terrain of scientific endeavor, we have a multitude of splitting, increasingly hyperspecialized and fragmented disciplines that have difficulty communicating with or understanding one another.
This means that you have to be responsible for creating, maintaining and updating this meta-framework yourself.
All of this indicates an ongoing crisis for the authority of the university discourse, in the fortress of facticity itself. In the space where the fantasm of a unified scientific front once stood, a cancer of pseudosciences and superstitions proliferates. How to tell the difference? How to find the signal in the noise?
You must think!
Ideology and You
All these cascading crises and apocalypses point to an obvious and singular conclusion. If you don’t take up an eternally questioning stance over your own conceptual world, you are allowing some expert, some priest, some guru, some media figure, some streamer, some twitter personality, some politician, some therapist to think for you.
These are all obsolete Holocene era figures of authority.
If the institutions can’t be trusted, if the media can’t be trusted, if the gurus and preachers can’t be trusted, if the politicians can’t be trusted, if the therapists can’t be trusted, if the scientists themselves can’t be trusted, then you know what?
You have to learn to think for yourself. You must think for yourself, and because of ideology – no, you actually do not know how to do this by default. It’s something you can only learn how to do by relentlessly questioning your own concepts and never ceasing to search for better ones. It’s something you can only do by renouncing all figures of external authority and becoming responsible for your own ontological and epistemological coordinates.
This then is the crucial ideological difference – there is passively and blindly allowing an already existing ideological formation to think for you, and then there is active, critical vigilance against all ideological enclosures and the commitment to escape velocity. It may not be possible to ever fully exit the matrix of ideology, but it is nonetheless necessary to try and keep trying.
This process itself is what it is to be mentally free.
Two Basic Tools
So – you’ve gotta head full of concepts, and you know that they’re all a part of your social conditioning – but you don’t know how to sort through them or do anything with them. You’ve let some external figure of authority define your concepts for you your entire life.
That sucks for you! You need some tools.
First of all – you have to learn how to turn a concept off. You can do this with a tool called ‘dereification’.
Reification means ‘to real-make’. (De)-Reification is basically like a concept’s ‘on or off’ switch. At minimum reification, it’s a ghost, just a meaningless semantic structure, a heap of letters and sounds. At maximum reification, the concept becomes ‘real’, operative, meaningful, determinative of and functional in one’s thought processes.
This type of thing happens automatically during religious conversions or spiritual experiences – suddenly what was gibberish before becomes alive with light and meaning because of a sudden auto-reification of the ‘God’ concept, or associated semantic clusters. But reification isn’t something that has to happen randomly, or spontaneously. It’s something anybody can do, on command. You don’t have to wait for anyone to tell you to do it or to give you permission. You can reify or dereify any concept out there, anytime you want.
The same goes for identification, our other basic conceptual operator. At maximum identification, a concept becomes a part of your identity. At minimum, it becomes something else, something other, something alien, something exterior. If Reification moves from ‘real’ to ‘not-real’, Identification goes from ‘me’ to ‘not me’.
So with these two levers, we have 4 basic parameter thresholds for dealing with concepts. Max reification/max identification to min reification/identification, max reification/min identification and vice versa. These define the outer parameters of any relationship with any concept, and with the ever-mutating semantic web of all concepts. Master identification and reification, and the conceptual universe is yours for the taking.
You’re very likely going to find yourself always already in a situation of max reification/identification with whatever matrix of concepts you’ve already got. So, the first step in assuming command of your own reification/identification processes is going to be a very painful experience of dereifying and disidentifying with all the symbolic coordinates that one holds dear.
Why would anybody do this? Well – they don’t, usually. This is usually something that happens to people first, not something they voluntarily choose to do. I had my first experience with dereification and disidentification when I lost my childhood faith in college. Through a painful process of comparing creationism to Darwinism, I eventually had to admit to myself that the Darwinists were right – evolution is the only scientific theoretical terrain for studying biology.
It hurt – but my conceptual world changed forever.
I didn’t really notice the tools of dereification and identification at the time, but I used them nonetheless. I de-reified and dis-identified with the creationist conceptual apparatus, and reified and identified with evolutionary theory. At the time, I would have used a metaphor for this process like ‘losing my faith’, because the actual mechanics remained unconscious and opaque.
So if you’ve already had an experience of moving from one conceptual terrain to another, you’ve already used reification/identification to do so. The trick is figuring out how to do this consciously, on command. Meditation practices and psychedelics can be helpful with this, as they can show you states with very low identification/reification parameters. Reading widely from a variety of subjects is also necessary – especially reading contradictory theoretical terrains critiquing each other. And if you want to really get good at it, you’re gonna have to eventually start staring down the Big Dogs of the Philosophical World.
Despite this process being painful at first, learning how to use dereification and disidentification is an incredibly powerful and useful ability. Some advantages include:
- You’re never gonna wake up in a cult, because you’ve assumed personal responsibility for your own ontological and epistemological coordinates. Congratulations on becoming immune to all pastors, priests, and gurus! You’ll be able to interface with these discourse/practices without becoming subsumed by them – experience what the universe ‘looks like’ from within these symbolic coordinates, and then freely put them aside.
- Having precisely defined and explored your own basic matrix of concepts yourself makes your mind your own in a way that it just isn’t before you do this, while you’re still going off of someone else’s definitions and conceptions. There’s an enormous amount of garbage info out there. Being able to run second-tier critical operations on any concept means you just became unscammable.
- By changing and updating your basic ontological coordinates, you will be able to change your experience as well. Boredom becomes a thing of the past. You can’t be bored when there’s infinity to think about.
- With training in identification and reification, you can move through any discourse formation on the planet. You can turn perspectives on and off on the fly, you can go anywhere, you can be anything. You can wake up a Buddhist and go to bed a Mormon, you can identify with a dog or a hog or a bat or a rat. You can be exactly as delusional as you wanna be, or you can go aquesting for truth like my dumb ass. Go nuts!
Once you start doing this, you will begin to experience your experiental horizon and your desire structure start to fluctuate rapidly. Through this process, you will eventually be able to prove to yourself that you are a free being. While folk concepts of ‘free-will’ may be obsolete, we do have the capacity to choose how we are influenced by our environment and past, by which historical streams – and what our ultimate desire aims towards.
I don’t really know how to teach you how to do this stuff, cuz I don’t know where you’re at. It would be way easier face to face!
I do know this tho – I won’t have to tell you when you’ve started to do it.