by Allen G. Anderson
Following the schema borrowed from Tony Meyers, which I sketched out in the last blog, we can say that the motivation or purpose of Žižek’s writing is provided by Karl Marx (Meyers 18). This is the case because the overall aim of Žižek’s work is to fill a crucial theoretical gap in the Marxian critique of ideology. This is why the question of “how ideology effectively functions today?” is so central to Žižek’s work (and why one hears him repeat it so often). The concept of ideology, however, may not be clearly understood by most readers. We can get a better grasp of it by examining Marx’s Base/Superstructure model of society. I will then show how Žižek develops the classical Marxian notion of ideology in order to better apply it to our contemporary situation.
From Base/Supertructure to Ideology:
For Marx, society could usefully be described as consisting of two fundamental parts: what he called the base, and the superstructure respectively. Here, base designates the “existing method of economic organization” (Meyers, p18) – in other words, it refers to the specific relations of production that constitute a given economic system. For instance, the base of modern American and European society is constituted by a capitalist system of economy – a particular arrangement of relations between bankers, investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and hired laborers. Superstructure on the other hand refers to the “cultural, political, and legal framework of a society” or, in other words, to the dominant ideology in that society (p18). For Marx, the particular character of a given society’s superstructure is determined, in large part, by it’s base. Thus, feudalism (i.e., the economic system of Medieval Europe consisting of serfs, landlords, royalty, and so on) gave rise to one form of ideology, while capitalism gives rise to another (what Žižek sometimes refers to as liberal-democratic multiculturalism).
The crucial point to take home is that whatever the particular character of the ideology it inevitably functions to disguise whatever inequalities and injustices there may be in the base by making it’s particular way of arranging society appear as natural or necessary. Thus, capitalism appears to most as the only way economic production can be arranged. More specifically, economics just is capitalism. In this way a society’s ideological framework has the effect of ensuring the continued reproduction of it’s particular mode of economic organization.