The Theory of Ideology and the Ideology of Theory? Habermas contra Adorno Habermas’s Marxism

Modernity and the End of Ideology

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4. Modernity and the End of Ideology

Towards the end of her article Cook challenges what she calls Habermas’s ‘end of ideology thesis.’ Habermas offers an historical account of the demise of ideologies, paradigmatically of religious ideologies, under conditions of modernity. Religious ideologies functions among other things as a means of social integration and as a compensation mechanism for a meaningless and alienated mundane life. Habermas’s quasi-empirical thesis is that fully rationalised, modern societies are not fertile ground for such ideologies. To understand why he thinks this we have to take a look at his theory of modernity.

According to Habermas the process rationalisation which accompanies and inflects the course of modernisation is marked by a separating out of the three value spheres - the technological-scientific, legal-moral and aesthetic-expressive. What results from this process is a peculiar complex and fragile equilibrium between autonomous systems of money and power - as the embodiments of ‘instrumental rationality’ - and the life-world - as the embodiment of ‘communicative rationality’. The process of rationalization has both negative and positive consequences for individuals. On the negative side, social pathologies result when systems of ‘instrumental action’ colonize the repository of ‘communicative action’ in the life-world, which is the basis of cultural reproduction, socialization and social integration, and thereby sever at the root the opportunities that modernity presents.31 These include the social deracination of individual subjects; social fragmentation; increasing vulnerability to and feelings of helplessness at, the disciplinary effects impersonal systems of administration and the vagaries of an ever more powerful capitalist economy; and destabilization as a result of growing inequalities of wealth and resources. Furthermore this combination of fragmentation and increasing complexity has the unintended effect of obscuring the mechanisms at work with the result that the inhabitants of modern societies are often blind to the myriad ways in which society depends on their collective cognitive and practical activity.

On the positive side, modernity presents an opportunity for subjects to establish the legitimacy of institutions, customs and practices on the basis of validity-claims, either directly or indirectly through the medium of legitimate law, a basis that promises stability, transparency and the accountability of supra-subjective structures of authority.32 As a result sphere of freedom of individuals is greatly increased. The power of the state, thus becomes gradually uncoupled from religion and tradition, and held in check not only by system constraints, e.g. economic imperatives, but also by publicly accessible criteria of legitimation, e.g. whether or not policies and laws satisfy interests of the subjects who comprise it. For in modern societies discourse functions as a way of replenishing the shared meanings that constitute the lifeworld by restoring, repairing or replacing problematised norms and values, and in this manner is able partly to compensate for the diminution of the socially integrating power of religious traditions.33

Of course the shared meanings/understandings that arise from these discursive processes are different to the endemic values of the religious traditions and metaphysical worldviews they replace. They have so to speak shallower foundations (they arise from discursive procedures) and broader scope (they satisfy claims to universal validity). Moreover they are reflexive and transparent, since the justificatory principles they embody are open to view and thus equally open to contestation. Hence, thirdly, they are also more frangible and open to revision.

Now the argument that Cook contests is that because the chief belief-forming mechanisms of rationalized modern societies are linguistic, discursive practices, ideologies in the sense of systematic illusions, tend to become unstable. Cook objects to this conclusion on the grounds that it implies that ideologies are not possible because ‘we have gained a degree of intellectual maturity that cannot be revoked.’34 This way of putting it makes Habermas’s thesis sound complacent, and gives his theory and individualistic bias he would certainly want to resist. Habermas’s point is that although modernity does bring with it certain cognitive gains, due to the ways in which ‘we’ agents are socialized into post-tradition forms of life, and due to the extent to which rationality can directly though discourse (and indirectly through the medium of legitimate law) provide the basis of social order, it does so at great cost.35 This thesis certainly does not imply that the beliefs and desires of modern agents cannot be manipulated by advertising or otherwise distorted. It implies only that the influence of such mechanisms of manipulation is in principle discoverable by the agents at whom it is aimed, and that the falsity of the beliefs which they produce is not systematically prevented from coming to light, as was the case with religious ideologies. And as we have seen, Habermas is well aware that modern subjects feel (and are) disempowered and helpless before the anonymous and impersonal forces of the administrative and economic systems. It is just that social theory does not need to (and Habermas’s social theory does not) posit the influence of systematic mass-deception and collective false-consciousness as a putative explanation of these phenomena. A nuanced theory of the nature of modern society is all the explanation required.

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