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Thursday, June 2, 2011


Before moving on to Mannheim's development and elaboration of this core idea, I am going to pause for a moment to reflect on its significance. We are these days quite accustomed to the attempt in political discourse to unmask, humiliate, delegitimize, shame our opponents. Despite the ritual calls for "bi-partisanship" or even for "non-partisanship," the standard polemical move in contemporary political debate is to accuse one's opponent of being covertly a representative of "special interests,' a "secret socialist," a radical, a paleo-conservative, a misogynist, a French-lover, the Anti-Christ. The goal of such speech is not to demonstrate that one's opponent is mistaken about some matter of public policy, but to reveal him or her as unworthy to be taken seriously, as a person not to be accepted into decent society.

Contrast this with two older modes of disagreement, which I shall label the Academic and the Parliamentary. In Academic disagreement, all of the participants begin with two assumptions that frame the debate: First, that all of the participants are recognized as having achieved some level of professional expertise that warrants their being listened to; and Second, that all participants, however strongly they may disagree, are acknowledged to be engaged in a search for truth. In the German sense of the word, they are all wissenschaftlich. [This word carries a meaning much broader than is implied by the English translation "scientific." It means, roughly rational, systematic, regulated by recognized canons of objective research, and so forth.] In ordinary Academic debate, no attempt is made to unmask one's opponent as having a secret and unadmitted agenda, as being prepared to warp the data to fit secret purposes, or as acting as an agent of an interested party. Such corruptions of Academic debate occur, of course, but when they are alleged, all serious discussion stops until the truth of the allegations is ascertained. If the allegations are shown to be true, the guilty party is henceforth excluded from the debate, is ostracized or driven from the Academy.

In Parliamentary debate, the participants are understood to be the chosen representatives of groups of citizens having legitimate interests or concerns that they seek to express and advance through their representatives. There are two underlying assumptions of Parliamentary debate: First, that the groups of citizens being represented have a fundamental right to have their interests taken seriously in the deliberations of the elected body; and Second, that all of the citizens are committed to the well-being of the political community as a whole, whatever they understand that well-being to consist in. The debates then take two forms: Negotiated agreements about public policies, in which the elected representatives act as negotiators for the interests of those who have chosen them as representatives; and Debates about the best way to pursue the common good to which all parties are committed. It is understood that the groups of citizens being represented will have different and often incompatible interests, and that the results of the negotiations will therefore inevitably fall short of what any one group of citizens desires. In a normal Parliamentary debate, no representative seeks to unmask or humiliate or delegitimize another, for to do so would, in effect, be to deny the legitimacy of the interests of the group of citizens being represented. It would be to say that that group of persons are not genuine citizens, do not deserve to have their interests represented, are interlopers or enemies of the common weal.

These, or something like them, are the models Mannheim has in mind as the ideals of public discourse in a modern, advanced, secular national society. He sees the introduction into the public discourse of the tactics of ideological unmasking as a terrible loss, a falling away from the ideal, as something therefore that he seeks to counteract insofar as he is able.

But alas, his own analysis leads him inexorably in another direction.

Mannheim begins by distinguishing the particular from the total conception of ideology. By the particular conception Mannheim means the idea that what people say in political contexts is, or may be, more or less self-consciously self-serving rationalizations for some proposition that serves their real [but very possibly concealed] interests. A good example would be the repeated appeal, by conservative defenders of the interests of capital, to the supposed "proof" offered in Neo-Classical Economic theory that a minimum wage drives up prices, increases unemployment, and introduces inefficiencies into the market. Sophisticated economists are quite well aware that the mathematics underlying this claim actually apply only to economies in long-run equilibrium in which there are constant returns to scale, a zero profit rate, and a linear homogeneous production function for the entire economy -- conditions that never exist even a Milton Friedmanesque wet dream. But the politicians and conservative think tank epigones who studied this nonsense in their Freshman economics courses and never got any further with the subject, may be quite unaware of the fact that they are spouting self-serving absurdities. Similarly, champions of the mission of "democratic nation building in the Middle East" may know that they are offering blatant rationalizations for the corporate interests of the oil industry. But they may also actually believe that what America does is not imperialism because [as Marvin Kalb once explained to me] "we have good intentions."] Mannheim has a good deal to say about the progression from simple lying to ideological self-deception.

A total ideology, by contrast, is what we have already called a world view or weltanschauung. [anschauen, by the way, is German for "to look at."] A total ideology is a complete way of seeing the social world that encompasses everything in that world, and understands it from a perspective whose self-interest is almost certainly hidden from the possessor of the world-view. Think, for example, of the way in which a fourteenth century French landed aristocrat sees his world and his place in it. His conception of property, of the place of himself and of women of his social class in the life of the family, of the church, of honor, of the proper role and behavior of the peasantry, of his obligations, or lack of same, to the craftsmen and merchants in the nearby walled city, all taken together constitute an entire integrated understanding of the objective social reality of the world. We can see with very little trouble that everything he believes is a patent self-justifying rationalization of his privileged position in that world. But he is virtually incapable to recognizing this obvious fact. That he personally is fortunate to have been born an aristocrat may be something he can grasp, if he has a generous enough imagination. But that the entire world order within which people are born aristocrats or peasants is itself a constructed rationale for his privilege and that of his fellow aristocrats is simply beyond him.

It is easy enough to conjure up a number of different [and competing] world-views, of course: The world-view of the 3rd century A. D. Roman senator; the world-view of the seventeenth century Puritan Roundhead; the world-view of the twenty-first century corporate executive [which may be in important ways different from the world-view of the nineteenth century robber baron]. Note that when a world-view dominates an era, as that of the French aristocrat mentioned above did, it may very well be shared in and accepted not only by those who benefit from its acceptance, but also by those who do not. The serf on the aristocrat's lands probably share's his lord's conviction that lords should be tried in different courts than priests, and different again than peasants.

[As I prepare to post this segment of my bourse, I find that I must once again warn you that Mannheim's discussion is incredibly rich and complex -- so much so that I cannot possibly do justice to it in these brief remarks.]

1 comment:

Andreas Baumann said...

The comment below ties in well with my earlier comment, so I shall pursue it here. I hope that I shall avoid the jangly style from my previous comment - mea culpa, but I have been spending a lot of time around continental philosophers lately.

I think that the distinction between sehen and anschauen is rather essential: whereas the former is passive, the latter is active. I see things in the world the way I choose to look at them. In that sense, "Weltanschaung" emphasizes that one actively takes part in recreating the social world whenever one passes judgement on it's content. However, such an action requires a certain measure of will, and how can man "will" a way of looking at things when his very gaze is the product of ideology? A Heideggerian interpretation would be that the world is open-to-man (Offenbare), and as such it takes a certain will to remain aligned with Das Man - so, in a sense, man wills himself to reproduce ideology in fear of being forced to live in the Truth.

At any rate, it would be great to write a book about social critique from a Heideggerian viewpoint - "Sticking it to Das Man" comes to mind as a useful title.

This bourse (a fitting term for a series of posts dedicated to social critique) is most interesting. Thank you.