Rabble and the Failure of Ideology

The response to the two shootings over the last weekend has renewed my conviction that my argument I’m trying to make here is of some importance.

The standard response so far has been to locate the cause of the shootings in either the excessive availability of guns or in racism.  What I want to suggest is that both of these are better understood as the result of the same problem that has also led to the epidemic of mass shootings: the failure of ideology.  In fact, it would be my argument that this is also the cause of the increase in addiction, mental illness, and suicide that we see reported in the newspapers on a weekly basis.  Mistaking something like the availability of guns for the ultimate cause of such events will prevent us from ever arriving at, or even considering, a solution.

We tend to think of ideology as a monolithic and suffocating thing, so pervasive that it is unlikely anyone could ever escape its obfuscating power sufficiently to act for any considered reason.  My argument here is that this is the wrong understanding of ideology.  We should see ideology as a desirable thing, something we should spend our time producing and reproducing.  The greatest problem we face today is not that we are too thoroughly interpellated by ideology (although this may in fact be true of many more affluent Americans), but that for far too many people there is no adequate ideology for them to participate in.

Once we understand ideology as the beliefs-in-practices which give our lives meaning, providing us with goals and, importantly, actual social practices in which we can meet those goals successfully, then we can begin to see just how it is possible that for many millions of people in America there is a dearth, not excess, of ideology.

Far too many people today are left without what Charles Taylor calls “hypergoods.” That is, they have no clear organizing principle which can serve to give purpose to all their more quotidian pursuits.  Now, I’m not talking about God here.  A hypergood may be something quite secular, like becoming a member of the middle class, or engaging in an occupation that seems to be socially valuable, or even participating in amateur sports or community theater.  Once we have decided what will give our lives some sense of value, we need to find some way to actually participate in this activity.  This is always, for humans, going to be a social activity. There is just no way to survive as a human without some community.  We need to have activities that allow us to engage with others in some project that is both of real social value, and in which we feel we have some significant role to play, and feel we can contribute to making important decisions about.  When we feel we have no input into how the world works, and we cannot find social roles that allow us to fulfill goals, we suffer from anomie and alienation.

In the present capitalist economy, in which fewer and fewer people have more and more wealth, and so can monopolize decisions about what collective projects our society will undertake, more and more people are considered superfluous. They have no opportunity to do things like buy a house, send their kids to college, plan for retirement.  And because they do not have this level of stability, they have no opportunity to join clubs or other social organizations that can collectively plan meaningful projects.  

This is what Hegel, in Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, calls the rabble.  Rabble are those who have been impoverished, necessarily, by the inherent function of the capitalist system, and so have no investment in the collective project of our society. They have no part to play in it other than as consumers of things like cellphones and video games and cable services—or, things that may make them feel temporarily more powerful like drugs and alcohol and guns.  Such people work dead-end jobs to survive, and spend what little they make on short-term mind-numbing activities.  

Hegel does explain that this is inevitable in a capitalist economy.   As accumulation of wealth increases, fewer people are needed to work, but to maintains economic growth these underemployed people will still need to consume commodities.  We wind up with an enormous number of superfluous people, with no meaningful practices to engage in, no hypergoods to structure their lives, no hope of ever achieving anything.

And they remain outside of the collective mind, what Hegel calls Geist, that those participating in the capitalist game are part of. They are, in the most important sense, without a mind to become a part of, alienated individuals who can see no future.

So they act out of revenge at those they believe have excluded them, denied them recognition and a meaningful role in society.  That they are often mistaken about the actual source of this denial should not come as a surprise, given the effort put into preventing clear and correct understanding of capitalist social formations. And the energy invested in promoting racism.  

When a man (these shooters are almost always men) who did all the things he was supposed to is suddenly, after a financial collapse he had no part in and cannot even understand, downsized out of a permanent job and spends a decade losing his house, unable to pay for his kids’ clothes and dental care, while he works multiple short-term  low-paying jobs… he is bound to become alienated from the norms and goals of American culture.  And when he is then told over and over that the situation today is all his fault, because he has “white privilege” (these shooters are predominantly white) and so has all the power and wealth and control in America…he is likely to start actually seeking that “white privilege” he doesn’t really feel while living in a squalid apartment with no money, no job, no health care, no family.  

It is enormously disturbing to me that these mass shootings mystify not only the press but all the so-called public intellectuals called upon to explain them and offer solutions.  They simply cannot see, because it is something we cannot speak of in our society, that class is a central feature of all of these mass shootings.  Downward social mobility is one way this works. But we also see many teenage boys living in poverty and forced into close proximity every day with those from the social class to which they will always be denied access.  

What we need to do is to learn to produce some social practices in which the enormous and growing precariat and underclass can participate. Some goal that can give their lives a direction, an organization—but also some actual practices that they can then participate in to work toward that goal.  We need to produce more ideologies.

I’m reminded of  Cantor’s claim in his book on Medieval society that there was effectively a “one-class system,” because only the aristocracy “justified its own existence, lived itself as a class.” In Hegelian terms, only the upper class had a free consciousness, because only they determined how they would live, and participated in their social roles for reasons. The lower orders lived in a way that was not fully human, their actions determined by brute force.  We surely aren’t quite in that situation yet…but we’re working toward it.  And it should come as no real surprise (yet it seems it does) when people forced to live as animals lash out in irrational and violent ways.

I know that to fully make this point would take an essay at least four times this length—and yet I feel that this is already far too long for anyone who needs to read it to get through.  I’m curious if anyone knows of others trying to make this point? I remember decades ago hearing arguments like this in response to the Oklahoma City bombing—but they were a minority voice then and largely ignored.  

If the task is to produce an ideology that the superfluous rabble of global capitalism can participate in, it is clear enough that it will need to be an oppositional ideology, a practice devoted to re-making the relations of production.  We surely cannot expect the good subjects of capitalist ideology to undertake this project. But the future of the human species may depend on somebody doing it.  And until we start such ideological projects, we may have to live our lives in a constant state of fear, worrying every time we send a child to school, go out for a beer at a local bar, or even go out to shop for our daily necessities.  Having the lower orders living in fear may suit the richest 2% just fine.  But it is not an ideology, it is the absence of ideology.

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  1. I’m curious if anyone knows of others trying to make this point? I remember decades ago hearing arguments like this in response to the Oklahoma City bombing—but they were a minority voice then and largely ignored.

    I haven’t seen anyone making this point recently, though I’ve been following the media circus that has ensued since these shootings, and every other in the last few years. I have attempted to make the point you are trying to make here, but I have essentially only been met with hostility for appearing to deny that racism or guns are a causal factor here, even though I have never made such a denial, and I take it you are not denying these factors either, only pointing out the deeper ideological factors at work.

    I wonder what it would take to make your point clear to people, without provoking the kinds of enormously stupid responses that arise out of the fear of ideology. Myself, I find that engaging with the rabble of capitalism, with precisely the kinds of people who are most likely to shoot up a mall, is often more fruitful than engaging with, say, well-meaning liberals who are unable to think in terms of capitalism, or ideology more generally. Of course, this places me at the risk of being decried for wanting to provide ideological alternatives to those who need it most, but I don’t think I have much of an option, as the responses of the establishment to these incidents cannot be reasoned with, and only reinforce the perception that the elite could not give less of a shit about those left behind by capitalism.

    Kudos for making this point publicly.

  2. Danny

     /  August 6, 2019

    Hey Tom,
    No, I haven’t heard this point being made at all–much more likely to hear how monstrously evil the individual is rather than the monstrous lack in the social structure that gives rise to this particular subjectivity. As Chaim said, thanks for making this point here.

  3. Perhaps, the growing movements like ‘extinction rebellion’ and the ‘gilets jaunes’ (france) – and more generally the environmental movement (which its opponents correctly see as anti-capitalist) may begin to slowly provide this ideology….altho the environmental movement is problematic given that the belief in global warming is still questionable from a science perspective – we may be actually cooling! Nevertheless there can still be a movement around pollution, deforestation etc.
    Anyways your main point is correct imo. It’s not primarily the gun or the person – it always has to be what guattari would have perhaps called an ‘ecology’ – see e,g, his ‘The three ecologies.’

  4. And there was of course Norman O. Brown

  5. danielmingram

     /  August 7, 2019

    This is one of the most well-written and poignant pieces I have seen by you, Tom. I think you make extremely important points here. Thanks for writing it. Your project to try to make your cogent ideas more accessible in your writings is clearly paying off.

    The only worry I had when reading it is that phrases such as “the rabble of capitalism” might be misread to be some functional equivalent of Hillary’s “basket of deplorables”, that your dry sarcasm might be taken literally, which I know was not your goal or intention. There are articles I have read recently that hint at the lack of appreciation of sarcasm, irony, and nuance on both the far right and the far left, or basically the far anything, as that is often part of being far, apparently. Such might also apply to the far Buddhists? Need this hypothetical lack be taken into account by those who attempt to reach them? I wonder.

    Anyway, great work!

  6. Do you know the work of Aimee Terese? She has been involved with several political podcasts over the years. I think she is trying to make a similar point. She certainly wants to reestablish class as a crucial category for ideology, or indeed for revolutionary thought. You might also find the work of her current podcast interlocutor, Benjamin Studebaker, interesting.

    I believe that one of the great failures of the American left, liberals in particular, is its unconscious absorption of the conservative obfuscation of class into its worldview.

    One question: Might it be possible to see the appearance of these shooters as the result of “successful” ideology? That is, there seems to be something in the right wing narratives around race, identity, and so on, that does provide these white males with a “hypergood.” Where they had been suffering a “dearth of ideology,” they are now provided, via a robust “explanation” for their downward social mobility (namely, immigrants, LGBTQ right, upperly mobile blacks and women, etc. etc.), value, meaning, and a purpose in life. Not really, of course; and certainly not in any broad, sustainable sense. But enough so to emerge from the dark corners of humiliation and failure to…well, we know how it ends. Or have I misunderstood the idea of a hypergood?

  7. I’m not familiar with Aimee Terese—I’ll definitely check out her work.

    On the question of “successful ideology”: I would say that the misogyny and racism that such people embrace is definitely NOT an ideology in the sense I mean the word, and so cannot serve as a hypergood. And ideology needs to work to reproduce a way of life—to provide food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, etc. Those in this position, the rabble in Hegel’s term, are those excluded from participating in producing such things. They exist parasitically on what is produced by those interpellated into ideologies. I think of this sort of like rats on a ship. They exist completely parasitically, with no existing “natural” way for them to provide food or dig nests, etc. They do survive, but clearly only so long as the crew of the ship goes on functioning normally.

    I would want to distinguish these extreme cases, who are outside of all ideology, from the important function that things like racism and sexism play in reproducing our social formation. When we fail to make this distinction, we both ignore the real prevalence of institutionalized racism and sexism by focusing too much on extreme cases, and we also fail to see what is needed to address the real problem that the rabble presents.

    My position is that the mass shooter who decides his only alternative is to die while getting revenge on women, or Jews, or rich kids in his school, etc., is not engaging in an ideological practice at all—and certainly not a hypergood in Taylor’s sense of that term. He is severely mentally ill, what they used to call alienated, and not a functioning member of any ideological project.

    To reiterate: the focus on the racism and sexism of these shooters is misguided, misses the real underlying cause, and also distracts us from attending to the much more powerful everyday racism and sexism we should be addressing (which is no doubt why it is such a popular topic with the capitalist press).

  8. David Watson

     /  August 24, 2019

    Am I lost here? In Althusser’s terms wouldn’t an absence of ideology result in a failure of the current relations of production to reproduce themselves? If the fundamental function of the “rabble” is to remain impotent — to be set apart from productive activity, to be purposeless and live lives without meaning — then some ideology allows this function to be perpetuated. A rabble without ideology would doom society in its present form (which of course could be understood as a good thing).

  9. Yes, a total failure of ideology would exactly result in the failure of the relations of productions to reproduce themselves. What I am concerned with here is more like a partial failure of ideology—where some individuals cannot be interpellated as subjects, because there is no role for them to play in the relations of production—so, they exactly have no relation to the relations of production at all. I’m trying to think of a good metaphor for this—suppose we imagine having thirty kids at the playground, and we decide to play a game of baseball: we need 18 players, 3 umpires, and the other nine just don’t get any role to play at all—so, nine “individual” are just left out. Sure, there is a danger they will just do their own thing, and what that is might disrupt the game.

    Hegel’s concern was that the rabble really did disrupt society, really did present a problem. Beyond the inherent contradictions in the working of capitalism, there is then also the danger that the mass of un-interpellated individuals could become disruptive.

    My point here is that in some sense a number these individuals are what we call mentally ill—they are “alienated” completely, and seeking some relation to the current relations of production, some meaningful role to play when there isn’t one for them. Most, of course, will turn to various forms of self-destruction (suicide, addiction, etc.), but some will seek a deranged and dangerous form of relation to the group they have been excluded from. Sort of like Grendel, seeking destructive responses to the society that has excluded them, trying in misguided ways to reshape that society in ways that would allow them a role in it.

    So yes, if the rabble got large enough that the repressive state apparatus could not handle it (in the US we already have an enormous prison system, straining to contain those we cannot interpellate), then it would likely doom society.

    Personally, I would not be sure that this collapse will necessarily lead to something better. Something better can only be produced by a new and better ideology.

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