Radical Ideology and Indispensable Goods

Towards the end of the manuscript of my book, in a chapter entitled “Producing Indispensable Goods,” I offer the example of an amateur theater group as a kind of proto-communist ideological practice.  At this point in the book, I have been arguing that capitalist arose because proto-capitalist practices were created to produce the indispensable goods not provided by the feudal mode of production, and eventually these practices spread and became the mode of producing all goods.  I take the term “indispensable goods” from Althusser, who argues that there are many things we need to flourish a human beings, beyond merely food and shelter.  This includes, but is not limited to, the ability to participate in deciding on our way of life, and the recognition (in a Hegelian sense) of other humans.  My suggestion is that something like an amateur theatrical group could provide some of these needs, which are not at all provided by the capitalist MoP.  Here’s part of the relevant chapter:

If ideology is a belief-in-practice that works to reproduce a mod of production (MoP), can there be non-capitalist ideologies in an overwhelming capitalist world?  The answer to this depends on whether there can be multiple MoPs, which is to say multiple concurrent ways of producing and distributing our human necessities.  I would argue that it is today clear enough that global capitalism is failing to meet the basic needs of most people, so a competing MoP would seem to be required. Can we find ways to produce our indispensable goods, or at least some of them, outside of the capitalist system?  

Because this is what I’m suggesting: that we begin by developing practices which will provide us with exactly those indispensable goods which the capitalist economy does not provide.  Certainly we should work to ensure that everyone has adequate food, shelter, clothing and health care.  These are the things that our dominant MoP has a monopoly on producing, even if the way they are distributed requires that someone make a profit and so requires that many people will not get access to them.  So people starve in our country even as enormous amounts of food get destroyed and landowning corporations are paid government subsidies to let their farms lie fallow in order to keep prices up.  These are the economic practices we should be actively struggling against.  But the greatest impediment to solving these problems lies in the beliefs of most people in America that there is no alternative—that any other manner of distributing our social surplus would be somehow “inefficient” or would lead to immorality in the form of promoting laziness.  

Those of us who have given serious thought to such things know the absurdity of these beliefs. We are often astounded when we hear them most passionately advocated by exactly the very homeless and hungry people who are most disadvantaged by them.  Nobody is more dead set agains socialism than the chronically underemployed.  Nobody is more passionately opposed to universal healthcare than those whose hundreds of thousands of dollars of life-sustaining medical treatments are paid for by Medicaid.  

We also know that there has never been a less efficient system than capitalism.  What its advocates seem to mean by “efficient” is that whatever you happen want is instantly available to you—even if that means we must produce enormous quantities of commodities that wind up as landfill just so that we will have on hand whatever someone with money happens to want.  In fact, as the examples of Walmart and Amazon would seem to indicate, the most efficient system is exactly what those opposed to socialism would have you fear most: an economy planned by a centralized bureaucracy.  

The point of this little digression into the obvious is simply to suggest that one of the greatest impediments to our thriving is our own ignorance, our inability to question the received wisdom we get from our parents, the media, our college professors, or common-sense wisdom.  One of the most important, and most lacking, of our indispensable goods is exactly our need to understand the workings of the world around us and be able to participate in constructing our Md world.  Until we have this basic good, we will never solve the problems of supplying the basic material necessities like food and shelter to everyone.  

This book, then, is addressed primarily to those who already have the minimal needs of physical survival.  The average college graduate today is not likely to be homeless or to go hungry. She probably has a smartphone and a car.  She may even have access to healthcare.  

And so she likely can’t figure out why she is still so miserable.  Or, if she does have an answer to this, it is probably that she just doesn’t have enough stuff yet. Maybe she thinks living with her parents and working at the Au Bon Pain is too constricting, or he thinks that not being able to afford to travel to Europe to play golf in Scotland or to buy that new Mercedes is what is really making him unhappy.  We think, that is, that more stuff will solve all our problems.  But what if it doesn’t? 

What if, like Tony Montana in the movie Scarface, we wind up with enormous wealth, with every thing we think we wanted, and find out we are still dissatisfied?  Most of us, of course, will never get there, and so the promise of imaginary plentitude still acts as a lure.  In fact, this promise is all the more important because we cannot even conceive of any other source of happiness than getting all the things we want without effort.  Nobody today remembers the discontent that arose in the fifties and sixties when the long postwar boom gave so many people houses in the suburbs, cars and televisions, retirement accounts and golf-club memberships…but somehow no contentment.  

What was missing?

My suggestion is that you try to find that out.  Most college graduates today will wind up as part of what is sometimes called the precariat class: those who are not really poor, but are endlessly struggling on the verge of economic disaster, working short-term jobs and paying off enormous debt and never reaching the level of security their grandparents and parents saw.  Because you are part of the growing class of surplus people.  That is to say, the global economy requires fewer and fewer people to actually be members of the capitalist class.  As enormous wealth condenses in the hands of fewer and fewer multi-billionaires, they need fewer servants on call to fulfill their demands.  The rest are unnecessary people, who increasingly become nothing but a burden to the endless growth of great fortunes.  To put it bluntly, there needs to be a mass of people ready to do the bidding of the very wealthy, but there needs to be an even greater mass of people prepared to do this bidding but never getting a chance, because most of them will serve only as a threat to keep wages down. If there are fifty million underemployed adults with graduate degrees in STEM fields, those few with the good jobs have no real leverage to ask for more money.  

Okay, enough of the basic economic nightmare. What might we do about it?  

Instead of indulging futile dreams of one day becoming one of the very rich, or even one of the relatively affluent servants of the very rich, why not spend your time investigating exactly what is really missing when you have the basic material necessities of life?  What other indispensable goods do you really lack?  What if it isn’t stuff, but ways of acting in and understanding the world?  What if our human nature requires that we have the power to choose our collective social projects, to decide what will be meaningful for us?

We can do this not because we have anything like the kind of free will we usually think we have (remember Chapter 9).  That is, we cannot just freely decide what to do in some completely undetermined way and set out to do it.  We can only begin from where we are, notice the sources of limitation and dissatisfaction, and begin to make these explicit in some collective discourse (recall Chapter 5).  The history of humans is the history of our collective intentions—of which ones become dominant and which don’t, of the effects of those collective projects on all of us.  The meaning of the Enlightenment, in its most positive sense, is that we can begin to become aware of what those intentions and effects are.  We don’t need to assume only Mi things are causal; we can come to the understanding that Md things are causally real and can be up to us.

What I want to outline here, as a mere suggestion, is a practice we might undertake to make meaningful to ourselves the kinds of activities that might fulfill our human nature.  If, as I have argued, it is the goal of our current ISAs to convince us that we must merely adapt to the world we have been thrown into, because it is natural and inevitable…then the goal of this kind of practice would be to convince us that we can choose a new world.  Not only that, but that the act of choosing, even if we fail to carry out our collective projects, is itself one of the most fundamental needs of our human nature. And we must do it collectively; we need to understand that any social project will only be fully meaningful if we choose it in negotiation with other people.  Contrary to our ordinary assumption, caught as we are in a pervasive fear of sociality, it is not the case that actions will feel meaningful only if they are either imposed from without or chosen to individually without the need to consider others; instead, actions have meaning when we commit to them by choice as part of a collective intention.

The practice I go on to suggest, then, is amateur theatrics.  I intend this only as an example, an illustration.  But I have some concerns about this particular example.  Mostly, I am worried that it falls into the usual Romantic answer to all social ills: aesthetics.  I don’t want to promote the tired old illusion that art allows us to escape the suffocating trap of ideology or of the Habermasian “system.”  The idea, instead, is that art produces ideology, it never allows an escape from it (on this point I differ from Althusser).  But producing an ideology is a good thing—if we can produce non-capitalist ideological practices.  

So my question is, can anyone suggest other practices that might produce indispensable goods but which would not fall into the general bourgeois category of art?  Not that art is a necessarily bad example—Eagleton uses a jazz combo as his example in his book The Meaning of Life, for instance, very effectively.  But still, art does require an audience…and that leads to a whole other set of problems.  What about a practice that does not require an audience, only participants?  What kind of indispensable goods migh it fulfill?  What might it look like?  

In part, the end of the book is a challenge to the reader to come up with such practices for herself.  But I’d appreciate suggestions for even one other example, besides theater, I might offer.  

Chapter 27: In which the book gradually comes to an end…

The manuscript is done.  In the revised form it is a bit different from my original working outline, but the purpose remains the same.  I’ve tweaked and proofread and formatted until I can’t think of another thing to do with it.  At this point, the only thing I’m not satisfied with is the preface, so that may change. 

All the publishers I could think of have at this point passed on the project.  None were even willing to read a sample—the outline was enough to convince them it isn’t marketable.   I may spend some time looking for other publishers, and if that goes nowhere I will probably consider self-publishing it.  

In the meantime, if anyone who has followed this quixotic project here is interested I’d be grateful for some feedback on the manuscript.  One of my concerns is that reading digitally (such as reading on this blog) is one of the causes of our intellectual decline in recent decades.  To that end, I do not want there to ever be a digital version of this book.  I will be printing out a few copies, though, and if there are any readers here interested enough to plow through 300 pages of my writing and give some response (I am NOT looking for copy editing!), I could mail a copy out the old fashioned way.  Let me know.  

In the future, I expect this blog to be limited to progress reports on this book project, and if it ever sees the light of day to encouraging discussion and response of the book.  

My next plan is to shift gears a bit, and revive an old project called “Imaginary Relations.”  This was an online journal devoted to marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic and deconstructive critiques of aesthetic objects.  The idea was to avoid the current trend in literary studies, which discourages publishing essays engaging with single “texts.”  In reviving this, we continue to believe that there is value to considering texts the way audiences engage them, without necessarily trying to place them in some broad “theme” or trend.  

We want to see discussion of individual “texts” that considers their function for the audience.  What kind of subjects do they make us into?  What kinds of pleasures do they give, and why?  By “text” we mean anything from Proust to the Super Bowl.  I hope not to be writing all the posts in this project, so if anyone has an idea I hope you’ll consider contacting me.  

Other that that, I plan to devote my time to creative writing and trying to find a new line of work now that I no longer teach.  

Happy Holidays!


I’m currently at work on the final chapter of this book project.  There may be further revision to do, but I expect the draft to be complete before Thanksgiving.  At that point, I expect to be working on revision, proofreading, formatting…and figuring out how and whether to publish it.   So I likely won’t post much more about this project, except perhaps part of the conclusion at some point.

At the outset, I got considerable useful feedback on my posts—although, as one should expect, interest faded over time.  I Thought I’d take one more shot at seeking feedback on the issue that concerns me most: clarity.   To that end, I’m posting here one of the short chapters from the second half of the book, in which I briefly explore many conceptual impediments to a correct understanding of ideology.

This particular chapter seems to me to have reached the level of lucidity I’m working for.  My question is: does it seem as “accessible” (not crazy about this term) to others as it does to me?  Keep in mind, of course, that I do refer to some arguments made earlier in the book—but overall, regardless of whether my concept of “mind” is thoroughly convincing, is it clear what I mean by “mindedness”?  Will readers be able to grasp what exactly I am asking them to at least provisionally accept?

For purposes of feedback on this post, I will not be “monitoring” comments—all comments on this particular post will be automatically approved.  (Of course, I will likely later delete anything that seems obscene, irrelevant, or to be spam.)

This is the chapter, exactly as it appears in my draft, minus only the “suggested further readings.”


Chapter 8: Mind

What do I mean by the term mind?  

It is clearly a key concept in everything I’ve argued here, and understanding this concept will be necessary to developing a more complete explanation of ideology.  But to understand this concept it will be essential to reject two assumptions that are fundamental to most discussion of mind, and to our common sense understanding of what a mind is.

First, we will need to reject the idea that minds exist on a kind of continuum in all living things, from insects to dogs to humans.  What I mean by mind is something unique to humans, something that no other species on Earth has.  

Second, we will need to consider that a mind is not even something we “have” at all.  Perhaps a better way to put it is that we have the capacity for “mindedness,” as a kind of activity only humans can engage in.  

Beginning from there, we can dissolve the seemingly intractable problem of whether the mind is “in” the brain or somehow separate from it.  This perennial problem, so puzzling to most philosophers of mind, will become yet one more example of a misguided question.  

I am going to try to to advance the position that:

  1. Engaging in ‘mindedness’ is something only humans can do, because it depends on the use of language (although language is not sufficient—it requires other kinds of capacities as well).
  2. Mindedness is always collective: it is an activity that requires the participation of multiple human individuals.
  3. We are only fully human when we participate in mindedness. 
  4. There are many kinds of mindedness, and some are better than others in that they better suit our basic human nature. 

Let’s begin with the standard problem of the philosophy of mind.  This is Edward Feser’s statement of the fundamental problem:

How could any material thing—including the grey, squishy lump of matter that constitutes your brain, which seems as brutely physical as a thermostat—have feelings, smells, tastes, and qualia in general?  How could it be conscious and aware of itself and its surroundings? And how could it think rationally about itself and its surroundings, or have intentionality?  After all, a thermostat’s existence surely involves nothing more than the passage of electrical current through wires, the motion of a needle across surface, and so forth; there is no consciousness there, no meaningful and rational thought, only crude mechanical processes.  But how different, really, are the electrochemical signals sent between the neurons of the brain?  How are these any less intrinsically meaningless and unconscious than the electricity passing through the wiring of a thermostat? (16-17)

This is the problem most of us face when we try to think about how a mind could exist.  Often, we wind up assuming there must be some kind of “consciousness” separate from the brain, a sort of ghost in the machine.  Or, we wind up with the kind of self-contradictory reductivism we talked about in Chapter Two. 

What we want to do here is not to come up with a full and complete theory of minds, but simply to shift the founding assumptions from which we begin to think about the problem.  What if, instead of assuming the mind must arise atomistically, from individual brains, we were to consider the mind as something that can only be enacted by a group?  What if the paradigm for mindedness is not reacting to a change in temperature, but something like playing a game of volleyball?  Something we can only do as part of a group working together, giving reasons and making rules, cooperatively.  My point is that beginning from there, we run into none of the dead ends that have been run down over and over for centuries now.  Instead, we begin with a problem that can be worked on and solved.

The usual assumption is that we all have minds first, and then begin to become social. But what if the mind is an inherently social thing?  We can reserve the term for only species that have the unique capacity to communicate in language.  

This may seem shocking—even seriously troubling to most people.  And we will address some of the more common objections later in this chapter.  First, let’s try to get clear what exactly I am asking you to entertain as possibility. Once again, if you can entertain this even provisionally, it might be possible to get a good sense of exactly what Althusser means by ideology.  

This idea is not something I came up with. It is argued for by many of the greatest thinkers throughout history.  In every case, the inability of most readers to even provisionally accept this assumptions has made those thinker seem impossibly difficult.  Let’s consider the example of Hegel, one of the most notoriously difficult thinkers of all time.

In his wonderful, but difficult, book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Robert Pippin explains how “mindedness” helps resolve, or perhaps it is better to say dissolve, the endless struggle between materialism and idealism.  He explains that what Hegel means by the German term “Geist” is something we cannot quite capture with either of the words usually used to translate it (“mind” or “spirit”).  What Hegel is trying to describe for us is “an achieved form of individual and collective mindedness, and institutionally embodied recognitive relations”(39).  I cannot do justice to Pippin’s entire argument here, so let me try to explicate just this one essential sentence.

The point here is that mindedness is not something we inherently possess as biological beings.  For Hegel, a human that is not part of a social group is not fully human at all, is a mere animal.  We must achieve mindedness, as a way of acting collectively.  It is something only humans have, so far as we know, because only humans have language.  We can therefore create what Hegel calls a “space of reasons,” in which we give an account of what we ought to believe and what we ought to do.  Our goals are language-dependent, created by human social practices, by institutions.  We can aspire to become a doctor or a musician only because we are part of a social group in which these roles exist.  At the same time, we can feel shame or pride only because we are part of a social group which has created, in language, reasons for behaving in certain ways and not in others.  

This of course depends upon recognition.  We need to be part of a group in which we are recognized as members, and so can contribute to shaping the collective desire.  We don’t bring our preformed desires into the social.  Rather, desires are those kinds of intentions that are socially produced. Even an amoeba has the drive to go on existing in the way it is; but only humans can have desires to be, say, a good person, or a friend, or a professional athlete.  Recognition is essential to human desires.  We become “individuals” only when we are part of a collective.  I put the term “individual” in quotes here because later, in explaining ideology, we will use the term somewhat differently, to refer to the bodily organism that does in fact preexist ideology; what Hegel and Pippin have in mind here is what we might call, in our fully developed theory of ideology, a subject.  

To try to grasp this point, the difficult idea that the collective precedes the “individual” subject, consider the metaphor of the human body.  A hand has some kind of “individuality,” in that it is distinct from a knee or an ear or a kidney.  It can do things they cannot, can detect the presence of things in the world your pancreas or your femur could not, and so may seem to be an individual “part” that joins to make a whole. But we need to remember that the form of the whole body precedes the role of any individual part, and there could be no hand unless all the other parts were functioning.  If we worry that we are somehow subjugating the hand to the body when we make it do the things it can do—put it to work every day producing what the body needs and caring for the body—then we have missed the bigger picture. On the other hand, it is essential that we “recognize” the needs of the hand, and not subject it to damage for the benefit of the rest of the body. The needs of every part must be considered in determining the goals of the whole. So, for instance, we should not smoke despite the pleasure it gives because this is a failure to recognize the essential role of the heart and lungs.  

Applied to the mind, this is a need to recognize that the abilities and functions of one subject must be considered in creating the intentions of the collective.  But, of course, there is no need for any assumptions of sameness. All subjects need not be identical; they must only be recognized as playing an essential role in the functioning of the whole.  

To be minded, then, is to participate in the production of reasons for the kinds of actions we want to make possible in the world.  To the extent that one cannot participate in this, one is not minded at all, but become something closer to the unthinking automaton that the reductivists we discussed in Chapter Two want to argue we all really are. 

This understanding of mind is essential to grasp the full meaning of ideology.  To clarify this point, let’s explore how humans have minds, and so can have ideologies, while bees do not, and so cannot.  Bees are a good example because it is often assumed that they communicate, and so have a language.  They are sometimes used, then, as the phrase “hive mind” suggests, as an example of what the dreaded communist society would look like: a world in which there is only one collective mind would reduce us all to the state of worker bees.  But bees do not have a symbolic language, in the way humans do.  

When a bee locates a source of food and returns to the hive, it does a “dance” that indicates the direction, distance, and concentration of food it has discovered.  Why exactly is this not a language?  The short answer is: because the bee could not have “said” anything other than what it did.  That is, the response is one that is genetically programmed into the bee, and cannot be changed.  The other bees, seeing the dance, can only go to retrieve the food. There is no other response they can have.  As a result, the bees can only live in the one way: playing their role in the hive.  Bees cannot decide to alter their way of collecting food, or their relations to one another in the organization of the hive.  Only humans can do this. We can do this because our language is symbolic, unlike the communication of the bees which is an automatic response.

Think of language as a kind of map. We create a symbolic representation of things in the world, because of an intention.  We begin from wanting to know the closest source of water, and then create a map to make it easier to get to it. The map can be better or worse, and so we can then have a second-order symbolic representation, in which two people draw different maps and debate which is actually the best route to water. That is, in discussing the relative merits of the two maps, we are creating a symbolic representation of a symbolic representation.  We can then get more accurate ideas about the nature of reality, about what the surrounding terrain is actually like apart from our immediate goal, as we debate which of multiple means to the goal will work best.  Further, we can begin to construct new goals, to debate whether it might be better to move closer to the water source, or whether the threat of flooding makes traveling to collect water worthwhile.  To engage in such symbolic discussions of goals, of how to achieve them, and of the nature of the Mi world by means of which we achieve them, is what it is to be minded, to participate as a subject of a collective mind.

The problem Feser raises, then, is dissolved. There is no longer a need to explain how a purely material brain could have things like intentionality and qualia.  The problem is now how do a group of brains interacting perform mindedness.  Qualia, then, are not so hard to explain. What philosophers mean by qualia is the sense of the quality a thing has beyond its mere physical properties—like the qualia of redness or of sweetness.  But this is not much of a mystery once we have altered our sense of how things have meaning. Redness is then a feature of the role that a thing plays in our socially constructed intentions; it is something over and above the particular frequency of light wave not because our brain adds something to it, but because our collective mindedness adds something to it, assigns it a function, and so a meaning, in our social practices.  

The standard opposition to all of this talk of collective minds is that it all sounds so suffocatingly oppressive, that it denies or destroys our unique individual selves.  But that objection just assumes the existence of a mind full of thoughts, full of concepts and intentions, and so full of language, that exists prior to entering into the collective language.  What we need to entertain as a possibility, if we hope to get an understanding of how ideology works, is that even the very idea that your desires and intentions are uniquely individual is in fact something that is socially produced.  Read that last sentence again.  Underline it.  Try to think as if it is true, even if you don’t yet believe it: what we take to be our deeply held and personal desires and intentions are actually produced by our participation in a collective mind, made possible by uniquely human language.  

Most people, faced with this idea of the social nature of the mind will immediately make an argument of the form: sure, I agree, our mind is socially constructed; but how exactly does that social construction succeed in altering the already existing individual mind?  This is sort of like saying to Galileo: sure, I see you’ve proven that the Earth moves around the sun; now explain how it does that while remaining at the fixed center of the universe.  This is a difficult concept to fully grasp, and we need to be attentive to our tendency to slip back into assumptions of an atomistic mind that preexists the social.

This collective mind must be understood as not oppressive, but liberating.  Unlike the bee, we are free to create a new kind of social organization, one which is not completely determined by our biological evolution.  We can do this only collectively, in cooperation with other humans.  

My guess is that the reason this feels so oppressive is that as things work now most of us have no say at all in the collective intentions of our society. We assume, therefore, that any participation in a collective must be like it is now, under global capitalism: intentions are decided by the powerful few, the rest are, in fact, subjugated by them.  But just because this is the form the mind takes under capitalism does not mean it is the only form it can take.  Mindedness can take good and bad forms.  Right now, it takes a form in which most humans are denied recognition, denied participation in determining the goals of society.  In short, we have a collectively distorted and repressed mind, an unhealthy mind, in which most humans are not actually acting fully as humans at all.  

We are not, however, able to just choose to become a healthier mind.  Even once we understand what I’ve been explaining here, we are not restored to full human mindedness.  We must produce the mind in institutions, which is to say in social practices that enable us to actually engage fully in the production of our collective intentions.  What such practices might be is something we will need to discuss in the final section of this book.

It will probably occur to some readers that this idea of mindedness eliminates one of our most cherished beliefs: the idea that we have free will.  So it is to that problem that we will turn next. 

So, that’s the level of “accessibility” I’m working for. What do you think folks? Will it play in Peoria?