Reflections on Stanley’s How Propaganda Works: Pt. 2, Ideals and Illusions
I finished reading How Propaganda Works over the weekend. I think his analysis of ideology in terms of practice and social groups is fruitful. And the argument that the content of ideology matters for how we value it in democracy shows how the analysis puts us in some relationship to truth and justice which I like for its way of binding epistemological analyses to political and ethical ones. I’m particularly interested in how the focus on the ideal in contrast to critiques of ideals have divided analytic and continental political philosophy, thus questioning whether and how the ideals work in analytic philosophy opens up possibilities for conversations across the divide.
It is no accident that questioning the focus on the ideal occurs in a book on propaganda and ideology, for this questioning points to the way that philosophy as a field promotes a certain conception of what counts as core philosophy and what counts as mere application. Stanley writes:
On one conception of normative political philosophy, the goal is to describe the normatively ideal components of an ideal liberal democratic state. But in an ideal liberal democratic state there is no propaganda. So propaganda as a topic is no longer visible. 28
We might go further and say that since the ideal philosophical discipline involves no propaganda or ideology, only truth, propaganda and ideology are not treated as a visible–i.e., worthy– topic.
In ideal political theory, the problem of how to move from an actually flawed state guided incompletely by liberal democratic ideals to an ideal liberal democratic state is known as the transition problem. It is usually posed in terms of how to change from an unjust distribution of goods to a just distribution of goods. The tension between two liberal values, rights to private property and equality, is at the center. Given the self-conception of political philosophy as the study of properties of the ideal liberal democratic state, the transition problem counts as “applied” political philosophy. To label something as “applied” in philosophy is to marginalize its study. Ethics is “pure” philosophy; applied ethics is “impure” philosophy, fit for those who cannot absorb the discipline in its pure form.
The problem of the non-ideal is treated as a problem for those who are not as good at philosophy. The dynamics of the field shape what problems matter and which do not. And non-ideal dynamics do not. But the thing is, this very focus on the ideal by those who can “absorb the discipline in its pure form” is made possible by the non-ideal dynamics that allow some to not have to deal with the non-ideal dynamics and others to have to keep them in their rearview mirror at all times. That is to say, following the critiques of ideal political theory going back to Carole Pateman and Charles W. Mills, the ideal becomes the ideal because it works for some and it’s failure to work for others and so to become a concern for them is a product of their marginalization and it further produces their marginalization.
Ideal political philosophy makes claims about how the world should be on the basis of certain assumptions about what is possible. The study of what is possible in human societies, Stanley explains, is the focus of social theory. As Kwame Anthony Appiah argues, the ideals of political philosophy seem to ignore social theory and operate like decision theoretic axioms governing rationality, of the kind that we see in economic theory. If these views distort the reality of ordinary rationality, then they might be about something but not about the way that human beings engage one another and the world.
It’s at this point in the discussion of the history of political thought that Stanley addresses the kind of philosophical claims that have influenced continental political thinkers for some time.
There is a commonly held view that politics is simply about power and interests, and the political vocabulary is only ever used strategically. The rhetoric of political and moral ideals is just one more weapon in a game whose object is to seize power and, along with it, the goods of society. (31)
Here, I think of Nietzsche on the will-to-truth as that which empowers those who claim to have it, and thus the drive to it is not innocent, as applicable to Christians as to scientists. But similarly, this is the position of Thrasymachus, who sees in the law and the claims of justice of the rulers their effort to empower themselves, a proto-Marxist sense that the reigning ideas are ideas that serve those who reign. Stanley writes that one might worry that the concerns raised by Mills and Appiah, “come from this dark perspective” (31). As I understand it, Stanley’s concern is that this dark perspective–the view that claims to ideals are claims to power–would drain the ideal of its power.
Stanley argues that these claims coming from those who are oppressed must be understood as a:
demand for oppression to be philosophically addressed, rather than a philosophical endorsement of the mechanism of oppression. It is not inconsisent with ideal theory. It is a demand for the reformulation of the task of normative political philosophy to place social theory on equal footing. It is why many political philosophers who are members of oppressed groups self-describe as working in “social and political philosophy,” whereas members of privileged groups often self-describe as working in “political philosophy” (33).
The problem for Stanley is that the ideal is masked political illusions — the cover of power in abstract claims — and the illusions and how they work must then become as important to philosophy as the ideal. The ideal must remain important, but the challenges to the ideal, the ways the ideal could cover an illusion, need to be raised to the same level of importance within the philosophical work and the sociology of the field.
Is the problem is with specific ideals or with the functioning of the ideal as such? Is the problem in the field of philosophy not that reason as an ideal is a problem, but that it has insufficiently recognized the reason at work in areas that focus on the non-ideal? The problem would not be that an ideal has been set up but that it has not been fully realized. This problem prompts us to ask whether all ideals are covers for illusions, for ways of maintaining power. Is the problem with the notion of the ideal, with the specific ideal that is set up, or with the various obstacles that prevent the ideal from being achieved which need to be removed in order for the ideal to be achieved?
As I mentioned in my last post, Stanley writes in the Introduction that Plato is intent on addressing the ways that political systems will work “given actual social and psychological facts about humans” (8). Then in the chapter on the history of political thought, Stanley argues that “Plato is clear that one task of philosophy is to cast off illusions” (33). Plato seems to be the thinker of the ideal par excellence. Returning to my argument that Plato is staging philosophical problems for the reader, rather than presenting an ideal, I think the way Plato sets up the dialogue between concerns about the way human beings actually are and concerns about the way things would need to be in order for us to thrive illustrates how claims about what ought to be (ideal theory) as claims might undermine the content of the ideal because of the way that human beings are (social theory). In both directions, the ideal that confronts the social theory seem to undo one another.
The ideal would seem to be efficiency and stability, ideals that are not established through any argument and thus, leave me unconvinced that Socrates is advocating for them, but rather questioning what would be necessary for such ideals to be achieved. These ideals require organizing the city in such fanciful ways especially as it involves the ways that children are conceived and raised that it is not clear it would work. Moreover, establishing the ideal where the philosopher king rules through knowledge of how to maintain order would actually require the ideal to fail because the desiring part, whose job is not to reason, but to desire, following the orders of the philosopher king, would have to have sufficient reason to know that this is what is best. Even if you want to argue that the reason is just to obey, there is still a more fundamental reasoning that occurs here that obeying is good for the desiring part. Otherwise, the philosopher king would be ruling with force, which could be the case, but would not bode well for the ideal of stability. Moreover, the tyrant’s rule by force makes pretty clear that this produces deep dissatisfaction which ends up making the one who rules by force enslaved to those who employ the force. So if the philosopher-king had to employ force, the philosopher-king would end up like the tyrant. The effort to enforce the ideal shows the ideal to be impossible to achieve on the terms of the ideal.
But there is another problem that continental political philosophy is invested in which is related but not quite the same as raising the social theory to the same level as the ideal theory. I think it might be a similar problem but expressed in different ways. On the one hand the ideal pretends to be universal, but is in fact particular made universal. On the other hand, the ideal of a shared decision or contract that underwrites social contractarianism, for example, is impossible on its face. This is the argument that Stanley references in Carl Schmitt that has been taken up by Giorgio Agamben, the structure of the exception. As they say, the functioning of the exception is not a bug, but a feature of social contractarianism. I want to suggest that the illusion that operates to support an ideal is not a bug but a feature of the setting up of ideals. The ideal of social contractarianism operates to get support for it, while the functioning requires a non-contractarian structure where some sovereign makes the decision about when a contract can be ignored for the sake of maintaining stability. This week, France is voting on extending the state of emergency, they are voting to have their sovereignty compromised for the sake of maintaining the social order. If the social contract is a decision that establishes the sovereign, this vote would seem to allow the sovereign to ignore the contract for the sake of preserving the contract. As Althusser writes in “Rousseau: The Social Contract”
However, the ‘Social Contract’ has the immediate function of masking the play of the Discrepancy which alone enables it to function. To mask means to denegate and reject…We thus find that we are confronted by the observation of a chain of theoretical discrepancies, each new discrepancy being charged to make the corresponding solution, itself an effect of an earlier solution, ‘function.’ (114)
On Althusser’s account, the social contract can only function by denying the very terms that make it function. And yet, this does not mean that the ideal can be discharged entirely. The problem with the way human beings are, as captured by Thrasymachus, only appears as a problem because it seems to fall short of our ideal. Does Thrasymachus expose a problem in ideal theory–that ideals are always covering over a more menacing will-to-power–or is Thrasymachus a problem because he wants to deny the possibility of the ideal altogether? It would seem that Thrasymachus’s view poses a problem to Socrates, and to the reader, because we want to believe justice is possible. But might that desire in itself be a way of avoiding dealing with the way things are, a way of setting up ideals masked by illusions? What I am asking, as Mills is asking, is what role does the setting up of ideals play in the way things are? But even in asking that question we recognize that we can only see that as a potential problem because we already assume an ideal in which ideals as true, as what they claim to be, that we want the ideal that is not covered by the illusion because that would seem to be ideal.
The ideal appears to work only as an illusion, it works only if the illusions remain in place, illusions which allow it to work even though it is not consistent with its own terms. And yet, this does not mean we can dispense with ideals. Otherwise, critiques of the failure of the ideal would not make any sense.
We seem left in a situation where the discussion of how things are does assume an ideal of how we would like them to be even as the discussion of the ideal recognizes that the ideal itself circulates in the way things are. I think this should leave us wary of pure ideals but nonetheless recognizing that we assume that these ideals are worthy and we put them to work to accomplish political efforts in the world.