Emergence from ideology



What is ideology? It is the hiding, the deliberate disguising, of what is going on. Its opposite? Emergence. Becoming visible after having been concealed. Imagine something rising, whether suddenly or slowly, to the surface of the water.

Main image credit: Woman swimming to water's surface (Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash)

We speak of emerging writers, emerging trends, as if they are just beginning. But emergence is not so much about beginning. It is about beginning to be seen. That which emerges has a hefty history, but it is hidden underneath. And even if that which it is hidden under is not pure falsification, it is still used to conceal, to disguise, to marginalise, and eventually, if it is not challenged, to erase. Think of Australia’s colonial history concealing and attempting to erase the First Nations. Think of the normalising of patriarchal power concealing and attempting to erase women. Think of the dominant story of the magic of capital concealing and attempting to erase workers.

Emergence sometimes seems to occur by accident, like the proverbial ‘discovery’ of the remains of hidden histories, as if they were hidden by accident, by nature, by the unexplained ‘dying out’ of people, language, culture. As if no one was responsible. Emergence is literally the something that has ‘come up’. But where has it come up from? And what was it doing there all this time? And how was it hidden there? By whom? When these stories are told, we begin to see patterns and structures that have been built over time, whether they be, for example, the patterns of sexual abuse that have been integral to institutional structures of religious (or other) power, or the patterns of exploitation and exclusion that have been integral to the structures of profit-driven production and control.

Ideology is a powerful presence in our lives. It works its way into our consciousness through the dominant discourses of government, media, institutional religion, legal frameworks, popular culture, advertising, all the means at the disposal of the powerful. Once we learn to recognise it we see it everywhere. If it feels like we were born into it, it is because we were. We are taught to believe it is necessary for us, that it supports our lives, when all the time it is supporting the dehumanising forces that veil the reality we are living in and, importantly, conceal and attempt to suppress our collective power to change that reality.

It is most effective when we ourselves become its carriers, its unwitting mules, when we invest ourselves in the perpetuation of its systematic lies; when, for example, we champion the racism, the sexism, the ageism, the ableism, the homophobia, the transphobia, the anti-social capitalism, the environmental vandalism, all the forces that threaten our social well-being and hence our lives. Ideology is like a social forgery, making us forget who we are, convincing us that we are alone when we are not, making us ignore the fact that we are strongest when we look after each other.

There’s an old Turkish proverb: 'When the axe came into the forest, the trees said: the handle is one of us’This is how ideology works. It is presented in a way that convinces us that something will help us when in fact it is going to hurt us. More importantly, when successful, it nullifies the content of the message, because everything gets swallowed up in the calming surge of identification with the speaker, that sense that they are one of us, that they understand us, and that we can therefore just trust them. After all, ‘one of your own’ is not going to betray you, are they?


'Sometimes, it seems, it is only when we face a social emergency that we engage more deeply and collectively in emergence.'


Neoliberal governments, committed to dismantling the public sphere and driving down wages, have successfully trained some of us to look in the other direction, convincing us that whatever we are not looking at simply doesn’t exist. If you refuse to look at colonisation, you can convince yourself that it doesn’t exist, unless you are a member of the First Nations and you are forced to see it everywhere. If you are convinced that serious emissions reduction is an economically irresponsible fantasy, then you will accept that the most ‘practical’ defence against future bushfire crises is resilience and readiness instead of addressing their patently obvious cause.

If patriarchy is dismissed as a feminist conspiracy designed to fuel hatred, you might even lean towards the repellent position proposed, following one of the horrific acts of extreme gendered violence earlier this year, by a member of the Queensland Police, and cheered on by Bettina Arndt, that ‘good men’ might sometimes be driven by ‘circumstances’ to do ‘bad things’. And if you accept that class does not exist because we are all part of one big happy Australian team, then you’re likely to swallow the lie that vicious attacks on working people, including people experiencing unemployment and other forms of marginalisation from paid work, are carried out ‘for their own good’ because they only have themselves to blame for the inequality they are forced to bear the brunt of. Which is why, not incidentally, the federal government loves the idea of the cashless welfare card. At around $10,000 per person per year, it costs a bit to administer but it’s worth every cent to the purveyors of paternalism. Because it makes people feel so powerless.

The current federal government’s position on all of these deeply interconnected issues (and the fact of their connectedness is itself deliberately obscured) is that it is focussed on what can ‘realistically’ be done and that it should not waste time and resources on what it doesn’t wish to see. Hence the offensive thesis offered by the prime minister that, in the current recession, ‘we can’t save everyone’, which is why, presumably, we shouldn’t even try.

For those of us who refuse the inevitability of these positions, it is clear that we must collectively fight against the political framework that has been built precisely to harm us instead of helping us. This is why the defenders of this harmful ideology hate unions and other progressive advocates so much. But to fight effectively it is crucial that we understand how the ruse of ideological concealment works. As Bertolt Brecht put it: 'As crimes pile up they become invisible.' We need to train our eyes on the concrete realities that are obscured by neoliberal ideology, because you cannot fight what you’re taught not to see.

We need also to resist the ideological sleight of hand that seeks to separate thought from practice. As Viviane Forrester wrote, back in 1996, ‘There is no more subversive activity than thinking, none more feared, more slandered, and this is not due to chance, nor it is innocuous. Thinking is political. And not only political thinking is, far from it. The mere act of thinking is political.’

Thinking is political. It is a defence against hopelessness, a fertile soil for imagining an alternative future. The fee increase of 113 per cent for university students enrolling in humanities courses should really come as no surprise. This is not a class-neutral measure. It is working class students, especially the young, who will feel the pain of it. But we will all feel the pain of this deliberately engineered despair in the long run.

It’s not over though. As Alice Walker, the author of The Colour Purple, wrote: ‘The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any’.  As long as we are willing to organise, as long as we are willing to analyse and act collectively, as long as we reject the ideological imperative to cut the falsely ‘othered’ adrift, the battle is far from over.

It is our shared task to ensure that the deeply human struggle against humiliation, far from being over, is waged systematically and strategically. It is our collective responsibility, all of us who are on the side of the many in defiance of the narrow interests of the few, to fight alongside the young people who are so disrespected by late capitalism, which appears to have never learned that we cannot be fully human while we deny the humanity of others on the basis of class, gender, race, disability, age or sexuality; and that knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing is the recipe for social pain rather than social progress. Sometimes, it seems, it is only when we face a social emergency that we engage more deeply and collectively in emergence. And as we unveil the concealed we change, even little by little, the unjust way of things.



John FalzonDr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is a sociologist, poet and social justice advocate and was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.

Main image credit: Woman swimming to water's surface (Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash)

Topic tags: John Falzon, ideology, capitalism, neoliberalism, auspol, discrimination



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Existing comments

Such a great article. The 'training to look in the other direction' will hopefully be superseded by some new learnings in this time, and prompt some unlearning too. May we see, think and act with solidarity. Thank you John.
James O'Brien | 02 July 2020

Thank you John !
Ginger Meggs | 02 July 2020

Instructively, Dr Falzon quotes Bertolt Brecht, creator of the modern propaganda play, a luxury-living communist who wore a “worker’s suit”, and who supported Stalin’s purges, “the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot”. The “deliberately engineered despair” in education is due solely to the Left who dominate education departments, in the USA 12:1 against conservatives. In Australia, despite ever-increasing expenditure on education, standards continue to decline. In the UK, Katharine Birbalsingh threw out all fashionable Left-wing ideology and her “Emergence from Ideology” produced success for her poor and disadvantaged children—stunningly, they scored 4 times better than the national average. In the USA, a similar hoax has been perpetrated on Blacks. “Progressive” cities have woeful black/white achievement gaps. In San Francisco, proficiency in math: 70% white students—12% blacks. In Washington D.C., proficiency in reading: 83% white students—23% blacks. Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School (99% black) has a graduation rate of 70%, with no student proficient in math, and only 3% in reading. Most conservative cities have closed or erased the gap. In Oklahoma City, black students have higher high school graduation rates than whites. Simply allege “systemic racism” to disguise these facts.
Ross Howard | 02 July 2020

John, I am always in awe of your ability to cut through the noise and hit the pure note that shatters the myths we live by. But this time you have surpassed yourself. I wish every Australian would/could read this article. Thank you for the infectious passion and hope embodied in the way you think.
Micheal | 02 July 2020

"What is ideology?" A critical question, answered here by John Falzon in terms of capitalist society's concealing of underlying agendas, rather than ideology's universal characteristics. Communism and capitalism are both materialist ideologies expressed politically - historically knowable primarily by their economic, social and cultural manifestations. Both are prone to concealment of underlying agendas, especially by the control of media; though the latter is - at least principle - accountable, by means of democratic structures and procedures conceived to protect individual and societal freedom. However, neither ideological system - nor the concealments they practise - exhausts the scope of human existence or possibility, existentially evident in the human capacity and desire for the infinite as historically manifest in the person of Christ. "Who do you say I am?" (Mtt.16:15) remains the critical question; and its answer, given by Peter, is relevant to society both in the here-and-now, and eternally.
John RD | 03 July 2020

Thanks for respectful conversations, John. inspiring courage to keep afloat, mindful of our undeniable interconnectedness. What we think about, we bring about. There is an urgent need to reclaim our individual and collective power to prevent tyrannical politics from sabotaging our existence.
Patti | 03 July 2020

The road to clarity begins with a single step. A zygote is a human being. To kill a zygote is murder. To be female or poor or without privilege offers no immunity from being a murderer and may very well be the wide path to it. A lie is a murder and liars are murderers, as Jesus remarked of the Devil who, as far as I know, hasn’t actually physically killed anybody. It takes but a yeast to leaven the batch. “deeply interconnected issues (and the fact of their connectedness is itself deliberately obscured)” The obscured ending of an anonymous zygote the size of a yeast, or its larger in vitro sibling, is the connection between truth and social justice. If a garment is seamless, a tear in the least visible part of it is a tear in the whole. That's why a lot had to be thrown for the seamless undergarment. Joseph Bernardin, at least, had the theory, if not the practice, right.
roy chen yee | 03 July 2020

I don't listen to unrepentant communists about ideology. I stopped donating to the SSVDP when this bloke was involved.
Bob | 03 July 2020

"Thinking is political. The mere act of thinking is political." It is interesting to note that while, here in Australia, the conservative capitalist is hogging the wealth and the power at the expense of those less able and less fortunate, there are those who, in the name of equality, are trying to COMPLETELY shut down our ability and our right to think. They appear to want a utopian society of unthinking morons (am I allowed to use that word in todays society?) We are human, good and bad, wise and stupid. While acknowledging that the world will never be perfect, why don't those of us who "can" help those of us who can't and those of us who "have" share with those of us who have not. Lets change the world by our own acts of love instead of looking for an enemy to destroy. Think about it!
Brian Leeming | 03 July 2020

African Cardinal Robert Sarah, who received his early education in Guinea, in his recent book "The Day is Now Far Spent", affirms with gratitude the benefits his "constructively colonial" education provided him with - not the least boon of which he identifies as liberation from the cultural animism that imprisoned his people in a world of atavistic mythology closed off from the synthesis of faith and reason that the Catholic faith offers. The Cardinal is scathing in his appraisal of the devastating effects the unholy union of an irresponsible capitalism and social libertarianism seeks by means of education to impose on his people: an agenda that effectively freights a "new colonisation", in the guise of human rights, of sexual 'liberation', same-sex marriage and abortion. Not surprisingly, he rejects the posturing and self-loathing that underlies much of postmodernist education's distortion and generic damning of the West's Christian legacy - an inheritance from which not a few of the West's neo-Marxist critics make a handsome living in the academy, law and journalism.
John RD | 04 July 2020

“….the repellent position proposed….that ‘good men’ might sometimes be driven by ‘circumstances’ to do ‘bad things’.” This is the safe, legal and rare argument for abortion, unless it isn’t a ‘bad thing’. If it isn’t, why does it have to be ‘rare’?
roy chen yee | 05 July 2020

Well, it seems that your article has flushed out plenty of examples of ideology, John. I've noticed all the definitive 'is' and 'are' statements, but very few 'may', 'might' or 'perhaps' ones. And all seem to be part of logically consistent systems of thought which is, I understand, characteristic of ideology. Do I also detect a sense that 'ideology' is something that only 'others' have whereas 'we' or 'I' have the 'truth' ?
Ginger Meggs | 06 July 2020

Bob, maybe it's time to let that go old mate.
David W. | 06 July 2020

I don't observe any "may" or "might" statements in John Falzon's piece, Ginger, nor in his definition of "ideology" and application of it to "Australia's colonial history" and capitalism. Doubtless, we are all prone to the influences of ideology since we inhabit political and economic systems, but this isn't to say that we are necessarily defined in totality by them: religions based on belief in a God who transcends creation, and a human origin and destination that transcend the political, social and economic factors that define ideological systems provide a point of reference and critique that is independent of exclusively secular determinants. To equate such religions (e.g. Christianity) with ideologies would be to reduce them to other than what they are: i.e., to merely secular entities. I recognise that this may, at times, happen - but when it does, religion has undergone distortion. As for the "truth" issue, I do accept that truth can be known and is communicable, and find chronic scepticism self-defeating and untenable.
John RD | 07 July 2020


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