Interview with Alejandro Pérez Polo

The word ideology usually refers to the way in which ideas are articulated in our minds and in collective imaginaries, the way in which we see the world, personal relationships, the way things work, and so on, even listing an infinite list of elements: as many as there are mental representations a human being can have at any given moment.

We recommend a reading of our article “What is ideology” for an approach to the concept.

Precisely because of the general and abstract character of the term “ideology”, this concept lends itself to a lively and continuous debate . All we can say about it is a totally debatable and disputed position, a characterization of the realm of ideas that is in continuous evolution both in its most abstract and in its most earthly aspects, both in our individual minds and in the currents of collective thought. It is even debatable whether there is a mental framework that defines our way of perceiving things and acting. Is there, then, something that defines our way of thinking? Do we have our own way of establishing relationships between ideas?

Ideology, a disputed concept

Today we want to delve a little deeper into the mysterious concept of ideology. To do so, we have Alejandro Pérez Polo, the next candidate for the citizen’s council of Podem Catalunya . Pérez Polo has a degree in Political Science and Administration from the UPF, a Master’s degree in political philosophy from the Université Paris VIII Saint Denis-Vincennes and is currently taking a postgraduate course in the economic and philosophical analysis of contemporary capitalism.

Alejandro, thank you for answering our questions.

Nice to meet you guys again.

How would you define ideology in a sentence?

Ideology, in a phrase, is the lens through which you observe, perceive, and constitute your own daily reality; individual and collective, and if you try to take off your lenses, just as when you suffer from advanced myopia, the landscape that would be drawn and stretched out in front of you would become blurred and you would not be able to distinguish the different figures and references around you.

Would you say that this is a word used to define collective ways of thinking, or can it also refer to our individual way of thinking?

Ideology is a political concept that has served and still serves in the first place to build collective narratives and meta-narratives. Capitalism, liberalism, communism, nationalism, are meta-narratives in the sense that they attempt to justify a knowledge by itself that is channelled towards a certain unified, uniform, unique and finalist direction, with an end. To simplify somewhat, the meta-narrative is that which goes beyond the narrative in pursuit of a totalizing end, both of knowledge itself and of large-scale theories and practices (progress towards the betterment of history or the idea that science will be able to solve all our problems through technology).

Ideologies have a close relationship with meta-narratives because they transcend us as individuals and all of them are usually generated through an idea that serves as the hard core of the rest of the chain of concepts and practices derived from it. This idea always seeks a specific end and is always collective at first. In the same way, it is configured by the material relations of existence. That is, there is a double level: the performative level of the ideology itself, which with its enunciation generates reality and social fictions, and the very juxtaposition of that level with the relations of production and reproduction of a socioeconomic system, with its resistances, its powers. That is, with its material anchorage that serves as its support.

Besides, ideology is a system that claims the truth, it is not a lie that pretends to be taken seriously but a whole system that will claim and proclaim itself as the bearer of truth, unique and absolute. Let us think that even an ideology of a relativistic type – relativism, very fashionable in our times, assures that on a same fact there is room for a multitude of interpretations, all of them valid and equal among themselves, none of them can prevail over the rest nor can any of them be claimed as 100% true – claims a first truth: the truth that everything is relative.

Yes, the typical paradox for which they are criticized (laughs). Relativism causes discomfort.

It is certainly a curious ideological paradox, since a single universal truth is being asserted, however much this same truth assures that there are many truths. For example, if I tell a relativist that there is only one truth – my own, for example – and that the rest are false, the relativist will surely get angry and say that my attitude is authoritarian or whatever. In any case, he is reaffirming his own ideological framework, which would be the acceptance that there are multiple truths.

Forgive me for deviating a little from the initial question, but I think it is important to link the collective and individual dimensions of ideology, as it operates on both levels. First as a collective construct, reproduced and fed through the ideological apparatus of the state (family, culture, school..) and then reverting to the individual as it constitutes your own field of knowledge and the way you face your own life and your own reality, since ideology is a system that claims the truth.

So it is a concept that breaks with the idea of the autonomous and rational individual who creates by himself his own interpretation frameworks. It breaks with the figure of the “free thinker” or something similar.

The hackneyed idea and repeated to the core of “Homo economicus” or man separated from the world, as if he were an extraterrestrial landing from the outside to the inside of the earth and society, seems to me extremely questionable and pursues a certain ideological end. There is no such thing as a pre-social or pre-political existence of the human being. It is born with and in society. We use a language that is unitary to the base and that precedes us and through which we build our own world, always in a collective way. Wittgenstein said that the limit of the world is the limit of my language , and he is probably right. The atomized individual is an effect of the capitalist social structure, but not the origin of it.

There is no exteriority with the world, Spinoza, arguing against Descartes, stated that man not only thinks but his body is “affected” in many ways. Both the affection of the body and the thought were already for Spinoza an effect of nature as well as a natural characteristic of this naturally social being as the human is. For Spinoza, for example, the spirit and the body are one and the same individual that we conceive under the attribute of thought or on the attribute of extension. The theory of rational man has never questioned this type of thing and always falls into the illusion that there exists an independence of the body with thought as well as of individual thought with the collective that constitutes and builds it as a being.

Is ideology a different concept from “worldview”?

Quite different even though they’re in a relationship. In other words, ideology constitutes a world view because it tends to be unifying, systemic and totalizing. However, ideology also pursues an end and struggles to be hegemonic in a society, at a political level. The worldview is more a global way of thinking what exists without pursuing an end or claiming the truth for itself.

When we talk about ideology, many people understand it as a kind of hermetic mental scheme that protects itself from dynamics that could alter it. We often talk about “ideological closure” or people with a very closed mentality. Would you highlight this aspect of resistance to change, or do you think that ideology is something that flows constantly?

The ideology is dynamic although it tends to maintain more stable hard cores over time. It is reconfigured and rearticulated in its modalities and expressions, following the own material changes of a certain society, but it is true that it usually maintains a first point, a hard nucleus, quite unalterable. For example, between a liberal and a neoliberal there are many ideological differences, but there are two points that have remained stable for more than two centuries: the staunch defence of private property and the truth of the free market in its various dimensions, including moral ones.

Anyway, I wouldn’t pose the question that way. I don’t think ideology is a resistance to change but a constant struggle for that change, for the struggle to be the dominant and hegemonic ideology in a given society and system. At this point I would differentiate ideology from tout-court religious faith, even though there may be many points of agreement and encounter.

It is also common to make a pejorative use of the word “ideology”, as if it were an element that can and should be left aside in certain contexts. Do you think it is possible to get rid of it?

The pejorative use of the word ideology is an ideological and political act. For there to be an “end of ideologies” there should be an end of politics and perhaps even an end of history. We are a long way from something like that. Those who claim that there are no ideologies are because they want their own ideology, not expressed in words as such by the very force it may have, to impose itself on all others.

You mean Francis Fukuyama, for example.

Among others (laughs). The success of an ideology lies in two crucial aspects: one: that it should not be enunciated, made explicit, or pronounced as such, thus increasing its power of dominant ideology which is thus transformed into common sense. Two: An ideology triumphs when even the facts that at first sight contradict it begin to work as arguments in its favour. In this sense, when I affirm that there is no ideology, or that I do not have an ideology, even though all the facts point to the fact that I do have one and reproduce it, but this works in my favor, it means that my ideology has triumphed.

It is impossible to detach oneself from ideology because, as I stated in the first question, ideology constitutes me as a being in the world and produces the glasses through which I look at and observe my own reality.

Is there a certain ideology that prevails in society, or just an amalgamation of ideologies with little force?

In the post-industrial society in which we live it seems as if there is no longer a struggle of hard, solid ideologies, as there was in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many neoliberal ideologues have hailed and celebrated a supposed end to ideologies after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But the truth is that ideology is still everywhere, from the reaction to the recent attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo to the toilet where I perform my needs. The simple fact that utilitarianism and technique are imposed as ways of relating to the world is an ideological act of great force. That is to say, to simplify, the fact that I have to lead an efficient life in which I cannot waste even a minute of the day because I stop being productive or the simple fact that I have to order according to criteria of the order of efficiency the different objects of my apartment are acts of ideology: the ideology of technique and efficiency as carriers of truth and happiness.

It is curious that in the times we live in, it is not only important to lead a life that is useful, but that I myself must appear to lead a life that is useful. We feel bad when we have wasted a little time chatting with a friend or looking at the publications on the facebook wall. There is a kind of dictatorship of the right that identifies with the useful and the effective. Those unproductive, inefficient lives, always under capitalist criteria and axioms of utility, are publicly condemned as well as stigmatized and ridiculed. The indigenous people of Latin America, who only work 2 or 3 hours a day and no more than 3 days a week and who dedicate themselves to idle life, would condemn and be scandalized -in fact, they already do- with our modus vivendi, so glorifying of work and hyperactivity.

Sadly, neoliberal ideology is hegemonic in our societies.

Do you think that political ideology defines ideology in general, or is it a sub-section of our way of thinking in which other logics are followed?

I believe that political ideology determines ideology in a broader sense. At the end of the day, power is being disputed as well as the way in which it is exercised. In our society there are privileged social groups (people with huge incomes – rich, the white West, heterosexuals and men) who exercise power to try to maintain those privileges which are arbitrary. The oppressions that occur and pass through our social body and those that may occur in other places and times are always arbitrary. Any kind of justification of an inequality is already operating in the production of a certain ideology. This fact, which goes hand in hand with the material conditions of our existence, is the central core of the construction, production and reproduction of epochal common sense, ergo, of our way of thinking.

Does the left-right axis speak to us of ideologies?

The left-right axis is an expression of an ideological divide at a given historical moment. In fact, it seems that today it will no longer operate as the central political-ideological axis in the ideological struggle. Left and right are empty signifiers that became in the French Revolution by totally anecdotal facts, in nodal points – points of capitation – that ended up including and totalizing a series of equivalences of dispersed floating elements. Thus, the struggle for social and civil liberties will be related to the left and the defence of security and traditional values to the right.

Is it useful to classify the different ways of understanding the world? It could be said that our way of perceiving things is unique in itself and has its particularities. Why should we compare different ways of thinking according to certain criteria?

I don’t quite understand the question (laughs). I think that academically it is useful to classify the different ways of understanding the world. I think that at the level of openness and collective inclusion it is positive to deliberate together and, therefore, to argue and confront two or three or four different ways of seeing the world.

It is interesting to compare the different ways of thinking because they always seek the construction, elaboration or expansion of an ideology that seeks a certain political end. It is important, at this point, to know what political ends are being sought with the different ideologies. For example, neoliberal ideology seeks to justify the goodness and perfection of the free market in order to justify enormous inequality in the distribution of the world’s wealth. Similarly, it seeks to entrench the powers already in place. A communist ideology seeks the abolition of social classes, merchandise and wage labour so that there is a common distribution of wealth and equal access to power. Now, there is something that I would classify in something like meta-ideology that would be the very instrumentalization of ideologies to perpetuate some system of power and oppression. There are many folds and many orbits around something as complex as ideology and ideological struggle.

The criteria can be diverse, identifying a specific ideology is always a complicated task, we ourselves are immersed in a particular ideology, personal and collective, and it is true that it makes it difficult to classify the rest of the ideologies. In political science we try to determine some elements that characterize one or another ideology, such as the defence of the intervention of the State, the defence of greater or lesser freedoms, the prioritization of security over freedom or the tension between equality and freedom, etc. These are criteria that are claimed to be scientific, although sometimes it may be doubtful. Absolute faith in science is another type of ideology.

What criteria do you consider useful to classify them? Authoritarianism, nationalism, attitude towards tradition…

The most useful criteria are, in my opinion, the position regarding state intervention in the economy, that is, whether we more or less agree that the state should intervene to ensure social rights, the position on the security-freedom tension, three, the position on material equality versus liberal freedom and, four, the position on the democracy-free-market tension.

Values, whether more progressive or more conservative, can also be a good criterion for ideological analysis. That is, whether one is in favor of the civil rights of gay communities, transgender people, ethnic minorities, women, etc., or whether one is more skeptical of them.

To conclude, to what extent can an ideology be induced in people in a controlled way? I am referring to the role of propaganda, the very way of life of post-industrial societies… Do you think they are tools for shaping mentalities that do not deviate from a certain pattern?

Being the determining ideology for the legitimization of the established powers as well as of the oppressive practices and that guarantee the privileges of certain social groups, besides being very important for the theories of knowledge, since they are usually induced very much in the people. There are various state apparatuses that take care of this: in schools, through education, in culture, in the family or in the mass media there is ideological indoctrination. Moreover, one’s own position in society and in the productive system also determines one’s ideological position. Ideology is dynamic, as we said earlier, and it is shaped and cushioned in different contexts.

We live in a spectacular and ultra-mediatic society, nowadays the media and the screens – of the television, of the computer, of the camera, of the smartphone – seem to be the gadgets that discover the truths and that teach us “the truth”. This in itself is a tremendous ideological socialization that often guides and controls our way of thinking. Maintaining a critical attitude towards ideology forces us to criticize certain tools in which our way of knowing the truth is currently indexed. And, nowadays, educational, scientific-cultural devices and the media are those partial tools that teach us how to access and know the Truth . In no way are they neutral: the very distribution of the tables, chairs in the classrooms or the separation by age of the different educational levels are not arbitrary, but ideological. This is at a very basic level because, as we all know, there is control of the subjects, the way of teaching, etc. By this I do not mean that we must discard everything and that all of this would be “evil”, I am simply pointing out those ideological devices that are widespread in our society. In order to dispute hegemonies we must dispute those spaces.