Religion As Part Of A Larger Phenomenon: Ideology

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Stepping back again and taking a more panoramic view, the religious case is part of an even larger phenomenon: the recuperation of the symbols and values of the ruling class’s legitimizing ideology, and the inversion of the dominant ideology as a weapon against the existing system of power.

When a ruling class creates a legitimizing ideology, it thereby—much like a supernatural being which is bound by the limitations of the physical form it takes on—gives its subjects a form of leverage against it. “For it is largely by reference to its contribution to group welfare that power seeks to become authority—i.e., to legitimate itself…. The process by which power is rationalized thus inevitably creates general moral principles of performance by which it may be judged and found wanting.” [73]

If, however, this flattering self-portrait is to have any rhetorical force among subordinates, it necessarily involves some concessions to their presumed interests. That is, rulers who aspire to hegemony in the Gramscian sense of that term must make out an ideological case that they rule, to some degree, on behalf of their subjects. This claim, in turn, is always highly tendentious but seldom completely without resonance among subordinates. [74]

Any ruling group, in the course of justifying the principles of social inequality on which it bases its claim to power, makes itself vulnerable to a particular line of criticism. Inasmuch as these principles of inequality unavoidably claim that the ruling stratum performs some valuable social function, its members open themselves to attack for the failure to perform these functions honorably or equitably. The basis of the claim to privilege and power creates, as it were, the groundwork for a blistering critique of domination on the terms invoked by the elite. Such a critique from within the ruling discourse is the ideological equivalent of being hoisted on one’s own petard. For any particular form of domination one may specify the claims to legitimacy it makes, the discursive affirmations it stages for the public transcript, the aspects of power relations that it will seek to hide (its dirty linen), the acts and gestures that will undermine its claims to legitimacy, the critiques that are possible within its frame of reference, and, finally, the ideas and actions that will represent a repudiation or profanation of the form of domination in its entirety. [75]

…[T]he official transcript helps… to define which of the practices that compose the inevitable dirty work of power must be screened from public view. The very operation of a rationale for inequality creates a potential zone of dirty linen that, if exposed, would contradict the pretensions of legitimate domination. A ruling stratum whose claim to authority rests on the provision of institutionalized justice under law with honest judges will have to go to exceptional lengths to hide its thugs, its hired assassins, its secret police, and its use of intimidation. An elite that bases its power on its self-sacrificing, public-spirited probity will be damaged more by an expose of corruption in high places than one based on a patronage machine. Every publicly given justification for inequality thus marks out a kind of symbolic Achilles heel where the elite is especially vulnerable.

Attacks that focus on this symbolic Achilles heel may be termed critiques within the hegemony. One reason they are particularly hard to deflect is simply because they begin by adopting the ideological terms of reference of the elite…. Having formulated the very terms of the argument and propagated them, the ruling stratum can hardly decline to defend itself on this terrain of its own choosing…. Any dominant group is, in this respect, least able to take liberties with those symbols in which they are most heavily invested.

Perhaps for this reason…, so many radical attacks originate in critiques within the hegemony—in taking the values of ruling elites seriously, while claiming that they (the elites) do not. To launch an attack in these terms is to, in effect, call upon the elite to take its own rhetoric seriously. Not only is such an attack a legitimate critique by definition, but it always threatens to appeal to sincere members of the elite in a way that an attack from outside their values could not. [76]

Hence the argument of Soviet dissident Vladimir Voinovich that the greatest danger to the regime came from earnest young students of the theoretical foundations of communism, who took the regime’s ideological self-justifications seriously. [77] It’s no accident that so many national uprisings against Soviet power in Eastern Europe after WWII took the form of heretical variants of Marxism developed within the national communist parties, or that the grass-roots resistance relied so heavily on workers’ councils, factory committees, and other libertarian communist organizational precedents.

As Scott argues himself, the hill people’s inversions of the symbols of the official religions of lowland states is not a phenomenon limited to non-state spaces—at least if we equate “non-state spaces” to broad geographical areas outside the state’s governance. They do, of course, tend to predominate in areas that are opaque to the state, even within the state’s area of governance: “unauthorized and unmentioned secret assemblies of subordinates,” like Lollardry in “the pastoral, forest, moorland, and fen areas, where the social control of the church and the squirearchy did not effectively penetrate.” [78] E.P. Thompson, writing of England three centuries later, said that “free intellectual life and democratic experiments” tended to proliferate in “the chapel, the tavern, and the home….” [79] And these places “were seen by secular authorities and by the church as places of subversion.” [80]

The importance of the tavern or its equivalent as a site of antihegemonic discourse lay less in the drinking it fostered or in its relative insulation from surveillance than in the fact that it was the main point of unauthorized assembly for lower-class neighbors and workers. Along with the market, which was larger and more anonymous, the tavern was the closest thing to a neighborhood meeting of subordinates….

The reasons the more unmediated versions of the hidden transcripts should be encountered in taverns, alehouses, at the marketplace, during carnival, and at night in secluded spots are instructive. A dissident subculture “invests the weak points in a chain of socialization.” [81]

The typical response of those in authority is panopticism: “a hopelessly utopian (a master’s utopia, to be sure) project of eliminating any and all protected communication among slaves.” [82] According to Foucault, the central principle of Bentham’s Panopticon was individualization, isolation, and the elimination of horizontal ties:

…a supervision that was both general and individual: to observe the worker’s presence and application, and the quality of his work; to compare workers with one another, to classify them according to skill and speed; to follow the successive stages of the production process. All these serializations formed a permanent grid: confusion was eliminated: that is to say, production was divided up and the labour process was articulated, on the one hand, according to its stages or elementary operations, and, on the other hand, according to the individuals, the particular bodies, that carried it out: each variable of this force—strength, promptness, skill, constancy—would be observed, and therefore categorized, assessed, computed and related to the individual who was its particular agent. Thus, spread out in a perfectly legible way over the whole series of individual bodies, the work force may be analysed in individual units. At the emergence of large- scale industry, one finds, beneath the division of the production process, the individualizing fragmentation of labour power; the distributions of the disciplinary space often assured both. [83]

…permit an internal, articulated and detailed control…, to render visible those who are inside it; in more general terms, an architecture that would operate to transform individuals: to act on those it shelters, to provide a hold on their conduct, to carry the effects of power right to them, to make it possible to know them, to alter them. [84]

To enforce effective control and minimize subversion of the official narrative, authority must isolate the individual in order to exact agreement and compliance from her in isolation, and prevent any communication that might undermine her sense of powerlessness and atomized responsibility by creating feelings of solidarity. Conversely, horizontality is key to challenging the official narrative.

It’s probably no coincidence that the lowest levels of compliance in the Stanford Prison Experiment occurred when subjects were allowed to talk to one another.

It’s impossible to overestimate the anti-authoritarian effects of replacing the old broadcast communications system (with its unidirectional, hub-and-spoke architecture where one person at the center spoke and many at isolated endpoints listened) with a networked system that permitted horizontal communication. The Cluetrain Manifesto had a lot to say about the ability of people to talk to each other, as undermining the ability of marketing departments to control a message unilaterally through one-directional broadcast culture. When the audience viewing the official message are free to talk to one another, it ceases to be a one-way communication to the audience members and instead becomes the subject matter of their communications with one another—like the crappy movies mocked by Joel and the bots on MST3K.

Imagine for a moment: millions of people sitting in their shuttered homes at night, bathed in that ghostly blue television aura. They’re passive, yeah, but more than that: they’re isolated from each other.

Now imagine another magic wire strung from house to house, hooking all these poor bastards up. They’re still watching the same old crap. Then, during the touching love scene, some joker lobs an off-color aside — and everybody hears it. Whoa! What was that? People are rolling on the floor laughing. And it begins to happen so often, it gets abbreviated: ROTFL. The audience is suddenly connected to itself.

What was once The Show, the hypnotic focus and tee-vee advertising carrier wave, becomes in the context of the Internet a sort of reverse new-media McGuffin — an excuse to get together rather than an excuse not to. Think of Joel and the ‘bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The point is not to watch the film, but to outdo each other making fun of it. [85]

It’s probably no coincidence that the lowest levels of compliance in the Stanford Prison Experiment occurred when subjects were allowed to talk to one another.

Of course people have always been able to mock politicians’ speeches and network news talking heads in bars and in their living rooms, making snide remarks to one another as they watch the show. But with the emergence of a many-to-many medium, the comparative ubiquity of the official version of reality versus the self-organized version has suffered a serious decline. In the old days of broadcast culture, the mockery was marginalized by the very fact of being something that was heard only in tiny islands of physical space occupied by a few other physically present listeners. The private reality of mockery was an isolated phenomenon in a larger “public” reality defined by official hierarchies. Official reality, as defined by the President’s press conferences and Walter Cronkite, was a pervasive normative ground, a background against which dissenting opinion stood out as a heretical exception. Mockery and criticism were relegated to the “private” realm.

But as the counter-reality becomes more ubiquitous, as it challenges official statements wherever they appear, as it becomes universally accessible to enormous audiences communicating with each other and hyperlinking the official statement for relentless mockery, the old official reality loses its perceived privileged status as consensus reality. The counter-reality becomes as pervasive as official reality in the public space, and contests it for perceived legitimacy.

The Facebook groups, the Wikileaks cables, the blogs all show that any one person is not alone in a particular set of beliefs about the regime. Another form of common knowledge is allowed to take hold. It is not indubitable, and it may have been infiltrated, manipulated and it may in time be switched off—as has happened in Egypt. But the reality of the critique of the regime is believed to be commonly shared. [86]

At any rate, the subversive use of the dominant religion’s content is shared by ideologies of rebellion among the people of the state spaces themselves.

When it comes to cosmology and religion in particular, there would seem to be a plausible connection between dissident, charismatic religious movements in the hills and the disprivileged strata within state populations…. [S]omething of a continuum between symbolic dissent by subaltern state populations and relatively independent hill societies emerges. It is among these peoples, dispossessed and marginal, respectively, that the more revolutionary, “world-upside-down” prophetic message makes its greatest appeal. And of course, it is with the fringes of the valley population that hill peoples are likely to have most contact. Arriving in the valleys for trade and work, hill visitors are in closest contact with the bottom of the valley social hierarchy. The lower echelons of the valley population, along with the “lumpen intelligentsia” of monks and hermits, are also the most likely to drift into the hills. Thus, in terms of structural position as well as of social contact, we should probably treat radical valley religious movements as different in degree but not in kind from hill prophetic movements. [87]

This “lumpen intelligentsia” of dissident clergy from the valley-state religions, as Scott argues, forms a class of “organic intellectuals” (in Gramsci’s words) for the insurrectionist ideology.

…monks, ex-seminarians, catechists, healers, traders, and peripheral local clergy are vastly overrepresented in the ranks of prophets. They are, in the Gramscian sense, the organic intellectuals of the dispossessed and marginal in the premarginal world. This too, as a generalization, travels well. Marc Bloch notes the prominent role of the country priests in peasant uprisings in medieval Europe. Their “plight was often no better than that of their parishioners but [their] minds could better encompass the idea that their miseries were part of a general ill, [they were] men well-fitted to play the time-honoured role of the intellectual.” Max Weber termed this class “pariah intellectuals” and noted that it stood “on the point of Archimedes in relation to social convention… and was capable of an original attitude toward the meaning of the cosmos.” In the highlands such religious figures play much the same role, articulating the aspirations of the community and, at the same time, able to command, or at least neutralize, the symbolic technology of the state. [88]

The pool of symbols and memes that have popular resonance in any culture is appropriated in different directions by contending classes, as a weapon of class struggle. This shared pool within a given culture is what Gramsci called “common sense,” and he argued that a revolutionary ideology must take symbols from the existing pool of common sense—which in many cases resonate powerfully among the population—and organize them in a new configuration. As Roger Simon explained:

Ideologies are not individual fancies, rather, they are embodied in communal modes of living and acting. In order to understand the relation between an ideology and the individuals who are influenced by it Gramsci starts with what he calls common sense, the uncritical and largely unconscious way in which a person perceives the world, often confused and contradictory, and compounded of folklore, myths and popular experience. (He is of course giving the term a special meaning, quite different from the usual one, somewhat akin to the English terms ‘conventional wisdom’ or ‘received opinion’.) The task for Marxism is to be a criticism of common sense, and to enable people to develop its positive nucleus–which he calls good sense–into a more coherent outlook. [89]

Thus the nature of ideological struggle is not to make a completely fresh start. Rather, it is a process of transformation in which some of the elements are rearranged and combined in a different way with a new nucleus or central principle. A process of this kind is necessary because, if the old ideological system was a genuinely popular one, then the elements (or at least some of them) to which this popularity was due, need to be preserved in the new system even if their relative weight ][ and some of their content is changed. The unity of the new ideological system will stem from its nucleus or central unifying principle. [90]

Another illustration from Britain is the way in which the shift to the right in the Conservative Party… was able to make use of the popular hostility to many of the activities of the state, to its bureaucracy and to the continual growth in the burden of taxation. The Tory Party posed as the champion of individual liberty against the state, proposing to cut down taxation, encourage personal initiatives, and reduce the role of government. The Tories were therefore aiming to appropriate popular sentiments of resentment against bureaucratic injustices and inefficiencies, and integrate these sentiments into an ideological system centred on the virtues of private enterprise. [91]

The task for Marxist theory is to be a criticism of common sense, and to enable people to develop its positive nucleus—which Gramsci called good sense—into a more coherent outlook. And he emphasised that ‘it is not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s life, but of renovating and making critical an already existing activity’….

In discussing the nature of ideological struggle we said above that a class advancing towards hegemony does not have to make a clean sweep of the opposing ideological systems; rather, it is a matter of transforming existing ideologies by preserving and rearranging some of the most durable elements in a new system. [92]

Scott argues that the themes of background cultures have an invisible hand effect on the messages of charismatic prophets who found millennarian movements.

It is the society within which a successful prophet appears that, in effect, lays down the basic script that shapes the prophet’s repertoire…. How this process of reciprocal influence might work can be likened to the influence that an audience might have on a medieval bard. Let us imagine a bard who lives exclusively by the voluntary contributions of ordinary people in the marketplace. And let us assume, for the sake of argument, that each of those who like what he sings gives him an identical small “copper.” Having conjured up a bard who wants to please a large audience, let us further imagine that this bard has a repertoire of, say, a thousand songs and stories from which to select. Assuming that his audience has definite tastes, I imagine that, little by little, as the bard comes to know his audience, the actual songs he sings in the market square… will come to more closely approximate the distribution of tastes among his audience….

Like any analogy, this one has its limitations. It allows too little for the creativity of the prophet and his capacity to add to the repertoire and to change tastes… Nonetheless, the analogy does demonstrate the way in which the cultural expectations and historical understanding of a charismatic public… can play a decisive role in influencing the script of a successful prophet. This stochastic process of successful adjustment is familiar enough; it is the stock in trade of most successful politicians and preachers. [93]

A major reason ruling ideologies are so vulnerable to such jiu-jitsu is that they use, as basic building blocks, basic conceptions of reciprocal and distributive justice that are universal and intuitive. An unjust order can only legitimize itself by appealing to ideals of genuine justice, however it misapplies them.


73 Scott, “Protest and Profanation: Agrarian Revolt and the Little Tradition, Part I,” Theory and Society 4 (1977), pp. 14-15.

74 Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 18.

75 Ibid., p. 103.

76 Ibid., pp. 105-106.

77 Ibid., p. 106.

78 Ibid., p. 121.

79 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, pp. 51-52, quoted in Ibid. p. 121.

80 Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, p. 121.

81 Ibid., pp. 122-123; material in quotes is from Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain (Hutchinson, 1976).

82 Ibid. p. 127.

83 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Translated by Alan Sheridan 1977. Second Vintage Edition (New York: Vintage Press, 1995), p. 145.

84 Ibid., p. 152.

85 Christopher Locke, “Waiting for Joe Six-Pack,” The Cluetrain Manifesto <>

86 Tony Curzon Price, “Cupid’s freedom: how the web sharpens the democratic revolution,” openDemocracy, January 31, 2011 < /cupids-freedom-how-web-sharpens-democratic-revolution>.

87 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, pp. 306-307.

88 Ibid., p. 310.

89 Roger Simon. Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982), pp. 25-26.

90 Ibid., pp. 60-62.

91 Ibid., p. 62.

92 Ibid., p. 64.

93 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, pp. 296-297.

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