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Ideology and censorship in capitalist society

The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas; i.e., the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force (Karl Marx).

Censors were magistrates in ancient Rome, usually two in number, who were elected every five years but held office for eighteen months only, in order to take the census of the official list of citizens and carry out the solemn lustrum (purification and protection from evil influences). The censors exercised a general supervision over the conduct of citizens, their power and prestige deriving from the senators, the ruling force in society. The censor worked to protect the Roman social order. In recent times, we have seen this tradition carry on in the commissar, McCarthy, and still today with the Pope and other Ayatollahs. Now this function has more or less been privatised to the media, editors of TV, radio and the national press, where authorities seem confident it will be administered sagaciously. Here the punishment and jailing, once frequent in a more ruthless age, has now been replaced by disregard, barring and ostracism–keeping the political airwaves sanitised from evil influences—though the Internet is beyond their ability to control easily.

The approach to censorship from media editors is two-fold. First, there might well be blatant political acts to censor alternatives to the present order of society which provides for them, and their masters, a comfortable life. Second, and much more common, there is a censorship of a more subtle kind. Gone are the days when the direct Victorian approach, “you are not allowed to have books to corrupt your mind”, would be acceptable for most. Editors themselves are a product of society, and, with others who would influence society, come to their work and their social gatherings with a worldview, a set of preconceptions that may provide the framework for their analysis of, and actions in, the world. A worldview constructed by influences gathered from a lifetime exposed to bourgeois ideology–this we can call their “ideological baggage”. This consists of anything from their views on genetics, abortion or testing on animals to the wider political scene, on economics, ethics etc. These preconceptions enter at both an explicit and implicit level, but even when they are invoked explicitly, unexamined and unexpected assumptions underlie them. Alternate opinions and philosophies lacking in popularity which seem at odds with general thinking are destined to remain off the mainstream media, for fear readers and viewers will either object or simply not understand the points being made–as might not the editors themselves. Where once conspiracy or direct force would be used to hold a political line, now “ideology” carries out the daily lustrum.

Unlike propaganda, ideologies are systems of thought and belief by which dominant classes explain “to themselves” how their social system operates and what principles it exemplifies. Ideology is the deeply and unselfconsciously held views of the dominant class in any social order. We distinguish these beliefs from views held in a more pietistic or even cynical fashion to manipulate or form the opinions of those who are not members of the ruling classes. Ideological systems therefore exist not as fictions but as “truths”, and not only evidential truths but moral truths.

A given society with a particular mode of production and accompanying social relations requires a certain mode of thought, leading to a certain conduct among individuals operating or living in that society if it is to function. Here in the struggle for our ear, the ruling authorities have an advantage in that they appeal to cultures and traditions, which since our earliest schooling have been put to work on us. Wherever we are in the world, we'll hear the same old appeals to words and phrases from our leaders, and the rich and their media tools operating there. Appeals to nationalism—“win for your country”; law and order—“punish the criminals”; private property—“you can't have…”; competition and contest—“the world would die without it”; foreigners—“asylum seekers go home”; work ethic—“no money no life”; leadership—“we'd be lost without the men of ideas”; etc, etc.

A Socialist Outlook
It is not the individuals who hold official power, or indeed those in whose interests they hold that power—their rich paymasters—but the overarching ideology of the bourgeois epoch that must be exposed and censured. Ideology here, like the rules of a game which all players must obey, or where in a drama production the storyline, script actors and costume, etc, must conform to the constraints of the theme, demands that we conform to its strictures, which are often also prescribed in law to ensure that we do.

The wings of the capitalist party, left, right and centre, take up various positions within a narrow spectrum of opinion and debate, giving a superficial appearance of differences, adding to the semblance of a thriving democracy in line with bourgeois ideology. So close are their remedies for society's ills that they would be almost indistinguishable but for their talent for exposing the shortcomings of individuals. Indeed this has become the stock-in-trade of the body politic within the capitalist parties. “A very nice turns of events to blame individuals and let the system ideology off scot-free”, might say some.

Non-socialist readers will perhaps join socialists and feel “disgust” at the poverty, hunger and sickness and early death among us workers; “anger” at the strangeness, enmity, competition and violence between us; “sadness” with the coldness, childishness, wickedness, treachery and greed from many of us; and “apprehension” at the ignorance, hopelessness and ambivalence displayed by others. Then think nothing of a society split into, countries, races, cultures, religions, sexes, ages, classes, sectarianism and criminals; of human production organised around wage-labour, unions, bosses, money, trade and exchange commodities, and private property; of the need to protect society with law and order, punishmen, and war. Non-socialists think of all these “structures” with “elements”, “philosophies”, “standpoints”, “practices” as normal and necessary for humans in a modern society.

Socialists see that bourgeois ideology illustrates a characteristic where pictures of how things actually happen in society appear back to front. God creates Man instead of the reverse. In ethics, people are said to derive judgements from an absolute moral principle of some sort, whereas it is their judgements, reflecting their class conditions and interests that have constructed over time (and through generations) this principle. The belief that in politics the state grants its citizens certain rights, where in reality the people using their vote have abnegated their social power to the state. The view that the government represents the people, where actually it governs in the interest of our masters. In history, we are lead to believe that “great men” and ideas decide the course of events, where in reality, events, combined with their underlying conditions, establish the limitations and opportunities which determine in broad outline who shall be “great men” and which ideas will triumph.

In economics, people think that they decide where they work and what they buy, but really, the jobs and commodities available determine both. Also that businesses serve the community by their investment in the production and jobs where really it is the community which serves the businesses by giving them the lion's share of what is produced, including the right to decide on questions of further investment into goods and jobs. Lastly and most crucial in the principles for this society, the most pernicious piece of ideology is where workers believe, with their “hourly rate” in their mind, that this represents payment for all the hour of their labour.

Capitalist ideas dominate the political economic and social scene for the capitalist own and control the means of propagation, education, information and news. Thus, all discussion and debate is undertaken on their terms. It should be clear, then, that bourgeois ideology serves capitalist interests not only when it provides pro-capitalist solutions to pressing social problems but also when it confuses people, or makes them overly pessimistic and resigned, or makes it difficult for them to formulate criticisms or imagine alternative systems.