The Dominant Ideology Thesis footnote＊ by Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill and Bryan S. Turner is first of all the story of a hunting exploit. It relates how the authors hunt down and finally kill a beast called ‘the dominant ideology thesis’. To save some space for due evaluation of this achievement, the beast will hereafter be shortened to dit and its killers to aht. Though told in the sometimes jarring tones of Sociologese, it is a fascinating story, which this reviewer read with considerable pleasure. Unfortunately it has become common for reviews to say far too much about the reviewer’s pleasure or displeasure, or about his bright ideas in general, leaving the poor reader in the dark about the actual object which occasioned the review. Before embarking upon any further assessment, therefore, let us for a moment allow the authors to speak for themselves.
According to aht: ‘There exists a widespread agreement among Marxists, such as Habermas, Marcuse, Miliband and Poulantzas, that there is a powerful,
The main part of the book then devotes one chapter each to medieval feudalism, the early industrial capitalism of nineteenth-century Britain, and the late capitalism of post-World War II Britain. Deploying a multitude of historiographic—and, in the third chapter, sociological—references, aht affirm that dit is an inaccurate theory. Thus, under feudalism religion was not ‘a dominant ideology which had the consequence of successfully incorporating the peasantry’ (p. 94); rather, ‘a dominant religious ideology among the landowning feudal class had the consequence of helping the operation of the economic conditions of feudalism’ (p. 93), mainly through the contribution of Catholic family morality to the regulation of inheritance in land. Early British capitalism experienced the development of a new dominant bourgeois ideology, provided by philosophic radicalism, which destroyed ‘traditionalism’ and its sanctioning of social and political authority by reference to natural law (p. 96). However, aht emphasize as their most important point that working-class culture and ideology were all the time largely unpermeated by this dominant bourgeois ideology. In feudalism and early capitalism there was a rather clearly identifiable, though by no means completely unified, dominant ideology, which incorporated the dominant class, but the weakness of the apparatus of ideological transmission left the subordinate classes largely untouched by it. In late capitalism, however, a kind of inversion has taken place. Transmission is more effective, but the ‘limited ideological unity of previous periods has collapsed’ (p. 156). State-interventionist welfare capitalism, and the granting of trade-union and individual employee rights by large corporations, indicate the internal inconsistency of dominant bourgeois ideology and its limited sway across the different fractions of the dominant class. aht conclude that ‘late capitalism operates largely without ideology’ and, leaning upon Max Weber’s economic sociology and an expression of Marx, that ‘the coherence of capitalist societies is produced by the “dull compulsion of economic relations”’ (p. 165). ‘Our position,’ they explain, ‘is that the non-
This is a very serious work on a very important topic: it makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of social order and social domination, two things which in human history have meant the same, alas. Since aht have also been asked to review my own The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology, it may be of interest to note the areas of convergence with The Dominant Ideology Thesis. The two books appeared in the same year, partly addressing the same problems, but were written from very different intellectual, political and national backgrounds, with no apparent knowledge of each other. Both argue that existing order/domination is not maintained, to any significant extent, by a belief among the ruled in the rulers’ right to rule. Both stress the crucial importance of non-normative constraint, the different relations of different classes to the same ideology, and the lack of coherence and consistency of most ideologies. It may also be the case that each of the two works would have benefited from knowledge and use of the other. Many of my propositions and conceptual distinctions could have been fruitfully concretized and corroborated by the empirical readings that aht collect and introduce into their discussion. Their exposition could probably have been clarified and sharpened by parts of the analytical instrumentarium developed in my book. In spite of their partial confluence, however, dit and The Ideology of Power . . . remain fundamentally different. In at least one sense they are even opposites. For while the latter is, above all, a constructive effort to develop new tools for grasping the complex relations of ideology and power, dit is mainly a work of destruction. Not only is it about something which the authors are out to destroy. It ends with a call for silence about ideology: ‘Since the real task is always to understand the economic and political forces which shape people’s lives, too much has been said about ideology in recent decades’ (p. 191). This sentence seems to imply two claims: that aht have said virtually all there is to say about ideology, at least for the immediate future; and that, for all practical purposes, ideology has nothing to do with how economic and political forces shape people’s lives. Let us test the weight of these claims.
If enough has been said about ideology with the publication of dit, it must follow that enough has been said about dit. That is what aht were hunting throughout their book, and most readers will have noticed, even after a first reading, that their numerous shots scored several ‘hits’. But what animal is it, whose hide the proud hunters have hung on the wall of the Sociology Staff Room? That is not very easy to say. dit only got its name from its killers, just before the trigger was pulled.
A second, closer reading of dit reveals a curious structure of the book. dit is first defined by general reference to a number of Marxist
The three definitions of ‘the’ dit which aht offer are the following. First, what we might call the ‘identifiable dit’ is defined by reference to known authors ‘such as Habermas, Marcuse, Miliband and Poulantzas’ (p. 1), or ‘Gramsci, Habermas and Althusser’ (pp. 11ff.). Secondly, we find something like a ‘stress definition’ of dit: ‘Our argument is that there has been an increased emphasis on the autonomy and causal efficacy of superstructural elements, and of ideology in particular, in modern Marxism. . . . This emphasis on ideology amounts to advocacy of what we have called the dominant ideology thesis’ (p. 29). The third and final definition is of a ‘constructed dit’, a product, most immediately, of aht’s talent for formulation. ‘The main elements of this thesis are as follows: