How do our rulers stay in power?

March 23, 2012

A system of beliefs promoted by ruling institutions helps reinforce the status quo.

A FAMOUS 19th century church hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" contains the verse: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God gave each his station and ordered his estate."

Not too many people today believe in the direct intervention of a God that determines our place in society and "orders" our everyday lives. But in the next election, millions of working people will vote for the Republicans, who are dedicated to keeping "the rich man in his castle" and "the poor man at his gate."

Democrats at least claim to represent working people--and have leaders of unions and community organizations to help spread this lie. The Republican Party, however, has never pretended to be anything other than what it is--a party that exists to serve the interests of the richest 10 percent of the population.

How is it possible for the Republicans to ever win an election? The answer is clear enough--millions of people don't understand what's in their own interests. They have a false picture of the society they live in.

This isn't a new problem. Throughout history societies have been run in the interests of the rich, and the masses of people have been persuaded, in one way or another, to put up with this state of affairs for most of the time.

Persuaded is the operative word.

Ruling classes have always had soldiers and police at their disposal. Without them--that is, without actual or potential violence--they couldn't rule. But except at times of great crisis, violence is less important to our rulers than persuasion.

For a class society to exist, both rulers and--ruled have to have fairly coherent world outlooks that justify the existing setup--or at least make it seem like the only possible arrangement.

These world outlooks are what Karl Marx called ideologies. An ideology isn't just a wrong belief. It's a whole system of ideas that take into account many facts but which show the connection between these facts in a false tight.

Marx described ideology as "false consciousness."

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE for the privileged class to hold down the mass of a population for long unless sections of it have a false consciousness.

Until recently, most ideologies have taken the form of religion. Consider the way the Christian Bible takes account of "facts" and explains their connections. "God created man in his own image," we're told.

But the relationship is upside down. In reality, people created God in their image, and therefore, the image of God changed as social conditions changed--for example, from the bloodthirsty gods of Greek mythology to the benevolent ruler portrayed in the New Testament.

It's easy today, in a scientific world, to underestimate the power of religious ideologies. But they could hold on because they provided an explanation of the workings of the universe, consolation for the powerless masses, justification for the ruling minority, entertainment, codes of conduct and an ultimate purpose in life.

Today, secular ideologies have largely replaced religion as the effective "worldview" in industrialized countries, even among people who consider themselves religious. The most important of these ideologies--patriotism and "democracy"--have wide acceptance because they're promoted by the media and the education system.

But they also have an echo in the consciousness of working people because they incorporate some facts of their everyday experience.

Yet other facts of people's lives-- the struggle to get by in the "miracle" economy or the unfairness of the health care system--come into conflict with this world outlook. This is why ideology isn't all-powerful.

So how do ideas change?

First of all, people are heavily influenced by the opinions of the people they work with. This is why the role of socialists is very important in developing resistance to the ideas that dominate the media.

But the most important single factor in changing consciousness is activity. In changing the world, people change themselves. Ideology can be overcome by the combination of class struggle and an alternative set of ideas to explain the world--socialist ideas.

First published in the August 4, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.

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