What is the "Point de Capiton" of "Leftist Ideology?"
“[I]t takes a great ideal to produce a great crime.”
—Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy
Ideology includes creedal commitments and narrative elements that vary depending on the ideology in question—as well as cognition-framing templates, or if you prefer matrix metaphors, consciousness-structuring codes. Some argue that the sine qua non of ideology is an organizing central element, the kernel around which the elements of ideology coalesce and are assembled into a whole.
In The Supreme Object of Ideology, the Slovenian Marxist and Lacanian psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Žižek, following the French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, makes this claim and calls the central, organizing element le point de capiton, or the “quilting point,” the “anchoring point,” the element that holds an ideology together and around which a consistent perspective can be maintained.
To use a computing analogy, one might also think of this central organizing element as the .exe (Windows) or .app (Mac) file of a computer program—in the sense that the .exe or .app file, when activated, causes the elements of the program to run and the program to undertake other tasks, such as compiling new files from user inputs (such as the program compiling this essay). The .exe or .app file is not analogous to the ideology itself. Rather, it enables ideology; ideology is analogous to the processes potentiated by the .exe or .app file.
Extending the computer analogy, we might understand the appearance of ideology in consciousness—that is, ideology as represented to the subject of ideology—in terms of the computer monitor or screen—the consciousness of the person experiencing and (re)producing the ideology, and at once the one rendering to itself as visible a representation of the code behind or under the screen (the “real” computer and its operations, or reality), including a representation of the self-in-world. That is, as the computer screen makes visible and legible the real of computer code and its underlying operations, so ideology makes visible and legible the real of the world.
This is not to say, as postmodern theorists have suggested, that the the world is a “social construct,” simply the product of a society that co-produces and perceives it according to an implicit consensus—a radical philosophical and social idealism if there ever was one. Rather, ideology makes the real visible and legible to the subject as such—in a way that is characteristic of the particular ideology. Reality isn’t constructed by ideology either ex nihilo, nor out of our collective (or individual) mind(s)—although those who hold such a view may be out of theirs.
Žižek insists as well on the role of ideology in representing the relationship between the visible and the invisible. My analogy accounts for that too. To most contemporary computer users, the underlying code remains invisible. Only Neo and computer programmers can see the code. (No, that doesn’t make computer programmers immune to ideology—although Neo is. This is only an analogy.)
Žižek and others who treat ideology as an object of study make sure to insist that any particular ideology isn’t merely one among other distortions of reality and that once these distortions are removed, one can finally arrive at a non-ideological, reality-only construal. One cannot eliminate ideology, or ideologies, one by one, or all at once, to arrive at an undistorted reality, the real. According to Žižek and many others, all construals are ideological.
Given such an admission—and Žižek’s view is by no means singular among those who make ideology an object of study—one might expect that right-wing, conservative, libertarian, and other non-leftist ideologies would not be the only ideologies worthy of analysis, or those exclusively subjected to critique. One might expect that leftist ideologies would be examined as well—and on the same grounds and in the same terms as non-leftist ideologies.
But one would be wrong. One would be hard-pressed to find such “critical” treatments of leftist ideology in academic scholarship. After much searching, I have yet to find a single mention of leftist ideology in connection with the le point de capiton, or ideological critique in general—as if leftist ideology is somehow exempt from this supposedly “central” and “essential” feature of all ideology, and its other features as well. As if leftist ideology wasn’t …. ideology.
Further, given the acknowledgment (belief) that a non-ideological position is impossible, we shouldn’t expect to find conservative, libertarian, liberal, or other non-left ideologies treated as if they were disorders, disruptions of the norm, social epidemics, or the outbreaks of illnesses. But this is almost invariably how non-leftist ideologies are represented in academic ideology critiques.
Why is this the case? I do not believe that the preponderance of leftists in the social sciences and humanities is sufficient to explain the asymmetrical treatment of ideology in the academy. It may be a necessary, but not a sufficient cause. Rather, to understand the absence of critiques of leftist ideology by academics, one should look to the signified in the critiques of rightwing ideology—and especially at the characterizations of the same in terms of disease, pestilence, sanitation, virus, and so on and so forth. Although disease is no longer regarded in moral terms (exceptions and contradictions exist, of course), as Michel Foucault made manifest, the association of disease, especially infectious disease, with moral inferiority, deformity, and depravity has a long history and persists residually within modern (or if you’re postmodern, postmodern) consciousness. Thus, the exclusive study of right-wing, conservative, libertarian, and other non-leftist ideology is explicable in terms of a moral distinction.
Rightist ideology is studied because it is “problematic” (politically and thus morally evil). Leftist ideology is not examined because leftism purportedly poses no danger, is not pernicious, and thus is nothing to be concerned about. By default, the standard leftist regards leftist ideology as benign but also as obviously beneficial. The moral probity of leftist ideology is taken for granted. Leftist ideology is on “the right side of history.” The implication is clear: leftists do not believe that leftist ideology is ideological at all.
So, I remind them of what the French structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser argued in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”—captives of ideology are never able to recognize their own ideological convictions as ideological. The dominant ideology is as invisible to believers as the air they breathe:
…what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside it. That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology …ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’.
That is, academic leftists may believe that they’ve eluded ideology, but in believing so, they are precisely subjects of ideology. And given their double blindness—that leftist ideology is manifestly benign thus leftism is innocent, and that leftist ideology isn’t really ideology), it is all the more crucial that leftist ideology become an object of ideology critique.
This brings me to the ultimate question of this essay: since, according to Žižek and others, a non-ideological perspective is impossible, and, as the le point de capton is the “kernel” of ideology, what is le point de capton of leftist ideology, generally considered—that is, what is the common organizing principle of leftist ideologies?
(But first: please don’t admonish me by telling me that my category—”leftist ideology”—is too broad, unsophisticated, and meaningless. Academics regularly use such categories—only applied to their ideological others. The use of such phrases as “the right-wing,” “right-wingers,” and “right-wing ideology,” among references to other broad groupings, is routine in academic scholarship. I’ve never seen any such usage criticized by another academic. So, to be symmetrical, academic leftists must permit my usage.)
Yet they will continue to object. How, and on what grounds? The answer goes straight to the heart of the matter and reveals le point de capiton of leftist ideology. Intrinsic to leftist ideology is precisely the notion that no symmetry between right and left can be permitted—on the basis of the moral probity of leftism and its obvious and indisputable political (moral) superiority to rightism. This should go without explanation, they think, and it does.
That is, le point de capiton of leftist ideology is the belief its own, unique moral superiority and ultimate innocence.
How is this belief manifest?
For one, leftism presents itself—to itself and to others—as the default no-fault political belief system. While the crimes of right-wing political villainy are kept in circulation and replayed regularly—in classrooms, the media, casual conversation, and so on and so forth—the left’s political crimes are swept under the carpet, ignored, or justified. Yes, in passing, once in a blue moon, someone—and maybe even a leftist—will acknowledge the 94 million murdered by communist regimes, or the eugenicist ideology of the U.S. Progressive Party—for example!
But no one on the left bemoans these crimes; no one on the right ever references them while protesting (they don’t protest much); few, if any, of whatever political persuasion, do more than merely acknowledge them in passing and as if such criminality clearly had been the exception—or, presumably, due to a tacit acknowledgment of the purported noble ends—the specter of utopia as some have written—these crimes had been excused as if by divine dispensation, and ultimately amount to innocence. Leftists are the predestinarians—and the predestined—of the secular world.
(I write as a former left communist of fifteen years, and by no means a right-winger or conservative. If you must label me, the most accurate political moniker would be “ex-leftist.” If you demand more specificity—so that you can find a way to indict me—you may call me a “civil libertarian.” Feel better?)
How does the left get away with its political criminality and murderous past, you ask? (You don’t—that is, you don’t ask.) The answer is “beyond the scope of this essay.” But a good start may be found in the foreword to The Black Book of Communism—you know, that piece of bourgeois propaganda with documentary evidence to support every substantive and numerical claim it makes. And then of course there is the lingering, but ever-receding, specter of utopia.