The word ‘literature’ has evolved through various meanings over its time in the English lexicon. According to Raymond Williams literature “came into English, from C14 [the fourteenth century], in the sense of polite learning through reading” (Williams 182) and in Marx’s time usually “referred to the whole body of books and writing; or if distinction was made it was in terms of falling below the level of polite learning” (Williams 183). These definitions, specifically regarding the distinction of polite learning, are likely those Marx used when he wrote about the rise of a world literature in The Communist Manifesto. Yet somehow Marx was able to predict the negative impact a world literature would have on the working class decades before the rise of mass media and the global domination of western values. In this paper I will demonstrate how a world literature, or globally dominant set of values, is presently used by the ruling class to exert control over the working class by ensuring opposition can only occur from within existing ideological and repressive state apparatus.
Currently, in the schools throughout the western world, children are taught democracy – and by extension capitalism – is the only system of government in which a free and just society can exist. Furthermore, students are taught that democratic values are unquestionable, universal truths and it is the duty of all democratic nations to stand up for the basic human rights of every human being living in our world. However, the native reserves living without access to drinking water are not mentioned, nor are a large number of other historical atrocities carried out by democratic nations. To illustrate, our politicians shout ‘we are the police of the world’ as they send young men and women off to die in another foreign – usually oil rich – country. To clarify further, according to Eagleton: “the servant of British [or American] imperialism could sally forth overseas secure in a sense of their national identity, and able to display that cultural superiority to their envying colonial peoples” (Eagleton 2145).
However, while this sense of cultural superiority has various effects on foreign policy, the effect on the domestic citizenry is profound. Specifically, people raised within a western democracy are restricted to acting out their role as a citizen of the democracy in which they were raised. In other words, a citizen is only capable of existing within the ideological and restrictive state apparatus in which he or she was raised. And yet the basic tenet of democracy, the vote, having been repeatedly demonstrated to have no effect on the working class, remains the primary method through which meaningful change is attempted. Furthermore, we are constantly lied to by those in power, and yet continue to fight against the ruling class from within the system which they have established to ensure our return to work each morning with a smile. For clarification, the previously mentioned citizen cannot comprehend a system of recourse that does not involve the various state apparatus established to control him or her. Moreover, with first hand knowledge that the system is rigged against them, the citizen only keeps playing, hoping one day his or her life will somehow be improved.
Conversely, while everyone knows corporations have undue influence when it comes to elections, the idea that we are being controlled by some unknown cabal of evil businessmen seems implausible. Lobbyists and committees have some control over the democratic process, but it is difficult to say with any level of certainty that the entire system has been rigged against the common man. If this is true, who is the man behind the curtain? Who is in control?
On the contrary, my argument is not that there is a cabal of evil businessmen secretly ruling the world. To clarify, it is no secret that Capital will always act only in self-interest and government depends on Capital to provide the funds a political party requires to achieve and maintain a mandate. Most, if not all, western democratic governments are dependent on private interest to operate, both during elections and during their time in power. Furthermore, Capital provides the jobs – and therefore the wages – upon which governments generate revenue (i.e. income tax.) This government revenue is then used to build the infrastructure upon which Capital depends: roads, airports, public schools, etc. Or, to put it another way, Capital has a direct interest in the direction these public works take: the highways are built to deliver workers from home to work, the seaports and pipelines are built to transport products to foreign markets, and the schools are funded to indoctrinate the future generations of workers. This serves to demonstrate that there is no separation between Capital and government, or as Marx stated: “[t]he executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Marx and Engels 658).
Therefore, it follows that the perpetuation of western democratic ideology is in the interest of Capital. Without an adaptable system of ideological governance, upon which they can exert direct control, the bourgeoisie would not be able to maintain their dominance over us for extended periods of time. However, by providing systems of recourse – courts, laws, human rights protections – we are given a pathway to address our concerns into a system the bourgeoisie have established as the means of our oppression. For example, we’re told the law treats everyone equally, but the middle and lower classes do not have the funds required to defend themselves in court. Also, the police are supposed to protect us, but as the Black Lives Matter movement has shown, the police do not protect everyone equally. Conversely, Capital can pour millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Gulf of Mexico, cost taxpayers billions of dollars to clean up, and only suffer a meagre financial penalty. And since the profits generated by ignoring government safety and environmental standards vastly outweigh any government imposed penalties, Capital is given no incentive to obey the law. Clearly there is no question who the law applies to: it applies to us, everyone who’s not a member of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie only benefits from the law and we only suffer from it. As members of the working class we have no way to utilize the state apparatus to our advantage.
To clarify, the state apparatus is not in place to protect the working class; it is in place to protect the ruling class. Yet working class parents continue to teach their children “the law is there to protect them” and “the government is for the people,” while their experience as members of the working class demonstrates otherwise. To put it another way, we are repeating the ideological lies we have learned because we are unable to escape the system; we cannot comprehend any other way of thinking. The ideological state apparatus has made us slaves to a system we know functions against us. And yet we proclaim our freedom while living paycheck to paycheck, enslaved to our jobs and told ‘we are fortunate to be employed.’ All this while most of the working class would not be able to afford an unexpected $400.00 expense (Gabler), we have no savings, we have no future, and yet claim we are free. The indubitable truth is that we are not free, we merely have smiling masters.
In addition, according to Althusser: “[w]hat is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of real relations which govern the individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live” (Althusser 1352). In other words, we are blinded by an ideological truth we cannot un-know; literally trapped within the ideology of our oppressors. For example, the ideologically faithful believe that by electing a new government they will manage to affect the situation of the working class, but the promised changes never materialize. Additionally, others hope that by utilizing the courts they will be able to fight back against corporate greed, but cannot compete with the vast legal resources of the corporations they are trying to fight. Put another way, the working class does not have the funds or legal resources required to utilize any of the state apparatus in a meaningful way. In a broad sense western societies cannot come to terms with the real relations in which they live because they are unable comprehend a world in which what they idealized is not so. And as a consequence of this ideological blindness we cannot understand the nature of the conditions in which we live. Or, to rephrase, we meekly consent to corporate slavery without the need for the life-or-death struggle integral to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (Hegel 541-547).
In conclusion, I have argued the ruling class exerts control over the working class by strictly defining the rules of opposition. Furthermore, our disillusioned 21st century society, knowing our system of governance is rigged against us, continues to advance the ideological system through which we are oppressed. For example, we hold elections that do not matter, to elect people with no power, so they can pass laws which only benefit the ruling class. Additionally, we have allowed the Capitalist ideological superstructure to render us impotent against them, we continue to fight from within the Capital controlled state apparatus because we cannot comprehend any other way in which we could succeed. In short, we cannot win our freedom by following the rules, but we do not know how to fight without using these same rules, we live in the ultimate ideological Catch-22.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Ed. Leitch et al. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969. 1335–1361. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. “Literary Theory: An Introduction.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Ed. Leitch et al. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1983. 2140–2146. Print.
Gabler, Neal. “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” The Atlantic May 2016. The Atlantic. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.
Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich. “Phenomenology of Spirit.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Ed. Leitch et al. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1867. 541–547. Print.
Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.
Marx, Carl, and Friedrich Engels. “The Communist Manifesto.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Ed. Leitch et al. Second Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1848. 657–660. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Ebook Edition. London: Fourth Estate, 2014. Print.