I am amazed (and horrified) that in the mainstream it is conservatives who talk about “ideas” and “liberals” talk about “solving problems.”
But it’s no surprise that conservatives should be “idealist,” i.e. that they should erase or elide the importance of material (economic or political) factors in their own success. It’s worth returning to The German Ideology:
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. (47)
Marx’s account has of course to be added to and complicated, but it’s a decent start.
There remains, however, the question of what additional work ideas do. In what ways do ideas overdetermine political and historical processes?
The power of ideas has little to do with the extent to which they convince those to whom they are addressed, though this would be what hegemony theory suggests: that people consent to their own domination on the basis of the ideological discourse to which they are subjected. Rather, it’s a matter of the conviction with which those ideas are held, the sense of confidence or presumption that they convey.
Brian Massumi writes about the confidence projected by Ronald Reagan. The coherence (or, more often, otherwise) of his pronouncements was unimportant. And people happily voted for Reagan even though they were aware that they disagreed with him. But Reaganism secured power through affect, not through ideology. Or, as Massumi says, he produced ideological effects by non-ideological means. Hence the Zizekian formula of posthegemony: “I know, but still I do.”
Much of what Massumi writes about Reagan applies a fortiori to Bush the Younger. Liberals who pillory so-called “Bushisms” miss the point. The power of Bush’s ideas resides not in their logic or coherence, but in the ways in which they are held: as folk wisdom, from time immemorial, imperfectly remembered in the present, but unassailable for that very reason.
There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.
What’s important here is the flexibility and mutability (“I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee”) of ideas that are never meant to convince, to cohere, to secure consent.
The work that these ideas perform is, to poach a phrase from Hardt and Negri, a form of affective labour.