On Therborn’s grid

The grid is here: The Ideology of Power & the Power of Ideology, 1980, p.94.


It is an early attempt to break with four impoverishing conceptions: force/consent, domination/hegemony, legitimacy, & true/false consciousness. Regrettably Göran Therborn’s argument has been largely ignored – for over a third of a century, now.

Here I try to improve on his conception. In part I outline how pathophors are used in modes of ruling.

Therborn is interested not in sets of ideas & beliefs as such, how they change or stay the same, but in how daily living turns individuals into subjects who are both subjugated to rulers & qualified to do things – even to sometimes overturn their rulers. He calls this process ideology, it’s work, it’s a practice just like making things, providing a service, governing a workplace or a household, playing or watching sport, or praying. It’s goes on all the time, often without us knowing.

Ideological practice always creates, as noted, a twofold subject, both subjugating people, subjecting them to an ‘author’, an authority, but also qualifying them to act, helping to orientate them in what they do. Correspondingly the person is subject to two kinds of discipline: that imposed by others, agents of an authority, & that imposed by oneself.

As noted, qualification is also twofold, as one can become qualified to qualify, to change oneself, others, & the relations between people & what’s valued in society, even the social relations. So mobilising ideological means to maintain a way of life can have a contradictory effect, unintentionally turning people into rebels, using their qualifications, their causal powers & susceptibilities, to undermine their hitherto relations of subjugation, liberating themselves from them to a greater or less extent.

Therborn focuses on three contents of ideological practices: what they tell us about what is, what is good, & what is possible – and, correspondingly, what they often tell us about what doesn’t exist, what is undesirable, & what is impossible, or at least highly unlikely to ever come about. Why the three are so significant is captured by his pithy description of the logical stages facing someone who might rebel:

“[i]n order to become committed to changing something, one must first get to know that it exists, then make up one’s mind whether it is good that it exists. And before deciding to do something about a bad state of affairs, one must first be convinced that there is some chance of actually changing it.” (p.19)

There is a discussion to be had whether these three areas are the most salient for either subjugating or liberating people but we’ll let that pass for now. For him they’re crucial, & he puts them to work as the vertical axis of his grid.

It’s important to note that his discussion here is of ideological work that has the effect of maintaining the political status quo within quite narrow limits. Later we will need to envisage two other cases: modification of the political conditions, & their transformation.

The other axis of the grid is whether the person on the receiving end of the ideological call believes whether a political alternative is possible, yes or no. It means the grid has six boxes, & he assigns a political response to each of them. With some re-description this is his grid:

what ideology communicates about

the present                 \                                    the absent

kind of content                \                    better regime achievable?

~       –       ~       –       ~      \          yes!, . . . but                             no

what is                               I prefer to accommodate        things are inevitable

what is desirable                      I’m represented                           I defer

what is possible           I’m scared, sometimes afraid      I’m resigned to my lot

Therborn terms them the six main effects of ideological domination – although it’s more accurate to conceptualise this as the six main ideological effects of ruling, the current effects of the living of the ideological conditions of ruling, of living ideological ruling, of living the ideological dimension of ruling.

So what can we make of this grid?


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