Monday, September 12, 2022

Against ideology

As we watch economies fail and societies move into the more advanced stages of dysfunction and dissolution, there is a lot of political finger-pointing going on. Blame is typically assigned in such a way as not to upset one’s preferred political or economic narratives.

Targeting ideological enemies necessarily entails a labeling process. The terms used are normally vague and abstract but loaded with emotional content – positive for terms designating “us”, strongly negative for terms designating “them”. Though the abstractness of the terms in question may confer a veneer of intellectual seriousness, the communicational dynamic remains purely rhetorical. Meaning is reduced to connotation, the various “isms” and so on merely providing convenient ways of encapsulating ill-defined sets of attachments on the one hand and aversions on the other.

Political ideologies are real is the sense that they affect the way people interpret history and current events and motivate action but, incorporating as they inevitably do political myths and simplifying abstractions, they are quite useless as analytical tools. This is not to say, of course, that terms like fascism, corporatism, socialism, capitalism, etc. – qualified to distinguish different forms where necessary – cannot be a useful shorthand when they are used descriptively and in historically informed ways.

The trouble is, such terms are rarely used like this. More often than not they are used rhetorically: as tribal markers, as weapons of ideological combat.

I do not have a particular ideological position to which I am committed or which I am promoting. This is not for want of trying to discover or build one. After much study and thought, I have come to the conclusion that this desire to choose or construct a preferred ideology is ill-conceived.

It is quite unnecessary to have some kind of explicit social blueprint in mind. Better not to, in fact (for all sorts of reasons, most of them relating to the contingent and context-dependent nature of social and cultural interactions).

Part of my Ph.D. thesis was focused on the revival in the 1930s of the principles of economic liberalism and their development and application during the post-WW2 era. The broad aim of the self-styled “neoliberals” – mainly European thinkers – whose work I was writing about was to offer an alternative to totalitarianisms of the left and the right. This is a goal with which I was (and still am) sympathetic. But, as I say, I have come to believe that no abstract system or ideology is adequate to deal either with questions of ends (which involve crucial moral choices) or means. How is an abstract system supposed to mesh with the complexities of an historically evolved and evolving social structure? The old joke has the Irishman telling the stranger who asked for directions, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” It matters – a lot – where you happen to be.

Liberal institutions developed within – and were dependent on for their proper functioning – cultures which had certain common features. A certain kind of culture and a certain level of trust and moral attainment are prerequisites for liberal values and institutions to thrive. Those conditions no longer apply in the societies with which I am most familiar.


  1. I'm not up to date with the various ways "ideology" is defined academically, but the definition that has most stuck with me is Erich Fromm's: "socially patterned rationalizations." If we take each of those three words very literally, we then have a fairly precise phenomenon in mind, and one which is only partially in accord with colloquial usage. Whether this is at all useful, whether it reflects anyone's actual usage, those are separate questions about which the fact of it sticking in my head says nothing. Attempts to explain the "patterned" part of the triad in scientifically rigorous fashion do seem especially doomed to failure, for all the reasons you give here. But one interesting implication, at least, is that by this definition, if you are the least bit politically engaged or even curious, it's pretty hard to not have an ideology.

    1. Good point. The word can be (and has been, historically) understood in different ways. You can see it (as I am here) as something specific (a particular "ism", say) and avoidable; or you can see it as something unavoidable. In the latter case it is simply the individual's social and political perspective, whatever that happens to be. (Will probably not fit standard categories or labels.)