Posts Tagged ‘ideology’

A lot has been made in recent times about the dark and pernicious side of ideology, particularly its ability to incite hate or dispute obvious fact. In that regard there has been much discussion of political ideologies, particularly national populism such as that practiced by the likes of Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Dutarte, Jose Bolsonaro and Donald Tump. In fact, “Trumpism” is synonymous with a combination of ignorance, arrogance and bullsh*tting bluster all rolled into one racist, bigoted, xenophobic, ball-of-hate worldview. However, although the subject of national populism is topical, the discussion about ideology extends into fields other than the political, even reaching into debate about what properly constitutes “scientific” reasoning and discourse. As a way of framing how to understand what ideology is as an intellectual construct rather than just a set of ideas about the organization of particular things, please humour me this indulgence.

Ideology is a product of the imagination, a construction of the mind. Unlike flights of fancy and other ideational inventions and to be specific, an ideology is a coherent set of value principles that organises reality over time and specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real. The imaginary is what is ideal, preferred, unknown, inexplicable and/or fantastic. Reality is the material, physical and social conditions in which we exist. Ideology is the glue that binds them together in human consciousness. It is not just some random assortment of ideas and opinions. It is an intellectual framework for interpreting the world around us.

We come into the world hard-wired but  tabula rasa, and over time we are conditioned, schooled, instructed and otherwise taught about the ways things are either by direct experience or imparted knowledge. In that light ideology serves as an interpretative device that explains the connection between lived or actual experience and how things can, were and should be. Taken over time and as Gramsci once noted, passing through a “complex tissue of vulgarisations to emerge as common sense,” ideology defines how we see the world around us and our position and role in it.

Think of it this way. What is considered “unimaginable” is so only because of what we are. What makes science fiction creatures and worlds “alien” and “fantastic” is that they are not materially like us or anything in our collective existence. Our imagination not only processes what is materially and physically real in our world but also frames how we imagine that which is not observable in our reality. To paraphrase something that Rod Sterling of “Twilight Zone” TV show fame said in the mid 60s, “fantasy is translating the impossible into the improbable; science fiction is the improbable translated into the possible.” We address what is real and unreal based on mental constructs, not on immutable laws even if we render homage to divinity or the mysterious workings of Mother Nature and the Universe in general. 

There is a difference between ideational and ideological. Ideational refers to how we perceive the world we know and what lies beyond. Ideological refers to how we interpret that which is around and ahead of us.

Ideology explains realities to ourselves as well as the infinite possibilities that may exist beyond us. It is ideational in origin and its practical result is organisational: it serves to explain, categorise and regulate human society and the physical world in which it exists, and separates what can be known in human terms from that which is imaginable but unknowable. Broadly speaking, I refer here to ideologies that primarily address the physical and material world in which we live as scientific; and those that address the human condition as social.

In Carl Sagan’s (1996) words, “(s)cience is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility,” For the physical world, scientific ideology is the belief in employing a particular type of methodology for achieving observable, reproducible, objective and therefore predictable results, which in turn lead to classifications of physical phenomena based on their shared and unique characteristics. That allows humans to comprehend the world in and around them. 

Taxonomies are one such means of doing so. They identify, separate and classify natural phenomena based on reproducible facts. This is generally considered the realm of so-called “Western” science although the appellation is a misnomer given the scientific observations of pre-modern Arabs, Chinese and Persians and a range of indigenous peoples as well as Greeks and Romans and their European successors. The “scientific method” employed by these cultures varied in their specifics but sought to produce the same thing: value neutral organising, explaining and predicting when possible the nature of things. 

This has led to some interesting ways of thinking. For example, “Borges proposed a very peculiar animal classification system. He attributed it to a certain unknown, apocryphal Chinese encyclopedia, entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. It divides animals into: “(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that look like flies from a long way off” (Cited here).

While undoubtably true in whole or in part, the trouble for Borges is that while his zoology may have elements of scientific fact, his classification is not reproducible and in some cases, not observable or predictable. In is therefore invalid as a Western scientific ideology even though it provides a good study in contrasting approaches to ways of thinking involving scientific observation. And, if one is agnostic about such things, it can be considered as valid as any other way in which to classify the animal world. I mean, what animal does not look like a fly when seen from a long way off?

Given the possibility of variance in observable classification, many taxonomies developed by scientific indigenous cultures are founded on ideologies based on reproducible facts. These are different than myths and legends derived from, tangental to or substitutive of observable natural phenomena. The methods used to develop indigenous science ideologies may not be exactly those of the “West,” but in the measure that explain and in some cases predict the physical world they can be considered to be a type of scientific ideology. They originate in the mind in order to explain material reality and therefore share the same ideational origins of those in the West. This shared value can be called positivism or objectivism—the grounding of explanation in concrete material facts. Everything after that is a question of which approach is more accurate or best explains a given phenomenon.

Social ideologies are less precise than scientific ideologies when it comes to methodological foundations. The emphasis of social ideologies is not on categorising observable, reproducible and predictable phenomena over time (even if some so-called social sciences attempt to do so by replicating quasi-scientific methodologies). Social ideologies seek to explain the connection between actual and preferred human society. The posit the relationship between the real and the ideal, what is and what should be, and the penalties for transgression. They are, in other words, normative in nature.

They can be religious (to include atheism as a belief in the negation of divinity) or secular. Since religious ideologies reduce human agency to subordination to Divine will, they will be not be elaborated upon here. Suffice to say that like all social ideologies they are a means of imposing social conformity and control, ostensibly under Godly direction. I shall leave it at that.

Secular social ideologies can be divided into political ideologies like Fascism, Marxism, Leninism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Maoism, Communism, Social Democracy, National Populism and anarchism; economic ideologies such as socialism, capitalism and variants such as neoliberalism, welfare statism, market capitalism or state capitalism; managerial ideologies like Fordism and Taylorism and their sub-groups; cultural ideologies like feminism, vegetarianism, racism, (whatever its particular manifestation), speciesism, communitarianism, ecologism and environmentalism; artistic such as cubism, surrealism, impressionism and many other variants to “plastic” expression—the list of approaches to interpreting social reality is not meant to be exhaustive as to type of human endeavour or approaches to them but to illustrate that all “schools of thought” are just that—someone thought them up in order to explain (at least some aspects of) human behaviour.

Think about how we conceive of work, play, sports, commodification (which itself is ideational derived from larger ideas), the calendar versus 40 hour week, etc. This is not given by nature. It is thought up by people trying to understand and gain some measure of control over the world around them.

This may all seem like high school philosophy 101 or David Seymour regaling members of the Lindsay Perigo appreciation society during a circle group-grip youth session about the finer points of Ann Rand’s thought, but the point here is to reinforce the fact that how we view the world is a product of the imagination. It is in a sense a subjective interpretation—even if scientific–of the world around us given the constraints of human physiology, intellect and consciousness. The subjective assessment of objective phenomena is especially true for social ideologies. What differentiates between the latter is not their origins (in the human mind) but in the consequences of their application.

For example, consider collectivist versus individualist conceptualizations of the preferred social order. One starts with the assumption that the individual matters more than the collective or vice versa, and everything that follows originates with that idea. These ideological starting points are value neutral. It is in their application in real life where they acquire positive or negative worth. In other words, the idea(s) behind a given “ism” may be all be equally good in intent or neutral in principle, but it is in their implementation and outcomes where their differences are most heavily felt.

That is what make social ideologies “good” or “bad” in the subjective eye. The more holistic they are, the more prescriptive they are, the more comprehensive and certain that they claim to be, the more controlling that they will be. The more controlling they are, the more dictatorial their implementation given the variety of human opinion on any given subject. The more controlling and authoritarian that ideologies are in practice, the more restrictive of human freedoms they become.

Conversely, the less organizational and prescriptive in focus, the more an ideology becomes a license to excess, disorder and chaos. Again, that is a subjective interpretation based on the value preferences of this author, not any immutable law.

Once we accept the fact that all of how we interpret the world and beyond is rooted in the depths of the imagination, the easier it is to understand that truth is subjective rather than objective. The process is two-fold: first, in the assumptions and methods imagined in order to interpret reality; and second, the prescriptions and conclusions drawn from those interpretations. The assumptions and methods used are pre-modern, modern or post-modern in nature because they are born of the moment in which they are imagined by real people living in real time, even when looking to the future or past. So are their prescriptions and conclusions.

This is what makes me a relativist rather than an absolutist when it comes to social thought. Not that I believe that all ideologies are to be considered intellectually relative to each other or that there are no absolutes in life. I simply understand that when it comes to ideation and ideology, what is relative is the absolute value that we put into any given “ism.”

Ideology as an organising principle.

datePosted on 11:16, January 14th, 2021 by Pablo

For over a decade commentators have noted the rise of a new brand of explicitly ideological politics throughout the world. By this they usually refer to the re-emergence of national populism and avowedly illiberal approaches to governance in the “advanced” democratic community, but they also extend the thought to the post-Soviet and developing world in places like Hungary, Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines. The general notion is that there has been a world-wide turn towards wearing one’s notions of the proper society and approach to governance on one’s sleeve, as it were, and overtly using said approach to impose that particular vision on society.

The phenomenon extends beyond those who govern. This was made abundantly evident in the storming of the US Congress by a pro-Trump mob challenging the presidential election result. They are said to be “highly ideological” in their motivations, which is what drove some to violence in defence of their “convictions” (read: conspiracies) about defending the president in his time of need. In pursuing their version of the truth they were abetted by a wide range of media and politicians as well as the president himself. If anything, their “passion” (read: anger) was motivated by their ideas about what should hold true and what is a danger in American society.

By that token al-Qaeda, Daesh, the Taliban and assorted white surpemacists (some of the latter participants in the Capitol siege) are also truth-seekers and defenders of the proper social order because they too have an explicitly ideological interpretation of how the world should be.

The view that the current world time is particularly “ideological” is shared by those who lament the decline of consensus politics and policy-making neutrality or compromise. For these people the gold standard for democratic societies is multipartisan consensus and objective-technocratic approaches to policy-making and implementation. Here there is little to no room for ideology in politics. Instead, rationality prevails in political argumentation and voters decide between competing policy approaches and logics when choosing their political representatives. Notions of left and right distill into alternative conceptualisations of what is the best way of promoting free, fair and prosperous societies.

This misunderstands the nature of ideology. Ideology is not just a particular political movement or viewpoint. It is not just a rhetorical stand, rallying cry or mobilizational device. It is not just a political phenomenon. It is not merely a policy orientation.

Instead, it is an organising principle for a way of life. Rules to live by, by another name.

Ideology is a human artifice, a social construct conjured in the mind to explain what and who we are, how we live and where we are going as a species and its sub-groups. It is in that sense that humans are ideational–we construct ideas about our existence–and from that we construct ideological frameworks that organize reality over time and specify the relationship between the imaginary and the real. This is why we are both ideational and ideological: We temporarily live as physical beings on a material entity known as Earth, but we imagine the past, present and future possibilities of who we are as a sentient species based on our interpretations of our evolution. We organize our thoughts about different aspects of our existence. From the ideational mind comes ideology.

Since humans are material beings with physical characteristics, ideology organises the relationship of humans to the world in which we live and beyond. Primordially, that includes our relationship to the natural realm, animals, machines, climate, geography, outer space–the gamut of where human endeavour intersects with the cosmos amid and beyond us. We develop ideas about the universe and our immediate physical world and the material relationships we have with all component parts based on the knowledge gained by our collective experience over time. Much of this is done via scientific inquiry, exploration and education, although there are plenty of non- and quasi-scientific explanations floating around as well (e.g. astrology).

In the human ecosystem societies are formed around economic, social and political communities. These communities are bound together by norms, values, principles and mores that together constitute the ideological foundations of the “proper” order. Over time these belief systems are codified into institutions that combine abstract edicts with physical organisations that reproduce the foundational ideology. The more these institutions succeed in inculcating notions of the what is correct and what is transgressive, the more ideology recedes in the mind until it is subjectively interiorised into the subconscious. When that happens people do not need to be told what and what not to do; they just do or don’t.

That helps distinguish between large “I” and small “i” ideologues. Much like large and small “d” democracy, there is a difference between ideology as a social organising construct (small “i”) and ideology as a political belief system (large “I”). One is the meta thought; the other is just a point of view.

Think of it this way. We go about our daily routines according to a set of unwritten and written rules that we spontaneously abide by. We get up, wash, eat and dress in certain ways using certain implements, go to work via assorted regulated modes of transportation, work prescribed hours in designated spaces designed to encourage productivity, shop and seek leisure pursuits outside of work according to custom and practice, and return to our designated places of private shelter in order to rest. The precise nature of this routine is generally the same across societies and countries even if cultural mores add specificity to customary practice.

From birth to death, dawn to dusk, year to year, we operate under a set of norms, practices, procedures and values that have not emerged spontaneously out of the ether, but which have been developed by humans to assign consistency, efficiency, stability and predictability to individual and social life. None of this is explicitly political. It is just the way in which things are done thanks to trial and error, custom and practice improved by invention and innovation and practiced over time.

The impact of ideology on human perception and consciousness is captured well by Antonio Gramsci. As someone who understood the relative autonomy of the superstructure from the economic base, Gramsci noted the power of ideas in framing and reproducing society. He wrote that what made some ideologies “hegemonic” was that, while they originated from the minds of elites defending their privilege, they became accepted and embedded in the minds of subordinate groups as the way things are meant to be. This subjective interiorisation by subordinate groups of what began as a set of dominant group ideas is what gave them power as a social construct and made it all the more harder to offer “counter-hegemonic” ideas against them (particularly when the flow of social information is controlled by elites who dominate the political and economic status quos). As he wrote, elite ideology is hegemonic when it “descends through a complex tissue of vulgarisations in order to emerge as common sense.”

The specific ideology used for social organising purposes can be one of many: religious, political, scientific, economic or some combination thereof. For example, think of the so-called “Protestant Ethos” whereby Christian beliefs are wedded to capitalism, science and patriarchy in order to produce a specific type of (disciplined, repressed, hierarchical) society. Or the notion of the “Socialist Man” that also seeks, via the imposition of economic equality of opportunity and reward, societal value transformation in pursuit of the commonweal. This points to the fact that because it is a human construct ideology can differ between communities and over time even as it addresses the same set of basic social concerns.

Ideologies can also start with limited scope but then expand into an all-encompassing world-view. Consider the case of so-called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism started as a type of monetarist economic theory championed by Milton Friedman and the other “Chicago Boys” associated with the University of Chicago Economics Department. Simplified, its fundamental premise was that finance capital was the highest form of capital and should lead investment decisions on both the national and international level. Financiers are the best determinants of where productive assets should be allocated, so de-regulation of financial markets are the best means of efficiently aggregating resources in a society.

This relatively straight-forward (yet arguable premise) was re-worked and expanded under the so-called “Washington Consensus” whereby reduction of the State role in the economy as a regulator and direct producer (via more de-regulation and privatisation of public assets) became part of the project. This led to pushes to privatise health, insurance, welfare and educational systems. The logic that unregulated private markets knew best grew into the belief that in an “un-regulated” society individuals became self-interested maximisers of opportunities in the markets in which they operated. Unfettered by rules and regulations about how to pursue economic interests and unprotected by artificial social safety nets constructed by well-meaning but ultimately ignorant policy elites, they know what is best for themselves. At that point markets clear at the economic, social and political levels as individuals and groups pursue their preferences based on self-interested yet objective criteria. People sort themselves out in the social division of labor depending on their individual ambition and drive.

Over the four decades that variants of “neoliberalism’ have dominated economic policy-making in advanced democracies the impact has spread into ideas about how society and politics should be organised. That meant less horizontal solidarity ties and more vertical, individualistic approaches to collective issues and communitarian concerns. Some of this was the result of deliberate policy reform, such as the assault on union rights in places like NZ in the 1990s. Others were a trickle down consequence of the hyper-individualisation of social discourse. Successive generations of young people have been inculcated in the neoliberal ethos and become increasingly accepting of the view that charity and empathy begin at home, with the self, rather than with the community.

Needless to say, much is questionable about the neoliberal premise and its subsequent extension into all aspects of human life. Issues like incomplete access to information, unequal resource allocation and opportunity structures, collective versus individual right and responsibilities, etc., are largely ignored or downplayed in the neoliberal mind. And yet it has prevailed and become the dominant ideology in western democracies in chelate 20th and early 21st centuries.

The larger point is that what started out as an economic ideology has morphed over forty years into an approach to social organisation as a whole.

Understanding this puts discussion of recent political trends into better perspective. The move to national-populism in places like the US, Brasil or Hungary is a shift in the value components and rank ordering of priorities in the affected societies. These moves are restorative rather than transformative and designed to re-assert or reaffirm a socio-economic status quo that is perceived to be under siege. Although mobilizational in its appeal, it is not any more ideological than any other political belief system. To claim so is like saying that a person with a megaphone is more erudite than a person at a lectern.

For those of us who see much wrong in the current systems of economic production, exchange and distribution as well as in forms of social and political domination (even in supposedly democratic societies), the key to effective resistance and reform is understanding the power of ideology as an organising principle. Because only then can we see the primary multiple and overlapping trenches in which power must be engaged. Arguments about whether or not politics is more ideological today than they were ten or twenty years ago only detract from that fundamental concern.

Blog Link: Is all against enough?

datePosted on 12:40, April 12th, 2010 by Pablo

This month’s Word from Afar essay focuses on the nature of and differences between proactive and reactive political movements, with particular reference to the Tea Party movement.