Ideology as an organising principle.

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.

10 thoughts on “Ideology as an organising principle.

  1. Ideologies are marketing tools used by those keen to obtain political power.
    The fresh water economists of Chicago must be so smug that their propaganda rules so much of the globe.

  2. Peter,

    I beg to disagree with your first sentence and in fact the opposite was the point of the post. Although some “narrow” ideologies may be what you say (big I), ideologies (small i) are much more than just a political belief system, and even more so than a marketing tool. What I was trying to convey was that when successfully reproduced over time and subjectively interiorised in the body politic, ideologies become hegemonic in the sense that they are unconsciously and unquestionably adhered to as a way of being. They may start out as narrow conceptions a particular aspect of the social order, such as neoliberalism, but they morph into a transcendent social construct that extends into many other aspects of life. That is the worst part of the neoliberal experiment–it is now a deeply rooted belief system in places like NZ.

  3. I’ve been wondering, since I read you post, Pablo, if the absence of teaching standard ethics in business schools, rather than the practice in the 1980s (in the US at least, probably here and also Europe) of teaching business-ethics exacerbated the slide towards neoliberalism and found its way into the political realm. I remember being shocked many years ago upon hearing that ethics was not being taught at all at some very prestigious US universities and business schools during those turbulent years of the share market crash and into the 90s. But I’ve just read this and wonder if you think there is much correlation between the times and what was being taught (or not taught) in these institutions:

    “Of the three strands, the first, or the ethics-in-business strand, is the most amorphous and the most widespread. This is the sense in which the general public, news reporters and commentators, politicians and many business people tend to use the term. In this sense business ethics is nothing new, although that term was not used to describe it before the 1970s. The strand represents the widely-held belief that ethics applies in business just as it applies in all areas of life. The scandals about bribery, insider trading, false advertising, and the like, the stories about Enron and Arthur Andersen and Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, constitute what is generally regarded as misconduct in business and what the general public associates with business ethics—or more precisely, with the failure of businesses to act ethically. The moral norms that are violated apply to all sections of society. Mention business ethics and you are likely to provoke a story about the misdeeds of some business or some business person. Peter Drucker, a well-known business-management theoretician, was one of those who claimed that there is no such thing as business ethics, only ethics in business. He viewed what he saw as business ethics (Drucker 1981) as different attempts to justify business practices that were clearly immoral by ordinary standards. 2 He was correct in attacking such attempts, but he wrote before the development of the academic field. Most of those in the current academic field agree that ordinary moral rules apply in business just as they do in all other areas of life.”

    I believe that situation has changed now, thankfully, but the scandalous, immoral behaviour of many in business in those days (including here in NZ) has left a lasting legacy both in business and in politics. Trump epitomises the worst of it.

  4. Ethics and education is one thing I just don’t believe that learning to use true power to change the way legislation and society operates can be taught. It all seems to be based on who can do the best half hour stand up press conference without stumbling over words and stuff the rest of the work to win the debating chamber over.

  5. I think that where an understanding of ideology comes in is when it comes to framing the narrative. A long time ago I was involved in an argument that basically went along the lines of “s/he who frames the terms of the debate, wins the debate.” But often what is not said is as important as what is said. In Gramscian terms, everything is permissible so long as it does not “touch the essential” of capitalist ideological control, which is its ownership of the means of production and domination of political life. The so-called “hegemonic debate” is therefore conducted around the margins of what is essential, which remains unquestioned. All you need to do is think about arguments about the living wage, benefits provision and even Covid response to see that all of those involve the margins, not the essence of the system as given.

    Focusing on PR spins and snappy sound bites falls into the trap of not addressing, much less touching the essential. They key, from a counter-hegemonic perspective, is to change the ideological narrative so that a re-framing of the ideological debate can happen. Normally this involves the arduous “war of position” or trench warfare in civil society and the rest of the social division of labour whereby a counter-hegemonic narrative is counter-poised against the hegemonic ideology as it is manifest in each of the trenches of civil society–schools, work, social clubs etc. The idea is to promote a non-elite “good sense” based on shared subordinate group experiences against the elite notions of “common sense” that underpin the ideological regime sustaining their rule.

    If Labour were truly a working class party with class consciousness and a socialist (or at least social democratic) policy praxis underpinning it, it would use its time in government to reframe the ideological narrative dominating NZ society. The move to incorporate “well-being” into budgetary policy is a good step in that direction but not enough. There has to be an open repudiation of market logics as an organising principle for society and, given the limits of possibility, the construction of a hybrid developmental model based on sustainability, egalitarianism and equality of opportunity and reward whereby the State reclaims its role as economic macro-manager and social protector of the most vulnerable.

    Not sure that will happen in my lifetime but it would be a start.

  6. Isn’t the key difference between social democracy, as opposed to socialism, that social democratic ideas do not “touch the essential” of capitalism, while socialist ideas do? Social democracy does not typically involve a repudiation of the market, but simply an attempt to mitigate it or to insulate the vulnerable from its worst aspects.

    Labour hasn’t really been a truly social democratic party since the 1970s, despite Helen Clark’s reification of the 1970s Labour government as a model. But even during the era of Michael Savage and Peter Fraser, when Labour was at its most radical, it still stayed within the framework which Gramsci describes, and left the basic market engine of the economy untouched. It was a social democratic party, and could conceivably be again (although it would be hard), but as a social democratic party it stayed within the framework of the hegemonic debate.

  7. Democracy is, in pared down form, a type of political decision-making. Socialism is a means of control over production and distribution of collective assets (“goods” in places where individual property rights do not take precedence). The two may or may not be combined as a form of social organization (I tend to think that there is an elective affinity between the two but that is by no means a truism). In the best sense, the two combine and reinforce each other in an egalitarian society, but we know how that has panned out in practice.

    Perhaps I should have said democratic socialism rather than social democratic, but in the end the tensions between the two components reduce to how purportedly working class parties, movements and governments confront the realities of operating in a global system in which capitalism is hegemonic by any definition of the term.

  8. Either you love your country with all your sole or not at all. Perhaps the most radical faction going around are hard right extremists. Because there are do many factions now days across the political spectrum from left to right with very real and serious problems of there own no one faction can dominate all. The right are simply suicidal with there total lack of appreciation of the way climate change will reduce New Zealand’s carrying capacity (so population decline due to crop failure) or they just don’t care and will burn more fossil fuels.

    The left on the other hand are making the tactical error of not being able to support and work across intersectional lines. In other leftwing activism (for lack of better words) they might want to dissolve government institutions so there’s no correct response there.

    In another sense the media is very unusual making unfounded allocations towards Tame Iti as a terrorist bomb maker and very limited public displeasure. You’d never hear how some piece of railway track up north needs repairs because oh look those Maaris again or who ever.

    I’m totally glad we have a wide selection of independent bloggers who can publish public discourse where the power of the press fails miserably. For us who are interested and have the time blogs makes sense. For others it would make sense to have worker based newsletters, union media print. And local print news.

  9. AH well if we are instead talking about democratic socialism, then the Labour party has never been a democratic socialist party.

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