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.