Political ideologies are systems of thought that we use to orient ourselves politically in “mass society.” They aren’t very old, actually, as they date from the 1600s at the earliest. Ideologies perform the vital function of allowing many different people in a democracy to agree on a few key concepts, allowing them to vote in elections and support particular politicians and parties. There are, broadly speaking, three ideologies:
- liberalism – the first ideology, which emerged in the UK in the 17th and 18th centuries
- conservatism – the most amorphous ideology which emerged as a counter to liberalism but is best defined contextually in relation to the other two ideologies
- socialism – originally a hybrid of liberal and conservative views.
Though we live in a world where these three ideologies have mutated greatly and would be, in some cases, unrecognizable to their earliest supporters, we still all adhere to these traditions today (again, broadly speaking). And that’s a problem.
Why are Ideologies Problematic?
Ideologies help us form opinions on a wide range of issues and help us identify those who share some of these opinions with us so that we can participate in our democratic processes. Without ideology, we might not be able to agree on parties or candidates. But ideologies are not philosophies or political theories. They are not internally consistent. They are, if anything, the opposite.
The grand normative philosophies of politics – how societies and governments should be run – are called political theories. There are liberal political theories, conservative political theories, socialist political theories and many, many political theories that predate these divisions or exist outside of them. 1 These theories strive to show how the world should be run, according to a set of concepts, beliefs, and assumptions. But even the most well thought out political theory is not entirely consistent or coherent. (Each and every political theory was invented by humans, after all.) Moreover, the vast majority of political theories are conceived of primarily as thought experiments, meaning that putting a political theory into practice is fraught with unforeseen difficulties as a matter of course.
Ideologies are not political theories. At best, they are bastardized, watered-down versions of political theory but, more often than not, they are actually combinations of bastardized, watered-down versions of multiple, often contradictory political theories. Why is that? Well, most of us are not political theorists or philosophers just like most churchgoers are not theologians. In fact, you can think of ideologies as lay organized religions to political theorists’ theologians. That’s actually not a particularly crazy comparison, as there is a long history of thinking of ideology as religion within political “science,” albeit “secularized” religion. 2
We like to think of ourselves as rational actors. Well, okay, only economists and some (misguided) political theorists like to think of humans as “rational actors” but we still like to believe that we think rationally about the choices we make. We believe we make calculated decisions when shopping, when planning vacations, when switching jobs and, of course, when we vote in elections. And that’s where the problem lies with ideologies. We believe we are making rational choices when we vote, but we’re actually making highly irrational decisions based on our ideological adherence. These choices are irrational because our ideology is irrational; it’s a religion, not a philosophy, no matter what we tell ourselves.
The most blatant example of irrational ideology is neo-conservatism. Though it is far from alone in its internal incoherence, neo-conservatism is possibly the most egregious example of the internal incoherence of ideologies. To wit: the average neo-conservative believes in a deregulated economy and a highly regulated social and moral world with, for the elites at least, an interventionist foreign policy to make the world more moral. As I like to parody it: everyone should be like us (even other countries!) morally and socially, but we should allow complete freedom in economics! (Or: Government! Stay out of my life! …when it comes to economics, but actually tell me how to live otherwise, please.) This only makes sense to neo-cons. One explanation as to the increased polarization of politics in western democracies is that adherents of one ideology cannot relate to the other, because of stuff like this. As a liberal, how can I possibly understand the rationale of the neo-con? It breaks my brain.
But what is true of neo-conservatism is true of pretty much every ideology ever invented:
- Classical liberalism: desires freedom from state power in all areas, except where government intervention is warranted, and for all people, except for those atheists, who cannot be trusted
- Early toryism: basically, if it already exists, it’s good, probably, but if it’s new, it’s not, probably
- Early socialism: much early socialism was actually fantastical in the sense of imagining fantasy lands
- Communism: the world is driven by historical forces, not people, but people still have to do their part, sooner rather than later
- Democratic socialism: by participating in the flawed, corrupt, unequal system we will make the world equal and just
- Millian liberalism: human beings should be allowed to be free except when they should not be
- Libertarianism: no government! Except, you know, that governments should exist to protect the state and enforce arbitrary justice on otherwise free citizens
- “Modern” liberalism: Millian liberalism to the nth degree: human beings should be allowed to be free except when they need to be forced to be free
- Neo liberalism: capitalism and liberal democracy are civilizing and pacifying forces so we need to export them using military power (and don’t forget to kill some people in the process)!
The Danger of Ideology
Maybe secular religions aren’t a problem. After all, most contemporary religious people have refrained from the worst behaviours of religious adherents of the past. But what concerns me isn’t that ideological adherents have essentially religious beliefs about politics. I think that’s just a fact of mass society that we’ll never overcome. What concerns me is that many ideological adherents have millenarian views about politics. What does that even mean?
Millenarian is the polite, academic word for apocalyptic. I choose to use millenarian because it doesn’t come with the same end-of-the-world connotations, nor the connotations of violence, that apocalyptic does. Millenarian sects of all three major western, monotheist religions have striven to create heaven on earth. We are getting a full dose of a few right now, with ISIS/ISIL and other Muslim groups being perhaps the most violent of these we’ve seen, certainly in recent memory. But millenarianism is not confined to Islam. Rather, the millenarianism within our ideological traditions is very much a Christian heritage. That is the subject of a book (Main Currents of Marxism, for example), but the short version is our ideologies are really millenarian Christianity with the religion removed:
- most liberal ideologies want to create a free world, where the cumulative actions of everyone in society are a net positive (more modern versions of liberalism have focused on justice, in addition to or instead of freedom)
- most conservative ideologies want to move the world back to a time that has just recently passed but, in reality, never existed (so it is a millenarian future as well)
- most socialist ideologies want to create an equal world (that is also just).
Most variants of these three ideologies have at least some adherents who are willing to accomplish this through violence. 3
Why Do We Believe in Millenarian Ideologies?
We’re supposedly rational creatures yet the ideologies most of us subscribe to in modern mass politics are really just secularized versions of apocalyptic Christianity. Why would we support such unrealistic, irrational goals?
Well, one explanation is the Just World Fallacy, the belief that most of us westerners hold that the world is actually a fair place. In the 1960s, a group of psychologists discovered that, despite our faithfulness to the cliche “life isn’t fair” most of us in the West actually believe the world is fair, specifically that it is fair towards us. When we see injustice in the world that forces us to confront the reality of a world that is not fair, we get mad. This has all sorts of unpleasant consequences, the worst of which is victim blaming.
In the case of ideologies, the fallacy expresses itself in a longing for a return to a just world. It’s the belief that the just world should exist (or did exist, in the case of some variants of conservatism and socialism) but hasn’t been allowed to because…
- for classical liberals, the world is prevented from being just because of hereditary monarchy and other traditional laws that prevented people from being free (for modern liberals, a just world also needs correct state intervention to help people be more free and more equal)
- for conservatives, they initially didn’t believe the world could be just; however cross pollination from socialism and liberalism has led to believing the world is prevented from being just because of the enlightenment (in the 19th century), immorality (in the 20th century and to the present) and interventionist governments (only in the last few decades)
- for socialists, the world is prevented from being just because of both the traditions that the classical liberals attacked and the results of the success of liberalism, namely capitalism and equality under the law (which socialists see as unjust).
In all cases except for the original Tory conservatives, the assumption is that the world could be made just (and the assumption among both conservatives and socialists is that there was a time when it was just). This is dangerous for two reasons.
The first is the obvious one: the world is not fair. It’s not that the world is unfair – which, I guess, is true in its way – but it’s that the world existed before human beings invented the concept of fairness. The world is, and the human concept of fairness is something we’ve imposed on something that cannot be either. We humans can try to make human institutions fair, but that will always be a work in progress; institutions will always be as flawed as the people who created them. Human beings have different, competing concepts of fairness because fairness is an invention. It’s up to figure out how human-created things can be more fair, more just, but the world itself is not fair nor just and never will be. It cannot be made just.
But the other reason ideologies that attempt to make the world just are dangerous is because of blaming others. If you believe the world should be fair, could be fair and/or used to be fair, there is a reason (or there are many reasons) why it is not currently fair. And that reason is almost always “The Other,” i.e. people who are different from you because of their skin colour, their ethnicity, their culture, their religion, their political beliefs or, in some cases, even their gender. The belief in a just world allows us to believe two terrible things about The Other: The first is that “they” are in the way of our just world; they are preventing the just world from being realized. “They” must be moved out of the way for us to get to earthly paradise. The second reason is that “they” do not know how to follow the rules of the just society. So even if “they” are not in our way, they are incapable of following the rules and so they need to be dispensed with. Both things are entirely justifiable if the end goal is a fair and just society.
It is because of these two reasons that the result of the more extreme attempts to make the world just is often genocide. We can see this in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, with the Nazis, with numerous other mass movements to make the world just and, of course, with ISIS/ISIL. In the latter’s case, it’s The West that has prevented the world from being just and it is just in The West who are incapable of understanding the spiritual rules of the world and must be dispensed with. I don’t know about you, but if I have to pick between accepting that the world is not actually just and participating in a murderous rampage to eliminate a particular group I don’t like, I’ll take the former. But even in less extreme conditions, there is still extreme ideological polarization: in the US, conservatives think liberals and the state are getting in the way of justice, liberals think conservatives’ idiocy is getting in the way of justice. If the world can be made just, this implicitly assumes punishment for some segment of society. In the US, many conservatives believe that punishment for liberals will come in the afterlife but some believe that it should happen now (say, for doctors who perform abortions, or for black people); liberals believe in re-educating the conservatives, some likely believe this should be done forcibly.
Toryism – i.e. early British conservatism, or Burkeianism – is a guide here. These conservatives believed the world was imperfect as one of their fundamental tenets. This is a belief that is sorely lacking from just about every ideology today. The problem is that, whether you believe the world is just or can be made just (or used to be just), you are still falling victim to the just world fallacy. The Tories were wrong about many things – they wanted to preserve many traditions that now we would balk at – but they were right about the world not being a perfect place. The world is not perfect and cannot be made perfect. This is something that we should acknowledge to ourselves each and every day. I am not perfect. You are not perfect. We are not perfect. Nothing we make can be perfect.
It is up to us to support practical solutions to real world problems. But if we believe that the world is just, or we can make the world just – through violence of all things – we will always have a world that is worse than it could be, because we will be making it worst under the illusion that making it worse will somehow make it better.
- For example, Ancient Greek political theories all predate the modern nation state and, therefore, ideology, and so should not be viewed in ideological terms. ↩
- See The Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kolakowski or the work of Eric Voegelin. ↩
- The one major exception is early British conservatism, also known as toryism. Toryism pined for the past but focused more on incremental changes now, rather than sweeping changes that would remake the world. ↩