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The Passion of Politics
The Role of Ideology and Political Theory In Australia
By Lindy Edwards
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2013 Lindy Edwards
All rights reserved.
VALUES, BELIEFS AND IDEOLOGIES
'We need more values in politics! We want politicians with vision. We need politics with strong ethical convictions!' This refrain echoes through the Australian community. We crave leaders with a clear ethical view. We want people with a strong sense of the society to which they aspire and who act on their beliefs. Yet at the same time that we lament a lack of values, we are deeply suspicious of ideology. Ideology is a dirty word: it is an attack, a critique and a put-down to describe someone as being ideological. We don't want people to stick rigidly to ideological values; we don't want them to pursue an ideological agenda and put in place an ideological view of the world. So why is this and what is the difference?
THREE SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT ON IDEOLOGY
To understand why we embrace values but shun ideology, we need to pin down what ideology is and how it is different. Depending on your age and your politics, the word 'ideology' will conjure up slightly different meanings. There have been three major waves of thinking about ideology. They emerged in different historical periods, though they are all kicking around and remain part of contemporary debate today. It is useful to identify the different meanings, and then to develop a middle-ground approach so we are all on the same page. From there we can start to unpack how ideology differs from values and beliefs.
Karl Marx in the 1840s
The first wave of thinking about ideology is associated with Karl Marx. He made the term famous when he published The German Ideology in the 1840s. He argued that an ideology is a system of beliefs that legitimates the way society is organised. Ideology makes the way society works seem natural, inevitable and just. He argued that these ideas led ordinary people to accept the distribution of power, opportunity and wealth. They drove people to accept their place in the pecking order. He argued that ideologies enlisted the disempowered in being complicit in their own oppression.
Marx was writing as the old aristocratic order of feudalism was being replaced by capitalism. He saw ideology as being at work in both social systems. He described how the old aristocratic system was based on the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Religious teaching provided a rationale for the feudal hierarchy. The king was closest to God, then there were aristocrats and nobles, then merchants, labourers, and at the bottom of the pack the heathens. People were urged to respect the authority of their betters, and to accept their lot in life. People were told that if they accepted the burdens of poverty they would be rewarded in the next life. Marx famously described religion as the 'opium of the people' because he argued that these beliefs led people to tolerate great injustice.
For Marx, capitalism — with its ideology of liberalism — was no better. Liberalism touted the benefits of individual freedom; it was all about free markets and free trade. It sang the praises of the benefits of personal autonomy, self-reliance and individual choice. It was supposed to be delivering people the freedom to pursue their own life course. How people's lives turned out was deemed to be of their own doing. Your place in the world was a product of your drive, your talents and your own hard work.
However, for Marx liberalism allowed capitalists to encroach on the traditional turf of the aristocrats. They were able to expand their business empires, find new trade routes and make greater inroads into securing political power. However, he argued, it was delivering ordinary people into the world of Dickens' terrifying tales. For most people, it was a life of squalor and misery with whole families working 70-hour weeks in dangerous, cramped, poorly ventilated factories. For Marx, the new liberal order, with its doctrine of individual freedom, was an exercise in false consciousness. It was a set of deluded beliefs that had been conjured up by the ruling classes to justify a social system that worked to their advantage. But the beliefs bore no resemblance to what was actually occurring. They provided a rationale for a society that was deeply unjust, and told the poor their suffering was their own fault.
Marx did not see the development of ideologies as a deliberate conspiracy. He saw it as the natural outcome of how the world worked. He argued that only the wealthy had the time and money to generate cultural stories about society. They were the ones who wrote the books, the music, studied the philosophy and ran the education system. It was inevitable that they would develop ideas that explained and justified why they were the leaders of society. It was equally inevitable that they would develop stories that painted the poor as inferior and as deserving of their lesser lot in life.
Marx believed that ideology would dissolve and be replaced by truth once oppression was defeated and equality secured. He believed that if the ruling class was done away with, it would no longer exist to create these false beliefs. In a society in which everyone was genuinely equal, the ideas and beliefs of society would reflect the truth.
Bell and the liberal approach in the 1950s
The second wave of thinking about ideology emerged in the 1950s, and describes the 1800s as the age of ideology. It argues that in the 1800s Western societies turned away from religion and tradition as the basis of our beliefs about human communities. We turned increasingly to science and reason to develop explanations of how the social world worked. The great schools of philosophy came to the fore in providing insights into our communities. The leading intellectuals sought to offer up analyses of human nature and of societies, and to explore how we should all live. These ideas from social science and philosophy increasingly underpinned how we organised our societies.
However, these political theories of the 1800s were not just neutral, passive or even descriptive intellectual analyses of the world. They were ideas aimed at changing the world. They offered up critiques of the existing society and developed visions of new utopian societies they argued we could achieve. They told stories about the deep underlying dynamics of how societies functioned. They exposed oppression and injustice. They argued that historical processes were at work that would transform human societies for the better.
These ideologies sought to enlist supporters to be foot soldiers in transforming society. Liberalism, socialism and fascism are all examples of such ideologies. Liberalism had begun as a great reforming movement to challenge the aristocratic system. Socialism was a great reforming movement aimed at challenging capitalism. Fascism was also a reforming movement, aimed at what it believed to be restoring countries to their former glory. In each case, the ideologues held that through conscious change we could create new and better societies.
Advocates of this second wave of thinking were also very sceptical about ideologies. Daniel Bell, an American writing in the 1950s, argued that those who were trying to change the world were dangerous ideologues. He argued that his own existing society was a product of common sense. But he saw those trying to drive social change and create new utopias as enamoured with theoretical models of the world. He argued that the intellectual nature of ideologies made them prone to creating human misery.
The critiques were based on the devastating failures of the most extreme ideological experiments of the twentieth century. Bell was writing in the wake of World War II, when Hitler's fascist ambitions had just brought death and devastation to much of the world. The great cities of Europe had been reduced to rubble. Millions were dead. People were reduced to nothing, having lost their industries, their homes, their families and their loved ones. This horror was then multiplied by the Holocaust. The world was appalled by the brutality and the extraordinary extremes to which Hitler had gone to achieve his vision.
By the early 1950s, disturbing stories were also starting to come out of Russia and China about the communist experiments. In the decades after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, infighting had often been justified in ideological terms. There was a tendency towards 'cleansing' people who were 'wrong thinking'. By the 1950s, Stalin had taken it to a wild extreme in his desperate efforts to hold on to absolute power. He was estimated to have killed 50 million people in the process. In the 1950s in China, the first great experiment after the revolution also claimed millions of lives. The first audacious experiment with centralised planning — the 'Great Leap Forward' — failed. When the administration fell short, tens of millions of Chinese people starved in a great famine.
Bell argues that these catastrophes happened because people were unrealistically focused on creating unachievable utopias. The intellectual nature of the ideologies led to purist intolerance, doctrinal splits and the cleansing of people who were deemed 'wrong thinking'. The focus on intellectual rigour meant that they became divorced from reality, leading to practical disasters.
While Bell's account described international disasters, his arguments were targeted at the more moderate political forces at home. In describing campaigners for social change as ideologues, he sought to attack and delegitimise their campaigns for social justice. Pushes for universal health care were dubbed as ideologically driven social engineering at risk of catastrophes of Maoist proportions. He argued that the status quo was a product of practical reason and common sense, but that his opponents' ideas were dangerous.
Constructivism and the 1970s
The third wave of thinking about ideology is associated with constructivism. While both Marx and Bell drew a distinction between ideological beliefs and truth, constructivists questioned the divide. They began to equate ideology with culture, arguing that the world was so vast and complex that any human attempt to get a grasp on it was only ever a partial interpretation. All knowledge was only ever capturing a sliver of social reality. It is because we only ever see part of the picture that different cultures can come to understand the world differently.
Nonetheless, constructivists argued that these partial beliefs were the very backbone of our societies. Some, such as anthropologist Clifford Geertz, argued that humans are born with very few instincts. Instead, we store the knowledge we need to survive in our culture. Children are taught cultural beliefs as they grow up. These beliefs map the way we understand the world. They shape how we understand the natural environment, our communities and even ourselves. They also guide us on how to live. Our cultures equip each of us with a detailed etiquette code for how someone like us is supposed to behave. They teach us strategies for navigating our world. Through acting in accordance with our cultural ideas, we create our societies and communities.
Constructivists saw these cultural beliefs as both empowering and limiting. They guide us on how to live, but they also limit and channel the ways in which we can live. We find it hard to see past our culture and the accepted way of doing things. Constructivists also argued that these cultural beliefs operated as systems of power, conferring privilege and power on some and oppressing others. They argued that Western cultures not only empowered those in the upper classes relative to people in lower classes; they also saw men as having power over women and whites as having power over other races.
Finally, constructivists argued that community life is a constant political struggle, with people jostling over who gets to define the culture. The culture is constantly evolving and changing. Everyone who is part of the culture has some impact on the emerging cultural ways of doing things. They argued that people struggle against one another in trying to define the new social norms — that if you can shape the cultural norms that regulate our society, you can change how the society works and the ways it distributes power and opportunities.
Constructivist ideas developed in the context of liberation movements like feminism. They saw how different cultures had radically different ideas about women and their roles. They explained how different cultural beliefs operated as forms of power that limited women's lives. They explained how the grass-roots feminist movements set out to challenge cultural beliefs about women and to shift community norms. Feminists' campaigns to shift community attitudes and values ultimately led to women being able to take up a much wider range of roles in society, and to have much more power over their financial affairs and their bodies.
A MIDDLE-GROUND APPROACH TO IDEOLOGY
In the wake of such descriptions, it is hardly surprising that ideology has become a dirty word. It has been associated with a litany of catastrophe and injustice. But it is worth unpacking these arguments a little further. These three approaches to ideology circle around the same turf as they battle against one another. We can draw out a number of common threads to sketch out a middle ground. As this less-loaded approach to ideology comes into focus, it clarifies what exactly is being criticised when people attack ideology.
First, a key thread that emerges is that there is a collection of beliefs that act as the social glue in our society. Whether it is Marx's notion of the ideas that legitimate the status quo, Bell's approach of ideas that drive social change or the constructivists' notion of ideas as culture, they all believe ideas are integral to how societies work. They all agree that there are ideas that tell us how society operates, what our role is, and how we should behave — and whether we should be trying to change it. These ideas give us a rationale for why we should live a particular way.
Second, there are vigorous political battles fought over what our belief systems should be. Different groups go head to head trying to define their society's belief systems with the goal of shaping the society. Conservatives, liberals and socialists all clashed in earlier times as they tried to mould our societies. In more recent times, the liberation movements, the free-market devotees and the neo-conservatives have all struggled to push their ideas to the fore and to remake our societies in the process. In each case, they peddled their ideas to try to transform our society.
Third, as Bell argued, the nature of this political struggle has changed since the Enlightenment. About 300 years ago, the way we conducted debates about social beliefs began to change. Older approaches of drawing on religion and tradition as the basis for our beliefs were replaced by an emphasis on science and reason. A great experiment began as we turned increasingly to philosophers and social scientists to develop explanations of how the social world worked and how we could make it work better. They used some of the best social science available to develop the ideas to remake our culture and improve our societies. As a result, ideologies are our best insights into how human societies work, but they were also part of value-laden political struggles over how society should be reshaped. Throughout this battle of ideas, there has been a persistent tendency to deride the schools of thought we disagree with as ideologies. For both Marx and Bell, their ideas were the truth while the dangerous oppressors' ideas were ideology. Constructivists took a more neutral line in suggesting that everyone's ideas were ideology. But generally speaking, in a world where we accept our own beliefs and values to be true, we tend to devalue the beliefs of those with whom we disagree. As we stand confident that our ideas are moral, pragmatic and logical, we see others as unrealistic zealots and purists. This tendency means that we draw a false distinction between celebrating values and beliefs, and dismissing ideologies. An ideology is most usefully understood as a system of ideas and beliefs with which you disagree.
In our quest to understand the values and beliefs at the heart of today's most heated political stoushes, we should not shun ideologies. The great ideologies are part of a 300-year-old enterprise to try to understand how human communities work, and how we can make them work better. They are the most sophisticated theories that we have about how the world works. These important ideas have seeped into the culture and have become part of ordinary people's world-views. When people clash over politics, it is the divides between the ideologies that are being played out.
Excerpted from The Passion of Politics by Lindy Edwards. Copyright © 2013 Lindy Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
Part 1: The foundations,
1 Values, beliefs and ideologies,
Part 2: Forging the Australian tradition,
5 Australia at Federation and the radical democrats,
6 White Australia,
7 Early divisions and 'The three elevens',
8 The birth of Australian egalitarianism,
9 Creating the two-party system,
10 Trends of political debate: Splits and creeping social democracy,
Part 3: 1970s constructivism and liberation movements,
13 Gay rights movement,
14 Aboriginal rights movement,
Part 4: A turn to the right,
16 Neo-liberalism and rational choice theory,
17 1980s economic reforms,
19 A new nationalism,
PART 5: Our future choices,
20 Lessons for the future,
21 Human nature,
22 How we organise ourselves,
23 Environmentalism as a window into future debates,
Selected further reading,