The 2010 UK general election witnessed the return of ideology to the centre stage of British political debate. It returned, however, in a curious way: curious, at least, for students of political ideologies. While, for the majority of the twentieth century, UK politics was ideologically driven, such that it was relatively uncontroversial to map socialist, conservative and liberal ideologies on to the major political parties, since the 1990s British politics has seen a gradual shift away from this simple correlation. Most notably with the arrival of New Labour, British political debate began to replace its distinctive ideological flavours with populist political programmes that claimed to appeal to everyone’s tastes. While traditional party political divisions remained strong, these were no longer motivated by deep ideological disputes. Yet, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, we began to hear of ideology again but with a significantly different meaning.
During the 2010 election campaign, in particular, each of the major parties accused the others of proposing ideological solutions to the problems engendered by the crisis. While in the past it was expected that each party should have an ideological position, to have an ideological solution to this crisis was to be accused of failing the British public; ideology became a term of abuse. Consider this example from Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the then Labour government, speaking just before they were ousted: ‘The Tories did not look at the facts or the dangers. They were driven by ideology’ (speech delivered 28/04/2010). And this example from Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats at the time: ‘good economics has been crowded out by political dogma’ (speech delivered 16/03/2010). The ground of the debate had shifted: it was not about which political ideology would provide the best solution; rather it was about which solutions were ideological and which were not. Those that were thought to be ideological were said to serve the interests of only a section of society, and those that were not were said to serve the interests of ‘the whole British public’. It is a theme that has continued since the general election of 2010. David Cameron put it plainly when he stated: ‘I’m not interested in ideological arguments about intervention versus laissez faire. I want an industrial strategy that works’ (speech delivered 21/11/2011). As we will see, using the term ‘ideology’ in this way, to mean a body of ideas that must be false and dangerous because they express the interests of only a section of society, has an almost Marxist ring to it. Out of the ruins of ideological political debate, therefore, there has returned an idea of ideology that many had thought had been left firmly behind. Something curious has indeed happened. To understand this, and related phenomena, it is necessary to chart developments within and between political ideologies, but it is also necessary to understand the ways in which the term ‘ideology’ has changed its meaning.
While the aim of this book is to map the ideological landscape by drawing out the contours of the major ideologies that continue to shape our social and political environment, it is the aim of this introduction to expose the geological shifts and tensions of the ground that political ideologies rest upon by examining the meaning of ideology itself. As we dig through the topsoil of political
ideologies, the first thing we discover is that they all rest upon three interlocking strata that give them shape at any particular moment: these are the empirical, normative
dimensions of all political ideologies. The empirical layer is the description of the realities of social and political life that we find within each political ideology. The normative layer is an account of how that reality could be bettered: that is, of the rules and standards that we ought to employ in government, given the perceived political realities. We find the practical layer when we come across the strategies and policies that relate to the transformation of political realities in accordance with the normative ideals each political ideology articulates. It is worth saying a little more about each of these layers before delving any further into the changing and contested meanings of the term ‘ideology’.
The empirical dimension of political ideologies helps us to make sense of the complex social world in which we live. Each political ideology provides a description of society – an intellectual map – which enables us to locate ourselves in the social landscape. Liberals, for example, tend to treat the social and political world as made of individuals who, even if they act together, remain first and foremost defined by their individuality. Political life, on this account, is best understood as a series of individual choices and decisions about how we should get along together. Socialists, particularly those of a more radical or Marxist persuasion, often view social and political life in terms of class conflict. Accordingly, it is not the actions of individuals but the ways in which social classes are brought into conflict by economic imperatives beyond the control of any one individual that define politics. Every ideology, we can say, embodies an account of the basic elements and core dynamic that constitutes and propels political life.
While providing a description of social reality, ideologies also embody a set of political ideals aimed at detailing the best possible form of social organisation. Along with a map of reality comes a set of norms about how we should behave politically: a map that is at its most striking when these norms cohere into a full-blown picture of an ideal society. Nationalists, for instance, view the nation as the form of political organisation ideally suited to the recognition of the deep-seated connections between people who share a sense of place, a common history and certain forms of social and cultural expression. Many ecologists, however, see the nation as a barrier to the kind of global perspective that informs their vision of a democratic and sustainable society that affords respect to the idea that humans are first and foremost an intimate part of the natural world. In general, then, every ideology provides both an account of existing social and political relations and a description of how these relations ought to be organised for the betterment of all.
Each political ideology also contains within it a set of strategies and policies about how to move the current political situation in the direction of its vision of the good, or even ideal, society. This practical dimension links the descriptive and the normative in ways that often cause tensions within and between political ideologies. Certain feminists may share with socialists a broadly egalitarian
agenda but argue that this will not be realised unless women can first organise in consciousness-raising groups that allow them to determine their own vocabulary without interference from male-dominated discourse. Conservatives may share a distrust of strongly utopian politics and they may agree on the importance of national political traditions, yet they may disagree about whether or not the appeal to tradition is sufficient to ward off what they perceive to be the dangerous outcomes of more radical political ideologies. Whilst we can accept that all ideologies have their own particularities, what they commonly share is that their empirical, normative and practical dimensions are intimately interlocking elements that can be difficult to distinguish: difficult, but not impossible, as the following chapters make clear.
Beyond these initial shared features, the concept of ideology can be difficult to get to grips with, not the least because the meaning of ideology is hard to disentangle from the philosophical traditions that have shaped the modern world. A good place to start, on that basis, is a brief history of the term, thereby enabling us to lend substance to what otherwise may seem to be a rather intangible concept. Following this brief history the discussion will turn to Michael Freeden’s Ideologies and Political Theory (1996), arguably the most significant development in ideology theory in recent years. In response to a series of key questions about the nature of ideology, the penultimate section will bring into view some of the conceptual tensions that underlie the study of ideology. The conclusion will dwell upon how these geological explorations help us make sense of the return of ideology to the centre stage of the national (and, indeed, global) political landscape.
The emergence of the idea of ideology is indissociable from the complex and multifaceted processes that created the modern Western world. From the last days of the Roman Empire to the sixteenth century, a period of roughly 1,000 years, a mix of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology dominated the social, political and intellectual climate of the Western world. Moreover, this combination of classical philosophy and ‘other-worldly’ theology was deeply entwined with political hierarchies that served the interests of powerful church leaders, feudal lords and ‘divine’ monarchs. These mutually sustaining forces created a world wherein superstitions and prejudices were deeply rooted in people’s minds. In his magnum opus, Novum Organon
, Francis Bacon, an English polymath of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, referred to these ‘false notions’ as ‘idols’ and ‘phantoms’. Only proper scientific method, he concluded, could disentangle truth from error. The onset of modernity in the West, therefore, is the period of intense transformation during which these interlocking forces and the distorted beliefs they bolstered began to wane as scientific method replaced old sources of knowledge. In all areas of life, the established order of things was no longer taken for granted; the West witnessed
the rise of new industries, new philosophical ideas and new forms of political organisation.
These processes of modernisation, including industrialisation, rationalism and secularisation, together with growing dissent from traditional sources of authority and knowledge, came to a climax in the great upheaval of the eighteenth century: the French revolution. It was in the midst of this attempt to overthrow the ancien régime and replace it with a new rational system of government based on the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity that the term ‘ideology’ emerged. Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836), in whose writings it first appears, had been a key player in the revolution, only to find himself imprisoned with the onset of the Terror in 1793–94. It was in his cell that he began to formulate an approach to the rational study of ideas that he called ideology (from idea/ology). As Eagleton has put it, ‘the notion of ideology was thus brought to birth in thoroughly ideological conditions’ (1991: 66).
For de Tracy the aim of ideology was to establish a solid and unquestionable method to distinguish true from false ideas. The overall aim of this project was to foster the use of reason in the governance of human affairs for the betterment of society as a whole. In other words, the father of ideology shared the ultimate goal of the Enlightenment movement, namely to shed light on the dark corners of thought and life for the good of all. True to this revolutionary spirit, his grand science of ideas was thus conceived as the final and only real measure of human intellectual capacity. If Isaac Newton had discovered the laws of gravity, thought de Tracy, why would it not be possible to discover the laws that govern human thought? What was required was a ‘Newton of the science of thought’, a role he saw himself as fulfilling. Upon his release from prison he pursued this grand project as a member of the Institut National, attempting to create a liberal system of national education that would put into practice his science of ideas.
However, as Napoleon came to power and a new nobility emerged in France, the overt rationalism of de Tracy’s science of ideas did not find favour with the increasingly autocratic regime. Napoleon saw a threat to his authority in the thought of de Tracy, and of those who sympathised with him in the Institut National. Their liberal and republican political ideas were to become for Napoleon the source of ‘all the misfortunes that have befallen our beloved France’, and he dismissively labelled these thinkers ‘the ideologues’. Thus, at the very birth of the term, we find that ideology assumed two contrasting meanings: ideology as a scientific method for the discovery of true ideas (de Tracy) and ideology as a set of false, even subversive, ideas (Napoleon). As will become apparent, this dichotomy has dogged the idea of ideology ever since.
While ideology was brought to life in the ferment of the French revolution, it matured under different revolutionary conditions. As technological developments in the productive process increased dramatically and the new factories drew ever more people into the burgeoning cities, the hitherto disjointed progress of economic modernisation escalated into a full-blown industrial revolution. At the head of this revolution was the new breed of capitalists who owned the means of production and the economists and philosophers who justified
their headlong rush towards ever-increasing profit. It was the well-documented hardships that capitalism wrought on its workforce that provided the impetus and context for a new attempt at demarcating the ideological realm found, famously, in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
The first truly collaborative work of Marx and Engels was The German Ideology, most of which was written in 1845–46, although it was published only posthumously in 1932, after their failure to find a publisher and their subsequent decision to leave the manuscript to ‘the gnawing criticism of the mice’. The full text of this work contains long and detailed criticisms of Marx and Engels’s contemporaries in German philosophy: in particular, Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. The aim of the critique was to expose the false premises upon which these thinkers and others of the German tradition had built their philosophical edifices:
Hitherto men have constantly made up for themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations. Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under their yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts … the present publication has the aim of uncloaking these sheep, who take themselves and are taken for wolves; of showing how their bleating merely imitates in a philosophic form the conceptions of the German middle class; how the boasting of these philosophic commentators only mirrors the wretchedness of the real conditions in Germany.
Amidst this stinging critique it is possible to discern the various features of ideology already discussed. First, there is a reiteration, although probably unwittingly, of the Baconian notion of ‘phantoms’, of illusions deeply rooted in the human mind. Second, the radical spirit of Enlightenment, the pursuit of truth in the face of error, shines through their condemnation of existing German philosophy. Third, Marx and Engels conduct their critique with all the vitriol of Napoleon’s attack on the ‘ideologues’ and are similarly concerned that erroneous ideas spell disaster for national and political culture. Yet within The German Ideology
there is also a new position on the idea of ideology, namely that false ideas are false precisely because they reflect class interests, in this case the interests of the German middle class, rather than the interests of all. For Marx and Engels, therefore, the only way to remove the ideological frameworks of society is to overcome the contradictions created by conflicting class interests inherent in the economic and social realms. As the Marxist critic Istvan Meszaros puts it, ideology is ‘insurmountable in class societies’ and therefore theoretical reason alone, contra
de Tracy, will not in itself enable us to overcome false ideas about the nature of society (1989: 10–11). For Marx and Engels,
theoretical reason must be allied with revolutionary practice aimed at dissolving class conflict. The contradictions of class-based societies must be overcome in practice if the reign of false ideas is to be destroyed once and for all.
If we combine this new account of how erroneous ideas emerge with the claim made by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848) that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’ (2000: 246), then we can discern a theory of how it is that any particular society at any particular time comes to have the ideas about itself that it does. Ideology, in this sense, is no longer simply a science for the generation of true ideas, or simply a set of false and dangerous ideas, but a general theory of how ideas emerge from the material base of social and economic conditions. It is, therefore, an account of how the dominant ideas of our age have come to be so dominant by virtue of their relationship to developments in the economic sphere. It is in this sense that Marx and Engels, particularly in their later writings, view liberalism: as an ideology that blinds the populace to the excesses of capitalist exploitation while also maintaining that liberalism itself is sustained by the economic forces at work within the capitalist mode of production. The intimate link between liberalism and capitalism maintains the ...