Ideology in Our Time
18 March 2010
In The Pretense of Prediction I wrote that one finds, “side-by-side in contemporary societies there are ideologies that are growing and other that are contracting, ideologies that are newly born and others that are dying, ideologies undergoing transformation and ideologies caught in a limbo of stasis, their prospects unknown.” In the same post I also wrote in regard to contemporary ideologies that, “It is difficult to name them, since it is difficult to be objective on the topic precisely because the only ideology that can change the fates of individuals and nation-states is one that resonates within us. We do not understand a successful ideology as much as we feel it and respond to it.”
It is crucial to understanding the political situation of our time to understand which ideologies are living options for us at this time. To distinguish between living and dead ideologies can be quite difficult, and one must make an effort to go beyond ideological appearance in order to reach ideological reality. Ideologies, like fish or insect with adaptive coloration, often mask themselves so that they are difficult to distinguish from the background. The most successful ideology is that ideology that is pervasive throughout our thought and reasoning without our even being aware of it. Once we become aware of an ideology it is often already dead or at least dying.
When we look to the contemporary world with an eye toward explicating its living ideologies, first of all we see perennial human motivations such as greed, self-interest, and the desire to live in comfort. A motivation of this kind is not in itself an ideology, though such motivations are powerful constituents in all ideologies. For our present purposes, I will not attempt a definition of an ideology, but I will position ideology as being more comprehensive than perennial human motivations but less comprehensive than a Weltanschauung.
No less a philosopher than Alfred North Whitehead, co-author of Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, wrote, “I now state the thesis that the explanation of this active attack on the environment is a three-fold urge: (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.” (The Function of Reason, p. 8, also reformulated on p. 18) It is this perennial desire to live, to live well, and to live better that underlies the perennial motivations of greed and self-interest mentioned above. Such drives must be accounted a part of human nature, but in themselves they do not rise to the level of constituting ideologies. Thus while these perennial motivations are certainly present in contemporary history, they do not act within history as ideologies do.
Because contemporary living ideologies are mostly unconscious, they are mostly not named, so that the attempt to formulate a short list of living ideologies must force us into coining a number of awkward neologisms. The lack of names for many living ideologies corresponds to the lack of a clear conception of what that ideology is, so that coining a neologism, however imperfect, can only suggest an even more imperfect conceptualization of the ideology.
With these caveats in mind, I am going to attempt to name a few living ideologies, not necessary all of them ideologies that decisively change the destinies of both states and individuals (as I have focused on previously), but ideologies that are a living influence in the lives of many people today, and which not infrequently can be seen — perhaps implicitly — on the evening news.
Non-denominational Marxism — By this I mean a generic leftism that no longer feels itself bound to slavish adherence to Marxist texts, but which is still in sympathy with Marxist thought.
Anarchism — While mostly limited to young people without jobs or families, and overlapping at points with non-denominational Marxism, anarchism needs to be recognized as a separate ideology as they stand in that tradition of those armed bohemians who have given organized nation-states so much trouble in the modern era.
Environmentalism — Environmentalism is easily the most comprehensive and pervasive ideology of our time. For the same reason that it is comprehensive, it also consists of diverse strains that cannot all be reconciled or summed up in one definition.
Fundamentalism — Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, you name it, every religious tradition has its fundamentalist wing that seeks a revolutionary return of social life to imagined forms it might have taken prior to the many revolutions that have shaped the modern world.
Nation-statism — This is the most awkward of our ideological designations today, and the least recognized. Nevertheless, as it is the default position of practically all elites and diplomats, the centrality of the nation-state to political life, and the incomprehensibility of any alternative, makes it a powerful if misunderstood ideology. There is a sense in which nation-statism is what nineteenth and twentieth century nationalism has become with its institutionalization in the state system.
Terrorism — On every inhabited continent that is a significant minority that is devoted to terrorism as an end in itself. Where civil wars drag on for decades, terror becomes a habit, and the absence of terror in perpetual war zones is as inconceivable as the absence of nation-states is for nation-statism.
Resistance — It would better, though more awkward, to call this resistance/struggle/rebellion. It overlaps at one extreme with terrorism and at another extreme with non-denominational Marxism. With these three ideologies we could define a spectrum in which resistance is the middle ground, the Aristotelian “Golden Mean” of disaffected radicals, and that is why, despite the fact that it is not recognized as an ideology, it is one of the most powerful ideologies of our time.
My above list is admittedly highly imperfect. It is intended as a starting point, not as a final typology of contemporary ideologies. If I continue to think about this I will no doubt need to return to the list to revise and amend it, perhaps adding neglected ideologies and merging others (such as the spectrum I noted above in Resistance).
In my above attempt to think critically and systematically about contemporary ideologies it strikes me that it is a peculiar characteristic of ideologies in our time that means and ends are conflated. I can imagine someone telling me, “You can’t count terrorism or resistance as ideologies, because they are means to ends, not ends in themselves.” But this is precisely what I am saying. I believe that a great number of people have ceased to believe in ends and aims and instead believe in means. As people come to passionately believe in certain means, these means are transformed from mere means to ends in themselves.
Terrorism has become an end in itself. It is the most obvious example of what we might call an exapted ideology: something that originally was not an ideology but which has evolved into an ideology. Starting from this glaring example, I think if we look carefully, most of the items on my above list can be understood as means that have, to a greater or lesser degree, been transformed into ideologies. The ideologies of today are mostly exapted ideologies.
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