The Poverty of Ideology

This article on libertarianism says pretty much what I was trying to say in my book, only more rigorously (and with zero sense of humour).

However, I think the general point of this article – that something like libertarianism is empty theory ignorant of human behaviour and human history – is actually a point that needs to be made, repeatedly, against all ideologies.

Yes, even (certain forms of) liberalism.

There is a great deal of literature within the history of ideas about how ideologies are ‘secular religions’ – specifically variations of the Christian religion. Most famous is probably the work of the theologian/philosopher Eric Voegelin but of particular interest to me is the work of the historian/philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, whose Main Currents of Marxism is the definitive explanation as to how socialism in general and communism in particular are really religious belief systems.

But since most of you reading this post will not likely read this stuff, you’ll just have to take my word for it. What I am about to say comes from a widespread belief in some currents of 20th century philosophy, particularly the strands critical of modernity and ‘progress’.

The vast majority of ideologies – be they liberal, conservative or socialist – ask their believers to accept two basic tenets that are inherently problematic for politics and fundamentally at odds with human experience. These tenets are independent of the exclusivity demanded of the believers: there is no ideology but our ideology.

The first tenet is that horrible legacy of western philosophy, the priority of essence over existence. In English: theory is more important than practice.

Though ideologies are highly bastardized and/or corrupt popular versions of political philosophies (usually misunderstood), they still elevate their core beliefs and goals – no matter how incoherent – over the reality at hand. Politics and compromise are dismissed as being unprincipled and even corrupt.

The end result of this obsession with theory over practice is that nearly all ideologies have an End Goal highly reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. As the ideology’s end goal varies, so do the various interpretations of the ‘state of nature’ in the minds of various religious sects.

  • Communism has a very specific Garden of Eden, where everyone puts in what they can and gets back what they need, resulting in total Equality, somehow. Other forms of socialism have other end-states where Equality is either total or at least better than it is now, depending on how absurd the philosophy or theory that provided the source.
  • Liberalism, at least in its earlier form, saw in its Garden a world of total (or near-total) Freedom, or Liberty, or Choice.
  • Only conservatism, again in its earlier form, sought to position the Garden in relatively recent history, therefore viewing it as a world where Order and Society and sometimes Justice were preserved, unlike today.

(Of course Justice is also a dominant theme in liberal and socialist ideologies, especially in modern liberalism. So you can substitute a Just Garden of Eden for an Equal one, in some variants of these ideologies.)

And this brings us to the other common but problematic tenet: though ideological strands all elevate their core metaphysical concepts to the level of religious beliefs, these concepts are not necessarily exclusive.

  • Freedom and Justice go together in the end-state of liberalism.
  • Equality and Justice go together in socialism.
  • Order and Justice go together in conservatism.

However, the ideologies within these three traditions elevate one metaphysical concept over all others.

  • So in communism a particular view of Justice is seen as Equality, and certainly anyone who disagreed with this particular version of Justice would likely be viewed as an enemy of Equality.
  • In libertarianism, Liberty is the only thing that matters, at the expense of Equality, Justice – which, in theory, would ensue from Liberty – Tradition or anything else.
  • And in neo-conservatism, Right (Moral) Conduct – some kind of crazy hybrid between economic freedom and pesudo-Christian values – is more important than social Freedom, Equality or anything else.

But the obsession over staying true to theory (or ‘principle’) flies in complete, utter conflict with every day human life, as each of us has to compromise with other people multiple times a day. We may tell ourselves that these compromises don’t involve our core values, but that is usually rationalization and nothing more.

And even at the social or political level, rather than just at the personal level, we must compromise just to participate in society. (Though one might be tempted to argue that this is a condition of living in a liberal democracy, it is actually a condition of politics.)

And the same problem occurs with the elevation of one or more metaphysical values over all others: ask 10 people, even in a small town in Ontario from the same ethnic background, and you will likely get 5-10 different definitions of what Equality or Freedom or Justice means.

That’s because metaphysical concepts are invented and constantly re-defined by human beings. There is no extra-human Justice. (If there was, we wouldn’t have multiple justice systems throughout the world.) Every single person’s interpretation of what is Just will vary slightly. (Or almost. There might not be 7 billion variations on interpretations of Justice, but there are many more than we can count and certainly more than we can handle as a society.)

And so we have belief systems that demand our loyalty, but demand this loyalty not only to (usually) internally incoherent ideas – such as in neo-conservatism – but to ideas which cannot serve as the basis for intelligent action in the world simply because the end goals of these ideas are not physically or humanly possible. (And the path to many if not most of these goals is a horrible one.)

And yet, despite studying this reality since at least the 1930s – if not earlier – the vast majority of us in the West continue to use ideologies to describe our political beliefs. (This is true even if the particular ideology we choose does not actually fit our beliefs – I’m looking at you neo-conservatives.)

And we do this for the same reason that billions of people still believe in God (or The Universe, if you’re, um “spiritual”). Ideologies provide some kind of lens for which people can “make sense” of the world, even if they do the opposite.

Much as religion distorts our view of the physical, chemical and biological realities of the world – the universe was created by a male, the earth is 6,000 years old, death can be overcome, etc – so ideology distorts our view of human life, politically, socially and economically – total equality is attainable, taxes are not a reality of human life and should be abolished, the old ways were the best ways, etc.

So we are left with this paradox: humans at the macro level require distortions of reality in order to attempt to comprehend reality. This is something we have struggled with since the agricultural revolution if not earlier, and that’s why it’s silly to think we can overcome ideologies any time soon, if at all. (If I am listening to myself, I would obviously say we can never fully overcome ideologies.)

So what do we do?

Well the only thing I can come up with is education. We will never kill the spiritual impulse in human beings which wants to believe in some kind of greater meaning and purpose. But we can at least discuss the problems inherent in debating economic, social and political issues in religious terms.

Understanding that we will always do this, and understanding this at a critical point in life, such as during adolescence, could be the first step towards a world in which more of us understand that, even if we do support a particular metaphysical goal – “I want to live in a Just / Equal / Free world” – we at least acknowledge that this goal is only an innate human longing, and nothing else, and that, if we really do want to direct our lives towards some kind of achievement in the name of that goal, it should be a the local level, for a specific cause, and not at the detriment of other people’s rights or physical persons.

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