We seem to be living in a less ideological world. At the end of the 20thcentury the collapse of Soviet Marxism, coupled with the turn of China’s government to a more market-responsive form of economic direction, seemed to mark a turn away from ideology. Some saw ‘neo-liberalism’ becoming the new ideology. That too seems to have faded after the financial crisis of 2008 and the COVID crisis. This blog looks at how far ideology is still with us and how far it has truly vanished
There are two difficulties in defining what an ideology is and is not. The first difficulty is that what we label an ‘ideology’ has to be distinguished from a non-ideological discourse that simply appeals to widely shared values. The second difficulty is that an ideology also needs to be distinguished from discourse that appeals simply to a hypothetical ideal. We can appeal to an ideal, and we can appeal to shared values, without resorting to ideology.
For the purposes of examining these distinctions this blog looks at four concepts. In Europe the idea of the ‘social market’ illustrates the significance of shared values. The concept of the rule of law is then used to illustrate discourse that refers to an ideal. In turn, these concepts are distinguished from two discourses that can be used in an ideological way: the goal in Europe of ‘ever closer union’, and the global language of environmentalism.
Shared values and the social market
An appeal to widely shared values provides one of the main ways in which modern diversified societies can still find common ground on which to manage collective challenges. It achieves three main purposes. Each can be illustrated by the role played by the concept of the ‘social market’ in the European Union.
First, an appeal to a widely shared value can help overcome other differences. For example, in the case of the EU, the TEU links the establishment of the internal market, with its four freedoms of goods, services, people and rights of establishment, together with the injunction that ‘It shall work for…a highly competitive social market economy….’. (TEU 3:3.) The linkage with the social market allays the fears of those that might otherwise associate the creation of the internal market with laisser-faire liberalism and oppose its freedoms.
Secondly, shared values can help governments mobilise authority for what they do. Thus, EU treaty provisions on the enumeration of powers in the Union confer a ‘shared competence’ in respect of selected aspects of social policy. (TFEU 4:2).
Thirdly, shared values can help legitimise the exercise of that authority. The social market can be seen as belonging to the EU’s founding value of ‘solidarity’ (TEU 2) and its aim to ‘promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among member states’ (TEU 3:3).
Ideologies also aim to mobilise and to legitimate the use of government authority. However, ideological discourse responds to our desire for a language of communication that carries a special authority that goes beyond a simple appeal to shared values.
It has been suggested by Robert Wuthrow that an ideology has three distinct features that differentiate it and aim to imbue it with a special authority.
First, ideologies ‘thematise’. They express a theme, not just in the sense of looking for a common shared value among the many diverse values held in society, but in the sense of appealing to a comprehensive ‘super-value’, or all-embracing theme.
The second characteristic of an ideology is that the authority of the all-embracing theme is framed in opposition to alternative visions and performs an exclusionary role. For example, a belief in Marxism excluded capitalism.
Thirdly, the super-value, or all-embracing theme, links the current situation in an authoritative and exclusive way to an idealised future world.
These criteria are illustrated below first in relation to the concept of the ‘rule of law’.
The ideal and the rule of law
The concept of the ‘rule of law’ appears to meet the first criterion of thematization. The concept brings together a number of mutually consistent values, for example that no one stands above the law, and that laws apply without exception to those similarly situated.
However, the theme of the rule of law does not claim to be comprehensive or all-embracing. It brings together a set of properties and procedures that provide one highly important way of achieving social coordination and the settlement of disputes, but not the only one. There are other norms and institutions for social coordination. Socially derived norms, sometimes referred to as ‘the living law’, are often seen as more important.
The theme and value attached to the rule of law again appears to fit the second criterion of standing in opposition to an alternative. In this case it stands in opposition to the use of arbitrary power. It discards values that are inconsistent. For example, the value attached to a ‘great leader’ is likely to be inconsistent with rule-of-law safeguards against arbitrary power.
However, the task of opposition is shared. The rule of law aims to stand alongside other mutually consistent ways of organising authority that stand opposed to authoritarian government, such as the institutions and procedures of representative government. The judiciary looks for independence from other branches of democratic government and for each branch to play their own role in a joint endeavour against the arbitrary use of power.
At first sight, the rule of law yet again appears to meet the third criterion of linking the present to an ideal future. It makes a connection to an ideal by means of a contrast with a dystopia, or what society would look like in a state of lawlessness where ‘might is right’. It stands for the avoidance of what we don’t want.
However, the potential link provided by the rule of law between the present, a past state of lawlessness, and an ideal future where everyone respects the law, comes without guarantees and with many qualifications. It is recognised that the law can become a tool of an oppressive government as often as it provides a defence against arbitrary power. There is a well-known distinction between the law and justice (what we think the law should be). The imperfections of the law as a link to an ideal future are thus acknowledged.
Measured against these criteria, the rule of law cannot be labelled an ‘ideology’. It brings together an important group of those qualities needed in a ‘well ordered’ society without claiming comprehensive inclusion. It stands alongside other branches of government in a joint rather than solo opposition to arbitrary power. It aims to provide a defence against what we don’t want and a future we do want, but there is recognition that the law can be abused. It stands instead as an imperfect model for an ideal.
‘Ever closer Union’ and ideology
Measured against these same criteria, the appeal in Europe to ‘ever closer union’ (TEU 1). can be used in ways that brings it within the classification of an ideology. First, it can be seen as a ‘super-value’ that brings together and makes possible the expression of all other values on which the EU is founded (TEU 1-3). Secondly, it can be expressed as standing above and in opposition to other ways in which Europe could be visualised. In particular, it is sometimes used in opposition to ’inter-governmentalism’ that it holds to be incompatible with visions of union. Thirdly, ‘Ever closer union’ can be held to offer the single and exclusive pathway in Europe to a future of ‘peace, well-being….an area of freedom, security and justice’. (TEU 3:1 &2). It connects the present to the future through reference to the dystopia of the past where European nations competed against and fought with each other.
The main challenge to the ideological uses of ‘ever closer union’ is that the member states continue to be seen as possessing their own sources of legitimacy, their own role in expressing important values, and their own role in conferring powers and determining what the union can and cannot do. This keeps alive different visions of what ‘ever closer union’ might entail and challenges the exclusivity of any one pathway to the future.
Environmentalism and ideology
Concern for the environment can be expressed in many different ways, but claims from the more extreme wings of the green movement meet the criteria of ideology. First, environmentalism can be used to express a super-value and to thematise how we live in a comprehensive way. What we eat, and wear, how we house ourselves and cool and heat our homes, how we commute and travel, how we organise and value businesses, how we prioritise public policies, all come under the environmental net.
Secondly, environmentalism can be expressed in ways that denies any alternative vision of how we might live. There is, it is claimed, a ‘climate emergency’, so there is no alternative other than to follow green prescriptions.
Thirdly, the observance of green prescriptions offers the single and exclusive connection from the present to the future. We either face the apocalypse of an uninhabitable planet and extinction – or, the vision of a green and pleasant land, cool oceans and teeming coral. Adaptation is no longer a precautionary weighing of costs and benefits, but mandatory and a matter of command and control.
A concern for the environment does not have to be expressed in these terms. But it is at the extremes of the environmentalist movement that the contemporary world comes closest to encountering a global ideology.
It is clear that we should all be concerned about the contribution of human activity to global warming and to environmental degradation. We should also be supportive of efforts in Europe to build a democratic union. However, we should, at the same time, be on our guard against expressing our concerns and visions in ideological terms. The warnings against the uses of ideology that were expressed in relation to Marxism remain valid in relation to current forms of ideology. There are three main warnings.
The first warning is that a desire for thematization and to include as much as possible in one comprehensive understanding runs against the ways in which our rationality is ‘bounded’. According to Herbert Simon, it generally is likely to make more sense in relation to social change to recognise the limits to our understanding, to segment large problems into small, and to pursue step-by-step incremental change.
Secondly, we should beware of doctrines that exclude alternatives. According to Karl Popper, scientists in both the natural and social sciences need always be open to the unexpected and to be especially open to evidence that might falsify a received explanation or paradigm. In relation to theories of climate change we should be wary when every weather event is used as confirmatory evidence for an ‘emergency’ or prospective ‘extinction’.
Thirdly, in connecting the present with the future we should beware of assertions about the ‘inevitability’ of a particular development. Karl Popper argued that such doctrines undermine both the natural and social sciences. They too lead to claims that every observation is consistent with and can be explained by the one theory. In the social sciences too, narratives of inevitability lead to bad history and historical reconstruction, or to what Popper termed ‘historicism’.
In this connection we should particularly beware of the uses and misuses of dystopian visions. George Orwell’s famous dystopia of 1984 and ‘big brother’ remains a relevant warning about authoritarian government today. At the same time, Karl Popper argued that dystopias are more typically used to justify authoritarianism and the enemies of the ‘open society’. Thus, ideologically inclined environmentalists might insist on ‘command and control’ measures to override any other preferences we might wish to express.
Ideology has not gone away from our world. It has been repurposed. Our age-old desire for language that carries special authority and that cannot be questioned remains with us. We should resist its appeal.