American Ideologies #1: What is ideology?

"Coarse" notes – considering ideologies as traditions of meaning

I'm currently following Jason Blakely's public course on American ideologies. I may spend a lot of time on it, I may not. But I sympathize with his motivation: "first, even highly educated Americans lack a basic grasp of their own rival ideological traditions; second, technology has made it possible to offer citizens and adult-learners free access to the highest levels of education." The latter is terrific. As for the former, the formulation "ideological traditions" is interesting and perhaps points to something missing in the the way the word "ideology" appears in daily language. These are my rough notes on the introductory lecture, to which I may come back later, or otherwise entirely forget.

I remember when one of the chief worries in the Christian world was over moral relativism. Ratzinger warned in 2005: “A dictatorship of relativism is being formed, one that recognizes nothing as definitive and that has as its measure only the self and its desires.” But isn't what we find today quite the opposite? Today's ideological landscape appears to be full of people entirely willing to make definitive moral statements, whether rightly or wrongly, about the issues of the day – making politics and one's "side of the aisle" not about agency nor any other thing, but the inner quality of one's character.

Emphatically, I'm not a moral relativist, but I recognize as well that rigid absolutism is a temptation. And much of what we find today across the political spectrum strikes me as a grotesque variety of moralism, which, while reflective of an innate human sense of moral truth, treats moral concepts as if they were "frozen in time", with no history nor lineage, nothing "alive" about them, and easily reducible to slogans. The intense social pressure these days to "take a stand" on this or that, reflects something of a cheap moralistic consciousness under which the foundations have been yanked off – one might very well take a stand, but what is one standing on exactly?

Ideology is itself ideologized

We might say similar things about ideology as morality, if only because it is also something which, the way we speak of it, seems to belong on one side of a strict divide and not the other. Morality is among those on the "right side of history" (as if the trajectory of history were settled); ideology is among those who are morally compromised. And so here Blakely begins his lecture, on Clifford Geertz's (on whom the lecture is based) point that

. . . the term "ideology" has itself become thoroughly ideologized. A concept that once meant but a collection of political proposals, perhaps somewhat intellectualistic and impractical but at any rate idealistic . . . has now become, to quote Webster's, "the integrated assertions, theories, and aims constituting a politico-social program, often with an implication of factitious propagandizing; as, Fascism was altered in Germany to fit the Nazi ideology" – a much more formidable proposition.

The ideologized nature of the concept of ideology points roughly to a first cluster of problems around its study. Blakely relates this to the polarizing nature of contemporary ideological discourse: so-called "culture war" puts pressure on people to pick a side and clearly identify with it – as if there were only two sides in the world of ideologies. Doing so, one subscribes to a particular web of assumptions with regard to which positions are "ideological" and which are not.

Geertz writes, "nowhere is resistance to claims to objectivity greater than in the study of ideology." The commonly given reasons for this have to do not only with the elusiveness of the subject matter, but its emotionally charged quality:

men do not care to have beliefs to which they attach great moral significance examined dispassionately, no matter for how pure a purpose . . . The inherent elusiveness of ideological thought, expressed as it is in intricate symbolic webs as vaguely defined as they are emotionally charged . . . and the defensiveness of established intellectual classes who see scientific probing into the social roots of ideas as threatening to their status, are also often mentioned.

All of this sounds familiar in today's world of ideas; that ideological positions are often couched in moralistic language, which compels a choice toward one side or another, points to a state of things in which certain subjects are settled, as far as polite, right-side-of-history society goes. Again the problem here has to do with an assumption that there are, in principle, two totalizing sides to every ideological question. Yet the study of ideology need not require suspension of one's own commitments; one the other hand it's essential to overcome false dichotomies.

Strains of thought

Another cluster of problems around the study of ideology, as Blakely points out, has to do with how social scientists have used the word. Geertz notes two main schools of thought with regard to ideology: "strain theory" and "interest theory." The former refers to accounts of ideology which argue that the ideological mind reflects modern anxieties and disorientation. On this view, groups under psychological strain develop ideology as a way to cope and gain a sense of place in the world. Take fundamentalist factions of religions, for example, in which case ideology might be explained as a product of homelessness and disorientation in secular society.

One problem with strain theory, as Blakely notes, is that to posit that people are under significant amounts of strain – the assumption of a "chronic malintegration of society" in Geertz's words, which gives rise to ideology – tries to explain too much: and yet it doesn't explain why people choose one ideology over another. A further, related problem is the tension between strain-based explanation and people's own self-understanding of their ideologies: people don't necessarily say about themselves that they identify with a particular ideology in order to cope with psychological strain. In short, as an explanation it is reductive as it tries to do too much, discounting much of the reasons and meanings to which people hold with regard to their ideological commitments.

On the other hand, interest theory sounds much more familiar today in the way it sees ideology as reflective of the interests of particular social groups, thereby linking ideologies with factions: the working class, women, racial groups, and so on. Geertz notes the well-developedness of this school of thought, thanks to the Marxist tradition, the fundamentals of which "are now standard intellectual equipment of the man-in-the-street, who is only too aware that in political argumentation it all comes down to whose ox is gored." The problem, as Blakely notes, is that faction is not a good predictor of a person's ideology: in real life, our expectations are confounded. Geertz writes,

The battlefield image of society as a clash of interests thinly disguised as a clash of principles turns attention away from the role that ideologies play in defining (or obscuring) social categories, stabilizing (or upsetting) social expectations, maintaining (or undermining) social norms, strengthening (or weakening) social consensus, relieving (or exacerbating) social tensions.

We often see this in the way that ideological identities, if one peeks outside one's own bubble, actually cut across many different lines: sexual, racial, material, and so on. Again, it is too reductive an explanation.

Ideologies as traditions of meaning

What to make of all this? Blakely's thesis is that we need to confront ideology in a way that takes into account people's own meanings, interpretations, agency, and reason. In short, he means a hermeneutic or interpretive approach to ideology, which takes self-understanding seriously, taking its cue from Geertz:

Whatever else ideologies may be – projections of unacknowledged fears, disguises for ulterior motives, phatic expressions of group solidarity – they are, most distinctively, maps of problematic social reality and matrices for the creation of collective conscience. Whether, in any particular case, the map is accurate or the conscience creditable is a separate question . . .

Ideologies as "maps of meaning" – truthful as this is, Blakely suggests taking it further. After all, a map by itself conjures images of fixedness and frozenness, not unlike the ways in which we moralize today. But we might think of ideologies as being more like religious and artistic traditions: they are traditions of meaning whose subject is good, right-ordered political communities; they are dynamic and adaptable, possessing lineages and divergences in history. On this view, ideological precepts are more than conceptual formulations, but include a broader set of productions in the form of stories, art, even architecture and theology.

But lest we make this conception of ideology, on the other hand, too all-encompassing, Blakely notes a limiting feature: ideologies have a peculiarly modern thing about them, which is their propensity to mobilize and recruit people into them. Unlike in premodern or "pre-ideological" societies, no gods today guarantee that a specific ideology will be written into society; there is nothing automatic in them that will restore themselves should they be demolished – like democracy, for example.

Perhaps the importance of this feature rests on the intuition today that as a civilization, whatever that means, we have increasingly lost touch of our foundations in received tradition, and find ourselves in strange territory – hence, the particular intensity and distinctness with which ideologies are adopted and maintained on the surface level: through public signals of affiliation, sloganeering, and so on. After all, as Geertz notes,

. . . as the various sorts of cultural symbol-systems are extrinsic sources of information, templates for the organization of social and psychological processes, they come most crucially into play in situations where the particular kind of information they contain is lacking, where institutionalized guides for behavior, thought, or feeling are weak or absent. It is in country unfamiliar emotionally or topographically that one needs poems and road maps.

So too with ideology. In polities firmly embedded in Edmund Burke's golden assemblage of "ancient opinions and rules of life," the role of ideology, in any explicit sense, is marginal. In such truly traditional political systems the participants act as (to use another Burkean phrase) men of untaught feelings; they are guided both emotionally and intellectually in their judgments and activities by unexamined prejudices, which do not leave them "hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled and unresolved." But when, as in the revolutionary France Burke was indicting and in fact in the shaken England from which, as perhaps his nation's greatest ideologue, he was indicting it, those hallowed opinions and rules of life come into question, the search for systematic ideological formulations, either to reinforce them or to replace them, flourishes . . . It is, in fact, precisely at the point at which a political system begins to free itself from the immediate governance of received tradition, from the direct and detailed guidance of religious or philosophical canons on the one hand and from the unreflective precepts of conventional moralism on the other, that formal ideologies tend first to emerge and take hold.

Does this not now sound like strain theory? Certainly, Geertz notes, that

In one sense, this statement is but another way of saying that ideology is a response to strain. But now we are including cultural as well as social and psychological strain. It is a loss of orientation that most directly gives rise to ideological activity, an inability, for lack of usable models, to comprehend the universe of civic rights and responsibilities in which one finds oneself located . . . It is a confluence of sociopsychological strain and an absence of cultural resources by means of which to make sense of the strain, each exacerbating the other, that sets the stage for the rise of systematic (political, moral, or economic) ideologies.

Precisely in light of the idea that ideology supplies, or at least compensates for a lack of, "cultural resources" that we might view ideologies as quasi-cultural traditions. This way, by paying attention to the ways in which they move through time (and that, in the first place, they are not frozen in it), we are able see their divergences with each other and perhaps retrieve the common cloths from which certain ideological precepts, even among rival traditions, are cut. At the same time their distinct ungivenness, in contrast to genuine religious traditions, ought to give us pause lest we be swept in them, mistaking – to put it in a popular formulation – the map for the territory.