Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Should ideology be a dirty word?

Inspiration can come from any quarter, and this antipodean post makes for an interesting starting point for a subject I've been thinking about for some time.

The author, Tessa Keane, uses a visit to a Melbourne theatre production of the political satire Not Quite Out Of The Woods to make the case that Australian national politics has become blander and less relevant to the public because politicians are becoming less ideological, and therefore that more ideology is required.

Tessa is obvious disillusioned at a situation in which
"a Bible thumping, hypocritical, snide, arrogant, former Minister for Health under John Howard (when public dental had a seven year wait list) and who doesn’t believe in climate change, [could] possibly be considered a potential leader in this county."
For her, however, the choice between this Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott (a "neo-conservative megalomaniac"), and Labour's 'mild-mannered, middle-of-the-road' Julia Gillard (who has failed to take advantage of her 'unique' position as the first female leader of the country to create any 'real, meaningful and much needed' political change) is a choice to be envied only in the undesirability of its' options.

This isn't just because the resultant government policies are less than ideal, but because the process of government has been reduced to a sporting spectacle where the attendant sideshows of regular scandal combine with an entertaining soap-opera of personal ambitions and intrigues that the content of debate no longer serves to enlighten the issues. Finally, members of the public are unable to reconcile themselves to the inevitable and ensuing compromises, and confidence in the system of government is diminished.

On the face of it this seems like a strange argument to make - two power-hungry leaders representing two different approaches with clear policy alternatives engaging in white-hot competition to sit in the box seat is a perfect reflection of political contrast, yet when this contrast begins to be interpreted as 'radical mania' vs 'incompetence' something is seriously wrong.

Tessa states, "Once upon a time political parties represented an ideology which you could stand behind, knowing their decisions would be in line with that ideology." Extending this line of reasoning, you would make your choice and you could automatically satisfy yourself that this was all the involvement you need make until the next time your opinion was sought in a ballot.

Yes, that is certainly the mythology parties in a two-party system would have you believe, but reality has a way of creeping up on fixed preconceptions and upsetting that apple-cart.

What is, after all, ideology? Is it a set of outcomes which one should always strive towards? Or is it a set of principles which should be dogmatically adhered to?

The former mind-set creates the impulse for spin-doctors and other paid or unpaid acolytes to selectively present favorable results and retrospectively define the nature of the ideology, while the latter leads to endless divisive reinterpretion and cavilling on the way forward as if they can't read which way is up on their roadmap.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to ideology per se, but it really does depend on what we mean by it.

For some different ideologies are equally valid and political questions are a matter of choice, but for me this political choice is a matter of which party represents the most coherent set of ideas - and that ain't quite so simple. For them power is legitimated by adherence to principle and the simple fact that they can, while for me mandates come and go according to the office-holders ability to remain effective and relevant. For them all political opponents retain ownership of a disliked ideological foundation. I refuse to accept this: the only set of beliefs which can sustain definition as ideology is that single set which consistently creates lasting solutions to conflicts and resolves outstanding problems. In the battle of ideas there are some which prove themself time and again, yet no party has a monopoly on any idea.

At first this leads to a confusing paradox where different approaches can be taken in different situations and as circumstances change (for example in acknowledging the existence of local, national or global communities we also acknowledge a different emphasis on their types of interrelationships, and this can be seen in how institutions are structured, what duties they are supposed to perform and the ways in which democratic accountability makes its effects felt). At other times political cross-dressing can see the opposition criticise the government for enacting a plan it came up with, yet it is society's fluid nature which requires constant adjustment by government. There really is no 'one size fits all' solution.

But laws set in stone always come tumbling down as exceptional cases are made: at a very basic level Obama's 'assassination' of Osama demonstrated the wheedling of America's 'moral' majority and even their equivocation on basic support for the 'Thou shalt not kill' of their primary creed.

All this means we must look again at what we mean by 'ideology'.

Good ideas are often praised for the principles they're based on, even if that was the last of any reason they were picked. And especially if nobody can quite explain the link in rational terms then ideology suddenly strides forward as partisans attempt to draw theoretical lessons.

All ideas have their own logic, but not all are sound. Just try to follow the logic of any idea back to its origins or to its ultimate conclusion and see where it takes you. How often do we see people justifying the unjustifiable on the grounds that it follows the principles of their doctrine? Sometimes irrespective of the outcome, sometimes irrespective of any deliberate or systematic reasoning, ideology comes with a health warning for how it is used to force our hand.

A good example is provided by the Dutch, who took neutrality to such extremes in 1940 that it was lost when the flawed concept of absolute impartiality collapsed in the face of an uncompromising foe, one whose atrocities we should remember so many on all sides were happy to turn a blind eye to while it favored them to do so.

And now current British Labourites argue LibDems betrayed their principles by forming a coalition with Cameron's Conservatives and this has forced their unwilling support for unwanted policies (such as for the referendum on the Alternative Vote - is half a loaf better than none?). LibDem supporters respond that coalition is a good way over overcoming disagreement even if, or maybe because, it enables temporary compromises to be reached. Meanwhile Conservative grassroots are frustrated for the time being, but console themselves that they can use power to their advantage.

The juxtaposition between these two situations provides an interesting contrast.

In the latter there are several forms of analysis at play. One which is based on fixing outcomes, another on fixing processes and the last which is based on fixing who holds the reins of power. The outcomes-based argument states that the ends justify the means, the process-based argument states that the ends are determined by the means while the power-argument posits all that matters is having sufficient means.

Each perspective can be applied to any situation, and through the inter-relating discourse a correct approach emerges.

So, as regards my Dutch example, they failed on all levels as far as the outcome in 1940 was concerned because they refused themselves any diplomatic or military means to defend themselves, nor were any deliberate moves towards a northern 'anschluss' made. The horrors of earlier wars they hoped to avoid were revisited (in some places far worse), and they proved themselves in many cases both susceptible and complicit in committing them.

On each level assumptions of neutrality developed into irrelevant orthodoxy and dogma as the ideological connections between ideas and actions were lost. The outcome was unwanted, the process was painful and at no point did they have sufficient means to prevent outside forces overwhelming them. The purely ideological policy was, and is, unsustainable - it is nothing more than thin air; Swiss neutrality was and is conceived on a far more practical basis.
In a separate piece from US academia Daniel Klein argues we should like to know where speakers stand, rather than "fall into simplistic ideals of neutrality and objectivity."

For him, as a classical liberal, 'ideology' is not a dirty word, and his complaint isn't that colleagues aren't ideological, but that they subscribe to what are in his opinion less-enlightened varieties of ideology. He says it is far better to be open and honest about what your ideology is because it is impossible to prevent ideological commitment from informing judgement and concepts of 'truth' implicitly depend on interpretation and qualification.

In this he is being slightly disingenuous - it's not that he opposes neutrality and objectivity, but that the process by which it can be found is by openness and honesty, and that a level playing field between the different ways of thinking will achieve this result (and consequently the desired impartial agreement which should satisfy all equally).

In other words he believes openness and honesty are ideological concepts themselves and that it is only through these that a correct 'enlightened' ideology will present itself - because such ideas suggest a specific way of doing things. The ideological concepts (such as openness and honesty) are those which take precedence and their acknowledgement indicates the development of subordinate concepts (such as neutrality and objectivity) which cannot hold together alone: all ideas may have their own logic, but not all ideas are equal.

Returning to British politics, the major criticism by the opposition is two-fold. Firstly that the junior coalition partner betrayed their ideology, and secondly not that they disagree with the government on points of ideology, but that it is motivated by ideology at all!

I'm not alone in finding this wholly incoherent. If Labour thought all ideology is bad, or that their ideology was, then surely they should applaud any perceived LibDem betrayal. Yet the main consequence of the opposition's anti-ideology claim is that they have now denied themselves a distinctive and coherent basis for any respectabile policy alternative. Something far more worrying.

Yet this two-faced opposition exposes a political reality - we desperately want to see our politicians have some rational method behind their grand plans but we just don't like the way any of the ideologies on offer seem to us: ideology was turned into a dirty word, but by those people who see how their previous adherence to an ideology collapse with its failure.

From a historical perspective this may suggest the end of an age of ideology, and the time when political programmes could be summed up in single words and simple slogans (ie Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite; Blut und Boden; Working for a Better Wherever) is no longer, but I prefer to argue it shows the battle between ideas is being won and that all the primary concepts mentioned throughout (competence, coherence, soundness, validity, relevance, legitimacy, accountability, openness, honesty etc) are reasserting themselves over the subsidiary concepts (such as neutrality and objectivity).

These primary concepts are the more tangible building blocks of the one, true, good ideology which modern political voices should be grasping more forcefully.

Political parties which turn themselves into consumer brands are simply following this trend. They quietly distance themselves from the former hot ideological topics which used to put fire into the bellies of their hardcore as they try to attract the next generation who've grown up seeing the weaknesses of their former doctrinaire approach: when Tony Blair had his Clause IV moment he signalled the end of Labour's contribution to the privatisation/nationalisation debate even though it has since required clarification by the take-over of struggling banks at the height of the credit crunch, similarly Cameron's decontamination plan bubbles under as 'the nasty party' tag continues to haunt them.

But don't confuse this with some sort of a march to the middle - blander the better. No, it is the gradual establishment of higher standards through a dynamic self-moderating system of public and private discourse as the wrong-headed idealists simply implode under the ruthless logic of events. It is the development of greater precedent in the public mind and more modern political case-law showing that and how the broad brushstroke and the sweeping political gesture is, under most normal conditions, bad politics. It is political debate.

No ideology can survive on a bookshelf or in a museum, untouchable behind a glass screen; ideology depends on passing the reality test. Ideology must be put into action.

Yet such an ideology of 'realism', or 'pragmatism', seems to be the description of choice by those who wish to castigate the lack of principle which they see motivating politicians in this 'post-ideological age'.

Let's be clear here, there is a world of difference between pragmatism and expediency even if opponents deliberately choose to blur it for their own partisan ends. As such Libertarianism is a natural reactionary product of bi-partisan stitch-ups which stem back to the corrupt practices of Tammany Hall and pork barrels, but the possible emergence of an effective third partisan force in any political sphere is something any pluralist should support.

Lack of consistency is not the same thing as lack of coherence, and it is on such paper-thin distinctions that relief and infuriation are inspired in equal measure. So we must ask how is it possible to define an ideological stance in a way which stands out except by reverse-engineering it in the way libertarians have?

Firstly, the out-moded axiomatic left-right spectrum must be consigned to the wastebin of history.

At the point when 'left' and 'right' became the accepted standard (thanks, France!) political positioning became a purely relative matter divorced from all reality and individuals took on a negative political identity defined by who and what they're against rather than anything more positive or tangible. If you didn't tend to the polar extremes then you would eventually be swept asunder by the waves of reactionary fervour as a wishy-washy, potentially corrupt, self-centred centrist who wouldn't make up their mind.

Thus to be a 'centrist' became the the term of derision to dirty the beliefs of ideological non-extremists (as well as the non-ideological extremists) just as 'ideological' became the jealous insult of those who'd seen their own suffer the ignomony and humiliation of complete defeat.

It is exactly this 'definition by opposition' which marks you out as a follower rather than a leader, and it suits so many of the vested power bases to encourage this attitude in a democracy. In some ways the democratisation of definitions made it inevitable that the cut-and-paste variety of ideology would supercede and debase any agreed understanding of it, but language goes in cycles just as societies do, so it's possible that the rejection of it as political motivation by certain trends of thought may indeed be that they're conceding defeat in the ideological stakes and we may in fact be one step nearer a return to the truer reunderstanding of what we should've known all along!

Enough with the political science and speculation, political parties are the groupings of multiple people and personalities reflecting and embodying mulitple and divergent traditions and trends, so are probably the worst at representing any single ideology. Instead, the best we can hope for is that their members are better at standing up for what they believe in to provide the real examples we hope our politics will produce.

Just as ideology must breathe to survive, so politics must be able to breathe ideology to live. Neither exists in a vacuum however and each must only be judged according to their results. It's no good just saying why all the time, or just how or what, you've also got to be able to say how to and what for to be worth a vote.

And that's why it's not just no good, but decidedly bad when the mythology of self-satisfied occasional choosing at election time begins to be seen as enough - when our political consciousness falls asleep it allows our primal animal instincts to take over and it changes the political landscape from the enlightened concrete jungle of civilisation and takes us back to the dark heart of the wild woods.

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