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Ideology - Study Notes

IDEOLOGY by Michael Freeden [OUP Very Short Introduction Series, 2003]

Michael Freeden is Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for Political Ideologies at the University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford. His book on ‘Ideology’ is not about ‘politics’; it’s about political thought.

‘Ideology’ has been defined as ‘any system of ideas and norms directing political and social action’ (e.g. ‘socialism’, ‘free enterprise’, etc.). The purpose of an ideology can also be to explain or justify the way things should or should not done in a society or political system.

Chapter 1 of Freeden’s book is entitled ‘Should ideologies be ill-reputed?’.
He notes that people often associate the word ‘ideology’ with ‘isms’ such as communism, fascism or anarchism, belief systems commonly regarded as dogmatic, one-sided and intolerant of other viewpoints. But not every ‘ism’ is an ideology – ‘optimism’ for example is a feeling, or an attitude. Also, not every ideology is a set of artificially constructed, doctrinaire dogmas ‘dropped from a great height on an unwilling society’. In fact, says Freeden, we are all ideologists in the way we understand the political environment of which we are part.

He records that the inventor of the term ‘ideology’ was Antoine Destutt de Tracy, writing in the early 19th century. He wanted to create a study of ideas where there would be criticism of ideas and a science of ideas, hence the word ‘ideology’. This sounds quite a sensible project, but Freeden does not tell us what became of it. It was followed by The German Ideology by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) who, very differently, criticized German thought for being so preoccupied with abstract ideas in themselves that they distorted and concealed reality. They said ideology disguised anomalies in society and what they called ‘contradictions’ (such as dehumanized social relations under capitalism) by making them appear necessary and normal. Ideology, they said, was also to be found in morality and religion which, they claimed, likewise distorted reality.

But then they did a very funny thing. Having roundly criticized ideology with all its intrinsic side-effects, its distortion of reality and so on, Marx and Engels proceeded to create their own ideology. Now, weren’t they being inconsistent in condemning ‘ideology’ on the part of others but not themselves? Possibly – they could have dispensed with ‘ideology’ altogether and simply have said, ‘exploitation of the workers is morally wrong and should be ended, and governments should pass the necessary laws’. This would be a moral argument, making ‘ideology’ as such superfluous. I think the main reason why Marx and Engels chose an ideological argument instead of a moral one was their theory of ‘dialectical materialism’, a fallacious doctrine of historical inevitability which they derived from the German philosopher George Hegel (1770-1831). But Freeden does not explain any of this.

However, Marx’s criticisms of the ideologies he opposed are instructive. Firstly, ideology distorts our perception of reality. It is especially untrustworthy if it is imposed. It promotes illusions. It over-simplifies. Marx believed truth would emerge once it is recognized that ideology is a distortion, part of a ‘superstructure’ with no intrinsic value and therefore dispensable. The mistake he made was not to apply those criticisms to his own ideas.

But Freeden attaches importance to ideology, rejecting the view that ideologies are ‘abstract and non-empirical’. Empiricism means to base knowledge and belief upon observation, evidence and testability as distinct from speculation or conjecture, but on p10 Freeden dismisses empiricism as a ‘myth’. This is a surprising assertion coming from an intellectual supposedly well-informed on the history of modern ideas. Empiricism has been the basis of the whole of modern science over the past three or four centuries. Some myth!

Anyway – what is of value in ‘ideology’? Freeden gives four answers.
(i) We have learned from Marx that social and historical circumstances are significant in moulding political and other ideas. True enough.
(ii) Ideas matter – if they appear in such commanding guises as an ideology, they need to be taken seriously. Fair comment.
(iii) Ideologies are ‘endowed with crucial political functions’. They order the social world, direct it towards certain activities, and legitimate or ‘delegitimate’ its practices. Ideologies exercise power. I’m not sure about that. They are very influential, I would agree, but only human beings literally ‘exercise power’ (politicians, officials and so on).
(iv) ‘What you see is not always what you get.’ Freeden says that ideologies contain levels of meaning hidden from their consumers and frequently from their producers. The study of ideology therefore includes, he says, decoding and identifying structures, contexts and motives that are not readily visible. I think this sounds rather tenuous, almost arcane, leading to intangible and endless questions of ‘interpretation’ where an ideology could mean whatever you want it to mean. Hopefully Freeden will explain all this later on.

Chapter 2 is ‘Overcoming illusions: how ideologies came to stay’.
In this chapter Freeden explains the thinking of three 20th century ideologists, Karl Mannheim, Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. Mannheim (1893-1947), of German origin, lectured at the London School of Economics from 1933 and published Ideology and Utopia in 1936. He advocated a ‘sociology of knowledge’ in which the truth of a belief or a value has no ‘absolute’ sense, it can only be ‘true’ relative to its own social background and to other ideas. This sounds cogent, but it has relativistic implications which concerned Mannheim, and he never succeeded in distilling ‘the truth’ from disparate, contending ideologies or belief-systems.

And some would say it can’t be done. The Logical Positivists maintained that the closest we can get to objective truth lies in the exact sciences such as physics, and ‘absolute’, certain truth can only be found in pure mathematics, symbolic logic and semantic tautologies. This is very different from ‘ideology’ which Mannheim considered to be based on the multifarious and mutually contrary opinions, belief systems, value judgments, cultural beliefs etc. of individual human beings and/or social groups such as tribes, social classes etc..

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian Marxist who was also a relativist. He rejected the ‘objectivism’ of orthodox, authoritarian Marxism-Leninism, and developed instead a theory of ideological ‘hegemonies’, that is, centres of influence within societies over values and ideas. These ‘could be exercised by a dominant class, the bourgeoisie, not necessarily through exercising state force but through various cultural means’ such as persuasively defining what is natural or normal for society as a whole. I think the idea is plausible, but how exactly could it be tested or verified? Could there be different ‘hegemonies’ within the same society? Gramsci said ‘hegemony’ could facilitate ‘the co-ordination of different interests’, but this would not happen ‘naturally’ or automatically. For this reason, there had to be revolutionary change – the snag being, I suppose, that the revolutionaries would become the new dominant class so the whole process could start all over again....

Louis Althusser (1918-1990), a French Marxist philosopher, redefined ideology in various ways. He emphasized that ideology was a ‘new reality’ in human societies. In practical terms the established ideology in a society had its own ‘superstructure’ corresponding to the religious, legal, cultural and educational structures, as well as the media and the military. All these, he said, held society together under the same overall ideology. This can be queried, of course – what if these various ‘structures’ promulgate different values, beliefs, etc. as they sometimes appear to do?

I think at this stage we can identify a potential ambiguity in what we are talking about. Are we still talking about artificial ideologies as per Marx and Engels, or are we simply talking about the way any human society has a system of value beliefs, social norms etc. which are upheld, adhered to and sometimes enforced?

Chapter 3 is ‘Ideology at the crossroads of theory’.
Freeden explains that ideology ‘came to stay’ as a category of political thought not simply as a result of the theories of various intellectuals. ‘The advent of mass politics in Europe saw the consolidation of traditions of political thought such as liberalism, conservatism and socialism’.
Freeden therefore defines a political ideology at p32 as ‘a set of ideas, beliefs, opinions and values that:
(1) exhibit a recurring pattern;
(2) are held by significant groups;
(3) compete over providing and controlling plans for public policy and
(4) do so with the aim of justifying, contesting or changing the social and political arrangements and processes of a political community’.

This concept of ‘ideology’ can reasonably apply to any of the ‘mainstream’ political parties to be found in present-day democracies throughout the world. It is significantly different from Marx’s original concept of historically inevitable communism; likewise it is very different from the state ideologies to be found in the Soviet bloc before the end of the Cold War. I think his definition is cogent, although in my view we should really call it a redefinition. Some might say the word ‘ideology’ carries so many past associations with abstraction, dogmatism and political authoritarianism that it is best avoided altogether.

Freeden says at p35 that ‘many holders of ideology, especially but not solely conservatives, have denied that they are ideological... reserving the appellation ‘ideology’ only for ideas that plan radical and total change’. He also relates how ‘several reputable scholars’ sought to declare the end of ideology in the 1950s and 1960s. We could add that although the Soviet bloc countries called themselves socialist or communist, they were really practising a form of state capitalism. He relates how in the second half of the 20th century both Americans and Russians ‘sought a consumer-oriented society’ so that there would be ‘a convergence between previously hostile world-views’. In Western Europe the welfare state, the mixed economy and ‘consensus politics’ seemed to be emerging.

Freeden’s view is that the ‘end-of-ideology’ theorists were wrong, but unless I have misread him he just provided a very good argument in their support. His redefinition of ideology (items (1) to (4) as just quoted) is so different from Marx’s notion of historical determinism as to be consistent with saying that ‘old’, Marxist ideology had reached its end, both in theory and in practice. I think that is what the ‘end of ideology’ theorists were talking about.

Chapter 4 is ‘The struggle over political language’.
Students of ideology are attracted to semantics – the study of meaning within language which can contain ambiguities. To say that I am ‘free’ can simply mean that I’m at liberty to spend my free time as I like (within reason); it can also mean that I have a right not to be hindered without due cause, which has a different nuance of meaning. So the word ‘freedom’ can be understood in different ways, and its full definition is elaborate which users of the word might sometimes overlook.

The meanings of words, concepts or ideas need to be ‘unravelled’ and Freeden refers to ‘hermeneutics’, the study of textual interpretation. Popular in continental philosophy, the basic idea is that ‘the meaning of texts can only be decoded if we are able to tap into the context in which the text was written’. But that is a very big ‘if’, leading in theory to multiple interpretations with no clear criteria on how to select the more significant ones from the less significant. Some writers take particular care to define what they mean anyway, and hermeneutics has been criticized for being the art of finding something in a text that isn’t there.... So Freeden asks ‘how can we understand, let alone appraise, an ideology?’.

Moving on, Freeden gives special attention to liberty, authority, equality, rights and democracy. These words denote political concepts, as significant in political philosophy as in ideology. He takes a morphological approach, saying that ‘ideologies are complex combinations and clusters of political concepts in sustainable patterns’. Different ideologies will combine and correlate these concepts in different ways – so that ‘justice’ will have a different meaning if an ideology places it closer to equality than to property rights – and vice versa. He says ‘an ideology is a wide-ranging structural arrangement that attributes meaning to a range of mutually defining political concepts’. This is rather like ‘a set of modular units of furniture that can be assembled in many ways’ (p52).

We can therefore have disparate ideologies where each one may nevertheless have its own internal consistency. So in one ideology ‘rights’ may be employed to protect human dignity; in another, to protect property and wealth. Clearly he is moving towards a sort of ideological ‘relativism’ – and, he says, ‘we have no means of validating these preferences objectively’. However he notes that ideologies can still be subject to ‘logical and cultural constraints’. It would hardly be ‘logical’ (so to speak) to defend individual choice but to deny people the vote. Freeden spends the remainder of the chapter discussing various ideological permutations, which he calls ‘morphological analysis’.

For example society A could place rule of law and property rights at the top of its list of priorities, with social security and individual freedom coming lower down. Society B on the other hand could give special priority to social security and individual freedom.

Chapter 5 is ‘Thinking about politics: the new boys on the block’.
Freeden says that ‘morphological analysis is only one means of accessing ideological reasoning’. In particular, he acknowledges the importance of political philosophy. It pre-dates Marx and ‘ideology’ by two millennia, going back to Plato and Socrates. Political philosophy, says Freeden, has major concerns with ‘the moral rightness of the prescriptions it contains and the logical validity and argumentative coherence of the political philosophy in question’. Political philosophers seek answers to such questions as ‘what is justice?’ or ‘upon what principles should a society be run?’.

Freeden remarks that ‘philosophers typically assert that ideological thinking is poor-quality thinking that does not merit serious scholarly examination’. I would say that this certainly applies to Marx with his quasi-metaphysical notion of ‘historical inevitability’, but in fairness to Freeden I think most of his own arguments have been quite cogent. The main difference between ideology and philosophy is that although they do of course overlap in certain areas, ideology primarily seeks to propose policies or actions, whilst philosophy is more concerned with definitions. For example ideologists talk about equality quite a lot, but philosophers ask is it a descriptive concept or a normative concept?

Freeden acknowledges that some philosophers can also be ideologists. An excellent example which he could have mentioned was John Rawls (1921-2002), American philosopher at Harvard University whose Theory of Justice (1971) made a notable contribution to the vexed question of the fair distribution of goods and resources within society.

But generally speaking, philosophy is academic and the ‘target audience’ of a philosopher is not the general public, politicians or political commentators, but other philosophers. With ideology it’s the other way around. The purpose of ideology is often to change political events (including the way people vote), and its mode of argument combines the rational and the non-rational; it seeks to persuade through the use of slogans, catch-phrases and emotive language as much as matters of fact. An ideology will have its own ‘target audience’ and it has to be ‘marketable’, though I don’t think Freeden uses that word.
Likewise, Freeden does not mention the parallels between ideological reasoning and commercial activities such as marketing, publicity and advertising – all of which can be carried out in perfectly responsible ways. In all these activities language and reasoning can be persuasive and attractive, without being misleading or inaccurate. But whilst the marketing executive is concerned with what you’re going to buy, the ideologist is ultimately concerned with how you’re going to vote. I don’t know whether Freeden would agree.

One other point, whilst philosophers and legal theorists are concerned with subtle distinctions between claim-rights, liberty rights, prerogative rights etc., feminists and other groups are more concerned with whether you have rights or not, and if not, what should be done about it.
Chapter 6 is ‘The clash of the Titans: the macro-ideologies’.
Here, Freeden gives a broad overview of the major ideologies of the 20th century. All have been highly influential:-

Liberalism – This is small ‘l’ liberalism, not the politics of the UK Liberal Party. Its core ideas are that human beings are rational; there should be liberty of thought and, within reasonable limits, liberty of action; there is belief in social progress; the individual is the prime social unit; benevolence and the general interest of society should be the norms; power in society, especially political power, should be constrained and accountable; liberalism is emphatically democratic. In the long term liberalism has quietly changed the world for the better, more so than any dramatic revolution. It has failed in some ways – it could not prevent the rise of Hitler and it finds it difficult to grapple with terrorism. But liberalism continues to endure.

Socialism believes first and foremost in social, economic and political equality. It believes in the removal of old social hierarchies, the redistribution of wealth, goods and services on the basis of human need and the ending of extremes of wealth and poverty. Income should be on the basis of work, not inheritance (or being a wheeler-dealer on the Stock Exchange). It emphasizes welfare – social security, free health care at the point of delivery, universal free education and suitable levels of taxation to pay for it all. Major industries, particularly those related to utilities such as energy, transport etc. should be nationalized. Socialism in practice often ends up with somewhat sluggish economies and huge state bureaucracies. Some forms of socialism seek state control of everything; others permit a mixed economy.

Conservatism often claims it isn’t an ideology at all, certainly not in written form, but it does nevertheless constitute a set of definable ideas about how society should or should not be run (even ‘laissez-faire’ economics can be summarized as a set of ideas). Conservatism used to be the paternalist protector of old, established values and ways of doing things, but in the second half of the 20th century in the UK it became the enthusiastic supporter of free enterprise and the dismantling of state control in many aspects of the social and economic ‘infrastructure’. In many ways it became Americanized. If it has an ideology at all, it is an amalgamation of pragmatism along with a rooted belief in ‘law and order’. It is averse to ‘change for the sake of change’, so in that sense it is still ‘conservative’.

The totalitarian ideologies, Communism and Fascism, probably did more than anything else to give ‘ideology’ a bad name, and it has stuck. Both systems, as in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Nazi Germany, Fascist Spain and pre-1945 Italy, sought to regulate all areas of social and individual life (to varying extents, admittedly). They were elitist and usually totalitarian. Their ideologies were extreme and doctrinaire, and criticism of the regime and free, open debate was illegal. But it was not illegal for the state security agencies to arrest you without charge and send you for decades to forced labour camps or worse, particularly under Stalin. It took a world war to eliminate Nazism, and rather longer for the Soviet Union to atrophy and wither away – the Cold War dragged on for decades. At this stage I must speed up my summary of Freeden’s book.

Chapter 7 is ‘Segments and modules: the micro-ideologies’.
In contrast to the macro-ideologies which seek to be broad and all-encompassing, there are micro-ideologies which concentrate on mainly one issue, for example feminism or environmentalism. Both of these have a world-wide remit (they are not ‘local’), but they would not necessarily be concerned with issues outside the scope of their own spheres of interest (for example should all education be taken into state control, what is the best way of controlling public expenditure etc.).

On the other hand a feminist for example could argue that feminism is not an ideology at all. It can be based on straightforward moral arguments which have no ideological content – ‘equality’ is a moral precept about how people should be treated which comes under ethics, not ‘ideology’ which carries relativistic connotations.

Over the past 25 years, says Freeden, new forms of political thought have emerged. Although ‘we now live in a world loosely described as global.... ideologies have been fragmenting into more diverse, unstructured and temporary combinations that offer partial political solutions’ to one problem or another. Also, he explains how existing ideologies can mutate (so to speak) and new ideologies can arise from them. For example ‘libertarianism’ is a descendant from both liberalism and conservatism, advocating unlimited consumer choice, economic inequality and opposition to state regulation. In many ways it is something of a throw-back to old-style laissez-fair capitalism.

Freeden calls one-issue ideologies ‘thin ideologies’. But they can nevertheless be very influential, feminism probably being the best example. He notes, though, that ‘once we begin to talk of a million ideologies, we abandon commonsense.’ He mentions that the internet seems to offer a ‘revolution in the production of ideologies’. I suppose this could simply be minority groups just talking to themselves, but some of them could have something important to say. But single-issue ideologies, says Freeden, usually have little to say on the full range of questions that the macro-ideologies deal with or seek to address. So he concludes that the age of the mainstream ideologies is not over.

Chapter 8 is ‘Discursive realities and surrealities’.
Freeden explains that ideological fragmentation has led to new developments in the theory of ideology. A sceptic might well query whether there’s anything left to theorize about, but Freeden pursues his enquiries by looking at ‘discourse theory’ as developed by continental philosophers. The main approaches are hermeneutics, semantics and post-modern studies. These have affinities with Anglo-American analytic philosophy, but the jargon used is so unfamiliar I shall have to bypass a detailed account.

Freeden gives an example of the complexity of analysing discourse by quoting a famous passage from the American Declaration of Independence:- “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The continental discourse theorist would say this passage refuses to recognize differences within human ‘identity’ (what about women?); it is an assertion of political power; it uses linguistic strategies such as the capitalization of key words. The analytic philosopher would say that only tautologies are ‘self-evident truths’ but the Declaration is not a set of tautologies, so it cannot be ‘self-evident’. The normative term ‘equal’ is not ‘self-evident’ either; the existence of a Creator is open to query; the word ‘rights’ is also contentious.

The quotation from the example of the American Declaration of Independence is only one example of how continental ‘post-structuralism’ and analytic philosophy are both deeply sceptical about ‘ideology’ as such. Neither of them, it would appear, are able to resolve the fragmentation of ‘ideology’ in the modern world. But then again, why should they?

Chapter 9 is ‘Stimuli and responses: seeing and feeling ideology’.
This is quite a short chapter where Freeden outlines how ideologies are communicated not only through prose but also through pictures, metaphor and appeals to the emotions. This reinforces the view held by many critics that ideology, rather like religion, is not so much irrational as non-rational – that is, more a matter of emotion and feeling rather than anything else.

Firstly, pictures. The carefully orchestrated Nuremburg rallies in Nazi Germany were all filmed to a very high professional standard, and all were shown, repeatedly, in cinemas throughout Germany. Dr. Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister, knew perfectly well that one good film had greater impact than a dozen newspaper articles or a book. Much the same can be said of propaganda films in the Soviet Union. As Freeden notes, visual symbols tend to discourage the two-way flow of debate (which totalitarian politicians did not want).

The use of metaphor is copiously employed in ideological writings. Phrases such as ‘the father of the nation’, ‘the corridors of power’ can be very influential. The same is true of emotive language and appeals to the emotions. We should recall that in moral philosophy, Logical Positivists such as Ayer, Stevenson and others characterized moral discourse as having no literal, descriptive meaning, but primarily emotive meaning. On the other hand it is arguable that insofar as feeling can be supported and reinforced by reasoning, it can be ‘quasi-rational’. Maybe this applies to ideology.

Chapter 10 is ‘Conclusion: why politics can’t do without ideology’.
This is another short chapter, but it is rather verbose. He says (p126) that ‘ideologies are typical forms in which political thought is expressed.... Ideologies are the arrangements of political thought that illuminate the central ideas, overt assumptions and unstated biases that drive political conduct.’ He goes on, ‘ideologies are influential kinds of political thought. They offer decision-making frameworks without which political action cannot occur.’

I find this very reminiscent of ‘management language’ where business objectives are defined, reasons are given for them and methods for their achievement are specified, together with appropriate communication and publicity. Ideology also has much in common with sales-talk and the language of marketing, advertising and public relations. When Freeden says ‘ideologies are instances of imaginative creativity’ and ‘ideologies need to be communicable... couched in non-specialist terms’, this is more reminiscent of company product literature than political philosophy, in my own opinion.

I think Freeden has given us a useful and informative book, although I do not agree with everything he says. In particular, I think the word ‘ideology’ should be dispensed with altogether and replaced, for the reasons I explained, by a more neutral expression such as ‘political belief systems’.

R S Feb. 2015