Against Ideology

Robert Henderson

By ideology I mean a set of ideas, religious or secular, to which an individual subscribes blindly regardless of the objective and testable truth of  the ideology or of any contradictions which it may contain.

It might be objected that men commonly display the same unquestioning attitude towards  much of their conscious thought. For example, human beings are generally  loth to give up what they have accepted as truth through the process of received opinion or that which has become comfortable through habit. Yet there is a clear difference between the ideologue’s  attachment to his systematic ideas and the desire of, say, a scientist to maintain that a scientific “fact” is fact after it has been shown to  be dubious or of someone who finds unreasonable the breach of a  custom without objective moral or intellectual content, for example, blowing  one’s nose in public in a society which considers that behaviour  insulting. The scientist merely wishes to defend a single  idea: the person insulted by a breach of custom merely wishes to prevent  the breach. Neither have a desire to control the lives of others  generally or claim that if this is believed or that behaviour observed, a catalogue of other things must also be believed or behaviours observed.

Except in the very rare instances of someone inventing a new ideology, either entirely or through a successful deformation of an existing ideology  – Marxism provides instances of both – the ideology is something which is external to the individual and which is accepted by the individual  as something which cannot be questioned, as a logically connected  or divinely revealed coherent system of thought.

For the true disciple  of an ideology it must be accepted in its entirety or not at all. The reality of all  ideologies is that they are incomplete descriptions of  the world at best and plain wrong at worst. Religious ideologies are either  ragbags of unsupported imperatives, for example, Christianity and  Islam, or, as is the case of Buddhism, a system of thought which has a specious appearance of rationality but which, even in its purest  form, is just as irrational because its logical arguments derive from unsupported  assertions such as the behaviour expected of those who are to  reach nirvana, a state as mythical as Heaven or Paradise.

Secular  ideologies, which include everything from humanism to Nazism,  have a greater appearance of rationality than the religious  because they do not, ostensibly at least, call upon the supernatural. Yet  in truth their supposed “objectivity” is far from real. Marxism is  undoubtedly the nearest any political ideology has come to creating  not merely a general intellectual explanation of how society works and  how it will work, but also a school of academic thought devoted to  it. Yet the supposed scientific truths of Marx have been shown  by the passing of time to be as fanciful as the claims that Christ came  to Earth to save Man or that the archangel Gabriel directly vouchsafed  the word of God to Mohammed. In fact, they have been even more comprehensively denied than the religions, because being rational in  form and concerned with observable behaviour in the world which men inhabit, Marx’s claims may be tested by experience. Religions by  their nature cannot be tested because they deal with that which either does  not exist or is beyond the perception of men, namely,the supernatural.

Most political ideologies  are not even intellectually coherent, let alone suited to  human society. There is, for example, no logical reason why socialism must be internationalist. Yet this is an obligatory tenet,  in words if not deeds, of all those who call themselves socialists.  In fact, all Governments which have adopted significant socialist  policies have, in practice, been nationalists. Even Stalin accepted  the idea, albeit supposedly temporary, of “Socialism  in one country”.

The contemporary ideological error is another form of internationalism,  that of Globalism. Here its disciples make the logical error of  thinking that the free trade of goods and services implies freedom of movement of labour. Manifestly it does not. Countries have, can,  and do, quite happily trade amongst themselves without  exchanging labour.

As to being suited to human society, both religious and political ideologies contain  that which is destructive of society. Most of the major religions  in their mainstream forms have  emphasised the better nature of  something other than human existence – always jam tomorrow. This has allowed  elites to maintain their abusive hold on the masses and bred fatalism and subordination on the part of the majority.

Religions have also frequently been obscurantist, afraid of new ideas and technologies. The deficiencies of  modern political ideologies fall into two broad camps. Those, such  as Marxism, entirely ignore the natural desire of human beings to utilise their natural and inherited advantages. Opposed to them are the ideologies which overly promote competition and ignore the social nature of Man. Either of these two camps may operate within an  internationalist frame. When they do, they ignore the most fundamental  social trait of Man, the tribal urge. Systems of thought which are incompatible  with basic human nature are inherently unstable and  dangerous because they cannot be long sustained yet cause great suffering in the attempt to impose them.

The general poison  of ideologies is that in the minds of adherents they sanction unlimited  immoral action against those who refuse to accept the  “truth” and “necessity” of this or that ideology. Hence, Christian heretics  are burned and Muslim apostates sentenced to death because God will  be displeased, while counter-revolutionaries in Soviet Russia were  executed as a danger to the proletarian revolution and the eventual ascent  to communist utopia.

Today we have liberal internationalist creed which as hardened into political correctness.  This is a literally totalitarian creed for it both impinges on  all aspects of social interaction and insist that there is only one “correct” view on any subject, namely, the pc one.  This means  natural and powerful resentment of what pc stands for are never addressed. The elite response – politicians, the mainstream media and academic “experts” – to the actions of Anders Breivik in Oslo demonstrates this mentality. They have not asked  whether the imposition and ever tightening grip of political correctness was in part at least responsible for his murderous onslaught, but to reach for the censor’s button and fade Breivik out of public debate even to the extent of not reporting Breivik’s testimony at his trial –  BBC Radio 5 reported 25 July (morning phone-in) that the Norwegian prosecutor of Breivik has asked that the trial be held in camera.  All this does is sweep the problem of the deracination of the masses in states controlled by the politically correct under the carpet for a while longer.  It is the classic mistake of ideologues who believe that people can be re-educated to think as the ideologues do. Human nature can hobbled for a while but not killed.

The sane, practical  and humane way to approach the question of how society is best governed  is to be pragmatic. Have clear ends to achieve but no  hidebound preconception of how it should be achieved because you are a  slave to a system of thought which says you must do this or that regardless of its utility.

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  • Tony  On July 27, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I read somewhere sometime ago there is a book written by someone ” involved ” or close to the original planning and organisation of the E U and which tells of it being modelled on the lines of the old Soviet system, and indeed they had a hand in it, and which is why the governing body is non elected , cannot be got at or removed by the population of the member E U countries. I wish I had made a note of the author, title and publisher because as time goes on, it becomes more apparrent the book is correct.

  • biblicalanthropologist  On September 21, 2011 at 3:55 am

    I applaud your attack on ideology and believe it is mostly right on. I do have some critique’s, however, from a Christian perspective.

    You Said:
    Religious ideologies are either ragbags of unsupported imperatives, for example, Christianity and Islam.
    This is false. Christianity is not based on a set of rules to obey, or even a set of truths to believe. It is based on trust in Jesus Christ. You will not find any informed Christian who openly disagrees with this. If you do, please find out where he goes to church and ask them about it. They may hem and haw and add qualifications, or demand that you rephrase it. However, they will eventually tell you the truth – that Christianity is based on trust in Jesus Christ. Even false Christians will, because they need to do so to avoid being recognized as false by true Christians.

    I know a lot less about Islam but the Muslims I have spoken to claim that the unifying principle of Islam is this – that there is one God and that Mohammed is his Prophet.

    You Said:
    Most of the major religions in their mainstream forms have emphasised the better nature of something other than human existence – always jam tomorrow. This has allowed elites to maintain their abusive hold on the masses and bred fatalism and subordination on the part of the majority.

    I believe you are correct in that ruling ideology can be very oppressive. It is most oppressive, however, when the masses believe it but the elites do not. The elites then use the ideology to persuade the common people to do what they want, but feel free themselves to oppress others at will. One reason Martin Luther to started the reformation was the discovery that most of the religious elite of his time did not really believe what they were preaching. The same was true of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time.

    This is not always the case, however. There are times when the elites believe in an ideology but the masses do not. I believe that is more often true today. Talk to anyone in the upper echelons of Western society today and chances are he or she derives most of his beliefs from some sort of ideology – be it Religious Fundamentalism, Marxism, Libertarianism, or Nationalism. The exceptions seem to come mainly from an individual’s self interest, or from grudging concessions to reality. The masses – especially those who don’t like to take handouts – tend to be much more realistic. They recognize ideology for what it is.

    If one assumes that there has to be a ruling ideology, it is better that it be a religious ideology than a secular one. I believe this would be true even if there were no supernatural world. The reason is simply this – if the elites believe that there is no supernatural world, they will not fear any sort of supernatural punishment for bad behavior. Without any fear of supernatural punishment, and with earthly power, they will oppress the masses at will.

    You Said:
    The general poison of ideologies is that in the minds of adherents they sanction unlimited immoral action against those who refuse to accept the ”truth” and “necessity” of this or that ideology. Hence, Christian heretics are burned and Muslim apostates sentenced to death because God will be displeased, while counter-revolutionaries in Soviet Russia were executed as a danger to the proletarian revolution and the eventual ascent to communist utopia.

    I agree this is a very strong argument against ideology in general. However, a lot fewer Christian heretics and Muslim apostates have been killed. Secular ideologies have been a lot more deadly. One reason for this has been the fear of God. If you really believe in God, you won’t want to do anything evil in his name. You won’t want to give people who hate him one more reason to. You won’t want to displease him. And one thing that at least all Abrahamic religions teach is this: God REALLY hates it when evil is done in his name. He takes it personally.

    Carl Marx is dead so I can safely do anything I want in his name and he won’t care. Jesus Christ is very much alive, in Heaven, watching everything I do. Since I really believe that, I try not to do evil in his name.

  • John E. Harrington  On January 3, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    This little essay is the best description of the problem of ideology I’ve seen. I especially like that you make no particular distinction between religions and political ideologies. I have called religions “ideologies with gods” and political ideologies “religions without gods”.

    I also like that you point out the absolutitst tendency of ideology and how absolutism suggests absolute evil in one’s enemies and therefore brutal, absolute final solutions to the problem they present to the ideologue.

    You make an analogy between ideology and poison. I think a better analogy is that ideologies are like drugs. They appear to have an almost intoxicating effect on ideologues, and they interfere with the ability to reason in a similar way to drugs. Ideologues can be very intelligent people, but their ideologies can lead them to very fundamental errors that you wouldn’t think an intelligent person would fall victim to. In talking with ideologues, one sometimes has a similar feeling in trying to reason with a drunk. There is often the same incoherence and even belligerence, no matter how intelligent the sober mind may be.

    You write:

    “By ideology I mean a set of ideas, religious or secular, to which an individual subscribes blindly regardless of the objective and testable truth of the ideology or of any contradictions which it may contain.”

    This of course isn’t a definition of ideology that any dictionary I’m aware of recognizes. Ideologies, fundamentally, are systems of ideas. That they are systems I think is the problem, because the world is not necessarily systematically based on principles or values. Therefore, ideologies are poor models in interacting with reality. They needn’t necessarily be followed blindly, but they often are. Just as one person can sip at a half glass of wine while another quaffs shot after shot of the hard stuff, there are different degrees of ideological intoxication. Some of it truly is blind, some qualified and cautious.

    But, to go back to your analogy, just as there is no dose of poison that is helpful, so I think there is no level of ideology that is helpful, and it’s wise to try to extirpate ideology completely from our thought.

    Probably most people believe that’s impossible and believe there’s always bound to be some level of ideology, that it can never be routed out completely. I think it can be if we consciously adopt a consequentialist approach to any policy, law, or idea.

    How is consequentialism itself not an ideology? Because it isn’t a system of ideas. It’s merely a test of the effect of any particular idea based on a desirable outcome.

    How is desirable defined, and is that not ideological? I think desirable can be defined based on common understandings of human welfare. That is: being fed is better than starving, being properly clothed is better than wearing rags, housed better than homeless. It can be defined, to borrow an idea from Sam Harris, in a similar way that health can be defined, not precisely perhaps but well enough to be practical.

    Last, these consequentialist tests must be empirical. And empiricism is again a word that sounds like an ideology but is not, for the same reason: it isn’t a set of ideas. It’s rather a method at arriving at good approximations of truth based on evidence, with the axiom that repeated observations suggest reliability.

    Last, are these three ideas, consequentialism, human welfare, and empricism not a system of ideas and therefore an ideology? I don’t think they are a “system” in the way ideologies are, but let’s at this point grant that they are. If that’s the case, then what I’m proposing is a minimum ideology, one that reduces ideology to its smallest possible particle only because it’s preferable to incoherence or aimlessness. But if this can be called and ideology, then those who claim a complete defeat of ideology is impossible are vindicated.


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