On ideology

The left must articulate an ideology or we will be condemned to live with someone elses.

Eliane Glaser
19 August 2014

What do we stand for? What brings us together as a movement? What is our vision for the future? These are questions I keep hearing: at NGO and think tank meetings, anti-austerity op-ed pieces, and comments by Labour backbenchers.

There is something about these questions that smacks of reinventing the wheel. Those with a long memory of socialist struggle will be wondering what is prompting us, right now, to go back to basics. I’m not exactly a veteran of the cause, having grown up under Thatcher, but even I can remember a time when there would have been a clear and resounding answer to the question, ‘What is our ideology?’ Namely, ‘The ideology of the Left’.

Yes, there’s been a massive financial crisis, but why has that not prompted people to take up the existing tools of anti-capitalist opposition, rather than forging new ones from scratch? To me, the big conundrum is whether these are indeed exciting new times, or whether all this Year Zero atmosphere is a neoliberal scam to persuade us that history really has ended by wiping our ideological memories and rendering our ideological language obsolete.

Should the people formerly known as the Left now identify as ‘progressive’, ‘democratic’, or espousing the ‘common good’? We (and I do mean we, because this is unashamedly addressed to fellow travellers) are excited but tongue-tied, casting around for words that don’t seem to quite capture the task at hand.

Why this dilemma? In campaigning circles there’s a broad tendency to associate ideology with the old, broken party system. There’s an explicit focus now on process over programme, of enacting the change we’d like to see. Explicit agendas are associated with traditional hierarchies, and the trend is towards decentralised organisation and horizontalist collaboration. Activism is fragmenting into single-issue campaigns rather than a joined up ‘ism’ or ‘ology’. The centrifugal character of online culture is dissipating political drive and atomising political identity.

Yet alongside these new directions, it’s clear that ideas and ideals matter as much, or not more, than ever. The journal Soundings has been running its ‘Kilburn Manifesto’ series, with contributions by Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, Michael Rustin and others. Adbusters magazine is producing a series of ‘Blueprints for a New World’. Writer and columnist Owen Jones recently produced his ‘Agenda for Hope’ manifesto in the Independent.

This powerful need for definition and declaration can also be seen in the explosion of interest in ‘framing’ amongst politicians and NGOs. Framing uses the cognitive neuroscience of George Lakoff and Drew Western and the social psychology of political psychologists Milton Rokeach and Shalom Schwartz to articulate alternative progressive ‘narratives’. Framing draws on a scientific rather than a political tradition and concerns moral values and ‘storytelling’. Advocates of framing do not talk in terms of ideology, yet it seems to me that the advent of framing is a product of its glaring yet oddly unremarked absence.

It’s clear that something big is happening. Resistance to neoliberalism is springing up everywhere. Transition towns, timebanks and grassroots community groups are proliferating. What is not clear is what it’s all adding up to, politically. The big challenge is coherence, coordination, coalescence. And at the heart of this challenge is a crisis of self-identification and articulation.

This crisis is the subject of a discussion paper that I’ve written for the New Economics Foundation as part of their New Social Settlement project. It’s only by getting to grips with what has happened to ideology, I argue, that we can forge a vision for the future that sticks. Why has it become so toxic to say what you mean, and what you want? And how does the answer to that question help us move on from here?   

Twenty-five years ago this summer, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama speculated that, with the fall of Communism, we’d reached the end of history. The great ideological battles between East and West were over, he argued, and Western liberal democracy had triumphed. ‘What we are witnessing’, Fukuyama wrote, ‘is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of post war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’.

Fukuyama’s seminal article was in part a response to a 1960 collection of essays entitled The End of Ideology by the sociologist Daniel Bell. Bell wrote that political society had rejected its ‘visions’; and that ‘in the West … the old passions are spent’. Fukuyama was not claiming that ideology per se was finished; rather that the best possible ideology had evolved. Yet the ‘end of history’ and ‘the end of ideology’ arguments were driving at a single outcome: the silencing of debate about the best ways to organise society.

The arguments of Fukuyama and Bell have been dismissed as both crude and disingenuous, especially by those on the left who detected, under their apparent ‘liberal democratic’ reasonableness, a distinct neocon allegiance. But they have been repeated enough to acquire the ring of truth, and the direction that politics in the West has taken over the last thirty years has reproduced them pretty faithfully: from John Major’s avowedly apolitical ‘back to basics’ campaign to Tony Blair’s famous claim that ‘We are beyond ideology’; from Bill Clinton’s triangulations to the bipartisan pragmatism of Barack Obama, who has announced that ‘what is needed is a declaration of independence ... from ideology’. Managerialism, technocracy and ‘evidence-based policy’ are the order of the day.

I find it useful to distinguish between two forms of ideology: overt and covert. The overt form is the one in common usage: explicit affiliation to a set of political principles. Covert ideology – meaning distortion or deception – is largely absent from public discussion. When Cameron defends the cuts by saying ‘We are not doing this because we want to. We are not driven by some theory or some ideology. We are doing this … because we have to’, that is an illustration of ideology in the covert sense – the ideology that masquerades as its absence; as expediency, efficiency, ‘what works’.

This seductively down-to-earth, demotic rhetoric is neoliberalism’s central ally in winning the public debate. Such appeals to ostensibly apolitical common sense are, as Mark Fisher notes in Capitalist Realism, key both to disguising a highly partisan agenda as unmotivated and also to silencing any appeals to an alternative. If ideology has become a term of abuse across the board, the Left is particularly vulnerable to it, because it’s associated with ‘Old Left’ utopianism. With the decline of 70s and 80s ideology critique, a useful tool for detecting these sleights of hand, the public has come to accept the Right’s version of ideology as both overt and over.

As society becomes more and more divided socio-economically, political choices become ever more narrow. Under the guise of claims that right and left are redundant categories, politics in the UK and the US has simply moved to the right. And in a highly counterproductive development, public antipathy towards mainstream politics tends to manifest in distaste for its ‘tribal’, ‘adversarial’ style, leading to ever more calls for the parties to focus less on dogma and more on ‘results’.

I am ambivalent about the prioritising of action over words in activist and campaigning circles. Right-wing calls to shrink the state are being echoed on the left in an emphasis on autonomy and localism over the ‘top down’ state. But a politics that exists outside the theatre of the state has yet to be imagined. Brilliant work is coming out of grassroots, local and community initiatives, but there’s a danger that this dispersed concretism is an effect of what it is trying to counter. If we give up on articulation and concentrate on growing vegetables in our community allotments, those vegetables will be a product of neoliberal hegemony.

It’s too early yet to tell whether the Left’s linguistic tangle is epochal and universal or contingent and avoidable; in other words, whether it’s the result of the death of grand narratives across the board and the rise of mashup culture, or of a deliberate attempt by the Right to render the word 'left' unsayable.

Whatever the reason, we seem to have entered a weirdly postpolitical era, with anti-Westminster mavericks like Farage and Johnson on the rise, and public antibodies probably irreversibly activated against the old ideological vocabulary. It’s not clear to me where it’s all going. But if there is hope, it lies in the oppositional, paradoxical structure of politics as a category. Farage’s plain speaking is at once anti-political and deeply political. Contemporary populism, as Erik Swyngedouw has argued, is a vestige of the public’s desire for commitment and idealism. Our task, therefore, is twofold: to discern the ideological in the purportedly non-ideological, and to grasp the potential, in the turn away from the political, for a new politics to emerge.

You can dowload a copy of Eliane's New Economics Foundation paper on ideology here.

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