ideologyMore effort has been spent, it seems, in trying to combat ideology than in understanding why it occurs, whether it has always been part of the human condition and, if so, why it seems to have become so devastatingly prevalent in the past two centuries or so.

Those better read (or contributors who do not live in Afghanistan apart from their libraries) will know more than I, but one may begin unsatisfactorily with Original Sin, anthropology and biology, each ubiquitous in our species.

Original Sin, which both Saint Augustine and the Muslim prophet Mohammad equated with selfishness, is overcome by learning empathy:  Buddhists use meditation to instil the same quality that others may attribute to grace, tutelage or experience. So, unenlightened ego and overweening pride may lay at the heart of what Dr. Russell Kirk scornfully called “defecated reason.” In other words, my clever idea is better than your tradition. But, real as that dangerous process is, it neither explains the popularity of ideology nor its apparent increase in modern times.

Anthropology is another explanation but it is not wholly satisfactory. An Afghan friend recently pointed out that almost every Pushtoon poet, political demagogue and dictator came from the Eastern (Ghilzai) tribes, while the royalist Mohammadzai clans of the Southwest are always driven by conservative impulses based on locale and extended family. United by language and tradition, the two are ethnically different, so one wonders if some cultures are more ideologically prone than others are. This could explain the overly-intellectualised Germans who (if you count the coming scrap over united Europe) provided three ideologically-propelled struggles in one century. It also explains the intensely anti-ideological English, Dutch and Scandinavians. But it hardly explains the growth of ideology among the ethnically diverse Americans.

Biology teaches that humans are not the only species to draw correlations but we seem most adept at it. All primates puzzle out how to use simple tools such as sticks to catch tasty termites, but perhaps only humans overdraw correlations into complex conspiracy-theories, which amount to seeing correlations that do not exist. Hence the seeming likelihood of a rational but insane ideology.

This process of over-intellectualisation is the national sport in most of South Asia, and not a sparrow falls without its demise being attributed popularly to some cabal of special interests (usually involving a foreign intelligence service). As a brilliant Afghan friend confessed to me, after presenting his fifth meticulous but contradictory conspiracy theory in as many weeks, “sometimes I think we’re nuts.”

This process of conspiracy theory is closely related to the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, or false causality, assuming that because one thing precedes another it caused another. Here too, our hyperactive drawing of correlations – which is assuredly a primeval survival skill – can carry us overboard.

In Original Sin, anthropology and biology we can see tendencies to create an ideological, make-believe universe or fall prey to one, but neither explains the seeming increase in the psychological disease.

It may be that ideology was always present and ever attractive to some, but that it was suppressed by monarchs and their courts who were better educated than hoi polloi and the clever-dicks with a crack-pot idea to peddle, and who had a vested interest in preserving order and continuity (however self-serving). Savonarola learnt this the hard way. So it could be that the emergence of liberal systems and mass empowerment permitted the everlasting ideological impulse to flourish.

The metastasis of ideology may also have been abetted by technology. The Medieval Church, like it or not, carefully instructed a porous elite of bright people when books were few. Herr Gutenberg changed that, flooding the earth with printed ideas wise and foolish, far beyond any possibility of the poorer ideas being curtailed by any state or fully debated in a chain of monasteries.

Traditionalists often still argue that the spread of ideology stems from a pernicious liberty, whether they carry the argument that far and do so knowingly. Ultimately, their position may come down to the competition of ideas and the loss of authority to limit the field, permitting people to choose values based on pure reason, or make-believe, or appetite. It may be true, as Plato would agree, but popular choice seems to be a genie unlikely to return to his bottle.

There is, however, another explanation related to technology, and at very least by circumstantial evidence it arose around the time of the French Revolution, perhaps the earliest mass ideology of modern times. It is the division of labour, born on the shop-floor of Adam Smith’s famous pin factory in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Smith, inspired by Diderot, visited several pin factories and noted that specialisation permitted an increase of productivity of between 240 and 4800 times. I think his 1776 observation is fascinating, but skip it if it bores you:

One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

On to Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts, Henry Ford’s assembly line, and most industrial jobs today.

But the specialisation process goes further: there were shoe shops in your great-grandfather’s day but not shops for sports shoes versus dress shoes versus beach-wear. There were hydraulic and civil and mechanical engineers then, not nearly so many kinds as now. Department stores were rare and most shops were family affairs where the proprietor knew his community. Self-employed people had enough time to chat over the counter with customers, and to take long, occasional lunches with their colleagues or competitors in the Rotary or Elks or Kiwanis or Lion’s Clubs.

Both the pace and the structure of employment permitted a kind of socio-economic integration that generated understanding and empathy. As in the generation before Smith’s division of labour, when every pin-maker knew every step in manufacturing a pin, our great-grandfathers knew by name someone involved in almost any service on which they depended, who made and sold any product that they required and every customer, patient or client. It is no longer so.

Twenty years ago, the National Association of Manufacturers conducted annual national opinion polls asking people how much profit businesses made by sector. The results were always ludicrous, with most people suspecting that many industries earned sixty cents on the dollar every year, when the answer was almost always in single digits and often the low ones. Such ignorance would have been less likely a century ago, when your great-grandfather would have had a fairly clear idea of what the local dairy-owner paid for milk, his price to customers, his income, his net worth and what he paid Harold the milkman.

So if this is correct, as people become less informed about one another, they may more easily fall prey to screwy notions, conspiracy and ideology. Deprived of the interaction that encourages empathy, they may become angrier, lonelier and more susceptible to indefensible fits of paranoia and vulnerability. They may thus become easy meat for the ideologue because they have no access to community and reality and are banished into an unverifiable world where all appears to be make-believe so they choose the ideology because it makes them feel good,

Were this correct, then all or most economically-developed nations – the ones most subjected to atomisation thanks to a developmental process beginning with industrialisation and the division of labour – would exhibit increasingly ideological tendencies.

They might, for example, romanticise the poor whom they never met, and build vast, costly and counter-effective welfare states to supposedly help them. They might fail to value entrepreneurs and understand what they need to prosper. Unable to meet their superiors on a frequent basis, they might become egalitarians convinced that they warrant neither improvement nor effort to improve: and if so, why go to church? Knowing neither local government nor small business, they might grow conspiratorial and suspicious of all institutions, and without community scrutiny the institutions might come to justify their suspicions. Deprived of values born of community pressure from superiors on one hand, and the visibility of abject failures on the other, they might have nothing to rely upon for guidance but animal appetites from consumerism to abortion-for-mere-convenience. But, surely, that could never happen here.

I suspect that much decay may be unanticipated side-effects of economic growth and industrialisation. But if I claimed it was the only reason then I’d be an ideologue, wouldn’t I?

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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7 replies to this post
  1. But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen3:4-5) That's ideology, and it's been around for a while. Eli Whitney, by the way, invented not only interchangeable parts, but also government bailouts and the midlife crisis. To do the latter he had to give up God–and he probably blamed his wife. Dr. Gillies, in Thornton Wilder's The Eighth Day, told the children of the town on New Year's Eve of 1900, "You are the children of the eighth day of creation." Wilder assures us that the good doctor didn't believe that bullshit, but he thought it was the duty of the old to lie to the young. Steve, you are right on every point.

  2. John, apropos of very little, Genesis also tells us how to pronounce word Appalachia (with a long or short 'a' in the middle) according to local folk wisdom reported by my cousin, a priest in West Virginia:

    "Snake," said Eve,
    "If you deceive,
    "I'll throw this apple atcha!"

    More seriously, my own thoughts upset me for, if they are true, we've build ourselves a socio-economic Tower of Babel that won't come down but on our own heads.

  3. Stephen, compelling as always.

    Given that no Pandora has ever returned to its box,at least to my knowledge, what now?

    In other words, if this is The Conservative Mind, will there be A Program for Conservatives? I've been wondering on the topic for some time, but haven't made it beyond the need to pursue the growth and development of our own local communities with vigor. As well as continuing to read, write, and share ideas, of course.

  4. Ryan, yours is the fabled $60,000 Question! I think that advancing the Real Conservative agenda, and not through politics primarily, is our debt to our masters such as Dr Kirk.

    Happily, genies can be returned to their bottles. Dr Kirk often cited historical periods of moral and intellectual renewal. Here at TIC we may find inspiration in people such as Barbara Elliott and her effective social work among misfortunates. I suspect that many of us are engaged in community-building without us pausing to analyse it.

    But we should be more practical and analytical still, in preparation for what may be trying trying times ahead, and here we drop the ball somewhat. I am skeptical of Distributists because they never seem to dump romantic generalisation and get down to the brass tacks of how. But they tend to focus while we tend to moan. I fully concur with you. We need better diagnosis and prescription beyond vagueries of restoring values and we need it soon.

  5. Nice piece with a nice ending. I'm an ideology-studies geek after many years of reading Molnar, Voegelin, Kuehnelt-Leddihn, et al. but have to admit that I mostly considered the metaphysical and philosophical roots, not the socio-economic ones. Great point! Thanks.

  6. Mischaracterizing “ideology” per se as the problem is as vacuous as mischaracterizing “terrorism” as our enemy.

    Terrorism is not an ideology; it is a military doctrine – part of “unrestricted warfare.” Our enemies are ideologies that are inimical to our own – Islamism and the various modern collectivist ideologies of the right and left that arose in Europe to vie for dominance in the wake of the decline of the ideology of monarchism.

    Tradition and culture are not the antitheses of ideology. Often they incorporate or internalize their founding ideologies. In essence a political ideology is a legitimacy paradigm. Monarchism legitimizes its authority with dynastic succession and ultimately divine right. In its decline it added benevolence. So does Islamism, which adds an element of religious supremacism.

    The modern collectivist ideologies of Europe – socialism (and its Marxist and non-Marxist variants), national socialism, fascism, all claim legitimacy on the basis that they will bring about a society where the bureaucratic political class, rather than the market, determines the allocation of resources on the basis of so-called “social justice” (and, not coincidentally, on the basis of what will secure and perpetuate the power and wealth of the same political class).

    But like the USSR, the USA is a nation state and society founded upon an ideology. Because it was not created by an academic, it does not have a pithy “-ism” for a label. Its principles and concepts are most succinctly articulated in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It – the ideology of the successful American Revolution – is the basis of our nation, our republic of federated states and limited powers, and the inspiration for our Constitution. It – not some protean “tradition.”

    Our legitimacy paradigm is based upon certain self-evident truths – that nature’s God, our Creator, endows each of us from birth with certain unalienable rights that may not be diminished or supplemented (with so-called “positive rights”). Its correctness is the source of its success. The error of the other world ideologies is the source of their failures.

    In order to conserve what is good about our nation, we must know its ideology. Sometimes when, as has occurred over the last 100 years, our traditions, based upon our founding ideology, have been eroded and subverted, we must be radical (in the original “root” sense of the word) in order to reverse our “fundamental transformation” and bring about true “fundamental restoration” of our republic, our Constitution and our founding ideology. Our ideology is inimical to that of almost every other country. It has been under assault since the late 19th century. People will fight for our ideology of liberty if properly understood. They will not fight for tradition based upon forgotten principles and ideology.

    What you call “ideology” is more specific. It is a collectivism based upon political elitism and a new serfdom to the modern bureaucratic state, legitimized by the state’s coercive confiscation and redistribution of wealth to each “according to his needs.” It is a modern paradigm to replace very similar principles of monarchism.

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