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"Ideology": An essay by Jason Blakely (Keywords: Politics; History; Culture; Scientism; Hermeneutics; Neoliberalism; Karl Marx; Clifford Geertz)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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Defining “ideology” is easy so long as one does not think about it very hard. After all, everyone knows what the word “ideology” means. It is a slander. It is what happens on cable television or inside anonymous Internet chat rooms. Ideology afflicts the crazy family member who finds the slightest pretext to launch into diatribes at holiday dinners – or the acquaintance who compulsively forwards political messages to large numbers of recipients.


Also widely known is that when describing one’s own politics, it is best to avoid the word “ideology” in favour of terms like “belief system,” “theory,” or just plain “commonsense.” Thus, we arrive at one of the central ironies of our age: namely, the nearly universal tendency to perceive one’s own politics as plainly rational and factual, while those of a rival as no less obviously illogical, delusional, and deranged.


If you are on the Left, the term “ideology” is often a shorthand for ideas reinforcing hierarchical domination and bamboozling exploited peoples into cooperation with the powers that be (especially capitalism). Escaping ideology requires adopting the cause of egalitarian freedom and championing people on the margins. If you are on the Right, “ideology” is an unrealistic, even darkly utopian effort to ignore the hard facts of human nature and impose “woke” beliefs that abolish traditional morality. Exiting ideology is only possible through disciplined deference to inherited societal and religious authorities.

Like a snake swallowing its own tail, ideology has become the idea that consumes itself


For this reason, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted many years ago that, “Ideology is the thought of my adversary, the thought of the other; he does not know it, but I, I know it.” Similarly, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz brilliantly declared that the concept of ideology had “itself become thoroughly ideologized.” Like a snake swallowing its own tail, ideology has become the idea that consumes itself. And what many ordinary people propose as the proper definition of “ideology” is yet another blossom growing in their ideological garden.




Although the situation is undoubtedly tangled, I nonetheless believe both laypeople and intellectuals need to reinvest themselves in recovering a philosophically defensible conception of ideology. Such a definition would escape the error of remaining trapped inside a single ideological tradition while also not losing a critical edge or simply naively repeating whatever an ideology happens to say about itself.


Unfortunately, treating ideology as a serious area of study remains relatively rare in the highest levels of both contemporary political science and social theory. When ideology does appear in mainstream political science, it is often broken down into atomistic beliefs or identity markers correlated with other social and demographic factors. For example, holding conservative views might be statistically correlated with being rural or suburban or espousing Evangelical Protestantism. Conversely, voting for socially liberal candidates might be observed to track data like being an unmarried woman, a person of colour, or a credentialed professional. In this way, statistical techniques like regression analyses replace the encounter with ideological meanings on their own terms.


Although rarely stated aloud, mainstream political science (particularly in the United States) frequently betrays the prejudice that from a “scientific” perspective, ideology is not the most salient level of analysis. Instead of interpreting the meanings and narratives offered by ideology on their own terms, researchers posit a more ahistorical motivational structure. For example, the actions of voters or politicians might be stipulated as taking the form of a strategic game of interest-maximizing or some other behavioural pattern. Hence ideology’s strange absence from vast swaths of the empirical political science literature, which instead focuses its attention on allegedly more objective descriptions captured by formal variables, behavioural inputs, game theory constructs, and ahistorical institutions.


There exists in this way a split between the perspective of the social scientist and that of ordinary people for whom ideology is the blood and guts of everyday political life. For millions of ordinary people, ideology furnishes not only a vision of a rightly ordered society but also an entire linguistic matrix that renders politics intelligible. Basic facts of identity and political reality are not scientifically independent from ideology but absorbed within its narratives.


Basic facts of identity and political reality are not scientifically independent from ideology but absorbed within its narratives

One of the few philosophical schools to consistently buck the trend of side-lining ideology is Marxism. I could not possibly hope to recapitulate all the arguments and insights into ideology made by the Marxist tradition. But, whether rightly or wrongly, one idea emerging from Marxism has proven fateful for reinforcing the scientistic dismissal and reduction of ideology. Famously, Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that ideology was a function of ruling-class interests. As they put it in The German Ideology, “the ruling class … rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus, their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.” Later, Karl Mannheim would criticize the Marxist thesis that Communism offered an exit from ideology. But he retained the view that ideology coordinated the “ruling group’s … thinking” which remains “interest-bound” in its goal to determine “the existing order of things.”


This line of thought (from Marx to Mannheim) sets the typical pattern for the scientistic treatment of ideology that influences much sociology and social theory. Namely, it assumes a disengaged stance in which ideology appears to be simply a necessary illusion or myth for generating social structure. Unlike Marxism, mainstream social science cannot say much that is critical, let alone constructive, about ideology. At the same time, ideology is not allowed to speak in its own voice – as making ethical and truth claims. Ideology thus remains as in Marxism a form of false consciousness, albeit one that all people necessarily experience. Mainstream social science therefore jettisons the strongest features of Marxism’s analysis of ideology (its critical powers) while retaining its weakest (the reduction to false consciousness).


In this way, scientific consciousness has largely reduced ideology to the function of legitimating the exercise of power. A political order might be organized by communism, fascism, liberalism, or any number of other ideologies. Social science cannot weigh in on their truth or make critical determinations about each ideology. At most it might set down a few facts. But the claims of ideology are subjective and not accessible to social scientific arbitration.


Of course, this contradicts the actual first-person, phenomenological experience of being committed to an ideology. The adherents of an ideology almost always think of their beliefs as true (even the most true and significant thing about politics) while also offering an inspiring vision for society. We lack a subtler language that allows us to hear the full challenge of ideology for modern persons. For, as I will suggest, each ideology does in fact voice a kind of challenge, a bid on a true interpretation of politics and a conception of what is good. We need a notion of ideology that retains critical abilities without negating its voice.




How, then, do we begin to take the voice of ideology seriously without succumbing to a sterile relativism or uncritical echoing? I see hermeneutic philosophy – centred on the art of interpreting meanings – as able to provide a resolution to this problem. What follows draws on a more thorough treatment of this question from my forthcoming book, Lost in Ideology.


A hermeneutic theory of ideology begins from the assumption that humans are creative, self-interpreting animals and their politics no less expressive of meanings than a literary or historical text. Ideology, therefore, is first and foremost a species of meaning-making in need of careful interpretation by both theorists and everyday citizens.


Geertz, in his 1964 essay “Ideology as a Cultural System,” famously proposed defining ideologies as cultural maps orienting social and political life. As he put it, ideologies are “maps of problematic social reality and matrices for the creation of collective conscience.” On this view, ideologies are not reducible to false-consciousness or simply the function of other supposedly “harder” social factors. Instead, all modern people – including social scientists and theorists – are inside of ideology and must continually make use of it to guide belief and action. Indeed, ideology works on a horizon that contains all people within it by furnishing many of the social categories, institutions, behavioural patterns, and demographic factors later described by social scientists.


But as important as I believe Geertz’s contribution to be, I nonetheless think his concept needs to be both critically revised and expanded. This is because the metaphor of ideologies as cultural maps misses certain salient features of ideology if left in its current form. These include not only ideology’s strongly historical dimensions but also its world-making powers. Ideologies are never simply straightforwardly factual or empirical. They are world-making maps that mix descriptive claims with an attempt to mobilize followers. They are like social scripts by which different social theatres are carried out. The political world congeals and takes form within such maps.


First, consider the ways in which literal maps tend to be static snapshots of a state of affairs. When thinking of ideologies as map-like, there is a risk of slipping into treating them as frozen and ahistorical. But we cannot lose site of the fact that ideological maps have a temporal dimension and are constantly mutating, modifying, and being redrawn on the fly. In this sense, ideologies are more like a film strip spinning a continually changing set of iterations of an image. Eventually, by the end of the strip, the image may be significantly changed or completely different from what began the series.


A second danger with the metaphor of maps is that readers might mistakenly think of ideologies as mostly disembodied ideas on a page that describe some exterior reality. But ideologies are not like this at all. Instead, they are embodied in practices, rituals, art, institutions, laws, regimes, forms of selfhood, and more. Ideologies are, in fact, enormous lived-out narratives that incorporate the lives of numberless people and often entire societies. This embodiment also breaks down strict dichotomies between ideological descriptions of the world and the world itself. Ideologies are never simply attempts at description, but also at enactment and performance. They contain what I refer to as “ethically magnetic” features that inspire new kinds of identity and commitment from adherents. If ideologies are maps, they are maps that seek to build reality.

When someone is lost in ideology, their politics appears natural, even scientific, and not historical and cultural


This is only one place I believe that the hermeneutic approach to ideology retains a critical edge. While emphasizing the need to always begin by grasping an ideological map on its own terms, the hermeneutic definition of ideology also implies that any map that presents itself as simply natural or brutely given is in at least this one respect deluded. This delusion is what I call “lost in ideology”– when the member of a particular ideological tradition presents their map as if it were already the entire geography of the world. As in the famous short story by Jorge Luis Borges, ideological maps can swell so big as to cover over the underlying Earth. When someone is lost in ideology, their politics appears natural, even scientific, and not historical and cultural.




Perhaps an example of becoming lost in ideology will help clarify the concept. Arguably such an error is evident in the scientism of laissez-faire neoliberalism, which I have analyzed at length in the opening chapters of my book, We Built Reality. Such a scientistic version of neoliberal ideology presents capitalism as akin to a Newtonian mechanics inscribed in nature. For instance, neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman and James Buchanan argued in various ways that a science of economics established a single rational and prosperous way to organize society. “Capitalism,” as Friedman declared in Capitalism and Freedom, “is a necessary condition for political freedom.”


As part of this line of argument, neoliberal economists argued that government action and regulation could be scientifically proven to be inefficient. Buchanan claimed in his 1977 paper “Why Does Government Grow?” that the incentive structure of public institutions made them inevitably bloated. The basic argument relied on a conception of government administrators as a form of homo economicus (self-interested and egoistic), pursuing “self-seeking” goals and extracting a “political income” that unleashed “government’s voracious appetite.”


From a hermeneutic perspective, the claim to a “science” of economics that establishes a particular regime as unavoidable is clearly a cultural map or program that is hiding its own ideological nature. Government administrators need not orient according to market-choice but can instead adopt another set of meanings entirely (say those of civic self-sacrifice and public service). This can be hard to see because sometimes both the social observer and those being observed are operating inside the same cultural map. When this happens, the ideological contingency of political “behaviour” can become invisible, and political scientists and economists mistake a particular culture script as simply the brute verifiable reality of how people act. The result is a situation in which the ideological map has gobbled up the world – becoming so extensive as to appear to be the simple empirical facts of life.


Of course, neoliberalism might attempt to jettison its pseudo-scientific commitments and evade the hermeneutic line of critique I just sketched. Perhaps there are even forms of neoliberalism that are not scientistic in this manner. But the basic philosophical point is that a cultural conception of ideology – one that takes the meaning-making features of politics seriously – also entails a criticism of any effort to naturalize politics. Such a naturalizing error would be possible, moreover, not merely in the case of neoliberalism but also in variants of liberalism, nationalism, socialism, conservatism, progressivism, and any other ideology that developed concepts or theories that contradicted the cultural reality of ideology. In this way, hermeneutics is critical across ideological maps without being committed or contained by any one of them.


Much more needs to be said about the hermeneutic conception of ideology. But perhaps this is enough to clarify how hermeneutics takes the first-person experience of ideology seriously, while not simply accepting ideology’s own voice uncritically. A cultural approach to ideology is not subject to Marx and Engel’s quip that while the simple “shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is,” philosophers naively take “every epoch at its word.” Hermeneutics instead respects the word of every epoch without becoming intellectually subservient to it.



Jason Blakely is Associate Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University. Blakely has written extensively on political philosophy, hermeneutics, and the social sciences. His 2020 book, We Built Reality, received accolades from luminaries like Charles Taylor and David Bentley Hart. His new book, Lost in Ideology: Interpreting Modern Political Life, is published by Agenda.


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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