Ideology has poisoned the West - By Jacob Howland for UnHerd – 02.07.22

We are living through a dictatorship of ineptitude.


A century has passed since William Butler Yeats sensed the stirrings of a “rough beast” with a gaze “blank and pitiless as the sun”. That beast’s apocalyptic hour has come around again, its rebirth announced by the galloping horsemen of war and pestilence, with what looks to be famine trailing in the dusty distance. It calls itself Legion, but is today better known as Ideology.


The word “ideology” is often used as a synonym for political ideas, a corruption of language that conceals its fundamentally anti-political character. In the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, primary models for English republicanism and the American Founders, politics was understood to be the collective determination of matters of common concern through public debate.


As Aristotle taught, politics consists in the citizenly exercise of logos, the uniquely human power of intelligent speech. While voice registers private feelings — think of animal purrs and yelps — speech reveals what is good and bad, just and unjust, binding us together in the imperfect apprehension of realities greater than our individual selves.


But ideology is incapable of treating human beings as participants in a shared life, much less as individuals made in the image of God. Like the party hack whose spectacles struck Orwell as “blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them”, it sees them only as groups to be acted upon.


The term idéologie was coined during the French Revolution by Antoine Destutt de Tracy, an anti-clerical materialist philosopher who believed that reason offered a way of uncovering general laws of social relations.


Tracy conceived of idéologie as a social science of “ideas” that would inform the construction of a rational progressive society governed by an enlightened elite, whose technical expertise would justify their claim to rule. The illiberalism of this progressive-technocratic ideal became fully apparent in the West only with the onset of Covid.


It is now widely understood that the subordination of public life to ostensibly scientific guidance and the effective transfer of sovereignty from the body of citizens to an unelected overclass are fundamentally inconsistent with liberty and individual dignity.


The political philosopher Raymond Aron defined ideology quite precisely as “the synthesis of an interpretation of history and of a programme of action toward a future predicted or hoped for”. In this synthesis, a theory about the historical origins of real or alleged social ills is pressed into the service of an imagined future in which those ills will be cured.


The theory is not to be judged solely, or even primarily, by its adequacy in describing the historical record as it presents itself to an informed and inquiring mind. Rather, it is to be judged by the promised consequences of the programme of action it underwrites. Of course, ideological prophecy, appearing in times of organic or manufactured crisis when everything assumes an air of urgency, must be taken on faith.


It follows that the ideological synthesis remains incomplete until the programme of action is implemented. Marx famously claimed that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. But Marx, whose broad classical education informed his great critique of capitalism, remained at the level of philosophy.


His interpretation of history achieved its stated end only when it was put into practice, however crudely, by Communist revolutionaries, starting with Lenin. By his own standards, Marx’s philosophy cannot be cleanly separated from the historical depredations of Marxism.


Although ideological regimes were not unheard of in antiquity, ideology’s focus on efficacy rather than truth, its assumption that history is a problem awaiting a rational solution, and its elevation of the possibilities of a deliberately constructed future over the present constraints of the actual world, are characteristically modern.


Its closest analogue is the phenomenon of technology, the harnessing of significant social resources to achieve mastery over nature through mathematical and experimental science. Formulated by the early modern philosophers Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the programme of technology rejected inherited intellectual foundations, including the guidance of God or nature.


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Jacob Howland is Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX, commonly known as the University of Austin. His latest book is Glaucon's Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato's Republic (Paul Dry Books, 2018).



The new revolution (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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