Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Ephemeral Nature of Ideology

I sometimes come across references to ideologies that imply that many ideological stances are opposite sides of eternal questions.  Most frequently, this is referenced to class with the old Roman plebian vs. patrician struggles trotted out as an example, never mind that social class in Roman was a legally recognized and created status involving certain privileges and was less than perfectly correlated with material wealth.

On a superficial level this is true enough, there are a range of questions that people tend to divide into two camps on.  Throughout history we see people for and against foreign intervention, for and against economic intervention, for and against harsh laws and punishments, etc.  However, arguing from this that ideology reflects eternal divides is superficial for two reasons.  First, ideology is far more than these questions, it is a narrative that seeks to link them together for purposes of political mobilization as well link multiple issues distinct from more general questions to them for political purposes.  It also fills gaps in our knowledge of issues, whether it is individual gaps or things we don't fully understand as a society.  These extra issues composing an ideology are far too big for me to address meaningfully in a blog post.

The second superficiality is that the big questions addressed by ideologies are not linked together in any consistent way.  While it is easy enough to identify two opposing ideological camps in any society as well as to identify issues that conform to both big modern questions and ancient questions, each society will have the big questions split up by its ideological parties differently.  While ideology can, and does, have a force of its own this is necessarily a force put into motion by powerful actors in a given society, not a natural product of people dividing on either side of eternal questions.

These thoughts were spurred by reading a summary of the modernist and reformist political positions in the Former Han dynasty given in The Cambridge History of China, Vol.1 (p. 188 -189).  If someone is looking for loose ideological similarities between their positions and modern political divisions they can be found.  For instance, the modernists supported state controls (though unlike the American left, though like the socialist left, their justification was to take profits from private hands and bring them into the state), believed that the state iron monopoly helped to give high quality tools to the peasant, sought to stabilize the price of iron goods and salt, and sought to ensure regular production and transport of goods using state labor (it also needs to be noted that economic thought and ideas of individual liberties were far more primitive meaning that the means to achieve these things are not what anyone on the left or right would support today).  The reformists disparaged the idea that the state could earn profits from its monopolies and that these transactions were of no use to the Chinese people, charged that state created tools were of poor quality and that the price was the same regardless of quality, that the state misused the labor it was supplied with, and charged that the government was oppressive and its exactions harsh.

We can also flip the views however.  The modernists also sought to encourage manufacture, trade, and transport, sought to maintain a stable currency, believed that the best means of defense lay in taking the offensive, sought to support trade, and sought to deter crime and support social stability through a strong system of laws and punishments.  By contrast, the reformists complained there were grave disparities between rich and poor, thought that expansion had weakened China and wasted its wealth, sought to restrict trade, and thought that the laws and punishments treated the population unjustly and inequitably.  There were also some ideas that are totally outside of modern debate, such as reformist opposition to money generally and support of taxation in kind and their belief that giving moral lessons were more valuable than punishments and that inculcating moral principles in training government officials was essential to good government.*

There are a few points I want to make from these comparisons.  The first is how deceptive it is to make arguments from authority.  It is easy to find ideological support for just about any stance by making a historical reference.  This will usually pass inspection because few people know enough history to catch when the beliefs and values of the person being quoted differ markedly from the point trying to be made by the person arguing from authority.  Generally, the person doing the quoting also doesn't understand the ideological stances of the person or position being quoted and has fallen for the superficial similarity of a statement or quote taken out of context.

The second thing is that there isn't anything principled about ideology.  If there were we would see greater consistency across time and place.  Rather, we simply see interest groups banding together to promote policies that benefit themselves.  They combine their preferences within a narrative and invent principles to justify these views, which then take on a life of there own.  It is critical to examine an argument to determine whether the argument actually supports a factual view of how the world works or if it is simply meant to justify a self-interested position.  Justification and proof are not the same things.

The third point is the simple observation that ideological views don't hang together well.  They are specific to time and place and quickly fracture.  Agreeing with and supporting one component does not and should not mean supporting an ideological program generally.  Issues can be and have been separated into different combinations.

The last point is that ideological positions usually coalesce around specific policy problems faced by society.  In the case of the Chinese case above, the issue at hand was primarily government monopolies on salt and iron.  Regarding the specific animating debate the ideological positions that form tend to have well reasoned, rational arguments that address real problems facing society.  In the Chinese case, the salient issue was the state monopolies on salt and iron.

The problem is when the initial animating agenda gets fulfilled the other components of an ideological position tend to be less well thought out.  To address what are often very technocratic problems ideologies need to simplify their message and attract support by allying with various causes and ideas at best tangentially related to the problem they are meant to address.  These ideas often lack the grounding in reality that the initial critique did.

This creates a recurrent pattern where a new ideological position gains initial successes due to its accurate critique of the problems of the day.  However, because it created links between its initial critique and other, less well thought out ideas, the ideology survives well past its initial usefulness.  With time, it switches from being a valuable reforming movement to being an actual danger to the policy that produced it.  It is very hard for proponents of an ideology to recognize this since they were always indoctrinated with the idea that their ideology was a way of conceiving the world, not simply a critique of specific institutions of the status quo.  If an ideology has substantial enough moral support to survive repeated instances of disconfirming observations, an ideology has the potential to retain its purity and thus drive the host polity into ruin.

* While these Chinese positions differ markedly from modern politics they do have a great deal of similarity with early American politics, in particular they remind me of Hamilton and Jefferson.  This just reinforces the idea that ideology has to do with particular circumstances and elite interests, agrarian societies have far more in common with each other than they do with modern problems.  While some of what the Founding Fathers wrote was timeless, I particularly like Madison 10, far more of it was particular to the problems facing an agrarian society than it was the human condition more generally.  I often see their writings used without people understanding this distinction.

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