Sunday, 21 December 2008

Ideology and Politics; A response to Sunny Hundal

. Dizzy picks-up on the debate in the latest issue of Total Politics between Douglas Murray, from the Centre for Social Cohesion, and Sunny Hundal from Liberal Conspiracy. Dizzy rightly finds aspects of Murray's case compelling; especially when he insists that "Mankind needs ideology to orient itself." Ideology is what gives our thoughts coherence and structure and binds together how we view completely unrelated topics into something approaching a coherent world-view. In politics, an element of that is unquestionably needed not least because in able for people to want you to govern they generally expect some kind of coherence and sense of direction.

Murray is also right to insist that protestations of 'non-ideology' are in fact ideological in themselves because they state a self-same world view in itself. Just because they do so using lables like 'pragmatism' or 'mangerialism' doesn't make such a view any less all-encompassing. Tellingly, Murray is equally as damming of both the left and the right;

"On the left, the loss of ideology has come about because theirs exploded. Aside from a few remaining hirelings at The Guardian, most people from the old left recognise (though rarely concede) that their ideology - particularly the ideology of collectivism - was the most catastrophic mirage of the 20th century....

Meanwhile, what used to be the right has retreated in a melange of self-distrust and self-doubt. They are particularly susceptible to this. For it is conservatives that most often distrust ideology as a force, thanks to a school of conservatism which believes conservatism itself to be a non-ideology or an anti-ideology."

In his own way Murray is pointing to the limitations of ideology in politics; namely when it ceases to view of the world as it actually is and just becomes a view of the world as it should be; according to the ideology. Typically, this occurs when it becomes the dictum or a ruling class or caste because the real purpose of the ideology becomes not to change the world but to actually justify the power structures as is; this is when ideology seeks to become a living, vital force and becomes a corpse, a dead-weight weighing on it's exponents as much as the people it bears down upon.

So, Sunny's arguments 'against ideology' are not entirely off-beam. He talks alot about compromise and a need for pragmatism;

"Bringing in ideology usually screws things up because people are pragmatic - they want the government to do its job properly rather than impose its ideas on them. They want their rubbish picked up, their hospitals to be clean and easy to use, and their schools to be well resourced. A government that focuses too much on ideology loses sight of the ordinary requirements of its voters, and loses them."

However, as I have said above people tend to want their governments to actually have a clue how to do these things in a way that is consistent with core beliefs in the first place. This clue will only stem from having some kind of systematic world-view which could easily be labeled as being ideological. Sunny can't get away with pretending his politics are pure 'pragmatism' when he starts his piece by saying he is an "avowedly liberal-left commentator and blogger"; in other words, he has a prism through which he views the world and politics. He sets up a straw-man view of ideology where "in most cases you have to buy into all parts of the tribe and join it."

I wonder if this is how Sunny views political parties because there is no question some people would feel that way. However, the way I view political parties is that you join or gravitate towards the one that you best feel represents your 'core beliefs' but you don't necessary have to agree with every dot and comma. Regular readers of this blog will know I do not agree with everything Nick Clegg or our leadership says but I do feel that the Liberal Democrats are the closest party to expressing my core beliefs. Sunny is easily brushed aside on Dizzy's blog when he notes that;

"I've highlighted two words there because as I read it all I could think was "fairness is an ideological standpoint". Essentially Sunny is arguing that ideology is bad whilst simultaneously pushing a set of values that he believes ought to be adhered too."

Sunny is right to say "in reality neither ideology: left-wing government interventionism nor right-wing laissez-faire, works when taken to its extreme". However, none of that argues in favour of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; all it means is that there is a constant need for ideology to be responsive, leavened by democracy and discourse and pragmatism. Setting the two concepts of mutually opposed and indeed as each being antihical to the other does nobody any favours and is a depressing and does the left no favours at all.

Sunny says;

"Ideologues love the idea of a political scrap that puts vast difference between them and their opponents, but inevitably people get sick of partisan fighting. A politician should seek to represent everyone, not merely the narrow majority that elected him or her. That is the mark of a true leader."

However, they also expect their leaders to be distinctive and to actually stand for something. He gives the example of Barack Obama in America and his recruitment of Republicans to his administration. During the campaign however Obama had a distinctive inclusive theme which he opposed to that of John McCain successfully and the same was true during his campaign against Hillary Clinton where the exchanges often were bitter and rancorous. In other words the mark of a true leader is to know instinctively where to strike the balance between the need for distinctiveness and inclusion and at what time 'drawing the line' is appropriate.

Thus we see alot of muddle in Sunny's piece;

"One has to remember that Obama learnt from the organiser Saul Alinsky, perhaps the best proponent of 'pragmatic idealism'."

One also has to remember that 'pragmatic idealism' is still idealism. It simply does not follow from his conclusion that "ideology has sever limits" that 'successful politicians' must purely "focus on bread and butter issues". Successful politicians are the ones that strike the balance and that means neither living and breathing ossified ideology nor ignoring the need for a coherent and consistent world-view.


Oranjepan said...

"Ideology is what gives our thoughts coherence and structure and binds together how we view completely unrelated topics into something approaching a coherent world-view."

Is a line I wholeheartedly disagree with.

Logic and the ability to reason do this, while ideology on the other hand abrogates this responsibility/privilege/pleasure and creates a heirachical chain by passing power up it.

Every ideology has its own logic intrisic to the idea upon which it is purportedly based, but the reality is that all ideologies are the same in that they create differential power relationships.

I'm just not prepared to enter into arguments where people are the source of proof rather than just proponents for one point of view or another - 'Dizzy says X', or 'Sunny says Y' makes me want to say Zzz!

Oranjepan said...

Oops. I forgot - I took your advice.

Darrell G said...


No it doesnt not if it is a living phenomena. Ideology is based on observation and reason and thus can be contested as such; for example, Marxism as an ideology was based upon a set of observations about how society, economy etc functions.

Now, you can contest whether those observations and conclusions are correct but it is totally wrong to see ideology as something that comes from on high. Even religion is based on some empirical reality.

oooo you have a link?:)

Darrell G said...

And incidentally I hope you notice i've been trying to take your advice with the news items, making them shorter with a bit of comment :)

Oranjepan said...

Firstly I have to say that Marx had some really good insights, but the dogma that became marxism drowned in fixed definitions. Even if they had applied at one time and in one context they were obsolete by the time he'd gone cold.

So at this point I want to make a linguistic distinction between philosophy and ideology.

I think what you want to describe is what I'd call philosophy, but the way you describe it is in terms of static doctrine.

So, yes, I like your comparison with religion (I pray Boycie doesn't read this, lol), because there is a big difference between the church, the church and a church (Charlotte Church is something else altogether).

I had noticed your posts were a bit sharper and snappier, but I just thought you're on form (modesty forbids taking credit).

Darrell G said...


I agree about Marxism and I agree there can be a fine line between the two things. However, Marxism was also a political ideology, which is kinda covered by my comments about dead-weight. You might almost say it was/is a much better philosophey than ideology...

I appreciate the linguistic distinction but like i said there is a fine line and sometimes one crosses over into the other as was the case outlined above...

Lol...kind of a bit of both to be honest but i was trying to make them snappier yesterday too when I definatly was not 'on form' at your voice has been heard...have you got a link for your blog so I can pop it on the sidebar?:)

Oranjepan said...

Can't you click though? Oh well, try this

Darrell G said...


Thanks...duly added to the sidebar :)