“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

14 April 2013

Thatcher, Miliband and the dangers of ideology




As I wrote in my first posting explaining why I set up this blog,


“I am against ideologies like neoliberalism and ‘Vulgar’ Marxism, and also some of the forms that have emerged around the politics of identity, including strictly deterministic versions of feminism. Ideologies like these offer simplistic, all-encompassing explanations about the way the world is while setting different groups in society against each other.”

Among other things, Margaret Thatcher’s death has given us cause to reflect on the first of those; neoliberalism: as the crucial economic component of Thatcherism.

In his generally excellent response* to Margaret Thatcher’s death in Parliament on Wednesday 10th April, Ed Miliband said something on ideology which made me bridle a bit:

 What was unusual, was that she [Thatcher] sought to be rooted in people’s daily lives, but she also believed that ideology mattered.

Not for her the contempt sometimes heaped on ideas and new thinking in political life.

And while she never would have claimed to be, or wanted to be seen as, an intellectual, she believed, and she showed, that ideas matter in politics.

Ideas certainly do matter, and new ideas are important – indeed crucial if politics is to be of much interest beyond the politics industry. But ideology is something different and something inherently dangerous in my view.

My Oxford Dictionary of Politics says, “Any comprehensive and mutually consistent set of ideas by which a social groups makes sense of the world may be referred to as an ideology. Catholicism, Islam, Liberalism, and Marxism are examples.

I want to go a bit further than this in saying that an ideology is a system of belief, claiming general understanding of society. An ideology offers a means to explain pretty much everything from within its system. It therefore mirrors the society it claims to understand, as system and structure.

So: Marxism claims to understand society scientifically as a clash of social classes that will inevitably lead from capitalism to socialism; neoliberalism holds up self-interest as the only worthwhile value; and ideologies of feminism see male domination as the overriding factor (a system of ‘patriarchy’, as I have written about here recently).

Each of these ideologies offers an all-encompassing explanation for how things are. They also lead to simplistic interpretations of specific problems, while suggesting simplistic solutions: a ‘one size fits all’ approach. So: class war is all that matters OR freeing up market forces is all that matters OR destroying the patriarchy is all that matters. This is what happens with ideologies.

Funnily enough, Margaret Thatcher’s defining statement that “there is no such thing as society” is something I have some sympathy for. As you can see from this transcript of when she said it, the quotation is taken out of context.

We assume she meant that only self-interest matters (which would have fitted her economic thinking), but she was actually making the point that society is not and cannot be a unit or a thing. Society cannot be seen, heard, touched or measured. It is an intangible idea of something, unless we conceive of it as an adding together of all the real things that make it up.

In this way of thinking, which I find persuasive, society itself is not an actor. It is not a force; indeed it is not an ‘it’ in the strictest sense.

This is called ‘methodological individualism’. It is the belief (which I think is right) that we should be talking about how people, institutions and real, tangible forces influence each other, rather than making huge ideological edifices out of speculation about things we cannot confidently define, like ‘society’.

This is the point at which ideologies become dangerous. As we can see with crude Marxism, neoliberalism and dominant feminism, they offer great interpretative power. They therefore also have great political power via the confidence given to followers.

However, this is often at the expense of truth.

Class struggle, individual self-interest and male domination all have their relevance; indeed all are important. But they are not of overriding importance at all times and everywhere. The world is more complicated than that.


*I think Ed Miliband’s speech to the House of Commons on Mrs Thatcher was his best demonstration yet of what One Nation Labour means in practice. He made it clear how much he disagrees with what Thatcher did, but was respectful and generous in his words and also, crucially, in his tone. For One Nation Labour to mean much more than another slogan, it is in the way that Labour goes about its business. Ed is showing that way. However, as a member, I am sceptical that Labour as an institution is capable of following. Self- and group-interests are just too strong, and the internal workings of the party are dominated by them. At the moment there is little sign of that changing.

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