What is Ideology?
The world is a large and complicated place. Our senses are bombarded with a constant flow of information that our brains have to decipher and make sense of. To aid in this endeavour, we create an intermediary between us and the external world. Like wearing a pair of glasses, this intermediary brings the blurry distorted chaos of unfiltered information into focus.
How we filter this information can be thought of as the lens of these glasses. How these lenses are shaped is largely out of our control. Most of it is almost random in nature. Where you were born, the language you speak, the religion or lack of religion you were raised in, the quality of parenting and education you received, as well as your socioeconomic status in society; All of these factors put together, plus a healthy dose of personal experience, help shape our view of the world.
Furthermore, you can claim that a society shares the same underlying ideology. Now this is not necessarily an ideology in the socio-political sense of an “-ism”. The earliest form of this thought belonged to G.W.F Hegel. Hegel argued that people were slaves of history. They simply acted out the roles given to them by society and were largely ignorant of history, a de-facto ideology of status quo. Karl Marx took this argument and turned it into the idea of a “false-consciousness”, where the individual’s failure to see themselves as part of the class struggle because they were blinded by the notions of individual competition for economic gain. People were seemingly deceiving themselves into thinking as an “I” instead of being part of a group, playing into the bourgeois interests.
With the development of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century, Jacques Lacan laid out his view of the human psyche into three parts: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. In simple terms, the imaginary is ideal – I or ideal – ego, what we wish to be and how we wish others to view us. The symbolic can be thought as our use of language to interact with the world and articulate our desires. The imaginary and symbolic can be combined to make up what we call reality. The final part of our psyche is the real: a state beyond our abilities of language to properly explain. Usually brought on by trauma, the real can be best described by comparing it to throwing a piece of glass against a wall. The trauma throws the glass, reality – against a wall, the real – shattering it.
“Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. If being were only what it is, there wouldn’t even be room to talk about it. Being comes into existence as an exact function of this lack.” – Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955 (1988)
The idea was later further developed by French philosopher Luis Althusser, who came to the notion that ideology was not our relationship with the world itself, but the relationship between us and the world as described by our reliance on language. It is in fact impossible for us to access the real condition of existence because of this limitation imposed on us by language.
“…what is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations which they live.” – Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.(1970)
The human reliance of language to make sense of the world was also an idea famously echoed by Austrian Philosopher Ludvig Wittgenstein who said:
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world” – Ludvig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Proposition (1922)
In contemporary philosophy, famed cultural critic Slavoj Zizek combines all of these interpretations of ideology and rolls them into the idea that the purest form of ideology is realizing you are in it, yet still acting like you believe it of your own free will. You act as if you are free, yet we know at our core that we are not.
“Ideology is strong exactly because it is no longer experienced as ideology. We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” – Slavoj Zizek, In Defence of Lost Causes (2008)
We can draw the conclusion that ideology is not something that is masking us from reality, but is reality itself shaped by our language. So, what is this ideology we live in? Why are we in the twilight of its decay?
American Neo-liberal Hegemony
At the close of World War 2, the world stood united for a brief moment over the still-smouldering corpse of European Fascism before being torn in two, east and west, Capitalism against Communism. The Cold War caused the United States to drop its isolationist attitudes in favour for that of the great protector of the free. Built on the foundation of Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points, the idea that American values were paramount, and therefore universal to the world, became a defining feature of American foreign policy that is still at its core today.
“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.” – Woodrow Wilson, Speech to Congress (1917)
In the years following the war, American exceptionalism spread throughout the “free” world. Whenever someone had their “freedoms” threatened, the United States claimed to be morally bound to defend them. Conflicts like the Korean War and the Vietnam War were sold to the American public as wars being fought in the name of protecting these universal American ideals. Even during periods of extreme political turmoil and racial unrest in the United States, the greater ideological war between American liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninist communism was the ever-riding struggle that kept the global order in check. An uneasy global order kept with a finger on the button of Nuclear Armageddon, but an order free of mass scale war like we had witnessed in the past. The risk of a world war was replaced with the fear of nuclear annihilation.
But then something unexpected happened. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and by 1991 the Soviet Union and the Cold War were no more. The end of history was upon us.
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” – Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992)
George H. W. Bush stood in front of America and proclaimed the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the new world order, a world free of ideological struggle. We had entered the era of post-ideology, he proclaimed. Then, a never before seen shift occurred. The political ideology of American Neo-liberalism became the global business model. The final step of globalization was complete. American hegemony stretched from one corner of the globe to the other. The U.S. military stood unopposed as the global police force. Countries bought into the system or faced global isolation (e.g.: North Korea, Cuba, Iran). The post-ideological world was a world dominated by a single ideology. The sovereign individual stood dominate above all else. We had reached the end of modernity and entered the post-modern era.
“The subject of Communism was class. Fascism’s subject was the state, in Italian Fascism under Mussolini, or race in Hitler’s National Socialism. In liberalism, the subject was represented by the individual, freed from all forms of collective identity and any ‘membership’. While the ideological struggle had formal opponents, entire nations and societies, at least theoretically, were able to select their subject of choice — that of class, racism or statism, or individualism. The victory of liberalism resolved this question: the individual became the normative subject within the framework of all mankind. This is when the phenomenon of globalization entered the stage, the model of a post-industrial society makes itself known, and the postmodern era begins. From now on, the individual subject is no longer the result of choice, but is a kind of mandatory given. Man is freed from his ‘membership’ in a community and from any collective identity,” – Alexander Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory (2009)
Post-Modernism: Ideological Decay
“Post-modernism” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, and not many people really understand it. Some contemporary right-wing thinkers, like Stephen Hicks and Jordan Peterson, think of post-modernism as slight of hand re-branding of Marxism, replacing class struggle with social struggle. I believe this is too simplistic of a view. I once again return to Dugin’s The Fourth Political Theory for a more complete view of post-modernism.
“The values of rationalism, scientism, and positivism are recognized as ‘veiled forms of repressive, totalitarian policies’, or the grand narrative, and are criticized. At the same time, this is accompanied by the glorification of total freedom and the independence of the individual from any kind of limits, including reason, morality, identity (social, ethnic, or even gender), discipline, and so on. This is the condition of post-modernity.” – Alexander Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory (2009)
When taking apart that view of post-modern ideology, it is easier to find its roots in post-humanism than a re-branding of Marxism. There is an underlying irony in Jordan Peterson’s crusade against the post-modern movement, while at the same time proclaiming virtues of individuality when it is the pursuit of individual freedom that is really behind it all. Jordan Peterson wants his individual confined to the already existing hierarchies of society while the post-modernist wants to remove the shackles of the hierarchy and push the individual into uncharted territory.
Post-modernism is in itself a paradoxical system. As the left pushes the individual forward into new territory, challenging our concepts of identity and the language we use, it creates an emptiness in us. A part of our human condition is the need to belong to a group. It is in this paradoxical moment, the moment when the individual is pushed so far that it craves the group, this is where group-think returns. It is this moment that people like Hicks and Peterson misinterpret as the re-branding of Marxism.
This is the moment we find ourselves in. That paradoxical moment of the truly free individual craving the group. The current divide between the left and the right can be characterized as the divide between the ideological view of the individual. On the right we have the view of the individual rooted in human exceptionalism, the idea that there is something unique or divine in us that privileges us above nature and the world as a whole. The left takes the post-humanist view of the individual, that there is no divine privilege that separates us from the world, but we use the world to define ourselves. We are not made in the image of God but instead have to carve ourselves out of the world. Simply put, the right wishes to maximize personal freedom within the existing order of society while the left wishes to carve a new individual free from the corpse of modernity.
Such a small ideological difference has grown into a giant gulf of political and social instability in the west. A gulf that was aided by lack of an external threat to the prevailing American Neo-liberal ideology over the last 30 years. There is something within us that almost craves struggle. Without this external foe for us to engage in a struggle with, we begin to look in among ourselves for a new enemy.
“But supposing the world has become ‘filled up’, so to speak, with liberal democracies, such as there exists no tyranny and oppression worthy of the name against which to struggle? Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.” – Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992)
And, so enters Donald Trump.
The Twilight of Ideological Decay
It is only fair to say that the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 was a direct result of the ever-widening gulf between the left and right, while at the same time, establishment political parties were starting to look more and more like Xerox copies of each other. Both sides see themselves as the one being singled out and attacked. The right views the post-humanist movement of remaking the world a direct assault on their stable, safe world structures. The left, needing to tear down the old structures to build new ones in their places, see themselves as victims being oppressed by a world structure that is not ready to be replaced. Spending any amount of time on social media will give you a clear view of this. The left claims that America is becoming a right-wing fascist state while the right cries out that America is turning into a communist hellhole. All the while, establishment politics continues to serve its true masters: Wall Street, banks and the corporations.
Trump’s election was the first of what may be many massive reactionary swings of the political pendulum. If not for the blatant cheating by the DNC on be half of Hilary Clinton, 2016 would have comes down to two fringe outsider candidates, Trump and Bernie Sanders. We often over look how important a symbol this is. Regardless of what you may think of Donald Trump, you can not take away the fact that he defeated both the Clinton and Bush families in the 2016 Election. With the rise of two populist fringe candidates on either side of the spectrum, the message was clear. The global Neo-liberal business model built on the rotting foundation of modernity was cracking at the seams.
As the ideological gulf grows larger, the temptation to label the other side as the enemy grows with it. Many on the left refused to accept the results of the 2016 election, claiming Russian interference and that Trump was “not my president” and labelling themselves the resistance. Now, the pendulum has swung back the other way, ousting Trump from office after a single term. Many on the right now refuse to accept the 2020 election as legitimate, with their claims of wide spread voter fraud culminating in the “Capitol Hill Siege” on January 6, 2021.
The government machine seemed to regain control with Biden’s election. The start of 2021 has proven to be the complete opposite. With the Capitol Hill Siege, the DC lockdown for the inauguration and now the retail trader war on Wall Street, nothing seems in control. We have returned to a pre-2016 state. A business model being held up by a collapsing foundation. Where will this ideological breakdown take us next? How far will the pendulum swing? Are we going to get stuck in this cycle of each side claiming illegitimacy of the other? Will the pendulum swing so far that the system itself will fail? Will democracy survive this ideological decay?
Finally, one last wild card enters the picture, Covid-19. As much as it is a political instability, it brings with it the real chance for massive systemic change. Much how the Black Plague brought about the end of feudalism in Europe, will Covid usher in the end of liberal democracies and American Neo-liberal hegemony? Only time will tell.
We bring our world to the edge of chaos over our differences in view. Views points articulated by the limits of our language and that limit threatens to tear us apart. Waiting beyond this lays Lacan’s real, ready to swallow us whole.
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)