What Is Ideology?

If someone asks me what my greatest achievement in political philosophy is, I would answer, "Providing a precise, non-question-begging definition of ideology."

I offered this, in Oakeshott on Rome and America, in Aristotelian terms: ideology is the attempt to treat as theoria was is instead a matter of phronesis (practical wisdom).

Let us consider the matter of my getting to work. When I need to get to campus, what I do is consider the current circumstances I face in getting there, and then choose the best means to get there, given what I face. Some days, the G train is a perfectly adequate means. But other days, I find the G train is running slowly, or skipping stops, or I am just running a few minutes late, and I get a cab. But what route should the cab take? Well, I check my phone, and look for traffic jams. In fact, I've taken 5 or 6 different cab routes to get to work.

But the "travel ideologue" will have none of this. There is a single correct way to arrive at some place, and that single correct answer is revealed by a theory. For instance, we may encounter a "geometrical ideology," which insists that the only rational way to move from point A to point B is to move in a straight line between them. The fact that I would have to tunnel through many buildings to get to work via a straight line will not deter this ideologue: those who would let such considerations deter them are "sell outs" or "trimmers," and morally corrupt.

Of course, in travel, we don't encounter much ideology, since the results are so immediately seen as disastrous. But in politics, the situation is different: due to the enormous complexity of political reality, any disasters that arise can easily be blamed on the failure to adhere to the ideology, rather than the attempt to follow it. Thus, we repeatedly see Marxists assigning the disasters that were the USSR, Communist China, North Korea, and so on, to the fact that these were not "true Marxist" societies: they simply did not follow the theory rigidly enough!

3 comments:

  1. That's your definition!? I've been using it as if it were an already-established one!

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  2. "I offered this, in Oakeshott on Rome and America, in Aristotelian terms: ideology is the attempt to treat as theoria was is instead a matter of phronesis (practical wisdom)."

    I read your thesis and it was the part about guns and speech that turned me "away from the shadows" and got me to see this whole thing. But I'm kind of worried it's true. Where does it leave constitutionalism?

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  3. "Thus, we repeatedly see Marxists assigning the disasters that were the USSR, Communist China, North Korea, and so on, to the fact that these were not 'true Marxist' societies: they simply did not follow the theory rigidly enough!"

    The Soviet Union and Maoist China were certainly Marxist. North Korea never was or they aren't now, at least. Juche rejects the central tenet of Marxist: dialectical materialism.

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