Sunday, 4 February 2018

There Is No Outside of Ideology: A Quick Note on What Everyone Should Already Know About Politics

A truism on the left, but widely misunderstood beyond it

There has for a long time been a view that bad politics is “ideology driven” and good politics is “policy driven”. Bad politics is ill-informed and emotive; good politics pragmatic and founded on a what-works attitude. Or as one Twitter user put it, left and right are ideological; the centre is nice people doing the best they can for stupid people. Politics is reduced to a set of technical procedures - a profession.

So I thought I’d outline the view, commonly accepted in the social sciences, that all politics is ideological. This sort of discussion can get very jargon-heavy and this can cloud some of the basic consensus that exists out there, so I’ll state it as simply as possible and won’t use obscure terms. A further caveat is that this will involve necessarily sweeping generalisations about what the “hard sciences” do and what the “social sciences” do. But I intend this to lay a common basis for further discussion, not to be the final word.

The belief that all politics is ideological can be justified in the following ways.

  1. Society is not the same kind of object as a plant, a solar system, or an atom. When photosynthesis is described, the description does nothing to affect the internal structure of the process. Society is not like this for two reasons: I) the observer of social processes (an individual academic) is an immediate product of the processes they are observing - every individual comes from a particular society and a particular background within that society so how they understand society will be structured by this ii) society itself is influenced by our conceptions of it - for example, the more economists tell us we are utility maximising, self-interested consumers, the more we will come to think of ourselves in those terms and adjust our behaviour and expectations of others in line with those terms. Description of society changes the object it describes.
  2. The above subject/object distinction (between scientific observer and the object of society) does not remove the basis of scientific enquiry, but places the two in a dialectical relationship. The latter just means that subject and object are mutually constitutive and the back and forth between the two leads to a process of continual, open-ended change: our observations about society change society itself, and these changes then impact on us and change our observations about society. 
  3. Society consists of different groups with opposed interests - different groups with different stakes in society struggle over how society should be organised and to whose benefit. Moreover, the way these groups construct what is in their interest is not the foundation of politics, but is the actual stuff of politics. In other words, groups don’t exist in a simple relationship to their “rational self-interest”, but rather build specific conceptions of what is in their interest through political struggle with other groups. This means that politics involves a struggle within social groups over how to define and pursue different interests as well as a struggle between social groups. Social leadership is not just about domination but also about building consent - and part of this is the struggle within and between groups of how interests are defined (this is the meaning of the popular notion of “hegemony”).
  4. Since politics involves building conceptions of the interests of different, opposed groups, all social science work is political - that means simply that it is related to the composition of particular interests and participates, however indirectly, in the process of building and legitimising particular ways of thinking about society. There is no neutral position outside of ur superior to politics (contra much political science)
  5. Social objectivity does exist but not in the way that nature exists - because social objectivity is a set of relations which are constantly open to change by different types of social actors. No empirical observation describes a simple matter of social fact, but operates with specific assumptions about how society works and will reinforce or undermine assumptions about society. That said, society is not infinitely plastic: Society is composed fundamentally of relations among social actors. These relations can be reorganised, but that takes real effort and long processes of material and discursive struggle.

By now it should be clear why the attempt to classify some politics as “ideology-free” is the purest gesture of ideology. The ultimate victory of a social group depends on its ability to “naturalise” its world view. That is, to make its way of going about pursuing its own interests as simply the natural order of things.

None of this is to say we cannot make empirical observations about society in the way we can about nature. It is only to say that in the social sciences a statement is always more than merely empirical. This is because individual statements take on a fuller meaning when integrated into a broader discourse. So to say “society consists of individuals” may be an empirical statement, but its discursive meaning only becomes clear when we place it in a broader context. For example, when the statement is taken in the Thatcherite sense of “society consists *only* of individuals (and families)” (I.e it does not consist of classes). All empirical statements therefore appear in a wider discursive context and this context accounts for part (but not all of) the meaning. That “society consists of individuals” is not a matter for the social sciences, unless it comes with broader assumptions (which, of course, it always does). These broader assumptions can always be contested and this is the sense in which politics - even at its most scientific - is about struggles between different ways of building and articulating the interests of opposed social groups.

This raises the question of what scientific as opposed to ideological thinking is. I’m of the view that scientific thinking is a highly specific variant of ideological thinking - that is to say, scientific thinking is ideological thinking but executed under carefully controlled conditions and with carefully and explicitly defined assumptions. In other words, the goal is not to expunge the ideological from the scientific, but to make the ideological presuppositions of science explicit. 

To be clear, then, acknowledging your own ideology and its active role in shaping your politics leads to better politics as a whole. There is no “outside” of ideology. There are only various critical relations to ideology. Not to boast, but the fact I come from a very clear ideological background - and am aware of it - does not make me less self-critical but clarifies the basis of self-criticism. I come from a Marxist background and know full well the dangers of Marxist dogma. What about you? If your answer to that question is, “I have no ideology” then you’re probably a centrist dad.