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The term "ideology" can cover almost any set of ideas, but its power to bewitch political activists results from its strange logic: part philosophy, part science, part spiritual revelation, all tied together in leading to a remarkable paradox--that the modern Western world, beneath its liberal appearance, is actually the most systematically oppressive system of despotism the world has ever seen. Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology takes this complex intellectual construction apart, analyzing its logical, rhetorical, and psychological devices and thus opening it up to critical analysis.
Ideologists assert that our lives are governed by a hidden system. Minogue traces this notion to Karl Marx who taught intellectuals the philosophical, scientific, moral, and religious moves of the ideological game. The believer would find in these ideas an endless source of new liberating discoveries about the meaning of life, and also the grand satisfaction of struggling to overcome oppression. Minogue notes that while the patterns of ideological thought were consistent, there was little agreement on who the oppressor actually was. Marx said it was the bourgeoisie, but others found the oppressor to be males, governments, imperialists, the white race, or the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
Ideological excitement created turmoil in the twentieth century, but the defeat of the more violent and vicious ideologies--Nazism after 1945 and Communism after 1989--left the passion for social perfection as vibrant as ever. Activist intellectuals still seek to "see through" the life we lead. The positive goals of utopia may for the moment have faded, but the ideological hatred of modernity has remained, and much of our intellectual life has degenerated into a muddled and dogmatic skepticism. For Minogue, the complex task of "demystifying" the "demystifiers" requires that we should discover how ideology works. It must join together each of its complex strands of thought in order to understand the remarkable power of the whole.
1. A Science of Social Conditions
Just as the universe began, according to some cosmologists, with a primal "big bang" which flung the materials of the galaxies out into space, so ideological thinking originated with a big bang in which that primal thing called "the human condition" exploded into a mass of social conditions. Like the cosmic explosion, the intellectual one cannot be pin-pointed to a precise moment, but took place over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We may take the 1840s as the point at which a new intellectual galaxy can be clearly identified, and its subordinate systems recognized for what they were. Our first problem is to discover how such an intellectual galaxy can be identified.
Physically speaking, ideology consists of a vast mass of books, pamphlets, slogans scribbled on walls, banners upheld in demonstrations, and such other forms of utterance in which people enthusiastic about social reform (or its prevention) express their views. On first inspection, it seems to be a form of political thought. Al one of its edges, it begins to merge with philosophy and the social sciences, at another, with religion and moral discussion. It was clear to Karl Marx, much the most gifted of all ideological thinkers, that the advance of his particular ideological doctrine required the destruction of religion, especially Christianity, and in this, as in much else, his instincts were sound. Enmity is always a good clue to identifying points, even if the judgment it leads to should ultimately fail to survive closer examination. In his enmity to Christianity, Marx was rejecting in all its details the Christian conception of the human condition, and it is with this conception that we may suitably begin.
The human condition is, according to the best religious sources with which the West is familiar, highly imperfect, and no one with the least contact either with reality or revelation would expect very much from it. Men must work and suffer in conditions where they are fundamentally divided both from God and from one another. This is the condition known as alienation, air idea common both to Christianity and the ideologies which have grown up in its soil. Within states, families, and other institutions, human beings may find temporary havens from the erosion of time and the destructiveness of sin, and, according to Christian writers, there is little harm in this provided that men do not forget that they are but temporary residents on earth, put here for the purpose of glorifying God but really belonging to another place. The great danger is that the ebullience of youth, the satisfaction of desire, the arrogance of thought, and other such human propensities will lead men to neglect that fundamental recognition of their dependence which finds expression in the forms of religious worship. This neglect is what Augustine and the other Fathers of the Church call "pride," and pride may be assimilated to such other religious concepts as the Greek notion of hubris in that its main drift is to warn human beings that they have a constitutional tendency to forget their humanity, either by slipping down to an animal level, or by imagining themselves to be gods. Human life thus appears in Christian terms as a struggle whose end (impossible of full realization on earth) is the peace of perfect obedience to the will of God. As fully worked out, this view encloses human beings within a framework of authorities-parents, priests, rulers, husbands-who guide their endeavors in every aspect of life. It is important to recognize that these remarks concern what might be called orthodox Christianity, and that, especially since the Reformation, many other currents of thought have swirled in and out of the speculations of theologians. But most of the long-established forms of Christianity tend to the view sketched here, and it is certainly the view against which most of the early exponents of ideology found it easy to define themselves.
Those great builders of practical systems who began to flourish around the middle of the nineteenth century believed that they were the first to have discovered the secret of the human condition. They thought their discovery was scientific, and this belief must be taken seriously. To accept it requires, of course, leaning heavily upon all the permitted stretchings of that elastic word "science," but unless we do take the claim seriously, we shall not understand the consolidation of ideology as a new form of thought. Men of earlier times, argued the comte de Gobineau, had first built civilizations and then seen those civilizations crumble away, in complete ignorance of the genetic laws which actually determined human destiny. Auguste Comte believed that he had discovered the laws by which the human spirit ascended cognitively from lower to higher stages. Our ancestors (he thought) had blundered from theological to metaphysical explanations, but we could now at least see the deficiency of all such earlier groupings by contrast with the new science which was emerging. In elaborating their science of dialectical materialism, Marx and Engels taught that the traditional intellectual superstructure had, up till their own time, directed the minds of men away from the real determinants of human life, namely the mode of production, towards mere phantoms in the brain. Thus the religious reformers of the sixteenth century had helped to carry' through one of the great transitions of human history, from feudalism to capitalism, but lacking scientific knowledge of the way in which systems evolve into one another, had acted out their parts in terms of religious fantasies rather than economic realities.
It may well be suggested that it is nothing particularly new for men with a good idea to think they were the first to understand what was really going on. Purported revelations of reality are a commonplace: theologians have been discovering the horrors of sin, philosophers exposing muddled concepts or unsubstantiated argument, and politicians castigating the blindness of idealism, since time began. In any case, the objection may continue, the word "ideology" refers to the material determination of thought. Marxists, for example, suggest that thought reflects material interests, and Marxism itself claims to reflect the world view of the working classes. This claim is the main reason wily Marxism can legitimately be called (and why Marxists themselves sometimes call it) an "ideology." Some intellectual historians suggest that the material connections of ideas have always been the clue to the significance of thought, and hence that all intellectual history must be a history of ideologies. Along these lines, the objection may be made that ideological thinking is a universal phenomenon, and if that is true, then whatever happened in the 1840s can hardly be new.
For the moment, I shall merely take note of, and then dodge, these points, by taking cover behind Marx's own view that what he was doing was unprecedented. He was especially keen to distance himself from the philosophes and utopian socialists who were obviously, in many respects, his immediate predecessors. His remarks on this subject are certainly not flee from an element of self-advertisement, and he construed the novelty of ideological thinking, a little narrowly, as merely himself. But what he wished to advertise was the superiority of a scientific approach to the transformation of society, by contrast with the piecemeal expedients hitherto used by reformers: haphazard revolutionary impulses, utopian dreaming, appeals for changes of heart, philanthropy, faith in the power of reason, and so on.
Emerging as he did from a Hegelian milieu, Marx began to construct his analysis of society in a philosophical idiom, and evolved towards a more scientific form of expression as time went on. Others claimed to be scientists from the beginning. "The birth, growth and decline of a society and its civilization," wrote Gobineau, "involve factors which go far beyond the normal concerns of historians. These factors have nothing to do, fundamentally, with human passions or popular movements, materials too fragile to figure in developments of such long duration." And he went on to say: "We should classify history as a natural science and, relying solely on facts derived from all possible sources of information, imbue the study of history with scientific precision, preserving it from the bias which, until now, our political groupings have imposed." It will be clear from these remarks, as from much else that is said about science by the builders of practical systems, that Gobineau's understanding of it need not be taken altogether seriously. "Relying solely on facts derived from all possible sources of information" is far from being a good, or even a possible, description of what a scientist does. Nor are scientists, who deal in the hard currency of truth or falsity, much concerned with such mixed entities as "bias." Again, Comte tells us that the expression "positive" in his positive philosophy signifies a concern with coordinating observed facts, and in its rejection of the supposed fancies of theologians and metaphysicians, it typically claims a solid Baconian grounding in verifiable realities. It is clear that what we have to deal with here is the rhetoric of science rather than any serious grasp of what scientific enquiry amounts to. It is true, of course, that the ideas of science and philosophy were at that time less carefully specified and less precisely distinguished than they have become since, but the conception of science universally found in the early ideologists results not from this understandable lack of Sophistication (which it would be anachronistic to demand), but rather from an attempt to make the very idea of science itself an authoritative foundation for the ideas being examined.
Still, the claim to scientific status is vital to understanding the real character of these new bodies of thought, and if we brush it aside by concentrating upon the evident fact that the ideologists were also the active promoters of a new vision of society, then we shall miss an important point. Typical of such attempts to characterize ideologies in terms of evaluation rather than of cognitive aspiration is the account given by Edward Shils: "An ideology characteristically contends more strenuously for a purer, fuller or more ideal realization of particular cognitive and moral values than exists in the society in which the ideology obtains currency." True. But enthusiasm comes and goes. What distinguishes the ideologist from other varieties of activist is the claim to be engaging less in realizing values than in the practice of criticism, of scientific understanding, of analysis, of developing l'esprit humain (as Comte puts it), in the raising of consciousness, and other such improvements of the intellect, which are believed to be quite distinct from the traditional moral and political endeavors of exhorting, advocating, proposing, warning, advising, and the like.
Ideologists like Marx and Comte thus thought of themselves as the elite of the intellectual world, their ideas the standard by which all other endeavor ought to be graded. This cognitive elitism, which has ever since marked ideology, took a generation or so to emerge clearly. The reason is that the ideologists were disposed, in the Socratic manner, to present themselves merely as midwives. The babies to which they actually gave birth were discovered in the sociological and biological bulrushes of some abstract class or entity. Comte was merely unfolding the human spirit. Marx presented his doctrine of historical materialism as the emerging consciousness of the class technically known within his system as the "proletariat." In a similar way, intellectual progeny of this kind were fathered upon such hitherto mute entities as peasants, women, the white race, and the members of a variety, of putative nationalities. This search for sociological sponsorship was in part a triumph of the historical spirit, though it was a historical spirit of a slightly odd kind, since history appeared to culminate either in the ideologist himself or in the works of the collectivity for which he purported to speak. Further, since ideologists interpreted the thoughts of others (law, religion, philosophy-in a word, the thing that Marx and Engels called "the ideological superstructure") as determined by material interests, they needed, in all consistency, some corresponding explanation of their own theories. But beyond consistency lay considerations of practical efficacy. Ideologies were distinguished from other sorts of intellectual production by the fact that they advanced proposals, and also nominated a special class to whom the task was entrusted of bringing these proposals about. Each doctrine nominated what it imagined to be its natural bearers. The problem which soon appeared was that the nominated bearers turned out to need instruction in the doctrines which constituted their natural consciousness. Proletarians had to be taught how to think like proletarians, women like women, Aryans like Aryans, and the members of nations sometimes had to be taught the very language of their nation from scratch. The most successful ideologies were to be those which discovered the wave of the future in a natural class, and then equipped this class with a vanguard or elite who became the priests or custodians of its consciousness. The effect was to turn oratory into pedagogy.
There is a further advantage which might be obtained if ideologies were discovered to be the natural consciousness of a determinate class. All intellectuals, especially when they find themselves jostling for an intellectual ascendancy, are acutely aware that the great river of truth tends to flow off into a thousand rivulets of error. No less than the quarrelling sectaries of the early Christian era, the ideologists of the nineteenth century lived in a highly competitive intellectual market. The sectaries tried to anchor their beliefs in divine revelation, the ideologists in the realities of the class, or racial, or gender situation. The curious form of ventriloquism to which ideologies were prone can thus be seen as an attempt to anchor doctrine in a reality which might also provide natural guardians for the doctrine.
So far then, an ideology is a purportedly scientific doctrine which reveals the secret of the human condition. It is associated with a specific class of person nominated as the bearers or the motor of history. The ideologist presents himself as the mouthpiece of this entity. The set of doctrines which in a commonsense way we should have to regard as having been composed by men like Marx and Engels on the basis of the education they had received are explained, within the system, as the coming to consciousness of a new class of people. This means that the thoughts presented are representative in the same way that political doctrines and speeches are representative, and thus reveals ideologies as a curious species of hybrid: as being scientific discourse, and political, simultaneously.
Ideology can be understood in terms of any number of classificatory grids, but it doesn't fit any of them very well. We need to keep in mind science and politics, history and religion, when we investigate ideologies, but each of these terms is likely to mislead us. Classification being unhelpful, we must make a conjecture about the central idea that excited the ideologists of the first generation, and allow that conjecture to be judged by what it can reveal. The idea of ideology is clearly a solution. The problem is: What is the problem?
II. Society as a System of Consequences
For all their admiration for the philosophes of the Enlightenment, the intellectuals of the early nineteenth century thought they knew something towards which their predecessors had merely been blundering. In part, this was because they thought that they had shifted the basis of social criticism from philosophy to science. In part, it was because they were convinced that they were riding the wave of progress, which in its simplest formulation, meant that whatever came later was also better. But the central point is that they thought they had discovered the systematic character of actual human life.
What this meant is, of course, a highly complicated matter, but the simple clue lies in the famous paradox whose exploration so fascinated many of the thinkers of the eighteenth century. An early statement of it was that found in Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, which described a hive of egoistic creatures who could, in spite of their selfishness, none the less combine together to form a rich and even a happy community.
Excerpted from ALIEN POWERS by Kenneth Minogue Copyright © 2008 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
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