Politics and Philosophy

Exploring Political Issues Through Philosophy






William F. Pray



1.  Perspectives and limitations

2. What is ideology?

3. Ideology, or doctrine and dogma?

4. Positives and negatives of ideology

5. The allure of ideology

6. Ideology’s bad name

7. Summary



A phenomenological study is a descriptive analysis of entities.  In this case that entity is ideology.  Through a careful descriptive study of the characteristics of phenomena – the experience of ideology – the effects of the phenomena on human activity will become more understandable.  Throughout the paper numerous examples will be offered in support of the descriptive understanding, although a consistent attempt will be made to achieve this understanding without any preconceived notions as to any outcome of the study.



From just about any perspective on ideology the concept proves to be one of the most widely used, yet intractable, of all modern concepts.  For starters, the concept of ideology is charged with certain meanings that it does not inherently possess.  While these false meanings will be discussed below, there is one inaccuracy that is particularly irksome.  It is an inaccuracy that will produce a serious limit to a clear understanding of ideology.  That inaccuracy is the misguided notion that ideology is solely a theme of politics.  This is an incorrect view and must be discarded immediately. 

Ideology is much broader than politics and allows for a much more general theater of activity and interpretation that a mere evaluation of power relations.  For example, we can say that ideology mediates much of our social lives and much of our ethical thinking. This is a large statement, but if this perspective can be satisfactorily established, then it follows that fully grasping the subject of ideology is a vital one for peering into how we understand, or misunderstand, societal relations along with the dynamics of social change.

As we look into the perspective model of ideology, we will have to limit the subject to that of the ideal sketch.  And it is ideal.  There will be nothing in reality that conforms precisely to this sketch.  When discussing different models, the same limitations will apply.  Each will be an epitome.  Getting into detailed discussions of different, concrete ideologies, rather than a general theoretical model, approaches a level of social and political debate that is best to avoid in this context.  Such a debate is a mischaracterization of the overall project which is, ironically, to deny ideology its main source of power, which is in many ways a misinterpretation of reality, or perhaps more accurately, a misrepresentation. 

For the sake of grasping the real impact of ideology on human activity, we need to always consider a few perspectives and limitations that can add shape and substance to this very complicated subject. 

First, we need to consider ideology a ‘system of ideas.’ This system of ideas emerges out of the concrete situation in which we find ourselves.  This system is an organized reflection of our experience.  This organized reflection  affords us a genuine and authentic interpretation of our social constellation.  Note that the word ‘accurate’ is not used to describe the interpretation, nor is the word ‘knowledge’ used in conjunction with interpretation.  That is because both ‘accurate’ and ‘knowledge’ border on a claim to ‘truth,’ and as we will see, truth plays little role in ideology. Being genuine or authentic carries a different meaning:  to be these things means to be actual of the original, to be an arrangement of ideas that come very close to a reflection of the way things appear to be.  This is not to say the reflection is True or Factual, but rather an interpretation of the way we experience things and events.

Second, we need to realize that the reflected interpretation of experience is not just a manifestation of our inheritance of ideas – the zeitgeist[1] goulash into which we are flung at birth.  The reflection is itself a becoming of the historical process which is to emerge as our ‘ideological heritage.’  In other words, just as we are part of our own experience we are also a part of our own reflected experience; we are always a Becoming of historical experience.

This interaction between experience and the process of experience sets us a difficult situation.  Judging ideology to be too ethereal a process, rather than rooted in the real social circumstance, makes it more difficult to analyze correctly; in the end such a view draws us back and away from the real power of ideology.  On the other hand, forgetting that there is such an element to ideology which we might call ‘a reflection of the times’ also represents a loss; ignoring this loses for us an overall grasp on our flowing historicity.

Thus there are two overriding perspectives on ideology.  The first is concrete, but if viewed one dimensionally, causes us to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The second is ideal and oppositional, which if viewed as the sole perspective loses sight of the trees for the forest. 

We need to be also aware of  another perspective and limitation that suggests ideology cannot be coherently studied at all.  This position argues that ideology is in the grip of an inherent contradiction: after all, if everything is ideological how can we study the subject outside of its own light?  There is a paradox here.  If all views are ideological in some sense, then how is it possible to get a truly unbiased and objective view of the subject? Cannot one be forever accused of the circularity of examining ideology ideologically?  Can one think objectively about something so intrinsically ‘inherent’?  While we must recognize and acknowledge this important claim, at the end of the day it seems that all we can do is be aware of the probability that ideology itself is a fundamental motivating factor in our study and (to borrow from psychoanalysis) be fully conscious of this probability and thereby steel against its unwanted influence, for if unguarded against it will creep in.   Hence a phenomenological investigation seems the best route to take to gain the best understanding.



It is important to disentangle this question from a second, tangential issue:  where does ideology come from?   In this study the ‘from where’ will be cleaved off from the ‘what is.’  This separation can be done clinically, but we need to keep in mind that the two issues are in fact intimately connected and reinforcing, and this is one of the fundamental difficulties in coming to grips with the subject.[2] 

Seen at the most fundamental level, it is useful to consider ideology as the interplay between an inherited system of ideas and daily experience.  To see an idea-system in this way is somewhat over simplified, but a good starting point. 

Next, the specific nature of the idea-system is uncovered by looking into the purpose of the system.   In general, the purpose of all inherited idea-systems is to interpret and explain the world around us.  At a basic level much of this interpretation can be found in responses to existential anxieties, anxieties provoked by such questions as:  Why are we here?  Such fundamental existential questions and interpretations tend to be a concern of philosophical and theological systems.  However, the most immediate purpose of these ideological systems is to interpret the social world in which we find ourselves.  Ideology makes one feel at home, comfortable with the social setting.  Ideology can tell us who and where we are in this social world, and more importantly why we occupy some particular niche in that social world.  Most of this interpretation is automatic and goes on at a subconscious level. 

Looking closer, ideologies go further that just interpretation.  Ideologies have the important function not only of explanation, but also of mediation.  Ideologies allow social systems to function smoothly by mediating friction that can arise between various social groupings.  In this function of mediation ideology not only explains the social world, but acts as a support for that social world.  Typically, the supporting mediation often takes some form of justification for the social system, or social ordering.  In this sense ideology, through its justifying function, tends to legitimize a particular social order, (hence the source of confusion between political doctrine and ideology).  Looking back on historical situations much of the justification and legitimizing offered by ideology appears absurd, and in fact may well be, but this does not lessen our interest. On the contrary, the function of justification and legitimization for the social order by these idea-systems is what most concerns us and arouses our interest in ideology.   How these ideologies work to mediate and justify and legitimize will form the basis for the phenomenological approach to this study.

As suggested above, we are far too accustomed to think of ideology as synonymous with political doctrine and ideologues as mere characters in a political drama.  This is a serious misunderstanding and a source of confusion.  Addressing this, we need to acknowledge that ideology frequently secretes political overtones and is encouraging of political involvement together with political action.  Political doctrine has it roots in ideology, and is often and expression of ideology (a kind of manipulated exegesis, if you will)  but political doctrine, per se, is different from ideology.  For one thing, ideology, as opposed to doctrine,  does not necessarily make any claim on truth.  Doctrine, as it might be expressed in a political party’s platform, (or in a Papal Bull), typically does make strong claims on truth.  Another difference is that political doctrine is overtly goal orientated, while ideology is less concerned with goals than it is with justification – although sometimes justification is a political goal.  Therefore, while there are points of overlap and points of common interest, do not confuse political doctrine alone with political ideology; ideology is much more than doctrinaire formalism.  While a party’s platform, as expressed through its doctrine, may have some connection to ideology, the source of energy and focus of the doctrine, (and therefore the claim on truth and goals), is the self interest of the faction driving the party.  It is the claim on truth and goals, therefore, which distinguishes political doctrine from ideology – even political ideology.  Both doctrine and dogma will be considered at greater length later.

Looking more closely at mediation in the form of justification, we need to recognize that justification is a fundamental organizing principle exercised by nearly all ideologies. This is particularly apparent in justifying a social order where the distribution of goods and services appears grossly and painfully unequal.  We can easily see that certain ideologies appear to justify the inequality.  This principle of justification is vital in the ideological process.  It is this feature that sidetracks the pandemonium and violence that may otherwise result.  Much of ideological mediation is facilitated through justification and not vice versa, as doctrine may make it appear.

For example: the interplay between ideas and experience, as they reified in the medieval church, served well in this capacity to mediate.  That is, the prevailing religious ideology serve to mediate through justification the established inequities found in the medieval European feudal system.  In this system, the individual was at ease with his or her place in society, which was identical with their function in the social order. The individual became the idea of the social function.  Each of the ‘functions’ carried out the assigned task for the survival and betterment of the whole. It is impossible to understand the operation of this thousand year system without understanding the medieval mind, which is to say understand the feudal ideology.  The individual was a sacrifice to his or her function, and this was for stability and the common good.  The repression, exploitation and social violence perpetrated by the medieval social hierarchy were justified by an idea-system that purported to be the word and hand of God.  This was to become Church doctrine, and to our contemporary vantage point, must seem extreme and all but preposterous. Yet this ideology of other-worldly interpretation with of the material experience under which the vast majority of people suffered is the only way to understand the widespread feeling of legitimacy toward the feudal system; this the seed of monarchist doctrine.

All exploitive political systems have depended on a doctrine, to one degree or another, which in the grand sweep of history has very often meant religious doctrine.  But European, feudal ideology is not just religious doctrine, but an encompassing superstitious world view of which religions ideology was almost an inevitable by-product and cohabitant.  At the same time this religious doctrine functions as a reinforcement of that ideology and the superstitious worldview.  It is fair to say that while many political systems utilize religion to bolster their sense of legitimacy and justification, no past social system depended on religious ideology for social stability so much as did the European feudal system.  In many ways, religious ideology and doctrine gave a sense of constancy to a grossly unstable world.

Of course, it goes without saying that while some ideologies function to prevent violence, many other ideologies act as a midwife for violence.  The first kind – where ideology is present to mediate against violence – is typically found in societies where there is some reverence for some form of law as a means of constraining and modifying both individual and intra-group violence. In analyzing the nature of the prohibition to violence, the ideological roots can be uncovered.  In general, where the ideology and the law co-mingle, justice gains some spiritual or metaphysical stature.  This causes the law and justice to be separate and rise ‘above’ the individuals or societal groups that prorogated these laws in the first place.  In this sense the law becomes a kind of alien entity to be revered without regard to the concrete relations that might reside (or did reside) behind the new metaphysical presence.  As a consequence to this kind of elevation, any hidden intent of the law and justice inherent in the ideological roots is supplanted by the metaphysical meaning.  It is not at all easy to see or understand this separation in our modern ‘frame of mind.’  This is because such a metaphysic as a transposition of an ideological component that is our living frame of mind, just as the Christian frame of mind was the living medieval frame of mind. The reason it is easy to grasp the medieval fixation with the metaphysic of the Divine, or Revelation as Truth, and not see the other, our reverence for some form of current legal metaphysic, is our emersion in the fog of contemporary ideology.  Getting away from abstractions might help us break through this ‘fog of ideology.’ An illustration will demonstrate this.

Let us look at murder.  Such an action seems to be a straightforward subject, clearly devoid of any ideological meaning or metaphysical components. So, let us examine the notion of murder as being illegal.  Murder is illegal in nearly all societies, but, we need to note, not under all circumstances.  With the possible exception of self-defense (and this is also conditioned by the current idea-systems) the idea of murder rests on factors of social self interest, a pillar of ideology.  The idea of killing defined as murder is closely related to questions of at whose command and in whose interest the killing is done.  This appears most obvious when the killing of another human being is done in the interest of The State.  The executioner, the policeman, the soldier, when killing at the behest of The State is not held to any reckoning as the act is not defined as murder; therein enters the concrete component that lies behind the metaphysical or ideological factor:  In this case, the historically defined social relations that form The State.

To delve deeper into the nature of this metaphysical distortion surrounding the idea of Murder, we must ask: “Whose State?”   That is, The State, like Murder, also has an ideological means that hides the concrete realities of its social relations.  So we must ask: In whose name is Murder permitted?  And further, what concrete societal entities lie behind the metaphysical mask of The State?  When phrasing the question in these terms it is possible to bring into focus a certain mythical quality aroused by this entity, The State; we can see that what appears so obviously a non-metaphysical action, such as Murder, have inherent ideological roots that can transpose the concrete into a metaphysic.  This revelation forces us to focus on the nature of The State for answers relevant to the spiritual essence indicative of the ideological structure of The Law.

While analyzing the nature of The State is beyond the scope of this study, we can understand the relevance of The State in legitimizing numerous strands of violence.  To promote legitimate murder from the outset, the needs of The State are pressed into service.  To take but one obvious example, most imperialist doctrine would be fall into this legitimizing pattern by coaxing some ideological balm from the rampant bloodshed.  Here political doctrine and ideology co-mingle, with the ideology providing the legitimacy and justification for the doctrine.  Yet even with the co-mingling it is important to note that the ideological support given to a doctrine of imperialism can be removed from the mix for examination.  To illustrate: in some cases imperialist doctrine is supported by one of the many faces of racism, or economic determinism, or some form of nationalistic manifest destiny – and all of these idea-systems can co-mingle to drive the political doctrine of imperialism.

It is most important to recognize that in both these above senses (i.e., to forestall social violence, or to justify violence) ideology offers support for certain elements in the social order through administered mediation of opposing social interests, a mediation that inevitably takes some form of justification.  Through the lens of justification we can begin to see a certain subjective characteristic of ideology; certain social groups benefit more than others by the nature of the ideology.  Ultimately, of course, and although elusive, nearly all ideologies carry strong subjective forces within them. That is, in practice, ideology tends to favor the agenda of certain societal groups as opposed to other societal groups.  Oddly, this does not seem to detract from the influence of the ideology, but adds to it. 

This addition to the influence of ideology can be seen where the ruling order is claiming some descent from the gods.  In pre-Dynastic Egypt, for example, the Pharaohs were considered as gods.  No further justification was required to exploit the lives of those existing beneath. Later, in Dynastic Egypt, the use of religion enhanced both the role of the priests and the Pharaohs in that through mystical ceremony the kings became one with their ‘ka’ and were transformed into Gods[3].  In an intensely superstitious community, such as in Ancient Egypt, this religious practice of transformation offered ultimate legitimacy to the ruling Pharaohs and firmly established the priestly class in an indispensable supporting role for the ruling order.  The evolving ideology added another supporting layer for itself and enhanced the agenda of another exploitive social group.  The exploitation of certain groups is justified by the other-worldly transformation, and at the same time, the justification reinforces the other worldly ideology.



It is not helpful to consider ideology wholly as a form of doctrine or dogma.  There are many times when ideological systems can lead to doctrine, which in turn can lead to dogma, but they are distinct modes of thinking.  Working through a descriptive analysis will help in clarifying our understanding of the three. 

About dogma we may say the following:

First, by definition, dogma has gone beyond an appeal to the real and appeals solely to authority, as exampled by religious dogma where appeal is made to some scripture rather than reason and evidence grounded in the concrete world.  So while dogma has typically come loose from material reality – (we might say that dogma has become a decadent thought process) – ideology, and any doctrinaire outgrowth of ideology, remains rooted in concrete experience and therefore appeals to experience rather than authority. It follows that ideology and its doctrinaire expression remain socially and politically relevant. Dogma, on the other hand, due to the separation from concrete reality, becomes increasingly irrelevant in addressing actual issues and concrete situations. 

Second, dogma represents a decided viewpoint on Truth.  Truth is an inherent demand of dogma.  Dogma claims this right to Truth by authority, usually by divine authority, or authority that had achieved some form of divinity.  These views on authority and Truth seem an obvious result and byproduct of dogma’s detachment from concrete situations.

Third: Truth is not an inherent demand of ideology, as ideology represents a largely unconscious world view where such things as truth are not necessarily a part of the discussion and are very often beside the point. Ideology arises out of concrete, historical situations, and the players are most often utterly unaware of ideology’s deciding influence in how they address their problems and issues.  If thought of at all, everyday ideology is seen as some form of ‘common sense,’ which tends to be an inhospitable environment for Truth, per se. Ideology, typically, makes no such claim on truth.  Where it appears to do so, (e.g., “According to Marx and Lenin…”) it is doctrine or dogma which is called upon and not ideology.

Ideology, doctrine, and dogma, are not static systems of thought and ideas.  They are a constant, free flowing dynamic, evolving (or devolving) according to the synthesizing of changing historical conditions.  To illustrate: in the western world, modern ideologies, as they have evolved in contemporary times, have come to first co-mingle and next to eventually supplant theological doctrine and dogma with political modes of thought.  This is so because of the manner in which the crystallization of power relations have come about in the modern social order.  The expression of power relations in the Middle Ages were satisfactorily expressed by a fixed, theological mode of thought, where each was in their fixed and proper place for an harmonious expression of God’s design.  This mode of thought, which we might call a type of existential ideology, obviously proved unsatisfactory in modern times, where due to the rapidly shifting relations of production and trade no one individuals place and no socio-economic entity could be fixed or predictable.  Permanence in social relations was a thing of the past; the new order of the day was rapid changes in commodity production and distribution, together with concomitant social transformation.  Modern and contemporary expressions of power relations, as they rose out of a rapidly changing scientific and engineered means of survival, found an unsatisfactory expression in Divine Ordination.   Newer ideological expressions of reality were needed to organize the gathering and far less stable world of capital formation, industrialization, and marketplace distribution.  That expression became overtly political, a mode of thought as concrete as the relations from which it sprung.   

For example, we might view nationalist ideology in such a light.  The nationalistic system of thinking, like all ideologies, comes to draw its form and energy from historically evolved, material relations.  The closing of the Middle Ages was precipitated by the changing forms of wealth that demanded new systems of transportation, commerce and trade, along with specie exchange, which allowed for capital formation and industrialization. These developments meant that the centers of power began their drift away from the local level to the regional level, and the nation state began to emerge.  These shifting material relations made an ideology dependent on static universe increasingly irrelevant and decadent.  The new relations demanded new, dynamic and vigorous ideological frontiers.  Along with this move away from the static provincial to the dynamic and new national, idea-systems appeared to replace the parochial ideologies and their theological supporting apparatus; among them new idea-systems was Nationalism (not to mention liberalism, constitutionalism, equalitarianism, capitalism, etc.).  This is not the place for a detailed discussion on the emergence of the nation state, but it is well to use its emergence as an example of changes modes of ideological thought.



Ideologies offer either a positive, systematic and soothing explanations, or they present negative, critical evaluation for the more tumultuous and apparently contradictory events in the world.   Ideologies are either constructive and supportive of material relations, or destructive and iconoclastic toward those relations.  For the most part, positive and socially supportive ideologies tend to be of the inherited variety, while negative and critical ideologies are usually acquired.

On the positive side, many ideologies of the inherited type, unlike party doctrines, lends themselves to an established stability of outlook.  Form a comforting ideological point of view; all is as it should be, even in the midst of inexplicable chaos. Ideology establishes a fixed meaning of intention to offer a sense of personal security through a permanent and fitted frame of reference.  Ideologies offer a mediation, a go-between that than acts as a cushion between us and our place in the historically produced social environment, which is frequently nasty and hostile.   How and why certain ideologies do this is quite another matter.  For the moment it is enough to say that ideologies are, as a general rule, not a fully conscious process that allows us to feel at ease in a specific historically conditioned social environment. 

On the negative side, ideologies of the acquired variety will inevitablye arise when existing conditions intensify social friction that feed into factional antagonism.  Because these emerging ideologies typically will stand on the outside of, and in opposition to, existing material relations, they can offer sharp insights into weakness and contradictions within those social arrangements and the ideologies which support them.  At the same time, these newly acquired oppositional ideologies, as a tool of exposure, can offer other models of social relations, ameliorating models that offer solutions to the existing antagonisms.  That these negative ideologies might fail is beside the point of the idea-system.  It is entirely possible that either the antithetical ideology is premature in its development, or utterly behind the flow of history.  We might see the political theories of William of Ockham (1288-1348), or the scientific theories of Copernicus (1473-1543), as  ahead of their time[4], and the vast majority of racist ideology, and now nationalist ideology, as behind the times.

Also on the negative side is the fact that nearly all ideologies of the inherited type are, to one degree or another, resistant to outside influence, and therefore withstand dramatic and sudden alteration to their various interpretations of social milieu.  Indeed, many inherited ideologies are utterly impervious to outside influence, and even any kind of meaningful outside exchange. This becomes an increasingly given position as the ideologies approach decadence, where the roots of the ideology, and its doctrinaire expression, begin to come loose from the material soil from which they sprang and drifted into dogma. Along with the possible decadence of the idea-system, these ideologies are closed systems of thought that are, to a great degree, self-serving.  In line with this these ideologies are their dogmatic expression that often shows signs of fierce resistance to any type of breach to the boundaries of their system.  One illustration that comes to mind in this regard are religious ideologies (as expressed through religious dogma). History is replete with examples of religious ideologies, and the dogmatic expression of which responds violently to rumors of change (recall, dogma’s expressed claim on Truth).  Witness the numerous Inquisitions from the 12th through the 16th centuries.  These were specific, violent, authoritative reactions to the threat of rational thought then arising in Europe.  The violence is in proportion to the underlying decadence of the ideology that propped up the dogma.  The Truth of the dogma was at issue, but the greatest contributing factor was the changing material conditions that no longer watered the ideological roots causing a withering and the emergence of dogma,. A decadent claim on Truth is always more vulnerable than the dynamic claims of an expanding, growing and robust ideology.

Understand, however, that religion is not alone in this violent resistance.  Political, racial, social, economic ideologies, and their doctrinaire expression, all have shown signs of defiance and violent reaction to change.  Because history is a dynamic and moving system, there has never been a time in history without idea-systems struggling to remain rooted in a shifting, material landscape.  At least one implication of this is the enormous drag ideology places on events moving toward anything we might even remotely call progress.  Here decadent, nationalist ideologies, and their dogmatic expression (e.g. monarchist or  fascist ), serve as apt example.



How it is that ideology casts such a long shadow?  It does so because, in general, many (but not all) of these idea-systems promote the luxury of avoiding thinking and the anxiety it promotes. This may sound tongue-in-cheek, but the statement is earnest.  Ideology, especially the inherited variety, serves as a substitution for anything resembling closely reasoned analysis.  Some of these ideologies are familiar as political schemes (e.g. Marxism, when taken as dogma), but many other explanations can range from decadent social ideologies (e.g. racism) to economic (e.g. capitalism, when taken as dogma) to theology (e.g. Islam). 

It is important to note that not all ideologies are dead wrong or provide a false image of reality. Many ideologies, typically the acquired variety, provide critical insights and powerful tools to organize our social reality into a cohesiveness that can defeat blind frustration. Obviously, these are largely pragmatic benchmarks rather than ethical ones, as would be the case when considering ultimate rational idea-systems which might be lumped under the general heading of scientism.  Many other of these ‘isms,’ these powerful acquired idea-systems, can increase anxiety rather than forestall it.  One such critical idea-system that would tend to arouse anxiety rather than appease it would be, loosely speaking, Existentialism.

Although ideologies show resistance to change, not all ideologies are equally idea-tight.  Some ideologies are quite porous, even to the point of seeking outside influence and the consequent alteration that can follow.  Many of the democratic ideologies come to mind here.   Some of the more extreme types of democratic ideology (e.g. some forms of anarchist theory) allow, by intent, for so much input that the ideology’s sense of cohesiveness is threatened.  This can be destructive to the ideological system.  In this specific case, the practical application of anarchist democratic precepts is swept aside by its ideological demands.  This paradox has always been the great theoretical irony in anarchist theory.  That is, the crippling irony being that which generates the appeal of the anarchist movement is also its Achilles heel.

However, overall we must say that the great majority of ideological systems are, by their set of internal demands, ‘closed.’  For example, it is difficult to imagine an idea-system such as Nazism, where Aryan superiority functions as an internal demand of the system, being open to ‘new information’ on genetics and DNA. This causes most of these systems to posses their own internal systems of logic, some of them quite quirky.  We might illustrate this with a bizarre practice found in the ideology of Satanism. An accused witch would be tied and bundled with weights and tossed into a body of water.  If this luckless ‘devil’ floated to the surface, they were pronounced guilty and burned or hanged.  If they drowned, they were pronounced innocent.   The fact that this absurd practice survived into the 18th century, United States, should cause us to pause and reflect.

This tendency toward a closed system of logic leaves vulnerable the outcome of even the best of analysis by the most open of these ideologies.   We might explore this implied contradiction by returning for a moment to a specific democratic ideology:  liberal democratic ideology.  While it can be said that in general democratic ideologies are more open than many other ideologies (e.g. fascism), a closer look can, in specific cases, reveal a tendency toward closure through various mechanisms of transformation.  For example, at the core of classic liberal ideology is the belief in the individual’s right to pursue his or her goals unmolested by the political state.  When coercive necessities arise, such as a government claiming the necessity to arbitrate conflicting goals, the subsequent repression is nonetheless analyzed in terms of the ideology, i.e. governmental repression is not seen as repression per se, but as conflict arbitration.  The internal logic of the ideology transforms government repression into a progressive factor facilitating the individual’s right to pursue desired goals.  Surreptitiously, and by the cunning of its internal logic, the ideology transforms a negative into a positive.  Even extreme forms of liberalism, such as Libertarianism, cannot entirely escape the implied contradiction brought on by ‘necessity.’  Of course, the liberal ideologue will hotly argue the necessity of government ‘intervention’ to forestall civil conflict.  While this position may have certain validity, it is beside the point we are making concerning ideological logic. Successful ideologies will often make use of its internal logical system to absorb powerful oppositional constructs and flip them into useful elements of their own.

Any effective and successful ideology is highly capable of dipping in to the analytical wing of its idea-system to transform the negative thing that comes into social experience into a positive thing, or at least something compatible with the patterns, and in this way protect the integrity of the ideological model. Thus, as in the above example, the flexible ideology cleverly masks resistance to change beneath the cloak of accommodation.  In this, liberal democratic ideologies are not alone.  Accommodation and transformation of negatives into positives is a favorite tool of Christian ideological logic.  We might look into the absorbson and transformation of even hostile characteristics, as is seen in the strange case of Vodouisant, where the pagan practice of voodoo is absorbed and transformed by the primary Christian ideology, although the two systems appear grossly antithetical and ill suited for marriage.

 To restate: many ideologies are powerful organizing tools.  Liberal democratic ideologies are but one example, showing greater flexibility and adoptability than say, for example, the monarchist ideologies it replaced.  Even so, as illustrated above, any ideology, from the most liberal of democratic ideologies to the most conservative of religions ideologies, will show degrees of resistance to outside evaluation – bearing in mind that the resistance is often hidden, appearing in the guise of adoption, which in actuality is cooption.  

Ideologies, no matter how flexible, reflect patterns of thought from which they are unlikely to deviate wholesale. This differs from say,  opinion, as personal or public opinions do not represent models of an interpretive system of ideas possessing a logical set of analytical tools by which to explain or justify social phenomena.  Opinions, as opposed to ideologies, are merely hazy notions, like flickering shadows on the wall of the cave, a distorted representation of the surrounding reality.  Though opinions may be an extension or development of an ideology, opinions in and of themselves neither analyze nor provide the tools for justification.


6. Ideology’s Bad Name

A conclusion that can be drawn from much of the above description is that ideology is little more than a hindrance to human progress.  Ideology represents a great stumbling block, a tangled system of thinking that undermines clarity of reason and prevents convincing analysis.  In many ways this is a correct perspective, and in some other ways not so much so. This leads to repeated failures in basic problem solving; a disaster in attempts at social engineering and controlling historical forces.  But if ideology deserves much of its bad name, through description we should be able to coherently point out the central reasons:

First ideology is a system of ideas that not only substitutes for rational thought but one which is stubbornly resistant to outside analysis and change. At least one disturbing corollary is that ideology can promote violent action in the world while only pretending to understand that world. 

Second, this closed system of ideas has shown great and consistent historical tendency to support and prop up certain given social orders together with the generally uneven social relations that result.  And, of course, the role and meaning of the ideology in support of these uneven social relations is justification.  That is, the exploitive nature of many social relations is explained away by supportive ideologies.  Organic models such as feudalism and classical fascism come to mine.  However, even revolutionary ideologies that would topple existing social orders would set up another order that would favor certain social elements and suppress others.  Of course, rather this new set up is a positive step toward a serious claim on justice, fairness, and human advancement, depends a great deal on who considers the question.  This in turn is influenced by the position occupied in the ‘new social order,’ together with the analytical expression provided by the ideological tools of this new social order. 

Third, ideology can restrict an accurate vision of our self interest.  Ideology can leak a dense fog that absolutely obscures our connection with events and situations confronting us.   Ideology can deflect our focus into dead end channels and thereby severely limit our choices and leave us at great risk.   These three attributes are frequently overlapping and reinforce each other.

It has probably not escaped notice that we have yet to discuss ‘false consciousnesses as a topic of ideology.  This is because while false consciousness is certainly related to ideology, false consciousness is not the same as ideology, per se. To consider false consciousness and ideology as one and the same is a common error, but the subject needs to be taken up in a separate treatment.



To sum up, we can state the following descriptive characterists about ideology:  (1) We must not fall into the trap of considering that ideology only represents a perspective in political doctrine.  Doctrine and ideology are different entities; (2)  ideology is not knowledge, in some tradition sense of a catalogue of facts, but is a mode of thought, or a system of ideas; (3) this system of ideas is typically inherited.  However, acquired, critical ideologies are possible and even probable; (4) the primary intent of both positive and negative ideologies is to interpret the world around us;  (5) a secondary intent of the positive ideology is to mediate;  (6) an adjunct of mediation is to justify aspects of the world around us;  (7) as opposed to political doctrine, ideology makes no claim on truth;  (8) ideology is largely an unconscious world view that arises out of our concrete, historical situation;  (9) ideologies can offer either positive and soothing explanations, or negative, critical analysis (the later here being largely an acquired system, rather than inherited); (10)  nearly all inherited ideologies show a marked resistance to outside influence.  Acquired ideologies can follow the same pattern, but to a lesser extent; (11)  ideologies, particularly the inherited types, are attractive in that they allow the avoidance of thinking and the anxiety thinking can arouse; (12) not all ideologies are ‘wrong’ or offer an incorrect interpretation of reality. (13)  Ideologies differ from opinion insofar as opinions lack logical tools for explanation and justification.


[1] Spirit of the times

[2] In another paper the origins of ideology will be treated in depth.

[3] For an in depth look into these practices, see http://www.touregypt/GODS1.HTM

[4] For what should be obvious reasons surround controversial suggestions, I deliberately avoid using contemporary ideologies and movements.

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