A word in favor of ideology

Mark Lilla writing about the end of ideology at the New Republic:

this is a libertarian age. That is not because democracy is on the march (it is regressing in many places), or because the bounty of the free market has reached everyone (we have a new class of paupers), or because we are now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict). No, ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms…


et our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principlesthe sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, toleranceand advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus


Libertarianism’s dogmatic simplicity explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it: small-government fundamentalists on the American right, anarchists on the European and Latin American left, democratization prophets, civil liberties absolutists, human rights crusaders, neoliberal growth evangelists, rogue hackers, gun fanatics, porn manufacturers, and Chicago School economists the world over. The dogma that unites them is implicit and does not require explication; it is a mentality, a mood, a presumptionwhat used to be called, non-pejoratively, a prejudice.

This brings to mind a couple of observations.  A few years ago, I read a nice one-volume history of Japan.  It was exactly what I would have said I was looking for in a history book:  one without ideological blinders, without villains that the writer makes no effort to understand, without a grand narrative of progress or fall imposed on the facts.  I finished the book, but I can’t remember a single specific thing that happened in it.  I was left with the impression that Japanese history is a sequence of changes that were good in some ways and bad in others, which is probably true, but without big ideas to latch onto, history just seems like noise.

Second, I’ve found that some groups of Leftists clearly produce more interesting writings than others.  Every feminist essay I’ve ever read has been intellectually worthless:  illogical, question-begging, philistine, hysterical crap.  On the other hand, Marxists regularly impress me with their observations.  I now see the reason is that Marxism is a real ideology, and Marxist historians and sociologists genuinely try to put together a coherent picture of the world rather than just vent.  So, for example, a Marxist will not just throw every contradictory insult in the book at capitalists; he will say precisely what he thinks is wrong with capitalists, and if another Leftist says the problem with capitalism is something else that doesn’t fit the theory, the Marxist will correct him.  As a Catholic, I would say that Marxists share with us the dogmatic spirit.  (We use the word “dogmatic” in a way opposite to Lilla’s.)  It also makes the commies a slightly more likable bunch that “history” has now passed them by like it did to us, so we share an alienation from the direction of history, a willingness to critique what passes for progress in a radical way.

12 Responses

  1. Excellent

  2. The turn of the age has made a decent intellectual out of Terry Eagleton.

  3. Agreed. The Communist ideology and style of governance in particular may have been evil, but they were by no means idiots about how they implemented it, the way it seems fashionable to make them out to be. (Obvious question that comes up in response to some over-the-top critiques of Communism: if the Soviet system was *that* poorly thought out, how could they have ever been a threat?) I think of them as not too far off from the kind of bunch the ancient Spartans might have been, if given access to modern technology.

    And the reason for their collapse was, very simply, that new generations grew up which (accurately enough) did not see the Communist ideal as worth killing or dying for, the way the Stalinist generation did.

    Though, this post could also have been titled “a word in favor of systematic thinking”. The overall point seems to be that there is a world of difference between systematic reasoning from subtly or blatantly false premises (what the Marxists do), compared to just inventing convenient premises on the spot (outright postmodernism).

  4. A good deal of confusion results from our equivocal use of the word ideology. Sometimes it means a false or even vicious view of the world that leaves out important aspects of reality, so that an ideology is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it simply means an integrated or coherent view of the world which might very well be the correct view of the world. Under this second meaning there is nothing wrong with ideology per se, only with false ideologies. The opposite of ideology in this second sense is nihilism, since nothing is meaningful, or important, or cause for joy or sorrow. As with your book of Japanese history, it’s just one damn thing after another!

    As Christians we believe that life is meaningful, and we believe that the ideology (second sense) known as Catholicism most fully discloses that meaning. Libertarianism is arguably not an ideology because it is simply nihilism. On libertarianism, nothing is inherently good or important, but only good or important for me. After ideology all that remains is the Abyss.

  5. The films of Gillo Pontecorvo always struck me as full of insight.

  6. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  7. This is a fascinating way to think about it. So perhaps the reason we no longer see mass genocides like Stalin’s is because there is no longer any society coherently enough organized to pull it off? Perhaps that’s a fringe benefit of civilizational decline. The coming collapse may be nasty, but perhaps not as nasty as the Holodomor.

  8. “We use the word “dogmatic” in a way opposite to Lilla’s”

    Do we?

    One recalls Bl John Henry Newman’s famous “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” Again, he observes, “Again, “Dulce et decorum est pro patriâ mori,” [it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country] is a mere common-place, a terse expression of abstractions in the mind of the poet himself, if Philippi is to be the index of his patriotism, whereas it would be the record of experiences, a sovereign dogma, a grand aspiration, inflaming the imagination, [piercing the heart, of a Wallace or a Tell.”

    Throughout his writings, he distinguishes dogma from theology. Dogma is categorical, not argumentative; concrete, not abstract; concerned with facts and actions and principles and, above all, a Person; not with ideas or notions or reflections, which latter constitute theology.

    This seems very close to Lilla’s distinction between dogma and ideology.

  9. Bonald,

    This is an excellent post sir.

    JMsmith follows with an equally excellent comment. I was trying to express similar sentiments to Kristor the other day on the thread regarding technology and nihilism but I couldn’t articulate it anywhere near as well. Kristor really undermines his own traditionalist credentials when he defends capitalism, and claims that distribuistism would “lead to mass death.”

  10. JMSmith,

    Having thought about it for a while, I think you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter. Communism and Catholicism tell you what pattern must be hidden in the data, which challenges believers to look for it and convince themselves they’ve found it. Libertarianism is nihilism, which is the null hypothesis of meaningless noise, which doesn’t prompt any sort of investigation.

  11. Dogma or ideology – does it really matter? Esp. in the light of the remark of Mr. Paterson-Seymour. Christianity is also dogmatic, isn’t it?

    Marxism is also nihilism. The difference is it leaves less room for one’s own personal “sub-beliefs”. It is rigid in its pretence to be scientific. It fight Christianity face to face. Ideology against ideology. Or gospel against gospel. The stronger wins. In this regard it is more old-fashioned than its succesor but it is also more stupid and doesn’t go all the way down to the end. I remember in the eighties nobody really believed marxism anymore no matter how intellectualy impressive it might be. Everybody saw it doesn’t really work.

    It is not the case with modern ideology or dogma because it seems to be smarter form of nihilism. It doesn’t want to fight Christianity face to face. It pretends to be “a meta-belief” that includes other beliefs as “sub-beliefs”, making them personal and, therefore, insignificant. It is more intelligent and more terrible than straightforward annihalition. It annihilates Christianity by making it empty while keeping it intact on the surface. It allows control without need for hard suppression of personal beliefs and activity as in the days of old marxism.

    I just wouldn’t call it “libertarianism”. Here libertarians are mostly rothbardians or misesians and hardcore libertarians like Rothbard at least believed in some absolute – in his case absolute ownership and absolutely free market — and, therefore, they are principled but naive. The modern ideology/dogma will never allow libertarian free markets, absolute ownership, or communist no ownership at all or objective order of things as in Natural Law or any such absolute thing. If its goal is worldliness anything goes, except for absolutes.

  12. Ita, Kristor doesn’t seem to defend capitalism as it is now. That word is misleading anyway. He rather seems to think that different policies of state would make different kinds of free market but it has to be free to certain extent to allow for rational economic behavior.

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