What is the Impact of Ideology on Civil Society? │ Jake Scott
Broadly speaking, ideologies are the prism through which we understand politics in the contemporary world. When we discuss politics, we often do so in the language of ideologies, talking of “capitalism” and “feminism” as much as “conservatism”, “socialism” and “liberalism”. Ideological thinking can be useful as a way of packaging complex ideas in an accessible and digestible way, and often are vehicles for political action that mobilise alliances of otherwise disparate concerns.
My concern, however, is in the impact of ideology on the social sphere, specifically the civil society that makes political structures viable in the first place.
First, it would be helpful to define “ideology”. After all, broad definitions such as those above are generally neutral, and offer no recognition to the actual philological root of the word – the study of ideas. The definition I wish to offer is thus: a systematisation of politics. Now, any political scientist will quickly object, “but politics is an essentially contested term!” and they would be right. Politics is “overdetermined”, it means different things to almost everyone – after all, we often refer to “workplace politics” as much as “real politics”.
I think a step back helps. Where do we understand “politics” to belong? Some, such as feminist thinkers and Marxists, parrot that “the personal is political”, a point I shall get on to later. But in the real world, the majority of us recognise that politics is done in a specific realm: that of the state. That is where the actions of politics we understand take place. And since politics is done in the context of the state, we can reliably conclude that politics, roughly defined, is “the exercise of state power”.
It would be foolish to stop there, however. I appreciate that much of this is academic self-congratulation, but what is power? Naturally, it must combine a certain degree of unwelcome ideas: coercion; force; penalty and punishment. But there are also welcome ideas: reward; authority; consent. Speaking plainly (and that is what a lot of political thinkers fail to do), I believe power is ultimately the ability to successfully achieve a goal. This definition makes no provisions for how that goal is defined, or even achieved, simply that it is there.
Therefore, to speak of ideology is to speak of the systematic understanding of the exercise of power in the context of the institutions of state.
What does this actually mean? Systems have to, by their nature, become all-encompassing, in that they must take a broad-picture approach to their subject, otherwise the system itself is incomplete. This means that the idea of the exercise of state power has to expand continually until all areas of life that the state touches (which is an ever-increasing list) are included in the system. This might sound hippy-esque – “you can’t trust the system, man” – but the point is salient: every area of life through which an individual interacts with the state is, understood ideologically, an element of the system.
If this is the case, then no individual can interact with another individual away from the presence of the state; furthermore, the motivating force behind these interactions becomes power, rather than voluntary action.
Again, does this matter? In short, yes – because “ideology” has its own political history. No doubt anyone who has studied ideologies at university knows the conservative epithet that it is “anti-ideological”, and this is because the practice of ideology was originally a left-wing, liberal or proto-socialist one. As Michael Freeden observed, “modern scholarship pertaining to ideology still labour heavily under the mid-nineteenth-century shadow of Marx and Engels… the assigning of ideology of significant functions of power, domination, and exploitation in the political and economic realms is another pervasive feature” (Ideologies and Political Theory).
If the Marxist legacy of ideology is pervasive, then we must understand what the Marxist assumption of power itself also is. This understanding can be summed up as imagining power as a “zero-sum relation”. What this means is that all relations of power have “winners” and “losers”, that the interaction between two actors leads to a situation whereby the preceding equilibrium is disturbed, and the resultant “balance” is inevitably skewed in favour of the triumphant actor over the defeated. No doubt there are echoes of Hegel here. The zero-sum relation reduces all relationships to a defining moment in which one actor succeeded at the expense of the other.
The consequence of this is, if power is indeed everywhere as the systematic understanding must require it to be, then every interpersonal relation must be examined through the prism of power, as the motivating force behind all interactions. And so, in the tradition of Marxism, all social relations are reduced to a singe moment in which one party triumphed at the expense of the other.
This mindset, of imagining all of the behaviour of the world as dictated by some overarching power structure, inevitably leads to a degree of paranoia, in which the enemy is everywhere, and detectable only in the physical representatives of the theorised ‘ruling class’. The process is to dehumanise all those who are representatives of that ruling class – men (feminism), bourgeois (Marxism), white (critical race theory), straight (gay theory) – and engage with them, not as people, but as instruments of the system they represent. Dehumanisation inevitably leads to a dehumanisation of the self, but that requires a certain level of knowledge of Hegel we shall not delve into here.
Is this paranoia misplaced? Some might say not, that there clearly is an effort, if not concerted, by the ‘privileged’ particular to defend his status in the face of the demands for equality, or at least parity of treatment. But then, it is this idea of concert that must be considered in the world of ideology. Do these paranoid victims really imagine that all men gather together to discuss ways of ‘oppressing’ women? That there is a High Council of white people? That the bourgeois who, even the Marxist will admit, is driven by competition for greater shares of capital, set this competition aside in order to deny workers greater… what? Even the Marxist is confused in the 21st century. Is it greater wages, or is that simply buying into the behaviour of the capitalist system? Is it to gain representation on Shareholders’ Boards, or is that just bourgeois parliamentarianism that ought to be rejected as bourgeois democracy?
These questions are not irrelevant; rather they are the crux of the matter. This is because, as Gyorgy Lukacs tried to convince his fellow Marxists, a ‘totalising’ vision of society must be embraced. In short, this vision of ideology as the power structures that permeate every aspect of society might once have been implicit, but Lukacs actively worked to make it explicit. Similarly, Lukacs’s contemporary, Antonio Gramsci, sought to find a way to explain how the working class could have rejected the international socialism of the Communist movement and turned instead to the national socialisms of fascism and, of course, National Socialism: Gramsci’s answer was to look at how a “social particular” (the ruling class) can make its own goal the universal goal of all of society (a “hegemonic” identity). The similarity with Lukacs is plain to see; the ruling class has to infiltrate all layers of society to ensure its control remains.
What this really means is that, to understand one element of society, it has to be conceptualized in terms of the wider society you are examining. You can never look at the economy of a nation alone: it must be considered in concert with, say, the legal system (as the post-war Marxists liked to), or the “family structure” (social feminism), and so on. This is the birth of the infamous “intersectionality”, the practice of examining different forms of “oppression” and how they coalesce to produce the dominant class. Necessarily, any complex and sophisticated system of oppression requires a system to sustain it, and ideology is the method of examining this system.
The consequence of a vision of society as one in which all relations are emblematic of power, is to act as if each person that you interact with is also emblematic of that power. When you believe that each person in the world is not their own autonomous being, but simply a part of the wider structure, you do not treat them as a person. Instead, you treat them as a representative of that structure. As a result, you begin to interact with others around you not as subjects or persons, but as objects or representations, which in turn legitimises any action towards these objects, as long as that action is designed to tear down the structure they represent. In other words, they can be killed, if it contributes to the “revolution”.
Similarly, in the worldview of ideology, power coerces each and every individual entirely and without mercy, even the “ruling class”, forced by the logic of his position and the consciousness of his role to be what he has to be. He can never be kind, altruistic or moral – instead, he is driven purely by selfish desire, be that ‘gendered’, ‘economic’, ‘racial’ or any other great machination that hides behind the mask of civil society.
To take this logic further, as all relations are determined by the structure of society, the liberal love of ‘consent’ also falls apart, in that consent can never be authentic. Because power is implicit in the interactions between individuals, either preceding or following the event, one (or even both) of those individuals is acting under the duress of power and therefore is not authentically consenting. Indeed, they never can, because they could not act as an autonomous individual in the structure of society driven by power.
Hence, we hear the absurd claims such as those from radical feminists that all sex between a man and a woman is rape, because of the inherent imbalance of power between the positions of the two representations involved. Note the language here is specifically chosen; the man and woman are not behaving as such, but as the representations of the genders in society, and their power-imbued statuses.
Or the ridiculous belief that “racism” is found at the “interaction” between “power” and “race”. This allows a transference of blame from the people involved in the “interaction” to the power those people are acting within, so even if, say, a black American President presided over an extraordinarily high percentage of unemployment for black people, it is the structural racism that is to blame, not that President’s poor economic policies. The Marxism here is not difficult to uncover; blame the structure, and you can legitimise your desire for the structure’s demise.
To summarise once again, people are not seen as individuals, rather as representations in space of the social relations of power. This denial of agency and personhood is extraordinarily dangerous, as it prevents the meeting of two individuals as individuals. Fundamentally, if you refuse to see the person in front of you as a person, and only as a representation of the position in the social structure they reflect, then you are also preventing yourself from seeing yourself as a person. Instead, you abstract the interaction between you and this other person as emblematic of the structural conflict at the heart of society – whatever that conflict is supposed to be.
We see a similar obsessiveness spilling into language. This strange, Anglocentric view, for instance, that gendered items in foreign languages somehow denotes power, or the desire not to refer to boats as “she” anymore.
We see how, as a result, Marxism has threaded conflict into every level of society where one might find a binary distinction: from the individual – the self and the other; to the empirically communal – man and woman; from the created world – England and abroad; to the conceptual – reason and emotion. Of course, binaries do not have to be oppositional – in fact, they very rarely are. I’ve tried to avoid discussing Hegel too much in this article, but I think a rough sketch of the dialectic of personhood is necessary.
At its very base, this idea is that the leap from consciousness to self-consciousness is achieved during the moment when one conscious being, capable of “actualising” himself on the world (i.e. changing it to how he desires it to be – building a table from a chair, for instance), interacts with another conscious being. Each being, driven by his nature, tries to “actualise” himself on the other (bending them to his will), and the result is a struggle between the two for one to assert himself as the dominant. But, as the victor approaches the final possible outcome of this struggle – the murder of the other – he pulls back, realising that to do so would be to lose the only other being in this world he has (so far) encountered that is capable of limiting his action. So, he acquiesces to the fact of the matter – he needs this other in his life, so that he might know himself.
What is the purpose of this tangent? To illustrate that binaries are not the meeting of two distantly, separated beings, but rather the twin heads of a single origin turning back on themselves – they share the same root, and so one cannot be without the other.
But to return to the question in the article. What is the impact of ideology on civil society? In summary, I believe the impact has been to both re-imagine the world as both one in which struggle is the defining principle of interaction, and create one where the de-personalisation of the Other is necessary.
By struggle, I here mean a summary of all I have discussed thus far: a depiction of binaries as opposing, rather than ontological opposites who owe their nature to one another entirely; the idea that all relationships have a zero-sum outcome, thus exorcising the concept of mutual benefit; an encouragement of conflict as not merely desirable but absolutely necessary; and a legitimate denial of the Other’s personhood, creating an “every man for himself” mentality. Gone would be the world of settling tension through recognising our shared differences, and in its place would be the tribal, conflictual cycle of violence.
The necessary corollary of such a conflictual perception of the world is one that sees all Others as either ideological “allies” or “opponents”. Some might be pre-determined, in the same way the totalitarian ideologies saw their opponents as non-Aryan or non-Proletarian; or they might be judged by their commitment to an ideologically-determined cause (see both Sarah Stook’s article on virtuous words, and Bradley Goodwin’s article on looking, rather than doing, good), regardless of their actual actions. Consider, for instance, Chris Williamson’s re-admission to the Labour Party on the basis of his socialist credentials, despite his blatant anti-Semitism. (Note this was an example chosen due to its recent significance, not because I believe the Left is the only side guilty of such wilful ignorance.)
Because you can define all people as either allies or enemies, the ideologue can progress logically to a worldview in which the enemy can be erased, as their existence is an object to the achievement of the pre-decided goal (necessarily, Utopia). This is because the Other is seen, as I have explained above, not as an autonomous being acting in concert with those around him, but rather as a representative of the system the ideologue is directly opposed to. In this way, the ideologue can justify action that removes the Other-as-enemy as a legitimate one that undermines and destroys the system they are opposed to. Again, consider the wanton violence of Antifa against their ideological enemies, such as Andy Ngo; it is irrelevant that Ngo is an Asian-American who espouses sensible politics and asks simply that we approach one another with sincerity and a willingness for compromise. What matters is his (lack of) ideological credentials.
To conclude this article, my worry is ideology paints the world in black and white, drawing dividing lines that, if you find yourself on the wrong side of, will legitimise any action designed to remove you. All I ask is we take a step back, consider our social world not in terms of who is against us in our political goals, but in terms of the autonomy of the person in front of you and – as Christ asked us to do – treat others as you would wish to be treated.
 This is the beautiful section in the Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel describes the master-slave relationship. Do not be confused, this isn’t the concept of slavery understood in the contemporary period, but one closer to the Greco-Roman conception of slavery (or even labour, described best by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition).