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Bush and Ideology

"We will not yield to the terrorists," Bush said. "We will find them, we will bring them to justice and at the same time we will spread an ideology of hope and compassion that will overwhelm their ideology of hate." ~Bloomberg.com, July 7, 2005

When the July 7 bombings occurred, I was just preparing to leave on the lengthy road trip that took me away from posting for much of July, so I did not have the chance to comment then on this particularly buffoonish comment. How, after all, can one have an "ideology of hope and compassion," when these are to be considered as either virtues or the passionate feelings commonly associated with those terms? To have an ideology, one must at least have some kind of ideas, or at least cheap knock-off versions of ideas that can be readily fitted, like replaceable parts, into the machine of power. Having been routinely told that "hope is not a strategy" with respect to the menacing Iraqi weapons cache (no laughing, please), we are now informed that hope is apparently an ideology.

It has not been a one-time incident of Mr. Bush freely and senselessly using the word "ideology" when something else would have undoubtedly been more appropriate. Ideology has become one of his new pet words, which he feels compelled to use, either to show that he is conversant with (neoconservative) party doctrine or to make his pronouncements sound more intelligent than they are. But there seem to be a great many people confused about what ideology is, both in its original meaning and its more conventional modern usage. Since the meaning of words is the beginning of all other understanding and cultivation, confusion over the meaning of words will invariably lead to just the sort of muddled, dense nonsense that issues forth from the imperator, as his devotees like to think of him ("our Commander-in-Chief," and all that).

Ideology (originally ideologie in its native French) was the study of ideas as outlined by Comte Destutt de Tracy. Understood this way, Comte de Tracy, a materialist liberal of the old French variety, evidently understood ideology as the study of the intellectual products of biological and material life. In its original meaning, therefore, ideology was completely materialist and reductionist. Not only is he a radical empiricist in his epistemology, and bases all consciousness in sensation, but his conception of the source of ideas would make all intellectual activity a function of material circumstances.

Plainly, no one uses ideology quite in this sense any longer, but it could be and was readily adopted by Marxists, whose model of historical materialism was perfectly in agreement with the more specifically biological and anthropological claim that ideas are the products of material conditions. But for Marxists ideology is the combined form of symbols, ideas, rhetoric and discourse that create legitimacy and justify the exercise of power by the ruling class, and it is a product of the contemporary mode of production as part of the superstructure. It is thus something to be debunked (unless the ruling class is full of self-styled Marxists). It is this politicised form of ideology with which 20th century Westerners are familiar.

Ideology was typically associated first with Marxist revolutionaries, then gradually with any political system (usually non-liberal) that sought to marshal any useful fragments of political thought into a system that legitimised current policy. Non-Marxists came to identify ideology as something that only radicals possessed. Free societies did not produce such reigning ideologies, because such a thing ought to be either redundant or impossible to impose with any degree of success (of course, the advent of mass media might make both of those assumptions doubtful).

Unfortunately, the advent of post-modernism has made ideology something of a buzzword, and not only in academia, and thus this fantastically anachronistic term is now routinely applied to the study of the ancient, late antique, medieval and early modern worlds entirely uncritically. Whether a scholar accepts that material conditions create the "ideology," many scholars are trapped into using the Marxist language for lack of any alternative that would be comprehensible. Weber's notion of "ruling ideas" is theoretically much more attractive, not least because it allows for greater complexity and variety in the genesis of ideas, and also because it allows for the possibility that ideas can come from the margins or peripheries to overtake the ideas of any given ruling group. But it is fair to say that using the word ideology has entered the blood of historians and social scientists, and has now also entered political commentary and presidential speechwriting.

When Kirk first wrote The Conservative Mind in 1953, ideology was something principally connected with totalitarian regimes and was viewed as something exceedingly artificial and also something specifically Continental. Living philosophical and political traditions could not be compressed or compacted into programmatic bullet points, as in a manifesto, because there was a richness and breadth to real philosophy (in part because philosophy was interested first and foremost in truth, not power) that could never be distilled and boiled down into a simple political creed for mobilising supporters or made into a utopian scheme for reorganising society.

Almost by definition, such idea-shards and uniform plans for social engineering based on those shards were doomed not to take root in the rocky ground of reality, because they were the pruned and dessicated remnants of a once-living organism that were being taken as the essential organising principles of society. Anglo-American tradition had little to do with ideology, either in the Comte de Tracy's sense or the Marxist sense, and likewise a conservatism nourished in that tradition could only be an anti-ideology.

Thus, if Mr. Bush prattles on about ideology, we can only be slightly reassured by the fact that he has no idea what the word means. We should be very worried that he has speechwriters and advisors who believe it is appropriate or consonant with the beliefs of his constituents to have an "ideology" (be it of "hope" or anything else) and to view a fundamentally political and strategic problem in principally ideological terms. This betrays mental weakness and confusion. It should be a warning sign that he is even more firmly in the grip of the neoconservative fever than before. It also promises a continued inflexibility in policy decisions that will take us, slowly but surely, the way of the Soviet Union if we persist in imagining that ours is, to borrow the idea of Irving Kristol, an "ideological" nation. Once an ideologue believes his ideological cause is implicated in a conflict, real national interests cease to have any influence on his decisions, and I believe Mr. Bush has become so firmly entrenched in that view that even something as fundamental as real political self-interest may not shake him from it.

Daniel Larison | August 11, 2005


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