Who made ideology a dirty word?

Anna Coote, Head of Social Policy at the UK's New Economics Foundation (NEF) argues that ideology has been declared toxic but needs to be brought back into public discourse, to rehabilitate the notion that that policies can be – and usually are – grounded in systems of ideas and ideals. Thanks to the NEF for permission to republish her original post.

Ideology is a dirty word these days. Politicians on all sides insist that they are driven by unavoidable realities, by the force of evidence and by moral integrity, but never – heaven forbid – by ideology.

When David Cameron launched the Coalition Government’s austerity drive in 2010 he declared ‘We are not driven by some theory or some ideology. We are doing this as a government because we have to...’ This echoed Tony Blair’s famous claim that New Labour was “beyond ideology... we are interested in whatever works’.  And Barack Obama’s plea that Americans should make ‘a new declaration of independence...from ideology and small thinking...’ and rediscover what Abraham Lincoln called ‘our better angels.’

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ideology is as ‘a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy’.  In a new working paper for NEF, Eliane Glaser asks: why is that so terrible? Why do politicians take such pains to distance themselves from any suggestion that their policies are based on ideas and ideals? What’s going on and why does it matter?

As NEF works to build our contribution to debates about the future of the welfare state we are acutely aware that we are dealing not just with hard facts and moral assumptions but also with a prevailing narrative about what can and can’t be changed.  Accordingly, the Government’s austerity drive is not a matter of political choice but an absolute necessity. Public institutions are big, cumbersome and costly, and need to be cut down to size. ‘Hard-working families’ are good, while all those dependent on state benefits are morally suspect. The main job of government is to manage the economy efficiently. 

These tropes are presented to us as common sense, apolitical and incontrovertible.  If we challenge them, we need to take a reality check. We obviously don’t understand the economic truths by which we are all bound. At best, we are naive dreamers. At worst, we are in thrall to ideology – a toxic condition from which all sensible people recoil.

The insinuation that ideology is toxic is not only nonsense, it is itself deeply ideological. The prevailing neoliberal agenda, which favours free markets, individualism, a small state, low taxes and the primacy of economics, is no less ideological than the essentially left-wing agenda that favours strong public services, redistributive taxes, better pay and conditions for workers, and equal opportunities.

By demonising ideology and pushing it underground, today’s incumbent elites can claim to be above politics while pursuing and defending their own interests as though doing so was just a matter of common sense.  It’s a confidence trick, says Glaser, which closes down important areas of debate, obscures valid differences of opinion and experience, and helps to turn the electorate against politics.

It deters the multitude of organisations working for social change from feeling they can legitimately share a direction of travel or build a common agenda.Single-issue campaigns often style themselves as anti-politics and anti-state, renouncing hierarchy, leadership and other recognisable structures that underpin sustained political action.  As a consequence, opposition to the status quo is fragmented and haphazard, rather than concerted and enduring.

It is time to bring ideology out into the open. That doesn’t mean resuscitating ‘old left’ politics. It means reviving political debates, as well as debates about politics, and rehabilitating the notion that policies can be – and usually are – grounded in systems of ideas and ideals.

It involves outing the tactics as well as the ideology of neoliberalism. In her response to Glaser, Jane Franklin reminds us that neoliberalism is a set of ideas and values ‘translated into taken for granted realities, where the market appears a natural process and inequality is seen as the inevitable consequence of individual choice.’ 

One of its achievements has been to dissolve politics into economics, so that citizens cease to be political subjects and become items of economic utility. ‘In this process, the public sphere is stripped of the functions of civil society, of dynamic contestation and debate, becoming instead the location of market and community activity.’

Neoliberal power is built and maintained through the language we use and the stories we tell each other which are, in turn, constructed through sound bites and carefully orchestrated messaging. Both Franklin and Glaser agree that we must pay attention to ‘narrative wars’, but that narrative is not a substitute for politics.  We can’t build a new economics on language and stories alone: we need ideas and ideals.

That’s why it’s important to detoxify ideology and reclaim politics. As Franklin points out, politics is not necessarily partisan but concerns power relations: ‘it is through politics that the diversity of social and economic interests can be negotiated and organised.’ Like democracy, it is not a good in itself, but ‘provides an arena where it is possible to question how things are, so as to change how things are.’  Of course we need evidence and moral values. But we also need to understand that reality is forged not only by hard facts and ‘angelic’ assumptions, but by ideologies too.

The new working paper by Eliane Glaser and Jane Franklin is part of NEF's ongoing work on the future of the welfare state, Towards a New Social Settlement. The NEF is a UK think tank promoting social, economic and environmental justice.


Posted by MM