Originally the term 'ideology' referred to the study of ideas. The originator of this kind of investigation is usually said to be a French thinker, Claude Destutt de Tracy, who was writing at the turn of the 19th century. His hope was that if we had a better understanding of ideas we might be able to further human progress. But ideology today is generally taken to mean not a study of ideas, but the ideas themselves. Ideology concerns especially political ideas; it aims at motivating a population towards a set of specifically political but also wider social beliefs.
Ideology as a political term was at first most associated with the writings of Marx and Engels. They contended that ideas are shaped by the material world. As historical materialists, they claimed that the material consisted of relations of production, relations that undergo change and development. Ideology arises, they argue, only where there are social conditions, such as those produced by private property, that are vulnerable to criticism and protest. Ideology exists to protect these social conditions from attack by those who are disadvantaged by them.
De Tracy saw ideology as an academic study, but Marx and Engels saw it as a way of camouflaging flawed social conditions by giving an illusory account of their rationale or function in order to legitimate and win acceptance of them. Indeed, in terms of this approach, even law becomes one aspect of ideology as it disguises exploitive social conditions. In The German Ideology
, Marx contends that reality appears upside down in ideology in the sense that ideology provides a recognisable depiction of reality, even if it is at the same time a distorted one.
More recently, some sociologists have claimed that human beings have a need for ideology, although not necessarily the ideology discussed by Marx. They argue that ideologies are neither true nor false but are a set of socially conditioned ideas that provide a vision that people, both the advantaged and the disadvantaged, want to hear. The argument is that interpreted by an ideology, political and social policies and ideas become coherent, or at least are viewed in a way which makes them seem coherent.
Belief in an ideology can range from passive acceptance up to fervent advocacy. But they always have deep roots in our consciousness. Despite this, ideologies are neither right nor wrong. What they do is to help people map and steer a way through the complexity of their political universe and carry conviction with them. Taking this broad approach to the idea, sociologists describe many different types of belief systems as ideologies, such as religious, political and nationalistic.
From a philosophical point of view, ideologies have two main characteristics. First, they lead to action; they suggest that their believers should follow certain policies, most obviously in politics but also in a wider context, even in dress. For example, Conservative politicians when interviewed on TV will usually wear suits and ties, whereas Labour politicians have more relaxed dress codes. It may well be an unfortunate vote-loser for Keir Starmer that he does not look comfortable in informal clothes. It is easier for women, or perhaps I can't decipher their dress code.
The second characteristic of ideologies, at least from a philosophical point of view, concerns what they identify as the relevant facts, or of how they interpret agreed facts. And political pronouncements are often subject to 'fact checks'. But the idea of stand-alone bare facts can be exaggerated. The 'bare' facts are often clothed in ideological interpretation.
For example, consider a strike. 'All I want is a fair wage,' says the striker. 'The public is being held to ransom' says the owner, the CEO or the politician. Yes, but surely a 'strike' is a bare fact? Not exactly, the term 'strike' is already ideological. Others might interpret it as 'withdrawing labour'. The spokesman for barristers said that they would simply not go into work.
It follows from these two characteristics of ideologies that everything is seen in terms of them, and they can infect an entire population. People continue to characterise free politics in terms of democracy. But this is one of the illusions of the epoch. There was mass consent and support for Nazi Germany, and there is mass support for Communist China and at least majority support for Putin's Russia. In these and no doubt other cases ideology has taken over politics. Himmler claimed that his SS men were not interested in 'everyday problems' but only 'in ideological questions of importance for decades and centuries'.
In J S Mill's essay, On Liberty,
he argued that representative government gives no guarantee of freedom to speak or act. He used a phrase which is spot-on as a characterisation of much of our own contemporary life: 'the tyranny of majority opinion'. If someone were to question if 'diversity' is necessarily a good thing, the likelihood is that the roof will fall in on them.
To put it more philosophically, the two characteristics of ideology I mentioned above – it leads to action, and language is interpreted in terms of it – would immediately become apparent. Attempts would be made to 'cancel' them and their language would be interpreted in terms of the ideology as 'racist'.
A current example concerns a report on Scotland's role in the slave trade. It was chaired by Sir Geoff Palmer and among other issues it commented on the politician Henry Dundas and his views on the abolition of slavery. Professor Angela McCarthy, Professor of Scottish and Irish History at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has pointed out that there was no professional historian on the steering group and that its findings have been called into question both by Sir Tom Devine, Emeritus Professor of History at Edinburgh and also by Professor Jonathan Hearn, the current professor. Sir Geoff Palmer has described both as members of 'an academic racist gang'. Tom Devine a racist? I don't think so. 'Racist' is a central term in current ideology and is often shot from the hip to silence dissent. Ideology is preferred to careful research.
Current political events in the UK are examples of ideology driving out politics. We can think of politics as an activity by which differing interests are conciliated by giving them a share of power in proportion to their importance to the welfare of the whole community. But appointing to your Cabinet only those who agree with you – and then not even consulting them on major issues – suggests ideology rather than politics.
Again, to base your entire political programme on one undefined word – growth – suggests ideology. What is 'growth'? It seems to involve everyone spending more money. We will all get more money to spend from lower taxes which will be paid for by borrowing even more money. But lower taxes will be offset by higher mortgages and higher food and fuel costs. It is therefore unlikely that we will be spending more.
In any case, real growth is surely a matter of creating new industries, such as the environmental ones, as the Labour Party suggested at their conference. One commentator put the point very neatly. He said that Liz Truss just wants to put petrol in the tank when she should be trying to improve the engine.
But whatever line is taken by some economists, others will line up to disagree. In last week's Scottish Review
, Dr Manfredi La Manna
suggested that I saw economics as a dismal science. It is not dismal – it can be an interesting subject – but science it is not. I happen to agree with many of his economic suggestions but I have no doubt that many economists would not. His suggestions are suggestions of political economy, which is how Adam Smith saw the subject. But recently the tendency has been to separate economics from politics and see it as a mathematical discipline and therefore a science. I don't agree with that.
A Prime Minister is meant to unify the country. But to tell us that all the other major players in running the country – all opposition parties, the trade unions, environmentalists, and even those from North London who criticise the Tories via the BBC – are anti-growth suggests the fanaticism of ideology rather than the conciliation of politics.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow