Let’s start with a loose but practical definition of ‘ideology’. In common usage, it most basically and most broadly means a constellation of ideas, principles, beliefs, assumptions, biases, ideals, aspirations, dreams, conventions, norms, values, expectations, rules, guidelines, proscriptions, behaviors, attitudes, etc that more or less hang together as a singular system, vision, worldview, and way of life; much more than merely a stated theory or a set of claims. Based on figures of authority and compelled by voices of authorization, ideologies are what potentially give meaning and purpose in the deepest sense (inspiring, inciting, or impelling us), through which we perceive truth and reality (or else are deceived, manipulated, and coerced), according to which we act within the larger world (for good or ill). This is the primary collective force within human nature, what defines a people and determines who they become, the beating heart of a social order.
Ideologies always serve the purpose of social identity and social relationships, the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, commanding from us a totalizing sense of commitment and sacrifice; and so the loss of which would mean existential crisis, typically along with moral panic, or else transformation and revolution. As such, the only validity, legitimacy, and worthiness of an ideology is to the degree that it teaches, advocates, models, promotes, supports, strengthens, maintains, and enacts healthy and happy (not sickly and harmful) relationships and relational ways of being. That is to say wholeness, a sense of connection, of inclusion and belonging; rather than division, disconnection, and dissociation — love and kindness, empathy and compassion; not hate and fear, victimization and scapegoating. Simply put, are we better people for adhering to an ideology? And are others around us also better for it, are all others in our circle of influence positively affected?
This moral standard by which all ideologies must be judged is tangibly proven and (inter-)personally demonstrated in how people relate to family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens, but also minorities, strangers, outsiders, foreigners, immigrants, and refugees; in how people relate to the greater living world of other species, ecosystems, the biosphere, a sense of place and home, and a community of beings; in how people relate to past and future generations as inseparable from the here and now; and most of all how people relate to the least among us, the mentally ill, neurodivergent, gender non-conforming, poor, homeless, imprisoned, institutionalized, dejected, lonely, struggling, victimized, brutalized, oppressed, disenfranchised, powerless, desperate, and vulnerable. The real world results are seen and known in how groups, organizations, institutions, cultures, and societies embody specific ideological identities; who is helped and harmed, who is privileged and punished, who is benefitted and who is made to pay the costs. What does an ideology make possible, what follows from it? If given a free and open choice, is the ideological world in which you find yourself one you would consciously choose?
Any ideology (political, social, economic, or religious) that fails the test of positive relating, pro-social behavior, moral righteousness, and public good contradicts it’s only possible justification and value; no matter the claims to the contrary. This is what can make ideological dogma and ideological realism so troubling; in blocking our capacity of social awareness, intellectual discernment, and moral judgment. For this reason, we need to remain vigilant against any form of persuasive rhetoric and convenient rationalization; any blind indoctrination and enculturation, propaganda and apologetics; any authority that makes claims over us, that disallows us to think for ourselves. Beware of those who conflate an ideology with absolute reality, particularly when they claim sole authority in determining what is true and in interpreting what it implies. An ideology is not reality itself but how we relate to reality. An ideology is not a thing that exists on its own but something that resides in our minds and hearts, something we bring into manifestation, acting individually and collectively.
To repeat old wisdom, we should treat others as we would want to be treated but also as others would want to be treated, with discernment through the sympathy of moral concern and understanding of moral imagination, in ever seeking the common bond of a shared humanity. Ideologies aren’t something separate from us, something extra that is added on. Certainly, ideology isn’t only what those other people have but not us, isn’t a failing or falsehood that we can hold at a distance in knowing we are above it all, that we are superior to those other weak souls who fall prey to ideological sway. We are all ideological creatures, no different than that we are social creatures. Ideology is what shapes and determines the social realm, but often the power of the ideological is in it being denied for what it is, in how it is obscured and hidden — that is why ideology can so easily become an oppressive force of conformity and punishment to those who fail to conform, what makes it a tool of authoritarianism, of perception management and social control.
This sad fate is far from inevitable, meaning that our fate is nothing more than our character. And in the end, our character is just the expression of our ideological commitments, our ideological identity. Each of us is an agent of power, a nexus of forces, an actor in narratives of our own telling. Nothing is forcing us to passively accept, submit, and obey the ideological commands of others; be it a living voice (politician, charismatic demagogue, televangelist, Youtube personality, etc) or the dead word (constitution, legal system, holy text, etc). We can, instead, actively choose to bring ideologies into the light of awareness to see them clearly for what they are. We can and must take responsibility for the world we are co-creating. We are always responsible, we are always responding, we are always in the process of relating to others and the world. If the ideology we have chosen and continue to choose is not beneficial to us or anyone else, we forever remain free to choose once again. Our choices are only limited to our imagination. And there is no ideology that can’t be challenged, can’t be shaken loose by the radical imagination native to the human psyche.
All of us must confront the ideologies within us and in the world around us. Is the present ideology you find yourself in serving you well? Is it in service to others? If not, why are you serving it? An ideology that is morally worthy will offer guidance in how to relate well, in how to grow your circle of concern, in how to be more inclusive so that others feel welcomed and accepted; but it won’t dogmatically tell you who you can and cannot associate with, be friends with, or marry; won’t oppressively constrain and dictate how you are allowed and disallowed to socialize with others; won’t separate and isolate you from the rest of humanity; and won’t create an exclusive and exclusionary social identity. It will place relationships above rules. Realizing this fundamental truth is the first step toward imagining something new, something better, something more inspiring. What kind of ideology would help you to become a better person, a kinder person? In listening to the ideological voice you’ve internalized, are you a positive influence on others? In giving your power to an ideology, does it help or hinder relating well, does it bring people together or drive them apart? Is it a force for the greater good?
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This is our contemplation for the week, as we prepare ourselves for the coming Holiday gatherings of family and friends, sometimes involving stress and conflict. In this light, there is a personal context to our thoughts, but we decided to leave it as a neutral expression of our moral sensibility. There is also a desire to make talk of ‘ideology’ more comprehensible and relevant to everyday life, to ground it in human reality. We live and breathe ideology on a daily basis. It’s all around us in such a way that we forget what it is or else never learned in the first place, as most people probably do just take it as reality itself. This is why, in many other writings, we’ve turned to the words of religious heretics, of religious dissenters and dissidents, particularly from the European peasants’ revolts and the English Civil War, with their proto-leftist egalitarianism rooted in the primitive moral impulse that arose out of the archaic dark age following the Bronze Age collapse. Their righteous demand for heaven on earth still rings true, still rattles the bars of our prison and shakes loose the chains that bind.
But in the modern world of cynical (pseudo-)realism, ideology as a moral force can feel naive, as if there is no other possibility to the way the world is, an apathetic sense of being stuck. That state of fatalistic unconsciousness is not only sad but harmful, even dangerous. This isn’t merely about post-Enlightenment thought of critical thinking skills and intellectual defense but a psychological discernment, spiritual inquiry, and moral reckoning that has it’s roots in the axial and post-axial ages with its revolution of the mind — not only skepticism and science, democracy and liberty, but also: Buddhism and Christianity, mysticism and Gnosticism; that later inspired Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters, Protestants, Anabaptists, and much else. We often feel a longing to cut through the bull shit, to get at the raw nerves of our collective anxiety and neuroses, the ancient wounds of trauma that get passed on without healing. Ideology, when lurking in the darkness, acts more akin to a demiurgic and archonic force; and so we might be wise to think of it in religious terms, such as that of the ancient Gnostics (a favorite framing of Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs when they wrote about power relationships and systems).
Ultimately, this is a similar message to what we’ve written hundreds of times before over the past decades, here at this blog and elsewhere. The deeper study is that of the human condition. But obviously, we are shaped by a modern ‘leftist’ take on ideology, such as the interpretation of Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation (i.e., the commanding ‘hail’ of an authoritative voice that makes a claim over individuals and, in the individual responding, draws one into a social identity). The heart of this moral vision, as mentioned, is much more ancient. It’s really no different than the challenge Jesus posed in questioning the social, religious, political, and economic authorities of his own era. We were raised a Christian, if on the far radical left extreme of Protestant independence of mind, contemplative self-inquiry, and direct connection to ‘God’ (i.e., truth and reality). If we lose the authority of our own immediate experience, we lose the authority over our own lives and identities, we lose our relationship to the ultimate; then we are enslaved, rather than free. This is a difficult issue, since many fear freedom; to the point of it being overtly denied within some ideologies.
Consider that Islamic theology defines the human relationship to God as enslavement, such that we are slaves of God; whereas Christian theology, partly borrowed from Stoic philosophy of liberty, instead declares the human soul to be free of slavery, even when the physical body is in chains and the social self is in legal bondage. This conflict of ideologies is problematic for an Islamic fundamentalist living in a Western democracy, in having formed out of Christian culture, where liberty as non-enslavement is a key feature of the socio-cultural order and the politico-legal system. And it would be even harder for a Western secularist, non-believer, and Christian or even a Western convert to Islam or Westernized Muslim who suddenly found themselves in Islamic traditionalism and theocracy. The challenge of ideology as social identity and relationship would become quite stark and the stakes quite high. Yet in less obvious ways, ideological clashes happen all of the time, not only across societies but within people’s souls, competing claims that fight over identity. Multiple ideologies pulling one apart, in some ways, can be worse than the most violent external conflict.
As shown in the contrasts between theologies, enmeshed as they are in distinct cultural customs and historical legacies, religions are among the most powerful of ideologies to ever lay claim upon identity, to the point of making absolute claims over reality in a way difficult to accomplish for even the most totalitarian of political ideologies. Modern people turn to fundamentalism, a modern invention as Karen Armstrong argues, precisely because the traditional organic identities have been decimated. Religious extremism, going back to the fall of bicameral-minded civilization, has always been driven by an overpowering sense of nostalgic longing, specifically in terms of a loss of connection to divine experience, divine authority, and divine voice-hearing. The term ‘religion’ didn’t appear until the axial age, long after the full bicameral mentality disappeared. Interestingly, that word literally means to re-bind or re-connect; which indicates that relationship to the divine was broken and needs to be mended, to be re-established. That sense of emptiness still haunts the modern psyche; and, for the reactionary mind, it throbs like an inflamed and infected splinter, so small that it cannot be seen.
This vacuum of loss must be filled, and a certain kind of ideology promises to do so. That is what exacerbates and exaggerates the ideological impulse, of course not limited to the reactionary and religious right. We moderns have come to such a false, misleading, and constrained understanding of ideology for the very reason we are overwhelmed by it. Narrowing it down is an attempt at controlling and containing what so dominates us. But the repressed returns as an almost demonic force; or such is our fear, if we can rarely identify it, instead typically making itself known as a free-floating anxiety that pervades everything. We try to separate identity from ideology, an impossible task. That simply drives ideology deeper into identity, causing us to feel even more out of control; and so the vicious cycle of authoritarianism goes on and on. As we hope this makes clear, our criticism of oppressive ideologies doesn’t come from secular atheism but from an ancient righteousness that has been booming down the millennia. The forces of authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism have riven humanity since our present civilization was founded, and they’ve played out within religion.
Yet we’ve long sensed that there is another path, beyond polarization of the two-way reactionary dynamic. As said by Meir Berliner, having died fighting Nazis, “When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.” There is something about the axial age prophets, teachers, and philosophers who demonstrated a different way of being and relating; an insight they offered standing at the crux of the newly emerging mentality. That is seen in Gautama Buddha having renounced his social position to become a monk, only then to renounce his renunciation by taking a middle path. Similarly, there is Jesus’ non-authoritarianism (not anti-authoritarianism) that feels like spiritual jujitsu, a non-confrontational confrontation that refuses and refutes authoritarian authority, that ignores the ideological hail of interpellation; maybe what could be considered a version of Taoist wu-wei, simultaneously non-action and effortless action. Ideology never completely falls under the purview of rational analysis because it underlies and precedes Jaynesian egoic-consciousness; something we don’t so much choose as assent or deny, not free will but free won’t (Benjamin Libet’s experiment; & Tor Norretranders’ The User Illusion).
Our main point most definitely is not to emphasize the dark side of ideology. There is no such thing as non-ideology. It’s built into human nature. It’s what it means to be a self-aware social creature. What gets called ideological realism, usually as a leftist critique, is fundamentally the same as what Robert Anton Wilson described as a reality tunnel. He pointed out that we are always in a reality tunnel. We can only jump out of one reality tunnel by landing into another. There is no escape, maybe along the lines of an existentialist or Buddhist mentality. The point isn’t to be free of ideology, since ideology isn’t separate from us, since we can’t know anything outside of it. Rather, the point is to learn to hold ideologies lightly, to use them instead of being used by them. Ideologies should serve humanity, not the other way around; or at least that is what non-authoritarian leftists tend to argue. In the end, our contemplation comes down to this. What kind of liminal space can be opened for creative imagination? The gap between one ideology and another, like a pause between the in-breath and the out-breath.
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authority, giving away one’s own, bowing down to that of others, once someone else’s authority is established over one there is no power left for autonomy and self-determination, hailing, interpellation,
early Judaism vs Rabbinic Judaism with arguing with God, Jesus defying power and authority, Islam and Bahai with legalistic rules and authoritarian lineage of authority, Buddhism and Protestantism with the authority of direct personal experience