1.2 A Pluralist Approach to Ideology

Dr. Gregory Millard

So we do not have to define ideology as delusion or error. Nor, in fact, are we required to follow Marxist and “critical” scholarship in their radical or revolutionary critique of society. An alternative approach is to see each ideology as one (more or less) plausible perspective of the social world that is challenged by other plausible perspectives. Studying ideology then becomes the exploration of a range of systematic and reasonably coherent options for thinking about social and political life. That, broadly speaking, will be the approach taken in this book.

Now, this does not require us to believe that each ideology is equally plausible. Indeed, this would be impossible, since specific ideologies themselves disagree on fundamental points. But it does mean that we should be open to the idea that no one ideology necessarily tells us everything we need to know about social and political order.

We can call this approach, which is open, in principle, to various ideological perspectives, a “pluralist” approach. It does not assume there is one best answer to our social dilemmas and is willing to consider many answers, none of which may be wholly right or wholly wrong.

Most textbook definitions of political ideology proceed more or less in this vein (e.g., Heywood, 2021; Ball, Dagger, and O’Neill, 2020; Wetherly, 2017; Geoghegan and Wilford, 2014; Sargent, 2008). And they generally agree that a political ideology will contain the following elements:

  1. A specific description of the social world we currently live in. The key here is not to assume that the “reality” of our world just obviously imprints itself on our brains. Rather, we need to interpret – to make sense of – the swirling mass of social phenomena confronting us, distinguishing between what is more and less important and the meaning of the important stuff. One contribution of ideology is in helping us do this (Freeden, 2003). There are different ways of making sense of our social world, and different ideologies tend to focus in on a particular unit of analysis – the key to the ideology’s story – which unlocks its preferred understanding of society. For example, liberalism tends to see society as a collection of individuals and to elevate the individual to the highest importance. Socialism, on the other hand, emphasizes that individuals are in fact organized into social and economic classes (capitalist and worker, rich and poor), that those classes are what really shape our lives, and that the social order is constructed to the advantage of one class over the others. Therefore, class is what we really need to understand if we wish to grasp how society works. Feminism (see chapter 13), meanwhile, emphasizes that we live in a gendered society and that power is distributed in a way that favours one gender (heterosexual men) over others. This is what we really need to understand, then, if we want to grasp the realities of our social world. Nationalism stresses above all that human beings are grouped into nations; this is the overarching fact we need to understand if we want to properly comprehend our social world. And so on. Thus, each ideology offers a rather different view of how we should understand the society in which we find ourselves.
  2. An evaluation of the social world we currently live in. An ideology is not exhausted by its description of society; it also offers resources for assessing it. Should the world be this way? Why or why not? Continuing with an example from the previous paragraph, when feminists describe the world as marked by an imbalance of power between genders, they generally do not stop there. Rather, they go on to argue that it could be, and should be, otherwise. No gender should be advantaged over others. And every other ideology will similarly hold out the possibility of a critical assessment. Liberals will be interested in asking whether individual freedom and equality are optimally realized in our society, Marxists in criticizing class inequalities (and maybe even in condemning the existence of social class itself), nationalists in assessing whether a nation is fully realizing its identity and its autonomy, and so forth.
  3. A program of action. Having described the world and evaluated it, an ideology will also typically involve some set of ideas about “what is to be done,” as the Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once put it. The program of action will seek to address problems identified by the ideology’s evaluation of the social order. If our society is full of unearned legal privileges that discriminate between individuals, then liberals, believing that all human beings should be equal before the law, will argue for the abolition of this discrimination. Socialists, meanwhile, have argued that the exploited workers need to rise up and seize the power and wealth unjustly hoarded by capitalists – either through revolution or through the election of governments that will impose heavy taxes on wealth and redistribute those resources to the workers and the poor. Feminists have proposed a range of possible actions (from breaking down gender roles to dissolving gender itself) all with an eye to the destruction of gendered privilege. These are merely examples; each ideology covered in this book will have its own preferred prescriptions for restructuring our social world.

Political ideologies always, therefore, combine ideas about politics with an emphasis on action. We may thus define a political ideology as a configuration of concepts that describes and assesses the social world with an eye to mobilizing people for action. Every ideology explored here is a widely shared belief system containing the three ingredients sketched above.

The pluralist approach to the study of political ideology favoured here may be traced back to the work of German sociologist Karl Mannheim (1893–1947). Mannheim agreed with Marx and Engels that ideology reflects the interest of social classes and groups, but he broke with them in emphasizing that society contained a range of such groups, each of which would translate its interests into the language of ideology. This opens the door to studying a wider array of ideologies as opposed to reducing ideology to the “ideas of the ruling class.” Mannheim nonetheless retained a Marxist understanding of ideology as a mask for social interests. He also suggested that a special class of “intellectuals” could transcend ideology and arrive at a more objective understanding of society (Mannheim, 1997).

While it would be naïve to see political beliefs as utterly disconnected from social interests, a pluralist approach will not reduce ideology to specific group or class interests. People are drawn to ideology for a host of reasons, including psychological ones (e.g., Haidt, 2012). And a pluralist approach need not assume that any individual or any society can “transcend” ideology.

At a bare minimum, we cannot do without debatable views on the contested concepts that make up ideologies. Perhaps no one political ideology explored in this book will seem like a perfect fit for your own ideas and intuitions about society, but you cannot have no opinion at all on questions of justice, freedom, community, order, human nature and dignity, and so on. (To see this, ask yourself whether it is possible to see no moral difference at all between a person selling ice cream and a police officer brutally strangling a suspect to death). Political ideologies weave such key concepts together into more-or-less coherent and inspiring visions of social life. Exploring these invites each of us to inquire into what we ourselves really believe and how, or whether, or own political beliefs fit together.

What separates a political ideology from a utopian fantasy is the conviction that it is realistic to think that we can change society to make it align more closely with the ideology’s preferred vision. This does not mean that a believer of a given ideology thinks such change will be easy or even that it will happen within their own lifetime; but they must believe that their preferred vision of the social world is possible for human beings to actualize and sustain. If they did not believe this, then they would hardly be willing to pour so much energy into helping that world come into being (unless they were crazy).

Indeed, ideologies have been so compelling that many thousands, indeed millions, of people have died in their name. With their emphasis on action, political ideologies always have an eye to mass mobilization, building support for their preferred vision of the world and galvanizing people to bring it to fulfillment.

This is one difference between political ideology and the more rarified domain of political theory or political philosophy. The latter are specialized scholarly pursuits committed above all to intellectual rigour, while the former require an ability to appeal to a wide range of people. Thus, Marxists have fought revolutions and wars in the hope of building a classless society. Women have marched and struggled for gender equality over generations – often, as was the case with the Suffragettes, paying a high price in health and happiness. Countless soldiers have fought and died in the name of their nation. When it comes to political ideology, then, “ought” implies “can:” to say that we should move our societies in a specific direction means that doing so is a realistic, viable possibility.

One recurring temptation, given these dramatic truths, is to see political ideology as necessarily doctrinaire, narrow-minded, and extreme. The blinkered “ideologue” is then contrasted with the “pragmatic” person who assesses each situation without preconceived ideological biases and addresses each case on its own merit (e.g., Sartori, 1969). Our reply is that this contrast is untenable. One can’t approach social and political issues without some sort of preconceived ideas about what is more or less important and more or less valuable; otherwise, we would not know whether to focus our attention on a piece of lint on the sidewalk or massive riots in the streets. Meanwhile, “to judge something ‘on its merits’ implies preposterously that self-evident merits leap out of concrete cases for all to see” (Freeden, 1996). In fact, determining “merit” almost always involves us in debatable judgements. Someone might believe it is obvious that governments need to promote economic growth – that this is a self-evident, objectively desirable goal. The problem is, there are many thoughtful environmentalists who reject economic growth altogether as an ultimately unsustainable model. Who is right? Common sense cannot tell us. We are thus enmeshed in ideological argument. Calling ourselves “pragmatic” rather than “ideological” ultimately occludes our specific ideological commitments and convictions.

Some ideologies may indeed be more rigid, demanding, and “extreme” than others. But it would be an error to think that political ideology as such demands rigidity and fanaticism. In other words, while it may be hard to find a reasonable, moderate fascist, one can indeed be a reasonable liberal, conservative, socialist, feminist, nationalist, anarchist, or Confucian.

A pluralist approach tends to tilt us toward moderation precisely because of its openness to the possibility that more than one political ideology may contain valuable insights into our social situation. This can be true even when those insights prove irreconcilable:

Values may easily clash within the breast of a single individual; and it does not follow that, if they do, some must be true and others false. Justice, rigorous justice, is for some people an absolute value, but it is not compatible with what may be no less ultimate values for them—mercy, compassion—as arises in concrete cases…The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable—that is a truism—but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind.  Some among the Great Goods cannot live together.  That is a conceptual truth.  We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss. These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are (Berlin, 1998).

An outlook of this sort tends to nourish humility and empathy even toward views with which we thoughtfully disagree. That said, a moderate, reasonable person may still be a person of conscience and conviction. Faced with social evils – despotic tyranny, say, or racist oppression – we may conclude that strong and uncompromising action is required. Reasonable people can, and often have, put their lives on their line for their deepest political beliefs.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Gregory Millard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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