It’s All Ideology

A few weeks ago Phil Ebersole’s post Is a non-BS economy even possible? discussed the possibility of solving the problem of BS jobs raised by David Graeber.

Phil quoted Obama from The Nation, saying:

“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have. … Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?”

To me that quote from Obama clearly represented a common way centrists talk about ideology. At the time I commented:

[…]Well, that is ideological, isn’t it? It takes a particular ideological scope to decide what trade-offs are worth or not worth making.

I don’t think those private insurance jobs are worth enough to justify people having to die because they’re poor, ration medicine to save money, choose between health and debt, and so on. Maybe I’m biased as a Brit with the NHS, but Obama sounds very ideologically driven indeed to me there, and I don’t like the ideology.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit more since, because the issue of how we discuss ideology, ‘extremes’, and ‘rational moderates’ strikes me as an important one.

Obama was speaking as though he was free of ideology – that ideologues at the extremes push for particular policies to suit their philosophy, while he disinterestedly follows the data. That is a mistake. All politics is ideological.

I already am eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating. - Slavoj Zizek

The idea that we can make a politics from pure reason and empiricism sounds nice – certainly it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a better, more rational picture of reality to act from. But in the end, acting on the data requires making choices. Choices to maximise certain things and minimise others, to decide when given trade-offs are acceptable or not, to get towards one vision of society and away from another.

How much do we care about private insurance jobs vs access to affordable healthcare? What society are we trying to make? How do we want to live? It’s not as simple as just ‘maximise GDP’. At some point, principles and value judgements have to get involved: ideology.

You can guess from my blog’s title what I think of Ayn Rand, but there is one quote from her that struck a chord with me when I heard it: ‘As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy.’

Claim to be non-ideological, and you’re making a serious mistake. You have an ideology absorbed from the society around you, and you don’t even know what it is. If you don’t know what it is, you can’t question it. It’s harder to understand or learn from people with different views if you assume that either a) one of you is just wrong about the facts, or b) they’re a crazy ideologue.

Thinking that people at either edge of the political landscape are extremists while the true rational position is somewhere in the middle is itself an ideological position, tied to the status quo. It’s important to remember that the ‘rational centre’ is apt to move over time, and even occupies a different position in different countries.

On the issue of healthcare, a UK centrist wouldn’t consider scrapping the NHS and replacing it with the US system. That is a far-right position to us. In the US, Medicare For All is a hard sell, despite public popularity, and Obama had to fight tooth and nail to get milquetoast reforms pushed through.

This discrepancy should help show how contingent and fluid the idea of the centre is. If the centre for one country is an extreme for another, how can the centre anywhere be so confident in its moderate reasonableness, non-ideological objectivity? Historical perspective raises the issue still further. History is littered with stories of people at the extremes pushing for rightful change, while the moderates called for calm and reason and common sense.

In Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr wrote:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I’m suspicious when policies or politicians are dismissed solely because they fail to sit on a ‘reasonable, moderate, rational’ middle which is contingent, apt to move, representing an unquestioned status quo.

For example, the narrative of ‘Labour moderates’ (aka, Blairites) vs ‘hard left’ Corbynistas strikes me as dishonest. It isn’t an attempt to critique proposed policies as harmful or misinformed, but because they’re ‘ideological’, as though neoliberalism isn’t. It’s a failure to recognise that the neoliberalism we swim in now is ideological, and open to critique or defence like anything else. It takes the status quo for granted as a natural standard, and its defenders as the only adults in the room.

I’d much rather see attacks on Corbyn that attempt to defend neoliberalism through argument than ones that take it for granted as The Way Things Are. Similarly, critics of Bernie Sanders must reckon with the fact that, not so long ago, Obama would’ve been a moderate Republican and Bernie fairly normal. Mainstream Democrats and Blairites seeking to get others on board should recognise that they have an ideology, and defend it as such.

We aren’t beings of pure intellect who can look at graphs and spew out the objectively ideal way to order society. It’s not that graphs are bad – more facts would be good, more objective data would be good, more rational thought would be good. But we cannot escape from having an ideology. In using our reason and our knowledge, we also have to consider what it is we value, what society and individuals are to us, what sort of world we would like to make.

When moderates claim to be non-ideological they’re treating the status quo as though it’s a natural law which dropped from the sky, when it’s rooted in a specific view of the world just as much as the farthest fringes of the right and left are. We all have an ideology. It’s vital to accept that, and take no view for granted.


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