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Ideologues

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted August 25, 2008

If there's a group of people who've traditionally occupied the basement of society, it would have to be ideologues: people who keep their noses stuck in books, and who believe that ideas are sufficient to explain how people tick. Ideologues, believing that strife comes from erroneous and/or internally inconsistent sets of beliefs, seem always to be chasing after their answer to the Holy Grail: a set of ideas, whose centerpiece is usually a set of political principles, which will bring peace and happiness. Or, at least, as much peace and happiness as the constraints of the external world allow.

It's not known much outside of history-buff circles, but the first notable person to label others "ideologues" in the post-Enlightenment world was Napoleon Bonaparte. Before then, ideologues were known by other unflattering names, such as "enthusiast." Interestingly, it was a great general who put intellectually-minded believers in their current place.

One common-sensical reason for suspicion of ideologues is the wide variety of ideologies that exist, as each of which claim to explain Everything. Every political position seems to have one – not just the extremes and fringes. Yes, as conservatives well know, there is such a thing as a mainstreamed liberal ideologue. Such a person (in our time) believes that education is a cure-all, and is fond of delving into subcultures to find the "root cause(s)" of various dysfunctionalities. Ideologues tend to settle upon favorite metrics; the liberal ideologue's hammer-in-the-toolkit is the "socio-economic scale," which amounts to how much money people have and earn. The Nirvana is supposed to arrive when every person is in the same socio-economic category. Complexities such as the influence of the noble poor, or the effect of how one's money is gotten, or the subtle distinctions that separate a parvenu from an established upper, tend to escape them. Ironically, these blind spots make them easy to boss by a Gracchi figure – someone of old and established family whose money has run out.

Is there such a thing as a conservative ideologue? Conservative principles themselves suggest that there's no such thing, but the intellectualist orientation of conservatism is somewhat at odds with those principles. A true anti-ideologue would only drink without demur from political history; any more theoretical field would be met with some sort of pin-down. Such as: intellectualized anti-Semitism is for people who can't (or don't want to) to pay their bills; the laissez-faire system is merely for businesspeople and would-be businesspeople; minimal government is for people who dislike being led by anyone other than Farmer Joe; communism is for people who don't much like self-responsibility; socialism is for peasants who confuse their rightful master with Christ at the Last Supper; etc. As you may have already discerned, anti-ideologues tend to be conservative…but not always. Oscar Wilde is a notable counterexample; so is George Bernard Shaw. If we use the high-school cookie-cutter definition of liberalism, a belief in progress without turmoil or ferment, a lot of anti-ideologues look rather liberal.

A conservative anti-ideologue would concede that there is such a thing as conservative ideologues, while noting that they make good servants. There has yet to be a full-blown conservative ideology, though.

The reason why isn't hard to find. Ideologues have this one trait in common: as seekers of generalizations valid for all humanity, they tend to discard particular differences as mere accidentia. Conservatives are expected to stick up for, if not treasure, the particularisms of humanity. Given this inclination, it is almost to be expected that a conservative intellectual with a finely-honed mind would be a great critic. After all, the hammer in the critic's toolkit is the valid counterexample.

Because of this overhanging respect for the particular, any conservative who's inclined to be an ideologue becomes something of a specialist. This tendency is obvious in the present-day conservative movement: look at how many times ‘laissez-faire' gets hustled out the servants' entrants in practical politics. Any libertarian conservative becomes used to it, or else weans him-/herself away from conservatism.

The same obligation to crook the knee and stay in one's place would be made evident to any other conservative-oriented ideologue. Take this hypothetical ideology, one entirely compatible with "red Toryism:" all men desire an easy feed. If they can't find it in the private sector, then they will eventually demand it from the government. Thus, it is sound social policy to "throw them their swill" so as to keep them quiescent.

This rudiment is the nucleus of an ideology. It can be brought closer to the real word by widening the definition of "easy feed" to encompass a simple life, one unburdened by headache-inducing chaos. The trouble with it is the same kind of trouble that any ideology has: valid counterexamples. If this ideology were universally true, then there would never be any popular demand for a more strenuous life. Nor would there be any nation of heroes whose character was tempered by penury, turmoil and pain. A Winston Churchill would not think highly of such a Tory.

Of course, any ideologue worthy of the name would tinker with the ideology to account for any such counterexamples. Such as: calls to ‘sacrifice' means the ‘who's the patsy' game gets a'rollin; the "noble poor" still have the socio-economic advantages of ancestral money, or have had some kind of access to such advantages; people do not always act in accordance with pecuniary (or measurable) self-interest; etc. To the ideologically inclined, these are genuine advances prompted by valid criticisms. To the anti-ideologue, they're merely glib.

Most people have both an ideological side and an anti-ideological side, typically governed by their own political choices. We tend to like ideologues whose ideology buttresses our own political positions. The ‘ideologue' of popular discourse is usually the other fellow's ideologue, not ours. And yet, this parcel-passing gives a clue as to why ideologues tend to be pasted with a bad name.

One of the most palpable particulars that ideologies do not account for is our homelands. An ideologue is inclined to treat his/her homeland as part of a category, as an example in a global system. Thus, ideologues tend to be either weak patriots or not patriotic at all. They need license from their system to stick up for their homeland. If there is no justification for doing so within the system, they either won't or they'll just go through the motions.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that ideologues are people whose patriotic urges have been detached from their own homeland(s) and attached to their ideas. Their system is their nation. This characteristic makes more rooted people perceive them as something less than earnest intellectuals. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

 

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