A century has passed since William Butler Yeats sensed the stirrings of a “rough beast” with a gaze “blank and pitiless as the sun”. That beast’s apocalyptic hour has come around again, its rebirth announced by the galloping horsemen of war and pestilence, with what looks to be famine trailing in the dusty distance. It calls itself Legion, but is today better known as Ideology.
The word “ideology” is often used as a synonym for political ideas, a corruption of language that conceals its fundamentally anti-political character. In the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, primary models for English republicanism and the American Founders, politics was understood to be the collective determination of matters of common concern through public debate. As Aristotle taught, politics consists in the citizenly exercise of logos, the uniquely human power of intelligent speech. While voice registers private feelings — think of animal purrs and yelps — speech reveals what is good and bad, just and unjust, binding us together in the imperfect apprehension of realities greater than our individual selves.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
But ideology is incapable of treating human beings as participants in a shared life, much less as individuals made in the image of God. Like the party hack whose spectacles struck Orwell as “blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them”, it sees them only as groups to be acted upon. The term idéologie was coined during the French Revolution by Antoine Destutt de Tracy, an anti-clerical materialist philosopher who believed that reason offered a way of uncovering general laws of social relations. Tracy conceived of idéologie as a social science of “ideas” that would inform the construction of a rational progressive society governed by an enlightened elite, whose technical expertise would justify their claim to rule. The illiberalism of this progressive-technocratic ideal became fully apparent in the West only with the onset of Covid. It is now widely understood that the subordination of public life to ostensibly scientific guidance and the effective transfer of sovereignty from the body of citizens to an unelected overclass are fundamentally inconsistent with liberty and individual dignity.
The political philosopher Raymond Aron defined ideology quite precisely as “the synthesis of an interpretation of history and of a programme of action toward a future predicted or hoped for”. In this synthesis, a theory about the historical origins of real or alleged social ills is pressed into the service of an imagined future in which those ills will be cured. The theory is not to be judged solely, or even primarily, by its adequacy in describing the historical record as it presents itself to an informed and inquiring mind. Rather, it is to be judged by the promised consequences of the programme of action it underwrites. Of course, ideological prophecy, appearing in times of organic or manufactured crisis when everything assumes an air of urgency, must be taken on faith.
It follows that the ideological synthesis remains incomplete until the programme of action is implemented. Marx famously claimed that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. But Marx, whose broad classical education informed his great critique of capitalism, remained at the level of philosophy. His interpretation of history achieved its stated end only when it was put into practice, however crudely, by Communist revolutionaries, starting with Lenin. By his own standards, Marx’s philosophy cannot be cleanly separated from the historical depredations of Marxism.
Although ideological regimes were not unheard of in antiquity, ideology’s focus on efficacy rather than truth, its assumption that history is a problem awaiting a rational solution, and its elevation of the possibilities of a deliberately constructed future over the present constraints of the actual world, are characteristically modern. Its closest analogue is the phenomenon of technology, the harnessing of significant social resources to achieve mastery over nature through mathematical and experimental science. Formulated by the early modern philosophers Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the programme of technology rejected inherited intellectual foundations, including the guidance of God or nature.
Descartes, a professed believer whose pencil-thin moustache gave him an unmistakable air of duplicity, reduced the natural or created world to the mathematical abstraction of spatial extension, which is perfectly accessible to algebraic geometry but bears no trace of implicit order or divine goodness. And he divided his profoundly skeptical Meditations and Discourse on Method into six parts, in rivalrous imitation, scholars tell us, of the first six days of God’s creation. Liberated by technology from dependence on God and history, man and world could be fashioned in the image of human desires.
Descartes prophesied a future in which “the common good of all men” would be secured by “an infinity of devices that would enable us to enjoy without pain the fruits of the earth”, and by the elimination of “an infinity of maladies, both of body and mind”. Should biological science ever eliminate death due to “the infirmities of old age”, as he dared to hope, what would likely be a fresh earthly hell would render the question of the afterlife largely moot. Here, too, an ill-formed utopian vision licenses fundamental social transformation.
But there is a deeper and more important connection between ideology and technology. Ideology is in fact a social technology. The implementation of an ideological programme is an experiment testing the hypothesis that a radiant future can be achieved if only political, social, and economic relations are radically restructured, a process that always involves the preliminary destruction of existing realities. That future, like Descartes’s infinity of satisfactions, is never concretely described and never actually arrives. (Marx imagined a leisurely existence spent fishing, hunting, and philosophising, although philosophising would presumably be pointless when the world no longer needs changing.) This unscientific hypothesis is then tested on actual human subjects.
In the United States, we are currently engaged in many such experiments simultaneously, all undertaken in the name of social justice. What happens when violent protestors are encouraged to riot in our cities, crimes go unprosecuted, and bails are waived? Or biological males are permitted to use women’s restrooms and live in their cellblocks? Or schoolchildren are indoctrinated with identity politics, while professors are required to pledge support for diversity, equity, and inclusion agendas as a condition of employment? Or borders are thrown open to illegal immigrants who enjoy privileges and benefits not extended to citizens? No sensible person would want to find out. But ideology is always and everywhere opposed to the moderate middle ground, not only of politics, but of the general opinion and sentiment that goes by the name of common sense.
History is littered with examples of malicious ideological experiments, which in good Baconian form observe nature — in this case, human nature — not “free and large”, but “under constraint and vexed… forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded”. What is to my knowledge the first such experiment occurred after the Athenians were starved into submission at the end the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE, when the Spartans installed an oligarchy known as the Thirty. The regime was led by Plato’s aristocratic cousin Critias, who flattered himself with the thought that he was a greater philosopher, statesman, and poet than his illustrious ancestor Solon. In Plato’s dialogue Charmides, Critias advances a vacuous conception of rule by a “science of sciences” — an ancient prototype of idéologie, which Tracy considered to be a “theory of theories”. According to Lysias, an eyewitness, the Thirty proposed “to purge the city of unjust men, and to turn the rest of the citizens toward virtue and justice” by restoring what they claimed was the ancestral Athenian constitution. The oligarchs proceeded to disenfranchise, disarm, and expel large segments of the population and finally to rob and murder their political opponents, putting to death roughly 1,500 Athenians — perhaps 3% of the citizen body.
The ideological tyranny of the Thirty left no lasting mark outside of Athens. This was not the case with Communism and Nazism, which also disenfranchised, robbed, deported, and murdered large numbers of people, but did so with modern managerial and industrial efficiency. As Alain Besançon observes in his short but indispensable book A Century of Horrors, these ideologies had much in common. They both aimed to achieve a perfect society by eliminating the evil that hindered its creation. They claimed to seek the good, either of the German people or of all mankind. They used pseudo-sciences like dialectical materialism and race-based eugenics to justify and wield their power. Most important, they claimed the right to kill, and did so on an unprecedented scale.
The Nazis murdered roughly 17 million unarmed civilians, not including those who died in aerial bombings and other ordinary acts of war. After almost 80 years, historians are still compiling a list of ghettoes and camps in Germany and Nazi-occupied territory. As of March 2013, the total number identified by researchers stood at 42,500. But here as elsewhere, the National Socialists were students of the Marxist ones. It was the Soviets who invented and systematised the use of combination slave-labour and death camps, and the concentrationary universe of the Gulag covered an even greater geographical area than the Nazi Lagers. Lenin and Stalin also anticipated Hitler in the use of poison gas (including mobile gas vans), mass deportation, and, in the great famines of 1921-22 and 1930-33, targeted starvation to liquidate what Lenin called “harmful insects”.
The Black Book of Communism estimates that Communist regimes murdered between 85 and 100 million of their own people during the 20th century, fulfilling the eerie prophecy in Dostoevsky’s Demons that socialism’s cure for the world’s ills would involve “lopping off a hundred million heads”. And while Besançon regards the Holocaust as the “absolute zero” of murderous intensity, he rightly observes that “communism brought about a more widespread and deeper moral destruction” than Nazism. Thoroughly discredited by the Holocaust, Nazism exited the world stage in 1945, but Communism officially endures today in China, North Korea, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Marxism furthermore remains a respectable alternative to capitalism in the eyes of many Westerners, even including some who acknowledge the aforementioned facts. This is itself due, in large measure, to the ideological distortion and suppression of history.
Ideology’s most horrific social experiments illustrate several points that apply also to the “Totalitarianism Lite” of contemporary American life. First, while human beings naturally form social groups for common purposes, ideology assumes that organic associations cannot support a good society, which must be engineered from the top down. This assumption, which no ideological experimentation has ever sustained, makes up in arrogance what it lacks in humility.
Second, ideology abjures persuasion, preferring what Hannah Arendt called “mute coercion”. We see this today in the insistence that certain widely-shared opinions that were uncontroversial only a few years ago are so morally illegitimate that they do not deserve a hearing. We see it in the fact that those who publicly voice such opinions are commonly smeared, hounded, denied financial services, investigated, and fired, even by institutions that are publicly committed to diversity of opinion and freedom of speech.
Third, ideology always involves the scapegoating and purging of opponents. Today these primitive religious rituals, enacted within the framework of a secularised and apocalyptic Christianity, include the sanctification of “victims” and the (for now metaphorical) public crucifixion of “oppressors”. Those who are targeted by, or resist, the ideological programme — denounced variously as kulaks, capitalist roadsters, vermin, or white supremacists — must, with the exception of a few penitents who are mercifully spared, be decisively defeated in battle with the forces of good. For only then will the earthy salvation of a just and harmonious society be achievable.
In modern times, the template for the use of violence in the name of the highest political and moral ideals was established in the French Revolution. Marching under the banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the Revolution took less than five years to move from the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to the Terror of Robespierre and the genocidal destruction of the Vendée, a French Department where the Revolutionaries responded to a peasant rebellion by slaughtering roughly 15% of the population. The trajectory from utopian fervour to nihilistic bloodshed, traversed over the past century in countries scattered across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, is unsurprising. One could hardly expect a programme of radical social transformation that demonises its opponents to be free of bloodshed.
Anyone who thinks that the United States could not descend into similarly horrifying violence is deluded. Ideology is a highly communicable social contagion that infects people who are morally immunocompromised, and today it poses a far greater threat to human beings than any merely biological virus. It always attracts thugs, sadists, and those who lust for power, groups that, once revolutionary fervour gives way to dictatorship, always outnumber true believers. But it also exploits the universal human longing for social validation and fear of being cast out. These risk factors are exponentially amplified by the tribalising social and news-media feedback loops that now fill the vacuum left by a permanent moral order, inherent in nature or revealed by God —notions that, owing to the seductions of technology, were arguably doomed at modernity’s inception.
The inevitable consequence of ideological infection is brain rot. Besançon justly remarks that “it is not possible to remain intelligent under the spell of ideology”. Intelligence, after all, is an ongoing attentiveness to reality that is inconsistent with wilfulness and fantasy. Nor can it take root in the sterile soil of widespread cultural repudiation. This is why all ideological regimes are without exception plagued by sheer ineptitude.
Just consider: the anti-Jewish decrees of April 1933 stripped a quarter of Germany’s physicists of their livelihood, including 11 who had earned or would earn Nobel prizes, and left German research in atomic physics in shambles— a lucky break for the Allies. Trofim Lysenko, a barely literate agronomist who won Stalin’s ear, vilified the work of the geneticist Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar, as “fascist, bourgeois-capitalistic, and inspired by clerics”. Thousands of biologists were fired, imprisoned, or executed for opposing Lysenko’s crackpot theories, which exacerbated famines that killed many millions of people in the U.S.S.R. and China (where Mao adopted his methods in the Fifties). Up to 70% of the U.S.S.R.’s active engineers were arrested and sentenced without trial in 1930, while Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan to build heavy industry was in full swing. Not to be outdone, China has now painted itself into a corner with its brutally tyrannical zero-Covid lockdowns, which immiserated its population and destroyed the economy but cannot be fully lifted without destroying the credibility of the Communist Party.
And then there is the gross incompetence of the Biden administration. While ideologically-induced stupidity may not fully explain this phenomenon, it’s a huge contributing factor. The administration’s ineptitude is already provoking what looks to be a strong political backlash, and if we are very, very lucky, we may be able to avoid major disasters before the 2024 elections. But a new government will make little difference. The rot has penetrated every essential institution in the United States, and the long-term picture is bleak. Nor is there solace in the fact that we Americans are by no means alone. Whoever said misery loves company wasn’t thinking about the ideological endgame of liberal democracy.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe