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Ideology is Dead! Long Live Ideology!

On the Ideological Character of Liberalism & Socialism

Something in the Night is Dangerous

According to Jeffrey Goldfarb, founder and publisher of Public Seminar (PS), I am dangerous. I threaten to undermine democracy. While Goldfarb’s comments may not have been specifically targeted at me, they are targeted at the kind of socialist critical theory and practice for which I often argue (for just two examples, see here and here). While I have no problem being dangerous (at least to certain powerful groups in our world), I take it deeply seriously that someone as thoughtful as Goldfarb is suggesting that an outlet like PS should be an open place for regressive, anti-democratic arguments — and that those who challenge that determination are themselves behaving dangerously ideologically.

Goldfarb states, “Ideology doesn’t only undermine democracy, as I tried to demonstrate in my last post. It looms as a threat to human decency, justice and survival.” In order to fully appreciate Goldfarb’s argument, we need to turn to how he defined ideology in that earlier post. There he claimed to be using ideology in an extremely narrow way, based on the iteration of the concept developed by Arendt in the Origins of Totalitarianism. Goldfarb claims that he is using ideology to refer to political perspectives that posit a key to history from which all other assumptions, arguments, and conclusions about politics, economics, and culture can be deduced.

He writes:

Ideologies posit a key to history, be it class struggle, race theory or some other master idea. From the key everything is deduced and enforced, concerning the past, present and the future. History is re-written. A social order is constructed. And the future is known with great certainty before it happens: Communism, the Third Reich, the West, or the Caliphate. Extreme versions of ideology, as they are linked with terror, are totalitarian, but there are less extreme versions, a kind of everyday ideology, that I see challenging democracy today.

For Goldfarb, then, there are two ways of being ideological, and both challenge democracy. First, we have the narrower conception based on Arendt, where being ideological means positing a “key to history.” The second type is less clearly specified, but it seems to entail a kind of political dogmatism. While it may not assert a singular determinant of or foundational premise for history and politics, this second type of ideology is still, more casually, oriented toward a particular political vision or universal panacea. (Though again, what Goldfarb means precisely by “everyday ideology” is not defined.) What Goldfarb does tell us is that both types are dangerous because they limit the space for deliberation and compromise, which he takes to be fundamental to democracy.

The more recent iteration of Goldfarb’s arguments on ideology were written in response to the way a recent PS article was received. In that article Jake Davis presents a circuitous and deeply conservative dismissal of the Green New Deal. However, since responding to Davis’s argument isn’t my purpose here, it is sufficient to say that PS was pilloried on social media for publishing it. The negative comments PS received in response to the article, and to which I contributed, were mainly motivated by two concerns: 1. There are plenty of other places, places of less intellectual seriousness, that would be willing to publish this kind of piece. Thus PS shouldn’t use its limited resources to be a forum for these kinds of arguments. (This is not to say that PS should have a political litmus test but that PS should still draw a line somewhere, even if it is a flexible, negotiable line.) 2. That the article neither well-written nor well-argued.

With that context, Goldfarb’s argument that the comments on Davis’s piece were representative of either kind of ideology is not well-supported. Goldfarb seems to be using a looser notion of ideology, one that he claims to reject (“…ideology as any political idea or system of ideas…”). In fact, I’m not quite sure who Goldfarb is referring to specifically with his accusation, which he emphatically declares targets both the Left and the Right. I can certainly imagine those on the right he is referring to (though he does offer a tepid criticism of Davis, suggesting that Davis’s anti-socialism may be blinding him to alternatives to his anti-government, pro-market approach). On the left, besides Goldfarb’s implication that socialists who go so far as to advocate the full replacement of capitalism are equally ideological, it remains unclear how presenting a strong socialist position threatens democracy. (Of course this kind of socialist ideology is one that moves beyond tired, red-baiting tropes about the historical failures of bureaucratic undemocratic communisms, tropes invoked by Goldfarb in support of his opposition to socialist ideology. There are few, if any, serious socialist theorists arguing that we should reproduce those failures.)

Instead of focusing his ire on the conservatives, whose values and politics seem to more obviously conflict with his own, Goldfarb goes more forcefully after his (and PS’s) critics, but fails to show how they are behaving ideologically, according to his own preferred understanding of ideology. Were some of the criticisms of Davis and PS childish? Immature? Needlessly derisive? Perhaps they were. But ideological? Not so much — though perhaps they conform to Goldfarb’s unspecified conception of everyday ideology, but we can’t deduce that from this underdeveloped abstraction.

Post-Post-Ideology

On the contrary, according to the definition(s) laid out above it is both Davis and Goldfarb that are behaving ideologically. Davis is rigidly defending the free market. Goldfarb is rigidly defending the marketplace of ideas; that free and open deliberation are the keys to progress. While the former is readily visible as an ideology, perhaps the latter is less so. Which is why it is necessary to show that Goldfarb, while positing the post-ideological character of his own argument, is ignoring the fact that John Stuart Mill’s ideology — progressive utilitarian liberalism — develops nearly identical premises as the “keys” to progress in history.

That liberalism, especially in its neoliberal and Third Way variants, are often posited as post-ideological, is well-worn intellectual territory. Suffice it to say, this is not a new position, nor are versions of the critique I’m reproducing here.

Perhaps what Goldfarb is arguing against is political dogmatism that takes on an almost religious character. Something like a motivated close-mindedness. If so, there is something to this interpretation. Most violence in modern and contemporary history is motivated by “true believers.” While there is certainly good reason to put Nazis, fascists, and Stalinists in that boat, we must also put the true believers of the rightness of Western liberal values and capitalism in that boat. It is those “true believers” who defended George W. Bush’s and Barak Obama’s hopelessly inhumane and violent foreign and domestic policies. It was “true believers” who defended the rightness of fire-bombing Dresden, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the forced global spreading of unjust private property relations and exploitative labor practices characteristic of capitalism. These liberal “true believers” have continued to support the extractive, polluting, ecocidal practices of capitalism as well. While we can come to the abstract conclusion that it is ideological thinking and being that holds this inherent potential, I’d counter by suggesting it is not ideology that is at fault, but specific ideologies. And liberalism is one of them.

I imagine deep thinkers like Goldfarb would be made uncomfortable by the association of his argument with such gross inhumane events and processes. But when he claims that ideological thinking is to blame — and ignores the fact that the liberal democracy he defends so aggressively is also ideological — such an association holds true. However, if we look at the specifics of the ideological perspective Goldfarb represents, it would be absurd to associate his position with such heinousness. The same is true, despite Goldfarb’s admonition that socialists like myself are dangerous, with regard to thoughtful, self-reflective, aggressively-articulated socialist positions.

A socialist need not blindly believe that “class struggle” is the “key to history” in order to believe that capitalism is a grotesque system of exploitation that opposes the mass democratization of global society. Neither does a socialist need to blindly believe that bureaucratic central planning is the best way to conceptualize a socialist alternative to capitalism. I would have no problem accepting that believing that capitalism and its attendant oppressions are fundamentally wrong is ideological. Similarly, I would have no problem accepting that various conceptions of democratic planning that most contemporary socialists support, are themselves still ideological, without any religious faith in class struggle or central planning. They are ideological sure, but these views are hardly a threat to democracy.

To claim that aggressively ideological (in either the narrower or the broader meaning of ideological) socialist arguments are dangerous to democracy, as Goldfarb does, is to engage in precisely the kind of ideological categorical dismissiveness he criticizes.

What’s in an Ideology?

Being ideological, in the sense of aggressively representing and articulating a certain set of political, economic, and cultural values that programmatically fit together, is important. This doesn’t mean everyone should be foregrounding their ideological commitments all the time, every day, in every interaction. Context still matters. Audience matters. Strategic political concerns matter. The content and consistency of political perspectives matter.

I, for one, am happily open about my opposition to exploitation, to oppression, to climate change and ecocide, to (imperial) war, to nation-state borders, and to restricting access and use of the fruits of social production based on capacity to pay. I don’t support putting people who think differently in prison (oh, I also oppose prisons). What I don’t support is a forum like PS giving those views oxygen. Insofar as one can accurately call my views ideologically socialist I am equally happily, openly, ideological.

There is plenty of intellectual and policy space within the ideologically socialist vision I just laid out. Why not stick to providing more oxygen to all of that diversity? Regardless, it is not anti-democratic to suggest that different editorial decisions be made. It is also not inherently ideological, at least not in the narrower sense. It is perhaps, at minimum, an aggressive representation of a political and intellectual preference. We all only have so many hours in the day, several of which I personally spend consuming mainstream news and politics and more specialized content such as what is produced by PSPS is a specific kind of space. It isn’t CNN. It isn’t National Review. It isn’t Reason. It’s its own thing, in content and form. I hope it continues to be that. Giving a platform to overtly, unquestionably regressive viewpoints is not helpful.

On the one hand, it would indeed be different if the argument made by Davis was engaging with the tradition of critical theory or something of intellectual seriousness (something like, “well despite what you may think, actually Adorno would have opposed the Green New Deal” or something like that). Davis’s piece on the other hand is an ideological polemic against democratic efforts to deal with climate change. I have no time for such drivel. In my opinion, and in the opinions of at least several other PS readers and writers, neither should PS. While we need to be vigilant about remaining engaged with ideas with which we disagree, we also ought not provide either a greater audience and or increased legitimacy for truly dangerous (and arguably already more popular) perspectives.

Which comes to the heart of my criticism: editorial decisions, as they must necessarily be to some degree, are not truly democratic. Therefore, the basis for them should always be potentially subject to criticism, especially when the decision is to publish a piece that is itself anti-democratic.

If PS were the last forum on Earth where tired conservative arguments could be found, Goldfarb’s fear might be well-founded, but one only need to turn on basically any cable news program, open any major newspaper, or go to any popular politics site to find that such conservative arguments are safe from the all-powerful clutches of the evil ideological left.

Bryant William Sculos, Ph.D. is Visiting Assistant Professor of global politics and political theory at Worcester State University and Mellon-Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Bryant is the co-editor (with Prof. Mary Caputi) of Teaching Marx & Critical Theory in the 21st Century with Brill (forthcoming 2019).

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