You can’t kill an idea.
But just because you can’t destroy an idea or an ideology, it doesn’t mean you can’t twist it and use it as an engine for your own purposes. It’s not controversial to suggest that much of what we see in mainstream discourse, in the traditional channels of success and influence, may not be genuine ideological positions, but rather a useful packaging for machinations of power.
If this is true, then where can we find genuine ideology? Does it even exist? I think it does, but really only in one place.
When I use the term “ideology,” I’m referring to the combination of values, principles, and perspectives that add up to a worldview. This worldview actually motivates behavior, which means it is prior to action and prior to specific conclusions and tactics. This is the defining difference between genuine ideology and the kind of ideology that serves as a façade.
Of course, this isn’t a binary difference. It’s not as if people either act for solely ideological reasons one hundred percent of the time or their ideology is a pretense. Ideology can be a motivating factor sometimes, and simply a pretense – whether conscious or unconscious – at others. Or it can contribute some degree of motivation along with other incentives. I would argue that the degree to which ideology motivates behavior in the face of opposing incentives is the degree to which it’s genuine. Otherwise, what could it mean to genuinely hold certain values, have a particular worldview, or adhere to specific principles if those ideas never motivated your behavior, or if those ideas only influenced action in the absence of any conflicting incentives?
Genuine ideology is a fringe phenomenon. Genuine ideology exists, but is primarily found at the margins of mainstream discourse and political power. Put another way, the farther you move away from the mainstream, the more likely you are to find genuinely held ideological positions. And the closer you move toward the centers of power, the more likely you are to find ideology used merely as a tool of political expedience or tactical convenience. This is particularly true of any ideology that would be threatening to those in power.
What happens is that genuine ideology gets plucked from the fringes whenever aspects of it become useful to the ruling class. This is the stuff of most mainstream discourse. Talking points and sound bites and party platforms are made up of little chunks of ideology taken from those who genuinely believe it.
The usefulness is really the most important part. Think of your most cherished beliefs, the political or social or religious ideals that motivate your actions. These are the beliefs that will almost certainly be used against you by someone or some group that wants power over you. This is true precisely because they are the beliefs most likely to motivate your behavior. If some politician can claim to believe in X, or support Y, or oppose Z and garner your financial and electoral support, why wouldn’t they?
You see this happen all the time with the U.S.’ political parties. The Democrats will co-opt anti-war rhetoric or try to align themselves with the Occupy movement when they see the opportunity to gain support. The Republicans will latch onto the discontent fueling the Tea Party and use it to win elections. Even within the parties, factions stake out different ideological ground that they hope will position themselves more favorably against competitors. This is not new or clever, but it continually works. And when it’s pointed out, people respond as if it’s far too cynical and conspiratorial (or “overly simplistic”) to possibly be true.
This isn’t to say that some of the people you could classify as part of the ruling class don’t have genuine beliefs. Many do. But either those beliefs are secondary to the overwhelming incentives the system places upon individuals, or those beliefs conveniently align with some general trend that makes them useful. And the system incentivizes compromising genuine ideological belief in exchange for more influence or power. It’s easy to justify. After all, you’ll be able to do much more good once you’re in a better, more influential position.
There are almost no incentives for a person or group who currently holds power to give it up. Why would someone with wealth and privilege and influence share that power with someone else? Why would they grant another person or group access to that power? They wouldn’t do it if it was fundamentally going to undermine their own power and influence. It’s just basic self-interest. The incentives all align with gaining or maintaining power. You don’t give someone access to power who is going to take power away from you. You give someone access to power because it will benefit you and your goals.
Those goals may involve removing or reducing another group’s or individual’s power, which is how factions play against each other.
This makes much more sense when you recognize “the system” isn’t a singular entity. It’s easy to see the state as a monolithic, Hobbesian leviathan. But it isn’t. It’s modular and layered, even within the ruling the class. The system is polylithic. It’s made up of competing factions and individuals, with interests and goals at odds with other factions and individuals.
There are multiple ways to look at this factioning. You can see it as partisanship – as in, partisan politics is killing America – which comes packaged with the assumption that a divided ruling class is bad because we need them to be “getting things done.” Or you can see it as a necessary evil, a side effect of the separation of powers, which prevents one group from seizing absolute power and is ultimately a good thing. Both views boil down to either a bad thing preventing the system from working or an unfortunate bug in an otherwise good system.
Instead, I think the proper way to see this factioning is as a feature. It is essential to any ruling class that wants to survive in the long term. Factions allow the system to adapt and evolve, to incorporate new blood and new ideological positions, keeping it from stagnating. It’s how the rulers adapt to the ruled. Factioning also provides enough turnover among specific actors to maintain the illusion of change and progress and participation. You’d think the citizens of democracies would get tired of beating a dead horse, but apparently all you need to do is occasionally swap out the horse.
This means that you or your ideology may be brought into the fold – it may gain mainstream prominence – but it’s likely only because it fits with some existing agenda. Or possibly provides useful cover or distraction for a different agenda.
It also means that anything that fundamentally challenges the system itself is going to be blocked by every faction, since the dismantling of the system benefits none of the people in power.
Fine. Let’s assume that this is true most of the time, seventy-five percent of the time, hell, ninety-five percent of the time. Does that mean there is not a single politician acting on genuine ideological belief, like [insert favored politician here]? Or even if it’s not genuine, that having a person who at least pays lip service to a certain belief isn’t preferable? That even that might produce something positive and good?
I think the obvious answer is yes. It’s certainly possible to have ideas enter the mainstream or popular mass movements whose widespread adoption – even if only superficially or for self-aggrandizing reasons – has a positive and valuable impact on society.
But I don’t think we should forget that an ideological position gaining traction in the mainstream is likely to come with some unforeseen consequences, namely that someone in power will attempt to benefit from, if not outright co-opt, the idea. Or, someone will pay lip-service to the idea in an attempt to gain power over those who value it. Or, that its prominence will make supporters think the battle for their idea has been won.
The point is not to become an idea hipster who only values ideologies before they become cool. It’s to recognize that when the ruling class (how wide to cast the net of that definition is up for debate, but it certainly includes politicians and criminal billionaires) begins to adopt or parrot the ideas you value, it might not be cause for celebratory back-patting and cries of “guys, we did it!”
The election and subsequent presidency of Barack Obama is perhaps the most well-worn example of this in the last decade. His anti-war campaign rhetoric which won him massive support (even from many libertarians), not to mention a preemptive Nobel Peace Prize, caused many to celebrate when he won the 2008 election. Of course, his presidency has been a complete repudiation of his anti-war positions. And as if that wasn’t enough to make it the epitomical example, Wikileaks released a CIA report describing how President Obama’s reputation would be useful in maintaining war support in Europe. What could make it clearer? The ruling class will use your ideas against you.
You may have noticed the above example contains a lot of references to Glenn Greenwald. This is intentional, because despite what many would consider to be a clear-cut case of dissent, the Snowden leaks may be just another example of everything outlined above. (For more on that, Tarzie should take it from here.)
I would suggest that the response to Citizenfour’s Oscar, the photo above, and the way the Snowden leaks have played out should not be celebration, happiness, or relief, but rather cynicism and skepticism that this is truly an example of “fucking with power.”
Approaching the ruling class with cynicism doesn’t mean approaching all of society with cynicism. It is simply a recognition that the powerful act in their own self-interest, and have much more resources with which to do it.
Nor does it mean despairing or abandoning the idea of social change. It means finding alternative ways to change society, ways that will likely be found in the same place genuine ideology is found: outside the circles of power.
Those in power will use your trust, your beliefs, and your values against you.
Don’t let them.
Published on March 6, 2015