I have expressed before my frustration with ideologies. As I understand the term it is a functional equivalent in politics to the expression ‘dogma’ in religion; a group of ideas that someone famous held which hereinafter must be adhered to as a group. I have several problems with this, not least being that it means people who think ideologically write off what I’m saying without ever stopping to understand it. If I agree with someone famous (e.g. Lenin) about $idea, and the famous person was wrong about $idea2 (which I don’t agree with them on anyway) I can be safely ignored by ideologists, who write me off as ‘a Leninist’. Or ‘a post-modernist’, or a whatever-the-hell-else-ist. I’m really not an anyone-ist. I’ve learned from lots of different thinkers: I can operate within someone else’s paradigm when I need to, provided their paradigm is internally consistent and coherent. But when I’m thinking as me, I have a set of paradigms derived by standing on the shoulders of giants yet not uniformly adherent to any of my source paradigms. I don’t believe there is a single influence on my thinking who I don’t also argue was wrong about something.
Much more importantly, though, I have a problem on purely pragmatic grounds. Ideologies discourage the replacement of broken ideas with working ones as further information becomes available. This is the problem with having a Religion of The Book: it precludes the possibility of a better book, later. Ideologies make really good marketing; one reason ‘the right’ has tended to win in the modern, sound-bite oriented political debate sphere is that their ideology is very simple and very easy to explain. Basically, it says “Status quo ante favours us and our inheritors: therefore, that status quo should be maintained.” Simple. Clear. Doesn’t change from generation to generation. The ‘left’ has a harder time, because they are not locked into a single paradigm; but they certainly don’t win in the ideology stakes. If anything, the left has worse problems due to ideologies than the right; at least the right really only has one (we are winning: let’s keep winning please). The left has many and none of them are winning, because they’re all busy fighting one another.
Let’s look at an example. One of the ideologies that really gets up my nose among the broad church of ‘the left’ is this one: capitalism is intrinsically useless and evil. I have a big problem with the underlying thinking there. Humans have been on this path, though they have progressed along it at very different speeds, for between twelve and fifteen thousand years, minimum. There’s no way that so many distinct and non-communicative polities would have evolved precisely the same economic and social organisation systems if there wasn’t something those systems were better at than any available competition. Anti-capitalists from well before Marx have fundamentally failed to ask themselves the question ‘What is it that statist/hierarchical capitalism is good for?’.
“Capital, Ain’t It?”
Those who’re watching closely and are used to the modern habit of elliding ‘statist/hierarchical market capitalism’ into a single word (for convenience) will have noticed that twelve thousand years is a lot longer than most people think capitalism has been around for. So let’s deal with that first. To begin with, Marx was wrong about several things. Among those things I would include his idea that Communist revolutions would happen in industrialised nations (not one, so far), that Germany or Britain would be the first Communist states (one too committed to hierarchy, the other too stable politically), and that the bourgeosie are parasites (some, yes; all, no). Another one is the idea that state accumulations of capital and private accumulations of capital are in some way functionally different.
Let’s contextualise Marx. Firstly, he’s a German operating in England, which influences both his underlying view of statism and his underlying view of monetarism. He’s a product of an industrialising country who emigrated to an industrial one. He’s a product of Hegelian thought in German acadaemia, and oh my, does it show. And above all, he is committed to an ideological narrative of the history and future of the human race which informs his academic work as well as his polemic and political activities. All of these things blinker his understanding of how to define ‘capital’, though in many ways his models are accurate. The ways they’re accurate are precisely the ways in which they can be applied to industrial, monetarised societies.
Capital is variously and badly defined all over the place: the closest available modern definition is that capital is “money that is used to generate income or make an investment”. This isn’t really good enough: if you approach the issue functionally, instead of ideologically, this definition reveals flaws very quickly. Why does the definition depend from money? Societies that were not monetarised clearly had wealth accumulators, viz. the invention of taxation recording by the Egyptians. They specifically invented chits to record paid taxes which then got traded, and those chits eventually evolved into a state-sponsored fiscal system. In other words, the wealth accumulations came first by some margin.
Functionally, capital is whatever allows a single authority to invest wealth in order to generate more wealth than they started with. This means nothing to most Western readers because they and their ancestors back several hundred years have no personal understanding of the phrase ‘subsistence economy’. You don’t just get capital wealth appearing one day. Everyone starts from the same place; I have enough food / I don’t have enough food. It takes millennia to even start thinking about “I have enough food even if the harvest fails.” Structurally, therefore, the concept of capital depends from somebody acquiring and defending the ability to maintain stores of unused wealth. Therefore, if one removes the ideology from the picture one can arrive at a definition of capital that is purely functional: “accumulations of unused wealth”.
Ideologies are designed to stop people thinking. One of the things ideologies are designed to stop people thinking about is words and why they mean what they mean; and, indeed, whether they in fact mean what you’re being told they mean. This is why I am doing this whole thing in the first place: I am uncomfortable with unstated assumptions. I want my readers to know what I mean when I say ‘capitalism’; why I mean it, what the chain of reasoning is, and why it deviates from the ideological tit and tat that eviscerates debate by converting it into factionalism. People are not pigeons; I want them thinking outside their boxes.
We’re currently in a recession caused entirely by short-term thinking on the part of people who had accumulated vast stores of unused wealth. Such large stores of capital, in fact, that their idiocy was able to destroy lives across the globe who had no connection except that they contributed wealth to the capitalists. Short-term thinking is a bad idea. Ideologies are intrinsically short-term, because no ideology can survive very long without major modifications, and the whole point of ideologies is that they are modification-resistant. To get out of this recession, we need people to start thinking long-term: therefore, we need to break, or at least loosen, the grip of ideology on our culture.