The human cost of ideology


IdeologyMany economists have proclaimed that the ideology of neoliberalism is dead. The collapse of the markets has done for it what the fall of the Berlin Wall did for Marxism.

Although true believers remain, they will be able to persuade few people that, left to themselves, markets will work efficiently, that they can be trusted to regulate themselves, or that high executive salaries are a reward for competence rather than greed.

The unmasking of a once regnant ideology and of the damage that its followers did to the common good is good news. But it might make us also ask how we can recognise ideologies that have gone sour. For Christians this is a pressing task, because religions are often regarded as harmful ideologies.

Some critics, including theologians, see ideologies as always harmful. They are by definition bad views of the world. I prefer to describe them more neutrally. Ideologies are theories about the human world that command practical human responses. By this description, religions are ideologies because they offer a set of beliefs about the world that lead people, for example, to pray, to gather and to give alms. Marxism, National Socialism and Neoliberalism are also ideologies. The latter offers a view of human economic activity which dictates that government officials refrain from regulating it.

Because ideologies are based on beliefs about the human world, they necessarily include assumptions about what makes for human welfare and happiness and so about how we can expect people to act. Neoliberalism assumes that in the market the actors are individuals, not communities, and that they seek to increase their wealth. Wealth expands the life choices individuals can make, and so their happiness. Therefore they should be allowed to engage in the market free from constraint.

Ideologies are interesting as long as they are self-critical and are pushed to justify their presuppositions. They turn sour when they cease to reflect on the truth of the assumptions they make about human life. Their advocates will then regard these large questions as idle. They will focus on technical questions about how to organise and administer financial structures in ways that reflect the unconsidered assumptions they make about human life. The ideology is then vulnerable to whatever fantasies vitiate its assumptions. Marxism collapsed because the centralisation of power in the party, dictated by theory, contributed neither to human prosperity nor freedom. It fostered unhappiness .

Neoliberalism failed to take account of the importance of relationships in human activity. It ignored particularly the importance of trust and of the conditions that nurture it. It therefore disregarded the power of greed to destroy the trust that is essential if markets are to work. Its assumptions about human life were jejeune.

There are a few signs that indicate when ideologies are losing contact with their human centre. The light flashes red when any ideology claims to be a science. Certainly, all accounts of human activity will use mathematical and scientific analysis to develop their view of the world and the behaviour that it mandates. It is appropriate to use elaborate mathematical models to reflect on economic policy. But the complexity of such modelling can lend its conclusions a spurious authority that distracts from the doubtful assumptions made about human values.

An associated sign that ideologies are becoming sour is that they are associated with centres of power in government or society. As ideologies pretend to scientific status, they require great resources to sustain them. The more resources are made available, the more the ideology will be subtly shaped to reflect and further the interests of those who make them available. As ideologies become useful to the powerful, they entrench themselves in the media and in the intellectual formation of those who enter their disciplines. Their assumptions remain unquestioned.

The sign that an ideology has gone rancid is that its advocates conceive conversation about its inadequacies as irrational, and respond to criticism with abuse and misrepresentation. The human poverty of their assumptions then becomes evident in the behaviour of their followers.

All ideologies, including religions, can rot. They can neglect the view of the human world on which they are based and focus simply on implementing the consequences of their ideas. They can ally themselves with centres of power that distracts them from the vital conversation about human life.

When this happens the costs in human misery are great. But it doesn't have to be this way. If we insist that conversation should turn to what is important, to what matters to human beings, theories can be nurtured and disciplined so they are not easily corrupted.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is Eureka Street's consulting editor. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.

Flickr image by openDemocracy



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Existing comments

Yes I like your definition of ideology. In our student environmental groups we encourage people to figure out their ideologies or 'theories of change', inspired by people like Freire, and texts like the 'Resource manual for a living revolution' which I recommend.
Anne | 07 November 2008

Really useful article, particularly relevant to inform our thinking on what might work in terms of the new evangelisation.
Matt Casey | 07 November 2008

I like the definition of ideology, but, as I read, I did include scientific world views as tantamount to ideologies, prodded by the thought that "Their advocates [such as Dawkins] will then regard these large questions [such as why the universe exists at all] as idle".

As for modelling, the problem is that mathematical models are abstractions and diverge from reality - they require continual review and correction. Their value is not only in understanding by making the model in the first place but also the divergence which reflects our ignorance. Scepticism is the rule to be applied to predictions of a model. The scientist knows that he can only prove a model false.

We must always question.

Thank you for a thought provoking article.
Peter Horan | 07 November 2008

I also thank Andrew for this article, but I admit some uncertainty in reading the challenge to religion implied between the lines about Neoliberalism and Marxism.

Both ideologies placed human happiness as the ultimate good. If the challenge is only to more actively love our fellow human beings, what fundamentally differentiates religion from Neoliberalism or Marxism?

What are the warning signs of religions "losing sight of the human world on which they are based"? Andrew offers claims of scientific authenticity and alliance with centres of power as relevant indicators.

The older traditions of Christianity make no claim to scientific authenticity. However they do make an even grander claim to authenticity - that they are NOT based on the human world, but on direct Divine intervention in that world.

Alliances with centres of power are part of modern Christianity, including the shameful concordats of the Vatican with 20th century Fascism, and the blurring of boundaries between Church, State and Commerce in modern America.

Andrew challenges us to turn our conversation to what is important to human beings. Is the challenge to simply love humankind better, or to more closely focus, individually and collectively, on the invisible, inaudible, undefinable Divinity?
Ian Fraser | 07 November 2008

Thanks for a very timely analysis as we struggle to learn from the current global market failure, but I am not comfortable with your tolerant definition of ideology. I found most of your insights very helpful and particularly your final observation:

"If we insist that conversation should turn to what is important, to what matters to human beings, theories can be nurtured and disciplined so they are not easily corrupted".

But therein lies the rub. Although the advice is wise, the inherent difficulty of implementing this approach reflects the difficulty of engaging with people who rely on ideologies. Ideologues are not inclined to question the ideologies that give them comfort; they see their ideologies as already dealing comprehensively with "what is important, (and with) . . . what matters to human beings".

I agree that ideologies are “interesting as long as they are self-critical and are pushed to justify their presuppositions”, but this is exactly what routinely ideologues resist, “regard(ing) these large questions as idle”.

Neither religion nor economics need the ideologues, particularly the neoliberals, who through blind adherence to perceived dogma deny themselves and society the benefits of continued learning through questioning and analysis, arguably the highest level of God-given human functioning.

- PJ

Peter Johnstone | 08 November 2008

Your essay is a general reference to all ideologies, but it especially rings true for me when applied to the Catholic church.
We see the signs, but because of our ingrained loyalty, we hesitate to criticise.
We practising Catholics are very loyal to our priests and bishops, but we must do something about the shortage of priests and the lack of recognition of lay people.
God bless you in the street!
Terry Fromholtz
Terry Fromholtz | 08 November 2008

I thank Eureka Street's editorial for this article which comes at a time in my life where I need to better understand why I feel like I cannot choose happiness even though I have been miserable for so long in the church. I need help to break away from ideology and start living, discipline has to be measured against nuturing. But conditioning is also a problem.
I really do not understand this thesis but would very much like to know how I can become more informed about the church and its politics.
margaret smyth | 08 November 2008

I agree this is a thought-provoking article, but I would have preferred it if Andrew had put more focus on the matter of religious ideologies going sour. He mentions (with regard to ideologies in general) that they "turn sour when they cease to reflect on the assumptions they make about the truth of human life". However, the problem with the Catholic Church (or at least with its hierarchy) is that they insist their teachings are based on "capital T" Truth, and that is all that needs to be said. They are deaf to protests from the grass-roots that their "Truth" doesn't always coincide with the "truth" in the sense of what really happens in the real people's lives!

Surely this reflects a situation of "ideology going sour" if anything does. It's not only causing a lot of unhappiness, but, worse, it's creating a stumbling block for people to come to God.
Cathy Taggart | 09 November 2008

Andrew writes that 'neoliberalism failed to take account of the importance of relationships in human activity ... Its assumptions about human life were jejeune.'
Well, we’ve got the computers, but we don’t yet have mathematical descriptions of 'relationships' ... which is ironic, because mathematics is all about relationships between (mathematical) objects.
He goes on to write that ideologies 'turn sour when they cease to reflect on the assumptions they make about the truth of human life'.
Perhaps the perennially sceptical, perennially reviewing, method by which scientific research is conducted might be a better model for human progress. However hallowed they may be, all the truths that we have thus far gleaned are provisional. A process of continuous scepticism, of continuous review, allows for the abandonment of assumptions when they first start to turn a little sour, rather than wait for them to go rancid.
Noting that humans are now, however inadvertently, threatening the life support systems of the only planet in the universe on which we have detected life, the expression 'human life' should be replaced with the expression 'life' throughout Andrew’s otherwise well-written article.
David Arthur | 10 November 2008

We must also charge neolibralism with seeking to universalise their worldview in which they have been remarkably effective. The recent stockmarket falls and the collective self examination as well as government regulation, one would hope, will deflate their hubris, however I fear not. Reinhold Niebuhr identified the sin of pride as urging men (sic) that their temporal schemes were worthy to be shared by all, and Niebuhr also pointed out that not these schemes but that of sacrificial love was the only organising principle for any community.

However we are all susceptible to such pride, especially the Church, and perhaps with comfort, we can expect that the values of neolibralism will be revealed for what they are. But not before some suffering.
Richard Wilson | 06 December 2008


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