Ideology: what it is and what it does … and doesn’t do

I am delighted that my colleague at St Mary’s University, Dr Andrea Sau, has provided us with a Guest Briefing on ‘Ideology’, a special interest of his and of immediate relevance to us all. 

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

The eminent Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) wrote many years ago, ‘Our blight is ideologies – they are the long-awaited Antichrist.’ Centuries earlier the 2nd US President John Adams (1735-1826) was equally unequivocal: ‘Ideology is the science of idiots.’ More recently, best-selling Lebanese American poet, philosopher, and artist, Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was more reserved: ‘You have your ideology and I have mine.’ ‘Antichrist’? ‘Idiots?’ That’s strong language. Why does ‘Ideology’ arouse such feelings. What’s at stake? Is Khalil Gibran’s response possible, or even responsible?

So, what is ‘ideology’, and what does, or doesn’t it do?

Most people have heard or used the word ‘ideology’ numerous times but defining it and monitoring its multiple meanings and uses is hard. As so often (alas!), academic insights and analyses aren’t much help. A survey of the literature reveals literally hundreds of definitions and seemingly endless deductions from the term. Battered by the literature, I sometimes wonder if authors don’t complexify issues intentionally to exude the now popular ‘post-modern’ aura of ‘depth’![1] That said, some of the issues ‘ideology’ addresses are genuinely complex and picking a path through them is tricky. But that’s my aim here. Why is this important? Because the meaning of words matter – especially when society, and groups within a society, hijack them. We know everything is politicised nowadays, the use of words notoriously so.

What of everyday use of the term ‘ideology’? In common parlance, ’ideology’ carries two basic connotations. First, a negative association with a biased (if not derogatory) view or extreme political perspective. A political party is dubbed ‘ideological’ for the way it backs workers, condemns private schools, or trusts in a ‘free market’ or ‘fiscal conservatism’. A second use is more positive, or at least neutral. Now ‘ideology’ is more descriptive than denigratory. It defines a social or political ‘worldview’ based on certain clear principles or preferred choices. So, Ms X sees society as freighted against women, while Tom Hammersmith-Flyover has no problem with fox hunting or clamping down on immigration. Of course, we may not agree with them – and perhaps denounce them as ‘opinionated’ – but on a good day such opinions are open to reason or are fair game for ribbing! However we use the term ‘ideology’, most people connect it with power, its exercise or delimitation. As a result, ideologues of every stripe and intensity seek to provoke a response – often strong feelings! ‘Ideology’ is rarely value, or energy, neutral.

These two basic connotations of the term ‘ideology’ find resonances in academic circles. My aim here is to use the term in a neutral sense but I know the ‘negative’ (pejorative, even) associations of the term can’t be entirely ignored. Technically, there are two major camps in ‘ideology’ literature. There is ‘positivist’ material (cf. the work of Sartori, Aaron and Converse[2]) which argues in a classic Liberal or ‘pro-Capitalist’ direction against ‘ideologies’ they adjudge narrow-minded, violent, utopian, or fanatical. According to ‘positivist’ perspectives, ‘ideologues’ are detached from political reality … while their critics are clearheaded and realistic! ‘Positivist’ arguments lump Marxists, fascists, and religious minorities together: they lack rigour and realism. The second camp gathers around Marxian or Postmodern Leftist ideas. Here ‘ideology’ involves ideas that explain, justify, and sustain, unjust systems of power. Like their Liberal counterparts, they use the term ‘ideology’ to criticise and de-legitimise their (Liberal, pro-Capitalist) opponents. To them, they are Jung’s ‘Antichrist’.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Historically, ‘negative’ or ‘critical’ usage of ‘ideology’ has been an important conceptual weapon in political warfare. This use has impoverished the term and obscured potential commonalities. In short, there is often more that unites than divides ‘ideological’ rivals. Hence my preference for a more nuanced or ‘neutral’ use of the concept of ‘ideology’. Seen in this light, right-leaning ‘Liberals’ and left-leaning ‘Marxists’ become less political and intellectual rivals and more constructive social commentators, who both seek to explain – albeit in radically different ways – the inner and outer workings of societal systems.

One of the most influential thinkers in relation to ‘ideology’ is my Italian compatriot, the philosopher, linguist, and Marxian theorist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Gramsci’s thought casts a long shadow over political theory and linguistic analyses. We don’t need to agree with him to find his thought enlightening. Two things from Gramsci stand out. First, the need for definitional clarity. Take, for example, ‘ideology’ and ‘worldview’, or as Gramsci says, a person’s ‘conception of the world’. To assume someone’s ‘ideology’ and ‘worldview’ are the same is risky: an ‘ideology’ may include what ‘worldview’ denounces (such as political violence or various forms of free speech). Some even charge Gramsci himself with imprecision for calling Natural Science an ‘ideology’. Second, a neutral use of ‘ideology’ limits its focus to society; likewise, a ‘worldview’ represents a particular perspective on the world as a social reality. We can go further: ‘ideology’ seeks to explain society, diagnose its problems and project solutions. More specifically, as Gramsci saw and we must study, it involves social commentary, envisioning and practical proposals.

The structure of an ideology

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

i. Social commentary. Technically, this is a narrative that explains and evaluates social phenomena, or the ‘facts’ about a society. As such, it examines the processes and events of significance for a community. French scholar, and mastermind behind sociology and the Social Sciences, Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), portrayed ‘social facts’ as phenomena with power (‘external constraints’, he termed them) over a person’s choices, outlook and behaviour. This approach fits well with a neutral use of the word ‘ideology’. Societal phenomena that shape peoples’ perceptions and behaviour – i.e., codes of conduct, social norms, economic theories, and structures of life that shape society and nurture a sense of interdependence – become raw data for social commentary. So are more transient, fluid realities like inflation, immigration, productivity, unemployment, and the vicissitudes of political parties, trade deficits and diplomacy. Social commentary monitors and evaluates this material to identify causal connections and long-term consequences. Judgements are made, cost-benefits assessed. Where there are perceived benefits to society at large – such as systems of wealth creation that raise the overall standard of living – the original cause (because of its positive effect), becomes a mantra for good practice (such as, Capitalism for Capitalists). The converse is also true. When an economic theory or policy have a perceived negative impact on the well-being of a majority, countervailing data is invoked and a critical narrative developed against both the policy and its purveyors. So, Capitalism is ‘self-interested’ and Capitalists ‘oppress the poor and vulnerable’. Here, as so often it seems, socioeconomics is the litmus test of the identity, integrity, and a society and its leaders. Of course, other indices (qua ideologies) are used to evaluate social data, but money seems to find its way into most of them!

ii. A Vision for the Future. The second step in an ‘ideological’ frame of reference involves casting a vision built on data provided by social commentary. Causal connections are key. The future depends on critical assessment of what does and does not prosper society. If state intervention is adjudged the cause of (or ineffective solution to) social ills, reducing state intervention becomes an ideological imperative. If Capitalismis blamed for societal tension and inequality, it must be replaced by another ‘ideological’ model (i.e., socialism) or be so tightly regulated as to mitigate cyclical financial pressure and fluctuations in the markets. Read thus, a Liberal, pro-Capitalist, ‘free-market’ society that is unhampered by state regulation and a Marxian, Socialist, class-less society and state-regulated economy simply offer alternative, but ideologically determined, visions of the future. Or, as Khalil Gibran put it, ‘You have your ideology and I have mine.’

iii. Strategic action. Realising an ideological vision involves decision and action. The latter may include everything from direct ‘political action’ to indirect ‘social protest’. Methods will vary according to context, focus and the breadth of the purveyors’ political ambition. Specific projects require less than a root-and-branch revision of the political and social status quo. ‘Ends’ are used to justify and determine ‘means’. Debate, strikes, threats, rallies, lawsuits, media campaigns, advertising slogans, coups d’état, imprisonment, and local/national elections, are all weapons in ideological warfare – although, thankfully, not every ideological disagreement comes to blows!

(Creator: Dziggyfoto, Copyright: Igor Sinkov)

To be plausible and effective ‘proper’ political ideologies – viz. those with a large vision and distinct appeal – seek to articulate and demonstrate each of the three elements above, viz. an informed social commentary, a coherent socio-political vision, and a plausible, practical strategy. Why? Because political leadership needs a story that explains social ills, offers plausible solutions, and makes attractive promises (i.e., in a political Manifesto) of a ‘better future’ for a majority in the country (with or without formal elections). Unless socio-political ideologies make comprehensive claims, they leave themselves open to the charge of being vague, impractical, idealistic and ‘out of touch’.

But let’s be clear – before we look at what ideology does and doesn’t do – most political ideologies, however ‘intellectual’ or ‘coherent’ they claim to be, are shaped as much by outsiders as political apparatchiks. Journalists, media pundits, influencers, donors, and academics, may not shape political ideologies and party manifestos directly – and rarely seek election to public office – but they have a role in the development of political policy. The data they generate and opinions they express – or condemn! – help to inform ‘social commentary’ and inspire ‘visions of the future’. Social scientists are also important here as specialists in data gathering, problem solving and plausibility checking; albeit these have been undermined by social media. Despite this, there is still an overlap between policy and politics, theory and ideology. And note, because ideology inhabits the public domain, it is always under pressure to change, adapt, or succumb to the will of the people.

To sharpen the discussion, I want to focus now on four features of ideology and ideology discourse, with a particular eye to what ideology does and doesn’t do.

Four features of ideology

First, ideology is rooted in reality. While to some ideology involves a certain ‘flight of the imagination’ and so is detached from the everyday, the reverse is, and must be true. To engage and envision people, their wants, needs, frustrations and grievances must be named and addressed. Hot air and vagueness won’t do. Yes, Communist and Capitalist ideals may seem – and be – an impossible ideal, but construction and communication of them must be, and as importantly be seen to be, ‘down to earth’ and attainable. Effective ideological vision taps human affections and societal ills and (apparently at least) offers plausible solutions. Though their ideas, vision and proposed solutions may be vacuous, erroneous and non-sensical, the problems they address must still be real – and for that reason, when they fail critics are quick to indict their ‘cynicism’ or ‘deceit’.

Second, ideologies are inherently contested and contestable. It is characteristic of critical approaches to ideology that they are disputed, even if they don’t always see themselves as disputable. To Liberals, Marxists are no more than armchair zealots with a defective social instinct, who spew venom on the ‘rich and powerful’ to salve their conscience and win respect among ‘the chattering classes’. Conversely, advocates of supposedly ‘elitist’ or ‘vicious’ politics have, to critics, simply been bewitched by self-interested materialism. As a result, they will do and sanction anything to justify their position, make money and exploit workers. A worker who happens to agree with a ‘free-market’ ideology has been, brainwashed, it’s argued, by misleading, managerial messaging. The fundamental issue to note here is how opposing ideologies are – albeit sometimes in very different ways – both offering explanations for societal ills and strategies for their solution. Along the way, ideologues claim the moral and intellectual high ground: the self-important Liberal looks down on a weary worker tired of being a forgotten, disposable, unit of labour in a soulless ‘free market’; while the thoughtful Marxist can’t believe any self-defining ‘worker’ would view less regulation and lower taxes as a good way to safeguard jobs, lives, infrastructure, investment and the improvement of her living conditions. A clash of class, culture, vision, and values is built into the fibre of ideological understanding and misunderstanding.

iii. Vulgarization and victimization. The third issue in ideology discourse is what Gramsci calls ‘vulgarization’, or, put another way, victimization. Liberals and Marxists, as we have begun to see, reify and simplify another’s position, to ‘blame game’ their faults, ideas, intentions, actions and achievements.[3] This is not true everyone. Great Liberal thinkers like the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and English Utilitarian philosopher-parliamentarian J. S. Mill (1806-1873), and Socialist counterparts like Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Antonio Gramsci resist the ‘vulgarizing’ of opponents characteristic of less sophisticated thinkers. Theirs’ is not the path of simplification and caricature to discredit; indeed, they are remarkably attentive to other viewpoints.[4] Hence Smith accredits state intervention in worker education (to redress the mind-numbing effects of factory life), while Marx admits Capitalism enables wealth creation, helps to elevate work over other ‘modes of production’ and stirs a sense of proletarian unity and duty (thus benefitting Communism long term). The other is simply that ‘unwanted thing’ their ideas counter. But few Liberal or Marxian thinkers admit using the other to bolster their position. Ideology and ideologues view life in black and white – or blood red violence. At a popular level, simplification and vilification nurture an edgy, opinionated culture that does not and cannot listen, and will not or cannot change. People who enjoy lively debate, want reliable data, and seek to know whythings happen, can find this very troubling. For, ideology makes the ‘public square’ a public square for some, and ‘us v. them’ the norm.

iv. Ideology distorts. Amid sound bites and social media, the ‘echo-chambers’ of ideology distort an already disfigured world. Twitter and tweets kill character and nuance. Contrary opinions are trashed by the impersonal weapons of social media drones. In ideological warfare few words and little knowledge are easy to wield. Democracy suffers. Demonising political and ideological opponents stifles debate – but debate is far less attractive to ideologues than slogans. In President Trump’s (b. 1946; Pres. 2017-2021) succinct ‘Make America Great Again’, commentary, vision and action were condensed into four words: they left little, if any, room for discussion. Many have allowed ideology to distort how much they think they know and how little their opponents know. Truth is not demonstrated, or discovered, it is simply declared. The loss of a Socratic sense of humble ignorance means problems, solutions, analysis, and commentary are no more than superficial reinterpretations to satisfy a particular ideological premise. But more is lost by distortion than reliable information: confidence in the possibility of their being a true, unbiased account of reality suffers as well, and with it cultural and educational values. In our complex world, easy answers are almost always quite literally, ‘Too good to be true.’


I said earlier that I wanted to use ‘ideology’ in a neutral way. As we have begun to see, the term itself militates against such even-handedness. And, of course, I have my own view of how Liberalism and Marxism do and do not accurately portray the world. To my mind, a classic Liberal ideology distorts social reality by pretending capitalism is ‘fair’ and the ‘exchange equivalents’ between people inherently constant and reliable. I am not so sure. Neoclassical economics, which assumes individuals are ‘rational utility maximisers’ and ‘supply creates its own demand’, appear to me both optimistic (about human nature) and idealistic (about social relations). How adequate, I would argue, is this methodology in a global recession, amid fiscal contraction, and with a pressing need for political realism and an accurate reading of the mood of the markets? A Marxist perspective at least has the merit of highlighting power relations hidden within Capitalism and the inevitability (and resistance) of vested (and inter-related) economic and political interests. But the programmatic reduction of life to a conflict between managers and workers, or between the idle, elitist, rich and the hard-pressed, marginalised, rest is no more nuanced a view than that of the ideological Liberal.[5] To Gramsci, this kind of ‘vulgar materialist’ Marxism turns people into pawns holding positions, with their views projected more by theory than the nuance of reality. Worker conservatism and the controls of habit are both denied. As the American philosopher, educationalist, and social reformer John Dewey (1859-1952) and, more recently, the French sociologist and public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) have argued, worker participation in the socio-economic order is not the result of brainwashing or a ‘false consciousness’, but willing habituation to societal rules, incentives and values. They may not ‘like’ Capitalism per-se, but they are used to it and plan life around it. They hear the empty ring of propaganda in Marx’s ‘Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains’. The risks outweigh the benefits. Habit and peace outweigh conflict and confusion. Even a Marxian ‘historical realist’ like me has to admit slippers are more comfortable than picket lines! Attractive theory has to overcome the allure of the known and the scepticism that haunts the weary soul. Utopian visions are great, but bills still need to be paid and bread put on the table. As Presidents Xi (b. 1953; Pres. 2012-present) and Putin (b. 1952; Pres. 2008, 2012-present) seem to have forgotten, ‘Communist experiments’ have a (literally) terrifying capacity to fail.

Andrea Sau, Guest Author

[1] Quantitatively, ‘ideology’ is one of the most ‘popular’ terms used by (often obscure) left-leaning intellectuals.

[2] Cf. Giovanni Sartori (1924-2017), David H. Aaron (b. 1956) and Philip E. Converse (1928-2014).

[3] N.B. Simplification of these traditions here is for illustrative purposes. The terms ‘Liberal’ and ‘Marxist’ are used here to identify certain types of ideology more than to define a specific intellectual and practical content.

[4] Cf. Marx draws much from Adam Smith, while Gramsci is respectful of fellow Italian, philosopher and historian, Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), despite the latter’s political and historical (Liberal) idealism.

[5] N.B. To the eminent Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács (1885-1971) ‘workers’, as a class, don’t need propaganda to persuade them of Marxist ideology. Their position in society gives them ‘privileged access’ to its truth. Only the drumming of bourgeois ‘false consciousness’ frustrates their allegiance to its tenets.