What is 'ideology'? It's a confusing word because it has a variety of meanings. Sometimes ideology is used loosely to mean any strongly-held political creed ('a clash of ideologies'). Sometimes it is a pejorative term to mean a dogmatic political position (the mayor of Brescia's wish to reinstate a fascist-era statue is 'overtly ideological'). But it can also carry an implication of not just the sort of idea but the way that idea is presented; what differentiates an ideology from a set of ideas might be that ideas are discussed whereas ideologies are insinuated to us. For example, a very particular and contestable policy is presented as 'simply good old-fashioned common sense', which makes it harder to object to because who wants to sound like they have no common sense? The connection between these definitions is the level at which they are grasped. Ideologies are (usually) political creeds, presented as if they are something else, and often unmasked as dogmatic political positions. It carries a pejorative taint at all times, which is why, as Terry Eagleton observed, we are about as likely to describe our own thought as ideological as we are to refer to ourselves as 'fatso'.
Here's Margaret Thatcher with a classic piece of ideology: it's from a pre-General Election interview on the BBC's Panorama programme, 8 June 1987. The interviewer is Robin Day.
In case you are reading this somewhere without audio, here's a transcript:
Robin Day: You have stamped your image on the Tory party like no other leader has done before. We never heard of Macmillanism. We never heard of Heathism. We never heard of Churchillism. We now hear of 'Thatcherism'. What is it - what is it for the help of the undecided? What is that Thatcherism means?
Thatcher: Sir Robin, it is not a name that I created in the sense of calling it an 'ism'. Let me tell you what it stands for. It stands for sound finance and Government running the affairs of the nation in a sound financial way. It stands for honest money—not inflation. It stands for living within your means. It stands for incentives because we know full well that the growth, the economic strength of the nation comes from the efforts of its people and its people need incentives to work as hard as they possibly can. All of that has produced economic growth.
It stands for something else. It stands for the wider and wider spread of ownership of property, of houses, of shares, of savings. It stands for being strong in defence—a reliable ally and a trusted friend. People have called those things 'Thatcherism'; they are, in fact, fundamental common sense and having faith in the enterprise and abilities of the people. It was my task to try to release those. They were always there; they have always been there in the British people, but they couldn’t flourish under Socialism. They have now been released. That’s all that Thatcherism is.
It's a brilliant piece of off-the-cuff ideological mystification. I say ideological because it presents a particular, partisan political view but systematically disguises just how particular, partisan and political that view is. Look at the five moves she makes in this short passage.
- First, she denies that Thatcherism is an ideology. It's not an 'ism', she insists. Isms are clearly identified positions (Communism, Stalinism). Isms make your thought sounds factional, something you can contest. She doesn't want people to think that hers is a political position at all. (As if Thatcher weren't the most deeply ideological thinker to run the Tory party perhaps since Robert Peel).
- She then replaces her political policies with a series of unquestionable moral virtues: 'sound finance' (who doesn't want that?), 'honest money' (sounds great), 'living within your means' (to do anything else would seem profligate). The problem here is that these terms are meaningless. No economist would propose 'unsound finance' or 'dishonest money'. 'Living beyond your means' is plainly a bad idea. (Even though, as the financial crash of 2008 revealed, the kinds of financial deregulation promoted by Thatcher and her followers produced deeply unsound finance and, in the form of the complex securities that brought about the disaster, the most dishonest money in history.)
- She sums up. There's no such thing as Thatcherism really. It's not an idea. It's 'in fact, fundamental common sense'. It's what we all know to be true. And if we don't know it, we have no common sense.
- In fact, it's not just common sense, it's innate. It's deep within the British people. All she did was release this native virtue. So it's not a political position, it's just some ordinary common sense virtues, lodged deep in the British character.
- And what was blocking it? Socialism. It's a brilliant rhetorical trick. She begins by denying that Thatcherism is an -ism. She ends by reminding us that Socialism is an -ism. It's the irregular verb of politics: I know. You think. He she or it is ideological.
It's the perfect ideological answer. It presents a political position and masks it as anything but. Blair did it, presenting himself as non-ideological. Cameron began his time as Tory leader with the statement: "I'm not a deeply ideological person. I'm a practical one". All the current rhetoric about austerity economics (a very particular and narrow view of how to deal with the state of the nation's finances) pretends that it's the only possible approach ("there is no plan B"), and making the same illegitimate equation between household and government finances.
Ideology has been on my mind because of the extraordinary, outrageous, and disgraceful spectacle of Margaret Thatcher's funeral. The whole spectacle was about depoliticising her political views and redescribing her as almost a force of nature. She 'saved our country' said Cameron, as if this is a simple fact and not a grotesquely tendentious view. The mantra of the Right has been that she is our 'greatest peacetime prime minister' ('peacetime' because Churchill has already been given this kind of funerary whitewashing). ComRes even conducted a poll to find out, as if this were the sort of question that could be answered by a poll or any other means. They concede that she was 'divisive' but this has been trivialised into 'dividing opinion', which in itself becomes proof of her strength of character. It is neatly forgotten that she was divisive because she presided over a massive rise in inequality, that she treated gays, miners, the unemployed and her political opponents as outcasts. Hell she didn't even trust half of her own party ('is he "one of us"?' she would querulously enquire of a colleague). Her apparently off-the-cuff remark about 'the enemy within' during the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 was actually pre-scripted. It's there in her notes to a July 1984 speech to the 1922 Committee. She was a hardliner, an ideologue.
Most grotesquely, her death has been used ideologically to stifle dissent. We are told that it is in 'bad taste' to hold street parties to mark her death, to celebrate her passing. In death, Thatcher is simply a human being and deserves the respect owed to any human being. But nothing is changed by her death. I never advocated murdering her or physically harming her; these are the kinds of duties she is owed as a human being. William Oddie, writing in The Catholic Herald, is right to say that at a funeral we must respect another person's humanity, but he is wrong in thinking that criticising a person does their humanity any disrespect. By arguing with someone, by taking them seriously, by holding them responsible, by including them in our circles of moral regard, that's how we respect their humanity. We owe no duties of false deference to the dead and the attempt to claim that we do is, once again, ideological. It tries to take the politics out of her life when, in fact, politics ran through Margaret Thatcher like Brighton through a stick of Brighton rock.
The sheer hypocrisy of all this was visible in the funeral. After a week of being told that her death was not a moment for politics, we had the most political funeral imaginable; surrounding Thatcher in the trappings of state - the military, the monarchy, the church - the whole thing given blanket coverage on most television and radio channels, this was not a way of marking her greatness, it was an attempt to confer greatness upon her. The mechanism was precisely to pretend her greatness was apolitical: The Sun, as one might expect, extolled "her courage, ideals, dignity, resolve' and remarked on the 'dignity' of the 'poignant ceremony'. This is in contrast to 'Left-wing protesters [who] had threatened to turn the solemn occasion into a crude political demo': again, she's not political: her opponents are. (You can read the whole of that extraordinary article here without adding traffic to The Sun). The Dean of St Paul's gave a pretty good oration in near-impossible circumstances; he also insisted that this was not a day for politics (which kind of implied that on any other occasion he'd have happily let rip about her record in office) but still managed to toe the line by converting her deeply divisive catchphrase into a warm, fuzzy, humanising punchline: 'Lying here,' he said, 'she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings'. Great! I look forward to my televised funeral in St Paul's.
And can we note the double standards In July 2003, in the early months of the Iraq invasion, Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay were killed by US forces. How did Tony Blair and George W Bush respond to this? Did they respect their humanity? Did they insist on a measured response? Did they feel that in death, these two men were beyond politics? Did they condemn celebrations? No, they both celebrated. Blair and Bush both described the deaths as 'good news'; they both reminded the public of the horrible acts that Uday and Qusay committed in life; Blair remarked that that the celebrations in Iraq were 'an indication of just how evil they were' and Bush that they expressed the 'real desires of the Iraqi people to be rid once and for all of Saddam Hussein, his sons and his odious regime'. And imagine if someone had got into The Ritz and got a photograph of Thatcher's dead body! Imagine the outrage! And yet the US officially released images of the two sons mutilated bodies. When Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS, were any of these celebrations condemned?
A persistent theme in the eulogies has been to list her many virtues: conviction, hard work, determination, getting things done, changing things, energy, passion, huge personality. But are these virtues? You can have the wrong convictions; your hard work can be misdirected; there are no doubt passionate, energetic and determined rapists. These so-called virtues are surely only as good as the actions they support. They might well be essential qualities to support effective ethical behaviour, but they are ethically neutral in themselves.
The philosophical principle underlying these claims, though no one has named it as such, is known as 'virtue ethics'. This, derived from Aristotle, but much-revived and much-discussed in moral philosophy since the 1950s, is a distinctive contribution to normative ethics (i.e. the branch of ethics concerned with what is right and wrong). Before the revival of virtue ethics, the two dominant normative theories were deontology and consequentialism: that is, the belief that the failure of an action derives from, respectively, the principle under which the action is done or the consequences of that action. Virtue ethicists came along and pointed out, with some justification, that these approaches both (a) concentrated only on individual actions and (b) were petty and rule-based; they both seemed to think that you would be moral if you stayed within certain abstract lines of moral conduct. But, they said, the sort of person who sees a child drowning and either (a) selects a principle under which it would be appropriate to save the child or (b) calculates the consequences of jumping in is, in the words of Bernard Williams, having 'one thought too many' ('Persons, Character and Morality' in Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 18).
Instead the virtue ethicists said that we should think in terms of what is a good character. And that's not an abstract thing you need to work out; just look around you. Who are the most admirable people we know or know of? Many of us might agree that if we had to have someone's set of personal qualities, we might choose Nelson Mandela, someone who seems to have strength, intelligence, fortitude, a sense of justice, forgiveness, kindness, courage, generosity, dignity and clarity, and much more besides. And it wouldn't seem absurd to think, if faced with a difficult situation, 'what would Nelson Mandela do?' In other words, rather than seek for rules, principles, or consequences, just think what a really admirable person would do and do that.
I'll come back to Thatcher, I promise.
Virtue ethics goes on to observe that when we admire someone's personal qualities, a near-universal aspect of that is that we admire people who have not-too-much and not-too-little of these qualities. We admire courage, and we don't admire cowardice, but nor to we admire the reckless or foolhardy. We like people to have a middling amount of these qualities. This is the principle that Aristotle called 'the golden mean' and less sympathetic critics call the Goldilocks theory of morality.
I find the golden mean to be the least impressive part of the theory; it's very unclear what counts as a personal quality - is a predisposition to incest a personal quality? If so, what would just the right amount of incest be? A virtue ethicist might insist that incestuousness is at one end of a spectrum of 'familial dutifulness' with matricide at the other end, and 'loving and respecting your family' somewhere in the middle, but that's just making it up as you go along and it leads to is exactly the kind of jumbled set of virtues (are they virtues? are they characteristics? predispositions? ticks?) that we've seen with Thatcher. Any old personal characteristic gets held up as a triumphant personal quality without any regard to whether these were employed to any good end. But when you remove principles from your politics you get ideology. When you remove principles from your moral philosophy, you get virtue ethics.
The political problem with virtue ethics is that it relies on the quality of the society you are in. To find a good personal we don't transcendentally derive a definition of them (as, sort of, Kant would do), we just look around and think who we most admire. But if you live in a corrupted society with bad values, your good person is going to be similarly wayward. Put crudely - because Godwin's Law insists on it - in 1930s Germany, a good many people would have pointed to the Führer as someone embodying an examplary moral character. In classical Athens, some people I suppose might have seen Socrates's humility, intelligence, perseverance and generosity as pretty great, but, by most accounts, he was largely mocked for his ugliness and poverty (and eventually executed). The moral leaders would have been people who approved of slavery and believed women were lesser beings than men. The moral icons of a society will, in many ways, embody the imperfect values of that society. Deontology, with its derided insistence on principles, takes us beyond the actual practices of our society and establishes ethics as a normative horizon, against which our society can be criticised. In crude terms, virtue ethics is rather conservative while deontology is potentially revolutionary.
Because if you can't look beyond our society for the principles governing our actions, we are trapped in the way things are. This is eerily similar to the characteristic ideological formulations of Thatcherism. One of the great slogans of the early eighties was 'There Is No Alternative', sometimes abbreviated to TINA. It is why the great anti-globalization slogan was 'Another World Is Possible'. It's also the great anti-ideological slogan - anti-ideological in the sense that it insists on the gap between what is and what might be that dominant ideologies always seek to efface. Even if Thatcher were right and that competition is somehow deep in the heart of British people, that states really do have to run their finances exactly the same way as households, and privatization is in some peculiar way a piece of common sense, another world is possible and things can change.