Now that the economy seems to be tumbling down around us, more of us may be questioning the “common wisdom” which has evolved to guide much of our country’s national decisión making for close to forty years. What have evolved in the US among those in power (and those on the extreme right) have been a beliefs in the virtue of unfettered markets: in absolutely minimal regulation; that the best government is tiny government when it comes to the economy (but not, please note, when it comes to abetting powerful economic players, including those in the arms industry); that profit-making is a valid motive for just about anything; that taxes are evil and should be kept as small as possible; that we bear minimal responsibility for those left behind (it’s their fault)(worriers about the poor are sometimes considered too soft-hearted); that the “market” will work just about everything out. Even those of us not on the right have absorbed a lot of these beliefs as truths. I remember a discussion with a fellow book indexer once in which he said there was no point fighting indexing jobs moving to India: profits decided everything.
As I write this, I imagine some of you saying, “But what’s the alternative? Socialism? I would suggest moving as far away as possible from a black-and-white view of these things. Managing the world economy is a complicated matter, best done as un-ideologically as is possible. Saying that, as Americans, Democrat as well as Republican, I doubt there are too many of us who don’t essentially feel that markets and entrepreneurship and competition work pretty well, at least for a lot of stuff. So I think we can do away from assuming right and left have nothing in common.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned “common wisdom.” By common wisdom, I mean the basic assumptions shared by a particular group: assumptions that guide our decision-making, our evaluation of ideas, our choice of candidates, our choice of which house to buy. A huge number of Americans form the group who shares the “common wisdom” that encompasses the above more extremely anti-government ideas about governing, economics and society. Throw into the “common wisdom” mix, too, the cheering for “rugged individualism,” which in its less thoughtful forms is also in need of repair and the peculiar forms of Christianity (Christianism, as Andrew Sullivan calls it) which call for war, not peace; selfishness, not compassion.
But liberals (or progressives if you want) have their own common wisdom which can veer into rigid and unbending rules.
We could call some collections of common wisdom ideologies. Now ideology often has a negative connotation: think Karl Marx.
Instead, let’s look at some descriptions of what ideology can be considered to be.
In its excellent article on ideology Wikipedia cites David W. Minar’s six different ways in which the word has been used (words in brackets are mine):
1. As a collection of certain ideas with certain kinds of content, usually normative [that is to say, pertaining to how things ought to be];
2. As the form or internal logical structure that ideas have within a set, [or collection of, in this case people, who have something in common or belong together in some way];
3. [As] the role of certain ideas in human-social interaction
4. [As] the role that certain ideas play in the structure of an organization
5. [As a group of ideas or assertions] whose purpose is persuasion
6. As the locus of social interaction, possibly. [This is a little peculiar. I presume it is what draws people together]
Wikipedia goes on to cite Willard A. Mulllin’s list of the basic characteristics of an ideology:
1. It must have power over cognitions [the mental process of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment; that which comes to be known as through perception, reasoning, intuition, knowledge….American Heritage Dictionary of the English language, 2003]
2. It must be capable of guiding one’s evaluations;
3. It must provide guidance towards action;
4. It must be logically coherent.
Clearly there can be a lot of different kinds of ideologies. Here what would be good to remember is
1. Ideologies guide how we live
2. We can be guided by ideologies without being aware of it.
3. We sometimes make assumptions that ideologies we are guided by are true, or are the only way to do or understand something without any real evidence that this is so.
4. Ideologies become mindsets in many areas. Even scientists can be subject to the ideology of scientism. As we are learning all too well, economics is very definitely subject to being interpreted ideologically
5. Ideologies are tools we use to organize the world, to justify our behavior, to maintain “valued interpersonal relationships.” They aren’t necessarily good or bad.
Interestingly enough, political ideologies have for a long time been seen on a left-right axis, or as left wing vs. right wing. Americans might find it surprising to learn that in much of the rest of the world liberalism refers to the right wing. This stems from the Enlightenment which led to notions of private property, free will, etc. We think of the Enlightenment as, well, enlightened and enlightening. And it was. These private property, free will notions were a sharp break from rigidly hierarchical societies in which one did what one was told, in a manner of speaking. In the US, Conservatives have absorbed these “liberal” ideas and carried them in different directions, some good, some not. Liberals in the US are not opposed to these ideas (we have some room for discussion across party lines here) so much as they tend more towards communitarianism than individualism.
At the national (or even local) level, political groups shape ideologies. Dominant groups shape ideologies to maintain and justify their power, whether the groups be on the left or on the right.
People adhere to ideologies or their less formal sibling, common wisdom, sometimes simply out of habit, or out of intellectual laziness, or just because they don’t want to rock the social boat or because they’ve always done things that way.
We also cling to ideologies and common wisdom to avoid seeing what we should see. Dean Baker, the economist, recently said in his blog, “The problem is that the Federal Reserve Board and the economics profession as a whole functions more like a fraternity than a real forum for debate and truth seeking. Those whose views are taken seriously mimic the views of those with status and power within the profession, they do not think independently.
Now when we move on to look at globalization, the Mexican economy, and immigration, you can keep these thoughts on ideology and common wisdom in mind and remember it will be necessary to challenge your beliefs (I think).