Fiddling While It Burns

The Nature of Ideology

This essay is from a second year politics subject, Key Concepts and Thinkers, which I really enjoyed. Again, since it was hard work and I may as well do something with it, here it is.

To what extent do political ideologies assume a better knowledge or understanding of the past, present or future of human society? Are all such political ideologies ‘loaded’ with assumptions? Discuss using at least two examples.


Political ideologies are broadly accepted sets of ideas, based on the priorities and beliefs of the groups they arise from. They are political constructs, part of the struggle for power within and between societies, and as such they attempt to define how and why political power should be exercised, defined primarily by the priorities, assumptions and agendas of those groups from which they originate. They are a filter through which their adherents interpret, prioritise, and potentially dismiss information about the world around them. The core ideas of these ideologies, however, are always based on assumptions, which presume superior knowledge or understanding of political society on behalf of the adherents of that ideology.

Defining Ideology

The modern conception of ideology was largely conceived as a product of socialist thinking, beginning with Marx and Engels. They explained ideology as a false consciousness which enforced the dominant values of the time. This is an important step in understanding ideology, as it establishes that ideology is a frame of thought into which reality is placed and through which it is interpreted. However, Marx and Engels were primarily concerned with critiquing industrial capitalism, which prevented them from a more comprehensive consideration of the nature of ideology. Living before the political fragmentation of society, they conceived of ideology as monolithic. In The German Ideology, they wrote:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force in society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it.” (Marx & Engels 1976, p.59)

While society is now more ideologically diverse, the idea of ideology as an abstraction of thought overlaid on reality remains relevant. Moreover, as Marxism developed it acquired its own false consciousness, such as the insistent division of all social life and activity into the realms of the proletariat and bourgeoisie, or the famous Soviet blindness to any reality which displayed ‘incorrect politics’. Ideologies are, first and foremost, a set of principles that claim truth above evidence, articles of faith which shape all thought flowing from them (Minogue 1994, p.11-12).”

All ideologies arise from the needs and perspectives of their originating groups in their historical frame, and all ideologies assume superior knowledge of human society. These assumptions form the shared precepts which allow a particular belief system to be defined as an ideology.  It is the nature of ideology to claim privileged access to truth.


Liberalism has been the defining post-Enlightenment ideology. Although its modern forms are diverse and often nebulous, from its origins it has been defined by certain principles. Liberalism is the ideology of Western democracy, and strongly associated with capitalism. Its growth was linked to the rise of the middle class in Europe, rationalising the reduced power of the aristocracy. Liberalism was at the heart of the Enlightenment, and therefore the modern age.

Liberalism’s central commitment is to the value of the individual. It maintains that each individual is of equal moral value, that all individuals have fundamental rights and that the state should be organised to protect these rights, with the discourse within liberalism primarily concerning how best to achieve this. It is characterised by rationalism, government by consent, constitutionalism, defence of private property, and the ‘harm’ principle (that governments should not infringe on the liberty of the individual except to prevent harm to other individuals) (Heywood 1997, pp.41-2).

Liberals are prey to grand declarations of the rights of man, which are rarely realised. One of the first and most influential of these was the preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence. In part, it says:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” (US National Archives)

The writers of these vaunted words went on to found a nation which enforced slavery for almost a century.

Similar declarations are the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. These fundamentally liberal declarations make sweeping claims of the reality of the rights of all humanity, yet they at best form merely a framing of intent for forms of government. The belief in these fundamental rights and dignities is liberalism’s most obviously unfounded claim to exclusive knowledge, but all the core principles outlined above are largely taken on faith.


Conservatism is as much a disposition as an ideology, but it can be pinned down with reference to certain principles. Arising in response to the French Revolution (particularly in the writing of Edmund Burke), conservatism opposes radical change based on abstract theories, and instead encourages respect for the institutions of the past. Conservatives are cynical about human nature and assertive about the limited ability of human endeavour to achieve positive change. Conservatives see the traditional order as ongoing and sacred, a trust passed from generation to generation. They see the existing hierarchy as the result of some natural merit (Festenstein & Kelly 2005, pp.119-121, Heywood 1994 pp.44-46).

Conservatism wears its claims to truth on its sleeve. Everything would be better, assert conservatives, if people would simply accept their place. The problem with this, of course, is that those who embrace conservatism are universally already doing pretty well. Slaves, serfs, beaten wives, and factory workers in Dickensian conditions do not go about penning treatises on the merits of the system that persecutes them. Conservatism is those who already have power justifying their holding it by the fact of having it in the first place.

Optimistic Template

For an ideology to be successful it must be appealing, so the claims of ideologies tend to be good news for those they appeal to. For example, no popular ideology postulates a doomed humanity. They mostly assume humanity’s ongoing survival and prosperity, without much regard for whether the physical universe is likely to facilitate this. By assuming a continuous and ongoing human society, without considering Malthusian economics, the inevitable overcrowding that comes with unrestricted population growth (see US Census Bureau 2009), or the myriad ways civilisation could be destroyed overnight, they prove themselves to be based on assumptions rather than empirical understanding. Eventually, the pursuit of individualism and the continuation of traditional forms will be impossible when twenty billion people occupy the space that supported less than a billion when the state system was forming. All else being equal, a city-dweller of necessity has less liberty than a homesteader, and citizens may take fewer liberties as their state’s population grows, but no room has been made for this in the liberal tradition.

This, of course, is a part of how ideologies become popular. The promise of an ever-advancing civilisation is a potent part of the appeal of progressive ideologies, just as conservatism’s legitimisation of privilege is a significant part of its appeal.

Rationalisation of Power

To a significant extent, ideologies have been created in the wake of a new power rather than bringing about power shifts in their own right. For example, liberalism justified a shift of power to the middle class after the fact; conservatism put an intellectual mask on the resistance to the disempowerment of aristocracy which would have happened in any case, socialism and Marxism called for power to be given to workers when unionists had already seized it (Hutt 1975, pp.7-11). Second-wave feminism demanded empowerment when World War II and the franchise had already to some extent granted it. As much as cloistered academics talk about ecologism as an end to anthropocentrism, it is the threat of human harm that reprioritised power and created the green movement, for example when Rachel Carson revealed the dangers of pesticides in the food chain (Heywood 1994, p. 59, Festenstein & Kenny 2005, pp.327-8). In a sense ideology is merely the slipstream of realist power struggles. For this reason, the assumptions of each ideology are those which benefit the group from which the ideology arises.

Consider neo-conservatism. It is defined primarily by its adherents’ belief in the benevolent effects of American military power on the world political order, and assumption that it can be effectively used for the advancement of liberal universalist beliefs. The members of their group are privileged Anglophone members of the foreign policy elite, hence their predisposition to accepting a violently-enforced worldwide pax Americana. Neo-conservatism arose after the Cold War, when this foreign policy elite suddenly found itself more powerful than ever before, without a justification for using it. The exercise of this power began almost immediately, with the Gulf War, but it was not until the 1997 Statement of Principles of the Project For The New American Century that an ideological basis began to emerge (PNAC 1997).


The central values of all ideologies are based on assumptions, shaped by the values of the groups from which they arise. They justify and defend the power and privilege of those groups, and appeal to the human desire to see the universe as something somehow inherently hospitable to them. To the extent that the ideologue holds faith with the ideology, these assumptions are not subject to criticism, analysis or revision. Ideologies cast power struggles in a paradigm favourable to their adherents, and put a more acceptable face on an often harsh reality.


Festenstein, M. & Kenny, M. 2005, Political Ideologies, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Heywood, A. 1997, Politics, MacMillan Press Ltd., London

Hutt, A. 1975, British Trade Unionism: A Short History, Camelot Press Ltd., Southampton

Lane, R. 1962, Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does, Free Press, New York

Marx, K. & Engels, F. 1932, The German Ideology, in Collected Works vol. 5, Lawrence and Wishart (ed.)

McLean, I. 1996, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Minogue, K. 1994, ‘Ideology After the Collapse of Communism’, in The End of ‘Isms’, Shtromas, A. & Blackwell, B. (ed.), Political Studies Association

Project for The New American Century, 1997, Statement of Principles, accessed 30/03/2010, available at

United States National Archives 2010, The Declaration of Independence, accessed 27/03/2010, available at

United States Census Bureau 2009, World Population: 1950-2050, accessed 30/03/2010, available at

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