In Defense of Ideology: Notes on Experience and Revolution

By Sune Haugbolle, Roskilde University

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” held on May 3-4, 2016.

The Arab uprisings have often been described as post-ideological, in the sense that protesters focused on confronting autocratic regimes rather than conforming to ideological scripts of the ideal society. Protests did not center on Islamist, nationalist, or socialist agendas. If anything, people reacted against hollow, worn-out regime slogans. But while it is clear that the uprisings were not driven by ideology in the sense of elaborate strategies for a political order, it is also clear that divergent political ideas played a role and continue to do so, in several ways. First, the very notion of a post-ideological, civic position represents a conceptualization of legitimate action that can be fruitfully explored as political thought. Second, the uprisings have generated a significant amount of ideological reorientation within exiting traditions, and also spawned new directions of political thought. Everywhere, political ideas are undergoing tremendous transformations as a result of the events since 2011.

My basic argument in this short paper is that ‘post-ideology’ should not foreclose investigation of political thought. It actually ought to make us very curious about what kind of societies people would like to create, and the way revolutionary experiences have changed their thinking. Any analysis of political thought today must take the revolutionary subject seriously. If we do that, we naturally attend to the hopes, visions, and calculations of the people involved in radical mobilization. I argue that we can conceptualize these visions – even when they are quite incoherent – as ideology through a re-reading of ideology theory. As I show, ideology theory presents a toolbox for addressing exactly the kind of questions that a post-uprising situation throws up: what does a dramatic rupture such as 2011 mean for existing traditions of thinking and doing politics? How is political thought shaped in a fractured public sphere? And how does it impact mobilization? While I cannot do justice to these large questions in such a short text, I will attempt to provide a theoretical platform for an ethnographic approach to political thought.

In defense of ideology

When I say that we need to re-conceptualize ideology, it is because ideology as a paradigm collapsed in the 1990s when other large-scale ordering categories collapsed too as part of the postmodern and cultural turn in social sciences (Bonnell and Hunt 1999: 10). Most social scientists began to deal with questions of political thought, utopia, and belonging in competing overarching terms, such as discourse, habitus, norms, hegemony, culture, community and particularly identity, and consequently viewed ideology as an area of the social world better left to historians, and literary theorists, or just an approach from an outdated Marxist toolbox.

In our re-politicized world of uprisings, commitment, looming and real crises, and religious revivalism, we are being forced to rethink how systems of political thought mobilize people. What was at one point seemed outdated has, over the past 15 years, come back into force in terms of the range and sophistication of analyses devoted to ideology (Freeden 2015, Stråth 2006). One of the main proponents of restoring ideology as a key term in social theory, Michael Freeden (2015a), has recently claimed that both as a theoretical concept and in the manner of its application to a host of concrete cases, ideology and its study have “has been largely cleared of its pejorative connotations” going back to Shils’ (1958) characterization of ideologies as closed systems resistant to change, Marx’ notion of false consciousness, and the more general disdain of ideologists’ and their victims’ inclination towards “factitious propagandizing” (Geertz 1973: 197). Freeden (2015a) identifies the current shift in ideology theory as one from macro to micro-analysis, from structural to ‘lived’ manifestations of ideology, and from examining elite forms of thought to emphasizing the vernacular. This shift will enable far subtler accounts, Freeden forecasts. I share his optimism, for two main reasons.

First, I think we live in ideological times. The crisis of global capitalism has brought back radical critique to the mainstream of politics and with that the regeneration of the critique of crisis, which as Ghassan Hage (2015) puts it, had stalled in a crisis of critique since the 1970s. Counter-revolution, even when seemingly successful as in Egypt, inevitably engenders revolution.

Second, ethnographic studies of politics allows actual political thought-practices to come to light in all their complexity, revealing the way power is negotiated and the patterns, logic, functions and sources of collectively held ideas are established. Ideology understood in this way is both exciting and illuminating of social processes that allow for revolutionary mobilization.

Culture and ideology

How can we arrive at a theoretical model that does justice to the revolutionary subject and his/her complex orientation in crisis, critique and utopia? The first step is to define an ethnographic approach to ideology. Clifford Geertz seems a good place to start. He was arguably the first anthropologist to address ideology as a system of symbolic metaphors carrying cultural and social meanings. In his 1966 article “Ideology as a cultural system”, Geertz revised existing psychological and class oriented theories of ideology. He had an even more succinct stab at the reigning approaches to ideology in the 1950s and early 1960s political sociology, what was then known as strain theory and interest theory. Despite the advances made by Mannheim, Geertz complained, ideology theory remained caught in a fruitless dichotomy, known as Mannheim’s Paradox, between ‘true’ thinking (represented by rigorous science) and ‘false’ representation of reality (the hallmark of ideology). Critics like Parsons, Shils, Stark and Aron, writing in the 1950s and 1960s from a modernization or functionalist (and anti-Marxist) perspective, saw ideology as various shades of extremism and delusion, whereas pragmatism in politics was seen as – and celebrated by Daniel Bell in his 1960 End of Ideology for being – the sensible choice for Western politicians and populations as well as for the world. Moreover, sociology itself, and social science generally, should strive to remain uncontaminated by ideology. As Geertz (1973: 207) wrote, this stale dichotomy did not even begin to provide a model for the actual workings of ideology. Besides, as many others have noted, writing in an America in the grips of racial and youth protests in the 1960s provided an odd setting for declaring the ‘end of ideology’. Just like writing in the time of uprisings today seems an odd time to declare the end of utopia.

After Geertz’s critique, a series of well-know developments in social science gradually nudged the study of society in a less positivist direction. The full effect of Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigms, then Foucault, Hayden White, and full-fledged postmodernism in the 1980s, instituted as central a major critique of the idea that disciplines like sociology and history are value-free. In White’s (1999: 316) own words (paraphrasing Lukács), all social science disciplines and approaches are “contaminated with ideological preconceptions,” but actually this is a good thing: “any science of society should be launched in the service of some conception of social justice, equity, freedom, and progress, that is to say, some idea of what a good society might be.” Following Kuhn, scientific paradigms shape ostensibly positivist science; following White, history is essentially ideological constructs about the past; and following Foucault, power relations are always inscribed in these constructs. Ideology, in other words, is not an anomaly, a disease, or a symptom of individual stress (as stress theory of the 1940s and 1950s would have it), but rather an integral part of human sense making, be it in national societies, in world politics, in academia and science, or on the subjective level. Ideological constructs are simply the way we categorize and prioritize the social world we would like to bring into place. Humans rarely do this in completely seamless, rational and well thought-through ways. We are all bad philosophers (except for those few good philosophers), and we change our minds a lot. Political thinking is dynamic and contextual, reacting to history as it unfolds, and ideologies change over time. Ideology is emotional and fluid. But it still betrays patterns, and those patterns are what we should seek to understand.

Antonio Gramsci (1971: 165) labeled the way ordinary people think “popular philosophy” in the sense that everyone has conceptions of the world inherited from previous understandings. Popular philosophy is “disjointed” and “episodic” and structured by “folklore” and “common-sense” as opposed to the self-aware and critical thought of real philosophy (Ibid. 323). Ideology, then, is the way that “philosophers” (public intellectuals, leaders, activists) “create a new culture,” which goes beyond “one’s own individual ‘original’ discoveries” (Ibid. 324-25). What this new culture means, Gramsci continues, is

the diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered, their ‘socialization’ as it were, and even making them the basis of vital action, an element of co-ordination and intellectual and moral order. For a mass of people to be led to think coherently and in the same coherent fashion about the real present world, is a ‘philosophical’ event far more important and ‘original’ than the discovery by some philosophical ‘genius’ of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals (Ibid. 325).

Contrast that to Napoleon’s famous dictum that “Sensible people rely on experience, or have a philosophy; silly people rely on ideology.” (Williams 1985: 157). Philosophy for Gramsci is precisely not removed from the ‘silliness’ of ordinary beliefs but necessarily embedded in their life worlds. Philosophy is a metaphor for culture, by which Gramsci essentially makes thinking – and culture – a political question. “One might say ideology here,” he continues, “but on the condition that the word is used in its highest sense of a conception of the world that is implicit in art, in law, in economic activity, and in all manifestations of individual and collective life.” (Ibid. 328). This broad conception of ideology maintains that it is a phenomenon, which at the same time orders individual conceptions of the world and large-scale power structures. Indeed, it is the ability of leaders to relate to the sub-strata of ideology that Gramsci calls common sense, which determines their success as molders of a “new culture,” that is, as ideologists. Studying such processes therefore requires every level of analysis, and certainly not just the macro-level of political economy, sociology and international relations. Anthropologists must pitch in too.

As already mentioned, Geertz (1973) took up the mantel in 1966, by calling for an assessment of how “metaphor, analogy, irony, ambiguity, pun, paradox, hyperbole, rhythm, and all the other elements of what we lamely call “style” […] help casting personal attitudes into public form.” In his essay, the prescient Geertz foreshadows two developments in ideology theory: the influence from Pierceian semiotics, and the affective turn. Language and emotions, and the way they are patterned in public life, provide the platform for political visions, and therefore a symbolic or semiotic anthropology is needed to make sense of the “so-called cognitive and so-called expressive symbols or symbol-systems” which

are extrinsic sources of information in terms of which human life can be patterned – extrapersonal mechanisms for the perception, understanding, judgment, and manipulation of the world. Culture patterns – religious, philosophical, aesthetic, scientific, ideological – are “programs”; they provide a template or blueprint for the organization of social and psychological processes.

Ideology is unfixed because culture is, and as we seek to re-conceptualize political thought as cultural process we must both take onboard the intense criticism of the culture concept in recent anthropology, as well as realize, with James Clifford (1988: 10), that it is “a deeply compromised concept that we cannot yet do without.” Culture (in one of its many meanings) stands for a concrete and bounded world of beliefs and practices. This definition includes culture as community (as in ‘Syrian culture,’ ‘Communist culture’), culture as cultural production and institutions, and culture as meaning making on an individual and social level. It is both meaning and practice, or rather, dialectic between the two (Sewell 1999). It is a system of symbols and meanings with a certain coherence and definition, but also a set of practices. Culture is, to paraphrase Marx, what they say and what they do.

Grand Schemes and utopia

The experience of living in liberalizing economies run by authoritarian regimes produced registers of political language and potentials for mass mobilization. They did so both through internalization of regime-speak, but also through critical engagement that in some cases generated resistance. Generally, the social worlds people inhabited shaped their horizons of expectation, which in turn produced the ideological registers and resonance that unfolded in open-ended popular mobilization. Political thinking on the eve of revolution was shaped by generations of young Arabs experiencing diminishing opportunities, and by the exhaustion of ideological traditions underpinning ruling regimes. In lieu, Islamism in its various guises offered an alternative order. Other ideas were available, such as socialist and liberal registers. As Michaelle Browers (2009) showed in her book, Political Ideology in the Arab World, an accommodation had been taking place between liberals, socialists, Islamists and nationalists since the 1980s (albeit an accommodation often based on mutual enemies rather than common political visions), but rarely in a very cohesive form with focused leadership, strong parties and broad popular base. Other ideas, less formalized and less articulated, dominated political thinking of the populations at large. This was the Arab Middle East’s version of what Freeden calls ‘thin ideology’ in the early 2000s.

A very apt analysis of how young Egyptians pre-2011 experienced thin ideology in an exhausted political, social and ideological landscape can be found in Samuli Schielke’s book Egypt in the Future Sense (2015: 23). Utopia was not a Hegelian telos, but a flimsy range of options for betterment in a rapidly changing and expanding world that deprives people of the certainties of a smaller and slower world. The combination of frustration and rapid social change that forms part of cultural globalization, with all the ‘expectations of modernity’ it brought with it, generated a “politics of everyday life” in the Middle East, as observed by Asef Bayat (2010) just prior to the uprisings, that was dominated by hopes for perfection in all aspects of personal life. These hopes – for religious purity, romantic love and marriage, migration and a better life abroad, and capitalist consumption – were utopian on a individual level, but also contained the potential for politicization, which is exactly what happened in 2011. Each of the claims expressed in slogans on squares in Cairo, Sanaa, Damascus and Tunis, related to hopes for the future signaling a restructuring of the social and political realm, which in turn were symptoms of social malaise. As Schielke (2015: 23) observes, lower-middle class Egyptians had their private utopias, which in turn structured available ideologies of betterment. Hence, the turn to scripture in salafism and piety is a symptom of the loss of God’s certain presence in daily life. The pressure of migration has to do with the devaluation of paths of life that were once enough to make a man respectable. The search for moral perfection and a pious self have to do with the shattering of comfortable moral ambiguity in a world where paths of survival and success are not only ambiguous but also blatantly immoral. The pursuit of perfection in love and marriage are symptoms of a transformation of family life and livelihood in a way that makes family arrangements obsolete and inevitable at the same time. All these embodied experiences created the basis for ideological orientation, grand schemes for the future.

Grand schemes can also come from engagement with existing ideological traditions. In my own work on Arab leftists (Haugbolle 2015) I stress ideological traditions as communities of interpretation. Going back to Gramsci and Geertz, political ideas circulate in the social world as utterances, as cultural expressions, as embodied understandings of the social world—habitus—based on human experience, and inscribe themselves in cultural symbols. Therefore, to study ideology is to study expression in the social world. It is to study the ways in which political ideas are negotiated over time. Ideological processes are long inter-generational conversations, or cumulative discursive traditions in the sense used by Alasdair MacIntyre. Tradition, MacIntyre argues, is

a historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her own good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part.

In political culture, discursive traditions and sensibilities afford a comprehensive, ongoing reflection on the individual’s own good in relation to the common good of society. For example, in Arab revolutionary socialist milieus, a common frame of the ideal, egalitarian society exists, but with significant variations (Haugbolle 2016). These variations, which if serious enough can become subsidiary ideological traditions, reflect how people read history as it unfolds, and how particular interpretations of that history become paradigmatic.

In conclusion, ideology offers us not dogmatic cut-in-stone frameworks for the ideal society like in the 20th century. Rather, it allows a dynamic prism for understanding affect, experience and utopia in the world today. To my mind, this is a far more fruitful way to align our thinking about political thought after the Arab Uprisings with the study of politics elsewhere in the world, than dichotomies of secular/Islamic, authoritarian/democratic, nationalist/communist, or right/left politics that are often regurgitated in the literature.


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