George Walford: The Evolution of Ideology

We have distinguished three main stages of social development (four if one reckons the presence of the eidodynamics as constituting a distinct stage), each of them marked by the emergence of an ideological influence not previously active. We cannot precisely locate the first appearance of these influences and probably never shall be able to do so, for even animals, although mainly governed by genetic factors, do to some extent behave ideologically, making assumptions and choosing the expedient course; Walsby, a man who believed in doing a job thoroughly, traced the assumptive process back as far as the amoeba. Also, statements suggesting the presence of sophisticated modes of thought sometimes appear in the expedient communities. But here we are investigating the way societies work, and the major ideologies have not all been present, as significant social influences, since the beginnings of humanity. The ideological structure found today has come into being over time, and what has been said in the foregoing pages enables us to recognise its development as an evolutionary process. But let me emphasise at once that I do not suggest genetic transmission of ideology, or propose to make ideological transitions directly consequent upon biological developments.

Change usually attracts more attention than stability, and this has happened in the study of evolution, the biological world enjoying the limelight while its inanimate surroundings, for the most part less active, have been relegated to a supporting role. The term has become linked with the theory of natural selection and the name of Charles Darwin, and an orthodox view holds only genetic beings capable of true evolution. But natural selection was (I almost said ‘merely’) Darwin’s answer to the question: How does evolution operate in the biological world? The general concept arose much earlier. Charles’ uncle Erasmus was familiar with it and the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, defining the word as ‘The process of evolving, unrolling, opening out or disengaging from an envelope’ and adding that it is also used figuratively, dates its first appearance to 1647. I shall use ‘evolution’ to mean the emergence of novelty out of a previous condition without extraneous addition, and in that sense it extends beyond the origination of species. The planetary, organic, human and social conditions evolved in that order, each arising from its predecessor without extraneous addition, and each of them serving as the base from which further novelty emerged. In this view genetic evolution becomes one stage in a process beginning with the elementary constituents of matter and embracing the whole of subsequent existence; substantial evolutionary advances have taken place in the absence of genes, and others in their presence but without their direct participation.

Evolution is often taken to be a smoothly continuous process, but the conception is over-simple. The importance of mutations in biological evolution has long been recognised, while laboratory work and the fossil record have both been providing increasing evidence of the part played by discontinuities. In evolution of the inorganic also – for example in the development of the stellar universe – sudden upheavals occur. I shall take evolution to be a process mainly continuous but, in whatever field it be studied, incorporating also those sporadic explosive releases of accumulated tensions that we term revolutions.

A healthy conceit tempts us to see evolution culminating in humanity, but to think in this way is to create an abstraction. Human beings are also animals and physical objects, and their continued existence depends upon the continuance of the organic and inorganic worlds. When we consider humanity in its context we see the concrete outcome of evolution to be the whole system of being, from inorganic matter to sophisticated society, and this can usefully be envisaged as a stepped pyramid, with each level resting upon the one below and each step upwards marked by the appearance of a complexity of organisation not formerly known. At the bottom lie the elementary constituents of matter and then, in ascending order, atoms, molecules, single cells, multi-cellular creatures, human beings, ideological groups and the societies they constitute.

There are, of course, significant differences between inorganic and organic evolution, and others between organic and ideological one of these being that in ideological evolution acquired characteristics are transmitted (though not genetically). Each generation benefits from the experience of its predecessors, and one result of this has been that ideological evolution moves immensely faster than biological. Tens of millions of years from the amoeba to the first human beings, but a mere ten thousand from expediency to repudiation, with the latest steps taking only a century or two. The evolutionary pattern, however, the emergence of novelty without extraneous addition, leading to the development of a system of levels, each of them dependent upon its predecessor and exhibiting greater complexity of organisation, this persists from the inorganic through the organic and the human to the ideological and social.

Individual animals, races and species emerge and disappear, and so do particular sets of assumptions; my ideas of today differ from those I held yesterday, one theory displaces another, and even a relatively stable body like a main-sequence political party changes its policies and programmes from election to election, the discarded ones often never to be heard of again. But the broader evolutionary categories, the inorganic, the organic and the human, persist, and so do the major ideologies.

The single-celled creatures evolved in adaptation to a world without multi-cellular beings and are still capable of subsisting in such an environment, but the plants, fish, insects and animals, having evolved to fit a world of which single-celled life was a constituent, cannot long survive in its absence. Non-human life evolved in the absence of human beings and for the most part carries on happily without them, but they cannot survive without the animals and plants. Each of the broader evolutionary categories, having evolved in adaptation to an environment comprising its predecessor, depends upon the continuing presence of that forerunner for its own survival, and the rule holds good in ideological life. We found the ideology of precision to have developed in adaptation to an environment comprising principle; remove this, so that precision comes face to face with unprincipled, undominated expediency, and it becomes unable to maintain itself. Liberalism, with its demand for political equality, can function only where coercive forces exist capable of suppressing disorder. Socialism, with its need for freedom of public speech in order to propagate its ideas, can survive only where liberalism, with its greater numbers and consequently stronger influence, is available to help maintain this freedom.

Reform depends upon Precision, Precision upon Principle and Principle upon the continuing presence of Expediency. Individual consumption, and living together in groups, both of them expressions of the expedient ethos, form the main foundation on which the activities of principle stand; without individual consumption, no social production; without gregariousness, no government. And the activities characteristic of the ideology of precision similarly stand upon those of principle: without social production, no science; without government, no power to correct malfunctions. This relationship of asymmetrical dependence (the later developments depending upon the earlier but not vice versa) continues throughout the series.

Adherents of the ideologies of Expediency, Principle and Precision tend to focus on the situation facing them, accepting, defending or improving society as it is and taking little interest in long-range theorising. It is mainly the eidodynamics who think about the course of future development, and they envisage society moving as a whole from one position to another; these advanced thinkers expect the general body of the people to assemble tomorrow where they themselves stand today, and the continuing absence of any such general advance is ascribed to malign influences which have to be eliminated. The eidodynamic movements set out, the more vigorously as they stand closer to that end of the range, to eliminate the economic individualism and political-intellectual compliance through which the eidostatic ideologies find expression and to succeed in that would be effectively to eliminate these ideologies. They set out to abolish, over a part of the universal system of evolution, the dependence of the later and more sophisticated developments upon the continuing functional presence of the earlier and simpler. Carried into biological evolution this approach would have human beings subsisting without food, air, or earth to stand on. Evolution certainly does include the emergence of successively more complex forms, but those who envisage it simply as an advance underestimate it, overlooking its integration of progress with stability. Most of the fundamental particles have not been taken up into living matter at all but continue to constitute the physical universe and by doing so make these higher developments possible.

In the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary the reasonable expectation has to be that the established pattern will persist, earlier developments serving as the enduring bases on which the later ones rest, and this is confirmed by recent political experience; even where eidodynamic movements have been in control of the state for generations they are finding themselves obliged to accept the eidostatic as constituting the bulk and substance of society. As they do this, in Russia and China for example, so the horrors resulting from the attempt to impose exclusively eidodynamic principles recede into history.

Once we cease taking society for granted, or thinking of it as a gift from God or an arbitrary creation of the human will, once we begin to recognise it as one term in the universal evolutionary process, we find ourselves virtually obliged to accept that each new phase in its development incorporates the functional relationships marking the previous condition. To treat any major ideology by itself is to create an abstraction; any given stage in ideological development comprises not just an ideology and the expression of it but also its context, with the previous ideologies in the series playing significant parts. Taking this into account, the three main stages in the ideological development of society, which I have been calling ( for reasons about to become obvious) simply Expediency, Principle / Domination and Precision / self-limitation, become first Expediency, second Expediency-with- Principle / Domination and third Expediency-with- Principle / Domination-and-Precision / self-limitation (the fourth being Expediency-with- Principle / Domination-and-Precision / self-limitation-and-the-eidodynamics). And if we wish to present an overall view we have to say that all life and all society consist of the elementary constituents of matter together with factors such as physiology, psychology and ideology which have emerged in the course of their increasingly complex organisation. (While saying this we need to remember that science has shown good reason for querying the materiality of these elementary constituents).

As the later factors appear their development comes to form the cutting edge of evolution, the slower-moving changes of physical and biological beings receding into the background. Their various manifestations do not, however, interact directly, but always by a route which can be pictured as a descent from the higher to the lowest levels of organisation followed by a re-ascent. Revolutionaries can talk to each other only by submitting to the principles of grammar and making an expedient choice of words. Communication between ideological groups requires (to name only three of the main elements in a long and complex chain), psychology (the emotionally or aesthetically guided selection of a certain mode of speech or writing), physiology (internal processes which result in or constitute bodily movement) and physics (movement of material and fundamental particles, whether these be the constituents of air vibrating to form sound waves, the constituents of ink and paper, or the electronic events which produce effects upon computer screens). Communication, essential for performance of the activities which distinguish the higher evolutionary levels, depends upon the continuing presence of the lower.

In thinking about evolution attention tends to focus on the differing qualities exhibited by the various levels, but the system also exhibits regular quantitative relationships. There are fewer atoms than fundamental particles, fewer molecules than atoms, fewer cells than molecules, fewer multi-cellular beings than cells, fewer human beings than multi-cellular creatures, fewer ideological groups then human beings, fewer societies than ideological groups. [1] The higher the level of organisation the lower the number of units to be found on it. [2]

It is seldom possible to count such units, but the absolute number on each level is usually irrelevant; nearly always only relative magnitudes matter, and the disproportion between the numbers on the different levels tends to be self-evident. The major barrier to understanding an evolutionary system usually lies in the difficulty of discriminating between, on the one hand, the features which mark off one type of unit from another on the same level and, on the other, those which distinguish the units on one level from those on the adjoining ones; once this has been accomplished the significant quantitative relationships usually leap to the eye.

The relationship between level of development and numerosity holds good within the ideological structure. If we construct a diagram in which the vertical dimension represents degree of ideological development, and horizontal extension the relative magnitude of the group at each stage, we get the stepped figure known in systematic ideology as the ideological pyramid, and from what has been said in this chapter we recognise this as the uppermost part of a far larger pyramid incorporating also the pre-ideological levels of biological activity, with inorganic matter spreading out below those and the fundamental particles forming the base.

continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis | Review by George Hay | Review by Martin Stuart-Fox | Review by Julia Stapleton | Review by Lev Chernyi | Review by Ken Smith | Review by Jonathan Simcock | Review by Thelma Shinn