George Walford: Discovering Ideology

This is the full text, minimally edited, of a talk delivered to the South Place Ethical Society at their premises, Conway Hall, on 17 November 1991. The Society (familiar as South Place, or SPES), presents itself and its aims: “Founded in 1793, the Society is a progressive movement whose aim is the study and dissemination of ethical principles based on humanism, and the cultivation of a rational and humane way of life.” The talk focuses on the part of the ideological range leading to the appearance of this position. It mentions, but does not present, the developments beyond this point which seek to specify in theory, and to realise in social practice, their various conceptions of what is meant by “a rational and humane way of life.” (An abridgement appeared in Ethical Record, the Society’s journal, in February 1992.) – GW

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The Committee were good enough to invite me to come along to talk about my recent book, Beyond Politics. It seemed a bit pointless to repeat what is said there, but I thought you might find it interesting to discuss some of the ideas that led up to it. The book is about ideology, so I propose to talk in a fairly general way about ideologies. First to say what I understand by the term and then to take three of the bigger and more important ideologies say a little about each of them and go on to see how they fit together. So my text for this Sunday morning is Discovering Ideology, and let me say to begin with that this will not be a political talk. Politics may , be mentioned occasionally, but no more than that.

Over the last few decades we have all come to know about ideology. It is linked with false consciousness, it distorts thinking, it leads people to behave in a rigid way so they can’t respond to changing circumstances. It’s a Bad Thing – capital B, Capital T – and it doesn’t affect the speaker; it’s something the other fellow suffers from. Sometimes you can almost hear people saying: “No ideology, please; we’re British.” And of course it belongs to politics; it is our political opponents who are affected by it. The old joke says: I have firm convictions, you are stubborn, he is pig-headed. The modern version of it goes: I have firm convictions, you are stubborn, he has an ideology.

That or something like it is the common attitude, and it doesn’t get us very far. You can, of course, forget about ideology and go back to straightforward political argument, with all its frustration, hostility and bad temper. Or you can take the academic route. The professors will tell you what other professors have said on the subject, but most of it is quite unhelpful – academic in every sense.

This morning we’re going to approach ideology from another angle. I shall try to put before you some of the ideas that lead in to a theory known as systematic ideology. This explains a good deal that other theories leave untouched, and it’s called systematic ideology because it presents the major ideologies as forming a system. I’m not going to say the popular attitude to ideology is wrong. Provided we make it clear what we mean, we all have the right to use words in any way we like. But those who think of ideology as a harmful influence, and one that affects only their opponents, are not getting full value out of it. They are trying to use ideology as a weapon, and that is like hitting somebody with a computer. You can do it, but it’s not the best way of using the thing.

The value of ideology is slowly being recognised. Lenin spoke of the communist ideology, and last year Roy Hattersley, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, wrote a book called Choose Freedom. In it he spoke of the Labour Party having an ideology, and as far as I know none of the members objected. Noel O’Sullivan wrote a book about conservatism. He used the phrase “Conservative Ideology” in two chapter-headings, and he wasn’t being nasty. Dent’s, the publishers, have done a whole series under the general title “Modern Ideologies.” People are coming to accept that ideology affects their own movement, and this shows they are beginning to recognise that it does not have to be always a bad thing. I go along with that. Ideology is like science, education, medicine, exercise, bravery and a great many other things; it certainly can produce bad effects, but we’d be a lot worse off without it.

When it comes to ideology I’m like the young man who who went to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist asked him: “Are you ever troubled by immoral thoughts?” And the young man answered: “Troubled? Why, no. As a matter of fact, I rather enjoy them.” I enjoy ideology. I enjoy studying it, and there’s nothing like it for helping you to understand why parties and movements and states behave the way they do.

Now, turning to look at ideology itself. An ideology is made up of ideas – I am using that word in the broadest sense, to include purposes, values and assumptions. These are not just abstract, academic ideas; they affect what we do. And they are not just separate ideas; They fit together, they form a set. If you have a heap of buttons you can always add more buttons, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re round or square, big or small. An ideology isn’t like that. It’s more like an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle; you can add other pieces, but they have to be the right size and shape.

Every time I come across a new idea I have to decide whether to accept it or not, but I can’t analyse every one to decide whether it is true, logical and rational. Apart from anything else, there just isn’t time. But I have to make a decision, and it must be consistent with previous ones, because if I accept ideas at random I shall have some pulling me this way, and others pushing me that way, and I shall quickly go mad. Coming across a new idea I need a way of deciding, quickly and easily, whether to accept it or not, and my ideology provides this. I accept the new ideas that fit my ideology, and reject the ones that don’t.

I don’t think this out every time. Mostly I just accept the ideas that feel right. But when I do stop to examine what I’m doing, I find that they feel right because they fit. Sometimes a new idea doesn’t fit well, but the evidence supporting it is so strong that I am forced to accept it. When this happens I have to make room for it by shifting the ideas I already have, and the bigger the set that has to be moved the more effort it takes.

When you have a developed ideology, say a political one, in which a great many ideas are closely linked together, and you try to change just one of them, it’s often surprisingly hard to do. This is because the small stone you think you are trying to pick up is in fact the tip of a buried rock. This is why ideology brings stability and resistance to change. It can be very frustrating but it also offers great advantages. Try to think what life would be like if everybody always accepted every new idea put to them and acted on it. It would be utter chaos. You would never know what the people around you were going to do next. It would be quite impossible for even two people to work together, and you certainly couldn’t have a lot of people living in close contact, you couldn’t have a society.

I am saying an ideology is a set of ideas, but the phrase won’t quite do as it stands. It’s too broad. A philosophy is a set of ideas. So is a theory and so is a science, but these are not what we mean by ideologies. An ideology has the peculiar feature that it can affect people without their being aware of it. This separates it from other sets of ideas, and we have to ask how it comes about.

When I start to think about my own behaviour, I soon find that some of the ideas that affect me are ones I didn’t know I had. Reaching the top of a flight of stairs I stumble. This is a common experience and there’s a phrase for it; we say I trod on a step that wasn’t there. Now in order to do that, I must have had the idea that the step was there. I didn’t know I had this idea, but it still affected my behaviour.

If I really think about this, if I sit down and begin to list all the ideas that affect my actions at any given moment, it turns out that ones I wasn’t aware of are greatly in the majority. Just sitting in a chair involves whole chains of ideas about the ability of the chair to support me, of the floor to support the chair and so on. If you try to follow the chain all the way, you find that this simple act of sitting in a chair implies ideas about the nature of the universe. In a universe in which gravity kept reversing itself, so that every ten minutes the floor became the ceiling, I wouldn’t be sitting there all peaceful and relaxed. The chair would be screwed to the floor, with me strapped in and hanging on.

Unless I make an effort most of these ideas about the floor, the walls, gravity and so on remain hidden from me, but if I didn’t have them I would not act as I do. And most of the ideas that go to make up my ideology are like this. An ideology is like an iceberg; much the greater part of it remains below the surface.

When I trod on the step that wasn’t there, the idea that it was there was a false idea, but I acted as if it were true, and we are constantly doing this, constantly acting on ideas that may, be false; we have to if we are ever to get anything done. Take for example the behaviour in going to work. As I set out each morning I know, if I stop to think about it, that the shop I work in may have burnt down last night. Or the tube may be on strike. I can check these things, but I shall never reach absolute certainty. The answers I get may be dishonest or mistaken, or I may have misheard them, or even if they are right things can change while I am walking to the station. Or perhaps I am dreaming the whole thing. As I stand here talking I have no doubt this is a real event. But I’ve had this experience before; talking to a group of people, quite sure it was really happening. And then I woke up to find myself in bed. There is no way of avoiding these risks; knowledge absolutely true and certain is not to be had; if we wait for it before acting we shall never act at all. We have to behave as if our ideas were completely reliable while knowing, if we stop to think about it, that they are not.

So now we can say more about my ideology. It is a set of ideas which affect what I do, most of them not present to my awareness; I act as if they were true while knowing, if I stop to think about it, that they may be false.

In the little affairs of everyday life I am constantly doing what my ideas indicate, and they are usually confirmed, the action brings the result I want. If it doesn’t, I quickly find this out and alter them, so there is seldom any real problem. With bigger things it gets more difficult; sometimes I have to go for a long time without being able to check. Suppose we ask: Is there a God? One who sends each of us to heaven or hell after we die. Speaking for myself, I am satisfied that there isn’t. I certainly live as if there isn’t one. But I have to admit that I don’t know this with absolute certainty. I accept this idea that there is no such God because it fits in with the rest of my ideology, but I may be wrong. I may have a nasty surprise coming.

Ideology affects my behaviour, but not all of it; only the things I mean to do. I get hungry, fall in love, display the knee-jerk reflex, feel happy or bad-tempered, like people who resemble my parents, get toothache, prefer jelly to custard. All these things, and many others, without meaning to; these actions are not affected by my ideas and ideology does not come into it. A great deal of our personal behaviour is like this. In the total behaviour of any individual person ideology is only one influence among others, and often a minor one.

But I don’t always act as a separate individual; when I find other people who have ideas and purposes similar to mine I join with them and act as one of a group. This is how teams, parties, clubs, movements; firms and societies come to be formed. Organisations and institutions of all sorts are made up of people having similar ideas and purposes, and here ideology comes into its own. In its effects on these groups it begins to develop its full power.

We have to be careful here, because not all groups are ideological. We hear a lot about ethnic groups, for example, and although ideology will affect your attitude towards these it doesn’t decide which one you belong to. You can belong to the group of ginger-haired people, or the group of black-skinned people, or the group of people who are a sort of pale greyish pink – they call themselves white – and ideology has nothing to do with it. The groups I’m talking about, the ideological groups, are those made up of people who come together in pursuit of a common purpose, people who have ideas in common.

When a group has been formed in this way the personal features of the different people in it offset one another. You like custard while I prefer jelly and the group shows no preference either way. When you are happy I am bad-tempered and the group shows neither feeling: Within an ideological group these psychological influences cancel out. What moves it are the things its members have in common, their ideas and purposes. Which is to say their ideology.

We were saying that ideas come in sets, and so they do, but the connections between them are not always obvious. As I stand here talking I shift my eyes around the room, I turn over sheets of paper, and if I get tired I may sit down. Each of these actions is something I mean to do; it follows from an idea, but when we ask how these ideas are linked together, how they can be said to form a set, it gets difficult. Because I can perfectly well have each of them by itself, and carry it out by itself. I can move my eyes – if you can’t see from the back of the room I assure you I did move them – turn over sheets of paper and turn them back again – sit down, stand up, and so on. They are detached actions, there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful connection between them.

There is certainly no moral principle involved. These actions are not good or bad, right or wrong, honest or dishonest, loyal or treacherous. I choose them because they are convenient, useful, effective; they help me make a point. Or, to use a more general term that covers all of these, they are expedient. And in saying that we have found the link between them.

A great many of my ideas I accept simply because it is expedient to do so; very often no other standard applies. Whether to step off with the right foot or the left, to have honey or marmalade for breakfast, to wear the blue suit or the gray, to travel by bus or tube. I am making choices of this sort all day, every day, and there are no rules that apply to them, no science, no ethics, no morals. I just do what I find pleasant and convenient, the expedient thing.

Evidently, my ideology is able to accept the ideas which produce these actions; they fit into it, it shares this quality of expediency with them. Here we have the expedient ideology. The ideas belonging to it have been accepted because they were pleasant or convenient, and it allows me to accept any other ideas of this sort.

Expediency gets a bad press. We speak contemptuously of “mere” expediency, and any politician who dares admit to acting expediently is unlikely to get elected again. There is good reason for this; to act expediently on a question of right and wrong is a bad way to act. But over large areas of behaviour these higher standards just don’t apply; expediency provides the only criterion. And these areas are not trivial. Eating, drinking, sleeping, going from here to there, picking things up and moving them around. These are the fundamental activities, and the expedient way of doing them is the right way; there is no other standard. Expediency is the ideology of ordinary, casual, easy-going living, the ideology of family life, of companionship and enjoyment. It is the default ideology, the one we fall back on when not trying to match up to any particular standards.

You can live without science, philosophy, law, government, art and religion. You can live without humanism. You can even live without thinking about ideology, though I’m sure that after this morning none of us will ever do so again. But you cannot live without expediency.

The expedient ideology is universal, and we all spend a great deal of time acting by it, but it has limits. When people are acting by it none of them can ever know what the others are going to do when out of sight, and this means they can only operate independently or in face-to-face groups. You can’t run a railway if the signalman is free to leave the signal-box whenever he feels like it. Using only the expedient ideology you can’t even have agriculture. If Little Boy Blue is under the haystack, fast asleep, when he ought to be blowing his horn, then the sheep get into the meadow, the cows into the corn and the whole village goes hungry that winter.

If you want agriculture, and the advantages that come with it, you have to follow the rules no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient this may be. You have to plough in spring and wait till late summer for the crop. And having got the crop you have to make it last until next harvest. In hungry times the expedient thing is to eat all you have, but farmers can’t do that, they have to preserve the seed corn and the breeding cattle. People who depend on agriculture have to be thrifty, fore-sighted, responsible, careful, punctual, reliable, sometimes brave; they must put duty first. They must stop acting entirely by expediency and, for part of the time at least, follow the rules. People who behave in this way are acting by the ideology of principle.

This word “principle” has two senses. They are quite similar, and both of them apply here. First, there are principles in the sense of general ideas. When somebody explains how to do something I may reply: “Yes, I’ve got the principle of it,” meaning that I have the general idea, although I may not be able to carry out all the details. In this sense we can speak of the principles of medicine, or law, or carpentry; in fact of any profession or trade. That’s one sort of principle. In its other sense the word means the general moral principles: honesty, loyalty, truthfulness, reliability and so on. The word carries both meanings, but this seldom causes any difficulty because they are so close together. In order to practise any profession properly you have to carry out its principles in a principled way.

The same condition applies to other activities where many people co-operate. The Church, the police, the educational system, the medical services, the Army, Navy and Air Force, the law, conservatism, industry and business. Each of these is able to do its job because each person engaged in it can be confident that the others are acting on the same principles. A large organisation can only work when all the people in it follow the same rules, and continue to do so whether convenient or not.

This doesn’t mean everybody has to accept the ideology of principle. You can still have people who always act by expediency, and in fact every society has a great many of them. But you do need enough principled people to maintain institutions like the law, the educational system and the police. These have to be strong enough to ensure that when people are found breaking the rules, when youngsters are caught stealing, policemen faking evidence, or businessmen cooking the books, they get punished. You need enough principled people to make it pleasanter and more convenient for the expedient people to act as if they held the ideology of principle, even though they don’t. Here you find the man who acts honestly because honesty is the best policy. He’s not really an honest man, but you can do business with him. This second ideology, the ideology of principle, is what makes organised society possible.

I will bring forward one more ideology, and then we can look to see how they fit together. This next one is the ideology used by science. Scientists engaged in their profession are not satisfied to do the expedient thing, and although they do get things right in principle – or try to – they don’t stop there. They count and measure, and strive to make the counting and measuring ever more accurate. The scientific ideology is made up of accurate ideas and it will only accept accurate ideas. If scientists engaged in their profession are offered inaccurate ideas they either reject them or get to work turning them into accurate ideas so they can accept them.

Here we have the ideology of precision, and although scientists are the most obvious people holding it they’re not the only ones to do so. Logicians also seek accuracy, so do accountants, and so does liberalism. Liberalism is not satisfied, as conservatism tends to be, with being democratic in principle; through the 19th Century it pushed conservatism into accepting first electoral reform and then universal franchise, and now it demands Proportional Representation. It wants democracy spelt out in accurate detail, precise democracy. And I have to mention one other group, too, that holds this ideology. Because this is where we find South Place, this is where the humanists and freethinkers first appear. With the ideology of precision authority begins to lose its grip, people start thinking for themselves. They become critical of established religion, and while some become nonconformists, trying to find the right answers inside religion, others turn to humanism and freethinking.

Some humanists and freethinkers are more interested in religion, and know more about it, than many of the religious people. They examine what the religious people have to say, they scrutinise their sources – the Bible, the Apocrypha and the rest. They look for false argument, for fallacies and contradictions. They put religious thinking under the microscope, treating it the way a scientist will treat a specimen sent in for analysis. Precision does seem to be exactly the word for what they are aiming at.

We now have in front of us these three major ideologies: expediency, principle and precision. There are other ideologies after precision, but they get very theoretical. The groups holding them are small, they play no great part in the operation of society, and in any case we haven’t got time to deal with them. I will say a bit more about the three we’ve been looking at, about the way they fit together, and then wind up.

They don’t just stand as it were side by side, and they don’t always conflict, though certainly they do sometimes. As I was saying earlier, they form a system; that’s why this theory is called systematic ideology. A diagram will be useful here, and there are several ways of representing these ideologies. You can show them as a series, as a pyramid, as nodal points in a continuum, or in other ways, and each presentation brings out some features of the relations between them. But today I’m going to use a diagram suggested by Adrian Williams.

This presents the ideologies as nested one inside the other. This outer-most nest, the gray one, shows the expedient ideology, the blue inside it shows principle and the yellow inside that, precision. This is a specially useful picture because it brings out the way each ideology supports the next one; we can almost say, produces the next one. In the order: expediency, principle, precision, each ideology enables the next one to develop, much in the way a nest enables eggs to hatch.

You can’t have any sort of ideology without a living body, and it is by acting expediently, by eating when we’re hungry, sleeping when we’re tired, and so on, that we keep ourselves alive. Expediency is the outermost nest, it maintains the human life that makes the more developed ideologies possible. Also, because humans are a gregarious species, they find it pleasant and convenient to live in groups rather than by themselves. The ideology of expediency provides the foundation for every human community.

Expediency is needed; it provides the people and the community that enable principle to operate. And the ideology of principle is needed for precision to function. You have to get things right in principle before you start worrying about being exactly right.

Take religious thinking as an example. So long as people feel free to believe whatever they like a humanist can’t make much impression on them. It’s all too indefinite, arguing with it is like trying to cut a piece of water in two. The humanists and freethinkers need institutional religion; they need its ability to set up organised creeds and doctrines. After religion has done that, after it has hammered religious principles into firm shape and got them widely accepted, that’s when the humanists can get to work showing what is wrong with them. Institutional religion works by the ideology of principle, and it opens the way for the humanists and freethinkers with their ideology of precision.

In many other ways, too, principle enables precision to operate. Once you’ve got commerce going you can start keeping exact accounts; when you have your thinking roughly organised you can go on to strict logic, and when you have an organised, established society able to provide education, funds, equipment and security, you can have scientists. But not before.

So we have expediency enabling principle to work, and principle making a place for precision. This is how systematic ideology sees them fitting together, and this is what has in fact happened in history.

The first human beings, the foragers, lived by expediency. They had no priests telling them what God wanted them to do, and no government imposing laws. They didn’t grow their own food, they just went out and took what they wanted. And everybody lived like that for at least forty thousand years, perhaps a lot longer.

Agriculture, authoritarian religion and government, the first, biggest and most important of the principled activities, came in only about ten thousand years ago, and precision as an influence on society arrived much later. It hardly counted before the seventeenth century; the Royal Society, officially founded in 1660, was almost the beginning of it. Then it strengthened through the 18th and 19th Centuries and became really powerful only in our own times.

Our picture of the ideologies as nested shows the outer ones protecting and serving the inner. But here we get something that comes up in systematic ideology every time you think you’ve found a neat and final answer; we can almost call it a theme song. I don’t know the tune, but the words go like this: Actually, it’s more complicated than that. The outer ideologies do support the inner ones, but also the inner ones help the outer. They may not mean to do this, but they can’t help themselves. They did it mainly by criticising and opposing them.

You can see this happening with religion. For two centuries and more the great religions have been under attack from humanists and freethinkers, and one result, at least in the advanced countries, is that you no longer have priests burning people in the name of a god of love, or aristocrats appointing their dependants to well-paid jobs in the church. By its own standards religious practice has improved, and it owes much of this improvement to criticism from humanists and freethinkers.

In much the same way business is rendered more efficient by criticism from accountants, thinking on all sorts of subjects benefits from scrutiny by logicians, and science has driven industry beyond hand manufacture into mechanisation. The precision activities have helped the principled ones in all sorts of ways, and all these developments benefit the people who live entirely by expediency. Among other things, they enable more of them to survive. Our society today does some terrible things. But after all the wars, massacres and mass starvation, there are far more people alive than ever before, and when you come to compare one society with another, that is the main thing; the ability to support human life. By that standard modern industrial society runs ahead of all others.

All the ideologies have contributed to this, including those we haven’t discussed this morning. But the ones that have done most of it are these three: expediency, principle and precision. Without these ideologies most of us would not be here today to worry about our troubles, and I would like to end with a slogan: UP WITH IDEOLOGY!

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IC has pointed out that the concept of global temperature raises issues, of measurement and interpretation, not always appreciated by those who list it among short-term threats. The Meteoro- logical Office now predicts a rise in average temperatures of only 1.5C over the next seventy years, with sea levels rising by just under 2 feet by AD 2100.

The problem, although postponed, has not gone away. Fear of a catastrophic rise in global temperature had led the EC to propose heavy taxes on fossil fuel as one way of reducing the threat, and if commercial opposition to these has not influenced this latest forecast it may yet have had something to do with getting it publicised. There does seem to be agree- ment on a rise in global temperature, and it can be harder to avert an insidious danger than a dramatic one. (Based on an article in the Sunday Times 29 Dec).

from Ideological Commentary 55, Spring 1992.