George Walford: Ideology Beyond Politics

In IC39, under the title From Politics to Ideology, we saw that each of the main-sequence political movements behaves as it does because of the assumptions its members have in common. It is not only in politics that the assumptions made determine the course of behaviour followed. Every step we take depends upon the assumption that the ground will bear our weight; every time we reach for something we assume it to be where it appears to be. We usually remain unaware of, having made these assumptions, but without having made them we would not behave as we do. Whenever we act with intent, singly or in groups, in whatever field, we do so under the influence of our assumptions. We shall see later how people and groups come to mare these assumptions rather than those; for the moment, the point is that in order to understand why they act as they do we need to study the assumptions made unawares as well as the ideas present to consciousness.

We all eat, drink, sleep and breathe, and by doing so willingly we show ourselves to be assuming that there is no serious danger to be avoided by staying awake, that the food before us is not explosive, or the air around poisonous, and so on. These assumptions sometimes turn out to have been false, but we have to take that risk in order to have even a chance of continuing to live. We make them not because they are true (though when the question arises we usually believe them to be so) but because the balance of advantage lies that way, because it is expedient to make them.

Unless we have seriously considered the issue we do not think of ourselves as assuming the presence of the physical world. To the uncritical mind this world is simply there; we can see it and feel it. But although we seem to be in direct contact with the world this is not in fact so; if we can be said to experience any physical event directly it is the physiological changes in our bodily organs, and the existence of the physical world is an inference drawn from this evidence. An element of choice enters into it. We can, and sometimes do, assume the indications of our senses to be misleading; when thinking at all closely we say the sun does not really rise, even though we have watched it doing so. The assumption that there really is a physical world “out there” is adopted not because we have no alternative but because we find this to be the expedient course. The child who once experiences intense pain, together with an impression of glowing red, will lead a pleasanter life if it thereafter assumes this effect to indicate the presence of something to be avoided. The assumption will sometimes prove false; in later life the child will encounter red glows that do not burn, but it is not the truth of the assumption “red glows burn” that leads to its acceptance, only the benefits it offers; for most purposes of everyday life it is more convenient to make this assumption than its contrary, as it is more convenient to assume that the sun does rise. Anybody with an interest in science knows that apparently solid objects have been shown to consist mainly of emptiness, fundamental particles doubtfully material, “holes in space” and the like, but we still expect a chair to support our weight. All of us, wen philosophers working to disprove the existence of matter, manage our daily lives on the assumption that there really is a physical world “out there”; whether it be true or false, anybody who failed or refused to make it is no longer around to argue their case. In most activities of daily life considerations of right and wrong, truth and falsity, find no place; in order to be able to take up these issues we must first do what can be done to assure our continued existence, and this requires that we make the convenient or advantageous assumptions, the ones which tend to produce the desired results. These form the base of the expedient ideology.

This is the ideology we follow when engaged in satisfying our personal wants without regard to any higher or longer-term considerations. The wants to be satisfied are not only material, and the ideology does not exclude consideration for others, since pleasant relations with those around tend to increase one’s own comfort. Neither does it exclude charity, even towards distant objects; the knowledge of having helped to relieve suffering in Africa does something to increase personal well-being in England and America. It does, however, exclude action guided by impersonal considerations, such as commitment to any set of religious or political principles, or concern for the exploitation of a class or the freedom of a nation.

Faced with social conditions which are not what one would wish the expedient course is usually to submit, adapting behaviour to circumstances rather than undertaking the labour and the risk of striving to alter them. Adherents of this ideology incline towards compliance with the instructions issued by those wielding the power of society, and this enables them to take part in complex social enterprises; they follow the fashions, obey the laws, run businesses, make investments, take part as shareholders, directors, managers or workers in trades, industries and organisations of all sorts, but always guided by personal advantage or convenience rather than concern for any more remote objective such as loyalty to a person or institution or helping to operate a society. Sometimes circumstances prove intolerable, so that resistance becomes the expedient course. Expedient people sometimes take part in reform movements, strikes and protest groups, even in wars and revolutions, but without commitment to or against whatever principles may be at stake. They join in when the balance of advantage or convenience inclines in this direction, when not doing so seems likely to bring personal consequences worse than those carried by participation. The provocation once removed, so that submission again becomes the expedient course, their support for the uprising disappears; they accept a new government of a familiar type instead of pressing forward to socialism, communism or anarchy, and this goes far to explain the declining curve regularly followed by revolutions.

It is hardly possible to reach adulthood without becoming aware that action, especially in social affairs, often produces unintended results. Sophisticated thinking attempts to explain and control this by positing a deity, or social influences, or some other source capable of being studied and rationally influenced, but to this primal ideology it remains outside all possible comprehension. The most that can be done is to ascribe these effects to some inherently unpredictable entity such as luck, or fate, and sometimes to attempt to influence this by rituals whose mode of operation is itself not understood.

“Magic” and “superstition” are elastic terms. To an atheist all belief in the supernatural is superstition, and members of the Magic Circle provide entertainment. But there is a significant sense in which each of these terms indicates a set of practices performed for the sake of unmediated personal benefits. The magician who casts a spell expects the results by return, the devil-worshipper anticipates worldly wealth or power, the person who touches wood, throws salt over the left shoulder, or avoids starting a journey on Friday 13th is averting present dangers. These activities indicate a way of thinking different from that of the person who chooses to undergo present suffering for the sake of benefits to come in the next world or some future incarnation, or who may even act without expectation of personal benefit at all, for the greater glory of God. This latter approach is characteristic of those who are, in one sense of the term, religious. When the words are taken in these senses, magic and superstition indicate the expedient ideology and religion a different one which we shall come to later.

Ideological analysis often entails breaking down customary classifications; here we can neither accept everything commonly described as religion as a unitary activity nor establish a one-to-one correspondence between the major ideologies and the great religions. The spectrum of activities described as religious ranges from magic and superstition through worship, independent theologising and critical belief to agnosticism and atheism, (terms without meaning apart from religion) and of these only magic and superstition belong to expediency, the others entailing subordination of interests to the requirements of something outside the personal group.

One activity with no object beyond unmediated personal benefit is gambling. The gambler depends for success upon luck or fortune, inherently unpredictable; to the extent that skill enters a game it ceases to be gambling. When looking at the political positions we noted that they cut across class divisions, and the same holds good for ideological groupings outside party politics; gambling includes not only the pound or two wagered in the betting-shop but also the sums, sometimes very large indeed, which pass across the gaming-tables.

In much writing produced with reformist or revolutionary intent personal aggression comes to be lumped in with organised warfare; it is said that to bring an end to warfare we must learn to control our aggressiveness towards the individual people around us. Ideologically, however, person-to-person aggression or violence is one thing and socially-organised warfare another. The robber who attacks his (in these anti-sexist days one has to add “or her”) victim, is following the course which appears most convenient or advantageous. Many who in time of war join the armed forces are also acting expediently; conscription. or neighbourhood opinion, or their own judgment of the situation makes this appear the best thing for them personally to do. Others, however, respond to different stimuli. Influenced by high valuation of patriotism or loyalty they take part in the national effort to their own disadvantage, subordinating their personal interests to what they see as the common good and sometimes sacrificing their lives to it.

The search for personal pleasure leads to participation in sport in the sense of “idly sporting,” but competitive sport, requiring as it does intense concentration, sometimes the sacrifice of bodily health, with timing to the finely split second and, often, national prestige at stake, is a different matter. Expedience is involved in both, but in the first as the sole criterion and in the second only in a subordinate place. The pursuit of learning is generally regarded as a sophisticated activity, and so it can be; the term covers much deep thinking. But it also covers the simple accumulation of facts, and when this is engaged in for nothing beyond personal satisfaction or advantage it constitutes an expedient activity. Driving schools, riding schools and business schools have for their main objective an increase in the students’ ability to achieve their aims, they train rather than educate and training in this sense, the acquisition of technique, can be carried to great lengths without overstepping the bounds of expediency.

The term “expedient” carries more than a hint of disapproval, and later we shall see the reason for this; for the moment the point is that, be it right or wrong, admirable or contemptible, this ideology accounts for the greater part of human behaviour and plays a part in all of it, even in complex and sophisticated undertakings; in working out their theories both Newton and Einstein used the most convenient formulations of the results achieved by their predecessors. Every time we do something because we want to do it, or do it in a certain way because that seems to be the quickest, pleasantest, easiest, least troublesome way, we are acting by the expedient ideology.

Although this ideology is universal in the sense. that everybody possesses it, and although many people act wholly by it and (as we shall see later) there was once a time when everybody did so, yet it does not account for all purposeful behaviour. Expediency inclines us to help ourselves to whatever seems likely to satisfy our wants, but people often refrain from doing this. Frequently this is because, taking everything into account, helping themselves seems likely to increase rather than diminish the wants experienced – a prison sentence usually has this effect – and those who refrain for this reason are still acting expediently. The man who acts honestly because honesty is the most profitable policy is an expedient man rather than an honest one. Others follow a different pattern, refusing to help themselves to the property of others even when they could quite safely do so. Martyrs have chosen to die by fire rather than recant, and many people regularly follow the course they believe to be right rather than the most advantageous one. Those who act in these ways show themselves to be influenced by assumptions overriding those of expediency. Instead of seizing the available advantage they seek to act consistently and in accordance with principles, and by doing this they show themselves to have adopted the ideology of domination.

(To be continued)

See also: Ideology Beyond Politics, from Beyond Politics (1990)

from Ideological Commentary 40, July 1989.