Philosophy & Ideas

Kenneth Minogue and the Poison of Ideology

“The great discovery of ideology has been that modern civilisation, beneath its cleverly contrived appearances, is the most systematically oppressive despotism the world has ever known … Only in modern times [has] oppression begun to hide itself behind a facade of freedom.” Thus Kenneth Minogue in his book Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, published in 1985, and appearing in a second edition in 2007.

Minogue was a distinguished political philosopher, who died in 2013. Of Antipodean origin and upbringing, he was for many years a professor at the London School of Economics. He held trenchantly conservative views, and was an associate of many people in the Conservative Party in Britain, including Mrs Thatcher, from which it will be deduced that he did not accept the “discovery” alluded to in our opening quotation.

This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
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Far from accepting the thesis that our civilisation is an oppressive despotism, Minogue believed that it was genuinely the freest and most humane the world had known. The claim that this was all a facade he regarded as mendacious in the extreme, but it is a claim that had considerable influence in 1985, and I would argue, even more in 2020. In Alien Powers, Minogue set out to explain what was behind the claim and why it had so much influence when he was writing. He was largely successful in this enterprise, so it is well worth revisiting the book now, when the ideology to which Minogue refers has even more influence than when the book was written, and in many different forms.

In order to see this, we have first to explain what Minogue means by “ideology”. Ideology for Minogue is not just any set of political or philosophical ideas. It is rather an all-encompassing view of the world which sees its operation in terms of oppression, exploitation and victimhood. The ideologist looks at history and, even more, at the present in terms of the strong doing down the weak. For the ideologist, when and wherever there is inequality between groups, there is oppression. Crucially, the struggle between the strong and the weak is a zero-sum game. If the strong get richer and more powerful, the weak get weaker and more oppressed, or immiserated in the Marxist phrase. As Marx had it, the wealth of nations implies the poverty of people.

But the ideologist does not just look. Central to the ideological mentality is a demand to change the way the world is, so as to eliminate oppression, exploitation and inequality. And the way to change the world is to foster anger and resentment not just among those who are, in the ideologist’s view, exploited, but also among others who may be appalled by the picture the ideologist paints, and so want to join the movement to change things.

We see this type of ideological campaign in contemporary anti-capitalist (or anti-market) movements, which stress relative inequality as against absolute improvements in living standards; in much contemporary feminism, which finds the working malign patriarchy everywhere, but perhaps especially in areas where women have begun to succeed in ways unimaginable a century ago; in the anti-racism of Black Lives Matter, where again objective improvements in the status of black people are discounted by a narrative of wholesale oppression; and even in environmental movements, such as Extinction Rebellion in its constant vilification of modern economies and technology which alone have the potential to mitigate environmental problems without catastrophic damage to the living standards of everyone, especially the poorest not only in the West, but crucially in the developing world.

Against the picture painted by the ideologist, Minogue, following in the footsteps of Adam Smith, points out that we in the West, all of us, are living in times of unprecedented comfort and ease, but not because of any systematic plot or oppression, as the ideologists like to claim, but from the unplanned, unpredictable and free workings of markets and the gradual evolution of political arrangements. Even in the less developed world and despite steeply rising populations (in part the result of Western medical care), absolute poverty has fallen dramatically in recent decades, by nearly as much as two thirds from 1990 to the present on some estimates. In the West particularly, greater affluence among the rich has been accompanied by dramatic rises in the standard of living even among the poorest. The rise of political influence among males of all classes has been accompanied by dramatic strides in female emancipation. The abolition of slavery in the West and heartening reductions in racial discrimination have gone along with improvements in living standards generally. Once we see political, economic and humanitarian progress not in terms of zero-sum games or the systematic imposition of oppressive structures, much of the ideologist’s case falls, particularly in a case like that of the modern West, committed as it is, in principle at least, to notions of human rights and welfare, and care for the environment.

It is a striking fact, also emphasised by Minogue, that ideology in his sense began to develop only in the mid-nineteenth century, with the work of Marx and Engels. But the mid-nineteenth century was a time when progress in all sorts of fields was being made, and when humanitarian ideals were getting a hold in many areas of society, Marx himself being a by-product of this movement. Doubtless there were many evils and abuses connected with industrialisation, imperialism and the operation of the market, but the one-way street to greater exploitation and misery predicted by Marx simply did not occur. Even with imperialism, as has often been pointed out, arguments and movements against it, including a commitment to universal human equality, were deeply embedded in the very Victorian mentality which, with another voice, had promoted it.

How nineteenth-century British and European imperialism should ultimately be judged is unclear, but it is worth noting that Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford University has found it well-nigh impossible even to consider the question, owing to the efforts of ideologists in academia to suppress his work, a point to which we will return. Leaving imperialism to one side, it is notable that universal adult suffrage, the growth of the middle classes, welfare and trade union rights and eventually votes for women all appeared in Britain during or shortly after the mid-nineteenth century, when Marx and Engels were predicting ever-greater exploitation, class division, immiseration and, as early as 1847, the final crisis of capitalism. This apocalyptic event did not occur then, and has not occurred since, despite Marxist ideologues predicting its imminence every decade or so. Capitalism or the market continually faces problems, but it has a remarkable ability to surmount them and survive, even, dare one say it, the self-inflicted shutdown over COVID-19.

The ideologist’s campaign depends on his being able to stir up hatred and resentment among the exploited, and even among those who are less exploited, but who are convinced of his claims, which may in fact be where much of his support is to be found. (These will tend to be university graduates who share the alienation the ideologist will predicate of the poor, not because they are poor, but because they feel that they are not having the influence they think they should have, a point noted decades ago by Hayek.) But in practice many of those who are criminally exploited according to the ideologist do not see things in that way themselves. They may be contented with their lives and even with the jobs they work hard at, and which they see as enabling them to live in reasonable comfort and security. They may also believe in many of the values of the society that is so cruelly abusing them, such as the nation, the family and traditional morality. Even some of the exploiters may feel sincerely enough that they act fairly to their workers and look after them financially and in other ways.

It would be hard for the ideologist to deny that many people do not feel themselves to be either exploited or exploiters, but he has a ready explanation in “false consciousness”. They are deceived or self-deceived. As part of the Marxist conception that what we think and believe is largely determined by economic forces we do not understand, the societal system is so oppressive to its victims that they do not believe they are being oppressed, and may even believe that they are free. Social being determines consciousness, and in an oppressive society such as ours, freedom and rationality are illusions. In the words of Michel Foucault we are “bound by the chains of [our] own ideas”, or, as Marx himself put it, common experience, or what we might call common sense, “catches only the delusive appearances of things”. To this last point, at the risk of seeming flippant, we might refer to Oscar Wilde’s quip that it is only a very shallow person who does not judge by appearance. But the truth Wilde is expressing is far from flippant. He is pointing to a deeply important dimension of human existence which, like many other aspects of our lives, is typically overlooked in ideologies in their relentless and one-sided stress on oppression and inequality.

This understanding of false consciousness has a ready application outside the strictly Marxian. Thus, Lukacs sees false consciousness as that by which one comes to terms with one’s own powerlessness, as when a 1950s housewife finds happiness in her child-caring domesticity. For Black Lives Matter, for a white person not to think of himself or herself as racist is actually to demonstrate his or her racism, which is ever there beneath the surface and in the privilege white people are supposed to have in virtue of their whiteness (though that might seem a little recherché to the jobless white person in a town like Bradford or in the rust-bucket Ohio of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy).

Minogue comments forcefully on the passivity implied by the notion of false consciousness. Those who fail to be angry over their victimhood or to perceive it apparently have no control over the thoughts and ideas and values which permeate their skulls and condition their attitudes. False consciousness is one of the most heavily deployed weapons in the hands of the ideologist, and it gives him free rein to interpret all kinds of apparently progressive actions on the part of the state as being the precise opposite of what to the unenlightened, locked into false consciousness, they seem. Some Marxists, like Minogue’s erstwhile LSE colleague Ralph Miliband, will, as Minogue shows, admit the superficial plausibility of some state actions seeming to be progressive, in the sense of ameliorating the condition of the working classes or women or blacks or whatever. Nevertheless, with Miliband’s superior insight, you will come to see that state intervention “automatically” benefits class interests. Making the economy run better, so that rewards are more generously distributed all round, is also in the real interests of those controlling the system. Action that appears conciliatory and which may even adversely affect the middle classes in the short term, such as according trade unions privileges in law or increasing welfare benefits, may be necessary to shore up the wicked system for the long term.

In order to escape from the chains of societal ideas and values, what the characteristically unenlightened person needs is “education”, specifically in the ideological doctrine set: that capitalism and market trading are inherently exploitative, or that patriarchy is all-embracing and all-enslaving, or that racism is deeply entrenched in our society, especially where those who are privileged by it (by being white) profess, even sincerely, not to see this. Actually the education referred to is not education at all, because education is an arena in which ideas can be discussed, criticised and compared with other ideas, with no outcome or conclusion settled in advance. The “education” of the BLM ideologue is like the Maoist “re-education”, a system in which victims (and they were really victims) were forced to ingest and repeat mantras and dogmas until their captors were satisfied that there would be no more heretical thought or expression. Nor is it true that we are always passive before ideas prominent and influential in our society. We are all self-conscious, as well as conscious, and self-consciousness means that we can become conscious of what we believe and feel, and hence are able to make judgments about these things, even on occasion revising deeply held beliefs. As Minogue says, there is within us what Keats referred to as “negative capability”, the power to recognise truth in conflicting ideas and to resolve such conflicts constructively, and it is in cultivating such a negative capability that education finds its true purpose.

While the concept of false consciousness is useful to the ideologue at one level, at another it poses a problem for him. If false consciousness is so prominent and pervasive a phenomenon in modern market society, and if, against what has just been said, we do not generally have any power of negative capability, how is it that the ideologue alone is able to escape it, and ascend to a higher truth not available to those stuck in common experience and common sense? A popular suggestion in this area is to think of ideologies of the sort Minogue is writing about as forms of gnosticism, secret knowledge about the world available only to initiates. Gnosticism certainly covers some aspects of ideology, such as the claim to a wisdom above common sense, and also the tendency of ideologies to split into ever smaller and more fractious sub-sects. But, unlike the religious gnostic, the ideologist, like Marx normally both materialistic and atheistical, has no divine source to attribute his insight to. So where does his wisdom come from?

Neither Minogue nor the ideologues themselves appear to give a clear answer to this question, which prompts the thought that it might be misleading to see ideologies as theories, subject to the need to provide justification of an epistemic sort. Certainly they are not scientific theories. We may take Marxism, the original ideology, here as paradigmatic. Marxism has apparently survived any number of empirical refutations without embarrassment. Some we have already touched on, and this story is familiar enough (see, for example, Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies). In connection with Miliband we also noted the unscientific tendency of Marxists to turn apparent counter-evidence into confirmations of the system. In the case of the other ideological movements we have considered, neither feminism nor BLM appear to be making scientific claims. Extinction Rebellion would claim to be following “the” science, but the very notion of “the” science is problematic. As Popper would say, we can’t know, we can only guess; science is very much a case of competing theories fighting it out, but not in Extinction Rebellion, which takes only the most alarming of the scientific models on offer, and, in common with many environmentalisms, refuses to countenance or allow to be countenanced critical or competing views. Marxism, feminism and BLM would claim to have history on their side, but as Minogue argues, Marxist history is extremely one-dimensional and selective, omitting influences and detail which would suggest broader or alternative interpretations; and much the same could be said of histories which see the world purely in terms of patriarchy or race. In each case one driver dominates everything else, to the detriment of the whole picture.

So, if it is hard to see ideology in terms of science or history, we could suggest that they are not really theories at all, but rather dogmatic and irrefutable ethico-cum-political systems masquerading as theories. This would explain the absoluteness of their demands and their refusal to brook opposition. It would also be in line with Marx’s famous adage that previously philosophers have sought only to understand the world, but that he wants to change it. Fuelled with disgust and anger at what he saw as the oppression and corruption of nineteenth-century industrial society, he burns with an urgent desire to tear it all down. This is, of course, a wholly new conception of intellectual life and of the value of negative capability, but one which has taken root in many places, including the academic. Thus Sartre in 1974, writing of the conflicts of the time: “class, national, racial … are the particular effects of the oppression of the under-privileged … the true intellectual finds himself, as a man conscious of his own oppression, on the side of the oppressed”. We may doubt the extent to which Sartre himself was oppressed, and even more the characterisation of the “true” intellectual as being on the side of the oppressed. Plato? Nietzsche? Heidegger? Leaving all this aside, though, how Sartre saw himself is very much how the modern ideological academic sees himself, as an activist engagé, and uses his academic security and position to foment anger at the oppression he sees all around him so as to re-mould the world according to his prescription.

What, though, of the truth of the prescription? Does the oppression around us justify the nature or extent of the anger? We can, and indeed should, ask questions about the truths (or otherwise) underlying specific ethical and political programs. But not according to the ideologist, because for the ideologist truth, or perhaps better asking for truth where appropriate, is itself a weapon in the hands of the oppressors. Expanding on this attitude to truth, in the preface to the 2007 edition of Alien Powers Minogue writes that “the basic function of ideology is not to argue a value, but to mobilise support, so as to take power and change the world”. In carrying out this function, ideologists characteristically embrace sceptical attitudes to truth, along the lines of distinguishing “your” truth from “my” truth (“that’s only your truth”, as a prelude to dismissing it), and judging a position in terms of who is saying it, rather than in terms of what is being said.

In 1989 the postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty prefigured Minogue’s remarks of 2007. For Rorty there was no point in arguing about fundamental concepts and principles, because each side will be using their own incommensurable concepts (even if they use the same words):

Interesting philosophy is [usually] … a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises new things … So I am not going to offer arguments against the vocabulary I want to replace.

—which, presumably makes his role one of persuasion rather than reason, easier anyway. A complementary view about truth is offered by Slavoj Zizek:

The truth we are dealing with here is not “objective” truth, but self-relating truth about one’s own subjective position; as such it is engaged truth, measured not by its factual accuracy, but by the way it affects the subjective possibility of enunciation.

No argument, no concern for factual accuracy, an engaged “truth”: a recipe, it seems, for the very breakdown of communication between people with differing views which is so characteristic of the university today. So, I, the ideological campaigner, will no longer speak to white people about race, as the title of a book popular with masochistic white people has it.

In 1985 Minogue anticipated some of what has happened more recently. He predicted that in seeing truth and argument as weapons of oppression ideologists would wish to censor those who disagreed with them. But in 1985 they lacked the power. Minogue, had he wanted, could no doubt have run a seminar with Ralph Miliband without the thing degenerating into a shouting match. Popper (also an LSE colleague) in The Open Society held that the provenance of an idea was immaterial. What mattered was its truth or validity, and the way to discover this was by discussion with those who differed, and indeed with anyone who was not trying to silence others. Despite some abuses, this was how in the 1980s, and for some time afterwards, universities operated. But not any longer now that ideologists, filled with ever more threadbare pretensions to a higher virtue, according to which even uttering an opinion contrary to theirs is construed as “hate”, have managed to push their agenda of intimidating and silencing those who disagree, and university administrations simply cave in to the most vociferous voices. Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions” by ideologists has happened, and we are seeing its upshot in the denial of free speech and disinterested inquiry in the very place where such things should be sacrosanct.

Apart from insisting that the rest of us see the world through the lens of suffering and oppression, real or imagined, what do ideologues actually want? They want change, as Minogue points out, but beyond the change involving a dictatorship of the ideologically pure, how are we to conceive what will replace the present order of things, messy and unorganised as it is, and hardly as systematic or uni-directional as the ideologist thinks? Minogue is able to glean some rather unspecific, but nevertheless indicative clues from Marx himself, clues which show the sinister nature of the whole ideological project.

People will first have to be liberated from the props which sustain their false consciousness, such as the family, patriotism, religion, social hierarchy and the desire for private possessions. These fetters having been sloughed off, each individual will be left with only his or her essential humanity. Individual preferences and desires will be subsumed in a harmonious community in which the collective will and reason will prevail. Minogue cites in this context the picture given in Plato’s Laws (Book V) in which ownership has been eliminated from society, and even what nature has given us, our eyes, ears and hands, all act in the service of the whole. All will praise and condemn in perfect unison, and will derive pleasure and pain from the same source. Minogue strikingly shows that despite some conflicting passages in his writing, such a vision must be the ideological terminus to which Marx is tending. Only such a community could be without conflict, competition and alienation, which is what Marx is promising. Each of us would be but a drop of pure water in a clear pool.

There are obviously echoes here of Rousseau’s general will being what my reason in its best sense really wants, what everyone in the community can will, even if my actual desires are partial and selfish, and do not want it at all. We can think here of Kant’s notion of the pure rational will, abstracted from our contingent circumstances, as being what should motivate us as distinct from the actual desires of the empirical self, pulled this way and that by psychological forces. We can also think of John Rawls’s original position, in which we are enjoined to decide how we would choose a just constitution if we knew nothing about our birth, upbringing, character, talents or anything else about our actual selves. These echoes and thoughts should, I think, make us cautious about being drawn into anything resembling a Marxian community. True, egoism will be superseded, but so, as Minogue shows, will individuality and freedom.

It is unclear what exactly feminism and BLM want. Are women to be more womanly or is biological femininity a myth to be made irrelevant? When white privilege disappears, will there be more race or less race in a society? Extinction Rebellion seems to yearn for an Edenic situation in which humans live in mythical harmony with a pristine unexploited nature. But whatever the detail in particular cases, it is clear that a society without conflict of whatever sort would have to be something like what we find in Marx. This would be a society without individuality or freedom, because individuality and freedom, when we are different from each other and want different things, are disrupters of harmony and sources of conflict.

Marx’s point is that in all societies prior to the post-revolutionary one, the individuality of each person is constituted by their position and status in their society. Their choices, even if they seem to be free, are actually determined by this, which means by the oppressive social structures which obtain in the society. Our choices merely mirror the world in which we live. Humanity will be emancipated only when all this false individuality is stripped off, and our true human essence is revealed, after which our choices will no longer be capricious and changeable, as they had been when they were being manipulated by the social forces which determined them. Instead they will be as everyone in the community decides, what the community sees as reasonable. Historically contingent differences and distinctions will disappear in the Marxian New Jerusalem. Marx really means this: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Comment is hardly necessary, save perhaps to observe that ideological antipathy to the Jews, which as we see in the British Labour Party still exists, may well stem from the undoubted fact that the Jewish people have a remarkable tendency to maintain their own identity, despite all attempts through the millennia to obliterate it. From Marx’s point of view Judaism, like all other affiliations, is but the skin the snake will slough off when history moves to its communal terminus. The moral is that ideologists believe in diversity only when using it as a handy weapon with which to mobilise protest against the oppressive structures of the West.

Minogue will have none of this. The modern state liberates both individuals and productive forces by according rights and freedoms to its individual citizens. As a result, huge progress is attained on all sorts of levels, including the technological, which thrives on individual initiative, experiment and risk-taking. The type of freedom we largely take for granted in the West allows for unpredictable choices, along with arguments, disagreements and conflict, which the institutions of the liberal-democratic state allow to be resolved peacefully. Ideologists, by contrast, hate conflict and disagreement, seeing these things as manifestations of selfishness and inequality. They would replace the modern state with a dictatorship which eliminates independence of all sorts in society. In so doing they will hope to engineer a new type of human being, one whose very eyes, ears and hands will be no more than the antennae of the harmonious collective.

For the old type of human being, in suppressing everything that makes us the individual people we are, and re-moulding humanity to his blueprint, the ideologist’s dream is a nightmare. And far from disagreement and conflict and factional interest and difference being undesirable in human life (which is perhaps the ideologist’s most basic assumption), they are actually critical to any sort of livable life. We would do well to ponder James Madison’s words in Federalist X:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty which is essential to political life because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life because it imparts to fire the destructive agency.

In the view of Madison and of Minogue the ideological dream would abolish not just individuality, but political life itself. And nor, as Madison shows further in Federalist LI, is faction a bad thing: “If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” It is precisely the division of society into different parts, interests and classes which will protect individuals and minorities from “interested combinations” of the majority.

Space precludes comment on Madison’s words, but they do not require it anyway. But putting them alongside what Minogue tells us so forcefully about ideology will underline both the temptation and the danger of ideology. Ideology is hydra-headed. Marxism’s head may have been lopped off (or maybe not) in 1989, but the lure of ideology persists. This has simply led to new and different manifestations of the same type of ethico-political campaign, absolutist, seeking out inequality and oppression anywhere and everywhere, and proposing solutions predicated on a new and robotic type of individual. They are dangerous to civilised life and beneath their cloak of virtue and sea-green incorruptibility they are intolerant to a degree not seen in the West for decades if not centuries. In 1985 Minogue showed us the beast and spelled out its assumptions and its dangers. It is time to read or re-read Alien Powers as a guide not to the past, but to our present. Otherwise the future may be ideological.

From 1994 to 2019 Professor Anthony O’Hear was Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and editor of Philosophy, its academic journal. His most recent book is Transcendence, Creation and Incarnation: From Philosophy to Religion (Routledge, 2020)

1 comment
  • Michael

    Thanks for this introduction to Minogue. I look forward to reading him. Meanwhile, this is good writing:

    “This has simply led to new and different manifestations of the same type of ethico-political campaign, absolutist, seeking out inequality and oppression anywhere and everywhere, and proposing solutions predicated on a new and robotic type of individual. They are dangerous to civilised life and beneath their cloak of virtue and sea-green incorruptibility they are intolerant to a degree not seen in the West for decades if not centuries.”

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