Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

12

Conclusion

Ideology - balances and projections

Michael Freeden


Ideology and control

One of the most creative tensions in the assessment of ideologies over the past century has been that between their face-value study - an 'intentionalist' approach to ideologies as a narrative located in time and space, in which we are simply told what ideologies want to tell us - and a critical approach to ideologies, as telling us substantively more than they intend, or as raising issues that derive from the very act itself of telling a story. The seeds of doubt were laid by Marx, and more specifically by Engels, who believed that nothing of consequence could be imparted by a body of ideas that was a product of illusions generated by an alienated, dehumanized and partial material existence. 1 However, they threw out the baby of what was being said, while retaining the bath-water of how and why it was being said. That bath-water, cleansing though it was of previous platitudes, has by now been recycled rather too often. Ignoring the weight of such epistemological doubts, American behaviourists cemented the link between the study of ideologies and an account of what they voiced as a scholarly exercise in accurate description. This early- and mid-twentieth-century focus gave way to a re-emphasis on decoding ideologies and on their social construction, without many of the Marxist conclusions that could have followed. Diana Coole's chapter assists us in capturing that changed understanding. Feminism contributed to the new perspective by joining in the identification of the grand narrative as an organizing device rather than a representation of a reality. A different light could thus be shed on the nature of ideologies by presenting ideological families such as liberalism and socialism as a way of controlling narrative itself. Narrative became the dependent variable, one of the outputs of ideology, rather than the garb in which ideologies appeared. And because narratives were a noteworthy product of ideologies, the latter could be detached from the story they were telling. Feminism, often accused - together with other forms of postmodern thinking - of acts of intellectual vandalism committed on respectable overarching theories, was instead exposing (sometimes despite itself) the resourceful, malleable, pluralist nature of socio-political thought, yet still within the confines of a rationalist modernism. The discovery of ideational fragmentation turned out to be not a signal for the collapse of system and order but an affirmation of the

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