"American Politics and the End of Ideology"

by STEPHEN W. ROUSSEAS AND JAMES FARGANIS

Full citation here.

In a collection of essays written over a ten-year period, Daniel Bell hails the end of ideology. In a similar volume of previously published essays, Seymour Martin Lipset joins Bell in the apotheosis of a non-committed scientism, or what amounts to pragmatism leached of all its passion for meaningful social reform. This growing litany in the United States, on the European Continent, and in England, in praise of the status quo continues to remain, in its own image, inherently liberal. It is convinced that democracy today has solved all the major problems of industrial society, and that those which do remain are of a second order magnitude involving merely technical adjustments within a now prevailing consensus gentium. If modern liberalism has thus been recast into a less critical mold, it is because of its conviction that modern democracy is the good society. Lipset makes this very clear in the epilogue to his book. "Democracy," he writes, "is not only or even primarily a means through which different groups can attain their ends or seek the good society; it is the good society itself in operation."

More explicitly, we are told by Lipset that within three Western democracies "serious intellects among groups representing different values have declined sharply"; that "the ideological issues dividing left and right [have] been reduced to a little more or a little less government ownership and economic planning"; and that it really makes little difference "which political party controls the domestic policies of individual nations." All this, according to Lipset, "reflects the fact that the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution have been solved: the workers have achieved industrial and political citizenship; the conservatives have accepted the welfare state; and the democratic left has recognized that an increase in overall state power carries with it more dangers to freedom than solutions for economic problems."

In this milieu intellectuals functioning as critics of society have become disaffected, according to Lipset, because "domestic politics, even liberal or socialist politics, can no longer serve as the arena for serious criticism from the left". Disorganized, at a loss for a cause, and unable to fulfill their self-image, the liberal intellectuals "have turned from a basic concern with political and economic systems to criticism of other sections of the basic culture of society, particularly of elements which cannot be dealt with politically". Or, in Bell: "Some of the younger intellectuals have found an outlet in science or university pursuits, but often at the expense of narrowing their talent into mere technique."

II

The full import of the Bell-Lipset thesis can be derived principally from a misinterpretation of Max Weber; a misinterpretation which leads Bell to consider Machiavelli and Weber in the same light, and to quote them at the head of the two key chapters of his study. In keeping with his own interpretation of Weber, Bell distinguishes between the normative "ought" and the empirical "is" of politics and the "ineluctable tension" between the two. Ethics is concerned with justice whereas concrete politics involves "a power struggle between organized groups to determine the allocation of privilege". Concrete politics, in other words, is not concerned with the realization of an ideal, but, following Lord Acton, with the reaping of particular advantages within the limits of a given ethic--an ethic which sets out clearly the rules of the game governing the political jockeying for position and privilege. Thus, modern, mature democracies representing the end of ideology have, in effect, separated ethics from politics; and modern ideology, in so far as it continues to exist as a force in society, is nothing more than a cynical propaganda cover for the specific self-interest of competing groups. Modern politics, therefore, becomes amenable to analysis in terms of the mixed strategies of game theory (though neither Bell nor Lipset have done so). The game is to be played, however, according to the generally accepted constitutional limits of a Weberian "ethic of responsibility." It implies, above all, the flat rejection of the radical commitment required by an "ethic of conscience" which "creates 'true believers who burn with pure, unquenchable flame and can accept no compromise with faith." The ethic of responsibility is, in sum, "the pragmatic view which seeks reconciliation as its goal". Modern liberals, willing as they are to accept their progress piecemeal and within the rules of the game are, therefore, to be distinguished from genuine ideologues who are seemingly unaware that the good society has already been achieved.

The basic distinction between the modern liberal and the ideologue revolves around the notion of commitment. If the ideologue, in Bell's terms, is committed to the consequences of ideas and is governed by passion, then, in contradistinction, the non-ideological liberal is uncommitted and free of any chiliastic vision of the transforming moment. The ideologue seeks political success, according to Bell, by organizing and arousing the masses into a social movement, and the function of ideology, therefore, is to fuse the energies of the great unwashed and ignite their passions into a mighty river of fire. But in order to do so, ideology must "simplify ideas, establish a claim to truth, and, in the union of the two, demand a commitment to action".

The end of ideology is therefore linked to its inability nowadays to arouse the masses. And this inability, as we have seen, is the direct consequence of modern society's having solved the basic problems of the industrial order. In this kind of Panglossian society there is no room for ideologues who, standing on the upper rungs of the faith ladder, have become politically destabilizing factors. They are, if anything, a direct threat to the continuation of the good society. The modern politician qua politician is the man who understands how to manipulate and how to operate in a Machiavellian world which divorces ethics from politics. Modern democracy becomes, in this view, transformed into a system of technique sans telos. And democratic politics is reduced to a constellation of self-seeking pressure groups peaceably engaged in a power struggle to determine the allocation of privilege and particular advantage. Compromise and evolution are to be the means for achieving in the context of this struggle, the few second order social goals which continue to remain in an otherwise near perfect society. It is in this limited sense that the end of ideology clings desperately to its self-imposed label of enlightened, nonideological, non-committed liberalism. And the status quo it defends in the name of democracy is a fundamental one--the already achieved good society.

Whether or not it is true that progress in the past has been exclusively the result of ideological conflict it is nevertheless true that progress, as distinct from mere change, can be defined meaningfully only in terms of some "vision." For progress, as Santayana has observed, "is relative to an ideal which reflection creates." And it is here that, perhaps, the most serious criticism of the end of ideology can be made.

The modern politician is viewed, appreciatively by Bell and Lipset, as a non-committed individual skilled in the art of compromise. The ideologue, on the other hand, is committed to some pattern of institutional change which, in terms of his values, becomes transformed into social progress. It is irrelevant whether one agrees with the vision of a particular ideology. The important point is that freedom, in the philosophical sense, and a social commitment which transcends the status quo, are interrelated and interdependent.

Rejecting the notion of man tied to a merciless fate which robs him of his future, we are left to regard him free and immersed in the process of becoming. Man is, in other words, a potential, and his willingness or ability to seize life by the throat, as it were, and force it to serve his needs, is a measure of his freedom. Freedom, in short, excludes a complacency which rests on past or present achievements, or which nurtures the illusion of having already achieved the best of all possible worlds where progress, in any meaningful sense is, by definition, no longer possible. If man, living as he does in a grossly imperfect world, is not uniquely determined by his past and is nothing but a potential in terms of his impending future, then the act of commitment is a prior requirement for the realization of his freedom and thus his future. And if modern democracy is predicated on the end of ideology, that is, on the end of commitment, then it negates itself and becomes the very denial of freedom. If it has any commitment at all, it is the false commitment to itself--to the narcissistic approval of itself as it is--with the net result that it has retreated from the problems of the world about it.

Another objection to the end of ideology lies in its inability to make the fundamental distinction between what it considers to be the good society and a social theory which has become obsolete as a result . of the changing values and problems of succeeding generations. Confusing the two and still obsessed and blinded by the orientations of the 1930s, it looks at the current situation and declares that the problems of the Great Depression have been, by and large, satisfactorily resolved.


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Last modified: Thursday, 21-Sep-95 22:14:08 EDT