A specter is haunting democracies throughout the world. A barely visible cloud, an entangling nebula is settling in throughout large swaths of modern political rhetoric. Many pundits and opportunistic spokespeople are saying that the Ghost of Ideology from days long past is speaking from beyond the grave, and that it has resurrected and is walking among us again.
But, surely the question we must ask ourselves is, “Did ideology ever die in the first place?”
Ideology — as a word — is used for the most diverse purposes nowadays. It can mean almost anything in the current state of world affairs. Ideology is seen as the equivalent of a political agenda or religious dogma; thus, the religious extremism of ISIS and the “neo-fascistoid” elements of Greece’s Golden Dawn or France’s Front Nationale become conflated. Ideology has also become individualised; ideology is not a systemic development anymore, but rather a personal one. Individuals can build their own ideologies.
At the same time, ideology has been “democratized” to the extent that it doesn’t mean anything anymore and has been declared irrelevant in the context of the advent of a non-ideological world.
Ideology can only be understood as a system of symbolic representations. It is, first and foremost, the articulation of a world-view through symbols. For instance, the current dominant global ideology of neo-liberalism uses growth, free trade, free markets, free enterprise and representative democracy as its symbols.
For many contemporary commentators, ideology was buried under the ruins of the devastation it created. From this vantage point, the death of ideology marked the end of a century of ideological struggles, which brought about war, famine and misery to most of mankind. The bi-ideological, and bipolar struggle that defined the Cold War is over. Capitalism is triumphant, all is well, ideology is dead, good night and good luck!
But it is exactly when you think that you are roaming through the desert of ideology, exactly when the absence of ideology is supposedly self-evident, that is exactly when you’re submerged in ideology. You’re in the thick of it and can’t get out.
In his most recent public interview broadcasted on French national television 2 weeks ago, Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed his intention of reentering the French political scene. During the one hour interview Sarkozy made the case for a new “non-ideological” political movement that would move beyond the drawn fault line of left versus right. For Sarkozy, the main problem with the current Socialist regime was its ideological stance. I couldn’t disagree more. If anything, with the nomination of Manuel Valls as prime minister and his relentless grab for power, the Socialist government has proven that they too abide to this logic of a so-called non-ideological stance.
The problem with this discourse is that ideology, far from having disappeared from the French political scene, has, within the past few years, reinvigorated itself and has become so omnipresent that it now appears to be invisible, even non-existent. And this, because the majority of the French population has internalized the dominant ideology of austerity as being the ultimate truth — as has the majority of human beings on this planet.
In reality a non-ideological stance doesn’t exist. The political project to move beyond the ideological dichotomies of left versus right, of liberalism versus socialism — in the economical sense — doesn’t amount to anything more than a mirage of wishful thinking. Sarkozy is ideology at its purest form.
The left — read here socialists — might have abandoned their ideological attire, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t ideological. In many ways socialist parties throughout the European Union have shedded their social vision and have become another one of those -isms without a suitable prefix. Within this new political dimension of fluid -isms, the driving force is the market and the free circulation of capital, better known as austerity. Differences are non-existent, but one ideology clearly reigns all mighty.
This abandonment of ideology by left-wing movements has allowed extreme-right movements to fill in the void and appear as alternatives. The story is the same throughout Europe, but also with the Tea Party in the US, the Reformists here in Canada, and Modi in India. These neo-nationalist and neo-liberal movements may take various forms, specific to the context to which they belong, but their raison d’être is the same, to fill in an ideological void.
Sarkozy can proudly parade his “non-ideological” message, and he will encounter no dignified opposition, because the ideologically left-wing alternative is dead — if it isn’t dead, then it’s in tatters. From the ruins of this ideological surrender, we must strive to rebuild an alternative dialectic; the ontological survival of the “Left” depends on it. The battle against neo-liberalism and the rise of neo-fascism is, first and foremost, a direct assault on their symbolic mobilizers: The key words, like growth and jobs, that are at its symbolic foundation. Only though this deconstruction can come the construction of a true alternative. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that an alternative ideology be built from the ideological ruins of the Left’s upcoming self-destruction.
A luta continua.