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When All Is Cultural, Nothing Is Natural

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A new book struggles to distinguish between political ideas and political ideologies, leaving the reader without a means to assess which, if any, are proper to a free society—and whether any beliefs might undermine something essential about human life.

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Thinkers from nearly every intellectual tradition agree that we live in an age when ideology dominates public life. Who or what we can accurately label as ideological is as essentially contested as the rest of politics. Most of us certainly don’t view our own beliefs this way. At the same time, it is all too easy to categorize political opponents as ideologues. For many scholars of ideas, however, ideology remains a key term of opprobrium, one necessary to help us grapple with political ideas that outstrip the limits of decency and order.

Jason Blakely’s Lost in Ideology: Interpreting Modern Political Life takes a distinctive approach to understanding ideology’s role in public life. In the first paragraph, he dismisses the common definition of ideology, that it “is politics in excess—distorted, immoderate and delusional.” This is an acceptable description only “if you do not think about it very hard.” Blakely insists instead that we need an approach to understanding ideology that allows us to see that all politics is cultural. By this he assumes “ideologies are a form of meaning-making” that we naturally embrace. This would not be a problem except that we frequently embrace ideological visions that confer “natural or even quasi-scientific status on our own preferred vision of society.” This leaves many of us where his title states—fundamentally disoriented and estranged from reality.

In Blakely’s account, what is required to remedy our approach to modern politics is interpretive attention, especially to ideas that are not our own. Accordingly, Blakely argues that an anthropological rather than a purely analytical approach is necessary to understand ideology’s challenge. It is in this context that Blakely aims to give us the tools with which to become fluent in more than one ideology, and thus help cool the flames of partisanship. We must understand one another in a way that avoids reductionism:

The common tendency is to dismiss a rival’s ideology as the product of some more basic mechanism like demographic identity, class interests, or even a psychological hangup. Yet, if ideologies are stories, they … but must be listened to on their own terms. As with a story, one gets the hang of an ideology and can grow more or less familiar with it by immersing oneself in interpreting its particular world, characters, language, and plot.

Ideologies draw us in because they not only have “ethical magnetism” but also serve as “powerful sense-making aids” that help us navigate the complexities of reality. But they also delude us into thinking we understand far more than we really do—and Blakely argues that they are utterly ubiquitous in our world. Ideologies are also particularly modern, he claims, leading us to adopt an immanent and disenchanted outlook. Ideology tends to focus us on “mobilizing followers around programmes led by human, all-too-human efforts to get them off the ground,” and in the present day, they largely subvert religion to ideological purposes, leaving it like “the lost city of Atlantis, submerged at the bottom of an ideological ocean.”

Blakely uses a variety of metaphors to describe ideology throughout the book. “Mapping” is his most common one. Ideologies serve as maps in that we use them to construct an image of our world in our minds. But maps are not just navigation aids: when we make maps, we impose simplifications on reality to build a useful model. This means we make reality even as we attempt to describe it.

Lost in Ideology presents a strong case that speaking across political lines requires more charity and sympathy than most scholars, politicians, and ordinary citizens are willing to extend. While building out the case for a cultural approach to ideology, Blakely offers many perceptive analyses of individual thinkers and movements along the way. But the book leaves much to be desired as a diagnosis of our ideological discontents, and worse, Blakely’s cultural constructivism ultimately cannot help those who adopt his view to enter into the mental horizons of those with whom we disagree.

Blakely is at his best when he explains how different intellectual movements have borrowed ideas from one another, “hybridizing” their approaches to politics and adapting to new circumstances. His account of nationalism is particularly good in this respect, making thoughtful distinctions between what he terms its “ethnic” and “civic” varieties, while also noting “how quickly nationalism of all kinds can become entangled in attempting to manufacture and police a pure and monolithic culture.” His reading of fascism has equally compelling elements, drawing on some of the very best research into how the intellectual culture of the Weimar Republic helped give birth to Nazism.

His summary judgments of his subjects’ internal tensions also often hit the mark. For example: “Classical liberals often presume a common good—including the culture of liberalism itself—that they struggle to secure without violating their own principles.” This tension continues to play itself out in contemporary debates over what or who secures the common good and hints at why classical liberals have such a hard time defending themselves against the charge that they simply do not care about the good. Related to this, Blakely argues that “right libertarianism” is fundamentally a view that understands itself as the guardian of a certain kind of scientific theory of prosperity. This may explain why libertarians tend to be so reluctant to point to moral arguments for the market.

These occasional flashes of insight, however, do not rescue Lost in Ideology from its weaknesses, which flow directly from the book’s strong adherence to a single method: Blakely develops his argument using a consistent cultural constructivism. Indeed, the book is framed almost as an act of architectonic discovery of this method’s implications for political thought. It is not just that he emphasizes Geertz’s argument that we are “spontaneously cultural creatures”—he fully embraces the idea that “there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture.” But rather than imagine that culture perfects or distorts a nature we can know something about, Blakely suggests that culture is the only thing we can come to know. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis observed that the ambition to “see through” first principles ultimately leaves the human person unable to recognize the truth of his situation, and this is exactly the kind of analysis that Blakely embraces as the ground of all reality.

Consider his view of John Locke:

Locke’s error was to believe he had reached the natural, bedrock society by subtracting culture; he never seems to have realized that no such thing exists. Locke is, therefore, a paradigmatic case of a philosopher who lacks (ideological) self-knowledge. He unwittingly helped invent and promulgate the very thing he believed himself to be simply uncovering empirically.

The first sentence of this quotation offers at least an arguable reading of the Second Treatise, but the argument as a whole forces an assessment of Locke’s project as a failure to grasp the notion that culture shapes us all the way down, and that every intellectual tradition that thinks it has grasped an essential truth vital for an understanding of the good—whether that truth is natural to the human person, revealed, or economic—has simply engaged in an act of creative worldmaking.

The general method of proceeding here almost requires what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We are forced to understand past thinkers not in terms of the project they were attempting to undertake, nor sympathizing with their quest for truth, but instead have to judge their efforts entirely through a lens that demands we look through their efforts and ideas to what is putatively essential about them—their link to the culture that produced them. Despite his plea that we must deploy a kind of sensitivity and nuance to our understanding of ideology, Blakely’s own analysis here feels simplistic and condescending.

Because he assumes our world was built by culture all the way down, Blakely is prejudiced against any worldview that cannot accept the purity of his constructivism: “I shall argue time and again that a given ideology is inferior because it cannot tell its own story as cultural, instead claiming to somehow be natural, common-sensical, or scientific.” And so he views natural rights as entirely cultural fictions—and presumably would say the same of natural law. Of course, classical liberals, conservatives, and adherents of market economics strongly tend to view elements of their political project as flowing from certain regular, observable patterns in our world or truths about our nature, and he condemns them these beliefs. While Blakely is just as critical in some respects of progressive liberals’ tendency to view their opponents as mental inferiors, the balance of the book’s criticism falls on those who believe orders organically emerge or are intrinsic to our nature, when instead our beliefs are merely products of an entirely malleable culture.

Having argued that we inhabit culture all the way down, with no superintending reason, nature, or revelation that stands above to help us navigate this situation, Blakely does not propose any noncultural way out. There’s something refreshingly honest in his refusal to do so. He doesn’t identify some special power that can break us free of ideology. He seems to believe that religions as they exist today are entirely prisoners of ideology. Indeed, the only paths he sees out of ideology’s prison are quite weak in comparison to the challenge he claims we face. We can adopt a kind of internal critique from within an ideological tradition and the external check of whether an ideology’s claims can be verified by science: “philosophically defensible ideologies must be able to square with the best account of the natural sciences.” These, he argues, are the path to less intense polarization and tribalism.

But the deepest flaw in Blakely’s culturalism flows from his refusal to distinguish between ideas and ideology, or to offer any comparative scale by which we might assess the relative dangers of these. Since all modern politics in his view are ideological—including the desire to not be ideological!—and his culturalism leaves us virtually unable to reach across ideological boundaries, we are left with very little ability to judge between them.

Throughout Lost in Ideology, Blakely recurs to variations on the title to describe the worst effects of adherence to each ideology. But since we are all ideological, each of these is framed symmetrically and follows this pattern: “Progressives become lost in ideology whenever they expect that everyone will, by sheer dint of historical development or natural reason, become progressives like them.” Conservatives fall into the same trap “when they do not recognize there is always the question of which traditions and customs within society to preserve and continue to enact.” Marxists and fascists are presented in the same manner. Indeed, nowhere in this account is it suggested or even framed as possible that the inner logic of some ideas leads naturally into more dangerous or inhuman political orders. In Blakely’s account, all political dispositions gain equal standing, and comparison among ideological cultures is essentially impossible.

Abandoning the notion that there is a difference between political ideas and political ideologies leaves us without a means to assess which, if any, are proper to a free society—and Blakely’s culturalism absolutely denies that any beliefs might undermine something essential about human life. Here he seems to have become lost in his own science of culture.

This is unfortunate because we do live in an age of ideology. But a better approach to this hard fact would not just recognize our tendency to label our opponents’ ideas with the term but would also tell us a story about how we are prone to turn political ideas into civilizational menaces. It would also defend human dignity by reminding us that some ideas naturally summon forth ideology’s demons while others affirm our nature rather than submerge it into culture.

Brian A. Smith

Brian A. Smith is senior program manager at Liberty Fund and the author of Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer.