Ideology is often thought of simply as factually false information: something that lies, distorts, cooks up non-existent data and then presents it as fact while suppressing actual fact, and so on. This sense of the word, “ideology” is synonymous with propaganda, considered as intentional and calculated efforts to deceive and disinform in the form of e.g. biased media coverage, junk science, disingenuous advertising, political rhetoric, etc. designed to mislead public opinion on this or that issue of the day.

At another, level, more profound and insidious than that of mere propaganda, ideology exerts its influence less by fabricating or suppressing facts than by shaping how the individual subject of ideology makes sense of the morass of facts given in sensory experience. At this level, ideology is less a matter of outright deformation of the factual than of its interpretation, and relies less on mendacious concealment of inconvenient facts than on shaping the perceived significance of those same facts. Here ideology, where it is successful, assigns to experience an orientation or perspective that determines how the external world of fact is to be described, sorted out, and explained, in terms of a conceptual framework that organizes and arranges some of the facts into putatively causal and meaningful patterns while filtering out others as unimportant and irrelevant.

Such ideological interpretations of the world are much more insidious than propaganda, for two reasons:

  • The first is that, where the factual error and misinformation involved in propaganda can be easily shown up and refuted, the ideological interpretation of the world, since it is conceptually prior to the factual, unlike e.g. “junk science” can never be falsified on its own grounds. An interpretation of the world that rests on a priori  grounds can only be countered by another such interpretation, which is likely to strike the subjects of the first interpretation as unconvincing and even laughably absurd, since their pet interpretation, resting as it does on an a priori conceptual scheme, seems self-evidently and obviously true to them, and with good reason: the interpretation shapes their horizon of sensory experience at the outset, and no self-respecting person doubts his own senses. For the subject of ideology, then, the ideological interpretation of reality is reality; no mere subjective assortment and organization of the facts of external world according to a conceptual scheme, but a fact among other facts of the external world, as much a thing-in-itself as a rock or tree or duck or whatnot.
  • The second is that the conceptual scheme underlying the interpretation does not always or even ordinarily assume the form of explicitly-stated premises immediately available for critical examination. On the contrary: since the ideological interpretation of reality is both coextensive and consubstantial with knowable reality as far as the subject is concerned, the latter will typically and indignantly deny that there is any interpretation or conceptual scheme involved in his perceptions- and to suggest otherwise will be taken as tantamount to calling him a fool or a liar, since it would imply that what he takes, and publicly avows, to be self-evidently true is mere opinion- something no man wants to hear from another.

The flagship Modernist ideological interpretation of the world is the understanding of change in a fact, or set of facts, from one observed variable state or value to another in time as something called progress. When things change, from the Modernist point of view, they change inexorably, directionally (i.e. “forward”), irreversibly, and always for the better- which means increase. Progress means more: more wealth, more health, more knowledge, more technology, more “choice”, and above all, more of a curious substance known as “freedom”, whose nature and meaning we will explore below.

For Modernist ideology, it is an outrage tantamount to sacrilege to suggest that the Progressive interpretation of change is just that: an interpretation, a set of facts assorted and organized into a sequence whose unity and significance exists only in thought.  Evolution, we are gravely exhorted, isn’t just a “theory”, but a fact. (“Evolution” is a species of progress in which change in a biological form, by definition, must needs represent an increase of fitness for ongoing participation in the great struggle for existence. We shall return to this below).

The immediate objection that comes to mind against all this is that surely, not all change assumes the form of forward-striving increase. Sometimes it might entail a quantitative decrease on some variable dimension and/or a qualitative loss of some attribute; things shrink, recede, decay, decline, die, and decompose. And such change isn’t always neutral; the fact under change isn’t always merely different from what it was. Sometimes we compare the observed terminal state of the fact under change with the initial state, or with some ideal standard of whatever sort (a statistical average, a design target, a definition of health, a Platonic essence, etc.) and judge the change a defect, or, if you will, evil. The fact, under change, has changed for the worse; it has lost something that it ought to have; it has become corrupt. This judgement belongs to an interpretation of change in terms of degeneracy.

One might reasonably conclude that all the interpretations are valid in their proper domain, or even that they can be arranged on a single scalar index: things can increase, stay the same, or decrease, or, mutatis mutandis, change for the better, in a neutral way, or for the worse. But Modernist ideology doesn’t think like that. Modernism was birthed in faction and litigation; it is adversarial to the core; it plays a totalitarian, winner-take-all game exclusively. Modernity does not only wage total war against human bodies with State-monopolized engines of mass homicide; it fights total wars in thought as well. The progressive interpretation of change must prevail, and prevail absolutely; it must stand peerless and without rivals.

To this end, progressive ideology deploys a conceptual scheme that can interpret any and all change in terms of increase even when change results in decrease- and do so without recourse to cooking/fabricating data, or actually hiding anything outside of plain sight. This works by various contrivances that re-interpret the loss of an attribute as entailing the gain of a new attribute whose substance is precisely the ontological void left behind by the lost attribute; in short, the progressive interpretation purports to find something in nothing. In this ideology’s own words: sometimes less is more. The negative is turned into the positive, loss into gain, defects into features; ontological non-being becomes being, the plenitude of presence discovered in the void of absence, and impoverishment upgraded to enrichment. If all this sounds silly, remember: it’s all done on a priori grounds, and there’s no gainsaying any of it without rejecting it in toto.

A partial inventory of the conceptual nuts and bolts of it all:

  • The first order of business is to eliminate, to the furthest extent possible, any possible standard against which the end-state of change could be measured and found wanting. Hence the almost psychotic hostility to Natural law and “essentialism”, and the concomitant enthusiastic embrace of nominalism and radical historicism/moral relativism (and even epistemological relativism, to the point of outright irrationalism) in the social sciences and philosophy. The social sciences, in recent years, have gone an extra mile beyond merely rejecting “value-judgments” based on “metaphysical” standards of right to additionally proscribe purely empirical concepts such as “social pathology”, since those concepts imply that some person, community, or society might be defective in some way- which “normalizing” judgment is a big no-no. The likes of e.g. the high crime rates that follow from the breakdown and subsequent absence of social controls in distressed communities are re-interpreted as the index of the positive presence of “cultural differences” between the affected community and the majority. It does not (and cannot) occur to this relativist interpretation for a second that this very minority culture may itself have degenerated over time- and precisely in that it can no longer exercise effective control over the conduct of its members! The reason is that this radical cultural relativism is properly thought of (although it does not always self-identify as such) as a sub-set of:
  • Darwinian-type “evolutionary” models and metaphors imported from the biological into the social sciences, and into popular discussions of social issues and problems. Darwinian interpretation can turn any human defect or evil into a feature and a sales-point, since anybody can concoct a speculative just-so story of its origins in terms of real or imagined adaptive value that can never be falsified- for, in the Darwinian scheme, it is trivially true in advance of all evidence that any trait exists because it has adaptive value, and has adaptive value because it exists. This goes not only for the traits the subject of Darwinian evolution (individual or societal) actually has, but also for those it doesn’t have, or no longer has; the loss of this or that structure and associated functionality only goes to prove that the affected entity has “adapted” more “efficiently” by discarding old and obsolete parts that it no longer needs, and thus has undergone progress and increase as a result of its loss. The simple fact that the entity continues to exist is deemed an adequate standard of evidence in support of the hypothesis of increased fitness, since the null hypothesis (viz. that there is no net increase in adaptive value; rather, the entity goes on existing because the loss of functionality wasn’t actually catastrophic enough to cause it to perish altogether) is ruled inadmissible from the get-go. Blatantly dysfunctional forms of individual and social pathology can be easily rehabilitated and re-branded as “adaptive” improvements this way.
  • Closely related, but not identical, to the Darwinian-evolutionary interpretation of change in terms of progress in the direction of increased adaptive fitness is the cult of scientific and technological innovation. The proliferation of new technologies, and the expansion of the natural sciences, comes at the expense of an enormous, near-total loss of traditional and artisanal know-how, and of every other branch of human knowledge (e.g. theology, philosophy, mystical practice, and plain old common sense). Interpreted as “progress”, the picture is clearly analogous to Darwinian evolution- but the brute facts of the matter cannot always be force-fitted into a cumulative and gradualist evolutionary sequence (e.g. it is far from clear that the latest academic paper on string theory yields a greater quantum of knowledge than the Bhagavad-Gita, or that knowing how to operate a cell-phone is an improvement over knowing how to plow a field with an ox). The preferred interpretative solution to the problem is to not merely deem traditional methods, know-how, and knowledge to be obsolete and superceded (as they would be in an evolutionary scheme), but to altogether relegate them to the status of non-technology and non-knowledge, as “metaphysical” opinion at best, and as pure ignorance, superstition (“magic”), and error more generally. “Progress” in natural science and technology is thus understood not as a cumulative and gradual process, but as the sudden irruption, in an enormous dark void, and for the very first time each successive time, of a radiantly brilliant luminescence (“Enlightenment”), of scientific Being abruptly emerging from ignorant Nothingness. It follows that every scientific and technological innovation these days, no matter how modest, styles itself as “revolutionary”, and moreover is taken at face value of this boast. On the flip side, our ancestors are reduced by this self-serving mythology to absolute morons who knew absolutely nothing at all about anything (the superhuman boasts of “modern medicine” are very instructive here)- even though, as by some miraculous Providence, they somehow got through life without the Internet, reproduced without being coached by “expert”sex-educators, and so forth like that.
  •  But the most important ideological gadget by far for conjuring something from nothing and snatching increase from the jaws of decrease in the estimation of change is the idea of freedom. There is no defect or dilapidation of a once-wholesome social system, no form of moral or institutional decline or decay, no descent into anomie, sociopathy, and madness, no loss of cultural patrimony that hasn’t had the exalted title of “freedom” or “civil liberty”bestowed on it by some sub-type or other of Modernist ideology. In fact, between its diverse sub-types, Modernist ideology as a whole one way or another understands social change of any type in terms of a unidirectional, forward-striving, and irreversible increase in the quantity and quality of Freedom, and once again understands change as assuming this form in advance of the actual facts, no matter the particulars(although it does not always self-identify of those facts. As paradoxical as it may seem, then, the enormous chronic recession of traditional personal and corporate rights, privileges, and liberties before the power of the State- one of the defining typical features of Modernity- is itself interpreted as a moment in the progress of freedom through history, and moreover an indispensable defining moment at that. Bourgeois juridico-political theory has made this crystal-clear from the start. Rousseau’s position is indicative: according to him, men must be made “completely independent of other men, and completely dependent on the State, for only the power of the State makes its members free”. (Cf. the infamous, horrifying “Life of Julia” campaign comic-strip  put out by the Democrats in the USA a few years back).

Through the interrelated contrivances of evolution, innovation, and freedom, among others, the progressive interpretation of change causes the emptied glass to appear full again in its very emptiness. Emptied of structure and function, it is ipso facto full- of efficient adaptation! Emptied of nine-tenths or more of the collective wisdom and know-how of Mankind, it is full- of science and technology! Emptied of moral and social bonds in the form of family, Church, guild, and lordship, and of the obligations, rights and privileges of the members thereof, it is full- of freedom!

N.B. none of the foregoing is intended to suggest that all Darwinian thought is worthless pseudo-science, that recent developments in science and tech are nought but empty boasts, or that modern civil liberties are altogether fraudulent and pernicious. The point, to reiterate, is that “progress” isn’t a thing; it isn’t an essence; and it isn’t a fact. It is a man-made social construct, an interpretation of a constellation of facts, of things that have essences, in existential transition from one of their possible states to another. The hegemony of this interpretation needs to be checked and balanced by a counter-interpretation in which Emperor Progress would appear nude in his fine tailored robes of evolution, innovation, and freedom. A sociology of degeneracy is sorely needed.

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4 thoughts on “Less is More: The Ideological Interpretation of Change as “Progress”

  1. The fetishization of “Progress” is Hegel’s fault, really. He essentially conflated the subtle doctrine of Divine Providence with “x happened; ipso facto x is good,” which, over time, is how evil became synonymous with old for the Progressive.

    Many of your objections to ideology in the first half could easily be turned against religion as well, which shows that ideology is simply a non-self-aware, totalizing mutation of religion. Proper religion (i.e. Catholicism :P) is merely common sense combined with divine revelation. It’s first step is to accept reality qua reality and build from there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The non-self-awareness of modern ideology that you mentioned is often identified as one of its defining features. Where religions always self-identify as religion, modern ideology defines itself in opposition to religion- and, for that matter, in opposition to ideology itself. Modern ideologies one way or another try to pass themselves off as science, as emanations of Reason and pure reflections of empirical reality as opposed to mere ideology, which is always held to be something the other, unenlightened guy believes in. The rise of modern ideology thus goes hand-in-hand with the critique of ideology (and, of course, of religion).

      Liked by 1 person

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