Search Site
 Main Menu  
 Mission and Purpose
 New Entry Log
 Legal Notes

The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Ideology


An ideology is a self-contained system of belie that offers an explanation of past social and economic events, makes predictuions about future events, and indicates what kinds of behaviour are appropriate for people in a society. In explaining the world and our place in it, an ideology espouses moral, social, and economic systems which are consistent with its assumptions and analyses about the world. As a result, it insists on specific answers to the questions of how people ought to behave, in what people ought to believe, and how the government of the society ought to be conducted. As such, ideology is antidemocratic, since it already provides the answers to questions of government. In an ideology, the involvement of citizens in forming public policy is regarded as at best irrelevant and at worst interfering. All ideologies are like this, from communism to anarchism to capitalism to right-wing libertarianism to Christianity. They are all models or metaphors for how the world works that are built on assumptions and prescribe certain morals, values, and socioecomic structures which are consistent with those assumptions. They all insist that if we can just get everyone to a) believe that the metaphor for reality is true, and b) accept the moral imperatives of that metaphor, then everything will become beautiful and we will be ushered into paradise.

Karl Marx made this fundamental mistake in his book The Communist Manifesto (in spite of his excellent analysis of capitalism in his book Capital) because he believed in an inevitable dialectic path of history which would ultimately culminate in the overthrowing of the capitalists and the collective ownership of the means of production. Francis Fukuyama made this same mistake in his book The End of History. He believed that market liberalism had finally beaten all the other ideologies because it was true and that we would consequently move into a lasting period of peace, the ideological war having been won. When Ayn Rand explains that rational self-interest is the only morally acceptable behaviour for people and insists that unregulated capitalism would work properly if we all just behaved morally and rationally, she is talking about a type of human that doesn't exist in the real world. Ditto Noam Chomsky, when he argues that we would be happier living in small-scale, anarco-socialistic communities, where somehow real people would be transformed into consistently fair, kind, cooperative people.

Ideologies prevent us from imagining creative solutions to our problems, because they circumscribe the set of "orthodox" things we can do. Only measures that are consistent with the ideology are acceptable. Universal publicly funded health care, for example, is an excellent and quite pragmatic solution to the problem, How can we best provide for people's health? However, capitalist ideologues will argue that public health care is "socialist" because it interferes with the allocative efficiency of the market (i.e. it limits the ability of some people to profit at the expense of other people's sickness). Now, given the orthodox definition of allocative market efficiency, this is correct. The capacity to make profits in a private health care scheme is literally unimaginable (American HMOs regularly make profits in the range of 25-30%). But in terms of comparing the resources that go into the system to the care that comes out of it, private care doesn't even begin to compare with public care. In the US, approximately half of all the money that goes into health care is completely wasted. HMOs spend at least 25-30% of their revenue on administration, billing, and advertising. Add in the profits and you realize that over 50% of the money HMOs bring in never goes towards providing care. That is to say, over 50% of the money HMOs bring in is wasted, since it is diverted from the real purpose of a health care system. In a publicly administered system, there's no advertising and administration is minimal, since you don't need an army of clerks, accountants, collection agents, insurance agents, etc. Public health care is cheaper and more efficient and provides care to everyone regardless of their ability to pay. (As an interesting aside, in countries with publicly administered health care systems, public approval of the available care is consistently much higher than in countries with private, for profit care.) A public system frees up resources to be employed in other areas of the economy, so it is actually a benefit to market economics. Regrettably, to a market ideologue, the idea of equating profit with waste is literally unthinkable.

Democracy at its best insists that all viewpoints are valid and that the best decision is the one that accomplishes what people want it to accomplish, rather than the decision that conforms to a particular ideology. It makes environmentalism possible by allowing people and governments to decide that some things are more important than profit. Incidentally, this is why international trade agreements like NAFTA and WTO are so dangerous: they are constructed around an ideology of unfettered trade and investment rights, so they constrain citizens and their governments from pursuing nonmarket solutions to problems. Communism is dangerous for the same reason; it constrains citizens and their governments from pursuing noncommunist solutions to their problems.

Our ideals are the absolute standards against which we measure ourselves and our world. Looked at differently, they are what we imagine things could be like and perhaps ought to be like as compared to the way they are. When we keep them in perspective (i.e. as inspirations to work towards a slightly better reality), our ideals give us reasons to live and strive. They allow us to become better than we are. An ideology, by contrast, is a formalized structure of belief that encompasses assumptions about how human nature and the world work, ideals about how the world ought to work, value judgments based on those assumptions and ideals, and finally formalized social, economic and legal structures that are designed to bring about the idealized world.

I suspect that the reason we in the West jump from ideology to ideology is that we deeply hold the belief that all problems are technical in nature and can be solved through the correct application of method (technology comes from the greek words techne which means skill or method and logos which means knowledge - literally, applied knowledge). An ideology is a technology writ large and applied to society as a whole. Market liberalism (or communism, or whatever), when you strip away the rhetoric, is nothing more than a really sophisticated hammer with which we try to drive the nails of society into the two-by-four of "natural law".

In Canada, there's a huge push to privatize our national health care system. The best argument that the pro-privatization camp can come up with is that private health care would be, by definition, more efficient than public health care. One typical HMO in New York that covers 2 million people has over twice the administrative staff as the entire health care scheme in Canada (which covers 30 million people). Now, of course I don`t think every industry should be taken over by government. That would miss the point. My point is that if we approach the the problems of the world on a case by case basis, apply our ethics, reason, common sense, imagination and memory, we can make sensible decisions instead of dogmatic, knee-jerk decisions.


Date: Tue, 15 May 2001
Name: Shades of Reason
Subject: Ideology

I discovered your page via the David Suzuki Foundation website and the many fantastic articles/comments you submitted there. As I am an Eco-philosopher, I read, with great interest, your piece on Ideology here and needed to respond. Perhaps I am not analysing enough material in your work on this subject, but I am concerned that there might be a bit of a contradiction in the philosophy.

In much of what I examined, in your articles, I sensed the strong belief that the individual in society will be overwhelmed and thwarted in his/her efforts to change reality. I agree. Your analogy of the two prisoners accurately pin-points one of the underlying contributors to this dilemma. Therefore, the logical next step, as you have seemingly endorsed, is for people to unite. Again, I agree. It is only sensible that if 'big business' is determined to unite the world through trade organizations, then those concerned about offering an opposing worldview must also form powerful organizations.

Let's not be confused here. One individual or even one community standing in opposition, for instance, to the proposed new development of land for 'Bigx' corporation will not pose a concern to the multi-national enterprise with dollars and links spanning the globe. The opposition view simply has to acquire more force. In my opinion, there is only one way this will ever be achieved. And the answer IS ideology. The perceived contradiction is the impossibility of forming a common philosophical community without an ideology.

No one will argue the point that we live in an extremely diverse world. The solutions we want to implement, to make life for our [and all] species sustainable and content for the sake of future generations, must be founded on solid undiversified ground. It is true that each situation/event requires it's own special solution. However, you can not strip away the method at arriving at the desired solution. And that foundation of thinking, which ultimately defines all of our thought, by default must be Ideology. I am a specialist in the study of the history of the Christian religion and the profound influence it injected into western thought. Yes, ideology can be catastrophically deleterious, as two thousand years of history can attest. Still, if you approach someone who thinks inside of that box, someone who lives for Jesus, you will find a generally happy person who doesn't feel the need to support any major push to promote a sustainable future.

Society needs to reach a consensus in philosophy. Globally speaking, a large portion of humankind has to answer the 'big' questions in life with the same answers... or diversification will produce only a confused and unproductive matrix of differing opinions. Isn't it this very diversity in thought that has the world facing so many challenges, as we enter the 21st century? Furthermore, isn't it the common goals and philosophies of commercial enterprise that has enabled 'big business' to cast an ever-widening shadow across our planet? If an ideology can be compared to a hammer, which pounds nails into boards to suit the needs of the builder, let's recognize the fact that a hammer is needed to uproot those same nails.

I am a supporter of David Suzuki's efforts because of his clearly discernable ideology. This construct of ideas can be simply put; we are animals, first and foremost, so let's create a sustainable and happy life for our species in perpetuity on Earth, our only home. Keep in mind, this will never be realized if our definitions of these terms remain at odds -conundrums provided, for example, by many thousands of people in North America who believe that Jesus provides the only 'true' happiness and that He will usher in a sustainable, long-lasting future with His Second Coming. Surely it is obvious that a common 'hammer' is needed, by the majority, to swerve and miss the brick wall that Dr. Suzuki so often refers to.

Perhaps there is no single philosophy out there, presently able to create the 'new' ideology [still, I think Suzuki's work is something moving towards the correct destination]. And the ideologies of the past do not inspire us to foster great amounts of hope. However, we must not make the mistake of abandoning the formulation of common methodologies which can be applied to the myriad facets of human society. The lack of useful ideologies should not necessarily inform us that all ideology is useless. This will be supported if we apply Einstein's theory of relativity to the science of philosophy [i.e. five thousand years of 'bad' ideologies don't automatically make the next one to be invented 'bad' as well]. I am only concerned that your article is trashing some of these important concepts when it seems to suggest that an ideology can only provide a 'knee-jerk' reaction [implying knee-jerk reactions are always wrong reactions... which is another debate in itself].

I like the intellectual make-up of your newsletter! And I support a great deal of the ideas contained therein. Keep up the good work. :)


Date: Sat, 26 May 2001
Name: Rick Wybou
Subject: Ideologies - Paint or Canvas?

Ideology could be described as a core belief system which underlies other intellectual positions. Ideologies are like an intellectual medium upon which other ideas are painted. Deconstructing an argument should shed light on what the underlying ideology is. Without determining the point of conflict in ideologies, debate tends to be superficial and, more than likely, useless.

A full understanding of the ideological premises of one who has an opposing argument in a debate may also be a key to finding any common ground upon which progress can be made toward actively resolving the debate itself. This is a key consideration of the professional negotiator, who succeeds by helping others find their own reasons for accepting a given solution to a problem. The negotiator does not attempt to change another's beliefs, but works with the existing belief structures to find common ground.

The reference to Einstein's Theory of Relativity in Shane's posting was equally relevant in alluding to the potential of "shared truth". Newtonian mechanics were not incorrect, but rather were only a subset of the physical laws that govern the full universe. Similarly, there may be common ground between various intellectual ideologies, even when there are also conflicts. Furthermore, Einstein himself had to retract some of his ideas now and then. Determining the "whole truth" is no less difficult in the realm of intellectual ideological debate.


Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!
This page fully complies with the W3C standard for HTML 4.01 Transitional and uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal