The English Ideology

A Banksy in Boston, Essex.

The English conservative likes to see the world as an organic whole free from ideology. Politics is something separate from society at large, and the main purpose of the state is to leave existing social relations intact. The real truths about the world are found elsewhere. Most conservatives go for the market as reality, others go for religion or science. Ideology is what the left and intellectuals bring into society in this framework. It’s what distorts things.

The mistake here is to see ideology as a set of ideas floating in a vacuum. Ideology arises from the material conditions of society, it is the economic system that engenders those ideas. The ruling class may favour certain ideas over others, but it cannot simply impose them without the material basis to support them. Ideology is inescapable, there is no non-ideological space. It is apart of everyday life at its purest. This is evident in what we do, not just how we think.

Conservatism is the fetishism of social relations. It reflects the split in capitalist society. On the one hand, moral authority, tradition and the rule of law; on the other, the individual and the untrammelled forces of the market. It mirrors the Marxist account of base and superstructure: the interdependence of the political and the cultural underpinned by social and material changes. The two cannot be separated, but this relationship is necessarily contradictory. Indeed, contradiction is a part of what constitutes the conservative tradition.

Typically, conservatives find truth in faith and tradition, but they can only do so by presuming capitalism as the background to these forms of meaning. The market economy is a reality, yet it is a theory and an ideology. This isn’t a fetish unique to conservative thinking. Many liberals fall prey to these illusions, preferring to see the world through the rational lens of an economist or a scientist. There isn’t enough time to go into the full shebang here. Economism and scientism usually presuppose some set of ideas going back to positivism and empiricism staking a monopoly claim on knowledge rooted in experience.

Some would say empiricism is a defining characteristic of English public life. Is there anything more to this story than that? ‘Anglo-Saxon empiricism’ is a great buzzword of high-minded theoreticians. This turns the conservative understanding of English history inwards. We’re told theory starts at Calais, and that’s probably for the best. So the English can be left to their allegedly stable history and its continuity uninterrupted by revolutions and civil wars. While the Continent gets on with the sport of absolutism and mass-slaughter, our innate tendency to avoid lofty ideas supposedly keeps us well grounded. This is the stuff of essentialism!

As Wolfgang Streeck pointed out, Brexit itself contradicts this idea of an Anglo-Saxon nation united by empiricism. Looking at the Remain case based on history and all the economic indicators, the English chose to vote Leave which had little to no evidence for its promise. It was the triumph of ideas about the way the world should be, not evidence about how the world is already. The suggestion that the pro-EU campaign lacked a political vision, which engages and mobilises people, is lost in all this. As a result, the incessant liberal whining about ‘post-truth’ politics can be heard everywhere.

The very possibility of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-factual’ politics goes back to the idea that there is a split between facts and values – the so-called ‘fact-value’ gap. In this regard, the great Scottish empiricist David Hume would not recognise the Brexit decision as ‘coherent’. A statement about how the world ought to be is not equal to a truth claim in Hume’s framework. It may be true that the Leave vote was acting out of certain values and ideas about the world, but this was not necessarily irrational and illogical and divorced from ‘the facts’.

It’s no coincidence that the conservative mind is often fond of empiricism. The separation of facts and values means judgements operate on a different level to reality. Indeed, there is only reality as perceived through the senses and anything beyond it is out of our reach. Anything based on anything other than an objective measurement is questionable. This epistemological framework sets rigid limits on thought. It can throw much of our reasoning into doubt. In the end, it is a restriction of claims on reality and knowledge. And this applies to the body politic too.

For a long time, we were always told the facts of life are conservative and the aims of the left are just utopian dreams. The idea is if we can’t assert ‘the facts’, then we must drop our claim to objective truth. ‘The facts’ are supposed to represent reality in cold, neutral units of information detectable only by sense impressions. The truth is out there, and it is data! However, this does not withstand further scrutiny. It seems meaningless to assess whether fascism or liberalism have ‘the facts’ right. Nor can this be done without a normative framework in the first place. Rather these discourses fall back on facts for support, and as Richard Seymour has pointed out, the truth of politics does not rest with its factual claims.

Even if the Nazi conspiracy theory of a worldwide Jewish-Bolshevik plot was accurate, would ‘the facts’ have justified the Holocaust? No, of course not. And yet, we are meant to believe fact-checking the Leave camp is meaningful. We’re supposed to believe Nigel Farage’s appeal to racism matters less than his lies, but he does reveals the truth – about himself and his politics – even when lying. He would still claim ‘the facts’ are on his side though. These matters are too complex for the empiricist, who sees people as separable from the world in which they breathe.

A stringent preoccupation with ‘the facts’ is in part an attempt to rescue the political from ideology. If all we needed were ‘the facts’, we would just need a steady pair of hands to govern our affairs. Systematic questions of economic strategy could be discarded in favour of an efficient technocracy. Clearly, this isn’t the case, or the European technocracy wouldn’t be faltering over Greece. If it were the case, managerialism would not be teetering on the edge of collapse all over the world. And so it goes, the collapse is not just about mass ignorance or a collective bout of idiocy.

If experience was the end of the story, the situation might favour continuity because it is what we know works after all. Instead, the majority of English voters opted for Brexit out of a yearning for national sovereignty, independence and, yes, controlled borders. If Hume was right, we cannot and should not make the leap from the way the world works to how the world ought to be. Well, this is exactly what Leave voters did. This was true of Remain voters too. Thus, it is misleading to pretend the average Remain voter had a greater grasp of the truth and Brexit is a victory based on falsehoods.

Managerial politics dominated British politics under John Major, Tony Blair and, later, David Cameron. Statistical measurements were supposed to provide the key to good policy in those days. To some extent, this remains the case under Theresa May, but the supremacy of performance targets is under threat. The ideological ferocity of Margaret Thatcher was somewhat different, and it is no coincidence that many of the Brexiteers look back to her for inspiration. The push to leave the EU was not rooted in Anglo-Saxon empiricism. It’s a radical departure with the past, with little time for evidence and experts.

This takes us to the crux of the matter: if we want politics without theory, we might not be happy with the results. In our attempts to get away from the theoretical stuff and back to concrete reality, we sometimes lose sight of both. The search for a non-theoretical substitute with a lot of data for back up can take you to some strange places. It should be no surprise that pop science, economics and psychology (minus Karl and Sigmund) inhabit the same cluttered media landscape as astrology, self-help and conspiracy theories. This is where the facts become alternative.

Photograph courtesy of carnagenyc. Published under a Creative Commons license.