I would like to propose a new conceptualization of ideology – that it is the inverse of addiction. If addiction is understood as a behavior used to relieve suffering in the short term but leads to prolonged or increased suffering in the future, than we can see ideology as the use of false, unpleasant or even harmful means and concepts in the short term in the attempt to achieve better conditions in the long run or, in its most perverse cases, indefinitely. I believe addiction and ideology can each be understood as having values along two axes. One axis runs from reflexively critical through justified to naïve. The other starts from the personal through the interpersonal to the social and cultural. While all four types are generally grounded in habit, which is to say the pre-rational, they help determine the way one’s environment or context is disclosed to and solicits us. In turn, one’s own addiction and ideology can be realized conceptually but a rational understanding is not a sufficient condition for their change, which must be affected through practice.
Addiction seems a good path to understanding ideology in that it is much easier to understand – much closer to home – than ideology. Although the archetypal addiction is drug abuse, many other kinds of addiction effect human life. These other forms of addiction are often considered less serious, demanding, or harmful. This is because they strike us as less physical and therefore as less real. Emotional or social addictions, however, can be excruciating and destructive. Those who have survived eating disorders or abusive relationships know this all to well. Take, for example, the hedgehog’s dilemma, where a person, having experienced and internalized neglect and abandonment during their development, comes to see the potential loss of intimacy as deeply painful. They see harm coming from the very thing they desire most and, depending on the severity of the case, amplify feelings of abandonment. This process terminates in the apperception of intentional harm by others – others who simply require normal and healthy emotional space without any attendant loss of love. The positive force of addiction, the succession of suffering, causes the addict to push others away, thereby minimizing and maximizing the root and flower of their pain. Self-control and the denial of love becomes an addiction unto itself.
What, then, of ideology? In this framework, ideology is the mindset which solicits difficult or harmful behavior to bring about the succession of suffering in the future. There are certainly positive cases of ideology. Willingly enduring difficulty can minimize the cost of pain, and a stoic ideology toward hardship maybe the most effective ethos in the face of a difficulty. Similarly, deferring pleasure is a necessary part of life. A “protestant ethic” can result in improved skills, achieved goals, and sustained stability. These ideological cases are not pathological, but they can become so. People can confuse deferment of pleasure or confrontation with adversity with self-destructive or jingoism. Someone may keep a stiff upper lip when they really need to seek help. Ideology, like addiction, helps us dull the fact that people are inherently dependent on others for wellbeing, biologically fragile, and motivated by passion in even the most rational decision. Ignoring such existential facts in order to maintain a strict idea of the right independent of context – a coherent self transcendent of the world through rigidity of mind or control of nature context – this is what leads to pathological ideology.
A behavior can be healthy or harmful depending on the circumstances. Wisdom is the ability to interpret life and choose an appropriate course of action where there may in fact be no good option at all. This in fact requires a critical ideology, one reflected upon with the wisdom of others. This wisdom comes from early development to lifelong learning and is the basis of Aristotle’s (or Spinoza’s) ethics and the Hellenistic philosophies of ataraxia which followed. This contextual fit between effect, affect, and reflect is why there is no such thing as an evil drug – there are circumstances when the a drug can be psychologically or physiologically healing and times when it is harmful. Over reliance on either a metaphysical system of the good or a chemical buffer for reality is harm, just as its correct therapeutic use requires the wisdom to correctly apply the which and when. Exercise can be addictive or caring practice, and ideology can be pathological or moral – the difference rests in the knowledge and awareness we apply in support of a constellation of motivation, belief, and action. It is also why a pathological ideology is not necessarily a false ideology, the difference lies in self-awareness.
It is difficult to have a false belief about an addiction to heroin or alcohol. The evidence is in; we know the effects. Many have endured the wreckage of family and friends, and those who use feel their own ruination with every second hand tick of the comedown. Yet the mental element of addiction does not gain strength from knowledge but reinforcement from habit. The patterning of thought which unveils the force of ideas and their attendant actions are a learned psycho-physical response. The mental craving for inebriation is the result of inebriation being largely successful – a lived history of successfully eliminated suffering in past trauma. Under new stress, the body acts pre-rationally along an intentional arc. The mind can always rationalize why, given the pain in any but always this particular case, it is acceptable to contradict it’s own long-term interests.
How self-aware one is about the long-term negative effects simply indicates how cynical one is about the addiction. In cases where an individual does not know her behavior is an addiction – such as the case of gambling fallacies, the belief that sex-addiction is nonsensical, or that an abusive partner’s violence is a form of love – no cynical justification is needed. When one is self-reflexive about their addiction, however, cynical justification becomes more common. The addict is aware that their behavior will cause harm to themselves and others, but they value the alleviation of pain in the present higher than an abstract future pain, and when in great pain the future is quite abstract indeed. In some cases, the pain can be so great that that the addiction becomes fully cynical – life has become so painful that it is not worth living. I no longer see myself as unworthy of salvation. The same distinction holds for false as opposed to cynical ideology, which we will return to shortly, but first it is necessary to review the social-individual pole of addiction and ideology.
I don’t intend here something like society as a speculative organic whole, although such an endeavor may well bear fruit. I wish to remain focused on behavior and understanding as it is enacted by individual people. However, when the effects of addiction or ideology understood at a social scale by an individual, actions are conceived as, justified through, and have consequences for larger groups. A social addiction is justified on the grounds of an imagined community – to the nation, society, or even the world – of humans that the individual could never personally know. With this understanding, we can say that most individuals (and, indeed, any social existent likely to be posited) are socially addicted to fossil fuels. The pain we are going to cause humanity in the long run is approaches the unfathomable, but the immediate needs of individuals, whether for grand profit or mere survival, is just too great to easily overcome – indeed the need is all too fathomable.
This is true for indebted farmers and paycheck-to-paycheck domestic service providers as it is for banks, armies, and pharmaceutical companies. While some may be fortunate enough to access alternative fuels, to live in cities with suitable public transport, or are capable of staying fit and ecofriendly by biking to work, many are not. Many need to cars just to get to jobs that provide minimum wages used to pay off the loans needed to buy a car that was necessary to get to a minimum wage job in order to provide basic necessities for their families. Investors or CEO’s could reroute capital towards sustainable energy and equitable access to other public goods, but for many the incentive to profit from the existing system – systems easily justified through the prevailing social norms and plain common sense – is just too great.
Each person, due to fortune, social position, and idiosyncrasy, are able to obtain differing capacities to reflect on their own addiction and ideology. Those most materially in need of fossil fuel production and with the least access to environmental education may not even have to rationalize their addiction – they simply don’t believe in it. We can call this something like ‘naïve social addiction’. Further along the scale of self-awareness, there may well be capitalists who believe the science but can’t make the dramatic change necessary to help steer systems of production away from its dependence on hydrocarbons. Instead, they find ways to justify their lack of action. Too dramatic a change would hurt the economy, hurt employment, and be too insufficient a change in any event – and they are not wrong in the superficial sense. One company changing its policies is not enough, and often impossible given the competitiveness of the market. And it is the case that simply and suddenly stopping the use of fossil fuels would cause great harm– just as a late stage alcoholic suddenly becoming sober will face terrible pain, seizures and death. It is not that their reasons are wrong, but that their justification to make no change is pathological.
This is not to argue for the transference of responsibility from social politics to the individual. Nor is it to argue that all institutions and individuals have an equal responsibility of their unequal share of power and profit. Rather, it is a way to think about how action and justification in social addiction function within an individual, including those that mean well but act poorly, or those who have power but whose harmful actions are obfuscated by their position within larger social constellations. This is important because society and the individual are both materially and logically impossible without the other. And there are those, at the far end of a cynical social addiction, that know full well the harm they are causing. Yet still they rationalize these actions – through fatalism, through racism or classism, or through the laziest belief of all: that the pain of others simply does not matter in light of benefit to them and their cohort. Here we can see a salient example social addiction meets social ideology, specifically a cynical ideology. Yes, I know better, but still I do it anyway.
What then of social ideology? Much like personal addiction, social ideology is much closer to common sense than social addiction or personal ideology. However, exactly because of the common-sense nature of the received understanding of a social ideology, it runs the risk of being unanalyzed. While many understand that there are different ideologies and even that they are historically contingent on material conditions, even those who analyze them run the risk of confusing multiple modes of social ideology that would best be understood as distinct forms which entail differential outcomes. Not all social ideology is false, nor is it all harmful. To remove the possibility of social ideology is to remove the possibility of making normative ends reasonable. In this way of understanding, ideology refers to a belief system which stipulates that causing difficulty or harm to the collective self is normatively required, in certain cases, because it will make things better for the collective in the long-term. The needs of the few are outweighed by the needs of the many, and just such thinking will award Nobel peace prizes to the near genocidal. I do believe that there are cases where ideology is not false, naïve, or cynical, but to understand them we must first understand why ideology contains such violently dangerous potential. It is precisely because it justifies – because its believers can do horrible things and believe them to be good – but works specifically in a domain where evidence is opaque and the demands not precise. It is often stated, rightly, that the problem with ideology and authoritarianism is that cause and effect on social scales has eluded concrete understanding.
History is filled with cases where people righteously believed that an act of limited violence would bring about great change. Dropping atomic bombs on Japan when it was known that they were already willing to surrender. The use of torture to fight terrorism, is pathological in spite of any few success it has achieved, and it is so because we know that torture is a very unreliable way of finding correct information. Despite all predictions of a easy and rapid victory, the soldiers now shipped off to the near east were yet unborn when the the war on terror began. The real danger with social ideology comes from it’s essential belief in the end of history, that it has the capacity to know the future and solve a problem, indeed all problems, forever. It is to abstract the objective suffering of people and their finite condition of unfolding historical causality and hypostasize it to a metaphysical concept that can be solved transcendentally. The belief that a finite act of violence can transmute the historical problems that unfold in the dynamic process of life to an unchanging ideal social state.
This is the path where ideology can become false – its inherent weakness. Our epistemic resources can never justify this metaphysical belief. In the case of the war on terror, the justifications are clearly and empirically false, it has wilts in front of criticism not only because of the violence it has caused which were considered external to its aims, but because it has failed to achieve the ends imminent to its own claims. This is the sign of a false ideology, in distinction to a cynical or lacking ideology: the claims of what will be improved or how are so vague that it fails to be a candidate for truth. The future does not end, nor does history. But when false ideology relies on an unprovable dictum – torture has not ended terrorism yet, but it will next time, some time. This claim is possible precisely because the future does not end, and it thereby overshadows all the empirically provable cases where this has been shown to be false, cases that were actual events with concrete causes that can be specified.
Here the negative consumes the positive: We cannot prove that something that has not yet happened will not work. Indeed, in ideology, the negation of the negation yields the positive. Because we cannot know what has not happened, we must torture others to save civilians, even in the face of the positive evidence of torture’s positive failure. This is the failure of ideologies match to the world – as it always must, even with beneficial ideology – and to not realize this inherent lack of identity is to live within a properly false ideology. It is from false ideology that pathological ideology becomes more likely. It’s self-assurance of the end of history in spite of, perhaps even because of, the sublime scale and unknowable nature of the future makes violence easier to justify.
A false ideological action, then, is where one invokes harm in order to save society – a permanent solution to a human condition. But there are no empirical grounds for this claim to draw strength. There are no permanent solutions – life, humanity, is not a problem to be solved. That war crimes to end communism are justified because capitalism, rationalized through abstract models around free trade and less government intervention, will permanently improve humanity. Yet this has been proven to be false. Rather, specifics have changed, some for the better, but many for the worse. This is not an indictment of trade per se, rather the way trade is given a transcendental meaning within the metaphysical ideology of capitalism. As will be visited briefly later, I think the role of trade ands its justification from a liberal ideology is necessary today in achieving moral imperatives, but only specific ones. A true ideology does not fit all; it remains always partial.
While all ideology fails to be entirely true, false ideology is properly called “false” because it fails to meet its own imminent criteria and does so as a result of being abstracted to the point of the absolute, a sort of dualism untouched by the resistance of the world and the methods of praxis. False ideology has come from all camps, leading to the pathological results from leftist fantasies of forced collectivization to conservative desires regarding socially “impure” elements. The stem of all these false ideologies is the belief that the infinity of future history can be controlled by a finite act, which ironically is seen to be a infinite act that puts a terminus to a finite human history. Frequently, those with the most power in an ideological movement are self-aware of their ideology, and cynically use it to reach selfish ends. The symbiotic opportunism of cynical ideology with righteous false ideology has been the truest tragedy, the fall of human freedom to the lowest levels of barbarism.
More sinister then these brutal events, if not as evil, is when a false ideology, whether during a moment of crisis or through procedural reform, become reified in institution, socially justified, legally encoded, and normatively accepted. It then slowly structures into a systemic violence, such as the economic equality the world faces today, that are seen as more normal the more they compound. In this case, the ideology, functioning through individuals at a social scale, is invisible to the actors. It is either accepted cynically as natural and inevitable, or as the functioning of justice itself. The use of finite harm, justified by the reduction of an unknowable and indefinite complex human future, then does transform into an infinite, or at least indefinite, reproduction of violence.
The return of the infinite nature of history, repressed by false ideology in its material as well as ideological artifices, becomes an infinite series of always supposedly singular events – events that are always portrayed as necessary and just acts of to manage problems that were never supposed to occur according to the first principles used to justify them. The use of violence is always abnormal, always singular, and always necessary, even when all can see that the use of power to cause violence – for example, against a black man just for existing – is anything but abnormal, singular, or necessary. Change to the overall system that supports this structural violence appears to not possible, first because of false ideology and then, as the situation becomes more materially entrenched within society, because of cynical ideology.
The idea that there will be a world without violence, without social strife, without personal pain is false. Ideology that justifies the use of violence with the promise of this false premise is a false and pathological ideology, regardless of its political content. But there must be reasonable forms of ideology for there to be reasonable, just ends that social action is righteous in pursuing. These cannot rest on a particular content alone, for despite large overlap in the ethical beliefs of diverse communities, even the most pacifist religions have been used to support extreme violence. Rather it is in how the content of these moral claims are laid out. The Ghandian social movement required great amounts of sacrifice, but for all of its imperfections it was not a false ideology for it claimed the specific goal of decolonization and with its many participants critiquing each other prevented what was inherently false about the ideology – that it truly matched the world and its social needs ad infinitum – becoming a universal identity. However, the same Ghandian ideology can become pathological if it is made abstract and absolute, to the point where cottage industry, self-reliance, and denial of pleasure becomes a panacea for all social problems without any falsifiable causal claims to any particular problem in its context.
By teasing out issues of ideology, and addiction, we can see that there is a place for properly situated ideology today – ideology that gives purposive aim to political collectives. The ideological belief in free healthcare isn’t a false ideology, despite how ‘unrealistic’ it may seem to put into action. This is because its methods are concrete and its aims are not infinite. There is no claim in universal healthcare that it will finally solve the problem of disease, but that it will provide the best care possible for people regardless of their economic resources. It would not be quite right to say that universal healthcare will do no harm; it is quite clear that it will hurt the bottom line and political capital of many powerful elites.
What makes it seem so unrealistic is the social addiction to a capitalized healthcare scheme. But like with stoic ideology- attacking head on a problem that terrifies us but will become worse with time – the painful transition to a single payer healthcare system would cause will be small in comparison to the benefit it gives; not just to the poor but to everyone who lives in a more healthy, productive, and vibrant society. But, critically, this more vibrant society isn’t defined as always in the future but not yet now, nor is it considered eternal, as if it will be the final form of healthcare – rather it is based on the concrete evidence of its capacity to provide, not the concept of a better system, but material cancer treatment and psychological counseling to suffering, living human beings. Again: This does not rest on the concept of solving mental health or the best hospital system, but on the direct effects, based on empirical evidence, on the health of an individual which are objectively felt needs for each and every person.
I believe there are many justifiable ideological aims. Their justice stems from their ability to help us, in or fallible way, overcome addictions, both personal and social. One example from an economically conservative arena lies in laissez-faire principles mentioned above. The drug war has devastated communities across the globe. Aggressive intellectual property rights enforce a globally striated hierarchy of income. What is often abstractly justified as ‘free trade’ is not evenly applied to all concrete programs. Some trade is more free than others. What makes free trade falsely ideological, and therefore easily weaponized to enforce the interests of elites, is that it’s ideological use is only proposed when questioning whether free trade is good, not how it is being applied.
It is ironic that the use of first principles which reduces the question of how to whether, from conditions to absolutes, allows a cynical use of power to shape how the ideological principles are unevenly applied, because in its very essence it could neve have been the absolute, abstract method it was sold as. It would always in the final account have the be choices of how to apply them in a given context, but the use of ideology is what blinds us to the suffering its cynical unequal application has caused. First principles are used to obfuscate the empirical data. To champion free trade or closed borders in the abstract, without concrete connection to the lived world and the empirical effects it has on specific people in every day life, are two sides of the same coin. They are deployed to protect special interests rather than emancipatory and participatory politics.
However, just as with personal behavior, the problem of social behavior is not one that can only be technical, it must also be normative. This requires wisdom, and wisdom at this scale of human affairs is arduous to achieve. It calls first for the understanding of the limits of our knowledge, an understanding of our own finitude. Critique of ideology springs from the question, “Do my justifications rest on instrumental harm for the sake of a future poorly defined?”, on the one hand, and “Am I rationalizing a social addiction to provide short term gain for myself at the cost of prolonged suffering for society?”, on the other. Only by passing through this critical moment can we retain an ideology in good faith, in the hopes of overcoming our personal and social addictions.
I realize that, in this essay, I have not given a particularly schematic or analytical account of what an ideology is, so much as some ways that it can function. I have also fallen into the trap of focusing on the negative of ideology, which everyone already believes despite its constant presence, instead of the more difficult task of outlining a good ideology. In my defense, I never said there was one – just that ideologies serve a necessary function in creating a better future, and it is just that essence which makes them capable of the evil they are so well known for. But for reasons that should be clear from reading this essay, I cannot believe that there is a right ideology, because that would be abstract where I have called for the historical, specific, and concrete.
Indeed, I have stated that at the heart of every ideology, even the beneficial and therapeutic ones, there is the possibility of a lie – the lie of being true. I in no way propose the noble lie (the highest ideology if ever there was one). Nor do I believe that to lack an ideology – to lack a sense of what is good, right, just and so on – is simply impossible and those that report they do are the most zealous in their common sense. Rather, I propose that the study of many ideologies gives us the critical tools possible to show, in the way reflection and shadow makes imperceivable light apparent, the falsity any particular ideology holds in its relation to a world that overflows any concept with its reality. It is through the specter of comparisons that a just ideological endeavor can be put into praxis against the social ills we inevitably are thrown into. It is this Jainist, dialectical approach that I propose to make the world a better place, not for ever but for now.