Smash All Dogmas: Overcoming the Addiction to Ideology

By Keith Preston

Originally published in Tribes Magazine

Perhaps one of the most curious features of modernity is the way in which ideologies have replaced religions as a principal source of contentiousness. During the era of the nineteenth century, when the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment was being institutionalized, a few perceptive thinkers recognized that the “death of God” did not mean the death of dogma. In 1844, Max Stirner noted that “our atheists are pious people,” an acknowledgment that humanism and liberalism had replaced Christianity as the religion of the intellectual elite. Similarly, Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Parable of the Madman” was rooted in the recognition of the consequences of the loss of faith, its metaphysical underpinnings, and its derivative traditions.

“What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882)

The era of the twentieth century revealed that the Age of Faith gave way not to an Age of Reason, as Voltaire or Thomas Paine would have hoped for, but to an Age of Ideology. What were the great conflicts of the twentieth century, whether the two world wars or the Cold War, but wars of ideology that paralleled or exceeded the great wars of religion that had taken place during previous centuries?

Many different ideologies abound in the same manner that many different religious sects can be identified. Ideologies are typically grouped into the categories of Left and Right. The Left is thought to favor equality, progress, and universality, and leftists include liberals, progressives, socialists, social democrats, communists, left-libertarians, and left-anarchists. The Right is thought to favor hierarchy, tradition, and the particular, and rightists include conservatives, reactionaries, traditionalists, monarchists, right-libertarians, fascists, and national socialists. There are also a range of ideologies that defy the left/right model such as nationalism, populism, environmentalism, regionalism, feminism, and third positionism.

For their adherents, ideologies serve the same function that religions provide for their believers. None of them may be “true,” as no one possesses complete knowledge. Instead, both religions and ideologies are collections of myths and archetypes that people use to give structure to their own psyche and form common bonds with others. Ideologies create narratives that also resemble those of religions. It does not matter so much whether it is true, is some cosmic sense, that the Buddha was born with the ability to walk and talk as an infant or had telepathic powers, or whether Jesus turned water into wine or resurrected himself and others from the grave, or whether Mohammed flew on a winged horse or possessed magical healing powers. The fact that the followers of the great religious traditions believe these things makes these archetypes real to them, and this belief motivates the adherents of the world’s religions to action. Similarly, it does not matter so much whether narratives postulating the reality of “white privilege,” the “Jewish conspiracy,” historical materialism or that ancient Egyptian pharaohs were melanin-pigmented are objectively “true” or not. These concepts are real to their true believers because they think and act as if these are real.

A growing body of evidence has been accumulated which indicates that people choose their political beliefs and affiliations for reasons that cannot be explained in terms of rationality. For example, twin studies have indicated that a substantial portion of one’s political outlook may be genetically hard wired. Indeed, there is a growing field of inquiry known as “genopolitics” that seeks to identify the relationship between genetic influences and one’s political outlook. In a ground breaking article published in the American Political Science Review in 2005, political scientists John K. Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John R. Hibbing argued that research into the origins of the political beliefs held by individuals indicated the presence of primal mindsets that shape these beliefs.[1] Dozens of studies now exist in the fields of political science, psychology, neuroscience, and the cognitive sciences which indicate an individual’s genetic predisposition to certain political beliefs, and that the roots of such beliefs develop in childhood. Additional evidence also exists that a range of non-rational factors influence one’s political judgments. For example, physically taller political candidates tend to be much more successful than shorter ones. Facial features and the quality of the prospective political leader’s voice are also important determining factors in their likelihood of success.

For decades, psychologists have raised insights concerning the addictive nature of religious beliefs, and there is evidence that ideologies are similarly addictive. Ideological zealots require constant reinforcement of their beliefs, and breaking away from a deeply held ideological belief system can often be very painful psychologically in the same way that a loss of religious faith can also be very painful. Ideology provides a sense of certainty and purpose into an “all or nothing” state of mind. Ideological affiliation also provides one with a sense of belonging, and those who cease their affiliation with the group or repudiate the group’s ideology are often regarded as traitors or moral defectives. Ideology shapes how one regards not only one’s ideological allies but also one’s opponents. Just as religious fundamentalists view their opponents as sinners in need of salvation, ideological fundamentalists view their opponents as wayward souls in need of enlightenment. However, those who do not share the ideology are also regarded as inferior in some way, whether morally, mentally, or intellectually. Complexity and ambiguity are seen not as challenges to be embraced but as threats to be avoided.

The question that subsequently arises involves the matter of how addiction to ideology can be overcome or avoided in the first place. A few basic principles might be applicable in this regard. One might be to safeguard against extreme positions that consider those with opposing views as enemies rather than as dissenters with whom disagreement can be held in good faith. It may also be healthy to maintain a skeptical approach to perspectives that purport to offer some grand explanatory theory of history, human nature, and social evolution. Grandiose propositions concerning human potential and capabilities also warrant caution. While in-group/out-group dichotomies are certainly a social and political reality, an over emphasis on these tends to creative divisiveness and bitter rivalries that become self-destructive. It is also appropriate to approach social, political, and economic questions in the same manner that one would expect medical science to be approached in the sense of favoring a pragmatic reliance on factual evidence rather than ossified dogma.

As an illustration, the economist Ha-Joon Chang has argued that there are nine basic schools of economic thought: classical, neo-classical, Austrian, Marxist, Keynesian, developmental, Schumpeterian, behavioral, and institutional. Rather than rigidly attaching one’s self to a specific model of economic theory, would it not be more appropriate to examine specific claims made by contending schools on contentious economic questions on the basis of a reasoned consideration of the actual arguments and evidence? Similarly, attacks on the expressive freedoms of political dissenters have traditionally originated from the state. However, in the world of the twenty-first century such attacks are just as likely to originate from corporations, universities, or the mass media. As David Oakspawn has observed:

Here we have a situation where government is not censoring speech, but private entities that has control and have a monopoly of and on the means of information combining to suppress free speech with the government enabling that power, banning free speech through the back door. This brings into question the idea of the so-called “free market” and makes it more obvious that it is time to think outside of the so-called “liberal,” “conservative,” “left,” “right,” “communist,” “Nazi,” “free market,” “more government”, or whatever dialectic that the narrow mental quicksand-ish paradigm can bring up.

Of course, in addition to genetic and psychological considerations that shape one’s ideological outlook, there are also considerations of one’s own immediate self-interest, and the interests of one’s own reference groups. People adopt the political affiliations that they consider to be advantageous to the interests of their own tribe. Centuries of religious conflict in the Western world were ended only by the establishment of religious toleration and the de jour or de facto, depending on the nation, separation of religion and state. A similar question exists today concerning the possibility of ending, or at least reducing, conflict between ideological and political tribes by means of new paradigms such as that offered by National-Anarchism.

Ideological conflicts of the kinds that plague modern societies have emerged in direct parallel to the growth of the modern state. It is not coincidental that the most extreme forms of statism, such as Nazi and Communist totalitarianism, have also been among the most ideologically driven and rigid states. In the media-driven, plutocratic liberal democracies that have become dominant in the present era, political conflict is largely a manifestation of different ideological tribes and their attendant reference groups attempting to gain hegemony within the state system. Consequently, so-called “democratic elections” simply become a means of deciding which ideological tribes will be allowed to repress or plunder their rivals. The rise of state-centric mass democracy and the parallel growth of multiculturalism, which has the effect of eroding consensus regarding common civic values, guarantees the escalation of political conflict of the kind that is now developing virtually everywhere in the developed world.

National-Anarchism offers an antidote to this dilemma with its rejection of both statism and ideological universals. The National-Anarchist vision of decentralized, autonomous communities reflecting the shared values of their participants, while retaining the full rights of association and disassociation, provides a practical framework for affording a reasonable degree of self-determination for all ideological tribes. National-Anarchism therefore has the potential to reverse the trend towards exacerbated social and political conflict that is now developing. Conflicts of these kinds ensure that violence, disharmony, and unhappiness will become more commonplace. The wars of religion that once plagued the Western world only ended when religion and state were effectively separated. It is reasonable to assume that wars of ideology will end only when ideology and state are separated in a similar manner.

Alford, J.R., Funk, C.L. & Hibbing, J.R. (2005, May 1). Are political orientations genetically transmitted? American Political Science Review, 99 (2), 153-167.

[1] Alford, J.R., Funk, C.L. & Hibbing, J.R. (2005, May 1). Are political orientations genetically transmitted? American Political Science Review, 99 (2), 153-167.

7 replies »

  1. “There are also a range of ideologies that defy the left/right model such as nationalism, populism, environmentalism, regionalism, feminism, and third positionism.”

    From my perspective, feminism always seemed like a “left” thing.

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