Thursday, August 14, 2008

Is Liberal Democracy an Ideology?


I last noted the definition of “ideology” while reading the anthropologist Henry Munson, Jr. In his Islam and Revolution in the Middle East, 1988, on page 37 he writes, “Those who seek to revive or defend tradition inevitably reconstruct it and infuse it with a political significance it did not formerly have. This is certainly true of most of the twentieth-century Islamic movements that seek to create strictly Islamic policies. Fundamentalist ideology differs from popular religion as well as conventional orthodox belief in both Sunni and Shi’i Islam – most obviously by virtue of the very fact that it is an ideology, that is, a blueprint for political action.”

It was Munson’s arguments I had in mind when I said that Liberal Democracy was not an ideology. I just looked up the above dictionary definition and note that it doesn’t disagree with Munson. Turning to “Liberal-Democracy” I don’t believe it can be seen as a particular “political” or “social” system. It would even be hard to argue that it is a particular “economic system, for while “free economy” is the abstract term all Liberal Democracies subscribe to, the individual Liberal-Democratic nations each seem to have their own approach to this economic freedom. I don’t see anything here that could be grouped together under the rubric “ideology.”

The social qualities of Liberal-Democracy are even further from fitting an “ideology.” Consider the Bill of Rights. It is a set of guarantees that our founding fathers established. Whatever the government became in the future, it should not infringe this set of rights. But to say for example that we don’t want anyone, even a policeman, to break into our house without proper cause doesn’t qualify as an element of an ideology as far as I can tell. And, of course, the set of rights or freedoms are defined slightly differently in the other Western nations.

There is a definition that might be applied to Liberal Democracy. Let’s see if you want to embrace it. In Anthony Thiselton’s A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion, he doesn’t have a definition for “ideology,” but he does for “ideological criticism.” He writes, “In Marxist traditions the term ‘ideology’ is used pejoratively to denote systems of ideas or beliefs, or a ‘false consciousness’ that serves to perpetuate and to underpin capitalist attitudes and values. In the social sciences it is used more generally (either pejoratively or neutrally) to denote systems of belief that are consciously or unconsciously invoked to underpin particular political or social structures, institutions and practices. Hence ideological criticism denotes the epistemological and hermeneutical process of bringing these beliefs and dynamics of their application to the surface.” I don’t believe that there are common beliefs and dynamics in Liberal Democracy. Consider Western European states and America. There are indeed peculiar beliefs and dynamics, but where shall we look for beliefs and dynamics that both nations would subscribe to? No doubt they exist, but they are back there out of sight and don’t seem very useful in explaining modern phenomena. We can abstract some commonness we call Liberal Democracy, but we probably can’t get Western European states and the U.S. to experience any more than the mildest acceptance – certainly they would admit to nothing that rose to the level of a belief (as ideological Islamist might be said to believe), and anything of a dynamic nature would seem almost accidental to them, nothing they would want to embrace with enthusiasm.

In my earlier note on this subject, I meant that Liberal Democracy did not fit the definition of a particular set of political, social or economic beliefs that are subscribed to by the hypothetically Liberal-Democratic faithful. The term “Liberal-Democratic” is a term of convenience. It notes that Western nations have certain elements in common that permit them to have greater success in such realms as politics, freedom, economic success and even military success. These Social Scientists coined the term “Liberal-Democracy.” Note that it has been taken up successfully in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, etc and they marvel at how quickly these nations became economic giants, sources of wealth, and the means for increased affluence for their citizens. Surely, Francis Fukuyama argued, it would be good if every nation became Liberal Democratic. Look at the nations which are not Liberal-Democratic, especially those nations which embrace a politics of resentment toward the successful Liberal-Democratic nations. They wallow in poverty. Are they condemned to this poverty? No. Look at how quickly Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan became Liberal-Democratic successes. All they would need is to give up their resentment, give up blaming others for their problems, and do what others have done and they will be successful too.

Now where in all of this is an ideology? Marx said there was a “’false consciousness’ that served to perpetuate and to underpin capitalist attitudes and values,” but surely his views are out of date. Capitalism has transformed itself into Liberal Democracy and the ‘attitudes and values’ that Marx loved to excoriate no longer exist – or if they do, as in the entrepreneurial robber-baron wantabes I mentioned earlier, they are being controlled as well as we can.

You asked how Liberal Democracy could simply grow up in the West. You say something needed to tell it where to begin. That’s true. And here we again turn to Marcel Gauchet and his The Disenchantment of the World, a Political History of Religion. Liberal Democracy began in the Church, particularly in the Protestant Church. It doesn’t seem possible to provide Gauchet’s thesis in just a few words, but on page 15 in his introduction he writes, “My major concern in this book will be first to reconstruct Jewish monotheism from the circumstances surrounding its first appearance to the deployment of its long-term consequences; and then to follow its development form where Christianity takes over to the point where the seeds of terrestrial autonomy contained within it come to fruition. This is the point where, thanks to religion, a society with no further need for religion arises.”

Did I mention that Gauthier was an atheist? He feels no despair about his condition or the condition of the modern [Liberal-Democratic] state that has become autonomous from the Church. He wants us first, as the scholars we ought to be, to understand that we [Liberal-Democrats] did come from a particular religion. Notice his enthusiasm as he sets his atheism aside and advocates to his stodgy scientific colleagues, the need for reconnecting, in a manner of speaking, with the Christian Church:

On page 18 he concludes his introduction with, “We can no longer be granted the luxury of peacefully cultivating our tiny gardens within the framework of a well-organized division of labor where our overall understanding of things is supposed to increase by systematically accumulating minutiae. We have all seen how reorienting ourselves, comparing a familiar object to something else and putting it into a broader perspective throws new light on it, whereas confining ourselves to the object alone leads us to accept as self-evident something that should be questioned. The most erudite internal history of Christianity can teach us hundreds of essential things about it; but it would still avoid the main issue, namely, what constitutes its decisive originality in relation to other religions. We must make up our minds: if we do not wish to greatly impair our understanding of religion we can no longer avoid the challenge of a broader horizon and all the uncertainties and difficulties this involves. We must not delude ourselves about the limits of this undertaking, nor imagine that we can go beyond them; at the same time, we can neither disregard the limits of such an attempt to give comprehensive meaning to successive developments, nor be naïve about the presupposition of a comprehensive meaning, a presupposition underpinning the most well-established certainty of the most rigorous scholarship, not to mention the more mundane tension between the necessities and possibilities of information. In other words, we must remain within the bounds of a critique of historical reason.

“But should we need any justification other than our encounters with these ancient texts when strict scholarship and literal readings would scarcely suggest that they can still enlighten us? They attest the inexhaustible fertility of that creative side of our understanding of things, which skeptical sarcasm and scientistic edict have formed an unnatural alliance against in an unrelenting effort to divert us from it. Can we not recover this creativity and combine it with scholarly prudence? We are pygmies who have forgotten how to stand on the shoulders of giants. If we cannot match their stature, we can at least make use of it.”

Perhaps you can get a feel here for why some of us have developed a fondness for this French atheist. But at the same time perhaps you can see why I might think this congeries of ideas and beliefs called Liberal Democracy don’t seem to parallel anything previously accepted as an ideology.

Lawrence Helm

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