Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why Ideas Matter

I've been writing a lot about ideas recently. The tendency has become to overlook ideas and the theoretical basis that drive people to make decisions and instead focus on the outcomes of those decisions. This is a jaundiced view, increasingly taken in much modern analytic work, presuming that the motivations for action should be ignored as long as the outcomes eventually line-up with our desired world view.  While I do agree with the case for pragmatism in the construction of public policy - there is a necessity to work with a broad set of actors who may have radically different motivations for their actions - it is also wrong to ignore the ideologies that drive people to act. Further, the semi-predictable outcomes of our decisions may often have their seeds in the ideologies that informed these actions. People in general, and particularly political scientists, may be poor forecasters of the future, but the shortcomings of our ideas and the "propaganda"-driven frames we use to interpret the world  have a roll in shaping those outcomes all the same. Belief in an ideology paves the way to a set of outcomes that may have otherwise been off the table.

In an interview, the filmmaker Adam Curtis, summarizes what he sees as the importance of ideas:

...I believe that ideas have consequences. And why I like people like [19th century conservative sociologist, Max] Weber is because they are challenging what I see as that crude left-wing vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society, that we are just surfing, our ideas are just expressions—froth on the deep currents of history, which is really driven by economics. I’ve never believed that. Of course, economic forces have a great effect on us. But actually, people’s ideas have enormous consequences. And to be honest, if you had to reduce what I do, I spend my whole time just looking at how ideas have consequences, not necessarily what the promoters of them intended, because I think that’s a really big thing in our time. (emphasis added)

I think that Curtis articulates a very important point here. Just because our limitations at making predictions are very real does not mean the ideologies that we use to make those predictions will not have some resonance upon the outcomes.  No one would initiate grandiose mechanisms of social upheaval if they did not intrinsically believe that their ideology would result in a desired impact. Stalin did not agriculturally collectivize the Ukraine with the goal of starving millions of his own citizens, he did it because he believed that he was implementing a scientifically derived socio/political framework that would help deliver the Soviet Union to a greater degree of resource independence. It was in part, because of the near religious nature of the prescriptive Marxist dialects involved that the policies were implemented on the scales that they were and resulted in the level of destruction that they did. The same case can be made for the decision of the Khmer Rouge to return Cambodia to the technological stone age or by neoliberal economists to subject developing economies to the cruelties of structural adjustment throughout the 1980s.  The beliefs themselves shaped and determined the outcomes, even if they were not the outcomes predicted.

Further, the extent to which ideas have shape the values of a society will help to determine how resilient a society is in the face of systemic shock or crisis. Jared Diamond, in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, makes a case for culturally determined ideological factors that can equip societies to fail or succeed shortages regardless of preexisting resource conditions. The ideas that shape these societies and the values that the societies hold will help determine ability to adapt and withstand shock. Cultural ideas determine how effectively resource management can operate within a particular society. Within this context, ideas, and how they are constructed and implemented, can mean the difference between life or death. While environmental conditions may to some extent drive cultural distinctions or ideas, the belief in how a society should be structured or operate cannot in and of itself be dismissed.

While it may seem too ideologically inflexible to insist that people and particularly political leaders do the right things for the right reasons - perhaps it is enough that they merely do the right things - rationale will always guide implementation. Rationale must also always be given to build public support. It can be difficult to get someone to implement a policy they do not believe in unless they can be coerced in some way: whether this is through propaganda, threat of force or bribery. While ideology should not be inflexible, people need to understand the reasons they are being asked to act. It is in this explanation for action that ideas become so powerful. Some of the worst excesses of 20th century ideologies - Nazism, Soviet Marxism and American Neoliberal Capitalism -were all derived from an erroneous belief in Social Darwinism. This idea proved to be pervasive and allowed for systematic destruction of societies and their reconstruction around absolutist systems on a scale never before imagined. Ideology and the widespread public acceptance of that ideology can result the full-scale reshaping of society. None of the results of the dramatic social shifts of the ideologies of the 20th century could have been achieved simply by "muddling through".

Ideas remain important and will likely remain, in response to environmental or resource conditions, the underlying engine that drives social, political and structural transformation. This is the raw power of ideas. While the outcomes of an ideology may not always be easily predictable, those outcome often lie as a shard within the very core of the idea itself. Ideas may be the most powerful dictators of human action that exist. We should bear this in mind as we plan the future of our societies.

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