Ideological Amnesia

Rupert August

Ideology, like religion; matters to people. So much so that it will make them throw away their lives in the hopes that their chosen doctrine will be empowered. No amount of money will convince a man to sacrifice his life in such a way. Clearly, ideology matters, with differing contents offering different levels of commitment and zeal. The war between these ideologies certainly can be characterized as a form of memetic survival of the fittest – which selects for the centralisation of power. This has been better discussed elsewhere in detail (notably by De Jouvenel), but it only covers the pattern of existing and historically successful ideologies, with little care paid to how they are formed. To give a more complete picture then, we must investigate how an ideology comes to be formed, with consideration given both to successful and unsuccessful ideologies and movements. Once they are formed, they are often calcified, and may then be selected out, but this maturity and ossification is itself part of a larger trend in generational succession.

In the first place, there is a tradition, for no movement springs from nowhere. The closest one might come is from the aftermath of a revolution, when so much of the past has been deliberately destroyed. However, even here the worldviews will typically emerge out of previous faction alignment, but failing that, an alignment will be inherited as part of a political tradition. Given these alignments, a set of material incentives will guide ideological formation in one direction or another to disempower an enemy or empower a friend or oneself. The cynical vulgarity of this will be invariably unappealing, and in a factional context, it will leave oneself open to rhetorical attack, so a more noble reason will be found which just so happens to be materially beneficial. The frame may be opposed by the enemy simply by virtue of it being proposed, or due to the realisation of the material consequences. However, they will likewise be unable to oppose it for base material reasons and must instead frame the issue in loftier terms. Thus, the two factions have laid out their positions, the conflict has arisen, and it will be subsequently determined in the short term, but seldom fully settled. Once the initial bout is concluded, both sides will reassess their position, and then once again seek to strengthen their position with either another position to form another plank of the ideology, or a trying of the same issue.

The problems arise through the process of succession, and the separation of a logic from its original progenitors. At the outset, the proposition will be understood practically on the one hand, and rhetorically on the other. The practical consequences, understanding, and circumstantial need of the ideological component, even if it is proposed entirely selflessly, will almost certainly deviate somewhat from its rhetorical and logical implications. The wider the audience, the more likely it is to be simplified to reach the lowest common denominator. Principles might be established far beyond their use, if those initial uses really existed. At last, when it comes time to pass on faction leadership to a new generation, this understanding will be muddied in the transmission, both because the process itself is almost always imperfect, especially with regards to implicit knowledge, but also because the more honest and committed recruits will be those attracted by the rhetoric of a faction and ideology, not the hidden but actual underpinnings. It may take more than one generation, but the appeal of a particular logic, or misplaced iron-clad principles, will fix a course which was initially unintended but maintains its own momentum. When a faction or ideology becomes too fixed or committed in this way, it may try to alter the path with revolutionary internal change, but either due to that internal disjointedness or through a lack of action; it withers away. Perhaps the remnants will be scraped up by another faction or ideology as a strategy for power, but in the process – their own tradition may well be subsumed unless it comes to dominate its new host.

This process played itself out aptly over the longue durée of English (and later British) political history. To take a – by no means definitive – starting point, after the English reformation, and the Elizabethan reign in particular; two factions of political importance were left: the Episcopalian Anglicans, and the Non-Conformist Protestants (a wide umbrella of sects). The Non-Conformists, by the nature of their beliefs, wanted to be free of the obligation to pay church taxes and attend Anglican communion; and so they promoted what came to be freedom of religion and conscience. Under Cromwell – they were able to temporarily usurp the privilege to dictate religious practices, but when they were finally relieved of that ability, they simply retreated back to freedom of religion. This faction came to be demographically much more in the colonies due to Anglican resurgence – the latter opting to encourage, pressure, and force their rivals into leaving Britain. Consequently, two characteristics were smuggled into the proto-US because of this residual factionalism: dogmatic belief in the freedom of religion and conscience, and a conscious estrangement from the greater body politick that was England. Meanwhile, in the process of finding justifications for supporting the king as a matter of natural duty; Anglican Royalists strengthen and formalise existing ideas around the corporate structure that is the state and the nation – with the king as the head. This is in continual contrast to the rational individualism of the Non-Denominationals and Parliamentarians of the civil war. By the time the Parliamentarians win, they still lack a rhetorical and ideological justification for killing Charles I, but they do so anyway – letting material conditions rule without excuse in a noteworthy exception to the normal rule. Only after that does the ideological justification for a nation separate from the king begin to be properly formed.

Later in this grand back and forth: the Parliamentarians-turned-Whigs confront the Royalists-turned-Tories over the issue of the Corn Laws. The undercurrent is that it empowers the Tory landed aristocracy/agricultural population at the expense of the factory workers and the Whig owners who compensated them. As such, they funded a massive campaign to end the Corn Laws, helped tremendously by the Potato Famine which allowed a moral argument to be made – which would allow food to be more readily traded across borders, and supplied where it is needed. At the time, the doctrine of free trade would also benefit the same Whig Industrialists by encouraging the lowering of foreign barriers to British goods – which were already more efficiently produced than elsewhere, thanks to Britain’s more advanced industry. This doctrine was triumphant for a time, sending the Tories into disarray, but later became a noose around the neck of the whole country. Britain was greatly overexposed to imports which could not be guaranteed during war, and both were unaware of and unwilling to countenance the protectionist policies which would be integral to maintaining their industry and imperial economic cohesiveness when international competition had increased. So too did the Whig and later Liberal impulse to enfranchise more of the population backfire through a misunderstanding of the strategy. At first, it was a strategy for admitting new money into the electorate – who were typically staunchly Liberal, even while the majority of the country was not. This sound strategy which had, for a time, allowed them to dominate Parliament; was eventually pushed too far with the enfranchisement of men of the lower orders which was capitalised on by the Disraelian Tories.

While those trends were unfolding, the Tories were thrown into chaos by the repealing of the Corn Laws by a Tory ministry, which tore apart the party by undermining its material backing, and breaking up the coalition which formed it. From the ashes emerged a new strategy, which chose not to contest the free-trade ground any further, but focused on creating a union between the patriotic poor, and what was left of the aristocracy. The aristocracy ran things of course, but the rhetoric was that it was all in service of the rights of the poor as British subjects – giving them their due. This was highly effective while the poor were politically unorganised, but the rhetorical framing and logic for the poor to represent themselves – were all laid out. The Labour party thus became the continuation of that rhetorical frame, but the Tories lacked a strategy to maintain their position, other than merging with the Whigs to form the modern Conservative party.

Throughout this whole process, policies and platforms have been either fixed into the national consciousness, such as free trade, freedom of religion, and an egalitarian serving-aristocracy; or fallen by the wayside despite being perfectly viable and coherent, such as a qualified franchise, absolutist national corporatism, and agrarianism. The most vocal champions and opponents of all of these positions will typically be doing so from a point of genuine passion, as when Gladstone sought to preserve the international rules-based-order model of diplomacy but did so a generation after it had been relevant to the original task of containing revolutions. Especially in the present – when arguments are made about free trade being a panacea for our economic woes, those making such propositions are not doing so for the same reasons that it was initially proposed. Indeed, they may be simply obliviously but sincerely riding on the coattails of men who simply wanted to cripple their political opponents 200 years ago. And by God; they would throw down their life to spite that long-dead aristocrat.

There must be caution made, however, for the deterministic weight of these ideological trajectories is severely limited by institutional weakness. That is to say: men, and leaders especially, guide these trajectories with their own leadership, insight, and influence. Disraelian One-Nation Toryism was potentially impossible without Disraeli himself, so his stamp remains on all that follows him. Especially given that his position of working alongside the media and public sentiment was, in actuality, only adhered to when it suited him. Later generations seemed to have forgotten this (as previously stated, they always do). So, it takes another such Great Man to bend the faction ideology to his will so conclusively. The Glorious Revolution was only brought about by an unlikely alliance between the Whigs and the Tories. Had the Tories stayed true to their original raison d’etre and supported the king in common cause with the royalists of Ireland in particular – they might well have saved themselves a hundred years of political pain and humiliation which they would never truly recover from. Their lot would have been better if they had been purely deterministically guided according to their material interests. Indeed, the ideological commitment to earlier positions (notably anti-catholicism) blinded them to some of the power politics in the situation. They seemed to prefer to throw out the Catholics – in line with their ideological commitments – rather than further their own power. At a certain point, there is true commitment among the rank and file, along with less-than-impressive leaders.

The way to escape this paradigm might be to have a succession of gifted leaders who can tutor the next generation knowingly – so that the leadership apparatus of the faction is not left to a voluntary successive generation who are attracted by the exoteric appeals – without knowing the esoteric realities of what lead to those rhetorical positions. In other words, one must know more or less from birth who one’s successor will be, so that their head is less likely to be filled with false ideas. Even then the process isn’t perfect, but to move away from England for a moment; it is probably why some of the greatest successive generations of leadership in Rome tended to be cultivated from an early age in close proximity to the power they would inherit; such as the Five Good Emperors, and the later Soldier Emperors of the Third Century – who collectively came to understand how to run the empire to the necessary degree of discipline and militarisation to overcome their challenges, until the refinement found perfect form in Aurelian, who used all of the accrued wisdom to restore the empire almost totally in a mere five years.