Why Learn about Ideologies?

Dr. Arvind Sivaramakrishnan, an Adjunct Professor and former visiting Professor in the Department of Humanities at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, brings his academic and wider experience to bear on the need to learn and understand ideologies.

Very often, we hear people say things like these:

‘You’re a fascist.’
‘That’s a neoliberal economic policy.’
‘This is truly radical feminism.’
‘They’re a bunch of marxists.’
‘This is a postmodern novel.’
‘We’re facing a techno-managerialist takeover of a public institution.’

We hear, or read, or use, ideological terms such as ‘liberalism’, ‘feminism’, environmentalism’, and many others all the time. They are used as shorthand descriptions, or to help us reach conclusions about policies or events, or - sometimes entertainingly - as insults, and of course in many other contexts.

But what would people say if we asked them what exactly they meant, or in what way a policy is neoliberal, or precisely how a particular moral attitude is fundamentalist? What would we ourselves say if people asked us why we think a conservative response to, say, a national educational reform plan makes good sense and raises significant challenges to the plan?

There are at least two good reasons for learning about political ideologies. The first is that we can ask for - or insist on - and understand the explanations we are given, or we can show that the people using ideological labels do not know what those terms mean, or that they have seriously misunderstood the words they are using.

The second is that we would be much better placed to understand the wider forces that shape our lives, that is, to understand and question our elected representatives and our public-service officials much better about what they plan to do, about what they actually do, and about why they do things the way they do them. We would gain a deeper and clearer understanding of the answers they give us, or of where they are evading our questions, and of how and why policies succeed or fail. 

That is essential to our being citizens in any form of democracy, and in other systems it can be crucial to our very survival. In democracies, we can see how the state often recognises the importance of public accountability, in the form of laws which give the public rights to official information. Indeed, we could start to see how even those kinds of laws are different in different countries, and how the laws themselves express or embody different political ideologies; we would learn different ways of reading our world, of making sense of events, institutions, and political cultures.

Those are just some of the ways in which even reasonable knowledge of political ideologies - of the ideas they express of human nature, and of society and politics - helps us to understand our world better, and even to act with deeper knowledge of it. Indeed it says something about our current political condition that we so often use ideological terms freely but with almost no idea of what they mean.

We would, furthermore, make some startling discoveries For example, the neoliberal thinker Friedrich von Hayek, who argued all his life against state planning and state intervention in the economy, favoured a public welfare safety net - which, by implication, would expand as an economy expands. We might also wonder what Hayek would have said about the fact that major governments committed to neoliberalism poured something like $3 trillion into rescuing private banks whose own actions had caused the 2007-9 global financial crash. As for Karl Marx, it is not widely recognised that he hated violence and walked out of organisations which advocated violence. We would find that many extreme fundamentalist sects which loathe everything about modern society are also very skilled in using the internet, advertising and PR techniques, and high-tech weaponry to spread and enforce their messages to great, even global, effect - and that they could not do without the latest technologies. 

If you want to read a clear, direct, and accessible textbook which aims to aid the reader to identify and evaluate the assumptions underlying a wide range of public matters read the SAGE textbook Introduction to Political Ideologies by Arvind Sivaramakrishnan.

If you have any questions for the author, please write to us at marketing@sagepub.in.

Click here for the complete list of textbooks on Political theory and thought.

This article was originally published on University Express, www.universityex.com on December 29, 2018.

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