The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Ideology: Political Concepts Chapter 3

Previous: Ideology

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

At first glance ideology and legitimacy seem identical, because ideology determines legitimacy.

An ideology is a story about how the world is, and how it should be. Most ideologies include:

  • A theory of human nature, which determines how they think people should be treated.

  • A vision of what the good life is.

  • An ideal type of person, who is most virtuous.

  • And, combined, these determine what sort of world an ideology’s believers should try to create.

The best way to explore this is to look at some ideologies, both recent ones (which we have emotions about) and older ones we are somewhat disconnected from.

Economism is a modern ideology. The great early ideologue (story-teller) associated with it is Adam Smith, and his book, “The Wealth of Nations.” Economism posits that people are self interested, indeed selfish, and that the best way to run society is to run with this: people pursuing their own self-interest will create a good society.

Economism also posits that people pursue their own well-being and know what is good for them. Thus if someone buys something, or does something for money, well, that thing must be of benefit. There may be exceptions, and Adam Smith recognized quite a few, but they are exceptions, and Smith’s heirs have often reduced the number of exceptions.

To manage people in Economism you manage incentives: you change tax schemes, you reward people with money who do what you want, and you take money away from people who don’t do what you want. Since people buy what is good for them, if someone makes a lot of money selling things, well, they must be increasing human well-being and they therefore not only deserve to keep the money they have gained, but they should have that money because with that money they can do even more, and thus increase human well being even more.

Thus Economism tends to lead to money pooling at the top, with people who have produced products that other people buy. Sometimes these products aren’t really products (in finance), sometimes they are (iPods, cars, Smart Phones, computers, washing machines, etc…) Sometimes they are good for people (penicillin), and sometimes they are bad for people (cigarettes, most social media) but Economism is very bad at recognizing that anyone who has money may not have increased welfare (which it doesn’t really believe in, instead using utility); that some products are actually harmful even if people like them, or that just because someone created a great product or series of products, doesn’t mean they will do more good with their money.

From a “stay in power” point of view, what is important about any ideology is that it empowers those who follow its precepts, and dis-empowers those who don’t do what it requires. I trust it’s obvious how Economism (capitalism) does that: money is power and people who don’t value money don’t tend to get a lot of money, and thus power.

Economism is at the core of capitalism. Without it we wouldn’t be capitalist, because it wouldn’t make sense to us to organize our societies this way. But we have made modifications to it at times. After the Great Depression, for example, we realized that if the rich were too rich, there weren’t enough customers with money, and that regulations were needed to keep capitalism from capsizing. So, in the US from about 1932, and in the rest of the “West” after the war we had policies to keep wages and prices of goods (but not houses or education) up, to discourage too much speculation in financial markets and to share the wealth.

That sub-ideology, which can be divided into the New Deal (32-46) and Post-war liberalism (46 to somewhere between 68 and 80), was destroyed when the oil shocks and inflation + high unemployment happened in the 70s, and in 1979 in Britain, and 1980 in the U.S. we moved over to neoliberalism, which is described well by the form of Economism I highlighted.

Possibly the best way to think of ideologies is as instruments meant to create a type of society. All forms of capitalism feature wage labor, concentration of capital and a primary role for markets: they all create powerful capitalists and remove capital (the means of production) from most of the rest of society.

But New Deal/Post War Liberalism created a large middle class, and even manufacturing workers could support a four person family on one salary, while neoliberalism produced a society where the good working class jobs were lost and families needed two salaries and a lot of debt to get along, while all unavoidable costs like healthcare and housing and education (since almost all good jobs are closed without it) skyrocketed.

However post-war liberalism had a dark side: the exclusion of women from the work force. The post-war era excluded women much more than the New Deal period had, and more than had been the case in the previous laissez-faire form which ended in the 20s. This was not accidental, it was part of the design: to keep wages high, you want a smaller workforce, so less people are competing for jobs. Make it so half the population can’t compete for any jobs outside the pink-collar ghetto, and you’re a long way there.

All ideologies have shadows. In some cases we may judge the shadow to be more than half the ideology: an ideology which justifies widespread slavery might be considered to do more harm than good, and many women might prefer neoliberalism, for all its problems, to post-war liberalism: neoliberalism wanted the biggest workforce possible, to drive down wages, so was OK with letting women work (though there was and still is a lot of prejudice and structural issue, societies turn slowly, like cruise ships.)

The other ruling ideology of the West, though in a lot of danger and retreat today, is representative Democracy.

As a rule, most societies have two to three ruling ideologies, usually with two of them in the cat seat. For most of the European Dark and Middle Ages, those were Christianity and Feudalism, but by the 1100s there is an oncoming commercial/city ideology which eventually turns into the bourgeoisie and later into capitalism. Free cities were ruled by guild masters and merchants and the church, not by the feudal nobility. These people had an ideology which opposed Feudalism, though not so much the church, but they were a minority and far weaker than either Church or the nobility.

Democracy is the most important ideology in our societies other than Capitalism. It is democracy which rescued capitalism, thru high Keynesian spending, price and wage supports and laws forbidding the worst financial excesses, after capitalism drove much of the world into a Great Depression.

In healthy periods, the ruling ideologies complement each other: stopping the worst excesses of the other ideology, and mitigating flaws. Welfare, universal health care, securities laws, industrial policy, and so on are ways that representative democracy manages, or in many cases managed (it now encourages the excesses, rather than mitigating them) capitalism.

Representative democracy is the story and belief that people have the right to choose those who rule them, and that no one who is not chosen by the population has a right to make public decisions.

This story puts democracy in fairly direct opposition to capitalism, because capitalists have a great deal of power to make public decisions, and are not chosen by the people. There’s a lot of effort in some circles to deny this opposition, by suggesting that consuming is the equivalent of democracy, but at the core the two ideologies have opposing visions.

A modus vivendi has been created, in which capitalists often talk up democracy and democratic governments claims that capitalism causes democracy (the Chinese beg to differ). Democrats in effect sanctify capitalism, and capitalism sometimes nods back and sanctifies democracy.

This is similar to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages with the divine right of kings, and support for feudalism, even though it is hard to see most of Jesus’s teachings as supportive of wealth and power, save for the famous “Render unto Caesar.”

But the Church, in healthy periods, served many of the same purposes as Democracy does for Capitalism: it reined in the worst excesses. Churches were centers of charity, Popes often tried to enforce peace and mitigate the damage of feudal wars, and monasteries kept alive literacy and learning in a Europe which otherwise didn’t care for it.

Likewise capitalism might be seen as providing a market dynamism which democracy, by itself, would lack.

Each ideology is also a danger to the other. Democracies may decide that capital shouldn’t be controlled by private individuals and that markets should be regulated to such a point that capitalists feel they can barely operate. Capitalists upon becoming rich generally try and buy government, and often succeed, as they have in the United States and Britain as of this writing in 2021.

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In time not only sub-ideologies change, but ruling ideologies rise and fall. Neither the church nor feudal nobles or even aristocrats rule much of anything any more. (Churches have hung on a bit better.)

The important thing, however, is to see that ideologies are stories about how the world is, and should be, and that those stories tell us how we should act, who should run our societies and what sort of societies it is right and good for them to create.

Ideologies do not float free of material circumstances. An ideology is constrained by technology and geography, and stories must explain our lives. A story which does not make sense any more will lose much of its power, as when the French Philosophes essentially demolished French aristocracy and much of the Christianity’s claim to be good rather than evil, or even make any sense. This was possible because even French aristocrats found it impossible to defend themselves as being better than others or doing anything to deserve their titles. Old-style feudal nobles, who ran their own estates, fought in wars and were generally healthier, stronger and a lot better in a fight than non-nobles would have laughed off such criticisms.

Because this is a short booklet, we can’t go a lot more into the details of how ideologies work. My upcoming “The Creation of Reality” deals with ideology at much greater length.

But we do need to understand what makes stories work; where ideologies get their power from. Just as legitimacy is powered by ideology, ideology is powered by identification and that is what we’ll discuss next.

Next: Identification

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Legitimacy (Political Concepts Chapter 2)


Open Thread


  1. Ian Welsh

    As before, let’s keep this on topic. If you see any mistakes or errors, please let me know, I’ll correct them (and then eventually delete your comment, but it’s MUCH appreciated.)

    Editing one’s own work sucks.

    Thanks to Hugh for a bunch of edits.

  2. Hugh

    I suppose with economism or neoliberalism you would have to add another aspect of the reason for ideologies –which with them was to sell the con.

  3. Steve H.

    > However post-war liberalism had a dark side: the exclusion of women from the work force. The post-war era excluded women much more than the New Deal period had, and more than had been the case in the previous laissez-faire form which ended in the 20s.


  4. Mary Bennett

    About the above mentioned exclusion of women from the workplace: there was a bit more to that than shrinking the size of the workforce. Betty Freidan–whose book, BTW, was about money, not sex–found that the designated role of women in the post WWII economy was to buy products for the home. As I recall, some of the people she interviewed even admitted as much. Most of those alive today are too young to remember the tremendous social and advertising pressure to buy, buy, buy. The matched living and bedroom sets, the new car every two years, the new fashions every six months and the new lines of cosmetics to go with those fashions were just a few of the purchases which announced your respectability to the world. Call it consumerist virtue signaling. All this was not at all unwelcome to generations who had lived through the Depression and war years.

    Sentimental conservatives of today fail to understand just how artificial and exceptional this little woman at home phenomenon was. Throughout most of history men and women of all but the most wealthy classes have worked and worked hard both at home and outside it.

  5. gnokgnoh

    Steve, the concept of formal participation in the labor force is a fairly modern concept, probably most measurable from the start of the IRS in 1913. The evolution of women’s rights and access to higher education radically changed the role of women in the labor force throughout the last century on a direct upward continuum, per the BLS, notwithstanding the perception that women all stayed home during the ’50s and ’60s. From 1850 to 1900, the percentage of women working in factories ranged from 16% to 23% (see,, but I suspect that a large percentage of women were working on farms or other agricultural, informal jobs.

    The perception is that women did not have to work in the ’50s and ’60s, that men could be the sole breadwinner with a house and two kids. For many upper class families, this was the case, as it has been for all of history. I suppose the definition of upper middle class expanded to include many more families than had previously been possible.

    All of this is the same broad generalization that causes many people to view post-war life in the ’50s and ’60s as Panglossian. If you watched TV sitcoms and washing machine ads, you might almost believe it. We were sold that perception, which was fundamental to capitalist ideology, essentially Ian’s point, which could have been clearer.

  6. Hugh

    If ideologies are about how the world is and should be, why are ours so uninteresting, mindless, uninspired.

  7. Ian Welsh

    Communism, as originally formulated, was not lifeless, it promised something quite extraordinary. It’s just that the USSR/China didn’t deliver on it. Capitalism also offered some things that seemed good, it’s just that the tendency to monopoly/oligopoly/oligarchy was so strong. Christianity was very inspiring for many people for a long time (religions are ideologies.)

    But it’s true that we have no new, very inspiring ideologies and the ones we have, have all failed their promises.

  8. gnokgnoh

    Our ideologies feel lifeless, because we feel trapped, suffocated. When today’s rebellions become tomorrow’s leisure-wear, literally overnight, capitalism has co-opted even our spirit. Localism has gained popularity, in part, because its proponents turn their backs on the market, national or global. What counts is my community, my garden, and my neighbors. That ideology and those organizational units are too small to co-opt.

    I recognize that is myopic, our problems now are global and national in scale. We need to engage and fight for a better country, and some/many are; but we cannot seem to elevate ourselves above capitalism and really try representative Democracy, at least in the U.S.

  9. gnokgnoh

    Under communism, shifting ownership of the means of production to the workers, while initially to the state, is an exciting idea. Free market capitalism is theoretically about competition, which, if you have observed any kids’ games or a sport’s competition, can appear quite enervating if not necessarily motivating (many people hate competition). Both are theoretically extraordinary ideologies. Neither work in practice: communism because the countries that have practiced it cannot seem to get past state ownership of property and capital;* capitalism because any advantage is magnified, leveraged, and rewarded, including the advantages afforded by initial success.

    A lot of growth in China was engineered by the relinquishing of state ownership of most personal property (homes and cars), ironically.

  10. grayslady

    An excellent back-of-the-envelope primer. I was looking forward to your take on the following: “An ideal type of person, who is most virtuous.” However, I didn’t really see any discussion of that. My own opinion, as a U.S. citizen, is that in this country, at least, virtue maintains too much of a religious–especially Puritan–definition, which is part of the reason our society is now so decadent. Virtue has become synonymous with “worthy”, and worth has been defined by political elites and their mouthpieces in what I call the “propaganda press.” Only the wealthy are assumed to be virtuous and the poor are “undeserving.” One can argue whether the U.S. Constitution was ever intended to be egalitarian, but superimposing feudalism over a republic makes for a squishy interpretation of what exact ideology is then left.

  11. Ian Welsh

    It sort of is discussed: our ideal type, who we reward, is someone who gets a lot of money. We treat them better, tax them lower, idealize them, etc… Granted, not everyone does, but the way society treats them makes clear what the dominant ideology is.

    But you’re right I didn’t go into it much. I do so at much greater length in “The Creation of Reality” (and I appear to finally have an editor, so hopefully you all will get to see it in the medium term.)

  12. Ian Welsh


    Marx and Engels actually thought that personal property, even small farms and businesses was OK. It was capital as controlled by capitalists and the state they disliked.

    And, as you say, the idea was to expropriate that to the State, then for the state to wither away. I would suggest, though they did not go into it that I recall, that some form of commons ownership at the lowest levels possible would be ideal.

    The Chinese actually gave/give great control over resources to local government, and have the least Federal state I’m aware of in terms of direct control of government expenditures.

  13. Trinity

    “we cannot seem to elevate ourselves above capitalism and really try representative Democracy, at least in the U.S.”

    As long as the medium of exchange is money, and we are forced to admire money (consumerism) above literally everything else, making those with money more powerful, the rules will always be subverted and democracy will always convert to some form of authoritarianism. The same thing happened to communism, generally, which is why the current Chinese experiment is so interesting. I would guess that eventually it will also fail or get captured by those who seek power over others through the imposition of a value system that ensures they retain power through accumulation. I would guess Chinese oligarchs are meeting right now to figure out how they can gain back control. There’s always an opposition party, and power (defined by the value system) is always the deciding factor.

    Anything that is declared to be of the highest social value and can be accumulated leads to power over others. The point being there are many, many, many other things we could revere. Very few want to change the current value system because they think they benefit from it, if even in a small way by being “comfortable” because bad things only happen “over there”. But are any of us outside the mega rich truly comfortable or “at ease”?

    Our society literally worships money, and we worship the people who have a lot of it. It’s our religion, “the golden calf”, and this is why we are “failing” given the rising probabilities of catastrophic failure to support life at all. Some people seem to think we can have both money and a better world, but I disagree. It’s been tried, over and over again, with the same outcome.

    We had restrained capitalism in the “good years” after Bretton Woods, but it should be noted that was mostly for the benefit of white people, and only white people with a specific level of education and income. I was one who grew up in neighborhoods where no wives or mothers worked, and any woman who did work outside the home was isolated and criticized. And then I watched as that changed in what seemed to be just a few years.

    Following Bretton Woods, TPTB bided their time and planned carefully to remove the restraints hindering them from gaining back their power over the system. They handsomely rewarded those who removed those restraints. And here we are, once again. Lather, rinse, repeat. So localism is great, but it’s not subversive, it doesn’t change the system, it only operates differently within it. It does provide some ease for those who participate.

    Yet if the climate scientists are right, and they mostly have been so far, localism may happen everywhere by necessity. The problem is someone will eventually reinvent money as the basis for the exchange of goods and services, and everything bad will once again follow, including slavery, oppression, and the destruction of nature. Will we ever learn? Right now, it seems like our sun will go supernova before that ever happens.

    Right now, we are no better than the other flora and fauna who, when more food (or water) becomes available the population explodes, immediately followed by a massive die off when the unusually abundant resources have all been consumed. Which is always the case in a finite world. Thousands of years of libraries and education systems (operating within social systems that worship money) haven’t changed this little factoid.

  14. StewartM


    Isn’t Marxism just as much a form of “economism” as what you’re calling “economism” (neoliberal economics)? Both see the prime causes or “movers” in human society to be materialist reasons (usually, broadly speaking, “economic” reasons). Both see people as responding to incentives to maximize pleasure and convenience and to minimize pain and unnecessary effort. They may argue over the best way to do this (individual decision-making vs collective, etc.) but they are agreed on the basic principles.

    Nor is it a duality; Cultural Materialism (from my favorite anthropologist, Marvin Harris) is also a materialist (“economic”) explanation of things, save it ditches Hegel’s dialectic (Harris pointed out ‘not everything has an opposite, or just one opposite’). I’m sure there are more. All of these are epistemologically speaking, offshoots of B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism (by classification, not by evolution; as of course they predate Skinner). We’re all lab rats in one big science project by all these materialist ideologies.

    The truer alternative (or opposition) these materialist ideologies which posit non-material movers or causes. Religions are among these, and so are the inspirations of mystics and the ideologies of non-materialist philosophers (such as Plato, Kant, and ). Perhaps you could add psychological explanations of things; though whether these are truly non-materialist is questionable (say, is consciousness material or not?).

    I do believe you’re correct in saying in our current world (and I’m a materialist) a very malignant form of materialism is currently in vogue.

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