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

The Role of Character and Ideology in Prosperity

(First of two collections of important articles published 2014 or earlier. Read the second.)

I want to take readers through some of my previous writing on ideology and character, and how they help form the societies in which we live. Taking the time to read these articles (a short book’s worth), should vastly improve your understanding of the world and the articles to come. It should be worth your time, even if you read the articles when they were previously published, as, at the time, they lacked both context and commentary, and were not collated to be read together so that the connections were obvious.

(I have a lot of new readers, so I’m going to kick this back to the top. These are some of the most important articles I have written–Ian)

Baseline Predictions for the Next 60 Years

While not an article about ideology, the above is an article about where our current ideology and character are going to take us: To the brink of disaster and possibly beyond, while continuing to impoverish and disempower larger and larger segments of the human race. This might be a slightly optimistic piece; there’s some reason to believe our actions in the world’s oceans could destroy the oxygen cycle, and if this is so, events will be much, much worse.

What Is an Ideology and Why Do We Need a New One?

Too many people think ideologies are some airy-fairy nonsense, while they themselves are “pragmatic” men and women operating on common sense and facts. Such people are amongst the greatest of all fools: Our entire society is based on interlocking ideologies; the primary of which are neoliberalism, capitalism, human rights, and socialism. It is not obvious, nor was it obvious to most societies that have ever existed, for example, that food should be distributed based on money, nor that ideas could be property. How we organize things, our particular ideas about markets and their role, and our ideas about who should lead us, are ideological. If we want to change society, we need to be able to control markets so they aren’t producing a world that makes us sick, unhappy, and, in increasing numbers, dead.

How to Create a Viable Ideology

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing, and want more of it, please consider donating.)

We may look at current trends and realize that if we don’t reverse them–and reverse them fast–billions will suffer or die; but creating an ideology which can reverse these trends requires us to understand what makes an ideology viable and powerful. An ideology which does not create believers willing to die, and to kill, on its behalf, will lose to those that do. An ideology which cannot prevent people from selling out, from betraying, will definitely lose in the current world, where there is so much money available at the top to simply buy out (for billions) those who create something new, so that anything new can be neutralized into nothing but a monetization scheme.

Our Theory of Human Nature Predicts Our Policies

The ideas of an ideology determine how our society is run, and, of those ideas, none is more important than what we make of human nature.

A Theory of Human Nature Suited to Prosperity and Freedom

If we are trying to create a prosperous, free world, our policies must be based in a theory of human nature that is both true (enough) and which leads to policies that create widespread affluence and human freedom.

Character Is Destiny

Ideology and character are intertwined. Character determines what we do, what we don’t do, and how we do it. The character of large numbers of people determines the destinies of nations and of the world itself. If we want to make the world better (or worse), we must change our own characters. Those who fail to understand how character is created (and changed) will never change the world–except accidentally.

How Everyday Life Creates Our Character

Along with, as noted, our destiny. I always laugh at radicals who want more schooling, because schooling is where people learn to sit down, shut up, give the approved answers, and do what they’re told. Working life, as an adult, continues this process of learned powerlessness and acquiescence, and even in our consumptive and political lives we continue the trend; choosing from the choices offered, rather than producing what we actually need for ourselves.

How Everyday Life Creates Sociopathic Corporate Leaders

Those who lead our corporations control most of our lives, even more so than the government, because they set the terms by which we live, die, and can afford the good things in life. Our daily lives are prescribed by these people, from how we work to what we eat, to what we entertain ourselves with. We need, therefore, to understand the character traits for which our leaders are chosen, and how the process of choosing works. If we can’t learn to create and choose better leaders, we will never have a better world.

The Difference Between Ethics and Morals

If we want an ideology that tells us how to create both a better world and the people with the character to create that world, we must understand what sort of people they should be. To accomplish this, we must first understand how they treat other people–the people they know, and more importantly, the people they don’t.

The Fundamental Feedback Loop for a Better World

The shortest article on this list, this is also one of the most important and speaks directly to how money directs behaviour and how that directs our choice in leaders.

Living in a Rich Society

It’s been so long since parts of the West were truly prosperous that people have forgotten what it’s like, and they’ve forgotten that it creates a different type of person than a scarcity society.

Late 19th and Early 20th Century Intellectual Roots

Lived experience creates character and character feeds into ideology. It’s worth looking at how various themes of the Victorian era were created by those who lived through that time and the time that came before it.

What Confucius Teaches Those Who Want a Better World

Amongst those who have created powerful ideologies, Confucius is in the first rank; Confucianism has been the most important ideology of the most populous and advanced region of the world for most of the last two thousand years–or more. Confucius was very aware of what he was trying to do, had a theory of human nature, and a theory of character. We would be fools not to learn from him.

Concluding Remarks

I hope that those who are interested in creating a better world will read the articles linked above. What I’ve written amounts to a short book, and the ideas are interrelated. If you have read a few of my posts, or even read all of them, but not thought of or read them with each other in mind, you cannot have the full picture of how these ideas work together, and why the different parts are necessary.

Ideas are often destroyed in practice by those who do not understand the reasons for the various pieces of the puzzle and prescriptions. These people feel they can pick and choose without that understanding. Character and ideology and ethics and every day life are all intertwined; you cannot pick one and say,”This is supreme.” They create each other.

Of course, the above is not a complete intellectual package. Large chunks are missing. My next piece will be a review of some key economic articles, specifically concerning why the world is as it is today: Why we lost post-war liberalism, why we have austerity and neoliberalism and so-called free trade. That piece comes after this one because without understanding our own characters, the characters of our leaders, and how ideology works, we cannot understand our current circumstances.

I will then be moving on to new articles that focus on technology, geography, the environment, and their effect on societies though the ages, with an emphasis on those technologies and environments which create prosperity, freedom, and egalitarian cultures and explore why they do so. There is an important trend today, an argument, about changing our technology to improve society, but it will only work if we understand how technology changes society.

Originally published Oct 2, 2014.  Republished July 28, 2015, March 6, 2016 & October 2, 2017.

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  1. nihil obstet

    Thank you for this. Are you planning to pull these together for publication, and if so, would you like proofreading comments emailed to you from those of us who are terminally obsessed with trivia?

  2. Ian Welsh

    I may publish them as a .pdf at some point (unlikely a formal ebook). Feel free to email me proofing comments, to the admin – at – address.

  3. A treasure trove of reading Ian that will take me sometime to get through but I’ll make that effort each morning with my cup of coffee. Thanks

  4. Paul

    Having read just some of these before this looks like it will be well worth a chunk of my weekend.

    Thank you.

  5. Brian Reed

    I like your work. I especially like how you are trying to _do_ something about it and you have a plan. You are very good at history.

    I recently read peter thiel’s book, `zero to one` – and I was wondering what your thoughts were about his philosophy diagram. Here’s a link to the concept: In the book he made the reference that the US changed from defnite optimism (making plans for big things, trying to control the future) to indefinite optimism (believing future would get better, but not working for it) after the 70s. In your article you mentioned why this happened, with the country trying to control oil inflation and transition to scarcity. Peter seems to think tech innovation is the only way forward. Is this just self-serving idea (he runs a VC firm) or will it really just take people believing they can create a better world and creating definite ideas to fix it?

  6. Nate Wilcox

    Impressive corpus. Looking forward to re-reading these in the context of a larger work.

  7. Katherine Calkin

    Maybe every adult member of a society should be the top ruler for a month. That way, everyone would have to live under the rules they themselves made. People would learn kindness in a hurry.

  8. Ian Welsh

    Brian: I like his little diagram, and I think it’s useful, yes. Optimist isn’t exactly the word I would use, it’s closer to “I can build something new”, but it’s still a nice little model.

  9. Dan Lynch

    This is Ian at his best. A big thumbs up.

  10. cripes

    If only it were so.
    Many are the times I wished it were.

  11. Trixie

    Maybe every adult member of a society should be the top ruler for a month. That way, everyone would have to live under the rules they themselves made. People would learn kindness in a hurry.

    Even better if they don’t actually know who they will be in that society under the Veil of Ignorance:

    …no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.

    And fantastic series, Ian. Thank you. Your site is quickly becoming the halfway house for those recovering from the status quo. Whenever I find myself thinking: You know, on second thought, maybe it really was Big Bird and Planned Parenthood that brought the global economy and financial system to its knees…quick, TO THE WELSH VORTEX.

    Everyone has their place in the world, and you’ve most certainly found yours:

    Also, HILLARY 2016!

    How’m I doing?

  12. Celsius 233

    Also, HILLARY 2016!
    How’m I doing?

    Oh, you’re doing just peachy. You’re happy with the status quo? You love perpetual war? Our thoroughly corrupt political system rings your bell? And the Clinton’s gift, which just keeps on giving (to the rich), of an unregulated, 100% corrupt banking system, which apparently is working for you?
    Are you bloody serious???

  13. Trixie

    Are you bloody serious???

    No silly, of course not. I plan on voting for Jeb Bush!

  14. gregorylent

    will you be talking about levels of consciousness, or the evolution of consciousness?

  15. Ian Welsh

    Not as such, no. But ideology is related, as is social organization.

  16. Spinoza

    Once my money is a bit better, I swear I am going to donate. Even if it’s a little I’d like to contribute to your overall project. You, and the rest of the learned commenters, have really educated me. For that I thank you.

  17. jump

    Not sure where to put this but…the wording really worries me (from G&M).
    Mr. Fast said Canada wants to see constraints on government-owned companies and sovereign wealth funds so they can’t use their power to tread on private firms or pursue other ends. “We want to make sure that state-owned companies that could act in a manner that is contrary to free-market principles are subject to disciplines that ensure they don’t compete unfairly with companies that are operating within a free market.”

  18. jump

    That was regarding the TPP.
    And now.
    The Prime Minister’s criticism of Mr. Obama’s politics was a rare comment by one national leader on the machinations of another, and Mr. Harper quickly qualified it by suggesting he did not want to interfere with an internal decision, other than stating Canada’s position.

    Right. What trade for sovereignty?

  19. Declan

    Good stuff Ian.

    On the topic of “What an Ideology Is’, I’d say that Neo-liberalism, capitalism and human rights are all part of the same ideology, commercial morality, per ‘Systems of Survival’ by Jane Jacobs.

    That’s what always gets me when people on the left say things like, sure we can roll back corporate power, it seems impossible but who would have thought gay rights would come so far so fast – not realizing that it is the same force pushing gay rights forward as is pushing corporate hegemony – the ideology of society as a market.

  20. Ian Welsh

    Neoliberalism would be a “monstrous hybrid” per Jacobs, as best I recall. It also interferes with Guardian morality in many places where it shouldn’t, in fact, it’s what neoliberalism is about.

  21. Declan

    Yes, good point Ian. They’re all components of commercial ethics, but neo-liberalism is toxic (in part) because it brings those commercial ethics into the world of politics (leading to things like public choice theory).

  22. Claudia Egelhoff

    Thanks for the summary of previous posts on the importance of ideology and character. I plan to read all that I missed earlier.

    In light of your emphasis on character, I wonder what you make of the book, interviews and talks David Brooks gives these days on the subject — his book, “The Road to Character”.

    One reviewer said: “David Brooks’s gift—as he might put it in his swift, engaging way—is for making obscure but potent social studies research accessible and even startling. . . . [The Road to Character is] a hyper-readable, lucid, often richly detailed human story. . . . In the age of the selfie, Brooks wishes to exhort us back to a semiclassical sense of self-restraint, self-erasure, and self-suspicion.”—Pico Iyer, The New York Times Book Review

  23. Lisa

    Declan ” That’s what always gets me when people on the left say things like, sure we can roll back corporate power, it seems impossible but who would have thought gay rights would come so far so fast – not realizing that it is the same force pushing gay rights forward as is pushing corporate hegemony – the ideology of society as a market.”

    Confusing cause and affect here Declan. “the same force pushing gay rights forward as is pushing corporate hegemony ” frankly is laughable.

    As someone in the LGBTI community, trust me on this, ‘corporate hegemony ‘, neo-liberalism, ‘market’ have nothing whatsoever to do with any successes we have had. In fact those forces are inherently reactionary and have fought advances tooth and nail.

    Rather it is the LGBTI activists have been harder working, more courageous, more focussed and smarter than those in other areas (eg unions), they have also played the ‘long game’ and much of what you see now is the result of many decades of dedicated work at national and local levels and the sheer courage of individual LGBTI people.

    Think it is easy to ‘come out’? Especially back in the 90s when all those pioneers broke ground for the rest of us. Still not easy and many suffer terribly from rejection by friends, family, work and society. Look at poor Leelah Alcorn as an example of what still happens to many.

    And it took her death to finally end the toxic ‘reparative therapy’ industry by religious organistions and sexologists.

    We’ve also managed to avoid becoming too co-opted by the Dem elites (though some parts have been). You can see the fate of those who activists elites have become co-opted by looking at the African American and Feminists elites, whose constituencies have been and are being hammered at multiple levels by an unopposed right wing.

    So don’t link us those people, they are our enemy.

    But then again no political ideology is our friend. Every single one has (is) at one point or other attacked us, oppressed us, jailed us, locked us up in mental institutions and all the rest.

    An interesting 3 pipe problen faced in the 70s and 80s, how do you change society when you are a very small minority that is reviled and hated more than anyone else? Well you work very long and hard at it and never give up.

    A lesson to learn by others.

  24. Lisa

    Study the history of many LGBTI prioneers and also past and current activists…there you will see character and courage. Incredible courage in the face of terrible odds.

  25. jsn

    Say we are being universally, digitally profiled: if we aren’t now, we will be shortly. You can use TOR and just be surveilled in a different way or try to hide behind encryption or anonomyzers, or, maybe there is a didactic information profile one can strive for. If revolution occurs when the police and military flip, when they identify with change rather than status quo, how can we tell our surveillers what their future holds while they preserve the status quo?

  26. Jagger

    Thank you. I have read some of these articles but clearly I have missed many. I look forward to reading them.

    Over the last year or so, I have been wondering about the development and degree of individual free will. To me, it seems self evident that individuals have free will to make choices. But the more I think about it, the more it seems free will is very constrained by factors outside of the individual’s control. Yes, we have free will but it seems the odds of choices are stacked due to subconscious, independent, outside influences. So how much of free will is truly free?

    When I think of the development of a new psyche/spirit/soul/the self being, I can think of three primary outside influences which can shape for positive or negative the development of the psyche: genetics, environment and life experiences. Genetics are completely out of the control of the individual, yet definitely influences a psyche’s outlook towards life tremendously for positive or negative. You are tall, beautiful and intelligent, life can be a lot easier. Depression, mental illness or short and ugly and your life can be a living hell. Genetics can shape a psyche’s outlook on life and influence the choices of free will.

    The outside environment would be factors such as raised rich or poor, in war or peace, depression or boom economy, nurturing parents or dysfuctional parents, supportive siblings or cruel siblings, education or not, and could go on and on. When young and developing those factors are so influential because the young do not yet have the discrimation of experience. They can accept the abnormal as normal because they have never experienced anything else. The psyche can be born perfectly beautiful and then shaped or warped as the outside environment makes its independent mark on the individual. Again, outlook on life shaped by outside environment, shapes the individual’s choices.

    Even the independent mature psyche is vulnerable to further shaping. Losing a job, losing a marriage, losing a child, the death, maiming and destruction of war, etc., etc., are all traumatic events which can warp the psyche. So how much influence do those types of events have on future choices? Undoubtably traumatic events are powerful influences. How much has the range of free will been reduced or increased? And of course, there are also positive influences. The importance of rewarding work, a loving spouse and family, good friends and supportive mentors, all, can never be underestimated and can produce a joyful psyche. So does a good life increase the range of free will or reduce it? Happiness does not provide an incentive for change while unhappiness certainly does. So mature life experiences continue to alter the outlook on life and shape the choices which represent free will.

    All this may be common knowledge but to me it seems there are so many powerful factors in play shaping an individual’s outlook on life that much of free will must be deeply influenced and controlled subconsciously by previous life experiences. Certainly we have free will but it seems the odds are stacked as to actual choices. Although I think if we are lucky enough to learn critical thinking, self awareness, some open mindedness and maybe some degree of wisdom with experience, we can somewhat overcome those subconscious, outside influences on our choices and perhaps have a greater degree of free will than otherwise. So just how much of free will is actually independent free will under our total conscious control? IMO, we have some but probably substantially less than we think. The past has such an influence on the present. And so much of the past, as well as the present, was outside of our control.

    Have you ever wondered what life experiences led to Shkreli’s choice to arbitrarily and outrageously raise the price of his companies medications? Have you ever wondered if you had lived his life, walked in his shoes, experienced his life, if you would have made the same choice? We can certainly say he is a psychologically dysfunctional jerk but how confident are we that if we had lived his life, that we wouldn’t also be psychologically dysfunctional jerks?

  27. Sub-Boreal


    Thanks for this compilation, and I look forward to working through them.

    Based on your summaries, I’m curious to know whether you’ve read Richard Sennett’s “The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism” (1998). I sense a lot of complementarity / similarity.

  28. Lisa

    How Women Are The New Left

    I’ve criticised the feminist elites in DC for being co-opted, but what is happening that feminism outside the ‘corridors of power’ is developing a whole new approach, a whole new ethic. It is they that are at the forefront on political development, while everyone else is moribund. Still a work in progress and very exciting because of that.

    It starts with the concept of ‘intersectionality’ (I can hear the eyes rolling from some older people), which though a clumsy term simply means you start with people as well ..people.

    The broad groupings of gender or class or race (etc) are simply not enough.
    A person’s public identity is a combination of multiple factors and how society treats them is based on that.

    Every person has a set of characteristics (identities?) and their personal combination means the issues and challenges they face are unique to them.

    A simple example, take a white upper class woman and a poor black working class woman.
    They have common interests, both being women they have the same interests in reproductive rights.
    They have differing interests, the poor woman needs cheap access to reproductive services that the upper class woman doesn’t, otherwise the theoretical rights are meaningless .
    Being working class the poorer woman needs better pay and jobs.
    Being black she needs protection from discrimination.
    And so on.

    It is more complex than the traditional class or race or gender based politics, but it is more humane and, in terms of practical politics, means you target the problems people actually face based on their individual humanity.

    For example you might turn the economy around and generate lots of new jobs, but that does not solve the problem of poorer women’s access to relevant medical care. So you do both, because they are both important. And so on.

    At the core is based on empathy and understanding that is the antithesis of the standard broad groupings and, of course, bigotry. We use a term ‘radical inclusionism’.
    It is a ‘bottom up’ left wing theory, not a traditional ‘top down’ one.

    It means coalitions can be built more effectively. Too many get dominated by a single group and those interests are dealt with, while smaller parts of the coalition get forgotten. The classic is “we will get around to you interests after we have done x,y,z”…sometime after the heat death of the universe.

    An intersectional coalitions realises all priorities are important, so you get (and this is a real example) trans women escorting cis women through protestors outside abortion clinics, cis women protesting against anti-trans laws. I as a trans women listen and realise that this is really important to a cis woman so I help. The cis woman listens and realises that this is really important to me so she helps.
    We have common interests (intersections), we have differing interests, but we can create a coalition based on us working together dealing with what matters to each of us, both our common interests and our individual ones.

    It helps break down bigotry and divisions, even the most seemingly opposed people when they look at it in detail (and listen to each other) have many common interests (intersections) that they can both work on. When people do that they start to realise that this is an actual human being they are dealing with, not some abstract monster.

    It is complex and dynamic and frankly incomprehensible for some, especially those brought up to think linearly, hierarchically, win/lose, ‘packs’ vs ‘packs’ and ‘not listening’.

    Though is has been developed by feminists, increasing numbers of younger man ‘get it’ nowadays, realising it applies to all.

    There is a very good summary (and comments) on this and why (no surprise) HRC doesn’t ‘get it’ is at:

    One great comment is:
    “Uahsenaa: Yes, but while (Kimberlé) Crenshaw may have coined the term, the idea as developed among (unfortunately, mostly academic) feminists and critical race theorists has extended well beyond that. I suggested the bell hooks reading, from Outlaw Culture, to Lambert precisely because it’s more indicative of where intellectual arguments now stand with regard to the politics of intersection and

    -because it seeks to think of intersection as the foundation for an ethic or practice rather than just a mode of analysis or critique.-

    In fact, she’s often critical of movements that seek to limit themselves to modes of resistance, of merely speaking truth to power when, following Marx, the point is to change it, which would mean actively investing in other people’s lives and other people’s struggles, rather than sticking with issue advocacy.

    Not that such advocacy is unimportant, but, as we have seen, it’s easily co-opted by those who seek to paper over other sins.

    Her writing also has the added benefit of being far more accessible than your average academic’s.”

  29. Ian Welsh


    I have not. Sounds interesting.

  30. Sub-Boreal

    As a sampler, Chapter 1 is available here:

  31. cripes

    Good essay which I read the first time around.

    I have a caveat about one idea, reminiscent of the “be the change” idea, that I think bears thinking about carefully.

    ” The character of large numbers of people determines the destinies of nations and of the world itself. ”

    The statement in many people’s minds suggests that all we need is to change the hearts and minds of enough individuals, and peace and harmony will reign on earth solely as a result of converting minds. Or character. Or something.

    Maybe this is not what you meant but I think a lot of people take it that way.

    It also serves to justify and perpetuate the power of small elites and their power over society through institutions which they exclusively control. Why, they will say, the problem is that all you people have defective morals, character, ideas that are causing all the problems in the world. The system is fine, its all you individuals with bad character swirling around in the collective (un)conscious.

    But we do not all have equal weight in this imaginary democracy of individual character forming collective character.

    I see plenty of decent, if confused, people living in pain and inflicting pain on others (directly and indirectly) through their struggle to survive in a system they do not have a spec of power to influence.

    Some are even aware of their complicity in oppression, but reason they have no power, have families to support, or just don’t know how to oppose it without slitting their own social/economic throats–and for what?

    Others figure the hell with it, it’s a jungle and those losers deserve it. Anyway, they reason, in a zero sum game, any tidbit another poor gets, takes one from me and mine.

    It’s the institutions, built over millennia, tightly and jealously controlled by the few, that must be dismantled and replaced.

    It not always or only the sum total of individual character. Maybe rarely.

  32. Synoia

    I’m not a pessimist. I like to put things into numbers.

    I estimate 7 billion people will die, because climate change affects everybody, we have neither the skills nor the ecosystems to revert to being hunter/gatherers.

    I have read that every ecosystem on the planet is in decline. This means you food is threatened.

    Which looming scarcity, the panoptican state will be focused on you to ensure you both produce what’s demanded, consumes what’s provided, or die.

    With a few rich, and some robots, who needs peasants? Especially revolting peasants.

    Then the panoptican will collapse.

  33. Peter


    You may not be a pessimist but you are a madman to think you can kill more people than actually exist. This is the kind of dark fantasy that a blind faith in the fake science of catastrophic climate change produces.

    It’s true that most ecosystems are being modified because that’s what humans do to create the agriculture and other industrial systems that supports billions. We produce so much corn that about 6 billion bushels a year can be used for ethanol fuel production. The less developed parts of the world are becoming more productive as they adopt modern agriculture practices while farmers in the Midwest are projecting another 50% increase in their production over the next decades. Feeding ten billion people will require some work but the actual effects of your Warmer fantasies may help make it a reality.

    I don’t think you realize the panopticon was a psychological tool not an omnipresence. It was used to instill the illusion of omnipresence on prisoners which was impossible just as it is today.

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