Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ideologies of Hope

The following is an excerpt from Postmodern Metaphysics, by Christos Yannaras (Meta-neoterike meta physike, Athens, 1993), translated by Norman Russell. I have emboldened some particularly interesting passages.

5. Ideologies of hope

Part of the characteristic "physiognomy" of the modern age is the transposition of social perspectives into ideological blueprints and teleologies.

The term "ideology" owes its origin to the first theoretical schematizations of the modern age: Destutt de Tracy first used it in 1796, marking the start of the faith of the Enlightenment that social reform would result from the reorganization of ideas: Only when people's ideas change-- their individual perceptions, convictions and interpretation of reality, their understanding of nature and history, of goals and obligations, of the meaning of existence and of life-- do new and desired social forms emerge.

The demand for new "ideas" implies that the change must be expressed as a system and put into effect. If "ideas" need to be changed, the existing ones must be mistaken and harmful. Confirmed error or harmfulness justifies putting forward a counter-proposal, legitimizing the effort of imposition.

Thus ideology is engendered by the logic of breaking with and struggling against, the past. It becomes specific, proposing new ideas which people must embrace if they are liberate themselves as individuals and as a society from the "darkness" of the medieval past: ideas which block progress towards the forms of society to which they aspire are to be set aside and faith in the desired goals is to be imposed on all.

Such demands ignore marginal areas where new ideas can be engendered naturally from the needs of the social body. The ideology dominates because its adherents are convinced that prevailing ideas are wrong and harmful. The correct and more profitable ideas are framed in advance without reference to the social body. The ideology interprets social and individual needs, the needs which people ought to have, by itself and a priori. And it systematically imposes previously framed ideas.

Ideology is by definition a rationalist construct. It emerges from the rational criticism of existing ideas, and its own counter-proposal cannot but be based on rational arguments, on "objectively" valid blueprints of the intended social perspective. Rationalistic systematization over-anticipates social needs, and would have had no chance of success without the goal of arousing collective desires at the same time. Collective and general desires spring from innate drives, such as the self-preservation urge or the egocentric quest for power.

Accordingly, ideology represents something more than its proposed new perceptions, convictions and interpretations. It can transform desire into a conviction-interpretation-goal, which does not need to correspond to the actual circumstances of life, seeing that these are to be transformed. Starting from rational motives for changing reality, ideology often transforms its own rationalism into mysticism, achieving a complete denial of reality for the sake of the desired illusion. Freud demonstrated how this "power of illusion" functions, and later studies have based an impressive critique of modern ideology on Freud.

Certainly, the function of ideologies in the modern age is complicated, contributing to the "physiognomy" of modern societies; ideologies have replaced the ontology that has been rejected or consciously marked as spurious. The "soteriological" character of ideologies, means they promise to fulfill collective hopes.

Ideologies do not respond directly to ontological questions-- nor do they aspire to do so. They are always clearly anthropocentric and sociocentric: they promise institutional and organizational change in society as a whole, in labor relations and in the functioning of the economy, which will lead to "general happiness." Ideology weaves together schematic programs with eudaemonistic promises, thereby mating rationalism with incompatible cherished illusions.

This shotgun marriage always has its invisible or unacknowledged ontological presuppositions, which help ideology establish its self-evident, if not obligatory, acceptance. Modern social ideologies typically ignore questions concerning the causal principle of existence, subjective self-awareness, the modal absoluteness of existential otherness, the definitive relativity of the subject, or any other mostly unanswered question. Social ideologies work on the level of collective desires and eudaemonistic promises with concomitant anthropocentric criteria presupposing the "random" principle of existence, and a correlative agnosticism. They conceive of existence, nature and history on the assumption of the existential fact's axiomatic self-sufficiency, a human autonomy unfettered by ideas about causality or providence.

This existential autonomy explains the power of ideologies in the goal of "progress." Within this ideological framework, human beings aspire to be managers of their hopes, creators of their own future. Nature with its rich capabilities and energy sources is waiting for the human mind to tame it, intervening in its innermost functioning to satisfy the need for comfort and ease. Ideologies propose ways and means for a more productive management of humanity's existential autonomy, which can be imposed to constitute a hope of "progress" and "general happiness." The element of hope, the eudaemonistic promise-- either material or spiritual-- constitutes the ideological dynamic. The ideologies of hope, from realistic rationalist schemes to the wildest utopian illusions, have largely formed the modern age.