Age of ‘isms’: what happened to ideology?
Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Sunday 16 October, Church House, London
With epithets such as neo-fascism or cultural Marxism hurled around with abandon, you could be forgiven for thinking society is gripped by partisan political rivals in thrall to ideological fervour. In reality, while we face many enormous challenges, big political ideas seem in short supply. But is that true?
The Tory leadership race attracted scorn for offering little more than reheated versions of Thatcherism. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is criticised as a poor Tony Blair tribute act. Attempts to outline new political ‘visions’ – from Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ to Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up’ – invariably fall flat. At the same time, disruptive change that does have potential to transform the status quo – from Brexit to Extinction Rebellion – is routinely dismissed as extremist.
For most of the twentieth century, politics was dominated by big, competing visions of the future and contested ideological outlooks – the major ‘isms’ of Liberalism, Socialism and Communism. But after the end of the Cold War, politicians began to make a virtue of avoiding such all-encompassing visions, announcing that the ‘end of history’ meant a retreat from such political conflict. In the new post-ideological age of technocracy and managerialism, politicians promised to run governments like businesses, based on ‘results’, not big ideas. An obsession with ‘delivery’ and calls to ‘follow the science’ and defer to experts seemed to place ideological vision beyond the pale.
However, with politics today feeling ever more charged and divisive, we might ask if the hold of ideology over society remains as strong as ever. After all, we’ve seen the rise of a new generation of ‘isms’ – from neoliberalism to globalism. Meanwhile, sweeping changes to society are being realised as government departments, policy makers, arts institutions and corporations alike pursue agendas of environmentalism and transgenderism, albeit presented as promoting the ‘values’ of sustainability and diversity. In our supposedly non-ideological times, has ideology been smuggled in through the back door to remain pervasive in all parts of society, whether public or private?
What do we mean by ideology and what forms do they take today? How does ideology differ from other categories, such as morality or political ideals? Do we live in an era of less explicit or even silent ideologies and, if so, what are the important systems of ideas today? In times of crisis, when pragmatism is associated with short-termism and endless U-turns, could we benefit from an injection of ideological zeal? How do those who seek support for a transformative political project move forward today?
Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, The Road to Ukraine: how the West lost its way and 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation
columnist, The Sunday Times, the Sun and the Spectator; author, The Great Betrayal; associate editor, Spectator; former editor, BBC Radio 4 Today programme
political strategist; former director of political operations, Blair government; writer, Financial Times and Unherd
Dr Zoe Strimpel
historian; British Academy research fellow, University of Warwick; columnist, Sunday Telegraph; author, What the Hell Is He Thinking?, The Man Diet and Seeking Love in Modern Britain
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question