Ideology and the Despotism of Modern Politics

I recently checked out Kenneth Minogue’s Politics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1995). It is a brilliant survey of Western civic order as well as an unstinting critique of ideological “orthodoxy.”

Minogue, who died in 2013, represented a besieged but determined minority of thinkers (like Michael Oakeshott) who favored the ideas of ordered liberty. This was very different from 20th century notions of “freedom,” which Minogue critiqued in his first and most popular work, The Liberal Mind (1963). While much of his writing can be heavily academic, Politics is a readable distillation of the main points of his intellectual career.

The author’s thesis is that despotism is the opposite of true politics in the Western tradition. Most of us have grown up taking these limitations on the state pretty much for granted.

The private world is that of the family, and of individual conscience…. Such a private life would not be possible without the overarching public world of the state…. Politics only survives so long as this overarching structure of public law recognizes its own limits.

But there has been a marked shift. Our present rulers, and the intelligentsia that formulates their philosophy and policy, have extended “politics” to include everything. Seen as being progressive this is essentially a throwback to autocratic barbarism.

[T]he rejection of despotism on which the Western tradition has largely rested is now ambivalent. Many in recent centuries have dreamed of using the irresistible power only found in despotism for removing the evident imperfections of our world.

It is not surprising that cultural decline has created an ethical vacuum, resulting in omnipresent “moralizing” by a regulatory state. The result is that our society is “managed” in every respect and that citizens effectively become “petitioners,” wholly dependent on the government. In theory, this is supposed to eliminate the injustices and uncertainties of daily life (see recent post). “Political moralism… takes the independence of citizens not as a guarantee of freedom but as a barrier to the project” of universal felicity. The most extreme example is that Soviet Russia, but a form of creeping despotism has established itself in most Western nations.

In today’s society the role of ideology, so well described by Minogue in Alien Powers (1985), is different from classical political theory. The former is “prescriptive” rather than “descriptive.” It claims to be an “exclusive truth” and operates as a metaphysical creed in ways that are essentially unpolitical and non-rational (since it cannot be called into question).

Traditional freedom reverses these priorities. It accepts that there are no guarantees to personal fulfillment. On the other hand, ordered liberty presupposes a rule of law that permits individuals to overcome short-term challenges through long-term planning and initiative.  According to Minogue, in such a non-ideological society people are more willing to act this way because “most of life will not be about politics.”

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