Back to Ideology

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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The conservative crack-up and a new nationalist narrative

IDEOLOGY HAS A habit of dying prematurely and returning from the ruins to haunt us. Daniel Bell said it first, before death-watching became an academic pursuit. It has been more than half a century since he wrote, in The End of Ideology, that ‘a total ideology is an all inclusive system of comprehensive reality, it is a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole of a way of life. This commitment to ideology—the yearning for a cause, or the satisfaction of deep moral feelings— is not necessarily the reflection of interests in the shape of ideas. Ideology, in this sense, and in the sense that we use it here, is a secular religion’. In the 50s of the West, he saw the exhaustion of Utopia; he read the intimations of Marx’s mortality before anyone else. The quiet pragmatism and the possibilities of democracy, unlike the dizzying fantasies of revolutions, set the stage for a post-ideological world. The wreckage of communism, three decades after the publication of the book, vindicated him, and gave birth to more Endologists such as Fukuyama, but the ghosts of nationalism began to march out of the trapdoors, and the tribal instincts of the liberated resulted in the nameless graveyards of the Balkans. Then, further mocking our comforting theories, the ideology of angry gods, balancing the Book and the bomb, rattled us: the theology of fear threatened to replace the ideology of man. Still, in politics, the cosiness of liberal democracy prevailed. It was as if freedom had finally settled the argument, and ideas had made ideology redundant in a globalised world, at last.

The complacency is tenuous today: the centre, the preferred position of governance for the left and the right, cannot hold any longer. Names such as Syriza, Podemos, Ukip, National Front, and AfD tell the story of how ideology has returned in the democratic world where status quo breeds only resentment. Those names, representing both the extreme left and right from Greece, Spain, Britain, France and Germany respectively, are born out of exclusion and anger. Their idea of the future may be disagreeable, but they show that politics in an interconnected world can no longer afford to remain indifferent to a growing sense of alienation. It was very much there in the Brexit vote. It is now posing the biggest threat to Angela Merkel, unarguably Europe’s most powerful politician. And it may change France in the next presidential election. It is shattering the Establishment on either side of the political aisle.

Its most devastating effect, though, is on the Right, and the Trump campaign is its loudest example, even if it is close to a shipwreck. Trump may have been abandoned by not just the GOP Brahmins, among them George Bush, but even the hallowed Conservative journals and pundits. The intellectuals who came out supporting him, ‘Scholar & Writers for America’, are being called the Heideggers of the Donald era, invoking the Nazi stigma. He is the lone Despicable who has reached so far by defying and defiling, but he is a singular figure of derision, kept aloft by the faceless ‘deplorables’. The Republican Party won’t be the same again, whatever the verdict of 8 November may be, and so too America. The vocabulary has changed. There are new items on the agenda, and they are going to stay there. They provided the most animated moments in the third and final presidential debate in Las Vegas. Immigration, borders, welfare and character—these are the operative words of the new nationalist narrative, and their resonance goes far beyond America.

The subject of immigration divides the mind today. The argument that migrants have only added to the modernity and prosperity of nation states is true. When there are wars and massive displacements, and when the economic disparity between the homeland and the host country is huge, can the romance of a borderless world work without social and economic disruption? This is the question that leaders such as Theresa May and Angela Merkel are trying hard to answer without abandoning the essential values of Western liberalism. Add to that the reality of bloated welfarism and the sight of the nation diminished, and you have the right situation for an ideological resurgence. Beneath the vulgarity of a Trump lies the sociology of national hurt.

It’s a hurt that the Establishment Right, whether in America or Britain, has failed to comprehend. For a Reagan and a Thatcher, there were big ideas at their service to open a door to history. The ideological push of the neocons has come to an inglorious end in the ruins of Iraq, in spite of the achievement of a Saddam-less world. Cameron was hardly a Thatcherite; his social conservatism strayed away from the ideal. It is the familiar, not the unknown, that concentrates the mind of a conservative; it is the poetry of the now he is comfortable singing. The Establishment Right has lost the argument of the present, a prerequisite for seizing the future. They can only retreat in disgust as ideology returns through the loudest of Trumpets.