Political ideologies are deeply toxic, psychologically destructive things. Their function is fairly simple: they allow people to navigate the contours of states and industrial economies, and they offer the surest routes into the ‘core’ of such entities. They map the terrain. But in so doing, they also preclude all other terrain. Modern ideologies, even when they incorporate ‘extraneous’ elements, reduce all other forms of identity and meaning and value into a homogenized, internally bound whole. When these ideologies encounter insurmountable incongruity, or outright collapse, the damage to individual psyches and emotional well being is enormous, as all the erasures of identity and personality come to light in the gaping wound left by epistemic collapse. The subject is left confused and troubled, anxious to rediscover the surety that was there before.
In the American context, liberalism—here understood in the American vernacular rendering, though the broader sense should be kept in mind—is the primary, or perhaps, strongest vehicle of this totalizing effect, of this subsumption of all else into one overriding, all-structuring political and ideological identity and generator of meaning and social value. Conservatism by its very nature lacks systematization, and requires the existence of other values, other traditions, other forms of life, to give it meaning—even if all those other things are themselves deeply deformed and distorted by the effects of modernity (and in the American case this is especially true). Over time, it is true, many of the identities and traditions and forms of life which flow into conservatism have themselves become artefacts of ideology, integrated into the logics of the state and its political, value, and linguistic systems, albeit in often erratic and unpredictable ways (the current political disruption being one such effect). But the multiplicity of identity and meaning among conservatives remains, if only in tatters—not necessarily healthier or less damaging psychologically, but perhaps with slightly more openings out. Perhaps.
For liberals, however, everything tends to be reduced to political identity, and hence to the fortunes of political power and influence, and the coherence of the ideology as a historical, ‘progressive’ force. The gaps in the liberal mythos, the epistemic problems, are usually safely obscured by effective propaganda, which becomes internalized and reflexive. But sometimes it all breaks down. These last few days in America have seen such a break-down—even if, rationally speaking, there is really very little threat to the liberal order of things (which depends far more on deeply embedded structures of state and economy than on electoral epiphenomena), at least for now, with the recent revolts against the liberal episteme and order being more on the level of peasants’ uprisings or early attempts at dislodging European colonialism—reactive and often disorganized, ultimately subsiding back into the status quo, or devolving into scattershot violence. But that is another tale. If in fact the ‘real’ threat to the ‘concrete’ liberal order is rather tenuous, that is not to say that the threat to the identity generated by the liberal order has not been very real and very deeply felt—because clearly it has. The shock of the unexpected, of an event that simply was not possible according to the liberal episteme and rendering of history, has had immense physiological, and even physical, effect upon people. While it will adjust in time, the therapeutic propaganda and forms of socially generated meaning that usually ’solve’ incongruities and threats have all failed and have not yet found the grounds for re-adjustment. They will, of course, eventually re-congeal, though perhaps in a weaker, less self-assured form, or, equally possible, in a retrenched, more closed and more assertive form. But in the meantime this particular toxicity of modernity has risen to the surface, and has caused very real harm to people, compounding the harm that the entire ugly dialectic of combating identities has caused overall. This is not, it should be said, to deny that a given political event or disruption will not have very real effects, including the current disruption in American life. Rather, it is to point out what more such disruptions do beyond the level of calculation and analysis, what they do to identities and structures of meaning, apart from any ‘concrete’ effects in the ‘real world.’
It almost goes without saying that such ideological renderings of identity have a socially corrosive effect—one which can, ironically, threaten to undermine the stability of the very states that help to generate them. Totalizing political identities preclude grounds for dialogue with others, because they take potential common grounds—cultural activities, academic pursuits, religion, shared spaces, economic struggles—and enfold them within the totalizing political narrative, and in so doing tend to generate reactions across the divide. One is no longer a ‘Christian’—one becomes a ‘liberal Christian,’ which generates ‘conservative Christian’ opposite it. And so on, with different permutations depending on the dominant ideological structures, which of course vary from one nation to another. On a further ironic, and indeed tragic, note, this social corrosion often works against some of the very stated goals and moral positions that a given ideology embraces, be it a desire for social justice or national unity and cohesion.
None of these identities are invulnerable, and no ideology, political identity, or indeed any artefact of human society is static and totally enclosed. Everyone contains healthy tensions and heterogenieties to some degree, and there is always hope for even the most thoroughly propagandized and integrated person. That said, there is no simple route to liberation or reconstruction. It is not enough to undermine a given ideology, because in so doing the very identities and meaning of individuals are also being undermined, down to the very foundations. Besides the possibility of devolution into mere cruelty for cruelty’s sake, simply undermining an identity or ideology often has the reverse effect of leading to its regeneration, often in a worse and more entrenched form. Rather, I think that it is kinder, and more practical, to work at opening up cultural and personal spaces that purposely evade or work against totalizing ideologies. Such spaces—which can be manifold—can have the effect of introducing heterogeneity, of other possibilities, other renderings of the world and of meaning, to people whose lives are otherwise heavily structured by dominant, dominating ideologies and political identities. Making genuine encounter among differently politically structured people is absolutely necessary, if also very difficult. Simple refusal to see people within different ideological blocs and structures as enemies or as ‘incurable’ is absolutely necessary, if also difficult. And above all, we must work within given realms—religious, cultural, academic, economic, and, yes the political—to liberate them from the totalizing structuring effect of state and capital, in ways that do not simply reproduce new forms of totalizing domination and pyschological captivity. And we must be realistic. So long as structures of state and capital exist in their current forms, all that I have described here will exist in some form, and the toxicity and alienation and impoverishment will also continue. No one is to ‘blame’ for all this, because what I am describing operates at levels far above any given political struggle or even ideological rendering. Rather, we should see it as part of the panoply of unintended effects of the modern, industrialized world we inhabit, effects we might not be able to supersede, but which we can, at the very least, seek to ameliorate through thoughtful strategy and the hard work of patience, empathy, and kindness.