by Udit Bhatia and Bruno Leipold
Udit Bhatia: It might be useful for our readers if you could start off by saying what the idea of transformative constitution is and what work it does in your reading of the Indian constitution.
Gautam Bhatia: The term transformative constitutionalism or transformative constitution originated in post-apartheid South Africa and it had a, it is a contested term. My understanding of it is that there are basically two things about it. First, that it's distinctively post-liberal in its approach to constitutionalism. There was a certain classic understanding of constitutions as being about limiting state power. That is an understanding that comes from the American Constitution that has had a disproportionate influence on constitutionalism across time and across the world. Transformative constitutionalism is post-liberal in the sense that it understands the role of a Constitution to be more than containing the state and it actually involves directing the state towards achieving certain social goals. Another really fundamental tenet of liberal ideology is the idea of neutrality. For example, John Rawls’s ‘right over the good’, where we can disagree over goals but there are certain rights- based principles that are non-negotiable. But transformative constitutionalism specifically says that there’s a certain vision of society we're trying to get towards. In that sense, it’s also post-liberal that you could call it perfectionist again to use the term from analytical philosophy. But it has a certain blueprint of the society that it envisages as being the good society and it sees constitutions and constitutionalism as vehicles for getting there. And then it also calls for changing legal culture, so it's not just what a constitution can do. To make the constitution do that you have to then alter the way people argue in court, the things that courts can do and just the structure of legal argument and legal culture.
So the original article by Karl Klare, a labour lawyer talked about both these things, and often a bit about legal culture is forgotten and in my book, the term transformative constitutionalism broadly does something similar in the sense that it specifically talks about the Indian Constitution as being post-liberal in the sense that it was understood to be an intervention, both with respect to containing state power and providing political and civil rights and transforming subjects into citizens. But also, it was meant to bring about a far-reaching transformation in Indian society and, specifically, tackling private power. So power that exercise through institutions, whether they are social institutions like caste or economic institutions like the marketplace or cultural institutions, various religions. The Constitution, constitutional law, ideas of rights were envisioned as applying to what we classically understand as the private domain. In that sense the Indian constitution was meant to challenge the ideology, so to say, of the public-private divide. That's how I understand the transformative constitution in the Indian context.
UB: Perfect, thanks Gautam! I think one of the things that struck me was how much of the work of excavating these transformative elements happens through your reading of dissenting judgments. Now someone might look at that and think ‘well, great, there’re all these resources you’ve managed to identify in India’s legal history’. But on the other hand, one might think ‘why is this all just dissent—that’s worrying!’. So could you say a bit more about what's going on here?
GB: Historically the constitution's transformative impulses have been submerged by the adjudicatory body that is charged with being the final word on the Constitution, which is the Supreme Court of India. The dominant interpretation that the Indian Supreme Court has placed upon the Constitution and its provisions has been a conservative one. The transformative interpretation exists, and I use Edward Said’s idea of the ‘contrapuntal canon’. So there is a canon—there is the Indian constitutional canon of judgments which, despite a contrary long-standing public perception, encouraged by the Court, and by various scholars, is conservative. But then there are these dissenting judgments, some High Court documents, and the odd majority judgements as well. If you read these against the grain, in a contrapuntal way, you can excavate the transformative impulses that are there in the Constitution’s text and structure.
UB: As one reads the book, you get an idea of the substantive transformative elements in the constitution—especially their engagement with private regimes of power, or their focus on community ties that can infringe individual autonomy in all sorts of ways. But the other side of this story might be the conservatism of the constitutional text in procedural terms: the fact that the constitution set up elitist representative institutions with few opportunities for contestation by ordinary citizens. So, in a way, the transformative constitution was always likely to end up as a dissenting note. I wonder how wedded you are to the idea of transformative constitutionalism through the constitutional text.
GB: The great thing about texts is that they’re always open to interpretation. Something like a constitutional text, given the complicated social histories leading up to the framing of the Constitution, given that constitutional texts are invariably in the language of the abstract principle and not concrete commitments, given that a constitutional text is always open to a diverse range of interpretation—all this makes the interpreters task to bring together different elements, text, history, structure and so on—and fashion the most persuasive reading possible of the constitutional document and I think it is eminently possible to fashion a conservative reading of the document, given its history, and given the text. And that project hasn't happened yet, in my view, although some of H.M. Seervai’s work gestures towards that—though I wouldn't call it necessarily a right-wing interpretation. It is conservative in just placing the boundaries of interpretation as being contained by the text and not beyond that. So it is an essentially a legally conservative reading that he provides, although ironically It is far more rights-protective than a lot of the supreme court's own judgments. But the task that I see for myself as the interpreter is to use these materials that are in existence to fashion a persuasive transformative reading of the text of the constitutional law.
I don't think there is a view from nowhere, and there can’t be a non-engaged engaged standpoint. And my standpoint is from the internal perspective, which is that of a lawyer who works with the Constitution and who believes that there’s a set of important progressive goals that a Constitution is a vehicle towards achieving. It‘s a perspective which says that the Indian Constitution can and should be persuasively interpreted, so that it leads us towards those goals. I don't claim for myself the standpoint of an objective interpreter. I don't think there is any such standpoint but I am a participant and I'm saying ‘look, this is my argument and see if it's a good argument’. If somebody else has a better conservative argument for the Constitution, then fair enough. If that persuades you, as the public, then that’s perfectly fine. This is my argument I am placing before you and I hope that it persuades you.
UB: You’ve made it quite clear in the book that you’re telling us only the judicial side of the story of transformative constitutionalism in India, and that’s not the whole story. But could you say more about the trajectory of this idea outside the courts?
GB: I would recommend Rohit De’s book “A People's Constitution” that deals with the first decade after independence, throws light on how ordinary Indians understood the Constitution, leveraged it, and used it as a tool to expand their rights. And they weren't always successful but It really shows you how the Constitution became an idiom for language outside of the courts.
In the last few years—and this is a really cliched example by now—but the CAA protests are a really good example of the constitutional idiom going beyond the courts. I think what was really interesting about the CAA protests was that the protesters were really clear about the fact that they were advancing an understanding of the Constitution that derived its legitimacy and validity, not in the hope that it would be one day accepted by the Supreme Court, but by the force of argument alone outside of the Court. They fashioned a certain reading of the preamble of the Constitution, a certain reading of Article 14, the equality clause, and they were very careful to decentre the Supreme Court. If you look at the history of those protests and how the Constitution was used, it was always a reliance upon the document and there was no reference to the fact that there were pending constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court might or might not vindicate this understanding. It was a reading of the construction that stood on its own legs. That is one of the I think standout examples of transformative constitutionalism that did not rely upon the court.
If you look at a lot of work being done in Assam right now, in the aftermath of the NRC by lawyers like Aman Wadud, you find that they're setting up these Constitution centres in various places, explaining the Constitution. Again, they’re doing this without necessarily anchoring it to Supreme Court’s understandings of the constitution.
UB: Over the last few years, commentators like yourself have noted the rise of authoritarianism in India—and the courts have not been immune from this. You’ve expressed concerns about the extent to which one can continue pretending the judiciary operates along the line of rule of law. According to you, what’s the role of the lawyer in such circumstances?
GB: I think the role of the lawyer is a very difficult one, especially when it involves issues like the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), Kashmir, Aadhar—basically, issues involving state power and the constitution. You need a set of lawyers who will represent a client’s case as if everything was completely normal, as if this were a functioning democracy, with independent institutions. You need one set of lawyers, in my view, who will do that because that's work that needs doing. You also need a set of lawyers, whose knowledge of the practice of lawyering and judging, which is an internal perspective—because they've been in court—and no matter how careful an external analysis might be given, given the number of context-specific practices that can have developed over the years, there are things a lawyer sees just by virtue of being in court that are impossible to see from outside. So I think you also need a set of lawyers who draw upon that experience to mount a critique of the Court and the role the Court in checking or failing to check authoritarian tendencies and centralisation and so on.
I think that you need both kinds because as long as courts exists as centres of power, you need people who will speak in the language of the institution. But if that is the only kind of speaker that there is, the perception will remain of a well-functioning institution. So you will also need to have people who will critique the functioning of the institution. Yet, if you only have people who do that then there'll be nobody left to make the case inside the court. You need a combination of both things, I think. It's every lawyer’s decision, a question of conscience, what role you want to occupy. You have to have one of the two roles, assuming you have the privilege, the resources, and the luxury of choosing. I think one of those two roles is important when the situation is one in which authoritarian tendencies are overwhelming institutions.
Bruno Leipold: Oh, maybe I could jump in quickly and ask one question about the book. One thing that struck me is that you quite extensively draw on the idea of republican freedom. I would be quite interested to hear more the way in which debates about republican freedom were helpful to formulating your arguments about transformative constitutionalism?
UB: It also seemed that this was also one of the shorter chapters, and the sense I was getting was this isn’t something that's come up much with the court—except in a judgment where exploitative economic conditions for workers is interpreted as something like forced labour. Could you give us a sense of the judiciary’s further engagement with this idea? Has this notion come up again in other cases?
GB: Yeah so the second question is a shorter one so in brief, no, the PUDR judgement—which held that the right against forced labour includes a right to a minimum wage—is the only Supreme Court judgement to have given that interpretation to article 23. You find one High Court judgment 1994 in Allahabad that said something similar. But that's it, and I think it's just because the radical implications of that argument. So, after the PUDR judgement, there were a couple of Supreme Court judgements where people tried to rely upon PUDR as precedent and the court just shut them down and distinguished the case, and you know basically just kind of buried that that judgment. And I think it's obvious why because its just the implications are radical it, it would mean basically an anti-capitalist reading of the Constitution, which our courts or any set of courts anywhere are not willing to sanction.
As far as the role of republicanism goes, I think that the insight that republicanism provides for that kind of a reading of the forced labour clause is the focus on freedom as non-domination. Now classical republican theorists still locate the source of domination in a personalised manner, so you still need an identifiable person to pin that dominating power on. Which, of course, is not feasible and that's where workplace republicanism comes in, that is expressed I think most powerfully in writings of scholars like Corey Robin and William Claire Roberts and so on, is a depersonalisation and institutional or structural view of domination and of power.
So, if you just look at the classical understanding of fundamental rights and why they were applicable against the state, the idea was that the state has the has a monopoly over power. Right, and this idea of the monopoly then kind of runs through constitutionalism so when you want to affix liability for rights violations on a private party, a question that courts often ask is that does this private party exercise the monopoly over an important good or service, so if, for example, a body has monopoly over all the water supply, in an area or electricity in an area and it's discriminating and not say providing water to people of certain religion right, then the court can often argue that okay, because of its monopoly this private body has a state-like function, and therefore the constitutional rights provisions apply to it and therefore you know we are you know stopping this from going forward.
What that ignores is that you don't need to have a monopoly, but it may still be impossible to exit from an institution—which is the classic you know the whole point about the workplace and about labour, the labour market is that no individual capitalist has a monopoly, in fact, you know the capitalist is as constrained by the demands of capitalism, as the worker, it is the capitalist that has to constantly ensure that you know they're cutting costs and increasing profits because otherwise they’ll get out of business, and that we know that going back to Marx. So it's not it's not an individual capitalist who is a monopolist but it is the kind of a structure or the institution of the labour market that’s exercising that power through individual capitalists. So workplace republicanism I think gives us a way or a method to frame that insight and constitutional language and to say that therefore workers have constitutional rights against their bosses, even though a boss, is not the state.
UB: It's interesting you bring this up because there's so much in the book on private regimes of power, and that the book ends on the dangers of Adhaar (India’s biometric identity system). And it strikes me that one of the risks of Adhaar is very much it becoming something that private players start to emphasise; for instance, by linking private services to the Aadhar system. Is there a relationship of complicity between these private regimes of power and state power?
GB: Yeah, so I think in the Aadhaar case private regimes are operating under delegated powers from the states because Aadhaar is ultimately a nationwide centralised biometric identification system where the centralisation is by the state; the UIDAI is a state body and to the extent that private players can use the database, they do it on sufferance under Section 57 which was struck down, but then, of course pretty shamelessly reenacted by the government. So in the Aadhaar case it's actually the state power that’s being parceled out to private parties now, of course, I mean there is an argument to be made that you know the State itself is a terrain of class conflict, and so, to what extent is actually distinct from private parties? So I think that’s a political theory argument, but in terms of at least Constitutionalism and the law, the Adhaar cases I think straightforwardly involves state power and private parties do have and continue to weaponise the database for you know data gathering, data collection and use of data and denial of service and so on, but that, but their authority still flows from a law whereas the argument on private regimes was more that if you have something like you know caste enforced you know, social boycotts, it’s not really relying on the state in at least formal terms. Of course, I mean there's a long argumentative tradition coming from the legal realists in the US, that ultimately the legal regime is gapless so you know I mean, even if there is no formal law, the state by its inaction is allowing things to happen so there's always the state involved and in that sense there's no real private action that is not either sanctioned by or the sufferance of the state. So you go down that route, then of course I mean the States always involved, you know in every private action or if you don't go down that route, then you know the distinction between state sanctioned law, as in the Adhaar case and the case of caste boycott, cases where private employers have not been paying a minimum wage, and so on.
UB: Bruno I might let you take over now and may come back to them after you're done depending how much energy we leave him with.
BL: So let’s turn to the literary side of things. I read The Wall in December and I want to start by saying what a fantastic achievement it is. There’s not many people in the world that can write both constitutional theory and beautiful, engaging science fiction! What I really loved about the book, and I think quite a few reviews of the book have picked up on this, is how impressive the level of world building is. You set out everything from the city’s origin myths, its constitutional history, its religions, its literary culture—it’s all there. Perhaps I could start by asking if you could give our readers a sense of what the book is about and also what led you to write it? Its, of course, quite a gear shift from your day job as a constitutional theorist!
GB: Thank you! I’ll start with the second question. So while people might know me from my day job as a lawyer, I have actually been a science fiction fan since the age of 10 when my parents got me a copy of the Hobbit and then of Asimov's Foundation. Of course, the genre has moved beyond that now, but that was my introduction. So since the age of 10 I’ve been a huge fan and my teenage years were full of handwriting science fiction novels—pretty bad novels obviously! And then in 2015 I joined Strange Horizons the science fiction magazine as a non-fiction editor. I've been involved with them for the last five years now, five or six years. So my association with science fiction and fantasy, is something that is much older than my association with law and you know it's always been there and this novel actually began life back in 2008 when I was in college and I didn't at all know that I would go on to become you know, a full time lawyer and my day job or even stay with law, so its origins actually go back to even before I really got into law as a profession.
As to what the book’s about to put it simply it's a speculative fiction somewhere at the borders of science fiction and fantasy. It is set in a city that is enclosed completely within a very high wall that nobody has crossed in living memory. There is abundant water (the source of which is unknown), but every other resource is scarce. But that scarcity is not an ideological imposition, it's actually physically scarce, and therefore, the food and the wood and the material required for clothes and so on are all actually limited quantities. And that influences the social, economic and cultural structures that are present in the city. It's not a dystopia because there is just about enough there for everyone to be able to live a life that is not a life of squalor or a life of want so it’s not a dystopic city, but it is stasis, and it is contained.
And the core plot point is that there are a group of people who do want to find a way beyond the wall and know what lies beyond and the book is about their efforts to do that, in the face of hostility indifference and so on.
BL: These are the Young Tarafians, right? Do you want to say something about the other ideological and political factions in the book and the underlying political structure?
GB: At the broad level there are three factions in the city. One is the Governing Council of the city of Sumer, called the Council, or the Elders, which are a group of 300 people who govern the city. That political arrangement doesn't really borrow from any one thinker or historical example, but is most closely inspired by James Harrington the 17th century English philosopher, because of his idea of 300 people and how the balance between propertied and non-propertied classes is achieved. One interesting thing, for me at least, is that in Sumer they do democracy, but in a slightly different way, in that they are not elected, they are self-appointed, but every decision that they take is put to a referendum in the city. So although it's not democracy at the starting point as there are no elections, but it is a democracy at the at the end point, in that their decisions have to be put to a popular vote. However, there is one catch, which is that if you want to actually alter the property relations or underlying constitutional arrangements you have to have a two thirds majority. That’s an idea taken from Pinochet’s military constitution that enshrined neoliberalism, and that also gives you a clue about some of the underlying ideological debates in the book.
So the Elders or the Council are the secular governing body of the city, and then there are the Shoortans—the religious group. That's drawn from the idea that if you have a city within a wall and its very clear that the wall is not natural, it was built by someone. And that someone gave to the citizens, the exact amount of resources in exactly the right balance to enable them to survive. So, clearly there is a governing intelligence or a governing hand behind this, which would lead to all kinds of duelling origin stories that are born from the realisation that there had to be a creator. So Shoortans have a set of beliefs about the creation and that the purpose of the wall is to keep them safe and therefore it should not be crossed.
The final faction are the scientists, who are also called the Select, whose job it is to ensure that the city continues to run and to survive. They ensure that the proportions of the resources remain just right and that consumption remains at a level at which everyone can continue to survive. Because if you're living in a semi-closed system then a small change can lead to widespread devastation. So the scientist’s role is to ensure that things are kept on track and they're kind of exist with the other factions in a somewhat unstable equilibrium with each other, where you know there is a division of power, but it's a little uneasy and unstable.
BL: Between these factions there's also ideological disagreement over what one of the central concepts of Sumer really means, that is the concept of ‘Smara’.
GB: The idea of Smara is a bit of a cheat on my part because an Indian reader would kind of guess it’s meaning because it does draw from an Indian word. I'm sure when Udit reads the book when he sees the word Smara, he would have a rough idea of where that thought line is going but a non-Indian reader might not immediately.
Smara, broadly is this idea of yearning or the yearning for a world without the wall, although what exactly it means is contested. It's a feeling that everyone has experienced, in the sense that everyone at certain times has this feeling of being enclosed, of being trapped, this yearning to know what's beyond that. To be able to see a world in which there is a horizon, because they also don't have a word for the horizon, but to see a world where actually you know everything you see isn't cut off by the wall.
For some, this is actually a reason to go beyond the wall, to find out what's beyond that, so that they can put an end to this constant yearning and to understand what it means. For the Shoortans it's a signal that you're not supposed to go beyond the wall and you're supposed to remain within where life is stable. So this idea, as you said, plays an ideological role in the sense that for the dominant faction it becomes a reason to ensure the continuance of status-quo but for the Young Tarafians it becomes a reason to break the status quo. Later on in the novel you have certain dispute about its exact meaning and where it's coming from that enables, not to give away spoilers, some people to find a way to break the status quo.
BL: I want to pick you up what you say about there being some specific cultural references that make more sense to an Indian reader. For me, when I was reading the book, one of the really enjoyable things was the many references to classical Greece and Rome. You already mentioned Harrington as one of your sources, and I wanted how these different literary and historical sources influenced your writing?
GB: I think that this a function of growing up in India in the 1990s, where there is this whole range of influences that you're exposed to as a child. One set of influences is you know a lot of the classical Greek and Roman stuff in translation.
You would have noticed that there is a progressive councillor, a social reformer who wants to democratise land ownership within the city and he's obviously based on Gracchus, the Roman tribune. But in my book his name is Sanchika and Sanchika was actually the pen name of E. M. S. Namboodiripad, the first Indian communist elected Chief Minister who also carried out land reform.
There are also other myths in the book that are a blend of various influences. In an early part of the book there is this myth about two birds who try and fly up to the sun and one of them is about to have their wings burnt off but the other one protects them by shielding them. Now, this might sound like the Icarus myth, but it's actually a story from the Ramayana involving Jatayu and his elder brother, which shows you that there's a common source to all these myths and they evolve a little differently in different countries. But what may look like an Icarus myth to a western reader is actually slightly different, it has its own source in Indian myth.
One specific reference that I want to point out, which speaks to the question of ideology and some of the underlying debates in the book. At one point in the book, one of the scientists, says that look, you can vote for or against decisions, you can have your referendum, but you can’t really vote against the wall. Because the wall is part of reality, it's always there. That's directly a reference to Jean-Claude Juncker saying in 2015 after the Greek election that ‘there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties’. What that’s basically saying is look, you can have your domestic votes, in your own little country, but you can’t vote against neoliberalism, against the governing philosophy of the EU.
So, one of themes I'm exploring in The Wall is that neoliberalism, and capitalism in general, has this whole myth of scarcity. A lot of the edifice of neoliberalism depends upon this ideology of scarcity and there not being enough. But what if you had a situation in which that scarcity was not an ideological construct but was literally a key part baked into the world and there was an identifiable reason why there was scarcity. Then how would society evolve and what would the arguments be.
BL: The global melding of myths is really one of the many strengths of the book. Another that really impressed me is how you managed to weave in discussions about the Sumer’s constitutional history and political structure and do so in a way that is plausible and never gets in the way of the narrative. There’s not that much sci-fi that really takes the politics of the world-building quite so seriously (China Mieville perhaps comes to mind).
I suppose this bring us to the somewhat inevitable question about how your day-job, your academic work, relates to you science fiction writing. In some interviews you’ve been a little hesitant to draw those links. But when I was listening to your ideas on the transformative constitution in the first half of our interview, it did seem that there were some similarities in The Wall. Especially the idea that constitutionalism goes beyond the political and that it matters to social questions and the social sphere. So I guess I want to ask a quite open question, to what extent, if at all, there are these links between legal and constitutional work and your fictional writings?
GB: I think that, first of all, it's just the fact that most science fiction writers have a day job. Apart from the lucky few who can make a living off their writing, they most have day jobs and that always bleeds into bleeds into the science fiction. A physicist, or an engineer, when they write science fiction they ensure that the spaceship has the right dimensions and can fly, and so similarly, when a lawyer writes science fiction, they will ensure that the underlying legal arrangements are persuasive and reflect the larger world. So in that sense, your professional specialisation will always bleed into your writing because you’re just aware of the role that plays in whatever you're writing.
I think that, for me, the understanding that has come from many years of being in legal practice and also writing about law is how law and legal structures constitute the internal plumbing of the world and they're always there. We’re not always are aware of them, but they exist and they are what make actions certain actions possible or not possible. That’s the kind of thing that once you see you can't really unsee. So when you're doing world building for science fiction, you will factor in the law and constitutional arrangements into that world building.
And where societies are under heightened stress, whether Brexit in the UK or what Trump did in the US or the Citizenship Amendment Act in India, people do talk about the constitution at that point of time. Because that's when it really comes to the fore, so it's quite natural for people living in societies that are undergoing a certain kind of stress to think about, reflect about and debate constitutional arrangements. And that is something that is reflected in the book, because it is a society under stress and it is destabilised by the Young Tarafians who want to get beyond the wall. They are claiming that they have good reasons to do so and people want to stop them. So obviously the issue of what is allowed, what isn't allowed, what the law allows, what the society’s political arrangements allow, would come to the fore and would be discussed. So in that sense, of course, being a lawyer influences the vocabulary, in which those claims might be framed. To that extent there is an overlap and influence.
I think what I'm hesitant about, what I've been a little uncomfortable about, is people saying that this is legal science fiction or legal speculative fiction, that it is centered on law. Because, first of all, I'm telling a story, and that's what matters. As a writer you are trying to tell a good story and then you have all the things that go into making it a plausible world. Whether that is, for example, the understanding that in a semi-closed system, with no fauna, all your plants would need to be self-pollinating. So the only plants that your city can have are self-pollinating plants, so you then have to ask is cotton self-pollinating? It turns out it is, and therefore the clothes will be made of cotton.
So just like you pay attention to that kind of thing to make your world building plausible, you also pay attention to law to make it plausible. The fact that the writer is a lawyer should not distract attention from the story.
BL: We’re getting to the end of our time, so I wanted to ask how writing on the sequel is going. I think its called The Horizon?
GB: Yes, part two is called the Horizon and was finished in January. It's supposed to come out in September but given the Indian covid situation I don't know if that will happen or if it will be delayed. I haven't yet followed up because things are bad right now, and I think nobody should be pushed right now to work in India. So the formal release date was September and I don't know if it will be September, maybe a couple of months after.
BL: Of course. When it does appear I’m certainly going to buy it as soon as it's available.
GB: Thank you! Thank you so much, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.
by Udit Bhatia
Udit Bhatia: Your first book looked at conceptualisations of the market in the work of Smith and Hegel. How did you move from this onto moral responsibility and division of labour in complex organisations?
Lisa Herzog: While I worked on Smith and Hegel, the Global Financial Crisis happened. I read a lot about it—all this stuff about synthetic financial products, risk models, conflicts of interests, “Chinese walls”, insane bonuses—and the repercussions in the broader economy. When thinking about it, two things emerged for me. First, what had gone morally wrong in this crisis had to do with markets, no question – but it also had to do with things going wrong within organisations, in this case, financial organisations. And second, my assumptions—including what I had learned in my studies of economics—about organisations were probably about as wrong and one-sided as the assumptions I had held about markets before I delved into the history of ideas to sort out some of these assumptions and arguments about them. I also realised that philosophy had not very much to say about organisations, despite the fact that they shape the daily life of millions of people. So, I decided that I wanted to understand what it means to be an ethical agent when you’re a “cog in the wheel” of a complex organisation—and whether there could be something like “ethics for cogs in wheels” (that was my informal working title).
UB: Reclaiming the System gives us a rich account of organisations as spaces where individuals—cogs in the wheels, as you describe them—can act as responsible agents and it explores organisational conditions that can facilitate this. One response, which you challenge in the book, is that we should focus on structural questions about the way markets are organised rather than the internal aspects of business firms. Could say a bit more about the relationship between the two approaches?
LH: Both are crucially important to keep an economic system morally on track. Without them, it can easily spiral out of control and become the kind of moral monster that we see in many countries, with so many injustices and the exploitation of humans and of nature. Both are coupled—in the sense that how one level is regulated impacts what happens on the other—though not in a strictly deterministic way. Even if we had excellent market regulation, this would not exclude the possibility of internal problems within business firms (and the same goes for other organisations and their respective regulatory frameworks). On the other hand, even if regulation is deficient and there are dysfunctional pressures on organisations, that does not mean that they have no wiggle-room whatsoever. For example, business firms may find market niches in which they can sell ethically-sourced products with a premium, and the practices they develop there might one day be mainstreamed. That doesn’t mean that the legal framework should not be improved, but it means that we shouldn’t overlook the moral responsibility that businesses can nonetheless have.
UB: You point out that suitable legal regulation could protect responsible businesses from dying out for the wrong sort of reasons in a market dominated by an orientation towards profit. Are there grounds for optimism here? Do you have any examples in mind where regulation of this kind has been initiated or implemented? Has the left, in particular, been successful in successfully advancing this cause in a systematic fashion?
LH: Well… I live in Europe, and while I’m not super-optimistic, I see at least certain steps in the right direction (though all too often they seem to get thwarted by lobbyism). Often, you need international agreements, because one country—especially a small one—going it alone is not the most effective strategy (though it might be important in the sense of sending a signal to others). One example of regulation in the past, where such international collaboration has worked reasonably well, was the effort to ban hydrofluorocarbons, which had caused the hole in the ozone layer. What we need today, very urgently, is regulation with regard to CO2 emissions, which is much harder because our whole material economy depends to a great extent on CO2-based technologies. There is also a third factor that one shouldn’t underestimate: the role of customers, especially relatively well-off customers in the Global North. If they paid more attention to the climate footprint of products, that could make quite a difference for businesses that try to reduce CO2 emissions. But I think in the end we need regulation as well, to correct the perverse incentives businesses face at the moment.
As for the left, it had sort of forgotten this basic principle—the “primacy of politics”, as it has been called in the social-democratic tradition—during the height of the “neoliberal” era, when free markets were seen as a kind of panacea for social problems. So, there is a lot of rebuilding that needs to happen.
UB: The kind of market regulations necessary for facilitating responsible business would presumably require considerable collective action at a global scale. But with the rise of populism and rising hostility towards ideas of global justice, do you worry about the future regulation of global markets?
LH: The short answer is, I do. But I’m nonetheless cautiously optimistic that multilateral action remains possible, and with a Biden administration in the US much more than with a Trump administration. We see an asymmetry here in the sense that vested interests—e.g., the major international corporations in a specific industry—will have an easy time coordinating their lobbying efforts, because their shared interests are at stake. The question is: where is the counterbalance in terms of the representation of the public interest, and the interests of the weakest individuals and communities, and maybe even of non-human life on earth? To be sure, this is also a question of how active NGOs and civil society organisations are—and here, we can all make a difference. And we can also do so by voting for parties that are willing to engage in international agreements to rein in global markets.
There is also a connection to the rise of right-wing populism here, I think. If individuals feel that the traditional left parties do not protect them from the ups and downs of global markets, if they don’t have a voice at work and no safety net, it becomes all the more attractive to look for strong “leaders” who claim to offer better protection. This is maybe not even so much about people on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, but about people in lower and lower-middle class positions who feel the threat of economic precarity.
UB: Your work points out the epistemic problems involved in the ethical management of firms. Knowledge available to parts of the machine remains unavailable to others in a system of divided labour. But one might worry that the epistemic problem facing firms runs deeper than that. Even if firms were better at synthesising dispersed knowledge, ideological frames through which social and economic problems are approached may pose barriers for responsible agency. How promising a strategy do you find the restructuring of firms’ organisational structures in addressing this challenge?
LH: This is certainly an additional challenge—if all employees believe in a narrative that is all about profits, and not at all about moral responsibility, then it’s not enough to better address internal knowledge problems. But on that front, I think we are at an interesting moment and there is reason for hope: more and more people become aware that we cannot go on with the economic ideology that has reigned for the last few decades, without any attention to the wellbeing of human beings, the environment, or the planet. What these individuals struggle with is how to carry these responsibilities into their working lives, and that’s where organisational structures matter.
UB: The book points to the importance of organisational culture in addition to the formal rules that govern organisations. You note that the former shouldn’t be seen as merely an epiphenomenon of the latter. This, no doubt, makes organisational culture hard to amend in ways that help reorient businesses’ values. How do we deal with this elusiveness of organisational character? Then there’s also the worry about how much organisational culture can change from within when it remains embedded in a capitalist economy centred overwhelmingly on profit motives.
LH: This is a topic I want to do more research on, together with social scientists. I find the ways in which the formal (structures) and informal (culture) sides of organisations interact quite fascinating, and I am convinced that culture makes a huge different for moral outcomes. Just think about the way in which different university departments—though similarly structured, all facing more or less the same (partly dysfunctional) incentives—can have such different cultures, for example with regard to the inclusion of minority voices. Individual personalities certainly play an important role for that (and to the extent to which this is the case, the practical implication might simply be: make sure that you don’t hire narcissists or jerks, because one bad apple can infect the whole barrel). But I am pretty sure that there are also some factors that go beyond that, such as communicative structures and patterns of participation. My hypothesis is that a fair distribution of benefits and burdens, and a supportive, participatory culture are also contributing factors to a good organisational culture. If this is true, then one can make an indirect argument for fairness and participation in the workplace: namely, that this is our best bet for creating the kind of culture that are needed to keep organisations morally on track.
And on your last point: I zoom out, at the end of the book, to discuss the need for better regulative frameworks to reign in capitalist markets, and the need for giving workers more voice. Ultimately, we need to gain democratic control over the economic system, on so many different levels. But that’s a longer process, it won’t happen overnight, unfortunately. While we are—hopefully—on that path, questions about the responsibility for an organisational culture don’t go away.
UB: Would we need to think differently about spaces for agency available in new forms of business in the gig economy? Do you worry that platforms like Uber, for instance, may undermine some of the social interaction and solidarity between workers that might support collective action?
LH: Yes, this is a challenge—not only the one-sided narratives about autonomy and individuality that these platforms like to maintain, but also the fact that you hardly meet your “colleagues” (formally, they’re all independent contractors, not co-employees). Think about the history of the labour movement: people shared intense, often physically demanding, working experiences; they spent long hours together, and often also lived in the same neighbourhoods. That can create a level of trust and solidarity that is probably very difficult to create among those who work for the same online platform, but hardly ever meet physically. As I’m writing this (in February 2021), many of us have a lot of experience with the “home office” because of the pandemic—and you realise how much is missing if all the informal contacts and interactions that happen at workplaces are cut down to a few minutes in a digital room before or after an official digital meeting. There is something about physical closeness that the digital realm simply cannot replicate, and it matters for the ability of workers to organise. Right now, there is a lot of debate about the extent to which we’ll continue working in home office, and whether there should be a legal right to that. But maybe we also need some kind of right to spaces where those working for the same company (in whatever legal form) can physically meet and share their experiences.
UB: I’d like to now move to some questions about methodology. Reclaiming the System draws on your ethnographic work, connecting this to normative questions you raise in the book. Could you tell us a bit more about the relationship between the empirical and the philosophical aspects of your work?
LH: I started doing this ethnographic work—mostly interviews, then also some longer observational periods in one organisation—because I felt that I did not have a good grasp of what was actually going on, morally speaking, “on the ground”, i.e., within the kinds of organisations I was interested in. The interviews provided me with fascinating material, and a lot of food for thought—but it took me a while to figure out how to turn these insights into something that would “count” as philosophy, and how to connect them to existing discourses. I first thought that I might conceptualise the interview material as an expression of a kind of practical moral expertise—but colleagues quickly pointed out that this might be problematic, because the interviewees’ views might be distorted by having to act under very non-ideal circumstances. I ended up using the material as heuristic for typical moral challenges in organisations, choosing episodes from the interviews that stood for something more general, something about organisational structures as such. There were those moments when I realised that someone working in public administration, for example, was telling me something about procurement rules that was quite similar to something an interviewee from a chemical company had told me about safety rules—so I started realising that there was something about the nature of organisational rules here that I could analyse in more general terms.
UB: In a paper with Bernardo Zacka, you’ve suggested that an ethnographic sensibility can help political theorists revise the questions they use to approach a certain field. Did something like this happen during your research for the book?
LH: Oh definitely! What was most eye-opening to me was the way in which knowledge and ignorance, and speaking up and remaining silent, were at the core of many moral issues in organisations. Questions about who knows what, when, and why, shape the contours of many moral problems—and they co-determine which issues are seen as moral issues at all! I did not have this on my initial list of questions, but it became a whole chapter in the end. And in my current book project I try to draw out the role of knowledge for democracy on a broader scale, beyond the realm of organisations.
UB: What advice would you have for political theorists considering or engaged in ethnographic work?
LH: If you show genuine curiosity and openness, and also humility in the sense that you don’t assume that you know everything from the start, people often open up very quickly, and it is possible to have very deep conversations. So, don’t weigh the pro’s and con’s forever, just give it a try and see how it goes! Take the opportunity when unexpected occasions arise, e.g., when a friend knows someone who works in a certain field, or when you meet someone on a train (when we’re not in a pandemic, at least). And don’t give up if it doesn’t seem to pay off immediately. It can take a while to find the right people, who can then connect you to more interview partners. It can be a very rewarding experience—I’ve certainly learned a lot, both intellectually and also in terms of moral role models.
by Marius S. Ostrowski
Marius Ostrowski: Perhaps to start with a retrospective view, and a simple question. What first prompted the idea to found the Journal of Political Ideologies?
Michael Freeden: The main reason was the pronounced gap within the field of political theory between political philosophy and the history of political thought and the absence of a journal that could fill some of that gap. More importantly, one that could stimulate researchers to turn their minds, efforts and creativity towards a highly promising, patently relevant, rich, and astoundingly underexplored area of the political thinking that is happening around us, day by day, country by country, emanating from every section of society. Given that the interrogation of political actions and practices is so central to political studies, it seemed remarkable that so little research effort had been devoted to exploring the political thought-practices produced by, and circulating in, societies, beyond rudimentary left-right distinctions and historical accounts.
Despite the growing interest in the study of ideologies, there was no dedicated outlet that could distinguish itself by specialising not in the normative improvement of political arguments or the pursuit of ethical truths, and not in the narratives—however disrupted—about the changing nature of political thought, but in the actual patterns of thinking about politics prevalent in societies and communities. That important genre for anyone interested in how people in concert conceptualise, defend, criticise, or change their political arrangements simply had far too little purchase as a focus of political studies and university courses.
The secondary reason—important to me—was that I felt that I would enjoy the experience of being an editor and ushering a new venture, and sub-field, into greater academic prominence. It was a challenge that emerged directly from my immersion in preparing my 1996 book, Ideologies and Political Theory, and from the questions and interest displayed by the many students who took my courses and seminars on ideology over the years. To my mind, the JPI was not just another journal but had the potential to serve as pioneer in an important and somewhat underrepresented and underpopulated area. My father had been a journalist and newspaper editor and as a child I had often watched him prepare an issue—so the craft of assembling, selecting and bringing together material, and getting the balance right, was familiar to me. Of course, the practice was rather less romantic than I had imagined, but nonetheless very rewarding—give or take the Sisyphean search for assessors to evaluate submissions.
MO: How would you characterise what has happened to ideology studies since the JPI started—not least in terms of the journal's content? What have been the most significant areas of scholarly innovation and growth?
MF: There was indeed an astounding and gratifying change. In the first few years, hardly any submission latched on to the distinction between straightforward political theory as an advocacy endeavour and ideology studies as the interpretation and contextualisation of such arguments and views, whether those were intentional or not. In an extreme case, one author submitted, without comment, twenty letters he had sent to Brezhnev and Reagan, except that (unsurprisingly) there were no replies. But then the sophistication and range of articles started to increase exponentially, as the academic public began to realise what the deep analysis of ideologies entailed. The geographical range of the JPI began to expand; related schools of thought, such as the Essex school of discourse studies, or critical discourse analysts, saw the JPI as a kindred spirit (although occasionally just as an outlet for their own agenda!); the intellectual scope of ideology studies increased throughout its pages; and the concrete concerns and flavours of the year reflected shifting emphases within this or that ideological family or grouping.
The JPI welcomed that diversity, but also tried, in a very modest way, to persuade some practitioners of these genres to think about the differences as well as the similarities between their interpretations of the role of ideology theory and ours. Crucially important, we believed, was to build methodological bridges, or at least start a conversation, in order to relax some of the fixed assumptions that siloed the various sub-disciplinary approaches and aims and resulted in their talking past one another. Not least, we always appealed to contributors to eschew the 'semi-private' 'in-language' of some genres and to write in a way that could be understood and appreciated by all JPI readers. Although too many academics—and that includes university administrators—may think that the point of a journal is to add to one's tally of research publications as a means to career advancement, the dignified rationale of a journal is to speak to a broad readership and convince them that new and exciting ideas are worth considering.
We also strove to reflect the political and cultural issues that preoccupied the world around us in the shape of specific ideological families or segments as they emerged, persisted, or declined. Environmentalism, globalism, feminism, anarchism/post-anarchism, and political Islam appeared alongside the stalwarts of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, and fascism. Neoliberalism, the alt-right, and of course the now ubiquitous populism—highly pertinent to contemporary politics, although experiencing a nigh-uncontainable surge in current academic fashion—have been more recent players on the JPI stage.
In sum, the recognition of ideological fragmentation, of how some of the weightiest and most intriguing features of ideologies mutate and adapt, and of the location of ideological expression in hitherto unexplored areas of social thinking, have all brought about a recalibration of the field. Significantly, too, the geographical range of contributions to the JPI has grown considerably—it is no longer a Eurocentric journal as it was at its inception. Moreover, we have always encouraged younger scholars and those at the beginning of their academic career. A journal not set in its ways, not simply replicating the historical conventions of its subject-matter, offers a fresh outlet for new thinking and imaginative research.
MO: It strikes me that the study of ideology or ideologies is on the cusp of moving from being a thematic focus within several separate subfields to evolving into a discrete subfield in its own right. Would you agree? And if so, what is the current 'lay of the land' of the main traditions of ideology theory?
MF: That is an acute observation. But the intertwined nature of many disciplines and sub-disciplines suggests that one can recombine fields of scholarship in multiple ways. By juggling with Venn diagrams, different disciplines and subdisciplines can rank similar material differently according to their criteria of what matters most, or which of many paths through a body of knowledge and understanding reaps the most insight for diverse scholars. The same texts and practices can be read in very distinct ways. An example I have given in the past is to draw attention to a triple reading of John Rawls as a moral philosopher, an exponent of a curious and rather idiosyncratic variant of contemporary North American liberal ideology, or a very indifferent—perhaps abstruse—stylist and communicator. That said, ideology scholars are now confident enough to place their specialisation at centre-stage, or at least as co-equal, with other branches of political theory. They can rightly claim, for instance, that when we access political thinking—in whatever shape—it is immediately, first and foremost, decodable as an ideological statement or manifestation.
As for the traditions of ideology theory, while some reinforce one another, others inhabit separate circles. Our view of ideology theory has consequently been heterodox, pluralistic, and layered. I turn to a passage from a JPI editorial I wrote a few years back: Ideology as fantasmatic veil-drawing, ideology as the articulation of social identities, ideology as distorted belief, ideology through the lens of discourse analysis, ideology as conceptual morphology, ideology as rhetorical language, ideology as aggregated attitudes, the visual representations of ideology, ideology as anchored in emotions, ideology as party programmes, ideologies as bifurcated or multiple psychological tendencies, ideology as performativity, ideology as ritual, ideology as consensus formation, ideology as the management or mismanagement of agonism and dissent, ideology as rupture—all these, and more, have been given a fair platform in the JPI and most of them are accumulating an impressive body of knowledge.
But it still remains a challenge to draw cross-cutting links among some of them. There is also a notable decline in regarding the state as a source of ideology and a shift to non-institutional foci of ideological debate. The one problem amongst that embarras de richesse is the legacy of unease and negativity that has accumulated around the concept of ideology in certain swathes of Continentally-inspired approaches, to which I refer in response to your final question.
MO: One of the most intriguing developments seems to be the explosive rise of 'thin' ideologies (e.g., populism, nationalism, Euroscepticism, etc.), which compete for ever more central positions within their 'thick' host ideologies (e.g., conservatism, liberalism, socialism), to use your distinction from Ideologies and Political Theory. At times, the thin ideologies now seem to threaten to entirely devour the thick ones from the inside. What do you think lies behind this phenomenon? Is it merely the latest form of decontestation in action?
MF: There has been a massive change in the culture surrounding the production and the reception of ideologies. The conventional ideologies were durable and complex systems of ideas and arguments that required education and intellectual sophistication to understand and appreciate them, even in simplified form, particularly those on the liberal, socialist, or radical side of the ideational spectrum. They were interwoven with philosophical texts and traditions, supported, bolstered by, and embedded in political institutions, and linked to defining events and transitions in human history: foundational moments, revolutions, power shifts among social groups, wars, ideals of social reform.
The grand ideas of human association have diminished since the Second World War and, later, since the fall of communism, and they lack new bedrocks, motivation or rationale. People talk of globalisation, but in the world of political ideas there is little evidence for that—bitty and disjointed scraps are circulated by economic conglomerates and would-be petty Napoleons. And the players and cultures on our planet are far more visible and vocal than in the past, an uncoordinated diversity that multiplies and jumbles messages that come and go at great speed and cannot put down ideologically sustainable roots.
The populisms of today are not ideologies in any meaningful sense; they are not movements, either. Communities don’t march under banners proclaiming, or hoping for, them—the proselytising, inspiring or at least conserving levelheadedness of the old ideologies is entirely absent here. Serious tomes may be written against them, but few aiming at recruiting public opinion for them. Even ideologies such as fascism and Nazism were peddlers of social visions, albeit loathsome ones. And the various neoliberalisms are catch-all repositories for distinct economic, neo-colonial, or just trite conservative positions.
The steam seems to have run out of earnest political thinking that can distil the 'spirit of an age' or oppose it intelligently. Even where positive social ideals make headway. such as environmentalism and the perils of climate change, or 'black lives matter', their dissemination is irregular, competing for cyberspace, too decentralised to have cohesive momentum, too sporadic to constitute a body of ideas and, so far, too indeterminate outside their specialised objectives to offer comprehensive social agenda with actual mass appeal, rather than dream of it. The written word—the means of ideological dissemination—has given way to film, pictures, bland repetition ('enemies of the people'), or banally channelling the energy of catastrophes.
More than anything, ideological segments—that is to say, elements that would normally have been lodged in broader frameworks—are popularised and vernacularised, ostensibly easy to understand and reproduce. They possess a superficial resemblance to the propaganda machinery and memes of the 20th century, but whereas those were top-down and regime-led, they now originate from anywhere and are circulated with consummate ease and carelessness. Above all, we now know that they no longer need to be articulated or even consciously developed. Ideologies, and their lesser manifestations, may be unintentionally produced and consumed, which makes them difficult to counteract.
MO: You suggest that what makes ideologies political is, among other things, their capacity to mobilise support, form collective priorities, and project plans and visions for society. In the context of growing social complexity and the proliferation of newly-salient identities, is that task becoming harder? Are the criteria of success for political ideologies becoming increasingly demanding?
MF: Unfortunately, the reverse is true. Given the transformation in the languages and presentation of ideologies discussed above, it is relatively easy to launch and muster support for clarion calls to mobilise, to adopt quarter-baked segments of what at other times would have been incorporated into properly worked-out ideologies. Ideologies are necessarily simplifiers, but the technological and stylistic changes relating to social media, digital platforms, and demands for immediate comments and responses have produced parallel ideological worlds: slow cooking versus fast food.
On the one hand, you have the older, argumentative, far-reaching, detailed and often sophisticated competing maps of the political world that engage in interpretation, prescription, and criticism of forms of common life. On the other, we are increasingly witness to the impatient, from-the-hip, cavalier, and opinionated snatches of private opinion dressed up as vox populi that either are highly fragmented or depressingly shallow. To complicate matters further, some of those—right-wing populism is one instance—take on the semblance of spectral ideolonoids that offer a pat 'comprehensiveness' that turns out to be posturing, even hollow. When you poke them, they evaporate into smoke without mirrors. That said, they all are grist to the mill of the student of ideologies.
But then we have to ask ourselves: what are the criteria of ideological success? Not necessarily guiding us to a political promised land, defeating ideological rivals, or making us better citizens. The success of an ideology should be ascertained through different standards of evaluation, based on what ideologies are designed to accomplish: the mobilisation of support; effective communication to their prospective audiences; the display of imaginative and feasible plans for political action; the intelligible mapping of the ways and means to fashion or interpret the conscious and unconscious political practices and thought-practices of the societies and grouping with which they engage.
It is not so much the criteria that become more demanding, but rather the onus on the ideology scholar to scan the field, know how and where to extract relevant evidence and information, and acquaint her- or himself with the increasing nuances of interpretation and decoding. The questions we should ask ourselves are, have we extracted as much as we can out of a particular, given nugget of information; do we know how to find and identify it when it hits us in the face; and what do we need to do to transform that process into knowledge—into Weberian Verstehen or Ricœurian surplus of meaning. All that should lay to rest the facile characterisation of ideology studies as descriptive, when even at the best of times we can never adequately describe anything without passing it through the filter of interpretation.
MO: One of the recurring themes in your work is the contrast between neat and untidy political thinking, as well as the failure of academic political theory to adequately take the latter into account. At the same time, we are living through a time where denialism, conspiracism, 'fake news', and 'alternative facts' play a prominent role in political argument. What can be done to square that circle? Can a 'political theory of political thinking' as you describe it bridge the gulf between the accepted standards of political reasoning, in the academy versus among the public?
MF: A major role of ideology studies is to examine and analyse the normal expressions of action-oriented political thinking at every level of articulation. Here political theory falls in line with the empirical bent of other genres of political science. Studying ideologies, as the JPI understands it, differs from its subject-matter, and from much political philosophy, in not being an advocacy-led practice but one that satisfies our curiosity about societies—even if that satiated curiosity is always provisional, awaiting contrary interpretation. This makes that perspective very different from the position adopted by many political philosophers, for the latter do not distinguish between the arguments and approaches they scrutinise in their subject matter and the methods they themselves employ as scholars—regarding the two as part of a seamless enterprise. Yet inasmuch as human beings are not automatons, ethical perfectionists, or logic machines, they think in disorganised, disjointed and often messy ways.
That is the scholarly challenge of ideology scholars: to make sense of and interpret the commonplace as well as the exceptional, the incomplete as well as the polished, the mistaken as well as the reasonable. If we are to have a finger on the pulse of what makes societies tick, if we want to take ideologies seriously, we need to craft theories and approaches that do normal political thinking adequate justice, that account for the reasons and forms of diverse conceptual decontestation, deliberate and unconscious, that link together and separate different cultural environments. That does not mean bridging a gap: If the ‘general public’ wishes to read studies on ideology they are of course warmly invited to do so, but ideology studies are not deliberately educational in the sense of making us all better reasoners. The hard sciences and philosophy are geared to that, but the kind of ideology studies reflected in the JPI are not on a mission to improve but on a mission—if that is the mot juste—to understand as best we can and to offer that understanding to other branches of knowledge if they wish to avail themselves of it.
The most worrying thing about failing to reflect the new world of ideology is the lamentably lagging state of undergraduate ideology courses in so many universities. Far too many still follow the tired old classifications and assumptions about ideology that should have been abandoned 20 years ago. The damage is substantial, for while innovative courses in other branches of political theory have admirably marched on with the times, the topic of ideology is made to seem unsophisticated, as if it had stood still. The allure of this field of political theory is thus unjustifiably and negligently made to pale against its lively partners, based on a lack of curiosity about what's happening in the neighbouring garden. The responsibility lies squarely with those political theorists and political scientists who, sadly for all concerned, do not want to educate themselves—and others—in getting to know the changing terrain and the budding plants. If they did, a far more productive conversation of equals would benefit all sides and enrich all facets of theorising about political thought.
I'm afraid that fake news and alternative facts are part of the raw material that scholars of ideology need to confront. At best, ideologies aren't 'true'—I leave the ascertaining of truth to philosophers—but networks of established facts and conventions of understanding interspersed and stapled together with conjecture, speculation, and wishful thinking. Denialism and fabrication offer their own fascinating windows into the ideologies of their disseminators. Even falsehoods are worth studying because their patterns of deceit are themselves revealing of ways of ideological thinking. As responsible citizens we may well be disturbed and depressed by them. But as ideology scholars our job is to explain why this, rather than that, deceit or deliberate misinterpretation prevails? What patterns of 'fake news' work well in which societies and what patterns fail?
MO: Finally, the concept of ideology and ideological thinking still tends to be given a pretty bad rap in common parlance. (Marx, it seems, is casting a long shadow in this respect too.) What do you think needs to be done to turn this around?
MF: The Press has been the worst culprit in this, with endless callings out of plans or ideas as pejoratively 'ideological', including newspapers, such as the Guardian, that should know better than to fall into that rhetorical and often propagandist trap. In my 2003 book, Ideology: A Very Short Introduction I recount the story of a gentleman who took umbrage at a talk I had given and confronted me in affronted tones: 'Are you suggesting, Sir, that I have an ideology?' 'I very much hope you do!,' was my response. As sentient members of society, how could anyone not?
Sadly, you sometimes get equally ignorant, or haughty, responses from within the academic profession. An Oxford philosophy colleague said to me many years ago: 'Those who work on inferior thinking can only produce inferior work'. That writes off many eminent historians, as well as raising questions about the criteria of 'superior' thinking in the realm of politics. What gets a bad reputation are only certain senses of 'ideology', but the fact is that they have frequently colonised the entire field of meaning the word covers. Put differently, the rhetorical, combative, obfuscating, and colloquial senses of ideology—as so often is the case in political language—have overshadowed its more nuanced and analytically perspicacious interpretations, even among political theorists.
All that is hardly improved by poststructuralists and post-Marxists assuming that ideologies always are the product of, and reflect, conflict and antagonism, sidestepping the many ideological features that are based on identifying and building overlapping areas of broad agreement or, for that matter, a vague indeterminacy. Nor is it helped by those who subscribe to the kind of critical theory--Ideologiekritik—for whom ideologies are invariably dissimulative distortions of a so-called reality, or just blatant and manipulative lies. Of course, those variants do exist, but that is not typical ideological thinking. To suggest they are does the entire field a great disservice. If I may be so bold, what might turn this around is the flourishing and persistence of vehicles such as the Journal of Political Ideologies.