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.