The Bullshit Beyond Ideology

I have a great impatience with people who—whether for normative or empirical reasons (the second is often driven by the first)—claim that we need to dispense with terms like “left” and “right.” The world is too complicated, they say, for such simpleminded categories. We need a Third Way, they say (and have said since the French Revolution). My ideology is “neither Right Nor Left,” they say, which is what fascists so often said of themselves. I am beyond ideology.

Some of the reasons for my impatience were laid out by the Italian political theorist Noberto Bobbio in a short masterpiece he penned in the last decade of his life: Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction. But another reason has to do with the bad faith—and political instrumentalism—of the ideologues who so often make that move.

As did Sidney Hook at the first meeting of the Congress of Cultural Freedom in Berlin in 1950. As quoted in the Times (according to Christopher Lasch), Hook anticipated an “era when references to ‘right,’ ‘left,’ and ‘center’ will vanish from common usage as meaningless.” This, at a conference where, according to the Times, it was declared by everyone that “the time is at hand for a decision as between the East and West.”


  1. Joel in Oakland July 31, 2015 at 1:28 pm | #

    I remember a lecture by Mr Hook. I was dismayed, in my undergraduate naivete, at his superficiality combined with facile rhetoric. How is possible to gain a substantial reputation with this thin gruel, I wondered.

    Excellent at self-promotion, a good speaker (if you don’t count content), and a model for all those who used their charisma to cash in on the lecture/workshop circuit in the decades to come.

    • Jim Farmelant July 31, 2015 at 9:00 pm | #

      Some of Sidney Hook’s earlier stuff was superb like his book, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, which is probably the finest work of Marxist philosophy ever penned on US soil. Here is review of that book that I wrote back when it was reissued by Prometheus Books.

  2. Thomas Leo Dumm July 31, 2015 at 3:23 pm | #

    This was to be followed toward the end of that decade by Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology, another attempt to depoliticize.

  3. Glenn July 31, 2015 at 9:15 pm | #

    Upstairs/Downstairs is a better descriptor than Left and Right. The master and servant classes are more easily distinguished by the former.

    Left and Right is adequate for distinguishing the voiced classes typified by Democrats and Republicans in the USA, but the voiceless remain unlabeled and invisible except where individual stories and atrocities of injustice become extreme enough make it to the corporate media.

  4. Mitchell J. Freedman August 1, 2015 at 10:31 am | #

    I too tire of that statement because it is a cop-out. I like, however, Daniel Bell’s formulation of breaking down ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ ‘right’ and ‘left’ into three categories of ‘economic,’ ‘political’ and ‘cultural.’ When Bell spoke of this in the early 1970s, he described himself as an economic radical because of his support of unions and his demand for the rights of people over capital. He then said he was a political liberal because he believed in open government and freedom of conscience and speech. He then said he was a cultural conservative because, in his day, he was not comfortable with homosexuality and disliked the libertine elements of the Student Left of the late 1960s.

    I find Bell’s formulation most helpful in understanding ourselves and each other. It at least moves the discussion forward.

    • Dan Knauss August 3, 2015 at 11:37 am | #

      Even Bell’s categories leave out a lot. There’s a world of difference between the “cultural right” that is “not comfortable with homosexuality” and those who are comfortable with mystified texts and historical narratives that provide a metaphysical basis for rejecting equal freedoms for people they are “not comfortable with.”

  5. robert anderson August 3, 2015 at 1:05 am | #

    Yours is a world of binary opposition. It’s the reification of a black or white view. I resist such a simplistic view of political reality. There are a multiplicity of subject positions in the social. And the concept that they can all be posited as left or right denies the polysemic nature of political discourse. Social reality is not an us or them (self/other) situation. Laclau and Mouffe addressed this with the notion of antagonism — that which always escapes political subject relations. The reality is that of an interplay between left and right and society can never be fully society. Fluidity between these poles (or alternatively we could culturally jetison thinking in dualities) is a more reflective model of the “real”.

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