Ideology and agnotology

The way in which I’ve generally thought about politics is in terms of ideology and particularly, the divide between the left (socialists, social democrats, labour and related groups) and the right (various strains of conservatives, market liberals and business advocates). But increasingly I doubt that this is the right way to look at things.

First, the long-heralded ‘end of ideology’ seems to arrived, but not in way its proposers imagined.

The long struggle of left and centre-left parties to maintain their relevance in the face of the resurgent market liberalism of the late 20th century gradually eroded any belief in the possibility of a fundamental transformation of capitalism, to the point where such ideas no longer receive even lip-service, let alone serious and sustained attention. Instead, these parties have found themselves lumbered with the task of managing the mixture of social democratic and market institutions that emerged from the conflicts of the 20th century, tweaking them sometimes with market-oriented reforms and sometimes with marginal new interventions. This is broadly consistent with the ‘end of ideology’ story.

On the right, however, the scene is one of complete ideological incoherence. Market liberalism has run out of steam, libertarianism has failed to produce a coherent response to the Iraq war or the Bush assault on civil liberties (to be fair, Obama has also failed here) , and the various other elements that have emerged or re-emerged as forces on the right – Christianism, aggressive nationalism, anti-feminism and so on – amount to little more than a tribalist set of hatreds of various others.

The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance, represented most obviously by the leading figures on the right in the US, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Rather than reflecting an even partially coherent world view and political program, rightwing politics now consists of the restatement of talking points in favor of a set of policy positions that represent affirmations of tribal identity, rather than elements of a coherent program.

So, Christianists fight to the death on gay marriage but are unconcerned by the emergence of serial divorce and remarriage as a social norm, particularly among the Republican elite. Libertarians denounce gun control as the first step to dictatorship but, many have been unconcerned or supportive of the abrogation of most constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and punishment. Business pushes its own barrow through continuous advocacy of tax cuts, but shows no concern about massive defense spending that is already rendering those cuts unsustainable.

Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the best way to understand this can be summed in the term ‘agnotology’ (h/t commenter Fran Barlow), coined by Robert Proctor to describe study of the manufacture of ignorance. Proctor was referring primarily to the efforts of the tobacco lobby to cast doubt on research demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. But the veterans of that campaign have moved on to a whole range of new issues, and their techniques have been so widely imitated that the entire political right now looks like Big Tobacco writ even bigger.

The manufacture of ignorance is most obvious in relation to climate change, where the gullibility associated with ‘scepticism’ has reached levels that would have seemed unbelievable (at least in the absence of the kind of religious commitment associated with creationism). If supporters of science had invented someone like Lord Monckton, he would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.

In this context, it’s important to observe that, while the big oil companies initially funded the manufacture of ignorance about climate change using recycled tobacco hacks like Fred Singer, Fred Seitz and so on Steve Milloy, the process has developed its own momentum. Hostility to science and scientists on this issue is now so universal on the right that there is a ready market for additions to the supply of ignorance in the form of new talking points, manufactured scandals and so on. So, even though Exxon pulled the funding plug a few years ago, this stuff keeps on coming.

But the same pattern can be observed repeated across a vast range of issues – creationism, birtherism, the abortion-breast cancer link, the supposed WMDs in Iraq, the idea that the financial crisis was caused by the Community Reinvestment Act and others too numerous to mention. The intellectual atmosphere is one of uncritical acceptance of any talking point, no matter how absurd, that appears to support the position of the tribe.

Some of those maintaining such absurdities continue to present themselves as serious intellectuals, and indeed some of them once could have justified this claim. But now, above and beyond the abandonment of independent judgement on individual issues, they have been forced to pay obeisance virtues of ignorance, as represented by first by GW Bush and then, in even more extreme form by Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck and their Australian equivalents, such as Abbott, Minchin and the rightwing commentariat in general.

How will political contests over agnotology play out? Ignorant tribalism is not a force to be dismissed lightly. In day-to-day politics, the absence of any coherent position or relationship to reality is not a big disadvantage, while a machine capable of disseminating talking points is a big asset.

On the other hand, there are some significant long run costs associated with the embrace of ignorance. Science has been the central engine of human progress over the past century or more and anti-science political movements have rarely prospered for long. The average voter has not yet recognised the fact that the political right is now vehemently opposed to science and scientists. But both scientists and their rightwing enemies are well aware of the fact.

Stereotypical images of scientists as grant-grubbing fans of world government are routinely found in public rightwing rhetoric along with welfare queens, limousine liberals and other outgroups. These attacks are now extending to vicious campaigns of personal harassment, ranging from the overt disruption associated with the FOI and hacking campaign called ‘Climategate’ to anonymous hate mail and death threats. Rightwingers have almost universally cheered the criminality of the Climategate hack, and have tacitly or overtly supported the broader hate campaign.

Conversely, scientists are now as reliably hostile to the Republican party as African-Americans (a total of 6 per cent, according to this poll) When the general image of the political right catches up with this reality, the costs are likely to be severe.

But, in the meantime, their abandonment of reality-based politics has left managerialists like Rudd and Obama wrong-footed. Their whole approach to politics assumes that the other side shares a broadly consistent view of reality. But in John Cole’s acid metaphor, dealing with the agnotological right is like going on a dinner date where you suggest Italian and your date prefers a meal of tire rims and anthrax.

The big political problem is that while competent management commands widespread approval it does not mobilise much enthusiasm. What is needed here is a return to ideology, and a project to move beyond day-to-day management and offer the ‘light on the hill’ of a positive social transformation, based on justice and equality.

180 thoughts on “Ideology and agnotology

  1. Have you ever noticed that while many of the deniers are conspiracy theorists who go on about a Green or Left conspiracy to fudge the science or control our lives, there are no conspiracy theorists amongst them who will talk about the role of Big Oil and Big Coal in fudging the science or in controlling our lives?

  2. silkworm,
    It just goes to show that there are conspiracy theorists and delusionists at just about every point on the political spectrum. The answer to the question of “Why is my pet theory not working correctly?” is, by those prone to delusional thinking, “A gigantic conspiracy by those I would hurt against the people I am trying to help!” (reason one) rather than “Perhaps I am wrong with my theory” (reason two) or “I am just not good enough to convince enough people that I am correct!” (reason three).
    Personally, I think I fall into the third of these reasons, but am open to the second. I do not make the case for the first. You seem to, for your ideas, adopt that one.

  3. Speaking purely of the drivers of conspiracy theory Andrew, (putting aside people suffering from mental illness) it seems to me that it’s analogous to the way we humans respond to mosquito bites. Really, you know that in the long run scractching only makes it worse, but in the short term it gives blessed relief.

    If you are frustrated with the way the world is, attributing the apparently counter-intuitive character of policy to grand conspiracies does provide the kind of narrative closure that allows one to persist in holding one’s own view and perhaps to continue believing that most rational people would share your view, if only you could pitch it.

    The downside of course is if there really is an all embracing conspiracy, then one’s chance of ever seeing one’s preferred policy get implemented is pretty much zero. You aresetting yourself up for longterm disappointment or at best a kind of world-weary apathy.

    That’s not to say that conspiracies never happen, or that here and there groups of people with a momentary common interest don’t get control of the parts of policy that suit them, but one should be very careful to seek out and find observable, pertinent and persuasive data in reading back from policy to apparent stakeholder interest, because that way lies madness.

  4. It just goes to show that there are conspiracy theorists and delusionists at just about every point on the political spectrum.

    No it doesn’t. The political right are the delusional ones when it comes to the science of global warming. And my point still stands that the deniers will not speak about the role of Big Coal and Big Oil in the denial movement.

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