The Age of Ideology by John Schwarzmantel

This is an exquisite work of political theory. Schwarzmantel has written a remarkably clear, concise and convincing introductory text to modern political ideologies. His writing is something I strive to emulate. At no point does Schwarzmantel hide behind obscure terms or niche references. He lays bare his understanding, unafraid of being caught naked. In my opinion, the clearer and simpler the writing, the deeper and more nuanced the author’s understanding.

The crux of Schwarzmantel’s book – The Age of Ideology – is that liberalism, socialism, conservatism and nationalism, are responses to the problems and promises of modernity. Modernity is defined as the constant change and flux brought about by the industrial revolution, whereby the old bonds of feudal society have dissolved under the logic of capitalism. All that is solid melts into air, to borrow Marx’s term.
Modernity’s great promise is that scientific rationality can also be applied to the social world, so that politics can be reconstructed along rational lines to deliver human happiness in the here and now. In this sense, liberalism and socialism are modern ideologies par excellence. Liberals and socialists both share the core assumption that political progress is possible through the application of reason. Progress is defined as creating the societal conditions in which freedom and happiness are open to all.

Socialism’s main critique is that liberalism does not go far enough. The ideals of the Enlightenment remain out of reach so long as economic exploitation continues. A truly rational society would socialise the means of production in order to deliver a good life to all.

Conservatism’s main critique is that liberalism and socialism are overly optimistic in their view of human rationality. In their quest to reconstruct society, liberals and socialists run the risk of destroying traditional sources of meaning and thus unshackling humanity’s irrational and emotive side. Burke’s criticism of the excesses of the French Revolution is the perfect example of this conservative concern.

Nationalism has a much more ambiguous relationship with modernity. On the one hand, nationalist movements throughout history frequently tied themselves to quests for self-determination and democracy. On the other hand, taken to its extremes, nationalism can be exclusionary and devolve into fascism. Still, nationalism is undoubtedly a product of modernity, as the nation-state is a modern invention.

What then, is postmodernity? And what is its critique of modern ideologies? In essence, postmodernists argue that the conditions of modernity no longer exist. Capitalism today is vastly different to the capitalism of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries. Socially, politically, and economically, postmodernity is a condition of ever greater atomisation and fragmentation. This condition militates against the universalist aspirations of modernist ideologies. Any ideology which claims to represent a total picture of society and subsume individuals under a single identity (class, nation, etc.) risks becoming totalitarian. Postmodernists argue that identity today is multi-faceted and self-selected; people identify along multiple, cross-cutting lines.

Are modern ideologies therefore dead? Is the left-right spectrum completely defunct as a means for understanding contemporary politics? Schwarzmantel argues against this view – defending modern ideologies (albeit in a more nuanced form) against the postmodern critique. The excesses of postmodernism are potentially more dangerous than the excesses of modernism. Taken to its logical extreme, a completely postmodern society in which there is no overarching ‘grand narrative’ or single cohesive identity would be unable to support democracy. Democratic politics requires ideologies as organising frameworks. Without some normative guide, politics risks devolving into technocracy and a purely instrumental process for satisfying individual needs.

Our current fraying of democracy is not due to too much ideology, but not enough.

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