The Mess of Ideology
2020 is only halfway through, and yet, if aliens were to take over the world tomorrow, most of us wouldn’t even bat an eyelid. As this article is being written, a revolution is underway, parottas are no longer rotis, the English Premier League prepares to return, Elon Musk is having the time of his life, all while a pandemic rapidly pushes the boundaries of human will and determination.
The hits just keep on coming, don’t they?
Before we continue, we want to make it clear that this is an opinion piece, but not one that is trying to shove said opinions in your face. We will attempt to, with our non-expertise on the matter, raise some questions after presenting a few ideas, in an effort to perhaps expand people’s understanding of politics, ideologies, and the politics of ideology.
That said, let’s get cracking.
The virus that in part resembles a crown, has woken up world governments to a real-time crisis that threatens to be unmanageable and uncontainable. Of course, it is a simple observation that some countries have responded to the threat significantly better than others. Some are quick to point out that ‘socialist’ countries have responded to the pandemic much better than their counterparts. We are not here to tell you that one ideology is better than the other. In fact, we would argue that the mere presence of ideology can be detrimental to the growth of a country.
Purely looking at the numbers, one could argue that Marxist-Leninist countries have done very well in containing the spread of the virus, and thereby, reducing their death toll. For instance, Vietnam, which shares a 1306 km long border with China, the origin of the deadly virus, and could well serve as an advertisement for socialism with the country reporting a paltry 334 cases, 323 of whom have already recovered. Laos is yet another Marxist-Leninist country that has faced the pandemic in spectacular fashion, with all 19 reported patients having recovered.
However, looking at these numbers on face value can be problematic. The communist regime in Laos has authoritarian control over the country’s media and bureaucratic transparency is nothing short of a dream. While we certainly can't dismiss their numbers as faulty, the nature of politics in the country does raise serious questions on the authenticity of their numbers. Moreover, Laos is certainly not the only country that raises suspicion on the legitimacy of their data. The apparent opaqueness of governments around the world should remind us that we need to treat them with a little bit of cynicism and consider agendas behind reporting lower or inflated numbers.
When we think of countries that have drastically failed their citizens, the United States of America is the first one to come to mind. The global health security or GHS Index ranked countries in order of their preparedness to handle a global health crisis much before COVID infected its first victim. The USA ranked 1st. If that doesn’t show horrible mismanagement of resources and failed implementation of necessary policies, we don’t know what else could.
Speaking of resources, it is worth remembering that as of 2015, the United States had the highest per capita expenditure on health care in the world ($9536), but the manner in which the country has since managed its public healthcare system and then dealt with the pandemic does not reflect the money spent, indicating that mindless spending alone does not ensure stable medical infrastructure. Without a doubt, there are other factors that are involved in the mess that the Donald Trump administration has created. Donald Trump himself for starters, and main course, and dessert, but let’s not go there.
Germany on the other hand has done a significantly better job in curtailing the impact of the pandemic and successfully flattening the curve. The manner in which Germany dealt with the virus is in stark contrast with several of the Marxist-Leninist countries that we have discussed earlier. The country relied on a policy of open debate, timely dissemination of information, encouraging civil responsibility, and laying out a roadmap for recovery. Unlike Donald Trump, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former scientist, did not spread misinformation, nor did she give her citizens false assurances on the severity of the disease. One can only assume that the latter was partially responsible for the better outcome in Germany. However, any claim that the USA would have done more with a different president is still only conjecture. The obvious difference between the countries remains the difference in policy-making decisions.
Looking at just these four countries might lead one to believe that the socialist countries have indeed outperformed the western ‘capitalists’. However, looking at the ‘ambassador for socialism’ in the west would make things a lot more complicated. The notion that Nordic countries have ‘perfected socialism’ is a common idea that is usually floated around by liberals and socialists in the West. Sweden’s poor response to Covid-19 is not reflective of this ‘perfection’. The country has a fantastic public health system and is often viewed as a model state by a number of different parameters. The fact of the matter is that neither their public health infrastructure nor their spectacular HDI (Human Development Index) came to their aid when the country was reeling with a rising patient count.
In each of these scenarios, the success and failure of the countries had more to do with appropriate governmental policy-making rather than political ideology. If one chooses to argue that the ideological inclination is responsible for the decision making of various governments, they could do so, but the weight of ideology means that one is more focused on maintaining it by hook or crook, instead of finding solutions to problems.
A policy-based approach yields far better results than decisions based on sticking to an already misinterpreted ideology. Sure, there can be different ways of tackling a problem based on ideological leanings, but the solution itself must be based on foresight, objective but contextual analysis, and scientific principles.
The concept of ideologies having to be opposite to each other is also, frankly, archaic. As this article describes in detail, the original left and right of today’s heavily polarised political spectrum were simply based on where the revolutionaries (left) and pro-monarchy conservatives (right) sat in the French Parliament of King Louis XVI, with respect to the presiding officer. The Cold War which dominated the second half of the 20th Century lasted as long as it did because neither side was willing to share a worldview and insisted that their way of running a country, and by extension the world, was the correct one. What either wouldn’t see or admit is that the way their ideologies were taking shape on the ground was deeply flawed, and would leave irreparable scars in the psyches of whatever remained of both blocs for decades to come.
One basic idea that is lost in the heat of many political debates is how the historical influence of different and seemingly opposing ideologies tend to overlap and help define the beliefs of a nation. Even if the influence isn’t historical, the growing visibility of diversity has forced politicians to be malleable to what the people demand and often leads to contradicting policies being implemented, thereby showing that the left and right can meet in the middle, and no centrists, we’re not talking about you, sorry.
Sweden, for instance, runs a free market in a state striving to be a beacon of liberal social and cultural thought. But the very same Sweden does not shy away from governmental intervention if the free market comes at the cost of social justice. India, a country started on socialist principles was forced to turn to a more liberal economy about 30 years ago to save itself and is now run by a politically right-wing government which doesn’t shy away from ‘for the people’ populist schemes when the need arises. Of course, the success or failure of the same is a different discussion, but the fact that these policies are possible is a point in case . As a side note, this article describes in good detail how supposedly leftist governments can become authoritarians, which in popular belief is the opposite of what the liberal school of thought normally espouses. Again, see how seemingly opposing ideas don't exist independently?
Everything we’ve said so far clearly raises one question. What role then does ideology have?
Political ideology essentially has a role similar to that of organised religion. It is not simply an isolated doctrine of guidelines and rules that shapes how politics is conducted in a region. The purpose of an ideology can be thought of as one that drives the everyday behaviour of people and maintains a socio-cultural order. People tend to misconceive ideology and resort to restricting it to the conventionally accepted left-centre-right political spectrum described above. Doing so can be thought of as an attempt to simplify ideology, but in reality, it trivialises the influence that a particular ideology can have on society.
Yet another problem that arises from the simplification of ideology is the homogenisation of the same. This coalescing of ideology is not a recent phenomenon. The formation of the eastern and western blocs can be thought of as a public display of this homogenisation. The idea that all sets of political ideologies can be simply represented as two extremes, ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ is beyond ridiculous. More so, it begs the question -
’Why would the two largest superpowers in the world wage a proxy war for several decades to determine which economic system is better suited for development?’
This is because ideology is not just a political and economic system of governance. Ideological categorisation is a means to place yourself within the political spectrum. It formulates a social identity for an individual, and more often than not, tends to drive the decision making of the individual. Ideologies control people. They serve as a justification for actions that cannot be explained through rational thought.
One thing that people need to keep in mind is that no government in the world is an advocate of one ‘pure’ ideology. The driving force behind the actions of states is usually an amalgamation of thought processes, which might well contradict each other if viewed in isolation. For instance, despite the apparent aversion that the American state has towards ‘socialist’ principles, several of its policies have strong socialist undertones. Social security works as a system that provides monetary support to people with no income, and this could well be thought of as a socialist scheme, a claim the American state would never make. Their opposition, therefore, is with the ideology itself, and not with policies that are driven by the ideology. The reverse is also usually applicable. This is just one of the reasons why we should refrain from categorising countries based on two rigid ideologies, and more importantly, is why governments shouldn’t box themselves in either. If referring to a policy decision as ‘socialist’ proves to be a hindrance in its implementation, what is the need to address it as such?
Think about Marxism for a second. Doing away with labour exploitation is one of the key tenets of Marxist thought, and yet, it is rampant in ‘communist China’. This is not to suggest that Socialist Market Economy (SME) is not the economic model that is prevalent in the ‘People’s Republic’ of China, but that these very ideologies need to be looked at while keeping in mind modern-day socio-cultural constructs. More importantly, it is worth noting that a dichotomous approach to evaluating ideology is both counterproductive, misleading, and as we have seen with public enemy no.1, dangerous.
So the questions are these. If one size doesn’t fit all, why do we force ourselves to clump together good and bad ideas and execute them only because they belong to the same ideology? What is the harm in engaging with various, non-polarised perspectives to improve whatever policy is in effect? Should a rigid understanding of ideology be allowed to dictate political discourse outside classrooms and news channels? Given that it is becoming increasingly clear that we live in a very diverse world, what is the point of bringing everyone onto the same page? And lastly, do we let ideologies define and limit us, or do we limit ideologies and define policies?
We’re into the roaring 20s of the 21st century and it is time to let our belief systems expand to be more accepting and more fluid. Imagine the global powerhouse South Asia would be if India and China didn’t have diametrically opposing views on major issues. Impossible to think about with the tussle ongoing in Ladakh for the last week or so, but give some thought to the ideological differences over the decades that put both Asian giants at loggerheads with each other.
Don’t forget, everything is politics.
(Authored by Harish Sridharan and Bharat Govind Gautam)