The Ideologue and the Critic [Winter 2010 / 2015]

March 17, 2015 § Leave a comment


How does stupid thinking hold captive otherwise intelligent people? I have wondered this for years.

I address ideology from a perspective many term “post-left anarchy”, originating in Max Stirner. A dictionary definition of ideology turns up “The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture”, or “A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system”. Surely no sentient creature can escape this? I would have to agree. But to me, post-left anarchists, and some portion of the overall insurrectionaries, ideology refers to a different phenomenon than these dictionary definitions, which we might alternatively define as dogma, “An authoritative principle, belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true.” This definition digs deeper into the root of the matter, so I will attempt to use “dogma” to describe a phenomenon, to articulate a concept. In doing so I will juxtapose the behavior of an “ideologue” with that of a “critic”. I hope you will forgive me if where I describe archetypes, you see only caricatures. To a certain extent, all applied symbols excessively reduce the intricacies of reality out of convenience, eschewing contradictions and spectrums as necessary for the sake of the point at hand. As always, relate to the message as a multifaceted tool rather than any rigid program…unless you love irony!

So how does dogma work? Having a symbolic existence, dogma must act through people believing in it, whether through conscious or unconscious belief. While dogma does not literally occupy a material realm, like a ghost, it can haunt a material realm. How can money, for example, which has little physical use compared to its value, exert such an influence upon the world? It does not in fact do so, at least, not physically. The living people who consent to the fantasy of the money-as-a-store-of-value concept have agency and thus animate it through their actions, actions perhaps inspired or constrained by other believers. But this by itself describes only the symbolic basis of dogma.

Dogma’s actual animation begins with a process of reification, where someone comes to regard a concept as material. Doing so initiates a process of haunting. Ideas become active subjects and believers become passive objects. Dogma functions as a metaphysical cause justified through living sacrifices. Insofar as I relate to others as if “something-ism says” rather than “I feel…” or even “I agree with something-ists when they say…”, insofar as “The Book of Something states…” (authoritatively) rather than “I read in the Book of Something that…”, or more simply “I think…”, insofar as I relate in those ways, I have given my life to a ghost which haunts me. And because we cannot argue with books or ghosts—we have a hard enough time arguing with something-ists!—the ideologue for something-ism has effectively eluded accountability by displacing their own agency into the metaphysical.

Dogma often resides within the mental space of one’s distrust of self. In Feral: a journal towards wildness, a contributor wrote, “Because we don’t trust our own ideas, experiences and desires we must make them valid by fitting them into an external box of thought. It is because we must fit into this box instead of letting our ideas stand on their own that ideology becomes rigid and dogmatic. We do not have the ability to change and evolve with ideology because it is not ours, we are a part of it instead of it being a part of us.” An individual convinced of her own innate inadequacy develops a need to clutch onto an infallible cause to give her certainty and stability in the face of powerlessness or meaninglessness, an infallible cause to validate her, to give her a sense of purpose and justify her existence. She craves something that has the agency she lacks, something that exists beyond, something unquestionable, untouchable, where no one can easily confront it, where no one can easily threaten the external source of psychological security that she will so desperately cling to.

And so she becomes the mouthpiece for something-ism, speaking for it instead of her unique self. To the conscience of a fledgling zealot, whose desires, values, and manners shame her insofar as they do actually belong to her, behavior must gain legitimacy through faith and sacrifice. Because she considers herself an inherent failure without her dogma, because something-ism has the validity that she lacks, when she examines her actions, instead of claiming them, she will tend to attribute them to the ghost, to something-ism. At the same time, her capacity for critical thinking atrophies with disuse, reinforcing her own dependence upon her faith, and thus her loyalty. In this way, fanaticism for dogma increases in proportion to the devaluation of each believer as a unique one, and beliefs solidify into abstract identities rather than practical activity, guided by the constant self-hypnosis of internal narratives that displace agency into ghosts. Among both the living and the dying, from the abolition of the person comes the ascendancy of the phantom. Here we have the anatomy of otherworldly possession: the person becomes necromancer, the dogma becomes ventriloquist. And so ideologues may roam the Earth.

An ideologue has a one-size-fits-all solution: something-ism, to which he contrasts all non-something-ism as false. For him, his beliefs move in a meta-narrative from absence to presence, culminating in certain accomplishment (always accomplishment, curiously). He believes his doctrine has no flaws, no exceptions. His abstract speculations trump others’ concrete experiences. He must assume his dogma accounts for all experiences with full certainty across all time, in an unchanging and absolute way. No surprise then in the close coupling of dogma to deity! His bare assertions and dismissals trump sound reasoning. Ideological tendencies might to a certain extent stem from simple arrogance or laziness rather than self-abolition, but permit me to focus instead upon the more insidious incarnation, permit me to summon the haunted for exploration. (Besides, which exploration seems more exciting?) To the ideologue, it seems self-evident that something-ism equates to truth and non-something-ism equates to superstition. And all the worse for those who do not grasp such obvious facts! He has an affinity for faith, and when others’ evaluations and experiences conflict with his dogma, he views them as inconveniences or distractions more often than not, and attempts to eliminate conceptual intersections that refute his belief system.

Above all the ideologue does not question, since his doctrine justifies itself: it steadies him, gives him an automatic magic bullet response to any problem. He starts with his answers before his questions. He shapes evidence to fit into his conclusions rather than the other way around. He ignores—or even celebrates—his own cognitive biases of confirmation and dismissal. He swims in so many double standards that he cannot even see them, like water to a fish (and with only a marginally improved memory). He feels content to not ask what the critic asks, “how and why do I perceive what I do?” In his mind the ideologue allows his conviction to set the agenda and frame the debate for him. He repeats his assertion in a mechanical fashion, astonished that so few can apprehend something so plain.

The upside-down mental process of the ideologue distorts information and enables the animation of ghosts. It stands in stark contrast to critical thinking, which presumes the imperfection of all reasoning and perception. The astute meta-critic will now interject: but does not the critic also have a similar form of self-distrust then? Yes, to a certain extent, she does. She sees her options as imperfect, but not independently and inherently invalid, as the ideologue does. With due diligence the critic does not abandon the task altogether and resort to faith alone. She takes the utmost care to comprehend, express, and affirm the precise limitations of her pursuit of knowledge. Her capacities of examination become revitalized rather than atrophied. Rather than requiring external vindication, the critic redeems herself by claiming: we cannot understand the interaction of all phenomena solely with binary divisions and unidirectional lines; all doctrines might have flaws or exceptions and one’s truth does not by necessity always conflict with another’s truth; concrete experience trumps abstract speculation; observations, by their very nature ephemeral, particular, and fallible, must remain subject to constant re-evaluation and adaptation based on proper context, empirical evidence, and sound reasoning; nothing self-evident would require participation; a worldview which prizes comfort above consequence quickly perishes; answers come only at the guide of questions, and conclusions rest on evidence; that in seeking our truths we must hold an awareness of our various biases; that double standards stifle collaboration; that asking how and why prevent us from becoming mindless drones; that agendas and framing belong out in the open; that some things do in fact exist beyond one’s comprehension or experience (and we’d better damn well respect them); and finally, going one step further, all of this applies just as much to the claims of people as to the claims of phantoms!

But the divergences do not stop there. Since something true will remain true in itself regardless of reasoning, and since it may at times prove more efficient to justify a cause through fallacy or faith, the ideologue, in presuming the infallibility of his dogma, has an incentive towards fallacious reasoning, closed-mindedness, trickery, recklessness, and hubris. Conversely, the critic, that eternal skeptic of dogma, in presuming both the limitation and the utility of experience and cognition, and has an incentive toward the most sound reasoning, open-mindedness, honesty, caution, and humility. The ideologue becomes demagogue, the critic becomes analytic. When the ideologue converses, he starts from a sense of superiority and seeks victory, asking himself, “how can I defeat arguments that challenge my ideas, how can I assimilate my rivals into my ideology?” When the critic converses, she starts from a sense of appreciation and seeks knowledge, asking herself, “how can I interpret, clarify, elaborate, and evaluate arguments that challenge my ideas, how can I liberate my colleagues with my critique?“ Where the ideologue evades, ignores, or suppresses evaluation, the critic invites it. Where the ideologue tests the limits of faith, the critic tests the limits of inquiry. The ideologue attains a sense of security from faith, the critic attains a sense of security from dignity. Just as the ideologue must animate ghosts, inversely, the critic must exorcise them, casting them out along with alienation and false consciousness.

How might we do so? In the words of Jason McQuinn:
“Post-left anarchists reject all ideologies in favor of the individual and communal construction of self-theory. Individual self-theory is theory in which the integral individual-in-context (in all her or his relationships, with all her or his history, desires, and projects, etc.) is always the subjective center of perception, understanding and action. Communal self-theory is similarly based on the group as subject, but always with an underlying awareness of the individuals (and their own self-theories) which make up the group or organization. Non-ideological, anarchist organizations (or informal groups) are always explicitly based upon the autonomy of the individuals who construct them, quite unlike leftist organizations which require the surrender of personal autonomy as a prerequisite for membership.”

Dogmatic tendencies substitute passivity for experience, and fantasy for reality. They reinforce reification instead of authenticity. They promote self-loathing servility, the renunciation of free thought, and the atrophy of critical thinking skills. They entail devotion to abstractions rather than the practical. With their conclusions-first orientation, positions set-in-stone, and inflexible agendas and framing, they advances arrogance. Likewise with their ingrained ignorance of self-bias. Dogmatic reasoning means double standards, and thus endless stream of bullshit.

Critical thinking springs forth from a willingness to engage with the complexities of real world interactions and dynamics, not the acritical focus on yesteryear’s blueprints and tomes from dead dudes, or the cult personality of the day. Go beyond the faith and fallacy of infallibility, toward a world of humility. Act not as a vessel for ventriloquy, but rather a bastion for free thinking in a haunted world. Become a critic. Exorcise dogma, since, after all, you have your very personhood at stake.

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