Battle in Print: Post Ideology: the moralising of society and the politics of behaviour

Russell Jacoby interviewed by Maria Grasso , 15 October 2007

Maria Grasso: What is your understanding of the idea that we now live in a period which is characterised by the ‘end of ideology’?

Russell Jacoby: This idea is hardly new, it goes back at least to the 1950s when people like Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell broached this end of ideology idea, and which, in some sense, our period does re-enact. They were writing at a point where Marxism obviously existed, but seemed to lack appeal, and where the only alternative was welfare capitalism. In some ways, our situation is similar, though probably worse because the alternative to, whatever term you want to use - welfare capitalism, managerialism capitalism or advanced capitalism - is no longer obvious. The opposition, and not just the political opposition, but also the intellectual opposition, seems very limited.

In what way would you say that the role of ideology in politics has changed between the 20th and 21st century?

Exactly in the sense that a dramatic or qualitative alternative no longer seems to be aired, voiced or presented. And one can see this across the board: in big questions, but also in terms of mass culture, there is no longer a real opposition, intellectually, to mass culture. The framework of political options has gotten narrower, so that - and this is something that I’ve written about - the utopian impulse, the possibility for a qualitative shift, no longer seems possible.

Would you say then that we are witnessing the end of ideology as a theory of truth?

Yes, certainly. The framework has gotten so narrow that the discussions focus on things like how to make the traffic work better, the healthcare delivery system, and so on, as opposed to fundamental ideas about how to live. I teach a course on utopia, and I ask my students to draw up, very briefly, a utopian vision of what society could be like. And it’s striking how limited their vision is. In other words, I say, ‘think utopian!’ And they come up with things like: ‘the parks are a little cleaner’, ‘higher education is cheaper and more accessible’, ‘medicine is delivered more reasonably’, and that’s them thinking in the most bold fashion that they can! So I always say, ‘This is fine, but this is virtually the programme for a left democratic politician! Is this something really different? Are you talking about the end of work?’ And they are shocked! But that was always the utopian ideal! Why should people work?

So are you saying that with the corrosion of old ideological disputes, we’ve also lost the vision and the inspiration that the world could really be a different place?

Exactly! The end of work! Or, you know, leisure and play, these ideas that informed the utopian thinkers - the idea that we wouldn’t have to always work, and we’d just play music - they could sometimes be a bit ridiculous, but they were informed by a vision. But today it seems impossible to envision a world where we wouldn’t have to work. That demonstrates that something has been lost in terms of what are the possible alternatives, what are the real possibilities - and this is the point of political thinking! It shouldn’t just be about where the hospital should be located but really it should be about restructuring life, and we no longer believe in that.

So what would you say to those who would wish to argue that there is simply no place for these sort of utopian ideas today, because there is nothing left for us to achieve, that, at least in advanced capitalist nations, we have already accomplished our aspirations?

I think there are two answers. On the one hand, there’s no way to jump over an historical period - which is to say, we can’t pretend that we live in a period we don’t live in. If someone sits down and says, ‘I’m just going to draw up a picture of a utopian society’, I’m not sure how useful that would be. On the other hand, the whole point of the existence of intellectuals, and of politics, is the whole element of resistance and protest, and that seems to me to be at the core of the intellectual project - to keep alive certain alternatives, even if they don’t seem particularly practical at the moment.

So are we simply entering a new political phase, or are we rather losing something essential about politics with the absence of ideological debate between radically competing visions of the way in which society should be organised?

I would certainly say that it is something essential that we are losing. It does raise the problem of how practical certain ideas are, but again, I think part of the point of thinking, and thinking politically, is also to think impractically. I ask students what would happen if there was no advertising: ‘What proportion of resources is spent on advertising? Let’s say there was no advertising, and those resources were used elsewhere, to end poverty for example?’ And they reply: ‘How could there be no advertising? How would we know what to buy? How could television exist?’ And I say: ‘Is there no other way to do this? Does it really have to be driven by advertising?’ It seems to me that there are real issues there, and I don’t have the answer, but it seems clear that we are mentally locked into very limited options.

So what would you say is the role of rising managerialism in politics for this process?

Well, I would say that it fits in very well. The range of debate is narrow. Again, look at the United States; we don’t have a healthcare system that works! And people say, ‘We need a healthcare system’ and we need to think practically about that, I wouldn’t dispute it, but it does mean that we are limited in terms of thinking about the bigger issues about how the health system should be organised, and advertising, and profit in medicine, and these things are never part of the discussion.

So what would you say are the implications of the absence of ideological contestation for democracy and popular choice?

I think that from the point of view of the citizen, it leads to passivity, people just think ‘who cares!’ and they are probably right if you look at the options, they’re not particularly dramatic or important. And again, I don’t want to simply draw on my limited experience of teaching, but it’s clear that students, even the best students, steer away from the humanities, and they go into business. This is where they think the future is. I had never even heard of Business as a Major at one point and now it’s a Major, it’s a Master’s, it’s a PhD programme: you go into Business! Teaching ideas, literature, you know, all begin to suffer as their connection to larger political issues gets weaker and weaker - you feel that the whole society is moving in this direction: businesses, multinationals, thinking about money, and you see this in terms of teaching students and where they are going after, and you feel somewhat powerless in terms of how to resist that - but I think the point is to resist it, of course.

So would you say there are there any positive aspects to the end of ideology?

I’m not by nature a positive thinker; one of the things that I do is point out the problems. Inasmuch as the end of ideology and the end of utopian arguments really date to the 1950s, one of the surprising things is that if you look at those discussions, the 50s was considered the era of apathy and passivity. But then, just as Daniel Bell was finishing his end of ideology book in 1959 - surprise! - the early 60s, and the Cuban revolution! No one had anticipated that, no one knew that the 50s would end with such an explosion because all the talk was about passivity and the end of ideology and everyone was virtually caught unaware by the next 20 years or so. And in that sense, there is always hope because history often turns quicker than we anticipate. We think ‘Yes, we live in a period where the opposition is weak and disorganised and there are no great ideas’ and then suddenly, things move! And in that sense, I’m an optimist. You cannot anticipate history and things sometimes start moving quickly, and the role of intellectuals and ideas is to lay the groundwork - to be ready for those kinds of shifts.

To conclude, then, does the end of ideology matter? Why should people care? And what can we do about it?

I think people should care because we’re raising fundamental questions, for example, about the role of education. The reason that there is a liberal education, as weak as it has become, is that before you become a professional - a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer - you’re supposed to talk about fundamental issues such as: What does it mean to be a citizen? What is truth? How to live? And that was precisely the idea behind establishing a liberal education system: before you specialise, you should discuss, read and meditate on these sorts of issues. And those are crucial things to think about: the nature of truth, and of virtue, and of life… and if we don’t do that, something really important takes leave of life, and we become narrower, and smaller, and greyer. We all just become more specialised, hustling for jobs, and so on, and we forget and thereby give up what really makes us human. But instead we should remember what that is and fight for it!

Author

Professor Russell Jacoby teaches history at UCLA and presently occupies the Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair in Critical Theory. His books include Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in the Age of Apathy, and The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.

The art of criticism: judgement in crisis?

"The Battle of Ideas is a global treasure. Bringing together some of the world's leading thinkers for civil dialogue on an array of topics, the festival is a must-see for those deeply committed to the free exchange of ideas."
Fredrick C. Harris, professor of political science, Columbia University

follow the Academy of Ideas