Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Trouble With Ideology And The Dawn Of The Age Of Reason

There have been countless articles in the papers and op-ed pieces on radio and TV recently on why the country got into such an economic mess almost overnight. Some of them have been suggesting that the free market ideology, or the lax regulation policies on banks and mortgage lenders got us into this mess. Some other articles on educational ideologies that believe in constructivist learning suggest that they could be part of the reason why our schools turn out such poor performers. Then there is the all consuming presidential race which keeps bringing racial and religious ideologies into the forefront, whether they are relevant or not. That got me to think about the fundamental concept of ideology. If a certain ideologies got us into this mess that we are in, then is the solution an opposing ideology? What is the guarantee that an opposing ideology will not get us into another mess sometime later? Could the problem be the fact that we cling to various ideologies to save us at different situations, without really questioning the validity of believing in any ideology at all?

I am of the opinion that all ideologies were conceived to simplify life. Ideologies provide simple explanations and prescribe relatively easy to understand prescriptions in certain situations. Religious ideologies belonging to various religions lay down how life should be led, and the consequences of good or bad deeds in this world or an afterlife. Various political ideologies favor control of the society by a certain class of people, assuming that what is good for the ruling class is good for humanity. But to believe in an ideology, an individual must see value in what it has to offer. It could be positive value in terms of direct rewards for following its prescribed practices, or lack of punishment for doing so. The net result is that if the ideology fails to show value, it fails to appeal to the individual. So, what are the characteristics of a successful ideology which shows value? I have come up with some ideas below:

1. First and foremost, a successful ideology must be simple to understand. Even a flawed ideology sometimes succeeds because it appears to be easy to understand. For example, when Communism was first introduced in Europe, it seemed so simple that it appealed to almost half the population of this planet, and caused the masses to take up arms and overthrow their governments. The flaw in the ideology is painfully obvious now. At best, it took away all the incentives for one to excel, and at worst, it spawned party dictatorships or individual dictatorships because the one party system made it too easy to do so. Even though the success of communism was fleeting, in historical terms, its impact, good or bad, has been so powerful that it will be hard to ignore.

2. Second, a successful ideology provides some reasonable and immediate solutions to a pressing problem . For example, when Buddhism was first introduced in India in 6th century BC, it provided a way out for millions of masses who found the existing religion and the social structure it created to be too oppressive.

3. Third, a successful ideology is self-reinforcing. Its followers create a system that rewards the believers and punishes the non-believers, therefore perpetuating its existence. This can be said about any religion currently in existence, but it can also be extended to social and political beliefs. Ideology, by definition, creates exclusive cliques or groups. The followers of an ideology may think this is great, because of the rewards they receive for being part of a larger group.

So, what then is the trouble with the concept of ideology? Other than some obvious ones that failed, we should be fine with the remaining ones, right?

I beg to disagree. Let me attempt to explain:

The greatest strength of ideologies, their simplicity, is also their greatest weakness. Let us take the example of Communism. The earliest treatise, written by Carl Marx, was during the early stages of the industrial revolution. Big money built huge industrial infrastructure with one sole end in mind – maximum output. Working conditions were abysmal, and the wages were just enough for subsistence living in slums. All the profits went to the capitalists, who hired and fired employees at will , at a time when there was no safety net. What the laborer saw was that the bosses hardly broke a sweat and lived a plush life, while they had to constantly toil without even the guarantee of being able to make the same subsistence wages the next day. The workers were not literate, and were not capable of understanding a deep treatise on economic theory of supply and demand. Communism was just the tonic for many of them. Revolution provided a vent for their pent up rage, and the idea of everyone being equal appealed to them. Heck, everyone they knew was in the same boat. It was not hard to imagine life being a little better for everyone.

But it turned out everything was not hunky dory after the first revolution. Russia quickly industrialized after its bloody revolution, only to find Stalin rise to power and establish a long and painful dictatorship until his demise. China followed suit with Mao Zedong. Other Asian and Latin American countries quickly followed. But then, a funny thing happened. The same ideology that led the rise of these nations also threatened their very solvency. Since there was no incentive to work hard and excel, the entire economy eventually became filled with workers who got by with the bare minimum effort. “Everyone being equal” turned into “everyone being equally mediocre”. This, combined with the zeal of the leaders to build big militaries, drained their already weak economies. When the only choice left was to face bankruptcy, the leadership of Russia invented “glasnost” , a thinly veiled attempt at allowing freedom of expression. This was quickly followed by the collapse of the Soviet empire itself. China was on a different path, but came to the same conclusion after the demise of Mao. Still ruling with an iron fist, the leadership allowed private enterprises, and opened its markets. So, the ideology where “everyone was created equal” did not quite hold water. The conditions that made it a sensible ideology did not exist any more. The ideology had helped create an entirely new condition, wherein a completely opposite ideology started making more sense.

So, in short, the simplicity that successful ideologies deliver also is their greatest liability. The simplicity is analogous to that of a stopped clock. It is exactly right twice in a 24 hour period. But it keeps deviating until it is exactly opposite of the correct time. I assert that every ideology suffers from the same limitation. Why? Because simplicity lulls people to believe in certain simple axioms, regardless of the situation. The world has become a lot more complex and intertwined in the 21st century for any ideology to be correct for everyone 100% of the time. Believers of ideologies make their own lives simpler by shutting down the brain circuits that would have otherwise be open to examining new situations in their own light. I have seen the quip “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts”, which is probably a jab at such mentality. And yet, the world needs more and more people who can look at each situation intelligently, and draw their own conclusions. Ideologies create extreme conditions that a counter ideology will destroy, thereby starting the whole cycle all over. The fact that ideologies help create extreme conditions are illustrated even more clearly by the economic chaos in the US today. We have had the opposite ideology to communism operating in this country since its inception, at least in the private sector. It has been forty years since we landed a man on the moon, which was a symbolic pinnacle of capitalist achievement. And yet, today the wealth disparity in the US is the highest in 40 years, so is poverty rate, illiteracy rate, high school dropout rate, unemployment rate, foreclosure rate, bankruptcy rate…the list goes on and on. Does this mean the citizens of the US need a counter ideology, something of the likes of Socialism?

Hardly. I assert that every society deserves to be freed from the endless cycles of ideologies and counter ideologies butting heads every so many decades. The only way to do that is to wean the public from the idea that there is a simple ideological solution to everything. Problems today are complex. To be solved, they need all the knowledge, and processing ability that every individual can bring to the table. Reason must replace blind belief. Every problem must be identified early in its cycle, and must deserve the best people we can throw at it. But it has to start with creating minds that are predisposed to reason, rather than belief in an ideology. Hence my oxymoronic statement – believe that one should not believe.

The 21st century will create many new winners and losers. My hope is that more enlightened societies will see the wisdom behind not following an ideology blindly. Instead, they will focus on creating more objective thinkers. They will have mastered all the relevant facts and skills that humankind has learned so far, and use that knowledge to build a better tomorrow. That will be the dawn of the age of reason.

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