Ideology sprang out of the upheavals – economic, social and political – through which the modern world took shape, and has been intimately involved in the continuing process of social transformation and political development1. In general, they aim to provide and defend a particular social order. Traditionally ideologies have been categorised in terms of a 'political spectrum'. Ideologies range from left wing to right wing – an idea that hails from seating arrangements in parliament during the French revolution.
They range from communism on the extreme left, to liberalism in the centre and fascism at the far right. However, this linear spectrum has come under attack from those who say it portrays politics as one-dimensional and oversimplifies the complexity and fluidity of ideologies. Many other representations have been attempted, for example the horseshoe or two-dimensional ideas; nevertheless the traditional linear spectrum remains the most widely used model. The idea of the 'end of ideology' first appeared in the late 1950's, during what is now known as the post war consensus.
Daniel Bell said in 1960 'Few serious minds believe any longer that one can set down 'blueprints' and through 'social engineering' bring about a new utopia of social harmony. At the same time, the older 'counter beliefs' have lost their intellectual force as well… In the western world, therefore, there is today a rough consensus among intellectuals on political issues…. in that sense the ideological age has ended'2. However, this 'consensus' either never existed or was very quickly destroyed with the beginning of the 1960's, a decade which acted as the platform for a variety of social and political changes.
Obviously it is possible that this earlier prediction was just premature and we have now actually reached the end of ideology, but the fact that the 'end of ideology' argument has tried and failed before immediately brings doubt to its credibility now that the idea has re-emerged. It is also possible to see this so called consensus as not the 'end of the ideology' but simply the triumph of one major ideology, as Francis Fukuyama explores in his book 'the end of history and the last man'.
He explains that liberalism has managed to overcome its main ideological rivals and become the dominant ideology in the modern world, due to the collapse of communism in the 1980's and the general failure of any other system of governance. There may be some remaining disputes, however in general the ideas of individual liberty, private property, equality of opportunity and tolerance have now become accepted worldwide. According to Fukuyama this marks the 'end of history' in that ideological battles have now brought us to a global sense of fulfilment.
History will of course continue, as people argue discus and perform political acts, but nothing fundamental will change as there is a general acceptance of basic liberalism. However, even if this is true, it does not spell the end for ideologies all together just ideological conflict. Ideologies will still have a place in politics, even if it is just in the form of liberalism. It is also argued that ideologies will never become redundant as long as disagreement and differences remain in the world. Politics is built on tensions and conflict, so as long as these are present, there will be enough fuel to keep ideological debates alive.
The conflict may not be as severe or threatening as previous times, but this is something we should be grateful for and should not serve to devalue present ideological disputes. In additions to clashes between ideologies, there will always be differences within individual ideologies. There are those who believe that liberalism has triumphed as the main world ideology, but even this has internal conflicts. The split between welfare and neoclassical liberals for one seems deep enough to prevent any widespread consensus on the forms and scope of government activity from emerging3.
There are a great many unresolved issues that require resolutions, and while this is the case, ideologies will still be a valuable approach to politics. New challenges and difficulties also make it harder to believe that ideologies will ever completely disappear. Issues such as the environment and, more recently, terrorism, require political responses. When a political crisis occurs, people first need an explanation of the crisis, along with an evaluation of the situation at hand.
They will then decide on their opinion with regard to the issue, which will determine their choice of action to tackle the problem. In short – they will need the guidelines of an ideology for guidance and direction. The challenge of religious fundamentalism has in fact re-ignited ideological debate. Fukuyama's claim that liberalism has triumphed over its rivals is not obviously true at present. There seems to be a growing division between two fundamentally different outlooks on life and politics – one focusing on faith and religion, the other more secular and choosing to tackle problems using economics.
Those who take the religious stance believe economic competition is turning the world into a single, global consumer society and is leading to the emergence of super powers and unfair advantages to particular countries. Far from Fukuyama's prediction of the 'end of history' we are now witnessing the beginning of a global contest between jihad (the Islamic holy war) and the western world. Recent tragedies such as the September 11th disaster and issues such as the war in Iraq have forced people to take a renewed interest in politics and possibly question their ideological stance on particular issues.
In contrast to the 'end of ideology' we could in fact be entering a time when ideological debate is more relevant than ever. In contrast, some believe that we are now living in a time where people are less interested in politics than ever before. Politics is now set on a world stage, with organisations such as the European Union causing individual nations to lose sovereignty and identity. Decisions are made by a small group of people on behalf of millions, who often live thousands of miles away. The ability of an individual to impact on world politics has greatly diminished in the past century.
There are no longer the revolutions of previous centuries or great social changes like those that came out of the 1960's. People are more or less happy with their lives and have smaller and generally more materialistic qualms than in the past. Ideologies are still analysed and critiqued, however there seems to be little belief that the system we live in now will be changing in the near future. People no longer believe that there is a worldwide ideal and do not strive for mass revolution on the scale of Marxism or communism, simply point out smaller flaws in the present political structure.
It could be said that we have come full circle politically – systems have been tried and tested and most have failed. What we have now is pragmatic and the end result of years of experimentation. In this way, most major ideologies are redundant. What use do we have of Marxism now? It was tried in the 1980's and failed sensationally, as did fascism in the 1940's. Ideologies have served their purpose as guides towards a political equilibrium, which we have now reached, rendering traditional ideologies unnecessary.