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A Map for Those ‘Lost in Ideology’
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A Map for Those ‘Lost in Ideology’

Jason Blakely’s new book explores today’s major political ideologies on their own terms.

World Map, 1960, a mosaic by Luis Cristino da Silva in the center of the compass rose at the foot of the Monument to the Discoveries on the bank of the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In common parlance, the word “ideology” summons a slew of negative connotations. The term often functions as a negative epithet, a demarcation between those who understand reality as it is and those lost in wishful thinking. He who deems others as “ideological” casts himself above the political fray. In his own mind, he becomes a champion of facts against falsehoods, of common sense against absurdity. For conservatives, progressives overturn centuries of tradition in the name of rootless abstractions. For progressives, conservatives hold society back in the name of baseless prejudices. Either way, the other side is “ideological” and we, guardians of the only defensible politics, are not. 

It’s precisely this sort of attitude that the philosopher Jason Blakely contests in his new book, Lost in Ideology. For Blakely, the attempt to position oneself above ideology proves both futile and dangerous—futile because we all need ideologies to make sense of the world, and dangerous because failing to recognize as much prevents us from admitting our limits. Paradoxically, those who think themselves above ideology are deeper in its grip. The most delusional of all confer “natural” or “scientific” status on their vision of society. They mislead themselves into thinking that they can navigate the territory of experience without a map, so to speak, or that their own map is the only viable one. 

Yet for Blakely, neither is ever the case. To make sense of the world is to cultivate the right attitude toward its complexities and contradictions: the humble, critical attitude of an ethnographer in a foreign land. 

Blakely thus begins with an ambivalent rehabilitation of ideology as an imperfect but necessary map of experience. As he puts it, “ideologies are not merely distortive,” but also “illuminating for interpreting social reality.” Like a map, an ideology “both orients and disorients—one must learn to read its markings and symbols properly.” Blakely’s task is to teach readers how to think about the most influential maps of our time, and how to navigate the treacherous terrain of ideology more broadly. To that end, the book offers a guided tour of major ideologies: liberalism, republicanism, conservatism, fascism, socialism, nationalism, feminism, and environmentalism. In every case, Blakely shows that every –ism hides a set of –isms, a mosaic of influences, sometimes in concord, often in tension, residing under the same label. 

Consider liberalism. In Blakely’s account, the liberal tradition begins with John Locke and other early-modern theorists who believed that individual rights could be derived from the mere observation of nature. These classical liberals mistakenly assumed that “beneath the crust of inherited custom, all humans are spontaneously liberal.” Trapped in the prison-house of ideology, Locke and his fellow travelers thought that nature had inscribed their preferred form of government into the hearts of men. Their successors would show otherwise.

Over centuries, liberalism underwent many renovations and reformulations, making new mistakes along the way. Though utilitarian liberals like Jeremy Bentham, for instance, rejected Locke’s conception of natural rights, they also reduced ethics to a coolheaded attempt to increase pleasure and diminish pain—thereby claiming to have turned politics into a science as empirical and objective as the study of physics. For Bentham, legislators merely had to calculate the effect of every policy on overall pleasure (“utility”) to determine the right course of action. Gone was Locke’s liberalism of nature, replaced by a liberalism of economists, experts, and managers who would resolve all questions of public interest through some combination of social forecasting and mathematics. Of course, as Blakely shows, the technocratic reduction of politics to administration is no less groundless than Locke’s absolute rights. 

Yet both schools of thought retain influence. In the 20th century, neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman resuscitated the classical view of man as an egoistic and acquisitive creature by nature. Twentieth-century progressives, meanwhile, built technocracies in line with Bentham’s scientific—or scientistic—conception of politics. Today, right-liberals accuse their enemies of paving the way to tyranny, while left-liberals accuse their enemies of blocking the inevitable march of progress. Right-liberals assume that God or nature is on their side, left-liberals that history is on theirs. Naturalistic or technocratic, right- or left-, liberals of all flavors overestimate their own objectivity. They refuse to admit that their map, however attractive, remains imperfect and contestable. 

In chapter after chapter, Blakely shows that this hubristic thirst for objectivity is by no means exclusive to liberalism. Indeed, it afflicts all modern ideologies alike. Conservatives fetishize tradition, often uncritically; Marxists embrace a deterministic view of history, mistaking their normative commitments for scientific claims; fascists fuse excessive nostalgia with revolutionary zeal; feminists at once emphasize the differences between men and women, and deny that such differences exist at all. Elegant and provocative, Blakely’s portraits offer an accessible introduction to major intellectual traditions, as well as critical reflections on their shortcomings. 

Of course, Blakely does not remain neutral throughout. At no point does he frame Lost in Ideology as a “liberal” book, yet his is a deeply liberal enterprise. But Blakely’s liberalism is not Locke’s liberalism, or Bentham’s liberalism, or the rationalist liberalism of today’s philosophy departments. Rather, Blakely’s liberalism is the liberalism of the ethnographer who studies cultures, including his own, with a critical but generous eye. It is a disposition, at once appreciative and skeptical of stories, at once fair and scathing to its opponents, at once doubtful and confident toward itself. 

Consciously or not, Blakely’s interpretive approach points to a distinct defense of pluralism. Tolerance, in this view, is not a right derived from heaven, nature, or pure reason. Rather, tolerance is a value upon which we stumble when we recognize our tragic fate as meaning-making animals. None of us can navigate the territory of experience without a map; none of us can gain unmediated access to reality. The best we can do is to experiment with different maps, appreciate the allure of each, and refine the contours of our own. Blakely implores his readers to cultivate their imagination, their admiration for other traditions, their curiosity, their respect, and their interest in difference. He invites us to tolerate other ways of life, even eccentric and offensive ones, not because we have a natural or rational or God-given duty to do so, but because doing so enriches our own experiences—because the world becomes more colorful when we acquire the ability to see it through the eyes of others.

Blakely evidently has more sympathy for this ethnographer’s liberalism than, say, for fascism, and his treatment of each -ism differs accordingly. Nonetheless, Blakely’s personal preferences do not get in the way of his argument, at least for three reasons. First, his reconstruction of every tradition remains rigorous. Blakely is no conservative, but his genealogy of conservatism will appeal to conservatives—the same is true of his other chapters. Second, it would be hypocritical for Blakely to feign neutrality, for doing so would require the kind of self-denial that he exhorts his readers to abandon. Third, the book is itself an exercise in humility. Without descending into relativism, Blakely shows that we all have much to rethink, no matter our creed. Yet that realization is neither frustrating nor dispiriting. By demonstrating that we all suffer from the same predicament, that ideology is at once a burden that we all shoulder and a gift that we all receive, Blakely humanizes the hubris that he diagnoses in us all, himself included. 

Lost in Ideology is a teacher’s book whose greatest lesson is not about the content of major ideologies, but about the place of ideology in a life well-lived. Blakely reminds us that we humans are “meaning-making animals” who craft stories to make sense of our encounters with others, with ourselves, and with the world. As with Shakespeare’s plays or Homer’s epics, ideologies require careful, critical interpretation. For Blakely, we cannot “dismiss a rival’s ideology as the product of …demographic identity, class interests, or even a psychological hang up,” as so many do today. If ideologies are indeed stories that we all need and cherish, all narratives deserve to be read on their own terms, with patience and generosity. 

This art of seeing through the eyes of others, which animates Lost in Ideology at every turn, is Blakely’s most valuable contribution. Some might quarrel with his intellectual history. Others might criticize his reading of specific thinkers, or his account of specific events. But all, no matter their persuasion, will benefit from Blakely’s reflections on the place of ideology in modern life. 

Mathis Bitton is a Ph.D student in political theory at Harvard University.