In Condemnation of Ideologies and in Praise of Values
By Yair Sheleg | 10/12/2009
Post-modernism is a blessing when it leads to a sober view of reality that at the same time is not blinded to the "behind the scenes" of the large ideologies. But this is on condition that the result does not involve relinquishing ethically-based action, and rather leads to a better understanding of the insights that drive it
What is the connection between ideologies and values? The dictionary I consulted does not provide a complete answer. "Ideology," it maintains, is an ethical or social viewpoint, while "value," is "importance, worth," and as an alternative, "spiritual capital," or "a system of things that correlate with one another." However, in daily parlance, "value" more closely resembles ideology, since both express a concept with proponents who aspire to promote it.
In common speech, it is also easier to articulate the difference between the two. Ideology has a total, monolithic character. There are different ideologies in the world, but each one of them is meant to stand for only one ideological approach. Language, and even more so its corollary, thought, does not tolerate a person who adopts many ideologies simultaneously (how does the sentence: "He has a few ideologies" sound?), since they are perceived as contradicting one another. In contrast, values invite a multiplicity that is intended to uphold an internal balance, and negate dominance of a single value (the sentence "I have a value in life" does not sound right, linguistically).
There is, however, an additional and more fundamental difference between the two. An ideology, because of its singularity, is ostensibly conceived of as more all encompassing than values, but in effect, what are known as ideologies – the various "isms" – are merely means through which values are upheld. For example, socialism is no more than a political-social perspective intended to fulfill its true underlying value of social justice. Capitalism is a different perspective, whose goal is to uphold the value of economic freedom; and Zionism, too (although, at least in Hebrew, it doesn't end in 'ism,' is only a means for fulfilling the value of the national renewal and sovereignty of the Jewish people.)
People whose lives are guided by values, known as "idealists," have in recent years been lamenting the "death of ideologies," and relating it to the post-modern age, which also correlates with post-Zionism. However, at least based on the two perspectives noted here, it is impossible not to welcome the death of the "great" ideologies. The "Age of Ideologies" indeed brought about two grave distortions: first of all, it created a distorted situation in which one value, presented as an "ideology," predominates over all other values and obliterates them. Socialism, in the name of the lofty goal of social justice, buried freedom; capitalism overrode justice; Zionism, too, particularly in its total form, more than once obscured the lofty values of religious tradition, freedom, individual rights, and proper attitudes towards and treatment of non-Jews.
However, no less than the iniquity of overriding other values, ideologies transgressed against those very values that it sought to uphold, by blurring the distinction between the value and the means of fulfilling it. Ideology, which was originally a means for fulfilling one value or another, often became totally identified with it, to the point where the question of whether the ideology was effective in advancing the value with which it was identified – or whether the reverse was so – became pushed to the sidelines. In the same spirit, any person who dared to commit heresy and call into question the efficacy of the means, was "suspected" of betraying the value.
Socialism is exemplary of this phenomenon: today, it is acceptable to think that the totalitarian-communist version of socialism not only infringed on values associated with freedom, but that it did not even serve its goal in terms of social justice. The poverty in Eastern European communist nations was greater than that in the capitalist West (not to mention that like in the West, those in the high echelons of leadership in the communist countries benefited from a large socio-economic advantage relative to the rest of the population. But let's assume that this could be explained as the hypocrisy of leadership). A more contained example exists in contemporary Israel, where a socialist perspective is identified, among other things, with the right to strike. But how many of its proponents stop to ask themselves whether the right to strike is necessarily effective in every situation for advancing the cause of social justice?
Reversing the Order
The right to strike was intended mainly to protect workers in the private sector, given the lack of a more effective way to protect their rights. Today, the situation has reversed itself: members of the private sector cannot afford to strike, not only because most have signed individual contracts (which, of course, is not a chance matter), but because too violent a blow to the production capability of a workplace could endanger their livelihood. Rather, it is members of the public sector who allow themselves to strike, since the damage to the production capability of their "factory" does not backfire on them directly; the state absorbs the cost, which it can afford (in any case the damage is spread among all citizens, and therefore is as if unfelt). In effect, a strike in the public sector deals a death knell to many workers, workers of the private sector because it impedes upon services they require in order to promote their products (transportation, aviation, electricity, telecommunications, etc.). In other words, the strike has a deleterious effect on the livelihoods of those who do not necessarily enjoy its fruits (at least they are not its main and direct beneficiaries, even if some of the benefits are also legally applicable the private sector). Is this social justice? Perhaps, social justice actually necessitates a re-reversal: advancement of workers' rights in the public sector through obligatory arbitration – that very concept that is so looked down upon in the socialist perspective – and at the same time, fastidious protection, even in the framework of a constitutional right (known in Israel as a "basic law") of the freedom to organize and the right to strike in the private sector.
The blurring of the distinction between the means of achieving a value and the value itself is also widespread in other ideologies, including Zionism. Zionism, as stated, was conceived as a means of fulfilling the value of the national renewal and sovereignty of the Jewish people. However, like other ideologies, over the years it took on an independent existence and no longer stands up to the ongoing test in terms of the extent to which it – and its expositors – indeed contribute to this value. For example, the supporters of a greater Israel see themselves as "ultra-Zionist," as people who did not neglect the values of Zionist fulfillment. But if the process that they began leads to the loss of a Jewish majority in Israel, as many very reasonable forecasts predict, will they still be viewed as having contributed to the value of Jewish national renewal and sovereignty?
The welcome influence of the "death of ideologies" can therefore be discerned, inter alia, in the dominance of pragmatic discourse; the very discourse that "ideologues" so despise. Since what is pragmatic discourse, if not the recognition that there is room in the world not for just one dominant ideology but for many values between which an enlightened and careful balance must be created? A contemporary example can be found in the breakdown of the ideological discourse regarding "peace versus territories." This breakdown is actually a blessing, since proponents of each of these opposing ideologies – hawks and doves – had been blind to those aspects of reality that did not conform to their respective ideologies. It is in fact the pragmatic discussion, that which is not wed to a single ideology, but rather beholds the various values simultaneously – security, settling the land, aspiring for peace, opposing sovereignty over another people – that can lead Israel to a much more balanced, and thus more successful position than the previous ideological discourse, which so many look back upon with nostalgia.
In this context, it should also be stated that ultimately, in the pragmatic discourse (which is not devoid of values, and in fact brimming with them) all of the values are only a means of reaching the real objective, the distillation of all values: the wellbeing of mankind, so that people can live their lives in as much wholeness and fullness as possible, at the individual, familial, social and national levels. Yes, mankind – and not some abstract "ideology – is the focus of existence; this is so even though accepted terminologies of liberal theories are insufficient for defining the condition of mankind's wellbeing, with their focus on the individualist layers and inattention to the familial, social and national layers, which are also essential to the wholeness of man which humanism so desires.
Measuring Success by Outcome
The Postmodern Era did not merely express the collapse of large ideologies: it did so in the name of exposure, by exposing the mechanisms, manipulations and interests often hiding behind those who pretend to speak in the name of ideologies. From this viewpoint, it most certainly offered an important service and helped us understand ourselves and our world.
The question remains as to what is the result of postmodernism? At the first stage, naturally, it mainly expressed a cynicism towards the various ideologies, but also towards the values underlying them. Exposure of the manipulation, which itself was not free of manipulations, created a distance and alienation from all values-based activities. At a later and more extreme stage, postmodernism went so far as to claim that the very attempt to "repair" the distorted world in which we live, was necessarily tantamount to collaborating with evil, since the action was always circumscribed and still based in an agreement to the fundamental conditions of injustice (this, for example, is the reason for the opposition of a postmodernist such as Yitzhak Laor to the activity of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, claiming that the very willingness to correct the injustices of the occupation is tantamount to collaboration with it). And so, of course, we are not far from a situation in which all compassionate human activity aimed at the betterment of society is uprooted, and we arrive at a nihilistic anarchism that grants "ideological" legitimacy to doing nothing.
There is therefore a blessing in postmodernism's presentation of a more sober view of reality that at the same time is not blinded to the "behind the scenes" of the large ideologies. But this is on condition that the result does not involve relinquishing ethically-based action, and rather leads to a better understanding of the insights that drive it. For in this very spirit, postmodernism, at least in its "pure" form, relinquished a values-based approach, claiming that all of the "narratives" are of the same status. Admittedly, there is value to this non-judgmental view, which aims at a clearer understanding of the phenomena, since pre-formed judgments can distort the evaluative process. This holds true at an intermediary stage, when it does not require a complete letting go of values-based judgment, but rather applies it after deep, non-judgmental reflection. Just as it has been acceptable in recent generations in religious discourse to speak of "second innocence," that is, the innocence that comes after the Age of Rationalism and already embodies the achievements and advantages without relinquishing innocence, so, in our context, we might speak of the "new modernism," or the "second modernism," which does not relinquish values-based judgment and activity towards the advancement of values, but does so after internalizing post-modern criticism.
The realm of media communications affords an opportunity to deepen our understanding of this matter. Good journalism entails addressing reality at three levels: information, interpretation, and expression of a position. Old-fashioned media (for the record, that of the "Modern Age") tended to analyze the position of the sides in the political and public game, and reality in general, in their ideological contexts. The media of recent years tends more to cynically analyze the interests and the "behind the scenes" (such columnist Nachum Barnea, who served as a guide for an entire generation of journalists); sometimes it is hyperbolic, as if the question of the matter of the ideological approaches of the figures it is covering has disappeared; and this, too, is extreme. And yet, this media also does not decline to take a stand and make ethical-ideological demands of the politicians, even though it brings its own interests to the analysis.
Moreover, it is certainly important that at the level of interpretation, the commentators not exercise values-based judgment on the persons they analyze, but rather evaluate them as objectively as possible. I would like to understand the motives of Saddam Hussein, or a Moslem suicide bomber, or even of Adolph Hitler, without involving values-based judgment in my analysis. At the same time, this is not to say that after I reach an understanding, I will not apply such a judgment; in all likelihood, it will only be improved and based in a more precise understanding of the reality.
Yair Sheleg is a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute