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The Importance of Ideology
European Straits #103
Two years ago, before Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France, I criticized his refusal to take an ideological stand. Now the results of that refusal are coming into view.
For me, Macron’s winning wasn’t impeded by the ambiguous line he decided to draw between “looking backward” and “looking forward”, disregarding any ideological references on either the left or the right. However, “his ability to govern”, as I then wrote in the French magazine L’Obs, would “depend on a clearer strategic positioning over the long term. Without a left-right divide, Macron will be a progressive but technocratic president, with no leeway to act because of his being constantly torn between the two sides of the spectrum. Only if he draws a new dividing line in a recomposed political landscape will he have a powerful ideological lever to resolve the conflicts that undermine French society”.
As of now this has all been made even clearer by the ‘Yellow Vests’ crisis. And so I recently revived this discussion on Twitter by writing that “ideology is to politics what strategy is to the corporate world: the only way to run a tight ship and maintain continuity of direction over the long term. Today's politicians, who like to present themselves as “pragmatic problem-solvers”, renounce ideology at their own peril.”
Below are a few thoughts inspired by the discussion that ensued with several followers.
Ideology as strategy
Ideology has a bad reputation these days. Many people see its excesses as the cause of the terrible evils inflicted on humanity over the course of the 20th century—including its framing of the political struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It is understandable, then, that when the Communist bloc finally collapsed in the early 1990s, many turned their backs on ideology.
That included intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama, who wrote his famous article The End of History? in 1989, as well as a new generation of politicians who had to reposition themselves in a world where voters were bored by the old ideological discourses. Suddenly it was no longer about left and right, but rather about solving problems by bringing forward pragmatic solutions. As Tony Blair famously declared in many speeches, solutions to our problems are neither from the left nor from the right; rather there are those that work and those that don’t.
But myself, I think that ideologies are still valid and could contribute a great deal to moving our world forward. It’s not that ideologies exist forever; rather they are shaped by the techno-economic paradigm of the day. For instance, social democracy and neoliberalism were two ideologies that were born under and became relevant in the Fordist paradigm. Then both were made irrelevant by this paradigm’s demise following the 2008 crisis.
This is a useful way to reinterpret Fukuyama’s “The End of History?”. What was starting to happen back when he wrote his article was the collapse of a socio-institutional framework designed for the Fordist Age. Since then, before new ideologies matured, we’ve had to rely on other expedients, such as Macon’s bland technocratic approach of problem-solving, or what Fukuyama now denounces as the “age of identity politics”—one in which it is tribalism, rather than ideology, that temporarily makes people come together on the political stage.
Ideologies may change in lockstep with technological change, but certain values are reborn in every techno-economic paradigm. This is the case with liberal values. They were first embedded in an ideology known as “classical liberalism”, which prospered in the 19th century and sought to enfranchise common people with the right to vote. Then the very same values were rearticulated within the frame of what Karl Polanyi dubbed “embedded liberalism”, with a strong state now taking over to advance liberal values—mostly by deploying innovative mechanisms such as collective bargaining and social insurance regimes.
Finally, when the state started to encounter problems and limitations, liberalism had to be reinvented once again. Sometime in the early 1970s it was born a third time under the form of “neoliberalism”. Many observed that the state now failed to deliver shared prosperity as it had done during the post-war boom. And so a new breed of liberals—“neoliberals”, with “libertarians” the most extreme among them—were now arguing that the state had to give way to the market if we ever wanted to deliver on liberalism’s promise.
Finally, I think that ideology is not only a powerful way to convince voters to vote for you (that “responsive chord” Tony Schwartz once wrote about). It’s also the best instrument for positioning once you’re in power, because it provides your followers and allies with a clear direction and inspiring stories regarding what you’re actually trying to deliver.
In that regard (see my tweet) ideology really is to politics what corporate strategy is to business. If you want to learn more about strategy, I encourage you to have a look at Michael Porter’s landmark 1996 article in Harvard Business Review. To make it short, a very important part of any given strategy is what Porter calls “continuity of direction”. Nothing says that every strategy eventually works. But if you don’t retain your chosen position over a long period of time, there’s a guarantee that you’ll fail miserably. In other words, there’s something worse than having a bad strategy: it’s not having a strategy at all. And this is the sad situation in which Macron, the man without an ideology, now finds himself.
Now what does this all have to do with the transition to the Entrepreneurial Age? It’s simple enough: I’m deeply attached to liberal values, as are many entrepreneurs in the startup world. And as a community we tech people have a clear interest in contributing to inventing yet another version of liberalism for the Entrepreneurial Age—one that I would call “entrepreneurial liberalism”. This new form of liberalism would be quite useful to Emmanuel Macron at this critical moment—as well as to the US Democratic Party as it runs up to the next presidential election.
I’m definitely not the only one who’s talking about that idea. You can have a look at these pieces:
Samuel Hammond’s and Will Wilkinson’s work on the “free-market welfare state” for the Niskanen Center: The Free-Market Welfare State: Preserving Dynamism in a Volatile World.
Glen Weyl’s and Vitalik’s Buterin’s pursuit of the next version of liberalism: Liberal Radicalism: A Flexible Design For Philanthropic Matching Funds.
Hilary Cottam’s idea of radical help as the lever to reinvent the welfare state: Social services are broken. How we can fix them.
I’m sure there are many others! Please point them out to me 🤗!
I already mentioned that I’ve decided to re-launch our Scaling Strategy series, which consists of short notes exploring business strategy in the 21st century. I’ll start by re-publishing all those (14 in total) that disappeared when I deleted my LinkedIn account about one year ago. Here’s the first one, on how different business is today from what it used to be in the Fordist Age: How Businesses Grow.
Also, as several friends were asking about my book Hedge recently, we realized that although there are now several reviews of the book (including by Ben Robinson, Stefano Zorzi, Ian Hathaway, and Tim O’Reilly), there was no article in which I sum up the argument of the book. And so I wrote one, which you can access here: Hedge: Inventing a New Safety Net. Please share if you like it!
Also you can still buy Hedge at a discounted price (still on for a few more days!). Purchase your copy by visiting the relevant Amazon website depending on where you are: 🇺🇸US, 🇬🇧UK, 🇫🇷FR, 🇩🇪DE, 🇮🇹IT, 🇪🇸ES.
Further reading on ideology and strategy
Nobody Here but Us Liberals (Alan Wolfe, The New York Times, July 2005)
Finding Your Big Idea (me, November 2014)
“Neoliberalism” Has Two Meanings (David Golumbia, uncomputing, July 2016)
A Stout Porter: Business Strategy In the 21st Century (me, The Family Papers, October 2016)
President Trump, or the Twilight of the Conservative Gods (me, The Family Notes, January 2017)
Centrism is Dead. Time to Rebuild the Left (Teryn Norris, February 2017)
The Washington Salon That Saved Liberalism (Brad Snyders, Politico, February 2017)
If he wins, Emmanuel Macron has to be bold (me, The Financial Times, April 2017)
“Neoliberalism” isn’t an empty epithet. It’s a real, powerful set of ideas (Mike Konczal, Vox, December 2017)
The Alternative to Ideology (Jerry Taylor, Niskanen Center, October 2018)
Warm regards (from London, UK),