On Ideological Development

Hani Warith, University of Pennsylvania

On November 9th we woke up to a new moment in intellectual history; after 2016, ideological contemplation must now return to the center of political discourse. My generation has been discouraged from thinking about new ideological possibilities. We were taught that the ideological thinking had been done for us, what we needed to do was pick a side popular within academic discourse. In ethics the choice was deontology or utilitarianism; for international relations the menu included liberal institutionalism, realism or constructivism. We didn’t need to ask ourselves the bigger questions which were dismissed as abstract such as: What are the limitations of Liberalism as it is currently conceived? Should society be interpreted through the scope of the individual or the collective? What is “The Good”? What are the epistemological limits of positivism? We weren’t discouraged from contemplating such matters on our own, just told that such discussions were peripheral, not essential. Practical application was the more pressing discipline.

I went to high school in Cairo in an International Baccalaureate school and so was lucky enough to have had an education that forced me to think about ideology and about values in high school. My teachers were voracious consumers of philosophical texts. After the Arab Spring, my teachers were skilled and aware enough to teach us to appreciate the historical weight of the events and tumult we witnessed.

When I arrived at my American university such ideological contemplations took a backseat to the demands of the classroom. Students arrived with philosophical perspectives and expected to keep them. They did not consider critical self analysis a crucial or even existent part of their education. I have met too many ardent-utilitarians who have never read a critique of positivism and epistemological objectivity, even within my school’s philosophy department. On too many occasions I have faced rooms hosting discussions where few people were pushed beyond the perspectives that fill mainstream publications. Many of my peers have read Thomas Friedman’s globalist op-eds. Few have touched Hannah Arendt. Everyone could cite Paul Krugman’s ideas on economics. None have read Paul Samuelson or even Karl Marx.

I am surrounded by some of the most talented people I have ever met, yet too few of us ever truly grapple with fundamental ideological questions. We didn’t think there was a need to theorize anew about politics, society and culture. The theorizing of our predecessors had produced the comfortable reality we needed leaving us frighteningly uncritical.

After the election many of my Liberal colleagues have found themselves doubting their convictions which many blame for having produced the apathetic ‘neoliberalism’ that has left too many behind; African-American prisoners in for-profit incarceration facilities as well as white blue-collar workers in decaying coal towns. Some of my colleagues are looking for solutions on the left. I am heartened that since the election many who had a relatively triumphalist attitude towards Liberal politics are now re-examining their ideals. Even if the ideas we group under the umbrella ‘Liberalism’ are correct I’m heartened to see them come under renewed scrutiny. It is essential that this criticism continue. Liberalism intellectually stagnates when its subscribers become too comfortable. Kant gets challenged by Mill; Adam Smith writes a brilliant and novel Liberal analysis which is developed by Keynes; Keynes is challenged by Friedman; Sen builds on Keynes and challenges Friedman; Nussbaum examines the role of emotions in a Liberal society and the implications of that consideration for our view of politics. Thus Liberalism develops.

Moreover, there is every chance that Liberalism today needs to be reexamined; it would be the height of intellectual hubris to claim otherwise. Walter Benjamin’s and Theodor Adorno’s critiques of the media and capitalistic modes of production ought to be considered by every Liberal intellectual. For every Liberal economic thought, view on society, theories of history available there is a good critique from the left which ought to be entertained. While it would be wrong to say that there are no such critiques on the right, I highlight the Left because going back to the oft-neglected world of critical theory has been incredibly productive for me since the election.

It will take many years for me to process how the events of 2016 challenge my most fundamental assumptions about the workings of politics. My views, however, are relatively trivial to my main point; we need to think ideologically again now. I do not interpret this as a call to adopt dogmas, as a positivistic critique of ideology might suggest. Rather, I hope that going forward we think more abstractly about the values and ideas we privilege implicitly or explicitly. On the other hand, I do not think that a positivistic escape of ideology is possible. As Leo Strauss on the right and Slovaj Zizek on the left would both point out, many liberal academics have attempted to shirk ideology in favor of ‘objective thought’. Believing so has damaged our ability to think in the way I propose: critically. We must resist such tendencies; our intellectual integrity is at stake.