Pragmatism v Ideology: Managerialism or an excuse for doing nothing at all?

Before I sign off for the weekend, Jude Collins has an interesting piece on the role of ideology, particularly with regard to education and even more specifically, education under three successive SF ministers.

The real world demands either bits of a range of ideologies or no ideology at all.  The second of those two is impossible: everyone has an ideology. It might be “Responding to events as they happen, without forethought or any system of beliefs, is best” or “I decide what to do in the light of how many votes it’ll bring me, nothing else”.

But it’s still an ideology – a belief that this is the best way in which to conduct political business/personal affairs. The second of the two – that you form a ragbag of different philosophies and approach the world with its eclectic reach is equally daft, if for no other reason than  that some ideologies directly contradict other ideologies.

What those who denigrate ideology want you to believe is that anyone who sees society and politics through the lens of a thought-out system of beliefs is offering pie-in-the-sky and is out of touch with the real world. They also want you to believe that their way of doing things is the natural, only sensible way of working. They want to present their approach as the way that’s unwarped by any of these sinister ideologies.

Marx was grappling with the problem of ideology, when he noted that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Whether you are a Marxist, or not, it is how you put your motivating into action that matters.

Michael Gove in England has wasted no time in rolling out his own ideological revolution in education and the way in which educational achievement is measured. And in a different context last week, Dan O’Brien in the Irish Times argued that

Those most deeply involved in these efforts and most committed to getting the best outcomes for people using the services have long ago discarded left-right ideological baggage for the pragmatism of looking for the most effective solutions. Those arguing that the market is always best, or, on the other extreme, that State provision is always best are rarely taken seriously. The world is far too complex and it won’t be made better by the simplicities of ideologues.

It’s hard to imagine any political project that does not draw its character and outlook from a powerful set of ideas. But the point about the need to address complexity is often missed in out in the predominance of ethnic pluralism within Northern Irish political discourse.

Politics that’s entirely pragmatic runs the risk to falling into bland managerialism.  Yet the reliance on pure ideology often produces elaborate and politically convenient excuses for just doing nothing at all..

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  • Ruarai

    The point and value of a good ideology is to (1) uncover what’s underneath surface appearances; what tensions and contradictions are driving and producing them and (2) what’s likely to come in the future; which contradictions will beget new realities down the line.

    An example:
    SF’s attempt to be a permanent party of revolutionary subversion and a permanent party of government in Belfast.

    Either the government they’re in will be exposed as a government in name only; the reality being revealed as theater.

    Or SF’s attempt to maintain the facade of a revolutionary party will be exposed as expired; the party will be shown to have adopted primarily conservative and reactionary instincts based on giving primacy not to social change but protecting the governing status quo.

    But what, I hear you ask, if both the either and the or are shown to be true?

    What indeed; Read your Hegel.

    Whether or not ideological perspectives match the appearance of contemporary realities is the wrong test of their value.

  • Fortlands

    It doesn’t look as though too many people are too het up about this one, Mick. However, I suggest that the “common-sense” view of things (i.e., the one accepted by a lot of people and encouraged by the status quo) is of enormous power and categorizes anyone who disagrees as a nut. One example (it’s past my bed-time): education is to help shape citizens for the job market and consequent prosperity. To argue that education is essentially about something quite different is to be classified as out-of-touch with the real world, daft and dream-weaver stuff. In short, ideologies are most effective when they make themselves invisible and encourage us to see the status quo as the natural way of doing things. Anything else – any other action – is then unnatural. To which I say: bollix. Good night

  • Mick Fealty

    Sady, that’s true. These are exactly the things we need to get het up about. The default is that senior civil servants end up making all the key decisions and policy drifts.

    It’s the lack of controversy in education that concerns me…

  • FuturePhysicist

    Some would call Pragmatism an ideology too, which makes it a real debate killer.

  • aquifer

    Of course we have evidence based policy.

    We make policy and then pay consultants to gather up the appropriate evidence.

    Outcomes? Lets just start with deliverables.

    Budget? Use it or lose it.

    Innovation? Same as last year, but with coloured ribbons.

    Post project evaluation? Column Inches.

  • FuturePhysicist

    The only way to end ideology is to stop having ideas.