Habits for Ideological Times
Habits for Ideological Times

Habits for Ideological Times

“The one who contends with beasts should take care not to become a beast in turn.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

January 16 th 2020
Appears in Winter 2020

There were certain fleeting moments in the late twentieth century in which one could almost think that the problem of ideological violence had come to an end. The trick only ever worked in elite circles and usually required equal measure of selective attention and strong drink. There was, however, a certain baseline prosperity, stability, and consensus that made the problem feel, for some, a bit less pressing.

We are no longer in such a moment. The relative calm of the post-world-war years has been real, but seems to have resulted more from some effective noise-reduction techniques (more on those below) than from genuine resolution of the problem. As conflict—between city and province, elite and non-elite, woke and anti-woke—seems to have returned, we are confronted anew with the primitive question of ideology that has haunted modern politics from the beginning.

To join an ideology is, in a sense, to atone for one’s daily complacency and to renew the longing for justice. In a single moment one is able to find a purpose, a people, and an answer to the faceless fragmentation of life.

Reflecting in 1794—five years after the start of the French Revolution—a sensitive observer noted that many who had initially supported the Revolution out of compassion for the weak had come to witness its development “with disappointment, grief and horror.” They had become unsure in their distress where to turn, but were not yet willing “to lose the hope that some rational system of freedom, not the ancient tyranny would arise out of that chaos of anarchy and bloodshed.”

Time seems to have made little progress in healing this particular wound. Centuries have passed, but in an important sense, we seem never to have left 1794.

If anything, the problem has been intensified by subsequent events. On the one hand, there has been a heightening, with regard to slavery and race in particular, to our sensitivity to injustice and our longing for justice. On the other, we now have many more examples—from colonialism to Stalinism, from Nazism to the School of the Americas—of the many ways the impulse toward justice can turn violent.

Broad-scale reassessments are fashionable at the moment. We have undulating debates about liberalism and illiberalism, #resistance and counter-resistance, news and fake news. In most cases, when people think about the problem of ideology, they consider it as a theoretical problem, a matter of political technique and system design.

I have misgivings about this approach and prefer instead to consider a simpler question: In a time of ideology, how is one to go about one’s day?

Ideological Songs

The barricades have always been a place of good music. Through a few unsophisticated notes, these simple songs are able to slice away cynicism, inspire sacrifice, and rebuild a story.

I wish to begin by acknowledging just how much I love this type of music; how important it has been to my life; how, in many ways, it is my music too.

To join an ideology is, in a sense, to atone for one’s daily complacency and to renew the longing for justice. In a single moment one is able to find a purpose, a people, and an answer to the faceless fragmentation of life.

But we cannot any longer allow ourselves to be swept so easily into ideological devotion.

We are already familiar with the headline figures of just how violent modernity has been, but some are worth repeating. In the decade from 1792 to 1802 at least 663,000 were killed, with a further 1.9 million in the Napoleonic Wars. Roughly 3 million were killed from 1912 to 1922 during the Russian Revolution, and at least 20 million were killed under Stalin alone. Or, to take a different kind of ideology, roughly 400,000 died in Iraq in the decade after a patriotic mood arose from the 3,000 deaths on 9/11.

Reflecting on the strange violence of justice, the poet Paul Celan offers the following anecdote:

When the hanged man was taken down from the gallows his eyes were still unbroken. The executioner hastened to close them, but the bystanders had noticed and lowered their own eyes in shame.

Numbers can document atrocities, but they can also conceal them. What we need is, like the crowd in Celan’s story, to be caught off guard by reality, that the frightening sensitivity of the (newly dead) human face might remind us of the perplexing ambiguity of our own acts of apparent justice.

In important ways, this paradox has been the central question of postwar political philosophy. The great French theorist René Girard approached the topic through the language of sacrifice. As he puts it,

There is a common denominator that determines the efficacy of all sacrifices. . . . The common denominator is internal violence—all the dissensions, rivalries, jealousies and quarrels within the community. . . . The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community. . . . There is no aspect of human existence foreign to the subject.

Girard sets out the structure of the ancient Greek pharmakos ritual in stark terms. “The Greek cities,” he says, would feed certain homeless people “in order to make use of them as pharmakoi . . . that is collectively to assassinate them . . . during the Thargelia and other Dionysian Festivals.” He goes on,

Before stoning these poor wretches, the torturers sometimes struck or whipped their sexual organs and in general made them submit to a full round of torture. . . . To avoid arousing reprisals, the torturers choose social nobodies: the homeless, those without family, the disabled and ill, abandoned old people. . . . The pharmakos rituals were supposed to purify the Greek cities of their illnesses and render them more harmonious.

Simply reading such a description causes our eyes, like those of Celan’s crowd, to drop in shame at the cruelty of human beings.

It is not easy to let that shame linger, and in modern society we tend to insulate ourselves from its vulnerability by casting the events of the pharmakos as exotic superstition. We reassure ourselves that we now live in a different age, one defined by rights, checks, balances, and due process.

Girard will have none of this. As he emphasizes in his 1978 text Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, “for the terrors of the Apocalypse” one need look no further “than the daily newspaper.” He warns,

What chiefly concerns me in this essay is not so much the predictable cruelty of human greed, but the much more surprising process by which moral insight so often ripens into slaughter.

People’s basic make-up has not changed in the slightest, and that is precisely what makes our situation so dangerous. . . . Violence has always been inherent in man. . . . Mankind has become, for the first time, capable of destroying itself. . . . What is frightening is the conjunction of massive technical power and . . . spiritual surrender.

Elsewhere he writes,

Pride has always been a temptation, but in modern times it has become irresistible because it is organized and amplified in an unheard-of way. The modern “glad tidings” are heard by everyone. The more deeply it is engraved in our hearts the more violent is the contrast between this marvelous promise and the brutal disappointment inflicted by experience.


What chiefly concerns me in this essay is not so much the predictable cruelty of human greed, but the much more surprising process by which moral insight so often ripens into slaughter.

The sequence seems to unfold in three steps.

The first is the moment that I reawaken to the hard-heartedness of the status quo. Some experience—a trauma, a casual act of cruelty or oppression—re-enlivens my sense that ordinary life is interlaced with a type of injustice that should not be tolerated any further.

Everything about this experience suggests that I should not allow such an insight to slip away. I must maintain fidelity to my renewed sensitivity to justice and be bold enough to act on it. In joining a movement, I gain an instant diagnosis for what is wrong (“political correctness”; “the greed of the one percent”) and a swift cure (“we can set the world straight”).

The final step is action and its aftermath. To care about justice is to grow frustrated with our collective complacency and to seek a remedy in action. Such action is not always violent, but it does often turn that way, and it seems that it does so more frequently the more one listens to the voices that require fidelity to one’s initial insight into justice.

Step by innocent step we thus find ourselves back in 1794, unable to avoid either the ongoing moral impulse toward justice or the unsparing realization that as we set out to banish violence, so we have become the violent ones.

What seems to be disintegrating in this progression is the very distinction between “Ideal” and “Ideology.”

From antiquity, people have been anxious about the danger of ideals. A crowd quickly becomes malleable in the presence of a skilled rhetorician or tyrant.

Western culture, however, has also always insisted that a bright line could be drawn between the ideal and its corruption, between the craft of the philosopher (the one who loves wisdom) and the sophist (the one who uses wisdom).

Yet, amid the brutality of the past two centuries it has become increasingly plausible to deny this distinction entirely. Karl Marx famously argued that ideals simply are ideological: convenient tools by which the powerful mask and facilitate their material power. For Marx and many with him, the claim to be above or beyond ideology is itself ideology. There never has been—and never can be—an “outside.”

The Ideologue and the Bureaucrat

To reformulate, then, my earlier question: In a time of ideology, how can one possibly go about one’s day?

There seem to be at least two options (and there may be a third):

1. The first is to become the ideologue and revolutionary. This is the path of spirit, of longing, of tribe, of conviction, and it remains entrancing even though we have such strong grounds to fret about where it might lead. To take this path is to find oneself without split loyalties; committed to and immersed in a singular cause; enabled to see one’s own place clearly as well as that of one’s opponents.

2. The trauma of 1794 involved two aspects: the longing for justice and dismay at its unfolding. The second way to get about one’s day is to flee from the first pole and attach oneself to the second. There are perhaps many ways to do this—“modest aspirations,” “middle-class life,” “keeping one’s head down.”

The most common form in our time is “neutrality.” Bureaucracy, at root, is an attempt to respond to the problem of evil. Ideology, it claims, can be overcome by proper checks and unbiased procedure.

This has been the preferred solution since the trauma of World War II, and the bureaucrat’s path over the past half century has had genuine success at reducing violence. This period has seen diminished hostility between European states, decreased rates of democide within liberal nations, and decline in “great power conflicts” like the Napoleonic Wars. These successes have, at times, fostered the sense that the problems of ideology might finally be behind us.

Two things are required to maintain this sense that proceduralism has overcome ideological violence.

First, one has to be willing to anesthetize, in a modest way, the first pole of the dilemma of 1794—the frustration with complacency and the desire for justice. A bright philosopher friend Sean Flynn once summed it up this way: “The strategy since the war has been to be sure that no one ever again loves anything as much as the Germans loved Germany.”

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke incisively about this problem toward the end of his life, arguing in his 1967 Massey Lectures that despite “luminous victories” there was always an invisible “limitation” as to how much one was allowed to long for justice.

Second, one must shield one’s gaze from ways that modern procedural societies have themselves created enormous, often catastrophic destruction ranging from professionalized military interventions to ecological devastation to systemic exploitation of foreign labour. Such matters must be treated as insignificant externalities to an otherwise just system.

Whatever one thinks of the moral ambiguities of liberal order, it is increasingly evident to everyone that the problem of ideology has been far from resolved. Wildly successful factions in countries as diverse as France, Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, and the United States have made clear that the specific blend of liberal governance and neo-liberal economics is no longer to be accepted without scrutiny.

For decades, intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Nancy Fraser have been worried that proceduralism might be significantly less benign than it claims. These arguments have gained an entirely new level of mainstream significance amid the recent resurgence of populism. From Elizabeth Bruenig and Luke Savage on the left to Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari on the right, many are now deeply skeptical of liberalism’s claim to be a non-ideological arbiter, arguing that liberalism itself is simply a particularly underhanded ideology.

Girard also finds himself uniquely worried about modern proceduralism. On the one hand, he thinks that modern societies have a kind of care for victims that is unprecedented in human history. On the other, he worries that as we have discarded the traditional release valves for human violence, we may find ourselves capable of atrocity on a whole new scale.

All of this seems to leave us stumbling toward a dark conclusion, a conclusion that cuts equally against left and right. If ideology reduces to violence, and anti-ideology to ideology, it becomes difficult to know where to stand.

Habits for the Day

“The barricades are a dangerous place for an artist,” writes the great Belarusian essayist Svetlana Alexievich. “They’re a trap. . . . You can’t see individuals, all you see are black dots: targets. I’ve spent my entire life on the barricades, and I would like to walk away from them.”

Alexievich has placed her finger on the essential question: Is it possible—has it ever been possible—to “walk away”?

I myself am often undecided about this question. There seem to be many reasons not to accept Marx’s dark reading, but I am sufficiently sobered by history to be very circumspect.

The outlines of the problem seem increasingly sharp. Ideals arrive with great force—simultaneously entrancing and perilous. To draw close to an ideal is to gain moral vigour but also to risk blind loyalty and violence. To draw back is (perhaps) to achieve a strategy for diminishing violence, but only by diminishing moral vitality as well. The need is to find some way to preserve the original longing for justice while simultaneously undercutting the movement from ideal to atrocity.

Part of the difficulty might be that we keep trying to solve these problems in the halls of grand theory. There may be problems that can be solved there, but it is not at all clear that this is a problem of that kind. What we are looking for is a different set of habits from the two already considered (those of the ideologue or the bureaucrat).

Behind the elevated words of “ideology” and “tribalism” are human phenomena—dispositions, practices, things people do on a Tuesday. In what follows, I wish to think about the problem on that level, to provide sketches of five areas of life that seem relevant to the problem of ideology and violence. These are reflections on how we often build our lives and proposals for how we might come to do it somewhat differently. The proposed habits should be seen less like precepts and more like experiments. They are attempts to assemble, bit by bit, a different way of “getting about one’s day.”

Purity and Impurity: The problem with the barricades, writes Alexievich, is that “they ruin your vision, narrow your pupils, drain the world of its true colors. On the barricades, everything is black and white.”

The impulse to sort the world into the pure and impure often arises in moments of threat, but it can also show up during times of moral inspiration. The moment of ethical awakening often includes a strong desire to avoid letting the insight slip away. By separating those who understand from those who do not, it is possible to preserve the insight in concrete form.

This division also offers a way to distance myself from the desperate immediacy of human violence. What is so disconcerting about the question of ideology is the way that it reveals the hidden potential for brutality within me. By dividing the world into the clean and the unclean, I find a way to expel this mystery, to locate injustice “out there,” beyond my skin.

It is striking how much this obsession with purity runs not only through the generalized episodes of ideological violence that we have been considering but also through attempts to escape ideology itself. Proceduralism, for example, has often claimed the role of arbiter over ideology precisely because it is pure of ideology.

This mechanism must be halted.

Whatever else one may think of ideological savagery, it is a human phenomenon, something for which I, myself am responsible. The first task is to draw the mystery of violence close; to find it in its own most natural theatre—here, within my own breast.

Whatever else one may think of ideological savagery, it is a human phenomenon, something for which I, myself am responsible. The first task is to draw the mystery of violence close; to find it in its own most natural theatre—here, within my own breast.

My first recommendation is the Habit of De-purification: Growing resistant to the impulse to divide the world into the “pure” and the “impure.”

Modesty and Aspiration: The bureaucrat attempts to respond to the problem of violence by living a more modest, less morally ambitious existence.

The problem with this approach is not only that it requires me to detach myself from the intensity of my longing for justice, but also that it seems to conceal rather than resolve the presence of violence.

The malleability of procedure has worried many philosophers (Hannah Arendt most famously). There are countless examples—from the old sham lynching trials, to purportedly unbiased interventions in foreign conflicts, to ongoing episodes of police brutality—in which bureaucratic impartiality, far from checking the prejudices of the people, seems to be underwriting them.

As emphasized above, procedural systems have reduced certain patterns of violence, but they are not strictly neutral. They seem, in fact, to codify—often highly prejudicial—moments of civic ideology, even as they avoid the work of seriously interrogating these biases in an ongoing way.

The power of Celan’s story of the gallows above is the sense that both the crowd’s taste for blood and the executioner’s unbiased administration of justice are each in their own way implicated in the mystery of violence.

Where can we turn if violence seems to result both from adhering to ideals and from diminishing them?

In looking for a way out of this circle, I find it useful to reflect on the actual moment of moral insight, a moment, if true, that is always characterized by a searing vulnerability.

I vividly recall the first time I met the person who would become my closest friend. In that moment I knew that either I would have to become present, tender, and unprotected in an entirely new way, or I would have to flee from the experience altogether. This is the experience of Celan’s crowd: They must either come to account regarding the reality before them, or slink away.

Rainier Maria Rilke emphasizes the unsparing demands of Beauty with his shocking lines: “for here, there is no place / which does not see you. You must change your life.”

Many of the demonic aspects of ideology seem to be tied to attempts to maintain the thrill of the moment of insight while evading its vulnerability.

Once you see this, you begin the realize that the ideologue and the bureaucrat are more similar than they like to think. Where the ideologue tries to possess reality by absorbing it into the faction, the bureaucrat tries to possess it by reducing its grandeur to manageable proportions. But in both cases there is an impulse toward self-insulation from the full gravity of moral existence.

Both Aristotle and Plato claim that “philosophy starts in astonishment.” Their point is that from time to time reality bursts through the casual solipsism of daily life. In such moments I can either choose to enfold myself back into an insulated space or become a “lover of wisdom”—one who devotes myself to that which is beyond my grasp.

I want to propose two “counter-ideological” habits on the basis of this insight. The first is the Habit of Aspiration: Relentlessly seeking to understand the full moral contours of existence. The second is the Habit of Apprenticeship: Relinquishing the impulse to possess justice, willingly apprenticing myself to it instead.

Texture: Contra Marx, there does, in fact, seem to be a very strong distinction between the logic of the “Ideal” and “Ideology.”

When I cross the street, it is not the smell of the beggar that feels threatening, but their dignity. To glimpse vitality in their eyes requires something of me that I often don’t want to give. Violence, in this sense, seems to arise not from excess of moral insight, but from a kind of numbness to it.

Building on the previous pair of habits, it seems essential to develop the Habit of Attention: Cultivating acute sensitivity to the moral texture of my surroundings.

Such sensitivity seems to be able to be grown in local and concrete practices: halting myself in a moment of annoyance; spending my lunch hour with a painting or an afternoon with a homeless stranger; taking time from my phone and giving it to poetry; rejecting an ill-fitting promotion; letting nature or my family be an inconvenience; refusing to let a friendship drift away. Such concrete acts seem essential for pulling the soul back to its native tenderness. The grander habits of aspiration and apprenticeship need the fine-grained sensitivity of attention.

Attention also needs aspiration and apprenticeship. Sensitivity to the world around me does not on its own produce the steadiness needed to act bravely in the decisive moment. This seems to require vision of the broader shape of the moral cosmos and my own place within it.

Mystique and Politique: Toward the end of his life, the great French socialist Charles Péguy reflected on his experiences in public life—particularly those connected to the Dreyfus affair. In his analysis of the perplexing paradox of ideology, he proposes a distinction between “mystique,” the initial longing for justice, and “politique,” the decayed machinations of power.

People, he argues, are interested in all of the wrong questions. They are always wanting to know whether “this politique triumphs over that politique, to know which of all the politiques will triumph in the end.” This question, he says, is insignificant because all politiques have already betrayed the one thing that power is good for—helping some insight into justice infuse our lives more fully.

There is no hiding from the fact that navigating a time of ideology well will involve loss.

Politique, however, has already betrayed the insight for the power. Once that happens, no matter how pure the initial insight, the only thing that can follow is barbarism. For Péguy this problem shows up not just on his opponent’s side (the right), but equallyor perhaps more intensely—on his own (the left). As he puts it ominously, “Politique devours the mystique and we are not startled.”

What Péguy is describing is the moment in which the means to justice replaces the end of justice.

For Péguy, it is not that mystique can never be enacted without such decay, but simply that we tend frequently to be unwilling to accept the painful sacrifices that would be required to halt this slide.

He is circumspect about whether we can always catch ourselves at the right moment, but he does think that we can take active measures in the right direction. His proposal is a mix of hyper-vigilance and courage. In his words,

Our first rule of conduct . . . will be that when we are in action, we never fall into politique, which is to say, very precisely that when we follow a line of action, we distrust, we mistrust ourselves and our own action; that we pay extreme attention to distinguishing the point of discernment and once this point has been recognized actually to turn back at this very point of turning back. At the point where politique substitutes itself for the mystique . . . [the one] who betrays the politique is also the only one who remains faithful to the mystique.

Following Péguy, my fifth proposal is the Habit of Vigilance, a habit that involves (1) watching with great care for each and every moment when means (power) threatens to replace the end (justice), and (2) in every circumstance, making whatever sacrifice is necessary to stop this from happening.

Belonging: These issues seem relevant as well to questions of loneliness, belonging, and friendship.

Ideology is intoxicating in part because it provides such belonging. In finding my purpose I also find community.

The most common way to get through a time of ideology is to find a tribe and get inside—as deeply inside as possible. To do so is to gain protection, identity, purpose, and often material benefit. This urge to subsume myself in a crowd of the like-minded does seem close to the mystery of how idealism can slide into violence.

The ancient world was very thoughtful about this question of patronage.

In a story told by Plutarch, for example, Alexander the Great came to honor the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Alexander asks Diogenes what gift he could offer as a token of his respect. Diogenes rudely rebuffs him, answering, “to move out of my sunlight.”

Aristotle likewise seems to have had a habit of cautiously but consistently prioritizing what’s real over his own need to find belonging. At the start of the Ethics he famously wishes to criticize his own teacher Plato. He responds to those who are cautioning him not to do so by saying, “I am friend both to [the Truth and to Plato], but it is essential to honor the Truth first.”

In the Jewish Scriptures when Joshua encounters an angel in the desert he tries to work out the relationship of patronage, asking, “Are you for us or our enemies?” “No,” the angel replies abruptly. “I have come now as captain of the Lord’s army.”

There is no hiding from the fact that navigating a time of ideology well will involve loss.

If adult life is broadly configured for ideology—providing resources and protection precisely based on relationships of conformity and patronage—then to refuse to be part of those relationships will involve significant loss. To step outside of “a side” is to find yourself not only without the resources of either side but also at risk of being seen as the enemy of both.

In fact, the problem is greater than this. Augustine famously argues that an aggregate of individuals becomes “a people” by “loving the same thing together.” If this insight is correct, it means that there are real costs to be paid when people do not or cannot share this common love. It begins to rip the fabric of our relationships in a fundamental way.

The ideologue’s solution is to retrench at this point—to build your own faction to such strength that you can (1) gain purity and (2) impose the cost of injustice on your rivals.

It doesn’t seem like the problem of ideological violence can ever be resolved in this direction, but nor is it possible to avoid the sense that when people are not in harmony there is a cost somewhere to be paid. This point can be seen perhaps most powerfully in the aftermath of an act of violence. The question is not whether there is a cost, but who will carry it and how.

I wish to propose two final habits: The Habit of Being Outcast: Developing the resilience to accept the losses that will come from not being part of a faction. The Habit of Being Scapegoat: Building strength for moments when there is a cost to be paid so as to be able to pay it myself.


The preceding reflections should not be given too much weight—they are sketches (études) aiming to work out a way of life for a fraught time. In important ways they precede the real work, the work not only of filling out the details of these habits but also of giving them blood in daily life.

These habits cannot absorb the full weight of the questions that are pressing on us about populism and polarization, liberalism and civic legitimacy. There are larger, more structural questions to be faced, and we should not underestimate their gravity.

But nor should we underplay the relevance of these proposals for addressing the broader issues. It is often, even at the highest levels of national and international affairs, the direct human questions that are decisive. A pristine system filled with cowards will decay quickly, and tyrannical systems often do crumble in the face of just people.

It is the way-of-life question that ultimately matters. What sorts of people are we and are we to become? It is a question full of as much subtlety as human beings themselves. These questions arise directly from our perplexing blend of courage and barbarity, our capacities for both sacrifice and savagery.

These are delicate questions, but they are not insurmountable. The wild oscillation in our time between conviction and cynicism, naïveté and nihilism seems to come, in part, because we have set aside the quieter but more robust art of going about our days.

Whatever else the problem of violence may be, it is a human problem, my problem. To contend with it on this level where the questions are most uncomfortable and the sacrifices most painful is also to begin to make progress toward a new way of life that is not only individual, but shared.

Image: Es geschah im November (It happened in November) by Kani Alavi, 1990. East Side Gallery, Berlin. Source: creativecommons/gippy78

Samuel Kimbriel
Samuel Kimbriel

Samuel Kimbriel is a political philosopher living in Washington, DC. His central research interest is in how political phenomena relate to more human-scale realities including trust, desire, and meaning. He is the author of Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation (Oxford University Press, 2014) and directs two initiatives dedicated to helping philosophy play a more robust role in public conversation. 


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