Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies

Koyzis presents ideologies as ultimately a modern form of idolatry, or a result of an other idolatry--most often humanism. Idolatry involves "taking something out of creation's totality, raising it above that creation, and making the latter revolve around and serve it."
March 1 st 2004

Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David T. Koyzis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003, 256 pp, $28.99)

Michael Raeburn, in his documentary film Countdown Zimbabwe, credits Robert Mugabe's continuing (although waning) popularity among his citizens and other African leaders to his ability to take a legitimate concern and present it in such a way that other legitimate concerns are obscured—carefully calculated for his personal benefit. Mugabe's very intentional move is very much like what, according to David Koyzis, goes on in the functioning of a political ideology: a real concern, or real good, is placed as central to political life, which distorts and twists the multifaceted reality of God's world.

Koyzis presents ideologies as ultimately a modern form of idolatry, or a result of an other idolatry—most often humanism. Idolatry involves "taking something out of creation's totality, raising it above that creation, and making the latter revolve around and serve it." Idols are something in creation viewed as singularly having the capacity to save. Following from the fact that idols fail to account for the complete fallenness of humanity results in the identification of a single thing as the problem needing overcoming (for example, lack of freedom or inequality), idols, and ideologies, ultimately fail.

Koyzis gives a comprehensive history of the term ideology from its roots in Plato and Aristotle, through Marx, Mannheim, Arendt, Crick, and Havel. He concurs with aspects of each account to form his own definition: "ideology is a kind of popularized form of normative political theory or philosophy" that is "inescapably religious," views a "humanly made god as a source of salvation," "locate[s] the source of . . . evil somewhere within the creation," has a "distorted view of the world," and has "goals supplant principles."

Despite the bleak account above, Koyzis states that ideologies aren't "all bad." They contain "fragments of truth" and identify legitimate goods, which they blow out of proportion, but from which we can still learn a lot.

Koyzis' categorization of ideologies as both idolatries in themselves and rooted in a shared humanist idolatry causes confusion throughout the whole of Political Visions and Illusions. Despite this persistent problem, his analysis of ideology, and of idolatry, is very helpful on its own but especially for the explorations of specific ideologies that follow it.

The bulk of Political Vision and Illusions consists of Koyzis unpacking five major contemporary ideologies one at a time: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism, and socialism. His choices are defensible, but, despite his justification, I'm not convinced they are optimal. For example, if ideologies are "popularized forms of normative political [thought]," then the most prominent ideologies today are likely growthism (which believes in the salvific power of increased economic activity and the state's role as nothing but ensuring it), and anti-globalizationism of the variety linked to Naomi Klein (where an end to corporations bullying governments is the telos—see her Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate). Neither of these can be strongly linked to one of Koyzis' five ideologies nor are they central to today's political discussion. His fleeting reference to identity politics as a postmodern ideology is also unsatisfactory given its contemporary relevance. However, one person can only be an expert on so much, and a book can only be so long, and Koyzis shows himself to have read widely; to expect more would perhaps be unfair.

The five ideologies Koyzis does choose are dealt with masterfully. The chapter on liberalism is especially excellent. He makes clear connections between the varieties of liberalism on the left and on the right of the spectrum. They have a common root, he persuasively argues, in a belief that the maximization of individual freedom will solve our problems and have a shared history that involves various stages.

For liberals, communities, including the state, exist by the voluntary consent of the individual members. Liberalism is therefore often linked to social contract thinking, and to individual self-interest. The focus on fairness (which comes out very differently in liberalism's different stages) resulted in an illusion of neutrality and a concomitant privatization of religious belief.

The truth of liberalism, according to Koyzis, is in its recognition of rights of human beings and the value of freedom. However, these insights are blown out of proportion in liberalism's many manifestations, including its manifestation as contemporary capitalism.

Koyzis was brave to include democratism as an ideology. "Democracy as creed"—the idea that "letting the people decide" will solve all problems—is widespread today. The level of democracy is often seen as interchangeable with the "goodness" of a political setup. Koyzis carefully deals with this conception of political normativity by showing that while citizens' participation is certainly a proper component of a just political order ("democracy as structure" being something Koyzis praises), its presence does not qualify a political order as just. An ideological fixation on the will of the majority cannot prevent oppression of minorities, and, furthermore, can prevent people with political authority from making important and just decisions that are unpopular. It can also lead to a politics based on image without checks (witness the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger in California) and can impede necessary decisions (witness how the democratization of party leadership elections made Jean Chretien's exit far less timely than, say, Margaret Thatcher's).

The most extreme example of democratism is absolute direct democracy, which, Koyzis points out, is not only impractical and even impossible but also ignores the unique God-given task that is governing. Political authority is a God-ordained role that requires a certain temperament, certain skills, expertise, and dedication, and as such requires a division of tasks. Koyzis uses as an example of democratism a quote from Alfred E. Smith: "All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy." Granting that Koyzis is correct that this view is a problem, the current attempt by George W. Bush to bring "democracy to Iraq" (the question of genuineness aside) is problematic in that democracy does not equal justice. This is evident in the correct fears that democracy in Iraq may just allow it to become like Iran—an oppressive theocracy. While citizen participation is vital for a healthy political order in today's world, it is only one component and does not determine the normativity of a political regime.

Koyzis' chapter on conservatism is the most difficult to follow, probably because, as he acknowledges, conservatism is an extremely difficult position to talk about. Not only are most people calling themselves conservatives just early-stage liberals or, in my friend Michael DeMoor's words, "rich anarchists," but those that do want to conserve want to conserve such a variety of things that it is almost not fair to lump them together. What they do share, says Koyzis, is a belief in historical unfolding as the source of norms and tradition as the highest court of appeal. He points out that conservatism's good insight is that awareness and respect for tradition is fundamental for a good political order but that they fail because tradition alone cannot provide "positive direction." Furthermore, Koyzis says, God's creation is dynamic, and not static; "for a spiritually discerning Christian, conserving and progressing cannot properly be conceived as dialectical polarities."

Socialism is presented by Koyzis as "rooted in a secular faith" that common ownership will end all problems. Socialism has many sides—statist and nonstatist, utopian, and scientificall with the important insight that economic equality is important. This interest in "fairer economic arrangements" is the legitimate insight and positive contribution of socialism. However, according to Koyzis, they feel that "a single form of communal ownership is capable of supplanting all other forms of ownership, both individual and communal." Material equality is the "ultimate goal" of socialists and is seen as not a good but the good. The multifaceted nature of justice is obscured by the focus on one aspect; as a result, implementation of socialism results in policies oppressive to other goods, in particular individual freedom (the good liberalism picks up on).

Koyzis' careful treatment of nationalism as something that takes the legitimate sense of belonging to an ethnic, cultural, political (civic), or linguistic group, and makes it primary for human identity, can prevent us from following the Western habit of identifying nationalism (as an ideology) with only its most perverse forms (Italian fascism, Afrikaner ethnicism, and German Nazism). Koyzis notes the problems caused by the multiple and conflicting definitions of nation and ends up focusing on nationalism relating to the political community. He notes that problematic nationalism is present in contemporary America, which is based on a Jeffersonian liberal "values community," and in Canada, notably in Quebec's linguistic nationalism, although he could also have looked at Canada's later liberal "values community."

Nationalist governments often try to impose artificial uniformity because they are unable to account for diversity of roles and identifications. Nationalism is right to take community seriously but wrong in taking a particular community too seriously.

In nationalism, loyalty to a group (often the state, but possibly an ethnic group or linguistic group) is made the highest allegiance—above even God. Nationalism takes the good that is loyalty and community identification and blows it out of proportion. Koyzis could perhaps add religious to linguistic, ethnic, and civic nationalisms as an over-extended community if religion is taken to mean not the ultimate direction of one's life (as he uses it to base his idea of idolatry) but an identifiable community (either organized, like a church, or unorganized, like "census Christians"). Any identity, in Koyzis' schema, can overtake others in a problematic fashion and demand allegiances that are only God's and allegiances that should be spread to numerous communities. Religious identity, I would suggest, can be one of them, which could allow Koyzis to account to Islamism as an ideology. Any membership becomes idolatrous when it takes over the multifaceted creation. As Koyzis puts it, "patriotism is a necessary concomitant to the state's central task of doing justice. Nationalism, on the other hand, is a perversion of a legitimate human affection and ultimately runs contrary to justice."

Koyzis offers a two-part solution to the problems of ideologies: recognition of social pluriformity and a state with the specific task of justice. He says that Christians most often approach the ideologies in one of two ways: seeing nothing good in any of them or siding with one ideology against the others.

The first approach is wrong in that it misses the key insights that the ideologies have got right, even as they overemphasize them. The second approach is wrong in that it takes the ideologies to be religiously neutral, which Koyzis sees as impossible—their overemphasis on something in creation makes them idolatrous. Koyzis unpacks a Christian "creation-fall-redemption" worldview as being the place to start if we want to account for, and celebrate, the reality we find ourselves in without deifying any one part. Because the "cosmic scope of redemption means that the whole of life has been redeemed, including . . . political life," Christians ought not flea from the political but see it as one of many legitimate aspects of human life. Political life must be "claim[ed] for Jesus Christ."

According to Koyzis, a non-idolatrous approach to politics is one in which God is recognized as sovereign over all of life. As a result, the good things the ideologies are "on to" take appropriate place: the legitimacy of the individual, the proper place of tradition, the place of community loyalty and of participation, and the government's role in addressing economic inequality. This takes shape in a differentiated society where the complex creation is allowed to exist in different ways for different purposes; different social structures are allowed to serve God "in accordance with [their] principle task[s]." Ideologies miss these differences and the varieties of goods they pursue. Ideologies deny diversity at the expense of unity.

I have some concerns about the stress on structural differentiation. Accounts such as Koyzis' have the danger of thinking of structural diversity itself as salvific—and becoming an ideology in the sense the book uses. Political idolatry can exist in differentiated situation, and surely there have been Christian societal and political setups prior to modern differentiation, and there will be Christian societal and political setups after modern differentiation. Furthermore, many of the political ideologies Koyzis analyzes do stress differentiation and advocate structures "acting in accordance with their tasks"; they just disagree on how the state should ensure that they do and how it should respond when they don't. For example, both a liberal and a socialist would say that the state should ensure that economic enterprise is enabled to do its unique task, although the liberal would say that that task is to act unencumbered (and maximize profit if it is desired), while the socialist would say that that task is to distribute goods where they are needed and provide well-paying employment.

Koyzis analyzes two Christian traditions that pay special attention to the structural diversity: Roman Catholic and reformed. Roman Catholic thought, as articulated successively by Thomas Aquinas, Pope Leo XIII, and Jacques Maritain, is presented as containing important insights, especially in regards to what has become known as subsidiarity—where the plural entities of civil society are allowed to perform their tasks unencumbered by higher social entities, while these higher social entities, such as the state, are responsible to take on tasks that are not being performed by lower entities. This tradition, according to Koyzis, affirms the diversity of creation and the plural structure of society. However, he deems this tradition unsatisfactory because of its hierarchical nature and its overemphasis of the role of the institutional church.

The reformed tradition of social thinking, as it appears in the thought of Abraham Kuyper and as Herman Dooyeweerd theoretically articulates it, can be best summed up in the term sphere sovereignty. Koyzis charts the development of this thought and elaborates its central idea: that each area of life, including the body politic "stand[s] directly and immediately under God's sovereignty." Sphere sovereignty proposes that there is "no ultimate locus of sovereignty in this world from which other sovereignties are derivative." This point is where sphere sovereignty differs from Catholic subsidiarity thought, in which the church mediates God's grace to each of the spheres. In reformed thought, society is plural, so types of authority are too. Dooyeweerd took Kuyper's insights into social life and gave them theoretical basis in an anti-reductive ontology.

For those interested in Dooyeweerd's thought as it relates to political life, and want a quick introduction, Koyzis brief analysis is a good place to start. Those wanting a more detailed look should pick up Jonathan Chaplin's forthcoming book on Dooyeweerd's social and political thought.

Two key points, based on Dooyeweerd's thoughts, are presented by Koyzis as key to the task of the state: the monopolization of "sword power" and the task of justice as what qualifies the state as what it is.

Justice is the focus of the last chapter of the book. Much of the chapter deals with the relationship between power and justice, which, according to Koyzis, are often presented as antithetical. To defend the idea that they are not so, Koyzis lays out a detailed defense of authority in general and political authority in particular.

It is at this point that Koyzis gets right down to business. He lays out what he sees as the "unique task of the state in the world: to do justice to the diversity of individuals and communities in [God's] world." Using the classic definition of justice as rendering due, he proposes that a non-ideological justice would be one that renders due to the diverse reality of God's world. He looks at economic overextension and education's relationship with the state as test cases for this view of justice. The governing authority ought to "justly interrelate the authorities" of various spheres and protect them from encroachment by others.

I too find this view of the state compelling, but I think that, as it is presented by Koyzis, it tends to have a similar problem as conservatism: it lacks substantive content. Simply recognizing what exists is not a task worthy of an institution. Even if "offering them protection" is added to "recognizing realities," this doesn't give enough guidance to Christians regarding what the state ought to do about economic inequality, social issues regarding issues of liberty such as abortion, and the proper relations between states. If "integrate the pluriform reality" is the task of the state, no guidance is given regarding the five insights that the ideologies Koyzis examines offer. How ought an integrating state deal with economic inequality? Familial breakup? Intolerance being taught in schools? Commodification of sex? Even with a substantive answer to the question of "what are the things the state ought to recognize?," a state thats task is to integrate could come out in countless ways. Both Christian libertarians, such as those at the Acton Institute, and Christians of socialist leanings, such as those in the NDP, can affirm this proposal without having to change anything substantial about their view of the state.

I'd like to return, as an example, to what I see as a key ideology, especially for today's youth: anti-globalizationism. Although in it we could identify traces of various ideologies if we so desired (aspects of democratism, nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, and socialism could all be chased out), my impression is that advocates of this view of the political could justifiably say that they are advocating a properly balanced view of the state without a single entity (nation, individual) or goal (equality, preservation of tradition, participation) taking undue precedence. They could say that their current focus on democracy and ending corporate overextension (which is similar to Koyzis' analysis) are not ends in themselves but are ways in which proper balance (or just integration) can be restored. Koyzis' articulation of the task of the state seems unable to either affirm or criticize such a balanced ideology (although it is contestable whether it is so), because it assumes that only Christian political thought can account for plurality. Perhaps some non-Christian thinking (thank God for common grace) on the political can account for diversity after all and can be visions rather than illusions.

Koyzis book is readable, save for a bit of jargon near the end, and is clearly written. Political Visions and Illusions is exceptionally strong in its analysis of the five ideologies it addresses. Its positive proposals, although extremely helpful, especially for those who identify readily with one of Koyzis big five, are unsatisfactory for answering substantial questions regarding the task of the state in today's world. Christian thinking on politics has a lot on its plate, and anyone with an interest in this, or the task of the state in general, needs to read this book. David Koyzis has made a great contribution to an important project, although certainly not a final one. He'd probably recognize this as a good thing, given the dynamic nature of God's creation.

Topics: Religion

Robert is a completing a master's degree at ICS in political theory, and is interested in a diverse range of things, especially the state of the state's diverse responses to diversity.