The Myth of Rationalism



Today I was told that militant anti-fascism is unjust and counterproductive; that we are ‘just as bad’ as the fascists we oppose. The progenitor of this searingly original thought claimed that the battle for public opinion is paramount, inherent in which are a few assumptions: that the Left can mediate its portrayal in the liberal media by remaining within the bounds of ‘acceptable’ behaviour; that fascists, men who happily burn refugees out of their tents and attack immigrant children on the streets, can be swayed by the threat of a few Guardian readers tutting at them; and that the state can be relied upon to combat the far-right. These ideas have all been debunked by history, but their persistence signifies that something’s wrong here, that despite the wealth of counter-evidence some people doggedly stick to them, and the wider liberal framework they embody.

Then the words came: “I’m a rationalist.”

What people often actually mean when they say this is that they reject ‘ideology’. There are a few aspects to this. First, they tend to define the word in a vaguely Marxist way – first outlined in The German Ideology – as a system of ideas which distorts reality, obfuscating the truth. Slavoj Zizek illustrated this definition well when he examined ideology as portrayed in the film They Live, in which donning a pair of glasses which reveals the world as an alien-ruled corporate dictatorship – complete with billboards and magazine adverts subliminally commanding us to ‘OBEY’ and so on (and so on, and so on) – symbolises the escape from ideology.

Second, this initially Marxist conception of ideology undergoes a sort of ironic reversal, wherein Marxism itself – the very genesis of their scepticism – is repositioned, alongside other forms of revolutionary class politics, as an ideology, and has its central position in rational discourse usurped by a brand of hyper-empircism which rejects all intellectual schemas and meta-narratives in favour of a superficially rigorous examination of truth claims against an ostensibly neutral standard. A standard which, by virtue of its refusal to conform to any explicit ideology, absorbs the implicit ideas of the dominant cultural framework in which it operates.

Finally then, this position corresponds to modern notions of ‘post-ideology’, realpolitik, and Fukuyama’s end of history: a muscular, no nonsense, common sense political pragmatism. But of course the systematic acceptance of the capitalist mode of production – and its concomitant effects on social reality – as something which simply is constitutes an ideology in itself; one which inevitably serves the interests of the ruling class. Thus we’re brought full circle back to Marx and Engels’ definition, and their warning: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of their dominance.”

There’s a simpler way to put all this of course: there is no such thing as neutrality. These self-styled vanguards of logic and rationality, who consider themselves such fiercely independent thinkers – the militant atheists, the comment thread misogynists, even the fascists themselves – are all moulded directly and indirectly by capital to serve its interests. Caught in a storm of material and superstructural forces they don’t understand, they cling desperately to that which seems to make sense of the maelstrom; they cling to ideology.