Andrew Trull: We Gotta Do Something, Even If It’s Wrong: Explanation Meets Experimentation in Systematic Ideology & Designing Society

Winner, 2005 George Walford International Essay Prize.

What you are now reading is a reflection in language on theory; thinking. Thinking is whatever we don’t know how to take for granted. It is only in thinking that we imagine things to be different and it is here that the author would like to, temporarily, invite the reader. Our invitation will be delivered through two schools of thought: Systematic Ideology and Designing Society. Both Systematic Ideology and Designing Society are ways of thinking about thinking, which is an input to the society we live in, the societies we have lived in, and the societies we could live in.

Systematic Ideology is a theory which proposes to answer why societies seem to function the way they do. Systematic Ideology starts from the observation of the limited success achieved by those groups who seek to change society. In fact, the instigators of Systematic Ideology came to the theory from their involvement with Marxist politics; primarily through the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB). The object of the SPGB (now over 80 years old) is “The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.” [1] Yet, despite this object, “after almost two centuries of struggle we still live under the familiar hierarchy and restraints; the conditions of life of the majority have not led them to support reform or revolution and do not seem likely to do so.” [2] The question thus became; if socialism is the logical expression of the interests of the working class then why don’t the majority of workers take on the object of socialism? From this question emerged another; “What determines a person’s ideas or his outlook on life?” [3] The answer to these questions were put forth by Harold Walsby in 1947, introducing The Domain of Ideologies as, ” the study of the intellectual-emotional attitudes, or ideologies of social groups.” [4] Walsby pursued this study for another decade forming the Social Science Association. This work was later taken on by George Walford who coined “Systematic Ideology” in his introductory book, Ideologies and Their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology (1979). Walford further promulgated the theory through his journal, Ideological Commentary, which would run through to his death in 1994. Soon after Walford’s death, students, colleagues, friends and family gathered to create a memorial, which would carry on his work. At present the theory is being promoted through the efforts of the George Walford International Essay Prize to which this essay offers to be an input.

Designing Society is, in the terms of Systematic Ideology, an ideology, which proposes the formulation of society based on the desires of its participants. Designing Society starts from the same line of questioning as Systematic Ideology: If our understanding of society leads us to see a different society that would be in our better interests then why do we not implement that different society? As Marianne Brun writes in her introductory text, Designing Society (1985), “When I studied Marx and Engels, and a number of the political thinkers and economic theorists who followed, modified, and newly applied their analysis, I was unable to comprehend why those analyses, why the understanding of the structure and functioning of the society we live in, did not, and does not, suffice to impel us to intervene in our collective destiny and to change it.” [5] It is in the method of response to this question where the two schools of thought diverge. Where Systematic Ideology proposes explanation, Designing Society proposes experimentation. Systematic Ideology proceeds to account for the absence of radical social change. While, the emphasis for Designing Society is towards desire and design and away from explaining the current society. “We have taken long looks at this system, and we do not want it. As any social system is humanly created, not natural, and is maintained daily by human action, we wish to create new social systems, and to change our daily patterns of action.” [6] To this end a School for Designing a Society was established in 1992. Instigated by Herbert Brun, Marianne Brun, and their students, the School for Designing a Society continues to function as a living laboratory for experiments in social design.

In the course of this essay the reader is invited to explore these two particular domains of explanation and experimentation. It is the author’s intention to bring the reader through these separate domains and meet back at the end to suggest the contribution these schools of thought make to each other, and consequently, to the reader.

Why Systematic Ideology?

To help understand why societies function as they do, to distinguish the major ideologies that enable these functions, and to suggest an Ideology of Ideologies which, “recognises and accepts all of the above; has for its task resolution of the problems arising from their interaction.” [7] In order to do this we require a full exposition of the theory. Indeed, as George Walford quipped, “What it requires (I nearly said “all it requires!”) is a complete exposition.” [8] What follows is the author’s best attempt given the scope and purposes of this essay.

A note on methodology.

Systematic ideology draws the evidence for its theory directly from human behavior. In particular our attention is drawn to “thought, speech and purposeful action,” which Walford states, “all deal with the world as we assume it to be.” [9] In fact, “all our knowledge of assumptions comes from observation of behaviour, our own or that of others.” [10] This has significant consequences because studying behavior doesn’t require any psychological, philosophical or metaphysical insight (though these are not rejected), but merely the observation of what people think (assume) by what we do and say. It is thus that Systematic Ideology, “concerns itself mainly with the effects of assumptions upon behaviour, and for this purpose questions of their truth in any absolute sense are largely irrelevant.” [11] Letting go of the search for the absolute truth of our assumptions (though, as we will see, impossible in practice) saves a significant amount of effort, which, can be focused on our best available knowledge of what our assumptions, and thus we, are doing.

Ideology

Ideology, if considered at all, is generally thought of as a set of political beliefs, which people hold to further their interests. “Systematic ideology takes the term in a deeper sense,” because, “rather than interests governing ideologies, ideologies determine interests.” [12] This is a non-trivial reversal of common knowledge essential to the understanding of our theory. Ideology is not merely the natural expression of one’s interests, but the foundation from which interests arise. Ideology is more than the effect of the conditions people live in, but also their cause! This means that ideologies themselves deserve study.

Most people do not consider themselves as having an ideology. Of those who do, many think of themselves as distinguished from those who don’t; as though their ideology is the conclusive result of careful examination of the world. In Systematic Ideology this discrepancy is resolved; every one has an ideology. “Ideology is the system of assumptions with which a person is identified.” [13] This fundamental claim deserves an explanation, which we will break into two parts; the definition of assumption and identification.

Assumption

Assumptions are our way of acting with purpose. Assumptions are both ‘behind’ and ‘in front’ of our purposes. There are things we assume with a feeling of certainty, even pride, and there are things, which we assume out of habit without any explicit awareness. “In Systematic Ideology ‘assumption’ is used to cover the whole range, from assumptions remaining unrecognised unless a special effort be made, through the things known but not at the moment being thought of, to the ideas, beliefs and so on standing in the forefront of awareness.” [14] Assumptions guide our purposes, which are observed as behavior. We can’t know for certain that our assumptions will lead us directly to our purpose. It is this uncertainty, (and occasionally, our awareness of it) which defines our peculiar, human condition. As Walford puts it: “Purposeful action… requires an object, and whether this be a banana to reach, a solution to find or a social system to establish we never have full information about it in advance. The banana may prove to be a wax model, the problem insoluble and the social system non-viable. We can find out only by reaching for it, trying to work it out, attempting to set it up, and in order to do any of these things we have to assume it to be in some sense real.” [15] This human condition is expressed by my present employer in the landscaping business, John Kroetch, whenever we find ourselves stuck with a particularly muddy problem: “We gotta do something, even if it is wrong.” We can never absolutely know that what we are doing is correct. The only way to find out is proceed with all that we do know and see what happens.

Identification

“We identify our assumptions with ourselves and ourselves with our assumptions.” [16] This means that if someone criticizes our assumptions we tend to feel that they are criticizing us and, “an attack upon our assumptions is felt to be an attack upon ourselves.” [17] In this sense, and for the purposes of our study, we are our assumptions and society is the total operating system of people’s assumptions.

Systematic Ideology: Ideologies; their tendencies, functions, and relations.

Systematic Ideology is so named to emphasize the systematic nature of ideology; “So long as we look only at the particular, detailed assumptions of people’s ideologies all we can say about these ideologies is that they are different from one another. But when we direct our attention to their more general and enduring assumptions then (as we shall see) systematic and significant relations begin to appear.” [18] In this way we begin to see what makes our study of ideology systematic. For, it is the patterns between individual ideologies in which their underlying relations appear. The patterns emerge in the “broader and more enduing assumptions” of ideologies and “these broader and more enduring assumptions tend to occur in specific sets. Wherever we find one of these assumptions belonging to such a set further enquiry consistently, if not invariably, reveals the presence of other members also. These sets are known as the major ideologies, and the groups respectively identified with them as the major ideological groups.” [19]

As already mentioned Systematic Ideology starts from the observation of the limited success achieved by those groups who seek to change society. It was also observed that those who expressed ideologies of social change continuously explained their lack of success to be caused by the very things which they sought to change. The group of people who wanted to do away with hierarchy and private ownership tend to see their movements as being squelched by hierarchy and private ownership. For Walford the resolution of this circularity could be explained by seeing ideologies emerge in an evolutionary system. In evolutionary biology each successive species arises out of the genetics of what came before. According to the theory of evolution, it is unreasonable (not to mention catastrophic!) to expect the entire genetic web of life to be replaced by one new species. This simply does not make sense. So too, for Systematic Ideology, is it nonsense to imagine that a new ideology should completely replace the old. There is just not any evidence for this. Thus, as long as the ideologies of social change rely on reason and evidence they find themselves in a quite a pickle. This explains the circular reasoning revolutionaries and reformers employ to defend their failures, but the explanation is not necessarily accepted with open arms. For, Systematic Ideology now presents a new ideology, which asks people to question the assumptions they may identify with. This will tend to come, initially, as a threat to already established assumptions. Yet, despite the threat that a new ideology presents it still may exert its influence. Indeed, for Walford this is the overall tendency for ideology and the mechanism for its development: “In moving along the range of ideologies the partial failure of each to realize its assumption in practice creates a need for the next one in the series. It is also true, however, that each successive ideology is partly successful; it solves some problems which the previous one could not solve, and in doing this it provides the conditions and facilities needed for its own successor to perform its distinctive function.” [20]

An ideology solves the problems of what was previously taken for granted, and this is where people inhabit their thinking lives. As ideologies develop they pose the problems for the next successive ideology. This development follows a historical continuum; in which each ideology requires the problems posed before it. As each ideology solves a problem it does not replace what came before, but adds to it. As a person identifies with a next major ideology they, by necessity continue to operate in the previous ideology, but tend to consider it unimportant. Also, the more an ideology questions the assumptions governing society, the less people there are to support it. The more an ideology supports the assumptions governing society, the more people to support it. The major ideologies thus far identified are as follows and according to 1) historical development and the 2) number of people supporting them; expediency, domination, precision, reform, revolution, repudiation, and the ideology of ideology. These seven major ideologies are divided into three main groups; 1) the Ediostatic who assume society is stable (expediency, domination, principle), 2) the Ediodynamic who assume society is changing (reform, revolution, repudiation) and 3) the metadynamic who assume society is ideological (ideology of ideology). A brief description of each as laid out by Walford:

EDIOSTATIC

EXPEDIENCY

The only universal ideology; provides a criterion for selection among morally indifferent actions. Thinking unsystematised, the spiritual world polymorphous and not firmly distinguished from the material. Nonpolitical. Only foraging communities operate entirely in this way.

DOMINATION

Establishment, principle, the state, conventionality, commitment, devotion, discipline, authoritarian relation, social production. Thinking achieves firm (though not sharp) dualistic classification: good/bad, subject/ruler, sacred/secular. Compliance with the rules gives predictable behaviour, enabling large societies to function. Conservative politics.

PRECISION

‘Hard’ science, logic and accountancy. Ethics predominate over conformity and compliance, in religion as elsewhere. Humanism, agnosticism and freethinking begin to appear, with multiplicity, the ‘billiard-ball’ universe. Liberal in politics, greenism as a practical necessity.

EIDODYNAMIC

REFORM

Profound but gradual change; evolutionary science and gradualist socialism. Increasingly independent thinking leads sometimes to atheism, sometimes to mysticism, inspirational or esoteric religion: Internal interrelatedness. Holism appears, and greenism as an expression of it.

REVOLUTION Sets its own values aggressively against conventional ones. Assumes classes to be in a conflict resolvable only by revolution, violent if need be; these social relations override other influences. Religion and greenism condemned as bourgeois misdirection of the workers.

REPUDIATION

Condemns all that has gone before, demanding immediate elimination of government, classes, religion and private ownership of the means of production, resulting in free access to goods in place of the exchange of commodities. Anarchist and anarcho-socialist.

IDEOLOGY OF IDEOLOGY

Recognises and accepts all of the above; has for its task resolution of the problems arising from their interaction. [21]

The interaction of the major ideologies

Once we have made it through the body of our theory we can address the final subject of Systematic Ideology: the Ideology of Ideology. It is, in fact, this domain that we have been working in all the way as we’ve been leading to it. For, it’s here that the theory accounts for itself! As Zvi Lamm points out “This is because its solution to the problem of the point of view from which one discusses an ideology is embodied within the theory itself.” [22] We are now questioning the assumptions of our questions. Indeed, now our “function is to regard all assumptions as problems, to take none of them for granted, to study all of them and the relations between them.” [23] And the task thus becomes “resolution of the problems arising from their interaction.”

Without the Ideology of Ideology, all that an ideology can do is negate all others by assuming its own absolute truth. This is clearly observed in the modern political system in which each political party associated with a major ideology asserts its own solutions to be legitimate and all others illegitimate. Of course, this can also be observed in the daily discourse of individuals who find themselves with the only options of agreeing or disagreeing with each other. However, Systematic Ideology by proposing the ideology of ideology allows its conversants to recognize and accept all ideologies as legitimate; fulfilling the necessary functions of the total system of society. More completely, “our study of ideology leads to the proposition that a fully developed society needs to incorporate, as working parts of its structure, all the major ideologies and the groups respectively identified with them.” [24]

Walford did suggest a political concept compatible with the ideology of ideology; “a society using every form of government.” [25] Let’s consider the current systems of governance to not only consist of the people who rule, but the total process by which a society is governed. Then, “in this second sense “government” involves not only the rulers but also the ruled; their responses, as well as the initiatives of the rulers, go to decide how government shall operate.” [26] In this sense people already do choose their government. What can be added as a contribution of Systematic Ideology is, “The conception of a society incorporating, if not every conceivable system of government then at least all the systems respectively adapted to the different major ideologies.” [27] Thus, the offer of Systematic Ideology becomes an understanding of such a society, which may be closer to our own society than we hitherto imagined.

Why Designing Society?

Let us answer this question with the proposal of Herbert Brun, instigator of the School for Designing a Society:

“Why a School for Designing Society?”

1. So that there be a place, a workshop, and conference and laboratory, where we can study and teach our language to design processes of thought, of desire, of experimental imagination; the so-studied, taught, and relentlessly watched language will then, we hope, enable us to design systems and dynamics for the implementation of desired social realities, instead of only enabling us to describe them.

2. To learn how to design and how to implement such social realities as carry within themselves popular motivation towards steady change and the means to experiment, by audacious playfulness, with an imagined next social reality and its consequences. [28] In order to do this we require a stipulation of the following assumptions:

We can choose our behavior and thereby design society.

Reality is that to which you link decisions. [29]

Society is its system of conversations.

“In the social world things are what is said about them.” [30] Language is not primarily rational, but infectious.

“We adjust our thinking to the available language.” [31]

Language is invented.

“We refer to the coordination of desires in the schemes or set ups of choice as designing.” [32]

Finally, the function of Designing Society is “not to improve people; rather to bring to their consciousness that which they do, are and choose. The task is to let people know what they use as criteria.” [33] Here we assume that people are not to be brought to any particular understanding but their own.

All together these premises may be thus stipulated: Society, as its system of conversations, is being perpetually invented by all its participants and this awareness is the potential for coordinating in language our desires.

A pitfall of Designing Society is the tendency, like all ideologies, to assume the irrelevance of all other ideologies. After all, the starting point for Designing Society is a total rejection of the current social system and, with it, all the ideologies from expediency through retribution. While many of the participants associate with revolution and retribution, the overall tendency is to reject these ideologies as insufficient. What is proposed instead is experimentation. And this is what distinguishes Designing Society as an ideology, and what makes it significant to Systematic Ideology; the emphasis of experimentation. Designing Society does not assume that it has the solutions to the problems for which it is concerned. Rather, it proposes that experimentation is the method whereby such solutions emerge. It’s a backward, playful approach that does not require that it be correct. Its assumptions do not rely on their truth, in fact they flourish in falseness.

One of the assignments offered by the School for Designing Society is to formulate false statements; statements which are currently false, but one would like to become true. Further, it’s encouraged to exaggerate, as much as possible, the falseness of these statements. It is interesting to note that many of these statements are compatible with the Ideology of Ideology. Here are some examples composed by students of the School for Designing Society:

Context-switches (intra- and extra- community) are structurally designed into the functioning of communities and societies.

Conversations create space for adding alternatives. Adding alternatives initiates dynamics for new conversations.

Ideas are connected, not subtracted nor reduced.

Governing satisfies the desire for government. [34]

These ‘false statements’ share a concern with the Ideology of Ideology for coordinating contradictions. Systematic Ideology shows that the ideological range consists of developmentally dependent ideological stages which all consider themselves mutually exclusive. Designing Society appreciates similar contradictory phenomena, and also suggests a society, which includes its contradictions in its operation. Where Systematic Ideology is concerned with the contradictions in assumptions, Designing Society is concerned with contradictions in desires. The Ideology of Ideology’s, “function is to regard all assumptions as problems, to take none of them for granted, to study all of them and the relations between them.” Designing Society’s function is to regard all desires as alternatives for choice and to account for them all by designing the relations between them.

Both of these theories find themselves required to address fundamental contradictions in their exposition. In order for ideology to properly function it seems to require the negation of much of its awareness. In this sense, Systematic Ideology studies what we can’t know. While, in order for society to be designed it requires that everyone design it according to their differing desires. In this sense, Designing Society wants a society that we can’t have. We do not yet know how to account for these situations. Thus we find two different approaches with shared concerns leading to a contradictory place. And, in this place a contradiction becomes a starting point for something else.

Conclusion

In the introduction to this essay the author stated the intention to meet back at the end and suggest the contribution these schools of thought make to each other, and consequently, to the reader. Systematic Ideology has attempted to explain why societies function the way they do. In so doing this explanation has allowed for an understanding of the major assumptions supporting society. During this explanation it may have occurred to the reader to try to place oneself along the ideological range. This placement, likely, asked the reader to question these assumptions. And here we have the first use of Systematic Ideology. But the theory goes further by suggesting the possibility of resolving the tendency towards the absolute truth held by each major ideology; which is the source of no small amount of trouble. The possibility suggested is tempered by evidence of the impossibility, not to mention undesirability, of changing everyone’s mind in such a direction. At the very least the theory is capable of influencing society by adding itself as an ideology. We will leave any further speculation of this possibility to those speculative domains of thinking. Fortunately, one such speculative domain is the other subject of this essay.

Designing Society, if properly functioning, is an audacious gesture. Truth is temporarily suspended while desire is aroused. According to Designing Society, if a person wants the society implied by the Ideology of Ideology then all that person needs is to formulate those desires and coordinate them with others. Success is incidental. It’s the act of coordination that’s essential. But, according to Systematic Ideology is Designing Society even possible? Yes, if it realizes the necessity of those assumptions unavailable to choice. Yet, the question of possibility is outside its domain of thinking. The question becomes; Is Designing Society desirable?

Systematic Ideology points to a way of avoiding certain ideological traps. Designing Society offers a way to fall into new ideological traps. Between these two theoretical paths is space to reflect and move forward. Our potential follies and successes are lived outside the domain of theory. Theory can only allow us to reflect upon our experience and imagine things a different way. Meanwhile, most of our lives are lived in expediency; doing what comes easily. There are limitations to theory and thinking, which we have to take for granted. These limitations of theory are best understood as hope. Hope allows us to reach for the world we assume to be desirable. And for those of us who find ourselves wanting things to be different; “we gotta do something, even if its wrong.”

Endnotes

[1] The Socialist Party of Great Britain, “Object and Declaration of Principles,” http://www.spgb.org.uk/object.htm

[2] George Walford. “Meet Systematic Ideology,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 14, No. 55. 1992.

[3] Harold Walsby, “The Ideological Field,” Part 2, Chapter 1, The Domain of Ideologies, 1947.

[4] Harold Walsby, “Forward,” The Domain of Ideologies, 1947.

[5] Marianne Brun, Designing Society, London: Princelet Editions, 1985, p12.

[6] The School for Designing a Society, “Why a Desirable Society?,” http://www.designingasociety.org/

[7] George Walford. “Meet Systematic Ideology,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 14, No. 55. 1992.

[8] George Walford. “Where do we go from here?,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 3, No. 9. 1981.

[9] George Walford. “The Power of the Helpless,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 15, No. 59. 1993.

[10] George Walford. “From Politics to Ideology,” Beyond Politics: An Outline of Systematic Ideology, 1993.

[11] George Walford. “From Politics to Ideology,” Beyond Politics: An Outline of Systematic Ideology, 1993.

[12] George Walford. “Politics as Ideology,” Beyond Politics: An Outline of Systematic Ideology, 1993.

[13] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p21.

[14] George Walford. “From Politics to Ideology,” Beyond Politics: An Outline of Systematic Ideology, 1993.

[15] George Walford. “Ideology Beyond Politics,” Beyond Politics: An Outline of Systematic Ideology, 1993.

[16] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p19.

[17] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p19.

[18] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p24.

[19] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p24.

[20] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p145.

[21] George Walford. “Meet Systematic Ideology,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 14, No. 55. 1992.

[22] Zvi Lamm,”Ideologies in a Hierarchical Order

[23] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p147.

[24] George Walford. Ideologies and their Functions: A Study in Systematic Ideology, London: The Bookshop, 1979, p151.

[25] George Walford. “Pick your own Government,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 7, No. 16. 1985.

[26] George Walford. “Pick your own Government,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 7, No. 16. 1985.

[27] George Walford. “Pick your own Government,” Ideological Commentary Vol. 7, No. 16. 1985.

[28] Herbert Brun, Sighs in Disguise, Champaign, IL: Non Sequitur Press, 2003, p161.

[29] Herbert Brun, Sighs in Disguise, Champaign, IL: Non Sequitur Press, 2003, p19.

[30] Herbert Brun, “Afterward,” Sighs in Disguise, Champaign, IL: Non Sequitur Press, 2003.

[31] Herbert Brun, Sighs in Disguise, Champaign, IL: Non Sequitur Press, 2003, p7.

[32] The School for Designing a Society, “Why Design?,” http://www.designingasociety.org/

[33]Herbert Brun, Sighs in Disguise, Champaign, IL: Non Sequitur Press, 2003, p17.

[34] The School for Designing a Society, “Desire Statements,” http://www.designingasociety.org/