In Our Society, Being Ideologue Is Best Thing to Be

Richard Stallman: In Our Society, Being an Ideologue Is the Best Thing to BeThe other day, I wrote something that touched on the cold war between Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, or maybe more accurately, their fans. And a colleague of mine mentioned that Stallman wasn’t a coder so much as an ideologue. I agreed with it and didn’t think much more. I don’t see “ideologue” as a pejorative. But it usually is meant in that way. And that got me thinking.

The truth of the matter is that “ideologue” is a word that people pretty much only use to describe someone they disagree with. Otherwise, they aren’t ideological so much as they are simply rational. They are people who have looked at the facts and come to the obvious conclusion. Of course, we know from neuroscience that things don’t work that way. In general, our local brains (or “guts” if you prefer) decide on things and then our upper brains come up with justifications for what are decidedly not rationally derived conclusions.

Linus Torvalds Is an Ideologue

But while it is true that Richard Stallman is an ideologue, so too is Linus Torvalds. It’s just that Torvalds’ ideology is a painfully typical one among the Silicon Valley crowd. He’s an atheist and everything I’ve heard him say that touches on politics makes me think he’s a glibertarian.

As a result, most people would say he isn’t an ideologue, because his thinking fits well inside America’s Overton window. And in terms of Silicon Valley, Torvalds’s political beliefs put him in the dead center of what is a tiny Overton window.But most people think Richard Stallman is an ideologue because his thinking actually challenges the status quo and the power elite. This isn’t to say that Stallman is a political genius. Based upon things he’s said, it’s clear that he could stand to learn a little about good old fashioned political science.

But Stallman is clearly a creative thinker. And that has made him come up with ideas that are dangerous. He is seen as an extremist. But is he really? I would say no. His ideas are not even as extreme as mine, and I stay pretty easily inside the world’s political Overton window. The whole thing reminds me rather of something we see a lot here in American political punditry: the professional centrist.

Centrism as Non-Ideological

In the United States, the professional centrist is best exemplified by our man from Slate, William Saletan. He’s a centrist. He calls himself a “liberal Republican,” and you can’t help but think that he wouldn’t have a cushy job at Slate if he called himself a conservative Democrat (because such things actually exist) or — God forbid! — a leftist. But the main thing is that Saletan supposedly represents the center of American politics and thus is like all the people in middle America who supposedly just want the folks in Washington to “get things done!”

The problem is that I, with my (by American standards) extreme leftist politics have much more in common with the people in middle America than William Saletan has. Saletan, like most professional centrists, is actually an extremist. He has extremist opinions on the right when it comes to economic policy and exttremist opinions on the left when it comes to social policy. The people of middle America are the opposite of Saletan: they have extreme views on the left on economic policy and extreme views on the right on social policy. So they don’t agree with Saletan about anything. They at least agree with me on economic issues.

The Power Elite Define the Ideologue

And so it is with Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. Among the power elite, Torvalds’ opinions (or lack thereof: he is of the “A plague on both your houses!” persuasion) are just fine. He would never do anything that might interfere with the profits of Pfizer, Disney, or Apple. So he isn’t an ideologue. The fact that his ideas are extreme and unpopular doesn’t matter. That’s what Orwell didn’t understand: give people a shiny enough prison and they will gladly give themselves life without the possibility of parole.

Richard Stallman is an ideologue because his ideas are unacceptable. But they are unacceptable not because most people would disagree with them; they are unacceptable because the power elite don’t like them. And they don’t like them because those idea threaten their power. But our society is so sick that even people who are not part of the power elite accept the thinking of the power elite because it doesn’t occur to them that they could do anything else.

In a society as screwed up as ours is, being called an ideologue is the highest of complements.

4 replies on “In Our Society, Being Ideologue Is Best Thing to Be”

  1. Dave L says:

    >give people a shiny enough prison

    Better yet, give some people a somewhat shiny prison, and some a dull prison.

    The shinies will feel superior to the dulls, so they’ll be happy, and the dulls will be convinced that, someday, possibly, if they work hard and follow all the rules, they might make it to a slightly shinier prison, and if they don’t it’s their own damn fault.

    Or am I stretching this metaphor too far?

    • James Fillmore says:

      Not too far at all. Howard Zonn used a similar one about prison guards at Attica. The guards imagined they were considered allies by the power structure … yet when it came time to shoot the prisoners holding guards hostage, New York State had no problem with gunfire killing the guards, too.

      And that’s been the case with our middle class for some time. Most offices function by the lower-level people doing all the real work, and the entrenched idiots coasting on their titles. (“Human Respurces” is a pretty common offender in this area; new hires and interns do everything, while directors and associate directors attend conferences on Team Building.)

      And yet the office underling making $14 an hour feels superior to the plumber making $20. While the office underling’s supervisors, who sneer at everyone, end up fired six months short of vesting their 20-year retirement package.

      Part of it, I guess, is just wishing away the bad. People don’t want to imagine rotten stuff will happen to them, even if they see (or participate in) rotten stuff happening to others all the time. I’ve got a great relationship with the owners, they won’t screw me over like they did Judy. Until they do; and you’ve got 30 minutes to clean out that desk.

      It’s no accident that most company offices have some type of secure entry, these days. Treating employees horribly, in order to avoid paying them what they thought they earned, is practically the norm. And yet workers cling to this world for dear life — anything than having an “unskilled labor” job, and being consigned to the lowest of the low.

      (You can earn a college degree in prison — and if that doesn’t show determination/creative problem solving, I don’t know what does — and you will never, ever be hired to join the office-job world. HR will toss your application out immediately. They’ll pick the 25-year olds who’ll be gone in two years, hoping to find a job where they get to be the lazy department heads. Good advice for their career goals; fuck somebody who shouldn’t fuck a subordinate. That usually helps get you company tenure. Do NOT fuck a superior who claims to have influence at HQ but really doesn’t. Trust me on this one.)

      The way working-class people often internalize this nonsense — obsequiously thinking that those in the shinier prison are their betters — never ceases to amaze me. Watching them try to gain favor with condescending white-collar twerps makes me want to scream; you know they’ll never do a thing for you, don’t you? It’s like some British colony back in the day where a local official hoped that by subduing the locals aggressively enough, he might become an honorary Englishman. Nope. Won’t happen in a million years.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    Wasn’t there a saying back in the 1960s, “We’re all niggers now.”? It didn’t mean we all had dark skin.

    • James Fillmore says:

      Ever see the movie “The Commitments?” It’s about a struggling rock band in Dublin. They play mostly soul music, because, as one band member says, “the Irish are the Negroes of Europe. And Dubliners are the Negroes of Ireland.”

      There’s a reason Motown is beloved the world over. What would be cheesily cheerful coming from anybody else became transcendent performed by musicians in a rapidly decaying Detroit.

      I like to think that eventually, people will get that we’re all in the same boat, and the methods used to harm people of different ethnicities or class groups are weapons primed & ready to be used against anybody else in the way of power’s insatiable greed.

      Will people get that? It’s a tough mountain to climb. But there ain’t no mountain high enough to make me lose all hope.

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