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Ideology Studies: An interview with Michael Freeden

Ideology Studies: Michael Freeden interviewed by Mathew Humphrey
Hello and welcome. This is the first in a series of films where we’ll be talking to experts from different disciplines about what the study of propaganda and ideology means for them. And our first guest today is Michael Freeden from the University of Nottingham. Hello Michael, and welcome. Hello. Now, this course is about the study of propaganda and ideology in everyday life. And so I’d like to start by asking you how you understand the relationship between these two concepts of propaganda on the one hand and ideology on the other. Well, propaganda is a very specific way of disseminating an ideology. It is very persuasive. It is very immediate. It targets specific groups. It targets masses, in particular.
And it looks for a quick fix. It needs to have an immediate impact on its audience. So the way that propaganda is designed is to maximise its impact on the audience. The impact may be visual. It may be oral. And it may be written, but one way or the other, it has to be very brief. It has to be highly selective. And it has to be persuasive, both in the sense of rhetoric and in the sense of the reasonableness, or the sense that the message imparts. When people think about ideologies in particular, they would probably tend to think about things like liberalism and conservatism and socialism.
And each of these ideology families maybe have different ways of trying to communicate the ideas that they’re trying to promote. So when we’re looking at political thought, how do we best identify whether something we’re looking at is liberal, perhaps, or conservative or socialist? How do we distinguish these different traditions? Well, if we looking at liberal discourse, at liberal language, we’d be looking for the certain signs as follows. We’d be looking for a particular importance that is attached to the individual and to individualism, a particular idea of the importance of liberty and the distinction between public and private, and a very strong sense of human rights and of the Constitution arrangements in a society.
When we look at conservatism, we will be looking mainly at tradition, at issues of continuity, at the importance of history and time. Looking at society as located in a long sequence of events that does not require or does not need rupture or sudden change, but rather gradual change. If we look at socialism, we’re looking basically at human interaction and what happens to an individual as a member of a community, and how communities interact and how communities wish to pursue certain common aims. It’s the commonality that I think is at the heart of socialism. Commonality plus a very strong sense of human equality.
So would it be fair, then, to say that these ideology traditions, they talk about the same kinds of political concepts. So you mentioned individuality and equality and order and so on. But they would understand those concepts in different ways, and maybe treat some of them as being particularly important or central and others as more peripheral. Yes. So if we have an analogy with furniture, when you open the liberal room, you find liberalism in the centre of the room. And when you open the conservative room, you’ll find tradition at the centre of the room. But nevertheless, conservatives have some respect for liberty, or perhaps for human liberties in the plural.
But it will not be as centrally positioned as it is in the case of liberal thinking. The third element I’d like to ask you about is ideological change. Presumably, people who would have described themselves as liberals in the 19th century in Britain, say, would not be saying the same things as liberals in Britain in the 20th century. And also somebody described as a conservative in America right now may not be saying the same things as somebody in France who would be described as a conservative. So there’s a question about ideological change through time and across space. Could you say something about how we should understand these processes of ideological change? Yes.
Well, ideologies are far more flexible and fluid than some people imagine. And although you may have a more durable set of ideas in the centre of an ideology, the environment, the periphery of an ideology changes all the time. So that changes in historical events, technology, changes in ideas, or even earthquakes or famines may impact on the ideology and philtre their way back into the core and change it subtly. Indeed, if an ideology were completely rigid, it would crack under pressure. It is precisely the flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to re-read the events around them, that make ideology relevant and that ensure their longevity.
And could you give an example, perhaps, of a way an ideology has changed in reaction to events in that kind of way? Well, in the 19th century, private property was central to liberal ideas. But by the end of the 19th century, a much more social understanding of human interdependence began to develop. And private property, though it still is one of the important beliefs of liberalism, was sidelined relative to welfare, human welfare, human well being. And one of the interesting things that happened at the end of the 19th century was that people became much more aware of human fragility and of the need for assistance from others in order to develop yourself. Not in order to be developed by others.
So the liberal target of self-development was maintained. But it was realised that you sometimes can’t manage things on your own because of hunger, poverty, unemployment, and one needs external assistance or mutual aid. And so liberalism became much more sociable doctrine than it was in the 19th century when it was more assertive, aggressively individualistic. Thank you very much, Michael. That brings us to the end of this particular interview. These themes around ideological change, both time and through space, are something we’ll be exploring later on during this course.

Professor Michael Freeden is a founding director of the Centre for the Study of Political Ideologies at the University of Nottingham. Since 2015 Michael has moved on to hold positions at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the University of Oxford.

Michael’s many books have been hugely influential in creating a new understanding of ideology not as a “fanatical doctrine”, but as something we all do. Ideology for him is a way of organising political views into a coherent whole. Most ideologies share many values (we will explore this when we look at freedom, justice, community etc in this course). What sets them apart are the hierarchies of importance in which these values are placed. Freedom, for example, exists in most political ideologies; what is different is whether or not it is given a central place, or ‘top priority’ status, or whether it is subservient to other goals, such as order, development, social harmony or equality. Propaganda is a way of mobilising support around these priorities, by reducing them to simple slogans and quick-fix solutions.

Do you agree? And if we accept this approach, do you agree with Freeden that liberalism is indeed the ideology that has accorded freedom the most important place, and done most to promote it?

For suggested further reading (not compulsory!), click here to read Michael Freeden’s blog on ideologies.

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Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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