It’s probably not worth anyone’s time to give serious consideration to Ukip’s political philosophy. But as my time is cheap, or relatively cheap at least, there are a few remarks that I think are worth making in light of Paul Nuttall’s article in The Spectator this afternoon.
Nuttall says the following about Ukip’s ideology, or lack thereof:
James [Delingpole] says that Ukip needs an ideology or an ‘ism.’ Well let me be so bold as to say that although I don’t really buy into abstract ideologies I will give him an ‘ism’ which I believe sums up Ukip: Common Sensism
This is a profoundly, teeth-grindingly, will-sappingly stupid thing to claim. It demonstrates such a deep inability to think about politics that it’s hard to believe that it’s sincere. Instead, it’s more likely to be part of Ukip’s attempt to differentiate itself from the other parties by any means possible. But, that being said, let’s take Paul at his word and think about what it means to ‘not buy into abstract ideologies’.
I think that there are at least two major problems with what Nuttall claims. The first is to do with the nature of ideology. He claims that he doesn’t ‘buy into ideologies’. The obvious rejoinder is that he doesn’t have to consciously buy into them in order to subscribe to them and reproduce them in his actions and goals. Louis Althusser, the great theorist of ideology, argued that society shapes our beliefs and ideas, but that our ideas and beliefs don’t shape society. This seems to me untrue, our ideas do shape society in some small ways (how else can social innovations be explained?), but the direction of the arrow of causation is very difficult to determine.
Whether or not we recognise or consciously endorse an ideology, we are still in thrall to its influence. Ideological commitments are often disguised as platitudes, such as calls for equality of opportunity, which would have been highly controversial three hundred years ago, laden as they are with now commonplace Kantian moral philosophy. ‘Common sense’ is probably the most hackneyed of these platitudes, but it’s no less ideological for that.
Descartes’s disparaging judgment on common sense is as true now as it was in the seventeenth century: ‘common sense is the best distributed commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it’. Common sense is what the political theorist, Robert Talisse, calls a ‘halo term’. According to Talisse, ‘the force of such terms is not merely recommendatory; it is justificatory as well.’ The appeal to the term acts as its own justification because it’s self-evidently desirable. Ukip’s ideology (nostalgic social policies, economically illiterate libertarianism, anti-establishment etc.) aspires to be common sensical, because common sense serves as a halo term. It also has the boon of being ‘common’, which when used in the ukippian sense, translates as being non-technical and therefore anti-establishment when contrasted with the implicit obscurantism of ‘abstract ideologies’.
Talisse notes that as a result of the recognition of ‘halo terms’ and their reverse, ‘smear terms’,
there has come into currency a cynical view according to which all disputes over policies, practices, norms, institutions, and such are really merely competitors among opposed parties for control over the vocabulary that will be used to describe the phenomena in question
This cynicism leads to a stronger form of that cynicism in which we believe that ‘there is nothing more to discussion…than linguistic jockeying’. Despite it clearly being descriptively or empirically true that political discourse is governed by this practice, it is not the case, Talisse argues, that philosophical discussions must descend into linguistic land grabs. But Paul Nuttall is not really interested in Ukip’s political philosophy. To declare that one’s ideology or political philosophy (there’s a distinction to be made between the two, but it’s not important here) is common sense is to try (and ultimately, to fail) to forgo political philosophy altogether. This is the second problem with Nuttall’s claim.
As Bertrand Russell wrote in a beautiful passage about the value of philosophy in The Problems of Philosophy,
the man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected
In Russell’s view, common sense is antithetical to philosophy. There can be no such thing as a common sense philosophy and there can be no such thing as ‘common sense-ism’. It’s a condition of thought counting as philosophical thought that it doesn’t consider itself to be common sensical and does not invoke common sense as a source of justification. I don’t think it will come as a surprise that the Deputy Leader of Ukip writing in the Daily Mail for graduates has ‘no tincture of philosophy’, but in claiming the incoherent ground of common sense for Ukip, Nuttall reveals his own flimsy sense of what politics is about.
‘Apolitical politics’ is always nonsensical and it’s usually used by those who wish to disguise reactionary views as pragmatism. Ukip is as ideological as any party. What that ideology is, however, remains a mystery.