Ideology isn't finished yet, but is the end in sight?

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2019 Iranian protests. Image: GTVM92/Wikimedia Commons

One form of collateral damage -- to use an odious term -- from the recent Mideast assassination and shootdown, is that they undermined a series of popular protests occurring in Iraq and Iran. Iran alone saw protests against corruption and repression that spread far beyond Tehran, the capital.

True, there's always popular opposition to misused power anywhere (I mean that literally) and you can catalogue a long list in Iran. What's easier to forget is that the Iranian revolution of 1979 wasn't made or led by mullahs.

It involved a coalition of anti-Shah, anti-U.S. forces who battled among themselves before Islamism won out. And they still felt a need to leave room for a (limited) free press and a (restricted but not meaningless) democratic process.

There are even Iranian theological critics of the regime, like Abdolkarim Soroush, who say Islamist governments contradict Islam's core principles.

More striking yet are the popular protests in Iraq, which began last October. They oppose government corruption and foreign interference, by both Iran and the U.S. They include Sunnis and Shiites -- which is disorienting if you've been told that everything happening in Iraq, and the Mideast altogether, is down to Muslim sectarian identifications.

In fact, the Iraq protests, with many Shiites, were brutally attacked by Iraqi Shiite militias funded and controlled from Iran, and guided by Qassem Soleimani, whom the U.S. assassinated two weeks ago. And even some of those militias fought internally over whether to support the protesters.

These incipient, popular, apparently non-ideological movements, appeared doomed after Soleimani's assassination and the torrent of popular rage in both countries, against it. Then came the shootdown of 752 and the humiliating admission that Iran had done it -- and the protests were back. What's going on?

It seems to me they bear a kinship to other popular, largely leaderless and essentially non-ideological movements currently roiling other societies.

  • The mostly rural "yellow vests" in France, who for over a year have gathered in roundabouts to protest. They've stubbornly not gone away and provided the only effective opposition to the arrogant, elitist (and highly ideological, in the sense of neoliberal) President Macron. Even France's corrupt, sclerotic, incompetent unions are now trying to ally with the gilets jaunes.
  • Chile's remarkable "The rapist is you!" gatherings -- equal parts exuberance and fury -- which were admired and imitated around the world.

There are other examples but, as I said, there's always popular protest happening. The striking thing about these is how lacking in ideologies -- left, right religious -- they are. Is it possible that we're witnessing the end of ideology?

No, of course not. Someone is always proclaiming the end of ideology. In the 1960s, sociologist Daniel Bell became famous for his book, The End of Ideology. Almost immediately Maoism and similar energies swept the world.

In the 1990s, post-Cold War, Francis Fukuyama wrote "The End of History." But the left ideologies that he pronounced dead were largely replaced by religious ones, and not just in the Muslim world.

Still, there may be some features making this a less ideological age.

One is the climate crisis. It transcends ideas. Even if you say capitalism is to blame, that's academic. There isn't time for deep, long-term transformations. Part of the seething, pervasive anger of the young is directed at their elders who'd rather argue over disagreements than do anything about survival.

Another is the form of globalization that the young experience. A student I recently met said, about possible war with Iran, that he and his peers just don't get it.

The many places they come from, the way they mingle freely, the multifarious futures they anticipate, make a thing like going to war for your nation unintelligible. They identify with youth elsewhere in ways that weren't true in earlier times. That isn't theory or ideology, it's lived life.

(What about U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who attracts the young? Aside from insisting on calling himself a socialist, there's nothing ideological there. He's a resister and enemy of self-serving power. That's more a personality than an ideology.)

So an end to ideology? Not a chance. But there's reason to hope we may be moving beyond peak ideology and can soon start sliding down the other side.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: GTVM92/Wikimedia Commons

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