A Theory Of Ideological Inertia In Institutions

I have a thesis to advance on how ideology interfaces with movement strategy, or at least a conversation to start.

The basic thesis is this: that one of the most robust and long-lasting elements of institutional inertia, the elements that keep an institution moving in the direction the founder gave it, is ideology. If an institution is built with a great ideology that is sincerely believed by its members, it will last, it will self-correct when it deviates, and it will effectively project its founder’s will into the future. On the other hand, if an institution is built with an inconsistent and inadequate ideology, it may be effective at first, but will decay quickly.

Let’s illustrate with some examples, then see what it means for us.

Lack of Ideology Leads to Decay: Ghengis Khan

The first example is Savitri Devi’s analysis of the rise and fall of Genghis Khan’s empire in The Lightning and the Sun. Her read of the history seems to check out with the actual facts of the case, but I’m naming the source because these claims are somewhat speculative.

In her analysis, the purpose and higher meaning of his empire was simply the security and prosperity of his own family. The motivation of his followers was personal loyalty, and personal payout in loot and land, in turn for the prosperity of their own families. They had no higher ideal of a Golden Age they were destined to construct, no notion of being in service to the higher laws of the Universe, and importantly, no prime importance placed on the purity and integrity of their own customs, race, or purpose.

This lack of idealism was harmless while Ghengis Khan was alive; the war machine and empire he built was organizationally sound, far more so than anything else that existed at the time. Even after he died and was replaced, personal loyalties and organizational inertia continued to hold the Mongol empire together, and it continued to expand. But sooner or later, the entropy and culmination of slow forces crept in and changed things, and the Mongol empire began to drift apart and be assimilated into the ruling traditions of the conquered territories.

Had there been some Golden Age-seeking ideology behind their conquest and organization, this deviance would have been seen as a negative to be corrected, and the leaders and believers in the empire would have met to diagnose and repair. Instead, the implied ideology of their machine was simply that which they had inherited and imitated from its Founder: “security and prosperity for my family, using a rigorous ethic of personal loyalty and combat training.”

Given this ideological backdrop, the declining state of cooperation and increasing assimilation into local cultures was seen as a simple fact, neither good nor bad, or at least not collectively recognized as bad enough to do anything about it. But this decline and the waning personal loyalty to the founder, combined with the selfish ideal inherited from him, led to the parts of the empire breaking apart into the personal empires of the top generals. One branch became an Islamic caliphate, another a new dynasty of China. In fact their implicit ideology even accelerated this decay, as great generals saw the decay and inferred from it, not that their empire must be repaired, but that their duty to cooperate no longer applied.

Notice that when the organization decayed, all that was left was the ideology, which only counseled personal ambition, rather than coordinated effort to restore unity, cooperation, and the integrity of the Mongol warrior culture. And thus, the great empire built by Ghengis Khan dissolved back into the more robust background cultures in a few generations.

This illustrates the concept of implied ideology, which in this case was the ethos of personal ambition and rigorous warrior’s loyalty, which became the actual operating system of the empire, whatever the founder might have intended; of what happens with an ideology that does not counsel cooperation towards some golden age ideal, which in this case led to the inevitable fragmentation of the empire; and of the dangers of having no concept of cultural boundary integrity, which also doomed the Mongol empire to dissolution and assimilation.

Strong Ideology Leads to Growth: The Christian Church

Looking for contrasting cases, of highly ideological organizations, or alternatively, of extreme longevity of institutions, we can find them. As the theory would predict, and therefore encouragingly, they are found in the same place: the Catholic Church, and general Christianity. This will be our second case study.

A thousand years before Ghengis Khan, the early Christians were building their own empire. They were not conquerors or personal climbers, and they were not motivated by their own security, but nonetheless they were building. They had received a conception of virtuous life and of a higher divine duty directly from God, and their ideology counseled pure virtue and zealous motivation in pursuit of this ideal.

For centuries they organized around the idea of a unified Church, virtuous Christian life, and the coming Kingdom of God. Sharing this vision of how and to what purpose they were operating, and this being their primary motivation in the group, their institutions, instead of decaying, grew stronger. Strategic thinkers within the church were able to change and shape the thing for its own long-term success, while keeping the essential strength and character of the ideology.

We see this re-shaping first with Paul, who pulled Christianity together and made it a real religion. Then with the lesser known church fathers who gradually grew and formalized the hierarchy and human institutional structure of the Church. Then later again with the conversion of kings and of Rome, which involved some interesting deal-making and changes in structure to accommodate the new needs. And in later centuries, with crusades, feudal law, medieval philosophy, etc.

These changes, and the temporal spread of them, all speak to an effectively agile and robust organization not based merely on immediate incentives of those involved, but on a higher shared ideal. A merely incentive-based organization would not last and would not be agile in that way. Some additional force is required to explain the ability of the Church to relatively cleanly and repeatedly invent new strategies and change in response to circumstances without the guidance of a living Founder. My hypothesis is that the faith and zeal on the part of the members of the Church in its ideology allowed them to cooperate outside of its immediate incentive structure to make these changes.

If the Church is able to effectively train its people in its ideology and inculcate faith and zeal, which we see it dedicates itself to almost entirely, then when facing new challenges, a great man within the Church who plots and organizes its strategic response can get much easier cooperation from the rest of the internal stakeholders. The cooperation of the other stakeholders is easier if they strongly believe in the ideology because then the reformer need only convince them of the necessity of the change for the Church, not of the personal gain to each of their positions. The hierarchy of the Church limits the effective size of the coordination problem, but without a living founder and very strong mechanisms or hierarchical compulsion that the Church just doesn’t have, even the reduced problem can only be accomplished with sincere belief throughout the organization.

Stability of the ideology is very helpful to this longevity, as constant mutation would ensure that it would eventually hit some cancerous mode and collapse. For this reason I think, the Church maintains a doctrine of a continuous tradition of unchanging ideology passed down through apostolic succession. A tradition that gets applied to new circumstance, repaired, and clarified, but never officially changed. Even so, actual ideological constancy is not strictly necessary, and the history of the Church is full of large mutations in ideological nature, especially its early history before the ecumenical councils.

It is of course not the case that everyone in the church is at all times motivated by faith alone and not selfish ends. But the dominance of the ideological idea within the Church means that the only coalitions that can be openly built are those based on the faith. At least this was the case until recently, when the Church lost the ability to maintain itself against liberal internationalism, so that we now have both Christian and Christian-flavored liberal internationalist coalitions within the Church, and an internationalist pope.

For completeness, a very similar analysis can be made of Islam; it lasted as it has with vigorous strength and ability to spontaneously reform after structural defeat, by its fundamentally ideological rather than merely political nature.

The example of the Christian Church (and of Islam) forms the reassuring opposite case to Genghis Khan’s short-lived non-ideological Mongol Empire, and demonstrates the same principles from the other side of possibility. With the basic theory demonstrated, let’s examine some more challenging cases of these dynamics playing out, and further refine the theory.

Bad Ideology Leads to Chaos: Bolshevism and Nazism

The history of Bolshevism is complex and I can’t claim to summarize it accurately, but let us examine how their ideology itself necessarily and directly lead to the internal chaos that led to Stalin’s Great Purge, and to the famine of the early 1930s that killed many millions of peasants.

The Bolsheviks agreed on little other than the vague mechanism-less critiques and prescriptions of Marxism, and the revolutionary vanguardism and democratic centrism of Leninism. That is, they agreed that any kind of private ownership, inequality, or vestige of the old “autocratic” and “capitalistic” way of doing things was bad, that organized revolution against legitimate authority was good, and that a political party and state should be governed by democratically-decided consensus, rather than personal authority or hierarchy.

When their revolution succeeded and the time came to operate an economy by their principles, their ideological commitments to socialist economics prevented them from doing the sane and pragmatic thing, and they were stuck with forced socialism, and millions of people under their charge starved to death as a result. When the time came to consolidate the gains of revolution and transition to a stable and sane administrative structure, they were stuck with a party full of revolutionaries in an ineffective and unchangeable democratic structure. Stalin eventually had to do a wholesale purge of the party leadership and thousands of others because it was impossible to rule in this condition. Democracy and the revolutionaries would have caused chaos, further internal conflict, and further insanity until someone either cracked down and purged the whole thing or it burned itself out and Russia fell into anarchy.

Thus the ideology of Bolshevism doomed them to the horrible outcome they got, regardless of even the immediate structure of the party and the interests of its members; most of them eventually got killed. This is the grimmer dimension of the power of ideology in political organization; a bad ideology can be as robust as a good one, and can lead to doom despite the interests of all involved.

The National Socialists in Germany, whose revolution was about 15 years behind that of the Bolsheviks, followed a structurally similar path, with some notable modifications. After the relatively moderate and indecisive German revolution of 1919, the resulting dysfunction was fertile ground for another revolution, but the weakness of the Social Democrat semi-revolutionaries allowed significant reactionary elements to influence its direction. When that pre-revolutionary condition manifested, Hitler harnessed and redirected it to almost reactionary ends.

But chaotic methods breed chaotic results, and Hitler faced a similar problem as Stalin: an unruly and thuggish revolutionary party that wanted to go to war with every remaining element of civilized society, even after they had won. But things were different from the Bolshevist case; the reactionary elements within the National Socialist party combined with the thoroughly non-democratic formal Führerprinzip dictatorship of Hitler provided an ideological and institutional base from which to purge most of the worst of the socialists, revolutionaries, and thugs in the Night of the Long Knives without anything as extreme as Stalin’s purges. The result as we know being strong economic recovery rather than famine, though unfortunately combined with quite a bit of the well-known additional chaos from the remaining thuggery and insanity in the party.

The common factor here between Bolsheviks and Nazis was the chaotic elements in their path to power inculcating, or at least failing to exclude, an implicit ideology of chaos and revolution, which came back to bite them once in power, requiring purges and insane compromises.

Ideological Inertia in General

Now that we have reviewed a few illustrative examples, we can look at the general notion at play here without confusing ourselves too much:

A major background claim is that a large factor in how people coordinate is agreement on some ideology that says what is the right thing to be striving for and working on.

So on the one hand, if all agree on the goal and general method, and that goal and method is sound from the perspective of the interests of each, in that working together to achieve it is the best path for the personal goals of each, then cooperatively achieving those interests is just a matter of maintaining consensus on that goal and method, now better called an ideology, and dividing and organizing labor effectively; many of the trickier problems of incentive alignment, game theory, principal-agent problems, and the like are solved or partially solved by the ideology.

The result of having people robustly ideologically motivated is that even an organizationally broken institution with a good and strongly-believed ideology can expel defectors and reform itself when broken or facing changing circumstances, as most of its people are robustly motivated to do so, and zealous coalitions that serve the ideology are much easier to organize than cancerous ones that work against it.

On the other hand, an institution without unity of thought on a good ideology, even given a relatively good incentive structure, will decay quickly as small organizational mistakes and flaws in the incentives add up and multiply themselves like metal shavings in a gearbox. If someone at the top has the authority and ability to shovel out the gunk or replace the whole thing when it gets out of hand, or if the failing parts naturally remove themselves, a lack of ideological alignment can work. But cancerous substructure has a way of finding its way around these checks, reality tends to wipe out the precious whole rather than just the dysfunctional part, and any system of trust in higher authority relies on the authority itself being institutionally robust. Thus, an important factor in institutional stability is ideology.

And on the third hand, the actual ideology of an institution tends to more reliably follow from the implicit ideology of its immediate actions rather than from the official proclamations of its leadership. If a coalition comes together with immediate actions that are revolutionary in character, revolutionary elements within the organization will not simply turn off once power is achieved. If a coalition comes together to loot and pillage and serve the immediate family interests of the participants, it will not try to reform once its immediate incentive structure begins to decay.

But if a coalition comes together on the basis of immediately and virtuously living the word of God and building amongst themselves His Kingdom, almost no amount of changing circumstances, external persecution, or smashing-up of the institutional structure can pull it from its path. Mere proclamation that “after we win” some behavior should start is not enough to actually ensure it; the only ideology that is reliably drilled into an organization is that which can’t be neglected because it is needed immediately to interpret the immediate actions.

An additional consideration in the thread of implicit ideology is the notion of mimesis among humans: not only does the immediate behavior of people in an organization select for the kind of people who are willing and eager to play out those behaviours, but it creates them, as impressionable young recruits imitate the apparent behaviors and thought patterns of their comrades.

This is the key to multigenerational continuance of ideology; it gets socially imitated. The flipside of this is that only the parts of the ideology that are copyable by social imitation will get passed on. If the parents have some quiet cynical reason for practicing their faith, the next generation will not; having received only the surface forms. Thus stable long-term ideological orders must be robust to the forgetting of the deeper reasons for things, at least for the bulk of the organization; more nuanced understandings can probably be maintained and trained in the intellectual core of a long-lived institution.

Let’s list and summarize the mechanisms of this model:

First we have the factors that determine the ideology of a coalition or institution:

  • Selection. The actual actions that a coalition or institution takes or doesn’t take constrains its ideology by attracting people who like those kinds of actions for whatever reason, and repelling those who don’t understand them or are temperamentally incompatible.

  • Imitation. If the members of a coalition or institution express their ideology in visible actions, signals, sentiments, beliefs, and so on, others who join the coalition will imitate those and it will be much easier for the ideology to be passed on successfully. Note that the ideology should be well-represented by its behavioral and expressive consequences for this to work.

  • Training. Members of a coalition or institution can be explicitly trained in the ideology to some degree, especially if they have basic sympathy. This is another important mechanism by which an institution gets its ideology. For example, our own elites get ideologically trained in university and our governance takes on the character of that training.

  • Inquisition. It is almost always the case that ideological groups will root out and expel anyone who does not believe in their ideology to maintain purity. This can be institutionalized as well with some kind of formal inquisition. Either way, it also contributes to the preservation of the ideological direction of an institution.

Next we have the factors that cause the ideology of an institution to influence its behavior even to the point of overriding its current institutional structure:

  • Direct Motivation. When people operate within ideologies, they take the kinds of actions that their ideology recommends even independent of their own direct short-term interests. That’s the point of an ideology. The sum of this effect in a group of people operating within an ideology will be that the actions of the group will be steered by that ideology. For example, many people in powerful places in our society are all taking little actions, like instituting progressive speech or hiring codes, to further the aims of the progressive social justice liberalism they learned in college.

  • Coalitions. It is not possible for individuals working alone or in single positions of power to take actions that require cooperation between many actors. Many of the most important actions of an institution or group will require these coordinated coalition-actions, and thus will require the ability to organize and motivate a coalition. Organizing a coalition is made vastly easier if that coalition is obvious and easy to justify within the local ideology. If it runs against the local ideology, it must become a conspiracy, which is much harder to organize. Thus there will be a large ideological bias in what kind of coalitions can be organized within an ideological group. Thus the group will tend to take actions, even complicated and coordinated actions that substantially change its internal structure as only coalitions can, that are in accordance with its ideology, and ideology will be able to override its institutional structure when conditions are right.

  • Great Men. This has all been phrased in terms of forces and passive voice, but as we know, almost everything that happens is organized by lone men or small numbers of men who actually go out and make them happen. These views are compatible; the ideological inertia factors constrain or aid the action of great men in the direction of the ideology, and determine the course of things between the interventions of great men. The ideas of great men themselves, if they differ from the local ideology in any systematic way, of course will add their own direction to things. This theory of ideological inertia is to the interventions of great men as Newtonian momentum is to physical force.

So this is a rough model of how “ideological inertia” plays out in institutions. It builds on and is related to Anton Silensky’s work with ‘Functional Institutions are the Exception’ over at The Future Primaeval, where he originally proposed that institutions essentially continue on autopilot once released by their founder. Here I have proposed one mechanism of such inertia, and extended the paradigm to account for how institutions can harness the thinking and action of great men to make strategic changes in behavior and structure even hundreds of years after initial founding, while preserving the essential teleology of the institution that its founder gave it, given the right kind of robust institutional ideology.

In my next article, I will comment on what these constraints and mechanisms of ideological inertia mean to our own project of restoring the West. How do we contextualize our own project within this framework, and how do we design our strategy to successfully navigate its pitfalls and subtleties?

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4 Comments

  1. The very term ideology, according to my dictionary, was invented by French intellectuals in the 18th century. {ORIGIN late 18th cent. ( sense 2): from French idéologie, from Greek idea ‘form, pattern’ + -logos (denoting discourse or compilation).}

    Is culture an ideology? {ORIGIN Middle English (denoting a cultivated piece of land): the noun from French culture or directly from Latin cultura ‘growing, cultivation’; the verb from obsolete French culturer or medieval Latin culturare, both based on Latin colere ‘tend, cultivate’ (see cultivate).}

    I think “ideology” is not the best way to describe the organic process of civilization. There is ritual and initiation. Awe in the presence of the god that flows through institutions and individuals. Ideology ignores the sacred. The taboo. The very act of compiling an “ideology” is relatively new, and may actually inhibit transcendent opening to the sacred.

    Of course, intellection is an essential part of civilization. But, you need to recognize the other parts, maybe even the dominant parts, that cannot be compiled or debated. It’s like seeing something in the corner of your eye and then when you turn to look it disappears.

    It may be that the 18th century intellectuals engaged in an act of hubris which has invited nemesis, or vengence, which we are paying for even to this day.

  2. Me, I prefer the term “sensibility” rather than ideology.

  3. Two concepts: Virtue and delayed gratification.

  4. It’s useful to look past the term ‘ideology’ itself – Michael is speaking of the set or system of ideas at the core of a institution. We tend to associate Ideology with the excesses of this, that is, with systems of ideas that are rigid and unresponsive to empirical problems until they become calamities. But the plain reading of ‘ideology’ does not appear to contain this connotation. So for that point, you need to either accept that we’re going to use ideology the way it claims it is supposed to be used, or we’ll need to be altering that definition to reflect that it is a negative term.

    One problem Christians in the West ran into was the loss of a lot of mimesis – especially non-conformists and those of their ilk not merely reformed or repaired institutions, they tore them down. That tells me, as Carlyle intuited, that they have a different faith, and the unity between them and Christianity is primarily cultural. The same I feel with Mormons and JW’s, we’re similar not because we’re both Christian, but because we both culturally come out of Christendom. Schism is often the result of differing core ideas, but sometimes schism is temporary.

    One point in fact is that flexibility is a positive quality of a set of ideas, which is to have a center that is strong against change in its essential qualities, mainly because it is true and where it is an exercise in opinion it allows liberty. This has been an essential element in Christian character since the beginning, but it seems to be a mimetic one and not really a dogmatic one; (though there are some formal statements of this.)

    Justin Martyr is one of the few fathers who held a pre-millenialist position based on how he thought one was to read John’s Revelation, but he himself says ‘but there are faithful people who disagree on this,’and so it is not a matter of dogma but opinion. That is to say, unlike the Millerites, the Philosopher understood that reading of that book was speculative, as he admits that no interpretation of most of the events has been handed down to us (he wrote in the 2nd century!) Along with early practices of speaking in tongues and holding all things in common, these things were done as they worked and where they did not, they were not. It’s very likely that the apocalyptic enthusiasm of the early Christians in Jerusalem – resulting in selling off a lot of their wealth in preparation for the second coming – was a cause of them being known as ‘the poor’ (when the apostle says, ‘remember the poor.’) The personalities which gave rise to these tendencies were forked off into monasticism later on, another adaptation which preserved the inner core.

    The Yassa, which is the code of the Khan, was never written down; it seems that the fixed ideas need both a canon (a written rule regarding written texts) and an interpretation (human judgment taught mimesis, selection and instruction) to be preserved. Meta-logoi (ideas about the system itself) are dangerous if, for example, you forbid writing, or you forbid hierarchy (so no direction of teaching from master to student) or you forbid the exercise of human judgment (all is law.)

    Islam’s weakness is that it seems to have inherited a lot of the Khan’s system’s ‘enrich yourself over everything else’ which is supported by the inconsistency of its central text, the Koran. A good friend of mine was converted to Christianity by reading the Koran! Ultimately its character is similar to the Mayan religions, wherein the real law was nothing other than the judgment of the priests, with written things merely as reminders of various rules and practices. It is said that they were intentionally contradictory so as to frustrate the layperson and prevent them from grasping the religion apart from the priests. (This is reminiscent of the practice of some computer programmers.)

    That being said, I think talking about how it seems the better systems of ideas work and propagate gives one an idea of what meta-logoi might spell death for a system, wherein it ensures it will fail because like a man who eschews some basic need, it will starve itself of what it needs to survive and remain robust.

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