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Recently retired from Mansfield College, Oxford, Professor Michael Freeden, a political theorist is best known for his work on political ideologies, a subject often maligned as an inferior cousin of political philosophy and political theory. Marx did no favours for the term, of course, and End of Ideology thinkers like Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset defined ideologies so narrowly and pejoratively that few are inclined to attach their thinking to the moniker – or believe it is worth studying.

But scholars interested in the interaction between ideologies and language, like Freeden, and also post-Marxist scholars like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, have resurrected the study – and the word.  In his landmark book, Ideologies and Political Theory, Freeden argues that we should take ideologies seriously and offers us a way of studying them and their morphological characteristics (or at least the big ideologies like liberalism, socialism and conservatism). He also started an Oxford centre dedicated to their study. Indeed, ideologies are a special type of political thought [full disclosure, your author writes about ideologies too] – ubiquitous in the political (and academia) according to Freeden – that are characterised as collections of de-contested concepts (what is community?; what is equality?; what is fairness?) that are used to set out particular plans of political action.

But Freeden is now looking beyond ideologies to explain the broader nature of ‘political thinking’, the subject of a forthcoming book, for which ideologies are certainly a type. Politics in Spires caught up with Michael Freeden to find out more.

PiS: Thanks for agreeing to chat with Politics in Spires. You are best known for your work on political ideologies, but you are working on a new project now, looking at the nature of political thinking. Could you tell us a bit more about it? 

Freeden: My current work is taking me beyond the study of ideologies to the broader study of the ubiquitous practice of thinking politically, a practice in which we all engage at different levels of sophistication and frequency. As students of politics it is incumbent on us to explore and understand the actual political thinking that takes place in all societies. I am trying to fill an underdeveloped gap that has existed in our discipline, one between the normative study of political theory and the (often canonical) history of political thought. I contend that we cannot give adequate accounts of the political unless we can analyse the range of its thought-practices and establish what their enabling and constraining features are, both as employed by professional thinkers and in the vernacular.

PiS: If this mode of thinking is ubiquitous, then we as various actors in a social environment – either within the family, in a community, or in government – must, I would assume, use or ‘do’ political thinking differently. Nevertheless, are there core elements to thinking this way, or are their different ways of doing so?

Freeden: Thinking politically may differ in its content from person to person, from community to community and from culture to culture, but it does display distinct general features. The ranking and distribution of significance in the affairs of a collectivity (large or small) is one – assertions of urgency or priority. Discourses about giving or withholding support for collectivities are another. The appeal to, and search for finality in buttressing decisions is a third. The constructions of social visions, as well as representations of social order or disorder, are also universal. And cutting through all those is the exercise of power in speech and text, through reason, passion, rhetoric and menace.

PiS: Is there a difference in thinking as an ‘advocate’, in favour of a cause, and thinking ‘politically’? One seems more reflective and the other active. For example, Max Weber says ‘passion’ is not sufficient to make one a political actor; it as a feeling must be quickly followed by a degree of ‘responsibility’ and ‘judgement’. Thus one can have a ’cause’ but think of it in more emotional terms, rather than in ‘political’ terms. At what point does ‘thinking about politics’ turn into ‘political thinking’? 

Freeden: I would rephrase the questions differently. All forms of thinking politically may include advocacy or – less purposively – at least a preference that certain social arrangements should happen or be prevented from happening. All such forms may be more or less reflective, more or less emotional. Being responsible is not a universal feature of political thinking; it is, rather, a predilection for a liberal, altruistic and self-critical mode of thinking politically that is not necessarily representative of its typical forms. Nor does being reflective rule out being active; and ‘emotional’ is not to be contrasted with ‘political’; it is a manner of delivery, of emphasis, that affects the impact of a given instance of political thinking on its recipients. Thinking about politics refers to the specific themes one is substantively thinking about – ‘do we want more liberty?’; ‘what do we need to distribute in order to reach out to the socially marginalized?’; ‘should immigration be controlled by the government?’. Thinking politically refers to identifying the macro-patterns of thinking that human beings exhibit when they are engaged with the lives of, and life in, collectivities.

PiS: If thinking politically can be more active or more reflective, more distanced or emotional, then, does your work point to ‘correct’ ways of thinking politically? It would seem that certain ways of thinking politically are more dangerous than others.  

Freeden: The ‘correctness’ of thinking politically is to be gauged either on ethical standards or within a framework of ideological preferences (the two may overlap). Many types of political thinking may be seen as ‘dangerous’ but not necessarily on the basis of an objective criterion of danger. Anti-abortionists see pro-choice advocates as highly dangerous; extreme religious practitioners regard secularism as highly dangerous; liberals see corruption and nepotism as socially dangerous. But prior to judging them (and judging them we inevitably will) we need – as investigators of the human political mind – to understand what has to hold in those belief systems for something to appear as menacing. I certainly hold that there are wrong, or destructive, ways of thinking politically: those that lead to mass suffering, for instance. But I am far less certain that there are unquestionable or absolutely correct ways of thinking (as distinct from a way of thinking that I find attractive or compelling).

PiS: Many thanks.

Freeden: My pleasure.

A Blake Ewing is a journalist and DPhil Candidate in Politics at Oxford. He is the Graduate Editor of Politics in Spires. 

Michael Freeden is an Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at Mansfield College, Oxford.  

Purchase the new book on Professor Freeden’s thought, Liberalism as Ideology: Essays in Honour of Michael Freeden, by Oxford’s Ben Jackson and Marc Stears; Oxford University Press; 304 pages at Blackwell’s.

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