Michael Minn

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with US President Ronald Reagan in 1981 (Wikimedia Commons)

An ideology is a set of integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a socio-political program. In other words, an ideology is a set of beliefs and principles about the way the world should be.

Ideologies often operate on two levels:

The actions that people take to turn their ideologies into coherent practice are called praxis.

But often what people say and do are contradictory, and empty signifiers (like sustainability, globalization or freedom) are often important in selling ideologies to people who may not benefit from the practices associated with that ideology.

This distinction between ideology and practice mirrors a similar distinction between idealists and realists:

This binary creates a continuum:


Capitalism is an economic system characterized by:

The root word here is capital, or "accumulated goods devoted to the production of other goods." Capital is the investment needed to make production possible, such as building a factory or funding of research to develop a new technology or product. While capital can be money (something accepted as a medium of exchange, a measure of value, or a means of payment) or wealth (valuable material possessions or resources), capital is distinguished as something that is used to produce something (including more capital) rather than just money or possessions.

As indicated in the definition above, the ideology of capitalism believes that the ideal economic system involves private ownership of capital and private decisions about where that capital should be invested. Those decisions are viewed as best determined by competition in markets. It is this private ownership and control that has a strong influence on who wins and loses in a capitalist economy.


Socialism is an economic system that involves "governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods." As opposed to capitalism where private individuals and companies make economic decisions, in a socialist economy many of those decisions are made by society (social) as a whole through government control.

The capitalist ideologue will critique socialism as an inefficient hindrance to progress. The socialist ideologue will critique capitalism as unfairly distributing the benefits of that progress among those who made it possible.

Conservative British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) summed up this dispute with the quote, "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery."


Karl Marx, 1874 (Wikimedia Commons)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher who focused on political economy, or the study of the interaction between politics and the economy.

Key to Marx's analysis was the observation that there was a group (class) of people who own the means of production (capital or the bourgeoisie), and a larger group of people that work for them (labor, or the proletariat). Marxist analysis sees politics and economics as the struggle between these classes in the process of capitalism. Much of social life is therefore determined by the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism.

The logical outgrowth of the ideology of Marxism was the political project of communism, which is a political system based on a socialist economy where all the means of production were owned collectively (communally), thus eliminating the struggle between capital and labor. Rigid, centrally-planned communist economies proved incapable of competing against capitalist economies - both economically and militarily. Most of the few remaining countries that call themselves communist have incorporated capitalist market elements (often, like China, with stunning success), although there are still differing levels of central control.

While Marx's communist project is generally considered discredited as unworkable or hopelessly idealistic, his detailed critiques of the contradictions of capitalism remain valuable and still have strong proponents in the social sciences. This approach to analysis goes by the names Marxist, Marxian, and Neo-Marxist, with the latter two names often used as euphemisms to distinguish the analysis from the practice of communism. David Harvey is a prominent geographer who adopted Marxist analysis in the 1970s. We will read excerpts of one of his critiques of neoliberalism in a few days.

Liberalism (Classical)

Liberalism is a word that in 21st century America has come to have two opposite meanings.

Classical political liberalism emerged in the European Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries. The words Liberty and Liberal both have the same Latin root word meaning "free." Liberalism sees the individual as the fundamental unit of society and seeks the minimization of government interference in civil society. A core belief of liberalism is that humans are rational and will seek to improve their economic well-being at the lowest possible cost. This ideological belief extends across economics and politics.

There are a number of noted philosophers and economists closely associated with classical liberalism (Plouffe, 2011):

These key ideas of individualism and economic freedom from classical liberalism are fundamental to the contemporary ideology of neoliberalism.

Liberalism (American)

A second definition of political liberalism emerged in the United States in the early 20th century. In contrast to the individualism of classical liberalism that was hostile to government, American liberalism aspires to "a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty." That is achieved through government based on "democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law" (Krugman, 2007, 267). Key liberal government initiatives include Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s (which started Social Security) and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s (which started Medicare).

American liberalism has come to be associated primarily with the Democratic party, although in practice there are many conservative Democrats who avoid the label like the plague. In the early and mid 20th century there were also many Republicans who could be considered liberal on some matters (Republican Theodore Roosevelt was an environmental conservationist), although the contemporary Republican party has largely purged liberals and moderates from its ranks.


Neoliberalism is a "modified or revived form of classical liberalism that is based on an ideological belief in free market capitalism and the rights of the individual." The name is confusing because these ideological positions are commonly associated in the United States with the word conservatism. Neoliberalism is the dominant political and economic ideology of contemporary globalization and we will discuss this further in upcoming classes.

Neoliberalism as practice in the context of development is often referred to as the Washington consensus. The term was coined by economist John Williamson to refer to the policy advice given by the WTO/IMF/WB to developing countries:


To add to the confusion, the term neoconservatism is used to refer to an ideology that "advocates the assertive promotion of democracy and United States national interest in international affairs including through military means." This ideology is morally-rooted in the idea of American exceptionalism - "the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history."

Far from being the opposite of neoliberalism, neoconservatism is often synonymous with neoliberalism. For example, George W. Bush promoted both strong neoliberal economic policies (tax cuts) and a strong neoconservative foreign policy (invasion of Iraq).


Keynesianism is a set of "economic theories and programs ascribed to economist John Maynard Keynes and his followers; specifically : the advocacy of monetary and fiscal programs by government to increase employment and spending." Such programs are interventions "in the form of government spending and tax breaks in order to stimulate the economy, and government spending cuts and tax hikes in good times, in order to curb inflation."

Keynesian economics is often spoken of as the opposite of neoliberalism, although in practice, both Keynesians and neoliberals rely heavily on government intervention. New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman is a well-known advocate of Keynesian economic policy.


Krugman, Paul. 2007. The Conscience of a Liberal New York: W.W. Norton

Plouffe, William C. Jr. 2011. Liberalism, Classical. In The Encyclopedia of Political Science, ed. George Thomas Kurian. Washington, DC: CQ Press.