Imported Ideologies

“In addition to the biases in perception already described, observers in less-developed countries can be affected by a special difficulty in detecting changes in their own societies, regardless of any comparison with what happens or has happened elsewhere, A reason for this difficulty can be found in the image which these observers have of their own societies, in the lenses they use to look at them, or, for short, in their ideologies. It is probably a principal characteristic of less-developed, dependent countries that they import their ideologies, both those that are apologetic and those that are subversive of the status quo. There always exists a considerable distance between variegated and ever-changing reality, on the one hand, and the rigid mold of ideology, on the other. The distance and the misfit, however, are likely to be much more extensive when the ideology is imported than when it is homegrown. In the latter case, an important social change which is not accounted for by the prevailing ideology will soon be noted and the ideology will be criticized and either adapted to the new situation or exchanged for a new one. A good example is the Revisionist criticism of orthodox Marxism which appeared even during the lifetime of Engels as a result of certain developments in German society which were hard to fit into Marxist doctrine. When the ideology is imported, on the other hand, the extent to which it fits the reality of the importing country is usually quite poor from the start. Given this initial disparity, additional changes in the country’s social, economic, or political structure that contradict the ideology do not really worsen the fit substantially and are therefore ignored or else easily rationalized. The free-trade doctrine imported from England into Latin America in the nineteenth century and so poorly adapted to the needs of that continent was fully routed there only as a result of the two World Wars and the Depression. The long life of the oft-refuted explanation of Latin American societies in terms of the dichotomy between oligarchy and mass may be another case in point. On the North American Left, the notion, imported by Marxist thought, that the white working class is the “natural ally” of the oppressed Negro masses also held sway for an extraordinarily long period, considering the over whelming and cumulative evidence to the contrary. Thus, an ideology can draw strength from the very fact that it does so poorly at taking the basic features of socio-economic structure into account. Among ideologies, in other words, it is the least fit that have the greatest chance of survival! And as long as the misfit ideology survives, perception of change — and of reality in general — is held back. To illustrate the point further, I must tell one last story: A man approaches another exclaiming: ‘Hello, Paul. It’s good to see you after so many years, but you have changed so much! You used to be fat, now you are quite thin; you used to be tall, now you are rather short. What happened, Paul?’ ‘Paul’ rather timidly replies: ‘But my name is not Paul’. Whereupon the other retorts, quite pleased with his interpretation of reality: ‘You see how much you have changed! Even your name has changed!'” (Albert Hirschman, 1968, Underdevelopment, Obstacles to the Perception of Change, and Leadership. Daedalus, 97, 925–937.)