I’m in the habit of buying too many books, and it’s a habit I don’t anticipate breaking any time soon. When I was last at the book shop, I picked up a collection of Marilynne Robinson’s essays. I’ve read her fiction, but never her essays. And so, I settled into read.
Maybe the main thing to know about Robinson is the degree to which she takes religion seriously as something essentially human. She contends that religion serves a purpose more momentous than simply to explain what science can not. She attaches a similar importance to art. It is part of human nature to create intricate belief systems, to paint beautiful images on our cave walls, and to write narratives imbued with emotional power to share around our campfires.
So it was something of a surprise to read her essay on “Austerity as Ideology.” There she argues that the economic policies of austerity currently en vogue around the world result from fear and anxiety rather than any clear-sighted understanding of economic conditions. She characterizes Austerity as an ideology, as something that distorts reality and leads to pernicious outcomes. She compares the impulse toward austerity to the Cold War, a conflict driven in her estimation by ideological misperceptions.
Now Robinson is hardly the first to describe ideology as distorting and dangerous. Karl Marx famously called ideology a “camera obscura.” It records not the real world, but instead, an upside-down image of it.
But Marx did not have much interest in ideas or culture. Such things were the tools of the dominant class, a class defined by the economic structure at work during their particular stage of history. Well hello there, economic determinatism, so nice to see you. For Marx, religion was the opiate of the masses, a tool of the dominant class to keep the workers quiescently chained to their machines.
It’s hard to imagine two more different thinkers than Robinson and Marx. Certainly, Robinson is a critic of the current economic arrangement. Austerity claims rationality. Art and ideas, by this argument, produce no tangible value.
The attempt to place a dollar value on the “most useless” college majors – as if knowledge could be so easily quantified – fits squarely in this realm of arguments that Robinson finds so pernicious.
But the importance Robinson assigns to ideas and religion puts her at odds with Marx, of course. So at odds, that if each of the great philosophers had a house of his or her own all lined up one after the other, Robinson would live five blocks down and seven blocks over from Marx. That is to say, not really anywhere close.
And this makes Robinson’s handling of ideology – her description of it as something closed and unchanging, distorting and fear-mongering – all the more problemmatic. It is not sufficient to say that something is dangerous, because it’s an ideology, as she seems to do here with Austerity.
What is an ideology anyway but a system of belief, a means by which a culture’s symbols, narratives, and identity are transmitted? Can we imagine an ideology as something positive or at least neutral, something as essentially human as Robinson’s religious beliefs? Certainly, we can.
I kept waiting vainly for Robinson to take this next step. I wanted her not only to tell me why austerity was bad, the misguided tool of frightened and embattled elites, but also to counter its claims, to offer a more humane and just alternative that recognizes the human needs for education, beauty, and art that she asserts so eloquently elsewhere.
But maybe that’s what Robinson has in mind for the subsequent essays in the collection. I wouldn’t put it past her. Maybe she’s saying, patience, keep reading, and all will be revealed.