The end of ideological politics and the return to empire

Prigozhin, the Russian empire's condottiere from Machiavelli's time (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)


These days election after general election only seems to confirm one thing: that ideological politics is dead, and with it, the modern era of politics, full stop. What?, I hear you exclaim. Surely the political polarisation and vicious debates among different political camps or schools of thought, organised around certain sets of ideas – surely all this must mean we have too much ideology going around, rather than none at all?

Well, no. What we see across the West now is a form of tribal, or group interest-based politics. And that is a generous description. A less charitable one would define our age simply as TikTok politics, where political activity and engagement – including much of the business of governing, itself – has really become purely a performative act, a show for the ubiquitous cameras and social media accounts. The recent UK election has even acquired the unofficial title of the TikTok election

Of course, electoral politics has always had a performative aspect to it, stemming from the inevitable need of the politician to engage publicly with voters and to “stand out.” But, at the risk of sounding nostalgic for a by-gone age, the showmanship used to be secondary to the substance of a politician’s ideological convictions. In turn, these convictions tended to be rooted in some kind of philosophical choice and reading of the world around.

People engaging in political activities, as well as much of the voting masses, had a system of principles and beliefs that informed their outlook. The great division in the late 19th and 20th centuries has been, of course, that between the Left (with its assortment of Marxists, socialists and so on) and Right (from economic liberals to far-Right nationalists). Communism, Capitalism and Fascism presented genuine ideological systems, which ultimately tied into philosophical attitudes towards fundamental aspects of modern living: collectivism vs individualism, egalitarianism vs meritocracy, liberty vs conservative conformism etc.

Other fault lines existed as well, especially if we go further back in time: between “rich” and “poor,” aristocrats and the low-born, reformists and reactionaries, monarchists and republicans, Protestants and Catholics, and so on. The political fight between these opposing groups was extremely intense and usually driven by serious intellectual debates and engagement with the issues. Just read the Federalist Papers or even UK parliamentary debates until as recently as the Thatcher years. Why? Because people actually believed in something, and were animated by ideas on a “philosophical” level first and foremost.

Over the past thirty years or so we have lost all that. Politicians are increasingly PR products. Politics is driven by focus groups and polling; few political leaders would buck the “data” on an issue and actually lead and seek to change rather than follow public opinion. 

Instead of ideas and philosophies of government – from which all sound policy should flow – we now have political tribes or interest groups, e.g. the LGBT community, or the Black community, or the Muslim community, the “Climate Change” community which on the whole function as such, despite a certain level of internal division as well. None of the causes these espouse form, or are linked to, any kind of coherent ideology

When so-called Leftwing or so-called Rightwing politicians debate some “woke” issue, that is not an ideological debate in the proper, classic sense of the word. It is merely an instance of the culture wars of our time, which, again, are not a philosophical disagreement per se but a naked, tribal fight for power. Illegal immigration, for instance, is not an ideological issue in the strict sense of the word. Even the supporters of open borders don’t actually have a coherent and rational “philosophical” reason for promoting this folly: most of them process this as an emotional argument and as a pure “us vs them” (Left vs Right) stance. 

This dynamic is, to a large extent, the reason why we see all sorts of weird, Frankenstein political groupings like forming up that combine random ideas into an incoherent “programme.” They’re not an ideological product, but merely a tactical creation that responds to the scattered, non-ideological and very tribal political landscape of public opinion. National Conservatism is a good example: a movement that purports to fight the culture wars and stand for free speech, but denounces not just John Stuart Mill and “liberalism,” but the Enlightenment overall. 

It is a strange world indeed when the term “far Right” can stretch so much that it can cover both parties that are very liberal on economics, like Farage’s Reform UK, and those that take the opposite view on this issue, like Le Pen’s RN. There is also increasing evidence that the electorate itself is rejecting “Right” and “Left” labels, as voters can change their vote en masse

The British Conservatives lost more than half of their voters in just five years, for example, as neither the party nor the electorate take political programmes (manifesto commitments) seriously anymore. Conversely, Labour was voted in by a landslide despite not putting forward any clear plan or answers for tackling the most pressing issues. No one bothered with debating “the issues,” as the vote devolved simply into a kind of emotional reaction to a form of live TV entertainment. 

In France it was the same: a monstrous coalition of the Left, full of the wackiest Marxoid emanations one can think of, came first in the national election in a country whose public expenditure is over 58 per cent of GDP, the highest in the world except Ukraine, Libya and a few outliers among microstates in Oceania.

The wires of contemporary politics are crossing in ever more bizarre and incoherent ways – precisely because none of these cocktails of ideas are actually driven by a philosophy. Instead, they are a response to the core issue: the fact that political understanding across society has reverted increasingly more to a pre-constitutional, pre-democratic, pre-modern state. 

We are experiencing, simultaneously, a false hyper-politicisation of the electorate, reflecting tribal or group-interest alignments; and a real and historic de-politicisation, as a secular trend, with respect to the fundamental and philosophical grounding of modern politics.

The move to the modern age of politics, with the rise of constitutional forms of government that opened the way to liberal democracy via rights and by circumscribing or indeed removing the medieval power of kings – all this turned people (eventually, voters) into true “political animals”, i.e. thinking, ideological ones.  All of this has now gone in reverse.

We should not be surprised. For many years now political scientists have posited a neomedieval turn in geopolitics. This is where the international system of sovereign states that have a monopoly on violence within their own borders (and that control their borders in the first place), is eroding and regressing increasingly towards conditions of the pre-modern era, with ungoverned spaces, limited sovereignty and non-state entities operating quasi-independently. 

Hedley Bull first theorised this as far back as 1977. Last year, a RAND paper considered the future of the US-China rivalry in the neomedieval era, which it defined as “a historical period, beginning around 2000, characterized by weakening states, fragmenting societies, imbalanced economies, pervasive threats, and the informalization of warfare.” So, according to RAND, this is not theoretical: we are living in it now.

You can also look at our times from a socio-economic, rather than geopolitical, perspective, and recognise a move towards (or, again, a present state of) what some call, neofeudalism. It is supposed to describe the condition of the contemporary city worker seen as engaged in the techno-capitalist “rat race,” a modern serf to some global corporation, working to pay his bills, his rights and liberties increasingly squeezed by the surveillance State and the tyranny of bureaucracy and regulations.

Seen from a different angle, a return to a medieval lifestyle is now increasingly an aspiration for many people who want to escape the 21st century hyper-technologised world. A simple, rural life – literally, a peasant life – with its promise of reconnecting with nature, of self-sufficiency and healthy living away from processed foods and the poisons of modern cities, appeals to an ever growing number of people.

But the starkest indication of a regression to the pre-modern or indeed medieval conditions of human existence has been provided, in the most shocking and bloody terms, by the return of incredibly brutal warfare right on the “civilised West’s” doorstep. We can pinpoint the beginning of this new cycle in the rise of the terroristic Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014-2015, with its avowedly medieval practices and ideology, and of course its unspeakable atrocities worthy of the Dark Ages.  

More recently, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with its wanton and unjustified butchery, is likewise the expression of the same kind of Middle Ages mindset of pure conquest which we thought we had eradicated after the Second World War. Such resurrections of old behaviours are not accidents of history, but its products – symptoms of deeper changes, of which the de-structuring of politics, discussed above, are merely one indication. This is why the idea – also posited in these pages – that the Ukraine conflict could be another Thirty Years’ War, with reference to the pre-modern conflict of the 17th century, is not just a temporal prediction but a civilisational and cultural analogy as well.

The signs are here already. What did Prigozhin represent other than the return of the condottiere from Machiavelli’s time? We haven’t seen this in centuries. Mercenaries and soldiers of fortune have persisted through the ages as a marginal phenomenon, offering their services individually, in small numbers, in the occasional third-world conflict. Meanwhile, the modern PMC (private military company) first made famous by Erik Prince’s Blackwater is no more than a highly regulated security contractor to the state. The condottiere, however, ran a true private army of his own, which he commanded in the field, and could, on occasion, aspire to seize a principality for himself. Prince could never dream to do that as an American contractor; Prigozhin, on the other hand, made his bid for supreme power in Russia last year in view of the whole world, like a Sforza from the days of old.

We are likely to see more of these kinds of medieval and pre-modern revivals in the years to come. In fact, “pre-constitutional” seems to be an even better term, as it more precisely evokes the political dimension of our regression. This, by the way, points to the most consequential historical pathway that is opening up in our age: the return to empire as democracy simply melts away with the disappearance of substantive ideological politics and the apparently inexorable shift to pure political tribalism. 

The age of the modern constitutional state from around late 18th century – to include constitutional monarchy and republican democracy – will one day, perhaps within our lifetimes, seem like a mere temporary detour from the norm of history, which is empire. 

Only a move to imperial forms of governance, perhaps with some updates for the 21st century, can restore coherence to our societies and resolve our internal conflicts, and fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of political beliefs as the organising principle of modern democracy. Most importantly, only formal empire – in the case of Europe as well as the US – can handle the geopolitics of the 21st century which are increasingly subject to the imperial policies of imperial-like states such as China and Russia. Modern politics appears to have run its course.

Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at Yorktown Institute in Washington, D.C.