How useful is ideology in political analysis?

In his much discussed, though little praised, essay in The Monthly Kevin Rudd attributes the global financial crisis to what he calls ‘neo-liberalism’, aka ‘free-market fundamentalism’, ‘extreme capitalism’, ‘economic liberalism’, ‘economic fundamentalism’, ‘Thatcherism’, and the ‘Washington Consensus’ (the PM’s political thesaurus was getting a good workout).

But how useful are ideologies in anlaysing politics? There are certainly rival explanatory theories. In journalism, as commenter Alan C complains, the focus tends to be on personalities and personal ambitions, downplaying other forces that are not so easily reduced to an easy-to-understand story. Yet if the media overplays personality as a force, it surely cannot be discounted entirely. Particular individuals do make things turn out differently, holding all other factors constant.

On both right and left, we see theories that put interests at the core of politics. Public choice theory on the right models political actors as self-interested; on this account (for example) public school teachers are not defenders of better education, but are instead just an interest group seeking higher salaries and easier working conditions.

On the left, the the substance of and differences between right-wing beliefs are deemed entirely or largely irrelevant, because these groups are seen just as defenders of corporate or other private interests. This is why Naomi Klein, for instance, can blur together neoliberalism, neoconservatism and corporatism. Norman Abjorensen is aware that liberals and conservatives differ, but on his account only on the means to their common end of the ‘protection of property interests’. Ideology is just empty rhetoric designed to make interest politics respectable.
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