Concerning the Complexities of Political Opinion – A Five Dimensional Model


There are reasons for political opinions, different orders of causation. People hold opinions because. These different orders constitute separate but interconnected logics of causation that can all be, and have been, studied as their own separate fields of inquiry. These different kinds of because can be described and related to one another. I propose here to present a list of these different orders and some of their most important interrelations, as far as my theorizing can take me at this point.

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“Quite simply: from what opinion will people gain the most in terms of their social identity? Adopting what political opinion will best serve my image, fit my style, help my career, get me laid, and get me into fewer awkward situations?”

At each order, or level, distinctions are made, opinions formed. But the different kinds of distinctions are made for different reasons. Here is the general outline of the five orders:

1st order: Opinion as identity cost-benefit calculation

2nd order: Opinion as (perceived) interest

3rd order: Opinion as perspective from a social position

4th order: Opinion as ideology (ontological horizon)

5th order: Opinion as cognitive ability (stage of development)

Let’s go through them one by one. The fifth order is the hardest one to understand, but also the most important one. It takes a basic understanding of adult development research to be graspable. This piece of theory can be read with just the first four or even three levels. Enjoy!

The 1st Order: Opinion as Identity Cost-Benefit Calculation

The first order is perhaps the simplest one to understand. The individual is likely to choose opinions that positively reinforce his or her identity in a given social setting. What opinions will make me appear cool, interesting, sophisticated, humane, of good character? It’s so banal that we often miss it. Nevertheless there is good reason to believe that the first order is quite powerful, one of the main explanatory factors in opinion formation. Quite simply: from what opinion will people gain the most in terms of their social identity? Adopting what political opinion will best serve my image, fit my style, help my career, get me laid, and get me into fewer awkward situations? This is perhaps the dominant causation of opinion formation in adolescents, and also the dominant order of causation in the spin-doctor games of everyday politics. This is basic behaviorism: what behaviors are reinforced and what behaviors are punished? This extends to formation of political opinions as well. Once a behavior has been adopted it tends to stick (because of habit and investment) until it becomes uncomfortable due to some changed circumstances.

The individual makes a cost-benefit calculation in terms of identity. An example might be the sociologist becoming politically left-leaning simply because it’s beneficial in his or her work environment. Becoming left-leaning might also work for musical artists who seek to reflect their positions of cultural capital. Or how about businessmen who adopt right-wing political opinions based on what will serve them best in their everyday lives? Political parties no less: how can we be the “good” party, the party that gets the votes? What opinions should we display if we want to be popular?

The cost-benefit calculation is dependent on social position (if you are long-term unemployed you are more likely to become an anarchist, simply because it has cosmetic value in that context) and on dominant social discourse (today, overtly racist opinions can only be beneficial in very specific groups, whereas they used to be widely embraced). The cost-benefit calculation is thus always being revised for different social positions and for changes of the cultural discourse in a given social system as a whole. The first order emphasizes only the identity-cost benefit aspect of opinion formation. It looks purely at what people gain through displaying an opinion, on what can be gained in terms of Goffman’s “presentation of everyday self”. It should not be confounded with the second or third levels of causation.

This level of causation is the one most densely allied with the powers that be. There is very little true subversiveness in it, because by definition we generally have less to gain by making distinctions that are not rewarded. The first order is the one that is most mechanistic, most reproductive of current power relations in society. The existence of this order largely explains how whole populations can shift opinion in short periods of time – e.g. shifting back and forth from being political radicals (fascism, the late sixties) to being conservatives (the fifties, the eighties).

The 2nd Order: Opinion as (Perceived) Interest

Whereas the first order is entirely symbolic, focusing on form and image alone, the second order is qualitatively different. It focuses on the content of the political opinion, on the short and long-term gains for the individual and his or her in-group in the struggle for material and symbolic scarce resources and capital. It focuses on the perceived effects of policy making.

Which policies will benefit my family? Will I gain more from higher taxes and more welfare, or from lower taxes and a less welfare? Will I gain more from a flexible labor market or from a more secure regulation of employment? Will I gain more from international competition for labor or would stricter immigration policies benefit me? Will prohibiting prostitution or narcotics make the urban landscape safer for me or will it hinder me in my everyday life? Will banning death penalty put my loved ones at greater risk of serious crimes? Will taxes on real-estate harm my house-hold economy or benefit it?

“Which policies will benefit my family? Will I gain more from higher taxes and more welfare, or from lower taxes and a less welfare?”

This order of causation is course what Marxism ascribes primary importance in understanding political struggle and development. By forming clearer perceptions of their individual and common good people are assumed to converge around broad class interests. Paul Krugman, the famous liberal economist and columnist, recently wrote that it’s a mystery to him how so many Americans can vote republican when “in fact” only a fraction of a percent of the population gain from republican policies. Regardless of the accuracy of his assessment (which is in my own opinion quite doubtful), the mystery wanes in this perspective on political opinion formation. The answer here is not simply a binary one of “false consciousness” pitched against “real, material class interest” as was the Marxist interpretation. Rather, it has to do with the fact that people can only go after their perceived interest. People perceive interests in accordance to their ability to understand society and their mental models of society. If people don’t share the Marxist or liberal analysis of the economy, they are unlikely to perceive themselves as gaining from these policies. There is nothing “false” about perceiving a certain kind of interest – for instance, an interest in lower taxes. But that’s not the whole answer: People perceive interests not only in material terms, but also in moral terms. If the perceived in-group is seen as threatened by terrorism or moral decay, people are likely to vote to defend this in-group, perhaps even at the expense of some “material” gains, and so forth.

We tend to form political opinions based on what we honestly believe will benefit us. This depends then on who we identify with (which “us” we seek to benefit), what values we want to achieve (what essence we ascribe to this benefit), how we think that benefit can be achieved (what policies/practices we think are efficient) and of course on our personal time frames (shorter against longer term interests).

The 3rd Order: Opinion as Perspective from a Social Position

Whereas the first two orders taken together might have a great deal of explanatory power (given we know the basic structures and discourses of the polity in question) there is still a large residual of unexplained dimensions to political opinion making. People hold social positions in society based on their access to different capitals: economic, social, cultural. We know this from Bourdieu, the great master of interpreting habitus: the subtle skills and perspectives adopted and embodied by people in relation to our position in society, our complex relationship to capital. These different social positions do not only determine interests in terms of the first and second orders of causation: they also help explaining the world-view of the individual.

Because, after all, opinion making is not all about personal or in-group interests. People actually believe that some things are better for society as a whole. Depending on our position in society, we will perceive different things as more beneficial or harmful to society. To an entrepreneurial businessman, regulations of the economy will likely look hindering to positive growth and innovation. He or she will be more likely to, in all honesty, perceive the downsides of regulations: all the paper-work, the reluctance to hire, the frustration of having a good business running but being bogged down by “red tape” or internationally uneven trade regulations and tariffs. He or she is likely to become convinced, in all honesty, that is would simply be better for everyone involved if the market was deregulated. The same goes for the union worker: he or she is likely to have so many experiences supporting the idea that extended labor rights are beneficial for society as a whole. Not to mention the religious fundamentalist nationalist: if only Western influence could be curbed and ousted and people could unite under the word of God! Then things would run harmoniously, smoothly. And there would be peace and justice for all.

“People actually believe that some things are better for society as a whole. Depending on our position in society, we will perceive different things as more beneficial or harmful to society.”

This third order of causation can very well work against the first and second orders. People can say: of course, I personally would gain more from reducing the tax rate, but I know that it would not be beneficial for society. This order of causation does seem to have a certain degree of autonomy in relation to the first two orders. It is explained by the social position, the habitus, of the subject. And habitus sticks over time, which means that social mobility can explain that people make distinctions that are not in line with the interest perceived by others approximately in our own currently held social position. Speaking with Aristotle we can unequivocally agree that man is a social and political animal, although we must put a question mark on the idea that man is a rational animal. Our political rationality is in part dependent on a rationalization process, where we rationalize or “excuse” our own perceived interests in terms of “what’s best for all of us”. So man is in part a rational animal, and in part a rationalizing animal. The relative autonomy of this order of causation vis-à-vis the first two orders in turn depends on the two higher orders: the fourth and the fifth.

This also means that the number of social positions available in a given society limits the number of possible political stances. More complex societies (with greater connectivity or what Durkheim called greater “organic solidarity”) obviously have more complex stances, more differentiated stances.

The 4th order: Opinion as Ideology (Ontological Horizon)

To determine the relative autonomy of the third order, we need to turn to an idea developed by Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school’s development of Marx’s idea of “false consciousness”: ideology. Adorno of course, was a socialist intellectual through and through, and analyzed ideology because he wanted to know how people possibly could not want a fair, authentic socialist society. “Ideology” somehow prevented people from reacting against an unjust society and from toppling capitalism. He blamed the TV.

In our days, Slavoj Žižek has reversed the Marxist idea of false consciousness, that “they’re doing it, but they don’t know it”, to his famous slogan “they know it, and they’re still doing it!” He thinks people are eagerly complicit in upholding an unjust society, because it has some kind of pay-off, and that we use strategies of irony and sarcasm to distance ourselves from the unethical effects of our own actions. Žižek speaks of a “sublime object of ideology”, that is, something in our way of representing reality that does not quite make sense, that we need to cover up in order for everyday reality not to fall apart, lose its meaning. And we cover it up by wanting that sublime object, by wanting it real bad. So ideology is upheld by our struggle to reach that unreachable sublime object, that pleasure we want but in practice cannot get. It’s a very strange paradox, a painful paradox, at the heart of our common social reality.

These short accounts of course do little justice to the elaborate works of such original thinkers. But the idea here is simply to point out the fundamental importance of the social limits to our collective thinking. Any given society has some kind of ideological range, some limit to what can meaningfully be discussed as a “real” and realistic alternative in political opinion. We need to have ideas that are thought of and even felt as real.

History from the agricultural revolution to the French revolution is a long, bloody trail of peasant revolts against their masters. The masters would win most of the time, but even when toppled, the peasants would not achieve “freedom” in any modern sense of the word, simply because the ideas and institutions were not in place. Masters would be followed by new masters – their relations to peasants largely determined by the access to land and labor. People simply did not have a wide enough ideological range to be able to imagine a society or a utopia until Rousseau started whining at the French upper class salons: why does it have to be this way? Why can’t be have a just society? With the Enlightenment, the ideological range took a great leap, it expanded manifold and has kept expanding. But our sense of common reality, of what is possible to achieve as a society, is still bound up and controlled. By necessity we have a limited ideological range of political alternatives.

“Likewise, there are many possible opinions that simply cannot be taken seriously at any given time. The ideological frame is a kind of “ontological horizon”, the range of accepted reality, what people think and feel is real.”

We can only have opinions that are accepted as real if we want the opinions to be effective in social reality. Somebody with the opinion that “cats should rule the finance sector” would of course not be taken seriously. Likewise, there are many possible opinions that simply cannot be taken seriously at any given time. The ideological frame is a kind of “ontological horizon”, the range of accepted reality, what people think and feel is real. The “denser” this reality, the closer its connection to power (in the foucauldian sense of the word). We can all agree that the existing power relations are felt as very real: if you don’t get a job, a respectable position, money, connection to the distributive systems – you are severely punished. And the reverse: any connection to power, to what is defined as real, is rewarding in terms of distribution of different forms of capital.

So in a more ideological state of affairs, there is less serious talk about political alternatives. People will need to avoid seriously challenging the existent power structures. The ideological range thus sets the limit of positions we can take in the first three orders: we cannot openly hold opinions that will alienate us in social life (1st order); we cannot pursue interests which we do not know of and cannot believe in as real (2nd order); and we cannot choose from many different political positions, achieving relative autonomy in our thinking about society as a whole, independent from simply rationalizing the first and second orders (3rd order). The most fundamental side of the fourth order is that it sets the limit for what political positions can be held, what distinctions can be made. As such ideology is the fundamental glue of the social order, but also a fundamental block to social progress.

The denseness of the thought and felt realness of reality, the power of ideology, is determined by so many factors that it cannot easily be grasped and theorized. A general rule can however be observed: that ideology is connected the complexity of a given society, its system and culture – and to the balance between distinction and connectivity. When there is more distinction than connectivity and society starts falling apart, when there is failure to integrate the many distinctions into a meaningful whole, the pressure to contract the ideological range of possible positions increases. 20th century totalitarianism is a testimony to this general rule of thumb. The successful integration of many distinctions into a meaningful whole increases the ideological range. And both the making of distinctions and their integration have cognitive prerequisites: that is to say, it can be difficult and thus requires more complex modes of thinking.

The 5th Order: Opinion as Cognitive Ability (Stage of Development)

Even when a distinction is discursively open to be held by people in certain positions in a given society, each distinction comes with certain cognitive requirements. The most basic way of illustrating this is a single sentence: Cats could not have come up with Christianity or socialism. But it doesn’t stop here, with comparing cats to people. As we know, there are empirically grounded levels of cognitive development and of ego development that constitute the body of adult development research. These levels go far beyond Piaget’s tracking up to “formal logic”. I rely chiefly on Michael Commons’s model of hierarchical complexity. The fourth order ideological “software” thus depends on the fifth order cognitive “hardware”.

“Post-formal thinkers find more in common with thinkers of different or even opposite ideological views to their own – as long as these also display post-formal thinking – than they do with people of their own second and third order positions in the ideological landscape.”

We know that more complex societies tend to allow higher levels of individuation, thereby facilitating higher levels of complex thinking in individuals, more complex ways of making distinctions. The different positions available as political alternatives can thus be held in qualitatively very different ways. At lower levels, distinctions are made by grosser forms of logic, siding with more contingent and partial shards of social reality and consciousness. The fifth order is at once the most abstract order (the qualitative principles by which distinctions are made) and the most concrete one (the complexity de facto in place in the nervous system of the individual and the people around him or her).

At the lower levels of complexity, distinctions between what is good and bad are made in terms of more contingent, superficial categories: me and not you; us and not them; normal people and not strange people; white people and not black people; humans and not animals; Swedes and not Arabs; Christians and not Muslims; communists and not capitalists. This logic of course cuts through all the four previous orders, with a strong gravity towards the determinism of the lower orders. The relative autonomy of the third level cannot reach any heights worth mentioning, simply because the person in question makes distinctions that are not abstract enough to embrace society in the abstract. The lower levels of complexity can of course take any position conjured within society, given that the position has been elaborated clearly enough to be adopted by “downwards assimilation”.

Around formal logic, and perhaps systemic, the quality of distinction shifts. Here distinctions are made less around contingent, concrete categories, and more around principles – the most obvious being around agency (right wing, libertarianism) and communion (left wing, social conservatism). The general principle is what distinguishes good from bad. The relative autonomy of the third order thus increases.

To the formal thinker these general principles can be cast in linear relationships: lower taxes means more business and more employment; freedom is better than control; too much immigration creates conflicts in society; the poorest should be helped first; that tolerance leads to a more stable, peaceful society; or that the corporate world exploits people and must be stopped.

To the systematic thinker the followed principles take on another, more complex, quality. They are still the distinction between good and bad, where breaching these complex principles is bad, although it is not necessarily the “fault” of any of the agents involved. Here we have ideas such as John Rawls’s “the only just inequality is one that leads to the betterment of the least privileged”; or “gender is socially constructed and can thus be reconstructed so that it no longer creates inequalities”; or why not “our way of thinking about the economy must shift so that we can better live in accordance with our ecological limitations”.

Whereas the formal thinker sees clear-cut principles that can be breached or followed, the systematic thinker sees more general principles that must be applied to a wide range of political settings in order to solve deep-rooted problems. They both side with one set of principles, however, and believe that by defeating the opposite of their principles, they can change society for the better. Anybody who adheres to this principle is on the good side, and anyone who does not is part of the problem. If only other people would understand this or that principle, the world would be better off. Thus the formation of political opinion-making in systemic thinking is still likely to side with others that have similar thoughts and ideas, but display lower levels of complexity in their distinction-making. The typical example is a systematic public intellectual, writing blog entries and books from a say libertarianism set of principles, but whose followers use the same material as a way of strengthening their investment in rather cemented and gross political positions.

It is only at late systematic or perhaps at meta-systemic levels of thinking that the fundamental rule of adherence to general principles shifts again into something different. Here, it is instead an assessment of the quality of the distinction-making that constitutes the distinctions made. That is, distinction itself becomes the distinguishing principle. People at these post-formal stages are hence less likely to take positions based on allegiance to a nationality or an ideology, but more likely to look for ways to evolve the political discourse itself – both on the side of agency (liberalism) and communion (socialism or conservatism). Post-formal thinkers find more in common with thinkers of different or even opposite ideological views to their own – as long as these also display post-formal thinking – than they do with people of their own second and third order positions in the ideological landscape. For instance, the founder of a radically libertarian party in Sweden has Slavoj Žižek as his greatest inspirational source – a staunch communist. Left and right can still be important to the post-formal thinker, but they are seen as much less rigid thought structures, much more in a dialectical relationship to one another.

The political commitment of post-formal thinkers thus works to make more subtle distinctions while at the same time working to facilitate the integration of seemingly irreconcilable opposites made at the lower orders of causation. In terms of political opinion formation, the post-formal thinkers can very well take positions within existent frame works, while keeping a network of other post-formal thinkers across the ideological scale. If they form their own political institutions, they do so around post-formally informed political processes rather than around specific principles. The Swiss Integrale Politik can be understood as a manifestation of this tendency, as can the Habermasian project of achieving a rational discourse through deliberation.

The fifth order is thus the most fundamental one when it comes to determining the real outcome of political opinion formation. The distribution of different levels of thinking is determined of course by the complexity of a given political system, in all four of Wilber’s quadrants. Only a society with great levels of integration and individuation can sport significant proportions of post-formal thinkers in the population. The fifth order appears to be the one most determinant of the four lower orders, because the distribution of complexity in thinking determines which order of causation will gain the most “gravitational pull”. The occurrence of many pre-formal thinkers pushes the political system to follow a logic determined by the lower orders, whereas the occurrence of many post-formal thinkers pushes the gravitational pull towards relative autonomy of the higher orders vis-à-vis the lower ones. But post-formal thinking doesn’t make lower order distinctions go away. They still exist, but with lesser gravitational pull.

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If you actually read and learned all this, treat yourself with the ultimate song: Lady Gaga feat. Die Antwoord feat. Psy.

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