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In Praise of Idealism

October 6, 2010

Although I said I was going to talk about Aeschylus, I’ve decided that Idealism is a better topic for today, given the pessimism many people are feeling about a future full of redundancies, funding cuts, benefit cuts, and very little evidence about how any of this is supposed to make the UK attractive to investors, or, well, how it’s going to do anything for the majority of people other than spreading discontent, austerity, and conflict.

Continuing from what I said yesterday, the fact that I don’t believe that the case has been made for such deep cuts with regard to renewed grown doesn’t mean that I’m a ‘Labour tribalist’ or any other label, merely that from my perception the current policies haven’t been thought through particularly well.

Idealism, then. I don’t mean the philosophical opposite of materialism, but the idea that focus on an idealised future can be a positive thing. ‘Visionary’ would be synonymous with this definition of ‘Idealist’.

Both these views have mostly negative connotations in contemporary discourse (at least in the media/political sphere, and even to an extent within the arts). Witness Frantz Fanon’s declaration “Blind idealism is reactionary,” and various other arguments which are essentially of the following form:

Idealism is based on a world that doesn’t exist, and as such is not applicable to the world as it is. Idealism is, in effect, finding no solution at all to any problems, but rather retreating to an internal ‘safehouse’ where one can avoid issues actually affecting the world by appealing to an impossible, idealised dream.

Of course, if this were all idealism offered, then it would indeed be a destructive, or at least non-creative force. However, I am not talking about blind idealism without practice, or ‘Pie in the Sky’ thinking which doesn’t recognise material conditions. Instead, I’m talking about the kind of idealism which can look at the world as it is, and simultaneously envisioning it as better.

Such thinking does not restrict one to drab pessimism, but makes it possible to move forward. In a world in which tyrannical rule was the, well, rule, any kind of public input into policy making must have seemed idealistic. In the face of institutionalised slavery, the idea of a totally free society and racial equality was not only idealistic but downright dangerous in both social and economic terms. (see the following link for just a single piece of evidence: Link)

My point is not that we should be dreamers using idealism to distract ourselves from the reality of live, as in Marx’s comment that ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.’ I am not talking about an illusory happiness which denies the injustice of reality. Instead, I’m talking of the kind of idealism which starts with the observation ‘this is unjust’ or ‘this needs changing’ or ‘I don’t agree with that’, and instead of moving from there to a fatalism, moves to a cognitive process which seeks solutions.

This kind of idealism is the reflex to say ‘things don’t have to be like this’, ‘there must be another way’, and uses this as a springboard to solutions. Yes, initially they may be ‘idealistic’ in that you have no way to properly implement them as an individual (even if you’re a cabinet minister, I suspect). However, if you hold an idea like a torch, it can break through to practical, material concerns.

Philosophy tends to make artificial distinctions between thought and action, between ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’, because that’s the nature of the discipline – it takes ideas to their logical conclusions, and is as a result inherently divergent. The problem with this is when these divergences, which are part of the joy of conversation and scholarship, become divisive, because these divisions are artificial. Regardless of worldview, people have more in common than they have to disagree about, and it is because of this that there is so much discord.

Of course, ‘idealism’ is to blame for this discord, as much of what people disagree over is subjective, and hence ‘idealistic’ in the philosophical sense, but anther form of idealism would see that these differences are determined by a wish for individuality, an individuality which is largely not permitted by a consumer-led, economically determined society.

So we’re back to subjectivity – idealism is bad if it relies on an impossible dream, but what ‘impossible’ means is constantly changing and being rewritten by the course of history. For the author of the newspaper article linked above, economic stability for Britain was a greater good than human treatment for negro slaves. For many commentators now, economic stability for Britain is a greater good than, well, pretty much anything – art, employment, social security, universal benefits, the NHS…

As an idealist, I accept the problems facing the country, and I accept that, due to the material conditions in which we find ourselves, it is necessary to ‘solve’ the problem of the economy. Unfortunately, it seems that, for many, ideology (left or right), and self preservation, is functioning as a greater determinant of suggested economic policy than research and predictions.

Similarly, as an idealist I believe that good can come of this. The current governmental policy appears to be to ‘divide and rule’ – setting people in different tax brackets against each other in order to gain support for progressively deeper cuts. However, the result of this could otherwise be a greater sense of togetherness. No-one wants to be left in a difficult financial position by the action of the government, and such a position is likely to be the situation many people do find themselves in. We can either be fatalists, take it as an attack on ‘people like us’ (meaning, of course, on ‘me’), or we can be idealists, realise that most other people are in a similar situation, and look to make life easier together, either as friendship groups or as broader communities.

This isn’t a partisan position – it fits both left wing ideas of communal responsibility, and the tories’ latest mantra of ‘Big Society’, if you feel the need to justify your actions according to political ideology.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s just one example of looking at a material situation through an idealist lens, asking ‘what good could come from this’, and finding answers. Then live, act, as if that good thing is happening. You’ll be surprised, I think, by how effective this is.

I realise that this blog has basically become a meditation on Ghandi’s ‘Be the change you wish to see’ comment, but I suppose that’s the point. Ghandi’s position IS idealistic, but that that doesn’t make it impossible.

Similarly ‘judge not or you’ll be judged yourself’, or Atticus Finch’s “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It’s not too idealistic to ask anyone who reads this to, just for a second, think about life from the point of view of someone you really disagree with. Try to be objective while you do this, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t be – just realising that they’re a human being like you is enough. Sharing humanity is quite a lot to have in common with another entity, after all!

Tomorrow/next time will be Aeschylus, and as a result will probably be less rambling!

EDIT: I’ve just come back from reading Cameron’s speech at the Tory conference, and am a little disturbed to note that by saying ‘live as if the good thing is happening’ sounds a lot like the end of his speech. To be a bit more politically overt, although I think that people coming together is a good thing, I don’t think that that’s the real agenda at work here. It may be the result, and that’ll be great, but it’ll be in spite, rather than because, of current government policy. Setting sectors of society against each other in the manner of David Cameron (‘Public sector waste/Private sector growth’, ‘people living on benefits/the hard-working middle class’ etc.) is not a policy designed to bring people together, and as such it is incongruous with his ‘Big Society’ vision, which sounds like rhetoric aimed at making his party’s actions sound more defensible.

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