On idealism

I suppose I should preface this by explaining that, no, I’m not speaking of a philosophical doubt of external reality as possibly nothing more than a perverse fragment of one’s imagination.

No, I speak of idealism in a possible perversion of Plato,[1] one I’m surely guilty of myself, of insisting that a thing can and must be the best that it can possibly be. As a notion, idealism is placed in opposition to realism, which itself lies in opposition to fantasy. And so it is that idealism and fantasy are often conflated.

But even in that conflation, what is a fantasy? Is it an unrealized potential? Or is it a nonexistent one? And if it is the latter, who determines what is ‘nonexistent?’

And it is in that question that a problem lies. For in social reality, ‘realism’ is intrinsically associated with the status quo and its preservation. It is therefore inherently associated with power.

So let me ask that question, again: Who determines what is ‘nonexistent?’ How do they make this determination and on what motivations?

Does a potential exist that is unrealized? There are probably many of them with varying degrees of plausibility. But if an authority rules that a social potential does not exist, does s/he do so even in part to protect or enhance her or his own position in overlapping hierarchies of political and economic power?

We must be careful about ruling out idealistic notions. Are we doing so out of justice or of authoritarian self-interest?

And if we act not out of justice, then what of those to whom we are unjust? Is it even possible to disconnect their injustice from authoritarian self-interest?

Several years ago, before I entered the Human Science Ph.D. program at Saybrook, I entered the Transformative Studies Ph.D. program at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). I retain serious doubts about this program. Nonetheless, I learned a lot, especially including about complexity theory. And the reading list I had for that summer before beginning the program was phenomenal. And I think it helped prepare me for that Human Science program from which I did earn my Ph.D. But Transformative Studies was the wrong program for me and that meant I had to leave.

So I attempted a transition to what was, at least then, called the Social and Cultural Anthropology (SCA) program at CIIS. This failed, with the committee saying I would have to start clear back at the Master’s level for preparation. As it happened, I had the acceptance letter from Saybrook’s Human Science program in hand, and so, with a lot more amazing learning, I now have a Ph.D.

But in that final Spring semester at CIIS, I signed up for classes (which due to a collapsing financial aid situation, I had to withdraw from) in the SCA program, one of which, taught by Richard Shapiro, introduced me to a Jewish notion of justice as a quest simultaneously never to be completed and never to be abandoned and a goal that, once imagined to have been achieved, has surely been missed. It is this powerful notion that leads me to think that if I were into patriarchal monotheism, I might choose Judaism.

I don’t remember much else from that class. A lot of it was barely comprehensible post-modernism and a lot more of it was fully incomprehensible. I liked a sense of ‘post-’ in post-modernism as a sort of retrospective critique of modernism and it is this same sense of ‘post-’ I draw upon when I call myself ‘post-disciplinary.’

But wow, that notion of justice. It is an awesome notion of justice that immediately separates itself from any attempt to reduce it to law, for justice is an intangible beyond our best efforts at emulation, let alone those puny bastards arguing fine points to see who can twist which rules in whose favor, and never mind the assembly line of injustice where overworked public defenders are too often too eager to secure ‘deals’ for their clients to plead guilty (or “no contest”) in exchange for a (possibly) reduced charge or sentence.

Justice itself is an idealistic notion. It demands an unending quest for perfection. Which is idealism at its core.

We are probably now long past that point in time in our society when we could choose: Would we seek justice? Would we understand that to seek justice intrinsically means seeking it for all?

We have chosen instead injustice. Every act of complicity with—even protest against (because it in fact appeals to[2])—the authoritarian regime is to choose the status quo, to choose injustice. And in that choice, we bear a moral burden that in neoliberal society we have arrogantly and self-righteously chosen to ignore.

I’m not much of a believer in karma. My understanding of the Buddhist concept is that it is a burden one imposes on oneself. (Enlightenment entails a shedding of that burden, which might be achieved through an accumulation over several lifetimes of ‘good karma,’ or perhaps in a single lifetime with Tantric Buddhism. Or perhaps that burden might be shed by simply abandoning it and disclaiming responsibility for it.) I’m simply not seeing that many cases where people get their ‘just’ due. Whether it is the vast deprivation of absolute poverty, the humiliation of relative poverty, or in the opulence of the top 0.1 percent, I see appeals not to ‘karma’ but to the ‘market’ or exchange system. This system is not ‘natural’ but rather a social construction which should therefore serve but instead inherently oppresses humanity.[3]

And the rationalization for this inherently oppressive social construction is an allegation that, given the opportunity, ‘lazy bums’ will be ‘free riders,’ consuming without contributing, that is, failing to participate in exchange. People must be therefore coerced to work and need for this coercion justifies political and economic authority. This allegation simultaneously assumes the worst of humanity and the best of political and economic authoritarians (who are also human).

Idealism demands the best of everyone. But realism, even leading to our extinction, has won.

Which means a great deal of suffering lies ahead. As climate change proceeds, the extreme weather we are witnessing can be expected to intensify and challenge the infrastructure that civilization depends upon.[4] Even currently prosperous places may face shortages as goods traded for from afar simply have no way to be transported. And as we have pursued a notion of specialization based on so-called ‘efficiency,’ we have fostered monocultures both in agriculture and production that assume a means of transport and communication for long distance exchange. People will go hungry. They will face deprivation.

Realism offers us no way to avert this outcome. So if we hope to survive, we’d better get idealistic. But I have lost hope.

  1. [1]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  2. [2]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  3. [3]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  4. [4]William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008).

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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