Thursday, January 24, 2008

Comparing the Idealist and the Realists

I was just reading the book, John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace by Donald Markwell (Oxford University Press: 2006) and came to a section titled Idealism. Markwell had been discussing the Peace Conference held in Paris after World War I, the peace conference from which Keynes resigned his position in protest and wrote a scathing book entitled The Economic Consequences of the Peace that reported what had gone on at the conference, described the roles of the leaders of the conference and projected the consequences of the peace treaty that resulted from the conference. In the section just mentioned, Markwell contrasts Keynes’s ‘idealistic’ approach to the ‘realistic’ approach followed by the French leader Clemenceau. This contrast struck me as relevant for what is going on in the United States today.

Markwell defines “the realist or Carthaginian approach” as one that “saw man as ‘congenitally ordained to prey upon his fellows’” with the result being that history was “a perpetual prize-fight.” (Page 109) “The idealist or Keynesian approach saw ‘humanity and (European) civilisation struggling towards a new order.’” (Page 109) Along with this, Markwell states, there were two conflicting conceptions of justice: one stating that the righting of wrongs was ‘the essence of justice’; and the other urging that “nations are not authorised…to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers”.

Within the context of the aftermath of World War I, the realist was “committed wholly to the interests of his nation” and, since the conflict between nations would not change, “a Carthagian peace was inevitable.” (Page 110) No alternative was possible and no thought could be given to the future…only the past. Keynes, we are told, argued that this plan would be impoverishing and would continually need to be enforced,

Within a ‘realist’ view of the world there is little in the way of hope or of improvement or of advancement. There is no place for ideas, for innovation, for bringing people together. There was no place for peace and justice free of retribution.

It seems to me that this contrast can be applied today to the political situation in the United States and it applies to a war…the cultural war that has been going on for the past forty years or so. It is young and old again, as in the sixties, but now those from the sixties are the old ones. And, the young ones are tired of their battles.

The ‘realists’ from the sixties contend that they represent a list of ‘victims’ and there are those that are ‘congenitally ordained’ to prey on them: that this situation is one of ‘a perpetual prize-fight.’ To these ‘realists’ justice is a matter of righting wrongs and of setting things straight. Therefore, the trenches are the only place to be! There is no alternative and there is no future…only the past.

But to this I agree with Keynes: this is impoverishing, not only because it continually keeps us ‘at war’ but because it does not free us up to work in any other direction. We are imprisoned!
And, what of the ‘idealists’? The ‘idealists’ argue that we need to move to a new order and a new sense of justice. We need to move beyond the trenches and get on with life. We need to contemplate a ‘new order’. We can never achieve retribution for the sins of our fathers and mothers; we can never gain full satisfaction for the wrongs that have been done in the past. We need to use our ideas and our hopes as fuel to conceive of a different paradigm. We need to put the ‘war’ behind us!

It is impossible for me to move on, however, without stating, again, that politics is a matter of balance. Almost every situation we experience has, at least, two parties that have conflicting programs aimed at resolving the problems embedded within the situation. Politics is a matter of achieving balance between the competing solutions so that the parties involved can go forward and co-exist in some form so that life can go on. The important thing to realize is that this balance can change from time-to-time as people and situations change. Thus, looking at the current political situation in the United States I would argue that the balance between the ‘realists’ and the ‘idealists’ needs to be changed and moved toward the end of the spectrum occupied by the ‘idealists.’

What this means at the present time is that we do not forget history. We do not forget the problems in American society that were identified in the fifties and sixties and of the efforts that were made to resolve them. We cannot dismiss what happened. But, we can move to a different level. We can go beyond the ‘prize-fight’ mentality and work toward a ‘new order’, an order we define as ‘us’ and not an order defined as ‘us versus them.’

What is this society going to be like? What are the programs and policies that are going to get us there? I don’t think anyone exactly knows that at this time. But, I think attitudes are changing and that they need to change further. We need to reset the balance between the ‘realist or Carthagian’ view of the world where the assumption is that every one preys upon his or her fellows and the ‘idealist’ view of the world that “references ‘hopes’ and ‘expectations’ for a ‘new age.’” (Markwell, page 110)

The ‘idealist’ may be called impractical or a dreamer, but being willing to seek new answers is the only way that human beings and the societies they construct can realistically solve new and more complex problems. And, solving problems is what humans do best!

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