Idealists and Realists

During the 1930s, writers contrasted “realists” with “utopians”. More recently, writers are more likely to substitute the word “idealists” for “utopians”, which might make one reflect if it is always utopian or unrealistic to be an idealist.

In the last week, seeing a previously unknown article involving anonymous reflections by Irish army officers, made me reflect on the difference between civil and military engagements in various nominally humanitarian activities and the perhaps inevitably different, or even conflicting, perspective that is likely to emerge from each. That may be a conflict between idealists and realists.

Post-1992 environmental debates have witnessed a difference of perspective between scientists and civilian activists that I cannot claim to have followed in any great detail, but it fits into another divide between realists and idealists. The tone of the debate does seem to indicate that there is a definite correlation between the launch of the post-1992 environmental movement and the post-1968 developmental aid movement, in that each are allegedly used as a cover for “1st world” financial investments in “3rd world” countries without arousing the suspicion of colonial desires for economic hegemony.

Authors like Ireland’s own Mary Robinson have suggested that the environmental movement offers an opportunity for “a feminist solution to a man-made problem” (I haven’t got a chance yet to look at that particular manifesto) but one thing that I’ve noticed in these nominally internationalist debates is that the “gender equality” movement rarely seems to consider that what they are practically speaking about is an ultimate end-game of big-business, namely more productive labour markets. For instance, who would dispute that it is important for girls or women to have equal opportunities to receive educational and career choices in every part of the world? But who spells out that the root of the correlation between this goal and the associated expected end result of ever-increasing prosperity is simply a desire to increase the size of labour markets, doubling the size of labour markets in the developing world as part of a ‘global economy’ by making it necessary that every adult is contributing to the economy?

It is often pointed out these days that as countries like Ireland became more fully integrated into a globalised economy it has become necessary for both men and women to be working full time in well-paid jobs if they are ever to be able to afford a mortgage in the hope of being able to purchase a home. Implicit in the utopian vision of many global economic forecasts is effectively a goal that this will also be a governing factor in all people’s lives and societies across the globe, from Times Square to the Sub-Saharan Desert, from Dublin to Tibet, or from the Amazon to the Australian outback. As such, the real pivot of the environmentalist movement, the “gender equality” movement and so many other aspects of the contemporary “humanitarian movement”—outside of those directly related to medical care and health promotion—is evidently the very old question of the divide between the urban and rural worlds and what practical connotation that has.

In the UK – the first country “ever” to become predominantly urban in the 19th century – there have often been correlations drawn between “political extremism” (even “terrorism”) and resentments of rural people against having urban lifestyles imposed upon them. In predominantly rural countries, like the USA, people don’t buy into that argument and in European unification debates during the 1990s such ideas of urban-rural divides were perhaps more prevalent than they are now.

A leader of a short-lived Irish political party that existed from about 1985-2005 once argued that not to have faith in politics is not to have faith in civilisation and the essence of civilisation is the prioritisation of urban development at the expense of the rural. That’s the old medieval proverb that “civilisation is inseparable from the city” all over again. It makes me wonder, however, if the real “great divide” is never one between idealists and realists per se, but instead between the urban and the rural worlds. Is the sea urban or rural? Even if one ignores the extent to which the majority of the earth’s surface is covered with water, the majority of the earth’s surface will surely always be rural and perhaps our brains need to be better attuned to that. I don’t think it is too cynical to suggest that the underpinning economic reality behind “the world we live in” is that the day that every person on the planet is saddled with mortgages and income taxes that are regulated by banks governed by the international economy, the World Bank can place an X in its ‘to do task list’ and it will have attained gender equality with itself. Business and labour markets are not designed primarily to serve a humanitarian function. Ireland’s current president Michael D. Higgins has reflected on such realities from an old school Marxist-sociologist perspective. My own inkling, however, is that such questions are best understood – certainly from a historical perspective – in terms of the urban and rural worlds. The issue in this regard is not theory. It is simply one of a balanced perspective. Culturally, such a sense of perspective is perhaps much rarer than we might expect.