"THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED." – Terry Pratchett, Hogfather.
When you, like me, believe in things like equality, women's rights, anti-racism, ending poverty, relieving suffering and all the other hallmarks of liberals – there is an odd response you constantly encounter from the rightwing side of politics: they call it idealism, and this is said with scorn. The implication: you are believing in the impossible, wanting the unobtainable. They'll even say so outright with phrases like: "the poor will always be with us" or "that's just the way it is and always will be". Their scorn reaches a pinnacle when they call us "social justice warriors" – which is not, as it would at first appear, a phrase of praise.
Their belief is that theirs is a more realistic approach to the world – as if it's depressing claims are somehow more in tune with the real, material, universe. Then they have the gall of accusing liberals of "reducing people to mere pawns of circumstance with no control over their fate" – which flat-out contradicts their own stated belief in the previous paragraph. Ironically liberals do not do that at all – when we point out victimization (what they scornfully replace with victim-blaming – so blatantly as to refer to "victim-mentality") we are not reducing people to products of circumstance, on the contrary, we are recognizing that people have been reduced in this manner (by forces that are very hard for an individual to overcome) – and fighting to change that. You can't solve a problem unless you're prepared to admit that problem exists.
However that initial belief remains not just questionable but outright false. Their embrace of present-day as if it's some ultimate truth is no more realistic than believing in justice and mercy. Greed is no more real than compassion. They are idealists as much as we are – their ideals are just so depressing and disgusting that they can't admit they embrace them as ideals to pursue – so they pretend it's reality instead. Well grind the universe, sieve it and show me one atom of greed, one molecule of inequality.
For that matter show me an atom of liberty, a molecule of "money" (after all – the bits of paper hte government print has no intrinsic value – just the common agreement to pretend they do).
Every belief system – including the philosophical ones about society and the state are made up of 100% idealism, there is no reality in these things – no truth to them. But ideals have an interesting difference from all other metaphysical concepts – they can have the same impact on the world that they would have had if they were real even though they are not. Which is as close to real as makes no difference.
When you act with greed rather than compassion – choosing to exploit people instead, you create a world of the exploited, a world where all the effects of greed exist, even if greed is not an actual thing with a material existince. When you pretend this piece of paper is worth a stick of gum, you can acquire a stick of gum. In a way – idealism makes itself real enough to work.
Which then leaves us with but one conclusion – there is nothing inevitable about any particular outcome. The effects of greed exist not because greed is a real thing – only because people act according to the idea of greed. If people instead act according to the idea of compassion then the effects of compassion are completely real, even though the compassion itself was no more a real thing than the greed.
There is nothing superior about the right's set of ideals, their version of justice isn't more real, neither is their version of economics they are as idealistic and unreal as those of liberals. What is real however, is the effect of those beliefs – the real results of the choices they inspire.
You can tell me you don't agree with my ideals, but don't pretend their inferior or less real – both our ideals have exactly zero reality to them. But when my belief in justice, mercy and compassion guides my actions, the effects of justice, mercy and compassion exist in the world just as real as if they had been real things. The more people believe in an ideal, the more it's effects become reality. That is how all societies are formed – by the collective effects of unreal causes. So I choose to believe in the ideals which will have the effects I desire to see in the world. That is, ultimately, the only defining factor. Do you choose a world of suffering, and thus contribute to that suffering, or do you choose to act according to believes that lessen suffering ?
That is ultimately the great lesson – if belief has the power to cause real effects (by guiding choices), then the kind of society we live in is really something we can change. Since there are no two societies alike in time and space, we have absolute proof that the structure of society is not some predetermined thing – it must be changeable or they would all be the same (or at least, similar) – they aren't, so social structures are maleable, it's up to us what we choose to mould them into.