If there’s one single quality that makes someone a dissident in the 21st century it is simply to be a realist. To see humanity as a constant and to see ourselves as just one moment in the play of golden ages and dark ages. This very perspective threatens the ruling ideology of Neoliberal Progress that underpins all modern culture and institutions.
The 20th century was a peak age of ideologies that marched across the planet with grandiose footsteps. With the one-way channels of radio and television, millions could be on the same wavelength at the same time. Wherever someone may have lived, some form of aspirational ideology proposed a means of fulfilling an ultimate objective and the ascent of mankind. The 20th century was defined by the interaction and clash of these titanic ideologies and by the turn of the millennium only Neoliberalism remained at the end of history.
With the dawn of the internet, though, there was suddenly a participatory way to distribute information and at the same time, there was the rudderless fumbling of an international ruling class with no more serious obstacles.
Gradually, it became clear that history was going on as usual and in fact Neoliberalism was in steep decline — it was just a dinosaur that had eaten all the other dinosaurs. As people online began to discuss the zeitgeist, it was clear that the grand ideologies of the industrial revolution and the TV age were receding into the past. No one quite believes in the idea of Progress anymore aside from the core group of true believers and that is not enough to drive a whole civilization.
Realism is returning no matter how much censorship and indoctrination it faces. With every year it grows more clear there is neither a final singularity that heralds utopia nor any hysterical apocalypse. Life just goes on. The questions that matter now are those that affect the daily lives and posterity of most people. Most people now care far more about their ability to protect their jobs, form families, and participate in meaningful identity and traditions.
This is a post-idealistic age in that politics are again primarily a vehicle to achieve defined goals rather than the journey to a transcendent end goal. This change in attitude comes from the divide between idealistic and realistic ways of thinking. On a fundamental level, idealists are concerned with how the world should be. Realists, on the other hand, concern themselves with how the world is.
If a realist appeals to statistics and historical cycles, the idealist is indignant, stressing the importance of imagining a better future. The realist might point out that we have a pretty good idea of how human societies work and what changes are actually possible. At this point the idealist shuts down and reacts with escalating rage.
The common criticism directed at realists is that we think small and keep humanity trapped in an old dark age. Yet time and again it is those who sing Imagine who lack imagination. Dissidents of the 21st century actually do understand the need for collective myths that give everyone hope. We have a keen meta-political consciousness while the idealistic have little ability to think outside of their politics. This is why a meaningful dialogue has been impossible.
The problem with ideologues is they take their political formulas literally and then lash out when reality intrudes. When an ideology is tried in real life and doesn’t work like it did on paper, the true believers blame everyone else when utopia does not materialize. Instead of leading to Progress, a frustrated ideology can incinerate entire civilizations as the fulfillment of the dream always seems just one more reform and one more ruined life away.
The role of re-emergent realism is clear. It is necessary to move beyond the dogmatic and totalitarian thinking bequeathed to us by the 20th century and embrace a balanced approach that achieves real goals for real people rather than abstract ideals that can never actually be achieved to the never-ending rage of cosseted political apparatchiks.