Neo-Idealism

DUST Issue 24 Editor’s Letter

One of the reasons why we named this issue ‘Neo-Idealism’ is because of an urge to address a generational need. The need to settle on a common horizon amidst the weight of world events, the amplified state of confusion and the extreme polarisation of narratives that have turned the most fundamental aspects of reality into a source of disagreement.

The term holds a certain power, as it seemingly defines a new perspective—in this case, on idealism—which evokes a particular school of thought, according to which things owe their existence to ideas. It’s a philosophical viewpoint wherein the fundamental nature of reality is primarily rooted in ideas, thoughts, and consciousness rather than being bound only by its material aspects. This idealistic concept of reality is often seen as naive and wishful, as it considers all individual consciousnesses and ideas to be interconnected on a metaphysical level. A view particularly criticised by the common and reductive ‘realist’ understandings that see the universe as inherently impersonal and devoid of meaning. Nevertheless, in various ways, we witness a resurgence of idealist views being embraced as an insightful and more coherent foundation—compared to scientific materialism—to comprehend the essence of reality. As a new generation actively seeks new and different approaches to understanding our place in the world, a spectrum of different viewpoints—like spirituality, mysticism, and experiences previously neglected by Western thought—are being reconsidered as significant ways to grasp the core nature of existence. In this scenario, Neo-Idealism, by its very definition, somehow holds the power to rebalance the importance of universal ideals and consciousness over short-term gains and collective cynicism.

However, this term, as we have encountered it, doesn’t originate from a philosophical discourse, as it doesn’t properly refer to that tradition. Instead, it first caught our attention early last year when it started being discussed in the field of international relations, where it has emerged with the aim of defining a specific political approach that, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, advocates for an unequivocal defence of liberal values. In this framework, Neo-Idealism emerges as the need to champion a value-driven strategy that elevates liberal democracy, fundamental freedoms, and collective self-determination over cold institutional rules and power dynamics. A debate that is now incredibly vibrant in Eastern Europe, contrasting with the more cautious and bureaucratic—or rather realist ‘damage-control’ political stances—of Western European powers. This achievement in reinvigorating the forward-thinking spirit of the 1990s—a time characterised by independence and freedom in Eastern Europe, along with a vital enthusiasm for European values—has signified a newfound fertile energy that is seemingly shifting Europe’s dynamic heart towards the East, while also representing a necessary call for a stronger EU and new thinking within European institutions.

Overall, Neo-Idealism, with its value-based and radically centrist approach, appears particularly relevant in the current polarised climate, when not only right-wing populist views but also various forms of fringe groups are adept at appealing to a public increasingly inclined towards simplifications and instant gratifications. If we stand by the side of those who want to revitalise human rights, social and cultural liberalism, democratic governance, or self-determination, a trite ideological approach is unlikely to serve us well as a strategy. Recent left-wing activism seems to lean more towards shaping our identities and representing those who engage in virtue signalling rather than being the ones who bring us closer together or closer to achieving a political victory. Despite their initial intention to address fundamental societal issues, these approaches often boil down to a desire to choose a side and believe in one’s own innate moral superiority—sometimes on the basis of identity alone.
To achieve results more effectively, we need an approach that can break through the impasse of identity politics and embrace a proactive, inclusive, empathic, and sustainable grand strategy. One that prioritises ideals, not ideologies; engagement, not polarisation; and, most importantly, one that focuses on economic benefits and the well-being of all individuals while addressing injustices and inequalities by strengthening democratic institutions and encouraging democratic participation. Neo-Idealism means exactly that: identifying collective values as our primary interests and recognising collective interests as our values.

On the global stage of international relations, we are well aware of Neo-Idealism’s stance, particularly how it views the war of aggression in Ukraine as a morally straightforward case with no ambiguities—a sovereign nation aspiring to adopt democratic liberal values, safeguarding its own freedom against an unlawful aggression from an autocratic and regressive state. It views Ukraine’s fight for survival as a system-transforming conflict that firmly emphasises self-determination and liberal democratic values over the imperial tyranny sought by autocracies like Russia. This necessitates a decisive victory for Ukraine to secure a world order based on international laws, individual freedoms, and the hope of progress: a world not only safe for democracy but in which free societies can thrive and revitalise their attractive power.

On the other hand, things become more complex when it comes to the Middle East, particularly with the recent war in Gaza, where Western democracies have promptly affirmed Israel’s right to self-defence, yet this right has been extended to prioritising military and strategic goals over international laws, civilian human rights and war ethics. This has exposed a blind spot in the international community’s ability to navigate complexities, transcend the fallacy of political realism, and uphold ideals related to ensuring fundamental human rights, especially in such complex contexts. From a broader perspective, over the past decades, the international community has done little to actively incentivise the conditions for moderate voices to rise and thrive within the Palestinian and Israeli communities. Voices that, in this context, have been consistently eroding. The recent tragedies in the region have intensified, once again, those extreme positions and narratives that have always been the fundamental barriers to mutual understanding and recognition of both sides’ legitimate national claims. When the moderate segments of society, those who have the potential to drive inclusive change, are consistently sidelined or pushed away from the centre, the discourse on reality will continue to be controlled by those who sit at the extremes—in this case, the ultra-right coalition of the Israeli government and the radical Islamist fringes within the Palestinian community, both of which act as counterparts to each other.

The result is catastrophic for the people directly involved, and it has dire consequences on a global level. While the results of the war in Gaza continue to deteriorate Western legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world and within its own societies, it is also fueling rage and hatred, disseminating disinformation and escalating distrust to an alarming level. This has resulted in a worrying number of young activists openly endorsing Islamic fundamentalist groups on one side while, on the other—when it doesn’t result in Islamophobia—a blind eye has been turned to the shocking death toll of women and children in Gaza, seemingly viewed as expendable. Apart from the responsibilities of the two actors on the ground, it seems that the international community lacks the ability or the clarity to tackle the situation and propose adequate solutions to the issue.
A resolute approach to international relationships grounded on ideals, dignity, self-determination, and the defence of democratic values is needed now more than ever before.
This approach would involve rebuilding the intangible infrastructure of our societies and reviving concepts such as progress and the promotion of a better future for everyone. Indeed, this approach seems to be highly needed in our international politics while also having particular relevance when trying to apply it to the social and political dimensions of our societies.

We value the concept of Neo-Idealism not merely as a source of inspiration or a collection of fair-sounding ideals but for its clear strategic framework. One that appears suitable for the mindset of our generation and has the potential to shine light upon and guide our approach towards the urgent challenges of our times.

If we have to draw from a few examples, the climate crisis would be amongst the most pressing of issues. This crisis has forced our generation to be extremely clear when identifying our key interests and values, recognising that the path forward lies in the vital intersection of both. It currently stands as a defining challenge, serving as a new foundation to reevaluate policies, creativity, ideas, and cultural changes. Despite the gravity of the situation, our hope lies in the potential of ideal-based strategies as a means to effectively create change and shape a positive vision of the future. We have no choice but to adopt a risk-embracing mindset if we are to dare to take a leap forward.

In our case, when discussing fashion—notably one of the most polluting industries out there—the challenge lies with pursuing a cultural revolution that will reshape our buying habits and the value we give to our clothing. Despite the limited impact of numerous past initiatives and campaigns, which have left the fashion industry largely unregulated and operating on the same outdated models as before, the solution may now rest with the upcoming EU Green Deal: a series of severe regulations capable of merging values and interests and that are targeting those who have profited from unsustainable and unethical practices until now.
This includes fast fashion corporations, although the regulations will be applied across all sectors. The objective is to become climate-neutral by 2050, creating an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. When it comes to fashion, these ideal-driven legislations will strictly regulate sustainability, traceability, and ethical standards across textile production, distribution, and waste management, making it impossible for any fashion house not to comply. If not simply driven by our statements, the evolution of people’s approach to fashion will indeed be forced to change because of these drastic legislative changes.

In this context, we can positively adopt the term ‘Neo-Idealism’ to describe a forward-looking, risk-taking approach that is becoming part of the mindset of a new creative generation—those who are rising above cynicism and indifference and driving these changes forward. After all, democracy’s comparative advantage is that it allows creativity to flourish in freedom—it is a bet on human capacity and the will to progress.

Similarly, we can discuss another pressing issue: the ever-expanding landscape of AI technology, wherein the need to define guiding ideals is more imperative than ever. We are now witnessing intense philosophical debates that are dividing the tech community and observers on how to navigate this technological frontier. These debates—far from mere intellectual exercises or efficient considerations—are about to shape our society’s future immensely. This is a huge issue that clearly demands the adoption of an approach deeply rooted in ideals, whether it be about discussing the delicate equilibrium between innovation and regulation or the ethical dimensions of AI development. It is undeniable that the growing influence of AI in our lives is urging us to confront the fundamental essence of human nature and its inherent values, laying the groundwork for initiating discussions and establishing guidelines—or ideals—that will shape our path forward.
In this context, ‘Neo-Idealism’ couldn’t be a more fitting term to emphasise the necessity of a moral-driven approach to mitigate potential AI threats while promoting its positive aspects at the same time. This can only mean advocating for responsible AI governance through regulation—developed together with those at the cutting edge of these advancements and experts, as well as politicians who have an eye for the common good. The fact that even major tech giants and developers—who have traditionally been resistant to restrictions—are now advocating for AI regulations due to concerns over reckless competition and the potential misuse of AI models only confirms the urgency of this debate and the need for government, industry, and creatives to work as allies in the pursuit of common purpose.

European lawmakers have proactively addressed these challenges by drafting the AI Act: a comprehensive set of rules aimed at establishing a global standard to regulate Artificial Intelligence.
The objective is to strike the correct balance between innovation and responsible governance, a goal only attainable through the definition and commitment to clear ideals. We need to embrace the transformative potential of technology to maintain democracy’s material edge, but we have to defend ourselves from its harmful aspects. Venturing into this landscape without the kind of guidance that a Neo-Idealism can offer would indeed pose a risk we should be unwilling to take. This is an urgent debate in which we should all engage, as it defines not only the future of AI but also our very humanity.
There are numerous other examples whereby Neo-Idealism could serve as a term to define a practical, value-based approach to address a wide spectrum of issues: from the grip of patriarchy on our culture to the battle for gender equality, diversity and inclusion; from the problem of migration and integration, all the way to themes such as economic growth, demographic change or ensuring social cohesion and intercultural dialogue. These and other issues can all find value in a Neo-idealistic approach that doesn’t shy away from taking risks and prioritising long-term values over short-term gains.

Once again, ‘Neo-Idealism’ is a term we have borrowed from a new model of foreign policy emerging in Central-Eastern Europe: “Based on the power of values conceived as ideals to strive for,” as stated by Benjamin Tallis, the researcher and political advisor to have first conceptualised and come up with the term. It’s a radical centrist approach aimed at overcoming the deadlock of political polarisation. It mainly focuses on politics and outcomes, advocating for a more decisive role of the state in spreading progress to all its citizens rather than just a few, in order to better unleash the dynamism and creativity of free societies. Moreover, it offers an optimistic alternative to the all too well-known cynicism of our times. If this constitutes the framework for such a powerful term, we will be more than intrigued to see how its potential could be projected into different domains and how we will potentially make the most of it while defining a better political horizon for our generation. That’s why when it came down to choosing the right title for this issue—as we were aiming for a term that could have the most impact, significance, and relevance in representing the hope, aspirations, and will of these troubling historical moments we are living through—we had no doubt in embracing the term ‘Neo-Idealism’.

The real question for each of us now is about determining which values we truly stand for and the lengths we are willing to go to defend them.

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DUST Issue 24 Editor’s Letter
TEXT BY LUIGI VITALI