"Where has the world headed after 1989?" (Ian Buruma):
The way it looks now, liberals, in the "progressive" American sense of the word, may actually have been among the losers of 1989. Social democrats were always despised by communists, and vice versa. But many socialdemocratic ideals, rooted in Marxist notions of social justice and equality, were thrown out, like the proverbial baby, with the bathwater of communism.
This process was already underway before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the free-market radicalism of the Thatcher-Reagan era. Society, Margaret
Thatcheronce famously declared, doesn't exist. Only individuals and families counted. It was everyone for themselves.
For many people, this had the ring of liberation - from overregulated markets, overbearing trade unions, and class privilege. That is why it was called neo-liberalism . But free-market radicalism undermined the role of the state in building a better, more just, and more equal society. Neoliberals are not so much interested in justice as in greater efficiency, more productivity, the bottom line.
At the same time that neo-liberals were slashing and burning their way through old social-democratic arrangements , the left was dissipating its energies on cultural politics , "identity," and ideological multiculturalism. Democratic idealism was once the domain of the left, including social democrats and liberals. But, in the late twentieth century, it became more important to many leftists to save "Third World" culture, no matter how barbaric, from "neocolonialism ," than to support equality and democracy. People on the left would defend brutal dictators (Castro, Mao, Pol Pot, Khomeini, et al) simply because they opposed "Western imperialism."
As a result, all politics that were derived, no matter how loosely, from Marxism, lost credibility, and finally died in 1989. This was naturally a disaster for communists and socialists , but also for social democrats, for they had lost an ideological basis for their idealism. And, without idealism, politics becomes a form of accounting, a management of purely material interests.
This explains why Italians, and later Thais, chose business tycoons to lead their countries. They hoped that men who managed to accumulate so much personal wealth could do the same for their voters.
Yet the rhetoric of idealism has not quite disappeared. It merely shifted from left to right. Once the left abandoned the language of internationalism - democratic revolution, national liberation, and so forth - it was taken up by neoconservatives . Their promotion of American military force as the strong arm of democracy may have been misguided, crude, arrogant, ignorant, naÃ¯ve , and deeply dangerous, but it was indisputably idealistic .
It was none of those things except the last. It was not naive, but shrewd; not crude, but subtle and farsighted; not ignorant, but based on a rich understanding both of the Middle East and, more broadly, of human nature and the meaning of political liberty; not arrogant, but humble enough to do for the other guy what we'd like him to do for us if we were in his situation; not misguided, but vindicated by the event. It was not even dangerous relative to the alternative, for in the long run allowing totalitarian dictators who owe their rise to the West to oppress their people and defy international law is more dangerous than the short-run risks that were involved in the Iraq War. But yes, it was idealistic. And it is because it was idealistic rather than "realist" (i.e., amoralist) that it was shrewd, subtle, humble, courageous, and successful. To try to deny or marginalize ideas and ideals is to rule out the existence, ab initio, of the main factor that matters in international affairs. To think straight is to have an ideology.