In Defense of Radicalism

I wrote this originally for my Butttub blog, but I thought it might also be of interest to the good people of Ghost Island.

So here is it:

This critique ought to begin with a bit of appreciation. I actually really like Nate Silver and Fivethirtyeight.com, and tend to agree with many of his opinions. However, he recently wrote a post contrasting ‘Radical’ and ‘Rational’ progressivism. As part of this post, Silver produced a chart to describe the difference between these two types of progressives that relies on assumptions that I find highly troubling.

This post (which can be read here) has gotten a fair amount of play among left-leaning bloggers. My own response focuses on a few key points that, while not a comprehensive discussion of his entire argument, does generally lay out my basic objections.

1) Silver claims: Reformist sees politics as a battle of ideas, Radical sees politics as a battle of wills. This seems to me to be entirely wrong. Perhaps the neo-liberal or reform-minded progressives see politics as a matter simply of good governance or ‘doing what works’, whereas the more radical wing believes that there are such things as ideology that make the simple task of ‘good governance’ a highly fraught task. What I mean is that the radical objection is roughly as follows: People are deeply entrenched within ideological frameworks, therefor, it is often impossible to convince someone of the correctness of a policy by way of logical demonstration. In this way, the good ideas of progressivism cannot triumph simply through being good ideas, but require a certain amount of will and a recognition of the essentially agonistic nature of politics.

This could be seen as a argument between post-partisanship and a partisanship of deep convictions. Rather than say: we are beyond politics and all just want what’s best for our country, it’s better to to say: we admit disagreement about what’s best for the country and will admit that we cannot all agree on what constitutes good governance regardless of how hard we try.

Critically, radicalism does not close off pragmatism. Rather, it says at all moments: These are out firm beliefs. On some points, we cannot compromise, on others we must. But when we compromise, we will not call it a triumph but rather a partial failure in light of our real goals. The distinction of Idea v. Will is a misapprehension of the distinction between an attitude about the power of ideology and the minimums at which compromise is acceptable.

2: Silver claims that reformists are “Technocratic” and that radicals are “Populist”. Radicalism does not equal populism, although that is sometimes a form in which the far left manifests. Of course, populism is also a form in which the far right manifests. This also can hold true for technocracy with regards to the center-right and -left. So what Silver is arguing is that the radical branches of any politics lose sight of rational thought in favor of a broad populism.

However, I would argue that this distinction is highly problematic. For example, mainstream DLC-style Democrats use the populist appeal to the “center” in order to assert their political power. Further, radical thinkers like Paul Virilio and Donna Haraway take technological advancements as true openings for new modes of progressive politics and radical life-techniques. In fact, the history of Marxist thought is essentially technocratic, as it takes the development of mechanized industry as an essential stage in the development of a generally socialized society (hence the fundamental contradiction in largely undeveloped countries like Russia and China attempting to establish socialist states).

3) Later in the post, Silver makes the critical (if common) error of judging Marxism by the failure of the Soviet Union. Marxist modes of thought are not equivalent to the specific case of Sovietism, which is in fact a gross betrayal of the specifically internationalist tendency of Marxist critique. In fact, the lessons of Marxism are still quite valuable to even a reform-minded thinker, as they provide the basis for an understanding of property, value, commodity, and ideology. Much of my previous discussion is informed by Marxist thought, though I would never claim that it equates to an unquestioning acceptance of said thought, much less a desire for Soviet-style governance.

To me the real danger of a reformist politics is that in some cases, the reforms act to retrench and solidify interests and structures that in truth need to be entirely overhauled. Hence, if I say I am wary of certain kinds of health care reform, it is not because I do not see the desperate need for improved material conditions. Rather, it is that I fear that certain kinds of reform fail to greatly improve the situation and at the same time make it more difficult to enact the kind of change that is needed. This is not a matter of idealism v. pragmatism, it is a kind of calculation between short-term and long-term pragmatism.

There are, unfortunately, many totally non-pragmatic so-called radicals who take extremely shrill and self-righteous standpoints and totally close off any kind of rational debate. Having gone to Hampshire College, I’ve met more than my fair share of them. However, the election of President Obama should serve as proof of the fact that in a pinch, the majority of even radical progressives will act pragmatically. That they (we) will do so and then vocally criticize the very people thereby elected is not frivolity or inconsistency, but essentially the true mode of radicalism.

That is, the radical will act in a reformist capacity to relieve material suffering as much as possible, but will never call such action victorious. I once heard Alain Badiou say that of course he would (if he were American) vote for Obama, but he would not consider that as an action of (or even part of) radical politics. This kind of co-existance of pragmatism and radicalism, and the self-awareness to not confuse the two seems to me the proper condition of a thoughtful radicalism.

A radical politics deserving of the name requires a pragmatic approach that simply calculates risk/reward differently than Silver or the majority of Democratic Party members. Deciding the kinds of policies and compromises we deem acceptable is a serious and worthwhile debate. Attacking those that find themselves to answering these questions differently as ‘anti-intellectual’ or ‘anti-ideas’ is a thoroughly useless (and entirely non-pragmatic gesture), and is something that I normally consider Mr. Silver to be above.


2 Responses to “In Defense of Radicalism”

  1. 1 johuat
    February 18, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    “Silver makes the critical (if common) error of judging Marxism by the failure of the Soviet Union.”

    Do people who make this point see the failings of Russia as a failing of democracy and capitalism?

  2. 2 Luckycloud
    February 19, 2009 at 2:10 am

    Jim — I think people maybe see the failings of Russia, retroactively, as the failure of Marxism. A sinkhole sort of mistake. Possibly?

    Ben — Strangely, I’m reading Badiou right now and also Zizek on Badiou.

    I hope the following makes sense, I haven’t edited it, so it’s all stream of consciousness, more or less:

    I don’t have it with me, but in response to where you say “Radicalism does not equal populism, although that is sometimes a form in which the far left manifests,” I believe Zizek makes the point that though radicalism does not equal populism, perhaps a more precise formulation (and a more acceptable one) is that true radicalism is essentially an intensely egalitarian endeavor. I am sure I butchered that. But, it’s a subtle though important distinction: egalitarianism and populism are not the same thing.

    In response to your discussion of radicalism and pragmatism: Zizek makes another, I think, salient point when he argues that what is called for in a radicalist politics is not necessarily an aggressive attack, though not exactly a waiting in the wings either, but a slow patience and full understanding of the system, the use of the quirks and burps (the crisis) in the system to learn the true operating principles of that system (he sort of ties it into Deleuze here). In this case, sometimes the small, seemingly inconsequential act, when enacted with a nuanced understanding of a system, can be a more effective monkey wrench in the gear shaft than the grand, aggressive gesture.

    It seems to me that any size gesture can have profound (and sometimes profoundly unpredictable) results. So this is not to say that one should not act because one cannot predict, but that this unpredictability necessitates measured, pragmatic action rather than simply a lifetime of yelling and storming the gates (though this storming, too may sometimes be called for).

    This radicalism seems to be infinitely pragmatic: at all times be patient and understand the system to the best of your ability. Act in accordance with your principles. Or even: just accomplish something. There may be a time for revolution, but no one can predict it, as, strictly speaking it always seems premature. As Badiou seems to say, we can only be aware of the event afterwards, because in an event a new attractor (I can’t remember what he calls it, so I’ll use a Deleuze word) appears. So, in the mean time, stop looking for an event and act with patience and pragmatism–no one can predict what small step will lead to great leap. Another radical act: have the strength and courage to leap when that time comes.

    True radicalism, to me, seems totally pragmatic. Even though you may be able to separate it from simple pragmatism as such (with radicalism positioned toward a victory and pragmatism seen as an act of compromise), there is certainly an intensely pragmatic dimension of radicalism. Call it radical pragmatism. Pragmatic radicalism? Pragradicagmatism. Whatever. But pragmatism and radicalism, though strange ones, are necessary bedfellows.

    Good post, by the way. Have you read Zizek on Badiou? I think the essay is called “Badiou: or The Violence of Subtraction.” I am enjoying it quite a bit. Our seminar this semester is on Badiou. I’ll let you know if anything super good comes up.

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