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What does it mean to be ‘a radical’ (any more)?

May 14, 2012

I am feeling confused and conflicted.

Recently I was asked to submit an article to a journal on radical television and I of course jumped at the chance. I mean, a journal on radical stuff? Hey, that’s the kinda company I wanna keep!

Then something strange happened in the writing of the paper. I came to the conclusion that ‘being radical’ is increasingly preposterous. Partly this was to do with something an old internet acquaintance once wrote. He was writing about his dislike of radical poetry, which he accused of shouting and sloganeering. ‘A new rhetoric is needed’, he said, ‘not that punk spitting at the world, which long ago become a pose. And it needs to be poetic.’ I know what he means.

But it’s not just that. There’s a question buzzing in my head as well: what does it mean to be radical in an era when it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism? And what does it mean to be radical in an era when mainstream politicians are all vying for the mantle of radicalism?

What is the value of the term ‘radical’ when Nick Clegg has claimed that Liberal Democrats represent the ‘radical centre’ of politics? Aren’t terms like ‘radical’, ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ just empty signifiers when a previous British Prime Minister and acolyte of neo-liberalism can refer to his opponents as the ‘forces of conservatism? Do we even want to be associated with radicalism when the current Prime Minister – who describes himself in oxymoronic fashion as an exponent of ‘progressive conservatism’ – leads what he describes as a ‘radical government’ proposing a ‘radical programme’ of cuts to public services and debilitating austerity? What use is the term, ‘radical’, when it can prefix mainstream politics of whatever variety, all of which have embraced free-market capitalism, aggressive individualism, hyper-consumption and joyless, endless, flexible labour?

I understand that some might argue that socialism and the Left need to reclaim the ‘radical’ brand. But I ask this: why? More pointedly: how? I know that words and concepts are the site of an ideological struggle over their meaning and how they get articulated, but the Left is in no shape to define the terms of political debate. Definitional authority rests with those who have political power, cultural capital and inevitably, wealth. And in any case, maybe people have had enough radicalism-white heat-new Britain-modernisation that’ll do them a lifetime.

So here, for me, is the million dollar question: in the light of all this mainstream radicalism, could and should socialism constitute itself as a refusal of radicalism and, dare I say it, in more conservative terms? It could refuse the interminable modernisation and the relentless enterprise of neo-liberalism, and instead it could try to re-ignite a movement by recalling fondly – even nostalgically and sentimentally – the traditions of solidarity and welfare that are part of its heritage and remain the best defence against austerity.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. charliemcmenamin permalink
    May 14, 2012 4:59 pm

    an era when it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

    That was Fredric Jameson, wasn’t it?

    The thing is one can’t give up on the future. It is precisely what we have to reclaim because the past really isn’t coming back.

    But sometimes all any individual can do is grit their teeth and keep the hope of a future of a human centric society and economy alive in their breasts.

  2. Rab permalink*
    May 14, 2012 5:44 pm

    Yeah, it was Jameson.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is this: the Right has always been able to invoke nostalgic and sentimental reverie with regards to an imagined (national) past, and this has been crucial in how it has appealed to people in the present. Hasn’t the Left tended to be suspicious of nostalgia and sentimentality? But the Left has a history, a tradition, a heritage that it is really bad at exploiting.

    I should declare my hand here. I have a very specific example in mind – the situation comedy, Early Doors (BBC2, 2003-2004). I don’t know whether you’ve seen it. It’s set in a little Manchester boozer, where the locals seem to have been left behind by the modernising and enterprising energies of our times, standing up instead for solidarity, welfare and fun. It’s a sentimental and oddly nostalgic rendering of working class life and leisure. Wonderful slow-burning comedy. Beautifully crafted. But the key to it is that it’s genuinely moving. It makes you long for the sort of community and humane care evident in the bar. Ultimately, its a much better place than Thatcher, Blair or Cameron’s Britain.

    As you say, the past isn’t coming back but the popular and emotionally powerful memory of a better society must surely be an important part of a contemporary political movement.

  3. charliemcmenamin permalink
    May 14, 2012 7:51 pm

    Yeah, I know your fondness for that programme. I even dragged a memory of having watched an episode or two from the back of my brain once you had waxed lyrical in its praise last time we meet. i seem to recall vaguely liking it myself.

    But…well, are you so sure that working class life 30-40 years ago was quite so inclusive? There’s a bit of chatter about on the web at the moment about how “The right won the economic conflict and the left won the culture wars” of the 1970s & 80s. (See Rick for details). You don’t have to agree absolutely to acknowledge that there is something in that brutal summary. It wasn’t great being part of an ethnic minority or gay or even simply part of that 50% of humanity that can bear kids in the 1970s and 80s. It’s better now. Far from perfect, but better.

    The Rights victory on the economic front has been far more total however. But now (see Greece) it’s falling apart*. So people might respond to a new and safer sense of the future. I want the Left to be able to present socialism – now there’s an old fashioned word for you- as something which is modernising, something which has the potential to transform people’s lives and sweep away at least some part of human misery.

    That;’s not the same thing as rejecting history of course. But this country has the finest tradition of specifically leftwing historians of more or less anywhere on the planet. &, once upon a time, they were deeply embedded in official reading lists: a god 40% of my O & A Level History courses ( & a fair chunk of my undergraduate degree) basically consisted of reheated Hobsbawm and EP Thompson and so on. This was a Good Thing. But it had almost zero impact on the general culture.

    Basically, unless we can find a future to believe in, Tomorrow Belongs To Them.

    To coin a phrase.

    *Possibly – terms and conditions apply.

  4. charliemcmenamin permalink
    May 14, 2012 7:53 pm

    P.S Remember kids, don’t post from a phone where you can’t see the spelling mistakes clearly underlined in your painfully typed out text. See where it got me. ….

  5. Peter Roberts permalink
    May 14, 2012 9:54 pm

    I like the sound of this Rab and will reply when my knackered hard drive has been repaired. P

  6. May 15, 2012 9:10 am

    Dear confused and conflicted – I think your problem here is the common and erroneous conflation of the words radical and progressive. Radical political ideas or economic policies are those that are fundamental or extremist in nature and scope – regardless of ideology. Indeed, I looked radical up in a couple of dictionaries and couldn’t see any definitions of the word that referred to left wing politics per se. On the other hand, the word progressive more aptly describes what you have in mind when you pine nostalgically for a left-class consciousness and culture that never really existed except in the imaginations of liberal TV producers and screenwriters. In other words, progressive politics aimed at making things better for people.

    But there is out there in the public sector a progressive and humane sense of solidarity among worker; and a trades union movement that has managed to confound the old cliches about the “enemy within” and stand as the only credible and convincing opposition to current government policies of austerity. The big challenge for the union movement, however, is this: how to speak to workers in the private sector who seem to have fallen for Tory divide and rule and take their simmering discontent and resentment out on the public sector rather than on the bastards that have stolen all their rights and their pensions. I hope they’re thinking about this and devising a strategy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and not quite there with it yet; but I know one thing: they won’t find the answer to that in soft-focus TV nostalgia, however transformative your analysis of Early Doors etc might be.

    Keep the faith, comrade!

  7. Rab permalink*
    May 15, 2012 1:42 pm


    Where to start? …

    First of all, I don’t mean to conflate radical and progressive. I mention both because of how both terms have been appropriated by mainstream politics in ways that render them ridiculous. Secondly, irrespective of what the dictionaries say (and frankly AA you should know better than to come around here offering dictionary definitions of anything… Raymond Williams’ Keywords at least, please!) I’ve sat in enough socialist seminars to know that socialism does, and has historically laid claim to being a radical politics.

    And while I’m at it ‘progressive’ doesn’t mean ‘making things better for people’. It may have been assumed that ‘progress’ would achieve this aim but a quick glance at history (instead of a dictionary) shows that this is a questionable assumption.

    Socialists could once upon a time have viewed history as progressive – feudalism to capitalism to socialism and human liberation. This was at a time when the world seemed to be capable of unlimited economic growth and when socialism could claim an association with a vibrant modernism and modernity. But that moment has gone and I don’t think we can return to it, pick up the reigns and continue on as if everything that has happened in the last century is a rude interruption, not least because the natural environment won’t stand for it.

    The progressive narrative has been appropriated by heirs of Thatcher – first Blair and now Cameron. Modernism has been superseded by a vacuous postmodernism. History has been replaced by free-market economic forecasts. Progress is configured purely in terms of what secures the continuation of capitalism and at the moment that means the accelerated immiseration of workers and the atomization of people through the destruction of society, democracy and the public sphere. This is radical.

    Now this all sounds very grand but what I’m really asking is can socialists mobilize ideas that traditionally they have tended to be squeamish about, like nostalgia, sentimentality, continuity.

    Charlie, I take your point about socialist historians who made an academic impact but less so in the general culture. But in away that just further emphasizes my point. The Making of the English Working Class is fine work of scholarship but it’s not terribly moving; not as moving, say, as Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, in which when the young woman, having discovered her late grandfather’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, stands by his graveside and gives the clenched-fist salute. Again it’s an incredibly moving climax to the film because it speaks to that sense of continuity that Conservatives seem better at exploiting.

    And I agree, Charlie, that working class life was perhaps inclusive 30-40 years ago but what should socialists do then? Be embarrassed by the past? Apologise? Quietly forget it? And actually, while were talking about exclusivity, I’ll wager that working class life was just as inclusive as middle class life. If we want to talk about bigotry and prejudice it’s authors didn’t come from the mill towns of northern England.

    Isn’t the Left guilt of cringing at the image of its own constituency? One of the most important cultural symbols of certainly Anglo-British history is the working class. Its image evokes ideas and values that an institution like the monarchy or the middle class can never stand in for – solidarity, welfare, fun – and yet the Left has neglected it for decades apparently more comfortable mobilizing ideas of race, gender and sexuality, as if these narrative and class were somehow mutually exclusive.

    I salute your commitment to devising a political strategy but we need a cultural one also… or we better do, else I know at least two media studies academics who are on the political scrap heap.

  8. jnywas permalink
    May 15, 2012 10:07 pm


    I still have an attachment to the idea that values matter and individuals matter. Not in the way that Thatcher envisaged individuals mattering. as passive consumers and atomised workers . but in the way perhaps that Thomas Paine saw individuals. as the bearers of political ideals.

    for Tories our values are a gift that are solemly passed down to us like scripture. and for some Tories they are scripture. we are not asked to think about them. conservative values are timeless.

    for Loach, in the film you quote, the socialist tradition is fragile and socialist values have to be made and remade. often in the most challenging of circumstances. we always have to make the argument anew. if we are radical its because we have to be – not because we wish to expropriate the adjective.


  9. Rab permalink*
    May 16, 2012 11:09 am

    When you say:

    …for Tories our values are a gift that are solemnly passed down to us like scripture. and for some Tories they are scripture. we are not asked to think about them. conservative values are timeless…

    This gets to the nub of it for me. The Tories are very good at presenting THEIR values as belong to time immemorial. Their values assure people that order based upon rigidly hierarchal forms of society are natural. But I’m sure, as I think Thomas Paine was, that on the morning some would-be Lord and Master woke up and decided to enclose the land and bully everyone else off it unless they paid tributes to him, I’m sure on that day he was meet with resistance.

    Socialism isn’t new. It’s fledging forms have existed as long as there has been power. It’s values lie in opposition to human relations that are based upon discrimination, exploitation and oppression, and in opposition to the immiseration that can result from such asymmetry.

    When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty. John Ball (1338 – 1382)

    There’s nothing ‘radical’ about this. And when we insist that there is we make it easier to caricature socialism as some sort of newfangled aberration. Historically, one of he most often used devices by which to discredit socialism was for the powerful to present it as ‘alien’ to the common culture. I’m sure I’ve read James Connolly make this very point.

    Likewise, there is nothing new or radical about solidarity and welfare, in fact I baulk at even describing this concepts as progressive, since we had institutions of collective political action and welfare but they have been denigrated and dismantled. Insisting on their return in some shape is not progressive, it is an act of recovery. Similarly, in what why is defending the NHS from assaults by private interests and their lickspittles, the so-called progressives, that have been in government for over 29 odd years a progressive act? It’s defensive and conservative in the sense that it wants to preserve an institution.

    Environmentalism is inherently conservative, and no good socialist can ignore that issue.

    Education, which I declare an interest in, is also inherently conservative in that, at its best, it is the passing of of the human repository of knowledge from one generation to the next. Of course, as socialists we don’t propose that people should think uncritically of that repository, but it’s the key to any useful and enlightened understanding of the world. The radicals and progressives of New Labour and the ConDems have set about privatising that repository.

    The idea of progressive politics seems to me to belong to an era when one could believe in the capacity of science, technology, rational thought and modernist culture to liberate us from whatever. But despite the extraordinary technological, scientific, intellectual and artistic developments we have witness, even in the last 50 years, inequality grows. The instruments of progress haven’t delivered.

    In this context, I just don’t see the point in going to people and presenting ourselves as progressives or radicals. Socialism is encapsulated in the values solidarity, welfare, the common good, the liberation of people from exploitative relations. This is the substance.

  10. charliemcmenamin permalink
    May 17, 2012 8:02 am

    Tangentially relevant observation coming up.

    I’m ploughing through Andy Beckett’s ‘When the Lights Went Out’, a popular, high-end journalistic account of the 1970s. It’s rather good. The first few chapters contain two little nuggets which, I think, encapsulate the slippery nature of trying to claim the past as our reference point for arguing for social solidarity (never mind socialism).

    The first relates to the 1972 Miners Strike. Support was so strong for the miners that many non miners actually joined their picket lines.Indeed, this practice got so widespread that the NUM had to issue a circular during the strike making clear that this was all well and good but every picket must have at least one NUM member present & in charge.

    I find this little bureaucratic detail more revealing than memories of the big set piece events like the closing of Saltley Gates Coal Depot by the combined presence of thousands of Yorkshire miners and Birmingham engineering workers. Somehow it conjures up the image of a micro, molecular tendency towards solidarity all over the country that just feels more reflective of underlying social bonds that any big, organised event. So, strike one for Rab’s attempt to claim ‘the different country that is the past ‘ for the left.

    A couple of chapters latter, however, Beckett gets to the Women’s Movement. One of their first actions in the 1970s? Disrupting the conference entertainment at the 1971 NUM Conference. Why? Because it included strippers. So, strike one for my point about the past is not some rosy-hued nirvana we’d want to re-create wholesale even if if we could.

    & the future is coming, whatever we do in terms of roping in the past to our narratives.

  11. Rab permalink*
    May 18, 2012 6:55 am

    I accept all of that. Absolutely. But it doesn’t really address the questions I posed at the start. And I think the terms in which I’m posing those questions is misunderstood.

    Let me put it another way: should the Labour Party at the next election go to the country competing with the Lib Dems and Tories for the mantle of radical and progressive? I think not. These terms have become meaningless. Ditch the jargon. Tell people what you stand for and what you propose to do.

    That passage from the Communist Manifesto – All that is solid melts into air – is terrifying: awesome bit terrifying. I don’t think most people want to live and world driven by endless radicalism, progressivism, the manic pursuit of growth at all costs, ceaseless modernisation. In some respects this is to do with a conception of time. If you lived a fuedal times when people were more dependent on the land, then you probably conceived of time as cyclical and tied to the seasons. The progressive conception of time is modern and bourgeois, a conception rooted in technological and scientific develops, economic growth and imperial expansion. Post-modernity was marked by the compression of time and space. What’s next?

    Secondly, you use the indisputable historical examples to make your point. But I’m not talking about History (capital H) and early historians – Hobsbawm, Thompson. I’m talking about something more sensuous and emotional appreciation of the past – it’s presentation in popular memory. I suppose I’m think more like Raphael Samuel in Theatres of Memory than Hobsbawm.

    The very title of Theatres of Memory strikes me as significant, because I’m not talking about the academic discipline of writing History, I’m talking about the dramatisation of the past. Anywhere from the street to a television set can provide a theatre upon which to dramatise the past. The last Royal wedding did this hyper-effectively. Those occasions are pure theatre and the whole country is invited to gaze into what Tom Nairn calls the ‘enchanted glass’ to see an ideal,national image of itself in the monarchy. With the help of the BBC the Royal wedding dramatises the social relations that prevail in the UK.

    You can find these enchanted glasses on television also – Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs are two good examples, which present the entire, rotten Anglo-British class system as a delightful household of family, friends and servants all under the benign power of the patriarchal father/master of the house.

    Does socialism have an enchanted glass? Should it have one? Or do we just say to people, throw off your false consciousness: ‘welcome to the desert of the real’!

    The working class, whatever its historic shortcomings and failures, is a potentially a powerful image. It stands for things (is a signifier of values) that exceeded its historical and contemporary existence. Put bluntly, it’s image is potentially great socialist propaganda.

  12. charliemcmenamin permalink
    May 18, 2012 10:40 am

    Back to the Jameson quote:” it’s easier to conceive of the end of the world than the end of capitalism. ” Unfortunately, that’s true, and probably has been for at least 20 years. There is no plausible transformational programme on offer, anywhere. We don’t know how to stop the mighty juggernaut, even at a moment when it appears to be coming off the rails of its own volition. it you want a narrative that convinces people I suspect that’s the place to start, not dreaming of a socialist impregnated Hovis ad to watch through your enchanted glass. …what I’m saying ( & i think AA is saying something similar) is that there is a balance between culture and politics and perhaps you’re putting it in a slight different place to me. To construct a historical or cultural narrative of the past you must, surely, link it to a version of the present or potential future – and it is only politics which can offer a left future.

    I woke up this morning to find Mrs McM giggling. For once it wasn’t at me. Someone had tweeted on her time line: ” If you watch The Iron Lady backwards it becomes the story of a sweet old lady overcoming dementia to heroically get all the miners back to work”. Which is funny, I think. But the power of the joke comes from the reversal of the connection between past and future. I think you may be asking for something simialr.

    But then I don’t like Ken Loach films in general.

  13. Rab permalink*
    May 18, 2012 2:04 pm

    I wouldn’t for a moment propose replacing a political programme with a culture or even privileging the cultural over the political. But the two are not mutually exclusive and probably complimentary.

    But watch the Jubilee celebration this summer and ask yourself why is socialism so joyless.

    I should also mention that I misread a sentence in your last comment and now I have the mental image of a socialist trying to impregnate a Hovis loaf…

  14. charliemcmenamin permalink
    May 18, 2012 2:25 pm

    I misread a sentence in your last comment and now I have the mental image of a socialist trying to impregnate a Hovis loaf…

    & you imply I want to make socialism joyless…..

  15. May 25, 2012 12:38 am

    Rab – in short, feck culture! I think you’re in danger of lapsing into the tired old reactionary cultural politics of the Brimingham school. (And you slag me off for referring you to a dictionary???)

    Are u seriously proposing that all we have to do to restore popular faith in left wing, progressive politics is to devise some sort of vague, wishy-washy cultural strategy based on the nostalgic wet dreams of middle class, liberal TV drama writers who haven’t a feckin clue about what it means to be unemployed or made redundant in the present economic crisis? Comrade – you need to get back to the streets and and ask people what’s important to them and I bet none of them talk about culture.

    I’m no fan of Bill Clinton but he was right when he said: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Election after election in anywhere they bother to have elections shows that the question that voters care about above all else is this: “Which party is going to make my life any better materially?” They certainly aren’t wondering about cultural disposition of said party ( or its stated cultural policies!); and they certainly aren’t reading cultural studies text books.

    Ask the people of Greece about culture! Did culture get them in the mess they’re in right now? And will cultural strategies get them out of it? Hardly. What has befallen the people of Greece is a mixture of corporate greed, political corruption and fraud. What has made things even worse for them is German arrogance and protectionism – in total contradiction to their oft stated commitment to EU principles. And the Irish aren’t far behind the Greeks in the queue for the gallows!

    I think you need to stop reading so much crap and get back in touch with politics and economics, comrade. In the present crisis, questions of culture are a luxury.


    Ps. How’s your market garden getting on these days?

  16. Rab permalink*
    May 25, 2012 8:48 am


    A guy walks into a pub and asks, “Can I get something to eat here?’

    The barman replies, ‘The prices are on the board, mate.’

    ‘Sorry’, the guy says, ‘Perhaps you misunderstood. I was asking can I get something to eat here?’

    ‘Look’, the barman replies, ‘I’ve told you once, the prices are on the board.’

    ‘I’m not asking about the prices’, the guy says testily. ‘I want something to eat.’

    ‘What are you talking about?’ shouts the barman.

    The guy leaves.


    Watch the Jubilee and Lympic celebrations and explain to me in what way questions of culture, identity and economics are NOT tightly bound together? During these two events we will surely witness nationalism and marketing work in unison. No dissent will be brooked. The media will be at its most obsequious. It’ll be all piss and wind, I grant you, but middle England will love it – you know, that section that turns up in the Question Time audience each week and thinks that national budgets are comparable to household budgets, and that the reason why ‘we’re in this mess’ is because of the last Labour government!

    It is a good job then that we on the Left know this is a flawed and ideological analysis, and that all this pomp and ceremony will amount to nothing. And that the Labour party will say, ‘Reject this austerity and go for growth, which is a bit like austerity only not so bad.’ And the people will be inspired and vote in their millions for the not so bad version of austerity. And the world will be put right again.

    Let me go back to my original question/s: should the Left leave the ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’ rhetoric to those busy trying to fashion a future for free-market capitalism and try to imagine a future without relentless ‘modernisation’ and unsustainable growth? That would be a future in which, as Berardi puts it here: we have time to live. Time is integral to capitalism, a conclusion I’ve reached by reading Marx’s Capital (esp. the chapter on the working day) not cultural studies books.

    Questions of temporality are profoundly economic. They are also cultural. Time is money. Time is tight.

    I’ll be thinking about this stuff anon…

  17. May 25, 2012 3:20 pm

    Here’s a simple minded thought you can take in either a cultural or an economic context; if what we have now – let’s call it rampant free market financially-led capitalism – isn’t what the Left wants then things will have to change in the future for us to get even a little bit closer to where we want to be. The left really can’t be in the business of saying, “Stop the World I want to get off”. Nor is there any obvious golden age to look back too and try too re-create. So we want a different version of modernity. I fail to see how abandoning words that imply this is going to help.

    (P.S.: Rab, AA: do keep at it lads, it’s a entertaining row. I’ll be back in a jiffy: I’m just off to get the beer and popcorn before round 27).

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