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