The word ‘radical’ has never been more in use and at the same time more ambiguous in its meaning. Old signifiers of radicalism such as anti-establishment and rejecting of tradition, no longer hold water. In fact, in an era in which to pose as anti-establishment has become the status quo, embodying old, conservative values, is what’s most radical.
This is the era of radical politics. From terrorists being ‘radicalised’ online, radical leftists seeking to defund the police, or the radical right shipping refugees to Rwanda and repealing Roe vs Wade, two things are clear. One: the word radical has incredibly powerful connotations. Two: other than conferring profundity, the word radical is almost completely empty of meaning. And it certainly doesn’t belong to either side of the political spectrum, or any kind of action in particular.
In a way, this shouldn’t surprise us. It’s over a century since Ferdinand de Saussure defined his terms of semiotics, 55 years since Jacques Derrida wrote Of Grammatology, 40 years since Jean Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulacrum, and while the academy became briefly obsessed with the problem of how language relates to reality, society more broadly has continued as though nothing has changed.
In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre warned of the grave consequences for a society in which moral language persisted as if it still held fixed meaning and weight, but in which there was no longer anything of the sort. Nobody took the warning. Now, as we reach stalemates between left and right over everything from abortion and guns, to women’s dress codes and gender itself, something has to change for there to be any positive way forward. What we need is a fundamental redefinition of the terms, a re-engagement with the basic structure of meaning in the world we live in, and specifically with meaning in the spaces of politics and culture. We need to realise, and act upon the realisation, of how dangerous, how limiting for real political change it is for the discoveries of modern philosophy not to be carried over into real life.
These are the stakes: If we think of ourselves as radical, we’re making political mistakes because we fail to understand what it would mean to be truly radical, and, whether we are radical or not, political actors, or political watchers, we are falling for cultural posturing.
We associate being radical with certain cultural signifiers, but this is the first mistake.
Jeans, urinals, nipples, tattoos, wedding rings, make up, no make-up, hijabs, cubes of colour on a canvas, the Confederate flag, drugs, snowflakes, drums and electric guitars, skateboards, afros, MAGA caps, statues of historical figures: we associate being radical with certain cultural signifiers, but this is the first mistake. We can use the last great era of radicalism, the post-war countercultural period in the Western world, as a case study to understand our error. During that countercultural period there was a massive cultural swing. This was the political and social moment in which the cultural gesturing that we recognise in politics today was born. The era in which products became political for the left. The era in which a person’s attitude to outlandish clothing, meditation, yoga, drug taking, pop music, and contemporary art told you everything you needed to know about them.
This is what neoliberalism is, a broadening out of the market to convert everything from relationships, feelings and insecurities, to products, commodities and, ultimately, capital.
Yet underneath this cultural phenomenon, a massive economic movement was taking place, away from Fordism to what is colloquially termed ‘neo liberalism’. Away from products that you need, advertised on the basis of their function (think of the 1950’s obsession with long lasting washing machines, reliable cars and ovens to last a lifetime), towards products and services that you want, sold on the basis of who they would make you. This is what neoliberalism is, a broadening out of the market to convert everything from relationships, feelings and insecurities, to products, commodities and, ultimately, capital.
The very fact of cultural signifiers being so central to our politics is proof that, although we largely don’t recognise it, a certain kind of economic thinking remains the real bedrock of politics and the place where society is defined. Whether we buy a MAGA cap or produce biodegradable tampons, we are all adhering to the neoliberal logic, believing that the products we consume signal our identity, and that identity signalling is what we all aim for. We might have different ideals, but we are all operating within the same framework. But none of us are being radical --- we remain supporters of the dominant economic system and followers of the zeitgeist.
Radical art sells, the progressive status it gives to its owner, inevitably a member of the status quo, is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The art world is another illuminating case study for how tinkering with the images that overlay the economy does not constitute real and radical political work. Radical art isn’t the same as radical politics. Andy Warhol, leading the vanguard of pop art, for example, created works that were irreverent, that took the banal and looked at it, elevating it to the status of art, transformed through his lens, his print, or on his canvas. He did something different that other artists were not doing. And in adoration of the radical and cool status that his works could proffer on an art collector, they came to be some of the most expensive paintings ever sold. This year, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ (1964) sold for $195 million, which is the most expensive work of art sold at auction by an American artist. That’s a similar price point to ‘Pendant Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Koppit’ by Rembrandt van Rijn. The weight of traditional good taste, and the cool status of radical art are equally weighted products in the art marketplace. Radical art sells, the progressive status it gives to its owner, inevitably a member of the status quo, is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It challenges other products in the marketplace for cultural dominance, but it doesn’t challenge the economic bedrock of society to enact radical change. What apparently radical works of art are, symbolically, and within the discipline of art, is detached from their function as products in the consumer economy, and repositories of wealth for the super-rich.
The difficult conclusion to accept is that, as profound, fundamental and intense as we think radicalism is, being radical is actually highly contingent. Being radical is not consistent over time, which in one way is very obvious to us: as something moves from taboo to normal, it is no longer radical to advocate for its acceptance. There are endless examples of this including extending the franchise to women, ending racial segregation, or bringing in a legal minimum working age. In another way, though, what this inconsistency over time means about radicalism is not widely internalised and believed. It is not very exciting to say that radicalism is nothing more than being against what the establishment and the status quo is. It is about the gap and the difference in between. And because of that, even though it’s about achieving an alternative ideal, it is conceptually pragmatic.
Although appropriating the term radical is highly fashionable today, it is totally unfashionable to say that for radical change to occur, for either side of the political spectrum, current politics would have to be challenged. Real radical change would be found in hard economic work that would lead to social and cultural transformation.
It’s no coincidence, for example, that some of the writers who made their name as radicals in the post war era have changed the ways of living and writing that they champion in their work since their first novels appeared, despite having remained loyal to the same political ideals. Thomas Pynchon, for example, has replaced the abstract, role-playing, sexually deviant Tyrone Slothrop of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) with the radical characters in Vineland (1990) who represents radicalism in hiding from ever oppressive surveillance, ‘pissing on through’ under the radar, and creating an alternative enclave, rather than entering into the existing political framework. It’s a link that many find it hard to accept, but like others on the left, Pynchon moves towards the unseen, the modest, the faithful, and the enduring, all conservative values, as the new tools of counterculture. He is attached to particular ideals, but not to particular tactics.
Far from a badge of honour to pin to our identity, or a useful stick to beat our enemies with, radicalism is by its nature unpopular, unfashionable, and unlikely to succeed.
While neither the left nor the right own radicalism, if both engage in an image war that fails to touch the fundamental social framework, it is ultimately conservative values that are currently counter to the established neo-liberal, posturing and hedonistic ethos that we exist within. These values, and this view about them, is not fashionable. But that’s exactly one of the criteria we should have for seeking out the truly radical ideas, ways of living and actions amongst all of the competing stances.
The concept of radicalism is at the heart of contemporary politics, society and culture. But the more we use the term, the less clear its meaning becomes. Knowing where we stand and orientating ourselves in our political context is paramount for political action and fundamental political change to be possible. But a return to a fixed definition of a concept or thing called ‘radicalism’ is not possible. Our first step to the reorientation that is a prerequisite for action has to be to accept the linguistic destabilising that characterises postmodern philosophy and theory prophesized, and to apply its logic to our real lives. Our second step has to be to shift our interest towards understanding how things work, rather than what they mean. To ask ‘what is radicalism?’ should be to ask ‘how would radicalism happen, how does it work, what is its structure?’ And then the final, and hardest step, is to accept that, far from a badge of honour to pin to our identity, or a useful stick to beat our enemies with, radicalism is by its nature unpopular, unfashionable, and unlikely to succeed.
Despite what social media tells us, radical political work cannot provide instant gratification, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth aiming for. The victories in life that are hardest won, are often the most valuable of all. Not a new thought, but perhaps more radical than ever.