Radicalism, past, present and future
Over recent years, it seems ‘radical’ has become a dirty word. In the wake of the anniversary of 1968, and with books and films galore about the romance and failures of revolutionary life and thought, it seems we’re comfortable with radicalism as an object of nostalgia, but less willing to understand its contemporary legacy – and its trivialisation.
Culture Wars is exploring radicalism – past, present and future – in an attempt to understand a lived tradition as well as how certain ideas filter through the culture. Having focused on past ‘Radical Thinkers’ and the legacy of 1968, touring from Iran to Haiti, investigating the role of ideology and demise of the traditional Left, we turn towards two contemporary variants: ‘political Islam’ and the environmentalist movement. These reviews and essays constitute a critical investigation of what shapes contemporary attitudes towards the future.
The real disappointment for this reader is not the language, but the fact that Laclau rejects the possibility of formulating the Enlightenment notion of a totalising universal identity, and with it washes down the drain any project of uniting the world under a single banner of rationality.
It is always tempting to imagine Jean Baudrillard preparing to write a book by sharpening an axe, swinging it into his computer monitor, then gluing the shattered pieces to a celluloid film reel, projecting it to a crowded room full of admirers and absolutely forbidding them to take it seriously.
There is no consistent argument in any article, let alone any broader theme developed across the collection as a whole. Instead, it is a jumble of categories and neologisms (‘globalitarian’) with no analytical heft, mixed in with portentous quasi-mystical rambling about technology, and embarrassingly absurd predictions about the outcome of the war and its impact on international politics.
Jacques Rancière, one of the post-Althusserian generation of French philosophers, wrote the four essays that make up this collection at the end of the Cold War (1988-1990). They are: ‘The End of Politics or The Realist Utopia’, ‘The Uses of Democracy’, ‘The Community of Equals’ and ‘Democracy Corrected’. Although each of the essays stands alone, many of the themes and arguments overlap.
It seems Lord Saatchi either doesn’t understand irony or he doesn’t understand conservatism: of course Marx championed self-realisation; but upholding self-realisation seems a strikingly progressive ideal for a ‘conservative’.
Whilst the intention of this conference was to discuss the relationship between education and social class, it was clear very soon that the real issue up for discussion was whether Marxists or feminists had the greatest claim to represent the Left.
I was aware that Hizb ut-Tahrir have an aura of controversy, but to my mind being banned by students’ unions and authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes is not necessarily an indication of malevolence.
What the debate showed is that for many people who see themselves as politically radical, often thinking of themselves as anti-capitalist and on the side of making a better, more equal world, the idea of social justice has become fatally uncoupled from the idea of progress.
Balibar’s proposition is that rather than focusing on the dialectic of the universal and the particular, we should focus on how universalism is produced through its internal contradictions.
‘While I’m dealing with an Irish situation with people living very claustrophobic lives for what they believe to be a noble cause, there are universals. I would like people to view it as human beings: imagine if I was in those circumstances, which side would I be on, and how would I have reacted?’