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.
As with any religious, political or social movement, the question arises: how many wanted to effect some form of radical transformation, how many wanted what they could get out of it for themselves, and how many wanted a bit of both?
The film melds history and drama with pathos and even humour. The scene where strikers go to New York City, and one gets schooled in how poorly they have it by a New York flatfoot, is priceless.
The real and true menace is not Communism, nor the new government, but the Future, and it the Future which has its thundering cannons pointed firmly against the sentimental bourgeoisie.
The sheer vitality of Žižek’s thought usually serves to ensure that his work is an enjoyable read. In First as Tragedy, Then As Farce this effect is amplified by the urgency of his topic and the passion with which he approaches it. It’s perhaps inevitable though that this urgency does not translate easily into prescriptive politics and this is the one aspect of the book’s thesis which disappoints.
Can we construct a radical politics which takes into account the complexities and contradictions in contemporary culture and does not end up anti-humanist or with a thinly-veiled contempt for ‘the masses’?
The sense is more one of self-belief, but one which can at times genuinely push out into the world. A touching moment is when this young man discovers new types of music, reggae, afrobeat…classical!
Indeed, it’s this ambiguous legacy, seen most clearly in the superficial tension between choice and moral prescription, especially around the family, which points towards a deeper lack of direction that comes through in the present day – where it seems there’s been a return to more conservative gender roles albeit updated - the ‘yummy mummy’, the WAG, even Michelle Obama is considered a sort of fashion icon.
The cultural outgrowths of the new left in general play a key role in many of the processes of social change which Walter hints at. Its stress on ‘independence and self-expression’, the focus on authenticity and self-discovery, ultimately are capable of being uncoupled from their political content and rearticulated in a resolutely depoliticised way. Far from undermining capitalism through a reclamation of authentic subjectivity, this cultural radicalism in fact helped fuel the emergence of contemporary consumer capitalism.
You do not have to believe that private schools are right and good to be opposed to calls for the state to ban them. That is, to dismantle private institutions and remove their freedom to choose which pupils to take. This is to attack fundamental freedoms (of association, or not to associate) which are based on the ability to discriminate: we will only take children who are Catholic or Muslim; or wealthy; or good at rugby; or, indeed, on their merit.
It would appear that pathos and disappointment define a strong contemporary current, with fewer options projecting and inspiring us forwards. It seems that that the scope of our future orientation is constrained. We’re not just nervous about setting ambitious goals. The attempt to do so is understood as seen as arrogant. Such audaciousness will see us repeating past mistakes
Politicians offer up various reforms, seemingly plucked from thin air, which they offer as the palliative cure for restoring ‘trust’ in the political system (and, of course, trust in them, the political class that manages it). But, so often, these reforms are touted with little regard for how they affect our democracy as a whole and not even a flickering recognition that the people themselves may like more than just a walk on part in this important discussion.
Franklin employs a commercial metaphor: liberty as something to be traded for safety, or, by implication, any other desirable abstract noun. It captures well the naivety with which liberty is often discussed, the failure to understand what freedom really means.
What’s noticeable in fact is the lack of any deep sense of good and bad beyond what personally affects the protagonists (many have lost those close); there are simply ‘sides’ - and ‘people’.
A new biography of Lenin recreates his exile years in fine-grained detail, but it intriguingly invokes feminism as a prism through which to makes sense of the past.
When the abandoned placards have been swept up and the first cars and pedestrians are released from the bottleneck to take back the formerly ‘liberated’ streets and town squares, the city seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief as the normal routine resumes unscathed. Serious change cannot be effected without action, but ‘aimless hyper-activism’—doing because ‘something must be done’—can actually channel energies away from any seriously progressive project aimed at large-scale social change.