So you think you’re a radical?

This 1960s psychedelic peace sign is the first result for 'radical activism' on Google Images

I’ve always quite liked those essays and pamphlets that have from time to time been put out to confront politically active people with their own behaviour patterns. They tend to have a provocative edge and slightly supercilious note that I will attempt to emulate in this post. Because this one is for people who think of themselves as radicals. This is a post about how radicalism might not be radical, and you’re probably to blame. No, not you, obviously, I mean all the people behind you.

I should make it clear I’m not talking about spontaneous outbursts of action by people fighting for what they need. It’s not reasonable to discuss what is or isn’t radical about sudden mass movements of people trying to make space for themselves in the world. It simply happens. I’m talking about – and to – the people who sit around discussing how to change things.

Events like the demonstration on the 26th March have begun to bother me. Before it happened there was all sorts of talk about all the cool stuff that was going to happen, yet apart from UKUncut very little happened outside the march. Some people ran around in circles for a bit and had some barneys with the police, but no targets, no occupations, no serious disruptions. It seemed that people were waiting for someone else to organise the cool stuff and when it didn’t they just accepted they were riding on the back of a demonstration created by an organisation many of them despise.

What is the cool stuff anyway? What is radical action? Well we’re all agreed now that radical stuff should feel good. It should feel liberating as well as being liberating. It should be exciting. It should give you a buzz. It should give you some sense of inner release, or expansion, or connectedness. Having read a load of radical literature from the 60s and 70s I think I’ve found the roots of this attitude: the 60s and 70s. And its not only our attitudes we get from there, but also our rhetoric, and our theory, and most of our idea of what radical action is. A startling amount of it comes from the Situationists and if you haven’t read them, you should, because that’s who you’re following.

Problem is, that was a time of a great outburst of individualism among young people. It felt great. I’m sure many people had really interesting experiences of personal liberation. And the structures of society remained largely untouched. I don’t think that was just because the US government shot people at Kent State University or whatever other particular event you choose to blame. I suspect it is because you can’t really challenge large-scale structures – hierarchical collectives if you will – as individuals. And here’s the really horrible thing I’ve begun to suspect: in political terms your personal liberation doesn’t count for diddly-squat.

Yes, I know we’ve all come to believe that the liberation of society and our personal liberation are intimately bound up with each other, and maybe they are bound up with each other a bit, but they are different things. I think when eager young people (like me ten years ago) are inducted into what passes for radical culture, they are really inducted into a sub-culture that is very good at giving a sense of personal liberation. And that’s it. Not much more.

I think this helps to explain why some people in Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s were convinced they were part of an anti-capitalist movement. As individuals they were anti-capitalist. All their friends were anti-capitalist. The fact that 99% of the population didn’t care often seemed to escape their notice and they called themselves a movement. It wasn’t a movement. I don’t think there is an anti-cuts movement at the moment either. Just a few people who agree with each other hanging around with each other and not much will – from what I’ve seen – to try and break out of that bubble. So someone can make a claim like ‘everyone knows the NHS is being privatised’ and not understand how wrong they are.

The truth is, it’s hard work to set up organisations open to everyone. It’s hard to beat the mainstream media at disseminating information outside of twitter. If activism should feel fun, I guess we just won’t do it, because hard work isn’t fun. As for why I would focus on organising: I think the people in charge are really well organised at the moment. The reason every government is more right wing even than we feared is because there is very effective right wing organisation pulling in one direction and there is no organisation at all pulling in any other direction.

One of the problems with radical political circles is the failure to communicate with ‘outsiders’ and another, perhaps even more insidious, is that everyone agrees on what radical action is. Even though in our current social context (by definition, since each context is unique) these actions we are taking have no track record of success, this is what we do. This is radical action. Protest. Direct Action. Solidarity rallies. Occupations. I do these things myself too, but I’ve often been filled with doubt while doing them, and surprised by the certainty of others that they know the right way to fight for change.

Some of the actions are even actions known to have failed. I was surfing the internet while distracting myself from writing this post and I came across the Jarrow March 2011. A bunch of unemployed workers are planning to march from Jarrow to London to highlight their situation, in imitation of a similar march in 1936. Now, I don’t know how to point this out without sounding like the bad guy, but someone’s going to have to say it. Guys, you know it didn’t work in 1936, right? You know it made bugger all difference? I suppose the reference to history is supposed to create certain resonances with another time of austerity. But couldn’t we try something that might work this time?

It might seem counter-intuitive that I’m talking about a lack of hard-work organising and that people are organising things that don’t work in the same post. But they are related. They’re both about people pursuing their personal liberation along lines laid down in another time, by other people. And the personal liberation can be such a good feeling that people end up sure they know how to liberate others and throw themselves into ‘radical’ activism with all their might. And often what they’re really doing is continuing their personal journey of liberation. Don’t get me wrong: personal liberation is good, and the first direct actions anyone does can be amazing for that reason, but it should be the start of other things.

I really don’t want to denigrate people’s efforts within anti-cuts groups. But more and more I start to get the feeling that many people are campaigning within a bubble of them and others who agree with them. I think this is in part a consequence of the idea that activism is meant to feel good. And I don’t see much reflection on how we can bring change prior to taking action, or see enough thinking about how society is different now than in the past, and how we might have to adjust our methods to deal with that. I see very few people admitting that we aren’t sure how to be radical yet. And it may turn out we want to be as individualistic as mainstream culture – or even more so – but I don’t think we should just adopt that culture with self-fulfilment without thinking about it.

I don’t know how to be radical, but I would like to propose two ideas that might lead in that direction. The first is to analyse in detail the structural and social landscape in which you live. It is different to at any time in the past. Any radical actions proposed in the past may no longer be radical. Like the TUC march, they may be mere ritualised resistance, bothering the people in power not one bit. So let’s examine the possible routes to change as society stands right now. To do this properly doesn’t quite mean throwing away everything you know about radical action, but it requires you to bracket it while you imagine doing things completely differently. It might mean never going on a protest again. Probably not, but it might.

The second idea is for you to challenge your notion of yourself, the way you relate to the world, and what you expect of the world. Because I don’t think radical action will always feel good right now – though I agree that if it doesn’t feel good in the long run that’s a problem. I don’t think it will always feel liberating in the moment of doing it. And I don’t think how you feel about it should matter as much as most people seem to think it should. If we care about change we need to have an effect on the world, and that’s a very different thing from the satisfaction of individual desires. I certainly wouldn’t want people to engage in hair-shirtism for the sake of it, or return to the days of moralistic mutual discipline in political organising, but I wish at least more people would start thinking about – for instance – how we can really get organised outside of the traditional leftist modes and the boring legwork that will be necessary for it to happen.

I think the lack of self-reflection among people who consider themselves radical is so great that to some extent I wish people would stop doing stuff. Stop marching, stop occupying, stop publishing, stop tweeting, stop doing direct actions, stop everything. Just for a bit. As you become ‘radicalised’ you become inducted into a culture of ‘radicalism’ that is as individualistic as the culture it claims to oppose, and adheres as strongly to ritual forms as our would-be masters do. I think we still need to work out how to be radical: how to think radically, how to act radically, how to relate radically. I don’t think we know yet.

I think the assumption you know how to be radical is killing radicalism.

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11 Responses to So you think you’re a radical?

  1. Tim says:

    I guess there are 3 things which occur to me:

    1) Is the need for action to feel good a response to it being ineffective? If we can’t get satisfaction from the result of an action, then maybe we are driven to get satisfaction from the action itself?

    2) Maybe the idea of “radical” and “protest” are problematic due to their inherently reactionary nature (they are defined in opposition to something else). I am not sure, but one of the things that seems important is how we can provide medical care, or a social environment for older people, some sort of communal child care. These are very difficult problems. Which leads me on to:

    3) Why is the assumption made that most “other” people are not already radicalised? In my (bias) experience most of the people that I have met (with the possible exception of some of the very high-earners that I meet through work) are significantly opposed to the situation they find themselves in. They are taking their own “radical” actions (much more than me) without being explicitly politicised in the sectarian socialist/anarchist/radical way, or running around with placards. They are force to try to deal with the everyday problems, like food and shelter and reproduction in a radical way and often fail. They know they are being screwed over, they know they should produce their own art, their own communities and set their own rules. Like me, they are profoundly distrustful of the state, they do not believe what they read in the newspaper, and they only follow laws because of enforcement… they are not naive or ignorant, they are just being crushed by the application of overwhelming economic power. Left with no other way /despite/ their inherent radical desires.

  2. agent z says:

    On 1 you may well be right. At least we get *something* from it…

    2) and 3) I thought someone would question the category of ‘radicalness’ and I was mostly talking about people who self-define as radical. There is a case for dropping the word altogether.

    As for what other people are up to, and the potential effectivness of their form of radicalism – we can’t know I suppose. But I have to admit I meet more people who just want to give themselves a bit of wiggle room. To have some hope this will lead to more would be like religious faith or something. So I can only really address those people I know are trying to be radical.

    I’m wary of approaching it from the service provision angle. Co-ops and others have been trying that for a long time. And within their limits they succeed, and the rest of the world grinds on.

    • Tim says:

      Yeah, I guess I’m not arguing that the people I know are able to be totally effective with their “radical” ideas, it seems very hard to not eventually end up working full time doing something you find distasteful. But I think that alot more people resist where they can (and can’t) than are sometimes given credit for by self declared radicals.

      I agree that service provision by alternative groups is unlikely to be the solution. Just having group A instead of group B doing it doesn’t really get you anywhere (since how do you stop the alternative provision simply eventually becoming the new power). But I don’t see how any person/population can hope to exert themselves over anything useful if they can’t exert themselves over basic things like food, shelter, medical care, child care (and in the UK particularly shelter is the major issue I would say).

      How can any, for example, anti-work action be successful unless it includes a mechanism that prevents the participants from ending up getting repossessed or staving? Or risking spending the last 20 years of their life in oppressive poverty?

      For example, taking serious long-term strike action without some kind of strategy for how the strikers are going to pay rent or buy food for their children is not going to work. Or taking actions that lead to serious legal repercussions is not going to be possible if that leads to someone’s family home getting repossessed.

      How can you deal with people falling into low paid low skilled jobs if don’t have a strategy for preventing the (in my opinion) huge psychological damage done to children by the school exam/grade ranking system.

      I guess what I am saying is that maybe the actions are ineffective because the underlying problems are so difficult and the power structures too powerful… maybe that is a bit too negative! Or maybe there could be more realistic goals for actions. *shrugs*

      • Tim says:

        The thought occurs to me that what I am describing is something like Thomas Friedman’s “golden straitjacket”. Except that in this case applied to individuals and seen as a bad thing! The scope of action is so constrained by economics that people are lead to do things that are beneficial for the richest people (who possibly designed the straight jacket).

        By asking people to take more effective actions you may also be asking them to endure significant economic difficulty. In the same way that certain kinds of actions lead to a high risk of being beaten.

        I think that is the openness I’m looking for. Effective Action for the good of the many may imply high risk of Bad Personal Consequences to the people doing it.

  3. agent z says:

    Economics is a serious constraint to action, as it always is, but I do think our current ideologies are too and there is a failure in ‘radical’ circles to escape those ideologies. Interestingly the new Adam Curtis series is about this to some extent, and talking about how technology has helped enable this:

    “This is the driving belief of our time: that ‘me’ and what I feel minute by minute is the natural centre of the world. Far from revealing that this is an ideology – and that there are other ways of looking at human society – what Twitter and Facebook do is reinforce the feeling that this is the natural way to be.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/may/06/adam-curtis-computers-documentary

    • Tim says:

      Yeah, I guess I have assumed that the tag “radical” doesn’t actually mean anything – so I suppose my comments are mostly addressing people in general rather than self-defined radicals. I suppose that for people that have already found some kind of way of managing the economic problems then it starts to come to other things – like ideology. But, on the other hand, I don’t like the idea of a small group of ideologically driven individuals leading the way for everyone else.

  4. Dan Hind says:

    I agree with you that we can sometimes mistake personal liberation for something more substantial – the feeling of excitement generated by ‘radical action’ is experienced by groups of individuals who can end up moving away from the mainstream of society.

    Online communication can also give a sense, for example, that ‘everyone’ understands that we face an economic, social and environmental crisis and that radical change is needed.

    But I am optimistic, nevertheless. For one thing, radical action of the kind pursued by UK Uncut has had an effect on the mainstream agenda in ways that we can’t quantify, but that are real. Finance is literally the last thing the powers want to discuss. It is on the agenda because of people larking about in shops and banks.

    Furthermore, we are at the beginning of a learning process. We can learn from our own experiences and experiments – and your post is a useful attempt to do that. Thanks to new technology, we also can learn from the experience and experiments of others – in other countries as well as our own – more easily than at any time in history.

    The Spanish ‘radicals’, for example, have highlighted, to me at any rate, the importance of program – if we are going to challenge an unresponsive political order, we need to elaborate an alternative. Resistance may or may not be fun, but it won’t secure change unless it carries with it an account of what we stand for, as well as what we reject.

    Radicals are often driven by a desire to resist – anti-capitalism, stop the war, the anti-cuts movement, the coalition of resistance, and so on. There is an urgency to stopping bad things that a positive program doesn’t have, so it’s understandable.

    I don’t think it’s either/or – and I’m sure you don’t either. But you are right to point out the danger of pursuing approaches to radicalism that feel good, to the extent that we don’t elaborate a program and create the structures we need to implement it.

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  7. Jonty City says:

    One of the biggest problems I have seen with traditional radicalist approaches is that they allow “normal” people to easily label them.

    I walk through downtown and see a group of protesters. They are wearing protester clothing, they have protester hairstyles, and they are yelling about so-and-so killing babies. I can immediately label them as “radicals” and then ignore them. I assume that they will protest anything, and their language, however justified, sounds so extreme to me that I can’t accept it even if I agree on some level with their message.

    One of the things that really impressed me about the Seattle WTO protests was that it wasn’t the same old protesters who showed up. It was “normal” people from offices and factories.

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