In Praise of Radicalism

I and others have talked a lot in the past year or so about a schism within atheism, one driven by one side’s belief that atheists can and should become involved with issues that are not traditionally associated with the atheist community, i.e. things like feminism, anti-racism, trans* advocacy, and such, and those who, well, don’t, often with rather awful results in the latter case. However, for me, that doesn’t seem to be the only split in our community, or indeed in progressive groups at large. There is, in fact, another way, one which I happen to ascribe to; that of a more progressive, radical bent.

This came up recently in a post by Ed Brayton, the head of FreethoughtBlogs, who took issue with a piece on In These Times by Bhaskar Sunkara, who is the editor of Jacobin Magazine, one of my favorite publications. In it, he takes issue with what he sees as liberals like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias becoming so centrist, they lack any kind of ideology:

There seemed to be something different about this band, an idealism that blended the resurgent youth activism that rallied behind Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and against the Iraq War with the liberal “netroots” culture that developed alongside it. Their popularity grew as they were absorbed into the media ecosystem. Klein’s writing moved from his eponymous Typepad to the American Prospect to the pages of the Washington Post. Yglesias also got his break at the Prospect and ended up at Slate.

But at some point, Klein and company stopped being liberals. They even stopped being human. The singularity—a technological superintelligence—was upon us. The wonks had become robots, ready to force enlightenment down our partisan throats.

Sunkara went on to detail how during and before the most recent presidential campaign, Klein did things like defend Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which was, frankly, a barely concealed attempt to further attack the poor in our country, as well as Klein declaring himself to not be liberal. He goes on to advocate for a return to an ideology-driven journalism on the mainstream left. However, Ed, by no means any centrist, took issue with Sunkara’s analysis:

To be blunt, this is anti-intellectual bullshit, faux populism aimed at exactly the wrong place. It’s the kind of “thinking to logically robs humanity of poetry and emotion” nonsense that we often see from the right. The last thing we need in a political system that is soaked with appeals to ignorant populism and emotional argument is to marginalize the people who actually do logical and detailed policy analysis. It isn’t enough to declare one’s good intentions if the policy being advocated won’t achieve the stated goals.

I want to take issue with Ed’s analysis here, and try to make a case for a more radical way of life while not completely disregarding moderate views, which Sunkara seems to do. Unlike the latter man, I’m not a Marxist by any stretch of the imagination. I actually identify myself as something entirely more stigmatized in our society; an anarchist.

Quelle horreur, etc. You may now be thinking I want to violently overthrow the government and turn this country into a Road Warrior-esque hellscape, with the human race fighting one another over gasoline and such. But that’s not the case. I imagine there are certainly such apocalyptically-minded people out there, but by and large, we anarchists are quite a cuddly bunch. Noam Chomsky is one of us, as was Emma Goldman, who is one of the coolest people to ever live.

But if we don’t want Road Warrior, then what DO we want? Well, the overthrow of the state part is definitely still there, preferably non-violently. I believe, essentially, that in America, our government no longer works for its people, if in fact it ever did. Furthermore, the government is more and more using military-caliber force against its citizens, notably via the police department. Not only do they lie compulsively to preserve their power, but there are innumerable cases of the police using extreme methods, from torture to using drones (albeit unarmed versions) to hunt a criminal, whom they have been so unsuccessful in detaining that they have taken to randomly shooting at people who they think might be this suspect.

Many books have been written on how the state fails us, and I’m not going to recap them here. However, the moral of the story is that through a long process of rationally examining evidence for the government’s incompetence, I think that its problems are inherent to its existence and cannot be solved through normative means. However, I also have the understanding that it’s pretty likely that won’t happen in my lifetime, and thus, we return to the radicals vs. centrist conversation.

I and others like me are most likely not going to make it into the mainstream conversation any time soon. The media that reaches the wider population is not capable of expressing complex ideas, thus we’re probably always going to be relegated to the blogs and academic spaces that most people never tread, nor care to. But that doesn’t mean we progressives are going to stop talking, or give up trying to change things.

What we are is a check on those like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, the ones who can offer alternatives that are still backed up by facts and rationality, but at the same point have a stronger ideological ethics behind them. Ideology and emotion are no barrier to a good argument, used correctly. I think Sunkara tried to make an important point in his piece, but got lost in the emotion and excessive and odd metaphors. I also think Ed was wrong to completely disregard his argument as anti-rational. At its finest, there’s nothing irrational about radicalism; it’s just a bit out of the ordinary, non-normative, a constant seeking of greater change. And on the day that it is realized, well, that will be an interesting day indeed.