What is Radical Politics Today? Asks Jonathan Pugh
Three things stand out amidst the present crisis. Firstly, the political demands coming collectively from society are remarkably low. According to the BBC News on 31st September, taxpayers have bailed out banks to the tune of $15 trillion dollars globally, amounting to $2000 for every person on the planet.
This money could have been used to address global poverty, the environmental crisis, boost manufacturing or other industries. It has instead gone into making profits for banks and bankers.
Secondly, when it comes to our key political parties in Britain we have the choice between either austerity (Conservatives) or bureaucratic knee-jerk reactions (of New Labour's discredited Third Way). Neither offers a new instrumental programme. Let us be realistic, even Keynesianism is not on the cards.
Thirdly, against this backdrop, is it any wonder that The Economist says:
"Could there be a better time to be a bank? If you have capital and courage, the markets are packed with opportunities ... Governments are endorsing high leverage and guaranteeing huge parts of the financial system, so you get to keep the profits and palm off the losses on the taxpayer." (16th May, 2009: p13)
Given our impotence in the face of such acquisitive capitalists, I believe that the end of this decade will be singled out as a defining moment in the history of radical politics. Precisely because people will look back and ask: what was radical politics then?
With this question in mind, I recently gathered together thirty leading contributors (mostly from the Left) to undertake just such a survey. Rarely united in their opinions, they collectively interrogated the character and spirit of radical politics today.
This survey reaches one clear conclusion. The meaning of ‘the Left' at this time of crisis is up for grabs.
The contributors to this survey include Zygmunt Bauman, Frank Furedi, Paul Kingsnorth, James Heartfield, Terrell Carver, Clare Short, Edward W. Soja, David Chandler, Hilary Wainwright, Dora Apel, Michael J. Watts, Jason Toynbee, Jim Martin, Jeremy Gilbert and Jo Littler, Doreen Massey, Gregor McLennan, Tariq Modood, Nick Cohen, Amir Saeed and David Bates, Alastair Bonnett, Ken Worpole, Sheila Jasanoff, Nigel Thrift, Will Hutton, Saul Newman, Chantal Mouffe, David Featherstone, Alejandro Colás and Jason Edwards, David Boyle, and Saskia Sassen.
Of course it is impossible to do justice to this broad range of often conflicting perspectives in a short article. So below I merely provide a flavour of this survey into radical politics in our times.
The first major challenge encountered in this survey has already been implied. There are many ways of being radical today. Some contributors argue that this is the weakness of contemporary radical politics. It has split into too many factions, or is dominated by people who are disconnected from the rest of society. Here the examples of creative artists, suicide bombers, anti-capitalist protestors, tree-huggers and anarchists, incapable of mobilising under a single banner, are sometimes used as illustrations.
In this sense, some also see radical politics today as being dominated by elites who are disconnected from ‘the workers'. This of course also includes that small group of radical elites who ran the radical neo-conservative agenda, or the dictators of the Chinese or radical Islamic state projects. In short, some contributors think radical politics today does not have support from broad sections of society.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the context of the present crisis, a number of contributors ascribe the impotence of radical politics today to societies' addiction to debt and industrial growth. Some argue that most solutions to the present crisis coming from society will push us further into debt, since they generally rely on returning to the status quo, guaranteeing the availability of limitless credit. Yet as some point out, radicals on the Left have not developed a grand counter-vision to this. A truly radical politics - which curtails exploitative attitudes - is lacking.
In direct contrast, other contributors argue that the rise of environmentalism and the precautionary principle are obvious examples of where radical politics has gone wrong. For some such risk-averse aspirations form the basis of a reactionary approach, pervasively holding back radical politics today. Instead we should confront the limitations on development, tackling those who put the economic and environmental crisis down to human selfishness and greed. The issue is not whether radical politics comes from the Right or Left; both have become risk averse, neither is therefore radical.
Some however say that the fragmentation within radical politics today is its strength. Diversity provides an opportunity for different groups to challenge the status quo - those environmentalists, feminists, peace movements, for example, which are slowly chipping away at specific injustices. Moreover, some also argue that grand visions of society - like socialism, neo-liberalism or the Islamic state - oppress those who don't believe in them, as much as they support those who do. A grand alternative is therefore not the answer at this time of crisis.
Others argue that radical politics today reflects a move away from a hierarchical view, with knowledge being the exclusive privilege of a few (the leaders of a party, for example), to an understanding of diverse and plural sources of knowledge and resistance. From the 1968 student movements and the 1970s women's movement, to the World Social Forum and anti-war campaigns, the emphasis is upon developing inter-communication, through complex networks of resistance.
In today's diverse cultures, some believe it is better to deal with injustices as they arise in particular situations, rather than produce a single radical solution for all. Some believe radical politics should be creative, taking many different forms, as ‘women', ‘Muslims', ‘Christians', ‘the poor', respond to the different circumstances which they face. They argue it's neither possible nor desirable to produce a one size fits all vision for society. This is while others argue that radicals on the Left have got into bed with the wrong groups in recent years, most notably some on the far-Right of Islam.
Some think that today's radicals do not work hard enough at reaching out to different parts of society, at bridging the gaps; that they are not seriously committed to their radical causes. The modern protest - such as Live8 and Make Poverty History - is sometimes seen as illustrating this. At these protests people meet up with their friends for the day, listen to Bob Geldof or Bono talk about poverty, and express their personal outrage at the world. But when it comes to actually working collectively for instrumental change, rolling up their sleeves, some contributors to the survey argue that these protestors are much less interested. They are more worried about being seen at the right protest, wearing the right coloured bracelet.
A number of contributors take the example of the Green New Deal, produced by the New Economics Foundation, to show how some radicals are practically trying to address the real worry of fragmentation and gesture politics. The Green New Deal aims to move against the anarchic withdrawal that characterises and alienates so much of radical politics today. It instead seeks to engage with a wide range of people, from civil society, through to the state, via a broad range of strategies and tactics, in order to address the environmental and economic crisis simultaneously.
Some do not celebrate the transformative powers of non-governmental organisations, such as the green parties, development, environmental, anti-war and peace activists, arguing that nowhere have they significantly managed to break through, achieving change or political progress. This means that the Right, in the form of neo-conservatism and increasingly Right-wing versions of Islam, has simply stepped into the vacuum. Indeed, some contributors believe that the radical Right will strengthen in coming years, reinventing itself, as people look for a compass to orientate out of this crisis.
One of the central issues here is therefore the role of the state within radical politics today. Many radicals continue to withdrawal from the state as a matter of principle. However, some contributors note that the stakes of radical politics have changed post-crisis, arguing that radicals on the Left need to seriously re-engage with representational politics, in order to challenge the rising power of the Right and capture the institutions that matter most at this time.
At the end of this survey of frequently conflicting opinions it therefore becomes clear that we are at a watershed moment for the Left. Despite a global crisis, there is no obvious alternative to neo-liberalism for people to mobilise around. Given that the dominant institutions of politics have visibly failed us all, radicals from a wide range of perspectives are being forced into the spotlight. While this is a sobering time, it is still therefore an opportunity for some to shine - to usher forth a new vision for the Left.
If you are interested in finding out more about this ongoing survey into the character and spirit of radical politics in our times, come along at 1.30pm, 25th November 2009, to Canada House, Trafalgar Square, London, SW1Y 5BJ.
A debate and book launch will be hosted by Catherine Fieschi (Director of Counterpoint, The Think Tank of the British Council).
Speakers will include Doreen Massey, Saskia Sassen and David Chandler.
Those who are interested in attending should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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