What is Radical Politics Today?

July 1, 2010

Where will radicalism go now that traditional party politics is smeared with corruption? I predict a riot. Well, perhaps not - maybe a nice cup of tea and a copy of The Guardian, for all us armchair eco-warriors. Nowadays, the heterodox nature of progressive politics has to function without the old certainties guaranteed by a solid working class, a strong trade union leadership, Marxist principles or even the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

This collection of 30 essays is a welcome contribution to the debates and conundrums that have plagued radicalism since the collapse of Marxism, presenting numerous views on current positions. The essays are eclectic and diverse and a real attempt has been made to show the range of radical views on topics such as commitment, multiculturalism, nostalgia and struggle. The editor, Jonathan Pugh, has done a good job in presenting various and often opposed views, thus giving a rounded snapshot of progressivism now.

"Change is coming," Pugh exclaims in his introduction, but radical politics, like all politics, is of the moment, and that moment's news will be tomorrow's chip paper. There has been no change. What change could we have expected? Like all belief systems, the end is always nigh. One may expect few nods nowadays to Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky, but the whole collection is studded with references to Tony Blair, George "Dubya" Bush, the election of Barack Obama, the Iraq war, neoconservatism and the collapse of the banking system. This gives the book a feeling of platitudinous redundancy.

The worst platitudes are committed by the most famous contributors: Zygmunt Bauman sounds merely like a grumpy old man; Frank Furedi seems to want us to live the American ideal as "autonomous and responsible citizens"; Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, lectures us on the importance of universities in preserving "seriousness"; Clare Short seems to think that China and the British National Party are "radical" and today's problems are the worst since human existence began; while, most insulting of all, Will Hutton, ideological inventor of New Labour's instrumentalist approach, wants us to think about "Utopias".

Even more annoying in this regard are academics who mistake their commentaries and their cliquishness for intervention. What, for instance, is the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, headed by Tariq Modood, one of the contributors; or the ridiculously named Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster headed by Chantal Mouffe, another essayist in the volume? Even the editor seems to run something called the "Space of Democracy and the Democracy of Space network". These are pointless diversions and the very symptoms of creeping conservatism and institutionalisation.

No more evident confusion could be discerned than in the Stop the War coalition. The journalist Nick Cohen, whose invective enlivens the heart of the book, muses on the peculiar and contradictory make-up of the anti-Iraq war movement, consisting as it did of old-fashioned Trotskyists and hard-line Islamicists, whose love affair led to the formation of the "Unity Coalition" of Respect.

Radicals have always been internationalists, and this is nowhere more apparent than in green politics. Science once led the way to the future. Now we no longer trust science and the future has been put on hold. We have long been told that there are finite resources and our relentless sacking of the planet has made us the problem. I was not a little alarmed, therefore, by Paul Kingsnorth, whose diatribe is both apocalyptic and totalitarian, with the unthinking wish for non-democratic solutions particularly scary.

Progressives have become reactionaries, opposing scientific progress, the expansion of transport networks, the greater consumption of resources, universalism and Western progressive ideas. What has remained is a feeling of moral superiority and a sustained sense of grievance, which as often as not lacks definition. Such liberal desperation to "do the right thing" by minorities and the oppressed has meant there has been little thought given to the old universal certainties that tied protest to a belief in advancing human rights and civilisation generally. Identity politics, which stresses origins, fluidity and pluralism and makes much of the intrinsic nature of self, might be fine if it were still attached to the idea of "becoming" that has no use for the stultifying inertia of origination and selfhood, but instead talks of universalism, brotherhood and development - a politics of change using now as year zero: "what I can become" rather than "what am I?"

What is Radical Politics Today?

Edited by Jonathan Pugh
Palgrave Macmillan 304pp, £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9780230236257 and 36264
Published 21 October 2009

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