This week, I got into an argument about politics, the sort involving yelling and cruel words that leave you shaken for hours afterwards. Now, I’ve always known my views are radical, but the issues up for discussion (inheritance and recreational drug use) were well within the accepted range of political discourse. I didn’t expect it to get so heated, especially as I was among friends, but it did, and it’s fair to say I was upset.
Beneath the emotion, however, the implicit conflict was interesting enough to occupy my thoughts long after I’d cooled down. Stripped of its argument-specific decoration, the core issue was that my case was based on political philosophy, while my friend had no interest in engaging with this. Instead, she seemed outraged that anyone should wish to philosophise about such things. To her, it was impractical to the extent of moral repugnance. At the extreme, she seemed to believe that radical ideologies have no value in a practical world. It is that charge that I will answer here. For, far from being useless and dangerous, it seems to me that political philosophies like Marxism, libertarianism, and anarchism are part of a rare breed of radical ideologies that add real value to the world even when they are wrong.
In showing this, let’s assume for the moment that all radical ideas are objectively wrong, both in their utopian ends and in their particular policy objectives. By beginning with this assumption, I am targeting those that find Mill’s case in On Liberty unconvincing. In other words, I will not just repeat the view that we should be thankful for all ideologies simply because they may be right. Obviously, as a radical ideologue, I tend to think the assumption of error is wrong, but enough people (like my friend) think it is true that I would be foolish not to consider it. Indeed, the mainstream belief that radical ideologies are wrong is precisely what makes them radical. Now, granting this, what should prevent us from condemning radical ideologies as useless at best and downright dangerous at worst?
My answer is that public discourse is much richer for the existence of certain radical ideologies in a very real sense. The reason for this is that most well-known radical ideologies have a predictable structure, centring around a single value. In isolation, few would deny the importance of these values, but their focus on them is pushed to the extreme, maybe even becoming obsessive. For example, radical socialism obsesses over equality, libertarianism obsesses over freedom, and anarchism holds an almost pathological distrust of the state and authority in general. We may refer to this as philosophical fundamentalism. On an academic level, this is, of course, an oversimplification. Those who are familiar with Robert Nozick or Karl Marx’s works will know that they are rigorous and often far more complex than they are believed to be. Nevertheless, the fundamentalist view provides a reasonable characterisation of how these groups behave in real-world politics, not least in how they contribute to the mainstream debate. It is on this basis that I advance my characterisation.
For many, I’m sure fundamentalism will seem like a point against radical ideologies. Indeed, in government, it likely would be, but radicals rarely enjoy office in most countries. The role they play, then, is mostly limited to public debate and lobbying. Now, fundamentalism becomes extremely valuable because it leaves radicals in a prime position to recognise threats to the value they hold dear. What I mean by this is that no one is more likely to notice a threat to equality than a communist, and no one is more likely to spot a threat to freedom than a libertarian.
As it stands, this may all seem a bit detached, but a few examples should bring it down to earth. Take anarchism and its distrust of authority. If my argument is correct, we should expect anarchism to be very vocal whenever authority is or threatens to become, predatory. This is exactly what we see. There are several good examples, but probably the most universally persuasive is that, according to As Black as Resistance: finding the conditions for liberation, anarchism played (and continues to play) an essential role in the struggle for racial equality. This role has not always been a peaceful one, manifesting at times in controversial groups like the Black Panther Party, but in my eyes, the world is better for the anarchist influence on the whole. Another example comes is what may be called radical ecologism. Although this has become increasingly mainstream now, the more radical elements of the ideology can still be seen in groups like Extinction Rebellion. In the past, such ideologues were essential in drawing attention to the problem of climate change and are still important today. It is not difficult, for example, to see the link between Extinction Rebellion’s UK protests in 2018 and the declaration of a climate emergency in 2019.
But these tangible impacts barely begin to tell the whole story. As I have already noted, radical ideologues are often treated with scepticism and mistrust in the mainstream, with the potential exceptions of libertarianism in the USA and communism in countries like France where they often form part of governing coalitions. This means words from radicals will rarely persuade the public directly, or at least, the bar for doing so is far higher for them. Instead, their more usual role is that of a conversation starter. When radicals make an important point, they may catch the attention of mainstream politicians and activists even if they are ignored by the public. These more respected figures may wish to bring up the point in their own campaigns. In this way, debates that started with radicals can enter the mainstream with most people never knowing the original source.
Important as this is in normal times, it is in times of crisis that the radical ideologue becomes truly indispensable. Understandably, in times of crisis, we focus on the immediate problem, often at the expense of other considerations. This can be healthy to an extent, but it can also be taken too far, even threatening life after the crisis in unnecessary ways. Radical ideologies are less prone to this particular oversight. We are seeing this today in the influence of libertarian ideas on the Covid Recovery Group (CRG). As much of the country focuses on risk mitigation through lockdowns and restriction of civil liberties, the CRG has been playing an important role in ensuring that these measures are used proportionally. Of course, that is not to say that the CRG should be heeded all the time or even much of the time, which would risk focusing too little on the crisis. However, they may prove important in the near future in preventing mission creep, especially because the opposition is as focused on the current crisis as the government. They have already begun to play this role to some extent by questioning the government’s extension of coronavirus powers to September, despite the roadmap saying all restrictions should be lifted in June.
With the basic value of radical ideology established, I now turn to the nuance of the issue. My argument is clearly not intended to endorse the action of white nationalists or Islamic fundamentalists, for example. So what divides these radicals from the radicals I have been defending? Where exactly is the limit? Unfortunately, this is a question I cannot provide a precise answer to but I can clarify some points of my argument that may affect the answer.
One thing to say is that I have only been concerned with ideologies derived from analytic political philosophy. The reason for this is that it is the analytic practice of reducing arguments to easily swallowed assumptions that ensures radical ideologies are based on widely acknowledged political values, even if they are then taken too far.
This excludes two classes of ideology in particular. First, religious ideologies are excluded because insofar as they come from philosophy at all (rather than theology), they come from philosophy of religion rather than political philosophy, and (to the best of my knowledge) none come from analytic traditions. This is not to say that religious ideologies cannot contribute to politics positively. Still, the lack of philosophical roots means the values they expound are much more likely to be contested. Moreover, religious texts sometimes prescribe particular policies that do not obviously follow directly from the fundamental beliefs of the religion. This can often make the views of religious fundamentalists logically incoherent and anachronistic (if they are wrong in their religious beliefs, that is). A prime example is the homophobia of some radical Christians. The second class of radical ideology that it excludes are those that arise from self-interested politics rather than philosophy. Examples are numerous, ranging from racist ideologies to isolationism. The reason for their exclusion is obvious; they are derived from pragmatism and emotion rather than philosophy.
Another thing to highlight is that, as I stated earlier, my argument is focused on ideologies that are more or less fundamentalist in public discourse. Therefore, it does not apply to any ideology that is radical and philosophically derived but not fundamentalist in its political behaviour. This is not too important, however, as I have been unable to think of an actual example of this. Of the radical political philosophies I can think of, radical ecologism is perhaps the closest to not being fundamentalist. Still, if you regard sustainability as a value in itself, it certainly qualifies. Nonetheless, this proviso is worth highlighting for the sake of complete clarity.
So, what does all this mean for us in the real-world? Well, it certainly gives us a reason to seek out radical views from time to time. If you want to know more about threats to equality, listen to a radical socialist. If you want to remind yourself of the value of freedom, listen to a libertarian. Naturally, you don’t have to agree with them, but you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss them either. This message isn’t new, but it bears repeating because it is so easy to forget. And it is not just about what we say, either; how we think in those quiet corners of our minds matters too. When we see a Marxist on Question Time or a libertarian in the Union, we must all make sure we listen first and judge second. Only then can radical ideologies play their best role to the benefit of us all.
Image Credit – Stefan Müller