The Uses of Radicalism

The Uses of Radicalism
jamalrob
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Posted Jun 4, 2011 - 2:01 PM:

As far as I can tell (I haven't read the book yet), Scruton's argument is a very subtle one, and draws from the philosophies of Burke and Oakeshott. He makes the case that the optimism of political radicals inevitably abandons the very thing that can ensure lasting and legitimate change, namely the spontaneous development of real communities with continuous histories, which has a natural mandate.

But this communitarian conservatism seems to come down in the end to a kind of resigned relativism. Scruton values social and cultural achievements that were fought for - such as universal suffrage and religious freedom - and yet we can be fairly certain that someone of similar conservative convictions would at the time have been opposed to the movements, such as the Chartists, which got us these freedoms.

Scruton's personal story is, perhaps, quite revealing. Though he has taken on the role of something like the aristocratic country gentleman, he grew up working class. As a student, he was in Paris in 1968 and witnessed the violence of the protests that his friends were taking part in, and this experience made him a committed conservative. One is tempted to think that conservatism and radicalism sometimes come down to innate temperament; for some, the same experience made them committed radicals.

Me, I come down on the radical side, and I agree with most of the replies so far. Scruton's conservatism, which is perhaps an understandable response to the horrors of the twentieth century, yet instructs us to put up with today's injustices and leaves us defenceless against powers that might not have everyone's interests in mind.
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Posted Jun 4, 2011 - 2:18 PM:

Benkei wrote:

I personally believe certain changes should happen sooner rather than later but timing is everything. You cannot enforce a vision on people but if sufficient numbers subscribe to a particular vision then real change is possible. This can be sudden, even revolutionary, as we are hopefully seeing in Eypt (time will tell). What Scruton's examples share is a lack of actual support; people acquisced to the situation but it wasn't a change that reverberated with the people at large.

Hence, for any radical idea to work, the idea needs to be shared and accepted. Note then, that even though Leninism failed, unions didn't even though both were based on Marx' radical ideas. One was a coup and the other was an inclusive movement that built momentum over time.

Yes, and this could mean that Scruton's brand of conservatism assumes that radical politics is never popular, that it is always a kind of Blanquism; in other words, that there is no such thing as grassroots political radicalism - normally most people are happy just to get on with things.

So there are two questions here. First, is this true? And second, is change by a small group that takes the initiative, e.g. the Bolsheviks, inevitably illegitimate?

Edited by jamalrob on Jun 4, 2011 - 3:02 PM
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Posted Jun 4, 2011 - 3:26 PM:

From source Roger Scruton:
I believe that we are significantly distinct from the other animals. For we are rational beings who relate to each other "I" to "I". Freedom, individuality, accountability and the moral life all result from this. They are outgrowths of first-person knowledge, of the fact, as Kant put it, that we alone in the world say "I". It is not because we are non-rational that we are subject to illusions and fallacies. On the contrary, it is because we are rational.

However, in a host of ways we make the life of reason easy for ourselves, by ploys and fallacies that feed our false hopes. In The Uses of Pessimism I explore some of these ploys and fallacies, and show the devastating effect they have had on modern societies. For example, there is the "born free" fallacy that has dominated educational thinking since Rousseau. This tells us that human freedom is a natural gift, that we are born to enjoy it, and that we lose it through the laws, rules and hierarchies of social life. That, in my view, is the opposite of the truth. Human freedom is an artefact. Societies have built laws, institutions and forms of collective discipline precisely in order that the individual can live freely. To believe that we are born free makes it easier to bear our frustrations, to blame others for our woes, and to dignify our inadequacies with the colours of a justified rebellion. It enables us to discard all knowledge that it is painful to acquire, and to believe that idleness is virtue. And the effect of this belief on education has been devastating, leading everywhere to the loss of discipline and culture.

Equally devastating in my view has been the "zero sum" fallacy, the belief that every benefit received by one person is a loss felt by another. If John is rich it is because Mary is poor. If one part of the world is flourishing it is because some other part is declining. According to the zero sum fallacy all good things must be paid for, and the art of society is to pass the cost to someone else. That fallacy underlies Marx’s theory of surplus value; it inspired the revolutions conducted in Marx's name, and gave resentment a scientific face. In fact, however, social cooperation is not a zero sum game, and the art of society is to discover the ways in which one person’s good is a good for the rest of us.

Such fallacies have led to disastrous results on account of the false hopes that are built on them. Many of these false hopes have fizzled out. But there is truth in the view that hope springs eternal in the human breast, and false hope is no exception.

Source

He makes some good points here, but the conclusion he draws is, to my mind, unjustified: that all efforts to make the world better based on a vision of a better future are bound to fail. Surely political radicalism need not depend on this "born free" fallacy (Marxism doesn't) or on the "zero sum" fallacy - Scruton's accusation that Marxism suffers from this fallacy looks like a misunderstanding.

And the last line there is evidence that if we do try to make the world better, Scruton's conservatism will always be a weapon against what he sees as our "false hope".
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Posted Jun 4, 2011 - 3:49 PM:

jamalrob wrote:

Yes, and this could mean that Scruton's brand of conservatism assumes that radical politics is never popular, that it is always a kind of Blanquism; in other words, that there is no such thing as grassroots political radicalism - normally most people are happy just to get on with things.

So there are two questions here. First, is this true? And second, is change by a small group that takes the initiative, e.g. the Bolsheviks, inevitably illegitimate?


Scruton fails to appreciate he's arguing for a radical conservatism; a radical return to communitarianism, just as libertarians argue for radical individualism. I believe radicalism is inescapable if we have a real grasp of our political convictions because we must understand it and argue for it from basic premises. All informed politics then becomes political radicalism and these can coincide with popular opinion but it is not a necessary connection.

What is practical politics most of the time is a rather superficial affair and is more to do with a pragmatic struggle for political power than actual political conviction. Any political actor that places itself outside this structure is almost automatically unpopular, precisely because it is not acting or thinking in ways that are conventional. The challenge of all new radical political actors is to carve out recognition as a viable political alternative. Not only must he have support for ideas (which may very well be recognised already in society) but we must have a way to bring those ideas to fruition.

The (r)evolution of any such new radical actor is not in its ideas but in creating a situation in which to implement these ideas. And in this I do agree with Scruton that community support is essential. Whatever "initiative" new actors should undertake must be aimed, I think, at obtaining communitarian support or openness to both the ideas and the actor. If he does not, his ideas will flounder and people will go on with things - but if it makes them happy is another question.

What sort of action or initiative is required to (r)evolve is contingent on the society we are in. Changes in Egypt can be fast and large and in a power vacuum "initiative" is of the essence. In relatively stable societies such as the UK and the Netherlands this is not an option.

This brings me to another apparent mistake; Scruton seems to assume that communities are structured and stable in and of themselves.
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Posted Jun 4, 2011 - 4:02 PM:

Excellent points, and I mostly agree. I think what you're getting at in describing his conservatism as radical is its practical reactionary character. It's non-radical in that it specifically renounces goal-directed politics and sweeping change, his "radicalism" being only a negative (doing away with unscrupulous optimistm) and critical suggestion.

It's also interesting that he thinks it important to emphasize that "Human freedom is an artefact" (which I think I agree with). One could take this as indicating the need for rational political moves to deliberately extend this freedom, as has been done in the past.

Edited by jamalrob on Jun 4, 2011 - 5:11 PM
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Posted Jun 5, 2011 - 12:52 AM:

jamalrob wrote:
Excellent points, and I mostly agree. I think what you're getting at in describing his conservatism as radical is its practical reactionary character. It's non-radical in that it specifically renounces goal-directed politics and sweeping change, his "radicalism" being only a negative (doing away with unscrupulous optimistm) and critical suggestion.


Well, as you know by now I'm completely anal sometimes about language and for me radicalism is much more in the vein of meaning "fundamentalism" and I still struggle with the idea of "radical" as the antonym of "reactionary" in its much more modern "meaning". It reminds me once of a discussion Jonathan Israel had in the Netherlands related to his book; the Radical Enlightenment. After half an hour I stood and asked him why on earth he had named it "radical" when he was describing a reactionary process. He gave an unsatisfying answer and I proceeded to not buy his book.

Anyway, today radical convervatism would in fact be a contradiction in terms but I'm glad you are - at least for the purposes of this discussion - accepting my idiosyncratic use of the word. wink

So having said that, I think reactionary politics (e.g. ultra-conservatism) isn't necessarily rational and as such could be entirely devoid of radical considerations. Russian yearning for Stalin does not exactly strike me as rational or a logical consequence of communitarianism.

What I did mean then is that radicalism to me follows the idea of returning to the "root" of an idea. Scruton seems to develop a basis for convervatism in communitarianism. Liberal thought tends to ground its ideas in freedom and individualism. Yet I can yell "No more change" and "Free Market Capitalism", respectively, pretending to be conservative or liberal and not understand either. I need not go back to the root to identify as one or the other. The idea of "no more change" is obviously a reactionary position and the second liberal one, could be reactionary, considering convervatism is notoriously vague and could include most any political idea.

It's also interesting that he thinks it important to emphasize that "Human freedom is an artefact" (which I think I agree with). One could take this as indicating the need for rational political moves to deliberately extend this freedom, as has been done in the past.


Does he mean artefact as in "man made"?
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Posted Jun 5, 2011 - 1:57 AM:

Radicalism seems quite subjective at least when used in a debate. "Radical conservatism" seems to be an oxymoron for me and as such is usually used by those who oppose conservatism or the right, who then own leftist views. Of course the trouble is that conservatism is linked to right-wing politics. But if the society is or has been socialist, then conservatism means something different. Perhaps, and I don't know this, if Scruton has given thought about this point (or is he just fixated at the US). And I presume that Roger Scruton hasn't anything against radical change for instance in science, technology or the medical field even if these advances (or changes, not to sound so optimist) can change our society radically. So this is more a debate about how politics is handled in a society.

I think radicalism stirs up the trouble when there is absolutely no tolerance for the radical (irrelevant of what kind of radicalism it is) to hear any counterarguments about his or her noble ideas and when the radical has no will to accept a consensus, which waters down the radicals far reaching goals. Radicalism with extreme hubris and disdain for other views is a bad mix. This mentality causes altercations to get out of hand and then, in the worst case, we are literally reaching for our guns. Or at least, have done that in the past.

Besides, in history we look at crises and clashes to be the defining moments, and not those longer periods when there has been a consensus and things have chugged on without any spectular crisis happening. But this isn't so: what our world is now and what our living standards are now didn't happen when Berlin fell and Germany surrendered, when the first PC rolled out or when a black lady refused to give her seat. We just pinpoint these events and this makes radicalism seem much more important than it really is. Yes, visionary new thinking is important, but more important is when those "radical" ideas then get to be mainstream. And that takes time and then it isn't anymore "radicalism". The young radical then looks at the "old radical thoughts" as self evident, boring and uninteresting, especially perhaps when his old stupid parents accept those views that "once were radical".

Edited by ssu on Jun 5, 2011 - 2:12 AM
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Posted Jun 5, 2011 - 3:00 AM:

ssu wrote:
Radicalism seems quite subjective at least when used in a debate. "Radical conservatism" seems to be an oxymoron.


It is under current usage. My problem is that we no longer have a word that conveys the original meaning of radicalism, which is why I continue to use it that way for lack of a better word.

The original meaning derives from the Latin "radix" and for a long time it meant "going to the root". But radicalism and fundamentalism have each obtained negative connotations or different meaning, that were originally not there. Unfortunately, I am not aware of other terms that can convey the same original meaning without becoming value laden.

Perhaps I should coin a new term: radixism, to capture the old meaning and then I am talking of Radixal conservatism.
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Posted Jun 5, 2011 - 3:44 AM:

On terminology I'll side roughly with @ssu. By radicalism I mean pretty much what is described on the Wikipedia page for political radicalism. Or do you have a fundamental objection to this, @Benkei? I have to say I'm a bit confused by your post #16. Scruton is anti-radical through-and-through, and I'm not sure I can accept your idiosyncratic usage after all. smiling face

ssu wrote:
Radicalism seems quite subjective at least when used in a debate. "Radical conservatism" seems to be an oxymoron for me and as such is usually used by those who oppose conservatism or the right, who then own leftist views. Of course the trouble is that conservatism is linked to right-wing politics. But if the society is or has been socialist, then conservatism means something different. Perhaps, and I don't know this, if Scruton has given thought about this point (or is he just fixated at the US).

No, nothing particularly to do with the US: he is British and concerns himself more with European matters than American. I hesitate to disentangle the American meanings of these words from the meanings I'm used to, but yes: for Scruton there is such a thing as right-wing radicalism, e.g., fascism, which, as a conservative, he is as opposed to as he is to left-wing radicalism. The crucial thing for him is to that all such visionary ambition is dangerous.

ssu wrote:
Besides, in history we look at crises and clashes to be the defining moments, and not those longer periods when there has been a consensus and things have chugged on without any spectular crisis happening. But this isn't so: what our world is now and what our living standards are now didn't happen when Berlin fell and Germany surrendered, when the first PC rolled out or when a black lady refused to give her seat. We just pinpoint these events and this makes radicalism seem much more important than it really is. Yes, visionary new thinking is important, but more important is when those "radical" ideas then get to be mainstream. And that takes time and then it isn't anymore "radicalism".

But were it not for those defining moments the changes would never have got off the ground when they did; they would, at the very least, have been delayed.
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#20 - Quote - Permalink
Posted Jun 5, 2011 - 3:47 AM:

Benkei wrote:
Perhaps I should coin a new term

You...you...radixist! I like that. grin

Well, words used to portray various ideologies do not constitute a logical system. Comes to my mind how the meaning of chauvinism has changed, for instance.
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