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I’ve been thinking lately about how politics occur at different depths, penetrating society to varying degrees. This is the difference between reformist and radical politics: the reformist aims to change society in shallow ways, often focusing on most visible political systems, such as elections and corporations, while the radical strives for deeper change, often at the level of culture rather than explicit politics. In this sense of the word, the degree of radicalism of a given movement, figure, or speech should be judged not by its ideological extremism or advocacy of violence, but by the depth at which it seeks to change society.

By looking at political depth, we can argue that one entity is more radical than another even when it would be inappropriate to label either as radical in absolute terms. For example, a few months ago the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig put together a video explaining his support for Barack Obama. In it, he drew the following distinction between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The rhetoric around this election is focused on “change.” But what is this idea of change? What do the candidates mean by it? Here’s what Hillary Clinton said in one of the debates:

Well, let me say first, that I think we’re all advocating for change; we all want to change the status quo, which is George Bush and the Republican domination of Washington for so many years.

When I heard that, I thought to myself, “Is that really all we’re trying to achieve in this election, to get the Republicans out of office?” Because as I heard candidates like Edwards and Obama, I heard a call for a change much more fundamental. A change in how Washington runs; a change in the power of money or corruption in how Washington runs. A change in the very core of the system that has produced the results that have slowed responses to global warming or slowed the adoption of healthcare. Edwards and Obama have evinced their support for this strong version of change by refusing to take any money from lobbyists or PACs: their target, at least as they see it, is fundamental reform of the system.

The difference between Clinton and Obama, then, can be read as one of ambition: Clintion seeks merely to replace a Republican establishment with a Democratic one, while Obama intends to change the culture of the political establishment by reducing the influence of lobbyists. Obama’s rhetoric is deeper and thus more radical than Clinton’s, even if he still falls soundly in the reformist camp.

The deeper politics which radicals (or at least sophisticated radicals) advocate is one in which social changes affect ordinary people directly, rather than through the mediating class of professional politicians. There was a debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, both well-credentialed radicals, staged by a Dutch television station in 1971, in which Chomsky argued for anarchist politics from “a concept of human nature that gives full scope to freedom and dignity and creativity and other fundamental human characteristics.”

If it is correct, as I believe it is, that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, then, of course, it will follow that a decent society should maximise the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realized.… Now a federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organisation for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine.

Chomsky’s advocacy of a new social and economic system was distinctly radical, and involved much deeper changes than Obama would ever suggest. Foucault’s response, though, was more radical still. The political and economic changes that Chomsky proposed were, Foucault suggested, based on a culture which was itself corrupt. The important stage on which activists could change things was this cultural layer, which lay below the radar of Chomsky’s analysis.

Yes, but then isn’t there a danger here? If you say that a certain human nature exists, that this human nature has not been given in actual society the rights and the possibilities which allow it to realize itself.… If one admits that, doesn’t one risk defining this human nature, which is at the same time ideal and real, and has been hidden and repressed until now, in terms borrowed from our society, from our civilization, from our culture?

The problem with a new political system, for Foucault, is that it will be invented by people accustomed to the old system. Regardless of their attitudes toward the old system, it will inform and corrupt the new.

It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them. This critique and this fight seem essential to me for different reasons: firstly, because political power goes much deeper than one suspects; there are centers and invisible, little-known points of support; its true resistance, its true solidity is perhaps where one doesn’t expect it.

Rad"i*cal*ism (?), n. [Cf. F. radicalisme.]

The quality or state of being radical; specifically, the doctrines or principles of radicals in politics or social reform.

Radicalism means root work; the uprooting of all falsehoods and abuses. F. W. Robertson.


© Webster 1913.

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