Radicalism for beginners

The task of the radical is to take reason to unreasonable lengths. Dominic Fox explains.

Ideas - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 5:07 - 1 Comment


Dominic Fox

What is a radical? A radical is someone who is concerned with a problem, and who addresses himself to that problem with the aim of uncovering its roots. For the radical, there is a difference between appearance and reality, symptom and cause. The purpose of radical action is to break through the outward manifestations of the problem in order to access its inner or underlying reality. To act in this way is to intervene: to come between the cause and the symptom, interrupting the communication between them. The radical does not want only to treat the symptoms of the problem. He wants to do something about whatever is producing those symptoms, to affect them at their source. Unless this is done, there will always be more symptoms to treat. Sooner or later the “symptom load” will become unsupportable, and the decision must be taken to intervene. A radical is someone who has taken this decision.

Let us call the process which leads to the radical’s decision to intervene “radicalisation”. It is typically experienced as a growth of awareness, leading to a transformation. The radical begins by being made aware of a problem, being presented with its symptoms. Investigating further, he finds that these symptoms present themselves with some regularity: the same mishaps or abuses happen over and over again. There seems to be is something systematic about them. But their systematic character is not acknowledged: every time something goes wrong, it is treated as an unfortunate happenstance, just the sort of thing that happens from time to time. A subtle mechanism of explanation is brought into play: it was nothing really, the accusations of wrongdoing are malicious, it was an honest mistake, the injured parties deserved or solicited what happened to them, and in any case it is regrettably unavoidable that a few innocents should suffer for the greater good. The person in the process of radicalisation observes that these explanations are self-serving and mutually inconsistent. The mechanism of explanation first denies, then displaces and finally dissolves responsibility.

It is at this point that the separation occurs between appearance, which has a false consistency supported by an obscene underside, and reality, which is the domain of root causes which finally explain both “normal” experience and its apparent lapses into “abnormal” violence and disorder. While others are distracted by appearances, and led by them to believe that the world “just happens” to be a certain way, the radical begins to understand that there are real powers at work behind the forms of appearance, and that it is possible to identify and confront them. In this way, the radical is drawn into conflict with the real powers of the world. He becomes responsible for the world, the guarantor of its moral consistency, assuming the very responsibility that those in authority take such pains to deny.

There are two paths open to the radical, once this responsibility is assumed. One is to strike violently against the false consistency of the domain of appearance, in the hope of reviving the real conflicts it exists to disguise and suppress. For the terrorist radicals of the Red Army Fraction, it was a question of shattering the complacent self-satisfaction of the triumphant West, bringing the violence of anti-imperialist conflict in Latin America and Vietnam into the midst of West German society. For today’s Islamist radicals, it is a question of spiritual awakening, separating the true followers of Islam from the decadent tyranny of secular governments. Theirs is a familiar line of attack: grand public outrages, aimed at shaking the spectator’s faith in the solidity, the dependability, of the spectacle. What advertised itself as prosperity and social peace, a more or less livable arrangement, is shown to be susceptible to horrifying assaults, and to be incapable of responding to the threat of such assaults except through indiscriminate retaliatory excesses and a poignant attenuation of convivial sentiment.

The ultimate goal of this strategy is the “desertification” of reality: the undoing of social peace (which assuredly protects privilege and power) and the summoning of society to judgement through the tribulations of a final conflict. What began as a quest for reality must end with the furious annihilation of all that is unreal. But the real never appears, even as the world of appearances shudders. The terrorist radical, engineer of spectacular atrocity, does not succeed in dissolving the enchantment of the spectacle but rather in reinforcing it. The RAF’s political critique is all but forgotten: the names of Baader and Meinhof are sentimentally conjoined, like those of Bonnie and Clyde. And what can we say of the obscene, compulsive unreality of the so-called “war on terror”, if not that it is a war against a phantom, a war in which the helpless absurdities of “security theatre” go hand-in-hand with an indiscriminate and terrible violence? Truly this is the kind of war which the world of the spectacle wages against its own manifestations. Far from being an eschatological conflict in which the real stakes of existence are finally revealed and fought over, it has the interminable stupidity of a waking dream or a soap opera. Terrorist acts do not awaken populations, but knock them into a stupor.

What is the second path open to the radical? It is to recognise in the separation of “appearance” from “reality” not the final division of forces constituting the world, but the primary evidence of the contingency of any regime of appearance. Simply: what is made to appear is not everything that there is, or could be, and the “internal logic” of what appears is never wholly adequate to support its apparent consistency. The problem is not only that the “immoral logic” of imperial power is coupled with a “moral illogic”, in which the plausibility of “humanitarian” apologetics for projections of that power is established through the most cynical manipulation of opinion. It is also that, as much as it may depend on lucid calculations of material interest, the Realpolitik of the ruling classes does not place them in command of reality itself: their “immoral logic” is no less a logic of appearance, a logic organizing a world-view and fatally bound to the finite interests of those who uphold it.

In fact, it is up to the radical to identify that which eludes this logic, that which is subtracted from the world-view that it organises. To think towards the real, by way of entering the site of a subtraction, rather than seeking to denude the real by annihilating the merely apparent. The “immoral logic” of imperial power has the force of a rationalisation, a “making reasonable” of what is, at bottom, arbitrary privilege backed up by recourse to devastating force. One is compelled to accept the rationalisation because the person making it does not need to answer for its rationality, having recourse instead to violence as his final answer. But there is always some aspect of reality that such rationalisations cannot master, some point at which instead of continuing on a path towards the real they double back and attempt (and fail) to form a closed loop of self-justification. It is at such a point that reality falls outside the ambit of the rationalisation that attempts to capture it, such that it is subtracted from the “rational” account of reality. From the point of view of any self-interested instrumentalisation of reason, it is reality itself that is “unreasonable”.

The task of the radical is accordingly to take reason to unreasonable lengths, to resume the passage towards the real. And this means: making unreasonable demands, and not backing down when opponents protest at the incompatibility of these demands with the “reality” of imperial consensus. Refusing to “see reason” when threatened and coerced. Refusing to abide by what common sense declares is only a reasonable accommodation to the state of affairs. Refusing to be cowed by the apparent worldly mastery of those who promulgate the currently fashionable rationalisations of their own dominance. Above all, refusing to let the radical orientation of thought towards the real be dismissed as irresponsible and irrational, as lacking in civic piety or human sympathy. “To go to the root” is to be concerned with the only possible basis for a human sympathy not limited by communitarian interest or ethnic particularity, or a responsibility not finally answerable to the caprices of power.


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john doe
Nov 12, 2011 6:33

Great article – fucking win . thank you.

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