Who’s afraid of ‘radical’ politics?

The Radical Label

As the 2017 election approaches the question has been asked of ‘the left’ in New Zealand – Is it time to ‘go radical‘?

It’s a question especially relevant to the Labour Party given recent polling.

But it’s almost exactly the wrong question to ask; and for a very simple reason – successful radicalism is not radical.

At least, it’s not radical for ordinary people  But, almost invariably, what is not radical for ordinary people needs to be depicted as radical by elites.

But why?It’s symptomatic of the state of the left that perfectly moderate, middle-of-the-road policies of the kind in the manifesto of the United Kingdom Labour Party are labelled as ‘radical’ – even by some members of ‘the left’.

They aren’t. And that’s why they succeeded so effectively over the course of a mere few weeks in transforming the electoral chances of the UK Labour Party. Many people found these supposedly radical policies eminently reasonable, sensible and more than acceptable.

Take a look at the headline billing of policies that according to some represented a shift to the ‘radical left’ end of the political spectrum:

UK Labour Party Manifesto Headings

Now ask yourself – which of those policies sounds ‘radical’?

Perhaps you think those are just nice and reasonable sounding words to cover a ‘radical policy agenda’? A ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ piece of rhetoric-cum-marketing spin?

Well, have a read of the first one – Creating an Economy That Works for All.

Here is the terrifyingly radical ‘guts’ of that policy:

We will measure our economic success not by the number of billionaires, but by the ability of our people to live richer lives.

Labour understands that the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government. Each contributes and each must share fairly in the rewards.

Taxation is what underpins our shared prosperity. All of us, including business, benefit from a healthy, educated and skilled population, with access to basic services and secure housing.

We believe in the social obligation to contribute to a fair taxation scheme for the common good. We will take on the social scourge of tax avoidance through our Tax Transparency and Enforcement Programme, and close down tax loopholes.

But we will not ask ordinary households to pay more. A Labour government will guarantee no rises in income tax for those earning below £80,000 a year, and no increases in personal National Insurance Contributions or the rate of VAT.

Under Labour’s plans, 95 per cent of taxpayers will be guaranteed no increase in their income tax contributions, and everyone will be protected from any increase in personal National Insurance contributions and VAT. Only the top 5 per cent of earners will be asked to contribute more in tax to help fund our public services.

A tax increase only for the top 5% was the policy on which the Labour Party in New Zealand ran on for the 1999 general election – and formed the Fifth Labour Government led by Helen Clark. Is that now to be seen as a ‘radical’ tax policy imposed by a radical government?

I could go on through the entire document but you get the idea: The reasonableness goes right the way down.

This isn’t radicalism – and, crucially, it isn’t presented as radicalism. It’s presented as what it is, a common-or-garden way to organise a modern, democratic society.

So why is there all this talk of being ‘radical’?

The answer is simple. It’s called ‘radical’ because it is at odds with the current economic, social and cultural settings that were designed to serve only a small part of the population.

It is these ‘current settings’, however, that in any balanced analysis should themselves be termed ‘radical’.

They are radical in the same way that Feudal relationships were radical; in the same way that empires have been radical; and in the same way that any massively distorted distribution of power and wealth in a society is ‘radical’.

All such departures from a broadly egalitarian society, economy and culture are quintessentially radical if only because for the vast stretch of human existence, egalitarianism and equality were not only the norm but also the active and deliberate goal of social organisation.

As recent anthropological research has pointed out:

Keeping the playing field level was a matter of survival. These small-scale, nomadic foraging groups didn’t stock up much surplus food, and given the high-risk nature of hunting – the fact that on any given day or week you may come back empty-handed – sharing and cooperation were required to ensure everyone got enough to eat. Anyone who made a bid for higher status or attempted to take more than their share would be ridiculed or ostracised for their audacity. Suppressing our primate ancestors’ dominance hierarchies by enforcing these egalitarian norms was a central adaptation of human evolution, argues social anthropologist Christopher Boehm. It enhanced cooperation and lowered risk as small, isolated bands of humans spread into new habitats and regions across the world, and was likely crucial to our survival and success.

More intriguingly – the same authors argue – is that more recent radical departures from the dominant egalitarian form of human social organisation have always been inherently unstable. And it is that instability, paradoxically, that has propelled such radical and hierarchical social arrangements to conquer and eliminate less radical, more stable, more egalitarian societies.

As the authors of the linked article explain:

Counterintuitively, the fact that inequality was so destabilising caused these societies to spread by creating an incentive to migrate in search of further resources. The rules in our simulation did not allow for migration to already-occupied locations, but it was clear that this would have happened in the real world, leading to conquests of the more stable egalitarian societies – exactly what we see as we look back in history.

In other words, inequality did not spread from group to group because it is an inherently better system for survival, but because it creates demographic instability, which drives migration and conflict and leads to the cultural – or physical – extinction of egalitarian societies. Indeed, in our future research we aim to explore the very real possibility that natural selection itself operates differently under regimes of equality and inequality. Egalitarian societies may have fostered selection on a group level for cooperation, altruism and low fertility (which leads to a more stable population), while inequality might exacerbate selection on an individual level for high fertility, competition, aggression, social climbing and other selfish traits.

So what can we learn from all this? Although dominance hierarchies may have had their origins in ancient primate social behaviour, we human primates are not stuck with an evolutionarily determined, survival-of-the-fittest social structure. We cannot assume that because inequality exists, it is somehow beneficial. Equality – or inequality – is a cultural choice.

Let me put a modern take on that analysis.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously wrote of the ability of capitalism to operate a process of ‘creative destruction‘. He even called it the “essential fact about capitalism“. If the above researchers are correct then Schumpeter was likely only half right.

Capitalism, and other systems that have generated inequality throughout human history, are successful not because they have some sustainable creative capacity but, counterintuitively, solely because they are destructive. That ultimately involves destruction of themselves and – in the process and as a consequence – of other more egalitarian forms of society.

Variants on our current type of economy fundamentally exploit – to the point of destruction – what has been sustainably created by other, more stable, processes such as the creative and cooperative efforts of individuals, social groups, societies and cultures.

So here we are today in this strange, topsy-turvy world in which more stable and creative visions of the social world in keeping with the huge expanse of the ‘deep history’ of our species are pejoratively labelled as ‘radical’, ‘irrational’, ‘crazy’, ‘extreme’ and ‘impractical’.

Even the longing for ‘equality’ itself – the sine qua non of human social existence over evolutionary time – is viewed, by some, as intellectually sad, even immature in its naivety. It’s even characterised by some as a sentimental indulgence that threatens the long-term greater good by dampening economic growth.

At the same time, highly destructive, unstable forms of social organisation – and the political ideologies and policies that prop them up – are deemed ‘realistic’, ‘reasonable’, ‘rational’ and ‘intelligent’.

It’s enough to mess with your mind – assuming your mind is grounded in the realities of being human, of course.

But there’s another dimension to the ‘radicalism’ taunt that is worth highlighting.

The accusation of radicalism – and all of the phrases that get trotted out in keeping with that accusation such as ‘far-left’, ‘hard-left’, ‘looney-left’, etc. – is an example of a very common human social and rhetorical strategy.

Socially, it’s called stigmatisation, a term often associated with sociologist Erving Goffman because of his work on ‘Stigma’. The word ‘stigma’ is from the Greek and often denoted a visual sign on a person’s body – e.g., Christ’s ‘stigmata’ after crucifixion. It, variously, has come to mean also a ‘mark’ on someone’s character and social identity.

Interestingly, Goffman included mention of ‘radical political behavior’ in talking about three different types of stigma (under the category of “blemishes of individual character“):

Goffman: Three Types of Stigma. From: https://campus.fsu.edu/bbcswebdav/institution/academic/social_sciences/sociology/Reading%20Lists/Social%20Psych%20Prelim%20Readings/III.%20Self%20and%20Identity/1963%20Goffman%20-%20Stigma%20and%20Social%20Identity.pdf

Today, we hear most about ‘stigmatisation’ in relation to disadvantaged groups identified by ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability. But it can also be used to put ideas – and those who promote them – beyond the realm of what social psychologists call the ‘latitude of acceptance‘ and into the territory of the ‘latitude of rejection‘ (or at least the ‘latitude of non-commitment‘).

The latitude of acceptance, at the level of the individual, amounts to the range of opinion about an issue that a person finds acceptable enough to engage with. The latitude of rejection is its shadow: The range of positions that barely rate a moment’s consideration or entertainment.

In many ways, the rhetoric and discourses of political discussion (and ‘spin’) in the media are battles over which people – and their positions – can be stigmatised to the point that, for most people, they are rejected almost out of hand. When that is achieved, those advocating the rejected position cannot even begin a dialogue with the broader public.

Once again, this rhetorical tactic has perhaps a deeper human history than we might realise. This study by Kurzban and Leary in 2001 argued that processes of stigmatisation have long had practical rather than simply attitudinal ‘goals’, which is why the process evolved. As they summarised in the abstract:

A reconceptualization of stigma is presented that changes the emphasis from the devaluation of an individual’s identity to the process by which individuals who satisfy certain criteria come to be excluded from various kinds of interactions.

While stigmatisation inevitably involves ‘negative evaluations’ of individuals (often because of group membership) – and while this is of acute interest and concern for those so stigmatised – their point is that a negative evaluation is not the ultimate aim of stigmatisation (especially from an evolutionary perspective).

Instead, the whole point of stigmatising people is so they get excluded and that a consensus is achieved to socially dissociate from such people. As human beings, we’re highly prone to the threat of social exclusion and ostracism, ironically because of our highly social nature.

Again, as the authors state in relation to the goal of their article (Kurzban and Leary, 2001, p. 187):

Our goal in this article is to present a perspective on the process of stigmatization and the important question of why an inherently social species with a strong need for social acceptance should be so inclined to reject members of its own kind.

Labels such as ‘extremist’ and ‘radical’ are about as blatant as it gets in political discourse to appeals to reject one’s opponents along with the political value positions they occupy and policies they propose.

Echoing Goffman’s three types of stigmatisation these authors also distinguish three broad types of stigmatisation.

The first involves stigmatisation arising from the problem of ensuring dyadic, or group-level cooperation (i.e., social exchange).

Basically, the problem is how to stigmatise to the point of exclusion those individuals who ‘defect’ (i.e., cheat) in a social interaction. Stigmatisation of this type is often based on claims of rule-breaking (e.g., breaking the law, social norms, obligations, moral codes, etc.).

The second involves stigmatisation to advance the cause of ‘coalitional exploitation‘. This occurs where members of an ‘in-group’ (a coalition) seek to stigmatise members of an ‘out-group’ in order to subordinate and then exploit it (e.g., the poor).

The third concerns stigmatisation underpinned by ‘parasite avoidance‘. Given the survival threat (more technically, the threat to ‘fitness’) posed by disease and other parasitic infection for any animal, this form of stigmatisation is based on the need to avoid contagion and contamination. Often associated with visible signs, this stigmatisation aligns most literally with the original Greek notion of stigma as a ‘mark’.

But, of course, humans are pretty complex. As the authors note near the end of their article, we’re pretty good at complicating this analysis through our ability to use metaphor and symbolism:

Kurzban and Leary (2001, p. 202)

In this metaphorical way – and whether or not you buy into their evolutionary take – it’s not hard to find links between the logic they present concerning the three types of stigmatisation and the increasingly hyperbolic political rhetoric in which various opposing points of view (and people) are described as ‘crazy’, ‘conspiratorial’, ‘traitors’, ‘wreckers’, ‘liars’, ‘cheats’ and so on.

That is, a lot of today’s political ‘discussion’ amounts to concerted attempts to stigmatise one’s opponents and their ideas. In those attempts, at least metaphorical use is made of all three forms of these entrenched conditions that typically trigger tendencies to stigmatise – i.e., (1) dyadic cooperation; (2) parasite avoidance;(3) coalitional exploitation.

As a result, opponents become characterised as (1) unreliable for, and undeserving of, the important ‘social exchange’ of voting for a person or party (they are liars, hypocrites, cheats, etc.); (2) carrying society-weakening ‘contagion’ (‘evil ideologies’, ‘politics of envy/victimhood/entitlement’, ‘divisiveness’, etc.) which might ‘spread’ if given any oxygen.

And – most relevant to this post – (3) opponents become increasingly accused of membership of some ‘radical’, ‘fringe’, ‘extremist’ political out-group which, if given any credence, represents an existential threat to the status quo. A status quo upon which so many feel – and consensually agree that – they depend for their material, social and cultural security.

The aim is ultimately to exclude such ideas, and the people who promote them, from ‘serious’ and ‘reasonable’ political debate. The goal is to corral their views and pronouncements into the ‘latitude of rejection’ by using as many appeals to consensual stigmatisation (usually through metaphor) as possible.

There are no doubt times when such ‘stigmatisation’ may be justifiable (e.g., in cases of totalitarian and/or fascist prescriptions) but the rhetorical use of such language goes far beyond such cases by any reasonable estimate.

One consequence of these discourses of stigmatisation in politics, when they work, is that many politicians – and many people who identify with particular political positions on the political spectrum – start to cower from being included in the exclusion that predictably follows.

Like dissenters in medieval Christendom who went to great lengths to profess how God-fearing they were, such politicians want to be accepted as ‘sensible’, ‘reasonable’ and definitely ‘not radical’.

But, rather than simply pointing out that what they advocate is far from radical, the choices that have been made by left wing political parties around the world – at least until recently and even then only in a few cases – have been to eschew the left perspective on social and economic issues almost entirely and embrace the (very recently) established ‘consensus’ often termed ‘neoliberalism‘.

Talk about ‘yielding the field’ to your political opponents.

It’s as if, en masse, the left – and its ‘leaders’ – have undergone a drastic loss of faith and confidence in the simple human and humane common sense of the kind of world and the kind of values they have historically represented.

It is time to fight back and call-out the actual radicalism that is dragging this world to its knees and putting ordinary people under immense pressure and suffering in the process. It is time to reassert faith in an egalitarian society; one in which all people can thrive and in which collective efforts ensure that the baseline of life in our society is not the breadline.

And it’s time to stop apologising for doing so.

If there is a radicalism at large in politics that truly represents some kind of existential threat then at least let’s acknowledge what it really is – the unstable, unequal and ultimately disastrous radicalism that, today, passes for ‘business as usual’.

Our way of life is being threatened by a dark force. We must defend our way of life. What is this dark force which threatens our way of life?
It’s our way of life…

Leunig cartoon

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7 Responses to Who’s afraid of ‘radical’ politics?

  1. janine says:

    Good to have you back

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Janine,

      Yes, it’s been a while :-). I think I have about a dozen draft posts over the last year that never got finalised … and then the moment passed. I hope to write a few more before the election.


  2. On The Cloud says:

    I agree with Janine, it was my top priority to read the article. Unfortunately the neo-liberal view has assumed the role of the norm. One reason is that it does not have a definite name so relies on “common sense” etc to normalise its greedy agenda. The Shell Scenarios promulgated by Wissema et al in the seventies comes to mind with three competing scenarios based on business as usual, frustration and conflict, realism and restraint. Oh dear!

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi On The Cloud,

      Thanks for the comment. Much appreciated.

      One of the things I always try to remember is that some fairly awful circumstances have been endured by people for multiple generations because they were just seen as the way things are (and had to be). Yet all of those arrangements have, ultimately, passed into history. Change is always happening so we must always do our best to push it in the most positive direction we can.


  3. cmih2 says:

    As ever I loved reading this. It made me realise that it really does stop change – we all know for example that we really need a new economic frame from the one we have that is destroying our society AND the planet and yet we fear being to radical. It is one of the reasons why I’m kind of glad TOP is on the scene. For all their faults, they are making it ok to put different ideas onto the table for discussion. I guess because Morgan says he is prepared to work with National, they, as the ones in power and with the greatest financial backing, haven’t really leveled the “radical” label at him (or perhaps they’ve been distracted by Metiria!).
    Despite that, I can’t see that a pretty conservative party like National would really want to adopt many of his policies or attempt to work with them. Trouble is he is one of the in crowd too (he he) but I guess time will tell and there will lots of interesting stuff to watch as it does.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi cmih2,

      Thanks very much for the comments – really appreciated.

      TOP is definitely an interesting addition to the electoral mix this time around. I should have a closer look both at the proposed policies and at the overarching framework that they come out of. I remember when Gareth Morgan used to be ‘just’ an economics commentator who RNZ would call up from time to time on particular bits of news about the economy. It struck me then that Morgan was a mix of iconoclast and orthodox economist (there’s quite a few economists that try to straddle those stools) so I’m not sure what to make of TOP yet.


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