Confessions of a wannabe radical
Over the last two years, I have expended an enormous and arguably unhealthy amount of energy on academic philosophy. For the most part, I have explored and defended views which I considered to be unconventional, unusual and – most of all – ‘radical’.
I would normally take some of the ideas developed in my previous post as an example of this. Those ideas form just a small part of a barrage of criticisms I have attempted to level at the currently predominant strand of political philosophy known as ‘liberalism’. My post actually begins with an unmistakably liberal premise; that it is prima facie wrong for coercion to be used to prevent an individual from doing what they want to do. This is mostly commonly construed (especially in non-academic discourse) as a basic ‘right’ to individual liberty. Whilst I titled my post ‘Justifying the state’, it was really about a very particular modern philosophical project – albeit one that is expressly concerned with what would be ordinary and even obvious ideas to us as members of liberal democratic societies.
Given said predominance of liberalism amongst not only academic political philosophers but in the background assumptions of the society in which I live, this has made me sometimes feel like a radical thinker. But more recently, I have been struck by the fact that my ‘philosophical radicalism’ has had virtually no impact to my broader political thinking. Indeed, given my identification by-and-large with the ‘market liberal’ wing of the Liberal Democrats and my relative enthusiasm for their coalition with the Conservatives, a reasonable person can be completely forgiven for wondering whether I really take my own considerations seriously.
Consider another area in which I am prone to finding myself radical: financial regulation. I feel like a radical because compared to other people who casually drop terms like ‘repo market’, ‘regulatory arbitrage’ or ‘rehypothecation of collateral’ into ordinary conversation, I probably am pretty radical. However, as soon as anyone starts talking about the contradictions inherent in the accumulation of capital, a part of my brain just inadvertently switches off. For all I know various Marxian* themes would not only be insightful, but may actually be in consonance with what I already think. I wouldn’t know, because I have never really given them the time of day – for no other reason than it feels like listening to a language I don’t understand. I am aware of things I have said in the past (and even in political philosophy tutorials) that have an unquestionably Marxian flavour, but I seem almost constitutionally incapable of acknowledging it, or of then looking to the Marxian tradition for further inspiration or criticism.
In other words, there is something really quite conventional in my radicalism. That conventionalism is located both in the way I actually go about thinking, and in an unwillingness to allow my conclusions to significantly reorder my basic political and ethical commitments. I find myself dangerously capable of holding seemingly incompatible positions; for example, I believe that there is something to the Marxian notion of an ‘ideology’, which I understand to mean that people will tend to form political/philosophical beliefs that are to their material advantage**. Despite this, I completely fail to seriously apply any sort of hermeneutic of suspicion to the material advantage I may gain through the advance of my own political beliefs.
For most of my adult life, I have been terrified of turning into a sophist. The desire to style myself as a radical is a kind of attempted defence against that eventuality, but I fear it is one that itself has more than a whiff of the sophistical.
*I choose the adjective ‘Marxian’ rather than ‘Marxist’ in order to divorce the intellectual from the political tradition. The latter, I am reliably informed, has often failed to live up to the former
**Of course, since I have never read much Marx or those in the ensuing intellectual tradition, I may well be wrong. If this is not the gist of it, I look forward to being corrected.