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Semiformalishmaybe

To be a Radical

For someone who self-describes as a radical leftist, I sometimes find it strange how often I am defending (or at least explaining) the status quo to people online (where almost all of my political activity takes place). What does it really mean to self-identify as a radical, am I actually best categorised as one (if not, perhaps I should remove the identity), is it inconsistent with defending the fruits of civilisation or defending mainstream institutions?

First, let's add our first data point; like many people who admire Rawls, I've adopted his notion of the distinction between full compliance and partial compliance theories; there are two foci for my concerns for justice: the institutions and form of society in the ideal form (that is, were I to get enough consensus/power to replace the current government), and within-system changes that are less radical. The former reflects my actual preferences and is socialist in nature (although if your reading of socialist writers is too narrow you might not recognise it as such), the latter is a form of moderated capitalism. Both of them are to the left of where the Democratic Party is in the United States, although the latter is probably not terribly far from where most progressives are aiming at. I alternate between these perspectives/preferences fairly often and don't often note when I'm doing so; depending on where you're coming from, you might call my full compliance theory radical and my partial compliance theory not.

Second, politics and political philosophy are not as simple as the status quo and people pulling it away from there; while American political discourse has usually been understood in those terms (Conservatives defending the policies of today, the recent past, or perhaps an imaginary distant past, and Liberals pulling it towards some notion of liberty, kindness, or both), the most recent political realignments have made a serious mess of that model, as while liberals in general are still the people with ideas, consensus or defense of those ideas is so troublesome that the Democratic party has become apolitical and technocratic, leaving the Republican party with effectively more ideas at the moment. There are also threats of divergent philosophies that are anti-liberal and also not conservative, such as the libertarians. In pressing my values, I thus have to defend the safeguards and empathy built into our mixed system (significantly as achieved by organised Labour, but also as achieved by years of the Common Law legal tradition) against non-status-quo contenders (either these divergent libertarian philosophers or those trying to undo centuries of societal progress to returned to an imagined ideal). Not to defend these would be both irresponsible and illiberal.

Third, there is always a need to tame the bad ideas from one's own movements; people discard too much when they don't understand the value of what we have. This is traditionally the problem of youth and undereducated people, although given the high barrier to entry to achieve knowledge of legal philosophy in the United States, it's very forgivable. I consider the anarchosocialists and other anti-police anti-state socialists to be deeply in error on this point; well-intentioned and with susbstantially similar values to mine but lacking the knowledge or practicality to compromise. This is common to all American political discourse; we use false comparisons to attack our ideological competitors, neglecting how hard some social problems are and requiring a very high bar of others while providing no solutions (or underanalysed solutions) of our own.

What does it mean to be a radical then? If it simply means advocating something very different than what we have now, I qualify, although I do believe that unlike many of the others in the socialist space, I have enough of a technocratic bent and an attention to detail that my ideas would actually mostly work (and I would not be too proud to reshape them or their implementation if they don't). My readers are free to disagree, of course. My partial-compliance ideas are generally wholeheartedly accepted by progressives (and occasionally moderates and conservatives), as are my more abstract value statements (which sit beneath both the partial and full compliance frameworks). That I get so much traction sometimes surprises me, although knowing how to explain my reasoning in ways that might make sense to some kinds of conservatives probably helps. If being a radical just means that I am willing to consider highly nontraditional views or solutions, I am probably radical, although not all such solutions are going to be worthwhile and if something doesn't seem workable, I'm likely to stick with the status quo unless there's something else that seems workable that's better. There are various theories out there that go under the general header of "radical theory" that are sometimes used as philosophical foundations for various social movements; I generally reject these for the same reasons I reject postmodernism; as the wrong answer to the right questions. Is radicalism inherently revolutionary rather than evolutionary? If so, I straddle the line, as I would take revolution (social revolution or governmental) if I thought it were feasable, would result in something better, were run by the right people/ideas, and had the right risk/reward ratio, but am also comfortable working in terms of evolution.

The perspective I've been working on for the last many years has been to see human nature as improvable, to see government as a messy tool that nontheless serves society, and to aim for the betterment of humanity through whatever means present themselves. It is not populist; it is elitist and technocratic, but avoids privilege for the qualified apart from the ability to be considered or possibly to decide (为人民服务). Any practitioner of it would have to commit to learning as much as they can about human nature, science, history, legal philosophy, and moral philosophy; it admits that the state might situationally be an enemy, but it also is usually situationally vital, and that failures in human nature are just as likely to be situationally an enemy. The growth of strong, communally minded, ethical communities full of highly educated people who aim to do good is our cause; to do this we must meet the basic and reasonable needs of people, to give them the mental space for intellectual and personal growth.

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