A radical redefinition of what radicalism means
The Labourites calling for a ‘bold and radical’ agenda need a dictionary.
As a stickler for good English and fan of political clarity, I always feel a bit gutted when political terms are emptied of meaning through overuse or abuse. I balk when a washing powder is described as ‘revolutionary’. I saw red when I recently spotted a brand of toilet paper called Freedom (it seems in twenty-first-century Britain freedom really has become something you wipe your arse with). And I get antsy whenever someone describes as ‘radical’ something which is not only not radical but is often quite stuffy, backward-looking, even reactionary. So you can imagine how I felt this week when I read that letter by British Labourite think-tanks calling on a future Labour government to be radical by, er, tackling people’s ‘mental-health problems’ and doing something about climate change, which is apparently ‘flooding people’s homes’.
Proving that the r-word has been battered beyond recognition, various Labour-leaning thinkers and activists made media waves when they said Labour needed to ‘shape up and be bolder and more radical’. ‘Left thinkers warn Ed Miliband against safety-first election manifesto’, headlines said. They seem not to realise that asking Miliband to ditch safeness in favour of daring is a bit like asking a panda bear to become carnivorous – it goes against their entire nature and, let’s face it, ain’t ever going to happen. So it’s just as well that these Labour thinkers are really only asking Miliband to adopt a different kind of safety-first approach to politics, one that better speaks to their political prejudices, though they’ve dressed up their demand – hilariously – as a strike for ‘radicalism’.
So in their letter – published in the Guardian, but widely discussed in the Westminster bubble – they suggest that a bolder, more edgy Labour administration would seek to address modern British people’s ‘social, environmental, physical and mental-health problems’. That is, it would be eco-friendly and super-therapeutic, which, far from being radical, is the fallback outlook of every political hack and operator in Christendom right now. These anti-safety Labour folk – who describe themselves as ‘members of the progressive community’ – are telling Labour effectively to push harder with ‘the politics of behaviour’, a Labour invention, where politicians become more concerned with fixing people’s brains and bodies than with overhauling the real, physical, infrastructural world and economy that surrounds us. The true meaning of radical is ‘relating to, or proceeding from a root’; to be radical, therefore, is to want to address, and usually to yank up, the very root of a society, to change its fundamental make-up and basis. Modern politicos’ patronising concern with the little people’s physical and mental-health problems, with the politics of behaviour, does the opposite of that: it satisfies itself with playing doctor to the allegedly sad masses in lieu of being able to provide us with a new way of doing society, the economy, and the future.
The self-defined progressive letter-writers also say future Labour must do something about the ‘climate change flooding people’s homes’. Let’s leave aside the fact that it’s water, not some mysterious material called climate change, that occasionally floods people’s homes. (Unless they are referring to the propaganda of climate change? In which case, yes, our homes and minds are well and truly being flooded, and any party that seriously proposed doing something about such ceaseless propagation of eco-miserabilism might just be worth a punt in the ballot box.) The fact is that nothing could be less radical than committing oneself to tackling climate change. Not only because every stuffy leader on Earth, from Prince Charles to the pope, is into the climate-change game, but more importantly because the eco-agenda is fundamentally a conservative one. Its concern is with reining in both social ambitions and individual aspiration through ratcheting up fear about the future of our world, telling us we can’t create a world of plenty or live in a stuff-filled utopia, because to do so would imperil this allegedly fragile planet we inhabit. It’s about conserving things, limiting thought, punishing desire, not about unleashing the human potential or overhauling social and economic norms.
The letter writers also say there should be greater ‘accountability [among] powerful institutions’. I’m sure Miliband has already called for such a drab, unstirring development. They say there should be ‘devolution of state institutions, by giving away power… to our nations, regions, cities, and localities’. One should always be suspicious when well-paid politicos call for the ‘giving away’ of power – you just know that, in keeping with the whole pseudo-radical modern-day devolution racket, what they’re really talking about is the movement of aspects of power from the great halls and chambers of Westminster to people like them, in think-tank offices and public-sector buildings, all just itching to exercise more political clout. In one bit of the letter, the progressives go all Oprah, calling for the ’empowerment of everybody’. Empowerment has got to be the most annoying buzzword of the twenty-first-century. History shows us that if ordinary people want power, they will have to take it; when a state or political grouping offers us power, we should instantly ask some awkward questions, because it usually means the ‘power’ to do the kind of things they want us to do – like obsess on our mental problems or tackle climate change.
To see how incredibly unradical this friendly critique of Labour is, just take a quick glance at Labour’s 1918 manifesto. That manifesto was technologically ambitious, demanding that ‘at least a million new houses must be built at once at the state’s expense’. At once! I like that. It was liberal, saying there should be ‘no conscription’ and demanding the ‘destruction of all war-time measures in restraint of civil or industrial liberty’ (it came out immediately following the end of the First World War). The manifesto called for ‘free citizenship, a free parliament, Free Speech’ (its capitals). And it had a fair few principles relating to the international sphere. Under the emphatic headline ‘Hands off democracy!’, it demanded ‘the immediate withdrawal of the Allied forces from Russia’ (where they were busy trying to crush the revolution).
Compare that stuff with what both Miliband and his friendly critics want today. Free speech? They all support the press-policing, freedom-mauling Leveson principles. House-building? They make nods about building a few thousand homes over a period of years, but would never dare to call for a million new homes ‘at once’, for fear of denting their eco-credentials. As for Russia – where Labour 1918 said hands off, Labour 2014 is lining up with everyone else behind the infantile Ukraine / Crimea / Russia script that says the West bears no responsibility for the current crisis in that part of the world and Russia must be punished for it.
Laying Labour’s 1918 manifesto side by side with Labour’s current guff – and the guff of its friendly critics – we can see the fundamental shrinking of what politics means. Once, it was about the big things – ownership, liberty, democracy, war. Now it’s all about the small stuff – mental health, behaviour, recycling, pseudo-devolution. It isn’t only that New New New Labour (or whatever it calls itself these days) isn’t radical, but more importantly that like every other mainstream party of the modern age it takes politics to mean little more than fiddling with people’s brains, bodies and small aspects of our physical surroundings. Horizons have been well and truly lowered. We could do with some serious radicalism in politics, yes; but first, let’s remind ourselves what politics is supposed to be about.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
This article is published in the current issue of spiked plus.