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What Does It Mean to Be Radical?

It’s not just about advocating extreme political positions

Paris Marx
Sep 6, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo: Randy Colas/Unsplash

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Democratic socialists are rising. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley pulled off upset wins in New York and Massachusetts, support is surging for policies like “Medicare for all” and tuition-free college, and Bernie Sanders is the most popular U.S. politician (who, let’s be honest, would have won). As left-leaning people and policies become more prominent, the term “radical” is being thrown around a lot — but what does it really mean?

Radicalism, especially in a political context, is associated with extreme views and the desire for rapid social change. The precise definition naturally varies by country, depending on existing social structures and political climates.

For example, in the U.S., the idea of overhauling the health care system to replace private insurance with a public plan is often perceived as radical, while Canadians consider their government-funded health care to be quite normal. The idea of eliminating university tuition is a more radical proposal in Canada — in some provinces more than others — yet in Norway, university has long been free for everyone (even foreigners), and citizens receive stipends while pursuing their studies.

Meanwhile, any proposal to switch to a socialist economic and political system — however that’s defined — is considered radical in any capitalist country. But it will sound far more extreme to an American audience than to those in parts of Europe, South America, and Asia.

Someone who identifies as a socialist or leftist of some stripe will likely consider themselves a radical and support radical policy positions, but that’s not the only meaning behind the word. In linguistics, mathematics, and other fields, the radical refers to the root of a word, number, etc. The same can be said of a radical understanding of society.

Getting to the root of the problem

In April 2013, two men were arrested in Toronto because police believed they were plotting a terrorist attack on a passenger train. Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, asked about arrests and the root causes of terrorism, told reporters that it was “not a time to commit sociology.”

The prime minister wasn’t the only one to dismiss efforts to understand the deeper issues that could lead someone to become involved with a terrorist attack. Members of Harper’s right-wing party echoed his statement, including a particularly loyal parliamentarian, Pierre Poilievre, who commented on the CBC’s flagship political program that “the root cause of terrorism is terrorists.”

Radicals attempt to understand the root of the social problem — to cultivate an approach that goes beyond what can be easily observed on the surface.

These statements were very clear. To Harper and his fellow conservatives, terrorists were bad people beyond redemption. They didn’t deserve any consideration that could provide a more nuanced perspective on what led them to consider attacking a train. It didn’t matter that understanding the root causes could help avert other terror threats in the future — a terrorist was a terrorist, and that was that.

This brings us back to what it means to have a radical worldview. As opposed to the tendency of conservatives like Harper and Poilievre, radicals attempt to understand the root of the social problem — to cultivate an approach that goes beyond what can be easily observed on the surface. Radicals seek to understand the complex web of linkages among various social phenomena, the real-world impacts of socially constructed beliefs, and how the dominant approach of policymaking by political elites ignores the broader social impacts.

Remember when Bernie was criticized for not being good on the issues that mattered to black people because he was presenting policies aimed at general poverty reduction instead of things specific to black people? That was because Bernie understood, as do many democratic socialists, that the best way to address racial injustice isn’t necessarily through policies narrowly targeted at black people — though some of that will be required — but by fixing broken, underfunded, and racist systems with negative effects far beyond the black community.

The same goes for education and health care. When democratic socialists approach these issues, their focus is partly on removing economic barriers to access — providing everyone with public insurance without a deductible and eliminating tuition fees — but also on addressing the other social factors that may cause poor health or educational outcomes. For example, improving access to healthy food, making communities safer, and building affordable housing with stable tenancies, among other things.

Democratic socialists have a much more expansive view of the role of government, which is essential to properly addressing social problems. They understand, for example, that increasing children’s stress by forcing them to take more tests will not improve their education. But ensuring that they get a good meal, live in safe neighborhoods, and aren’t at risk of getting evicted can promote positive outcomes — even if those things don’t seem directly related to childhood education.

It’s time for radical perspectives

The social safety net has been decimated after decades of policies enacted by a political class in the pocket of the ultra-rich. The wealthy have benefited immensely from the inequality resulting from an economy rigged on their behalf. For a while, average people believed the riches would eventually trickle down, but the financial crash served as a harsh wake-up call that they couldn’t expect to see even a drop.

For nearly a century, they’d been told that socialism was akin to fascism — and some old liberals still believe that — but Bernie’s presidential campaign played an important role in redefining socialism and showing Americans that radical policy approaches don’t have to be as scary as they were led to believe.

The political climate of the United States has become much more open to extremes in the past few years. There’s an opening for the reactionary policies of a renewed far-right movement, but people are also ready for radical critiques and solutions to long-standing social issues. And the radical perspective, which looks far below the surface to understand the broader range of factors impacting social phenomena, will be essential to building a society that works for everyone, not just billionaire plutocrats.

Paris Marx

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