6.2.5.2 Radicalism: Imposition of Major Change

Progressivism can be termed ‘radical’ in situations where idealism stimulates complete and rapid change of a large part of the political system.  The term ‘radical’ is used here in its political sense, as defined in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

“Advocating thorough or far-reaching change; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party; ….  characterised by departure from tradition; progressive; unorthodox.”

It can be argued that a radical change programme is the only appropriate response for major changes in circumstances, or to correct serious problems in governance, but it is risky and is rarely supported by the whole population.

Utopian visions, of how the world might be, come from various viewpoints:

  • Libertarianism, making the individual as free as possible from all constraints, is an extreme form of individualism close to anarchy (6.2.2.3). Neoliberalism (3.5.9.1) is an economic form of it.
  • Communism, which is the extreme form of socialism (6.2.3.2), gives the State almost unlimited power and curtails individual freedom.
  • The neoconservative (6.2.4.4) vision is to introduce liberal democracy everywhere. The term ‘neoconservative’ is misleading: it seems conservative to its Western supporters, but it is arrogant and it implies a radical change for many countries without the consent of their populations.
  • Some extreme conservative positions, retreating to the past, encourage narrow racial or religious supremacism – such as a global caliphate, as envisioned by ISIS (6.2.4.6). By definition, a supremacist position does not command everyone’s support.

Each of these is aspirational and none has been implemented in a pure form – although neoliberalism has gone a long way towards implementing its vision.  The attempt to impose any of them would be radical.  Major changes have sometimes been implemented peacefully – but others have required a violent revolution, as described in the next sub-section (6.2.5.3).

A peaceful radical change to a large part of the governance structure is comparatively rare, but in one famous example Margaret Thatcher implemented neoliberalism in Britain by using powers that the government had been granted democratically.  She reduced the scope of the welfare state, privatised major industries, reduced the power of the trade unions, shifted the emphasis of taxation from progressive to regressive, deregulated the finance system and set the country on a course that was subsequently endorsed by all the major political parties.  It was a big economic change, requiring a considerable shift in moral attitudes, but it left the political and legal systems largely untouched.

Her obituary in The Economist, entitled Margaret Thatcher: No ordinary politician, listed her many achievements but also noted that “She was, for a time, the most unpopular prime minister on record.”  Some violence occurred, notably in 1984 at the British Steel Corporation’s coking plant at Orgreave, as described in a BBC article entitled Background: ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ for example, but that was contained by police rather than military force.  Her critics argue that, although some change was necessary, it could have been more peacefully achieved if it had been more gradual.

It requires great force of character to implement major change, so it is associated with politicians who have an authoritarian streak.  An Economist article, Why the British prime minister’s job is an impossible one, commented on the centralization of power in Downing Street from Margaret Thatcher’s government onwards.

In practice, people cannot all digest change at the same speed.  Some will be disadvantaged by it.  Some, especially those whose views can be classified as reactionary (6.2.4.5), will oppose change simply because it makes them feel insecure or because they cannot see sufficient justification for it.

Radical politicians may be supported by some intellectuals, described as “Fellow-travellers and useful idiots in the title of an article by John Gray; he cited Nancy Astor, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and Christopher Hitchens as idealists who ignored the potentially disastrous consequences of the radical policies they advocated.  The population as a whole doesn’t always see the risks and radicals then get their way – as Yeats wrote, in his poem ‘The Second Coming’, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

Radicalism has what Anthony Dworkin described as:

“the essential unreality of Utopias, which cannot fulfil their objectives without attempting to remake human nature, or eliminate groups within society that are seen as agents of corruption or reaction”.

Dworkin argued, in his article The case for minor Utopias, that restricting the scope of programmes reduces the risk of unintended consequences where radical change is planned.  Karl Popper advocated a similar approach, using the term “piecemeal engineering” which he contrasted with “Utopian engineering”, in chapter 9 of his book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

The inescapable problems associated with change, as described later (6.7.8), are a valid reason for exercising some caution.

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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6252c.htm.