6.2.5.2 Radicalism: Ideologically-Based Major Change

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6252.htm)

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:

“Advocating thorough or far-reaching change; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party; ….  characterised by departure from tradition; progressive; unorthodox.” [1]

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.

Ideological visions, of how the world might be, come from the entire width of the political spectrum:

  • Libertarianism, making the individual as free as possible from all constraints, is an extreme form of individualism which embeds privilege – to the disadvantage of the less privileged (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 would be a radical change for many countries.
  • 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).

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 without extreme violence – though 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.  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.”  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.  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.

In practice, people cannot all digest change at the same speed; 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; this article 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 his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (in chapter 9).

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

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[1] This definition is based on excerpts from The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.