The Trouble with Radicalism

For all the sharp criticism self-described leftists and radicals aim at liberals and liberalism, virtually every successful social movement in the US has been liberal at its core. Even when movement leaders, such as MLK, Jr., were opposed to liberal ideas, they succeeded largely by relying on those ideas. King may have been a socialist, but the movement he led was liberal through and through. Similarly, the gay rights movement was long split between a “pragmatic” and a “radical” side, but it was the rights-based argument that made the difference. Indeed, this is a particularly instructive case, as the more recent fight for marriage equality demonstrates.

The radical view has been, and remains, that the drive for marriage rights represents The Trouble with Normal. If LGBTQ people are required to comply with or help reaffirm a heteronormative regime built around ideals of reproduction and the like, they should reject the bargain of marriage rights. Normalization of the sort carried out through the standard liberal rhetoric of popular culture is viewed not as a pragmatic compromise but as an unacceptable form of blackmail. More accurately, compromise itself amounts to capitulating to blackmail, insofar as it delivers some tangible good—marriage equality—in exchange for support of an intolerable system (heteronormativity; the nuclear family form as linchpin of capitalism; etc.).

But while the radicals devoted their energies to repudiating such rhetoric, its proponents used it to shift public opinion quickly and dramatically. As a result, millions of people are seeing their lives transformed for the better, while the radical dream of destroying the status quo remains moribund.

Who, then, are the radicals? Withholding support for strategies that “sell out” the transformative vision allows the radicals to remain powerless, to miss their aim, and thus to enjoy their failure. This is what accounts for the surplus hatred of liberals and liberalism that defines the left and the radical stance as such. They may loathe capitalism, but they fight liberalism. Why? Because liberalism is the obstacle that enables radicals to enjoy their incapacity to overthrow the “true” enemy. This is why liberalism must be kept in place, so that radicals can never join forces with liberals to attain genuine political gains. They must be willing to “sacrifice” LGBGTQ and other rights if pursuing them means collaborating with liberalism, since this would validate the latter’s rhetorical efficacy.

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