What is radical politics today?

Report back on the launch of the “What ‘is’ radical politics today” book.

Last week Counterpoint, the revitalised think tank of the British Council, hosted the launch of a collection of essays from leading academics, politicians and journalists asking “What is Radical Politics Today?

The answer, from editor Jonathan Pugh, Newcastle University, and most of his panelists seemed to be ‘not much’. Citing the lack of reaction to the £60 billion loaned to the Royal Bank of Scotland by the Bank of England without taxpayer knowledge, Mr Pugh began with surprise at the un-radical nature of our politics.

The chair, Counterpoint director Dr Catherine Fieschi, noted that in the age of terrorism, the idea of radical politics has been given a bad name, just at the time when radicalism is most needed to help local networks regain control in the face of global challenges. Professor Doreen Massey, of the Open University, emphasised the need to see the current financial crisis as a crisis of culture and a crisis of politics, not just of economics.

Professor Massey concluded that the Left had lost control of the narrative, precisely at the time when “this should be a progressive moment”.

By contrast, Professor David Chandler, of the University of Westminster, stated that the narrative has been lost to the rhetoric of the global, which he sees as disempowering us by placing politics so far beyond society that we are absolved of the responsibility to act. The presumed inaccessibility of global politics has weakened our collective agency.

We have become so enfeebled that the idea of government has lost its transformative power, and been reduced to a series of interventions hoping for better individual choices. “Power has escaped the reaches of politics,” he concluded, and there is no one to petition, no one to blame, but ourselves.

This need to reconstruct the frameworks for radical politics, to rejuvenate social movements, was shared by all the panelists. Professor Saskia Sassen, of Columbia University, concluded that we in the Global North have become “consumers of our politics”. She called for a politics to go beyond political parties, to de-nationalise in order to meet global challenges, and to see the state in terms of capabilities.

Responding to Professor Chandler’s claim that the only obstacles to radical engagement are in our imaginations, Pugh agreed that civil society has failed to turn to itself for answers, and that radical politics has become little more than radical philosophy in academia – a critical theory that has made us too afraid of oppression to take action.

Yet, he noted with encouragement the many contributors to the volume who have gone beyond pluralism for its own sake, and talked unabashedly of universalism, and a new left. Dr Fieschi added that the shape of politics has changed, and that power is being shared in new ways that make radicalism harder and less clear.

A spirited, and at times emotional, discussion followed. Audience commentary included a warning against nostalgia for a vanished left that is not returning, and a call to build a clear ideology of radicalism that goes beyond the victimised opposition.

A podcast from Counterpoint with full recordings of the event is now available on their website

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