So What Is “Pragmatic Radicalism” Anyway? Composing, 03/08/2016

The wonderful photo SERRC published with my last piece.
Last week, I published a new essay at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. I thought of the idea in response to an essay by my colleague and long-standing argument partner Steve Fuller, “Prolegomena to the Deep Sociology of Brexit.”

Now that I’ve returned from the wild woods of central Quebec,* I wanted to start the month with a breakdown of that essay – so you can see what I’m doing with it, and how that work expresses my newly-formulated mission statement as a writer and researcher.

* It was a very pleasant and necessary vacation, thank you, but I really am quite happy to be back in Toronto and returning to my work. More like my many works.

I’d say I learned two things from my time at this May’s Canadian Philosophical Association. 1) Progressive politics among academics lags far behind the actual activists developing new ideas, approaches, and outreach methods. This was more of a re-confirmation than a discovery. 

But most important was 2) There doesn’t really seem to be a place in the academic community for voices that aren’t affiliated with professorial positions in universities. I had a lot of very good conversations, but I was essentially an alien among this crowd. 

Even in seminars where my contributions went over well, some attendees appeared completely unable to process what I was – a researcher unaffiliated with a university who wasn’t at all jockeying for a university position anymore. Just someone here to share their research, able to write, publish, and speak on the same level as the university-based folk.

I had a guiding ideal of what I suppose
became pragmatic radicalism when
writing my last book, but I couldn't
get its publication out of academic
marginalization of high prices and
the catacombs of libraries.
So I’ve begun developing a brand for myself as a public intellectual whose institutional home is in activist communities and political parties. A blue-collar scholar, if you want to put it in a rap.** Part of that brand and identity is developing a philosophical language that addresses immediately relevant public issues while simultaneously crafting complex concepts.

** Please don’t do that. It would be terrible.

That’s what my “Pragmatic Radicalism” essay is. A work of philosophical creativity in response to an occasion. I mean ‘occasion’ in the sense of, “the event that occasioned this response.” An event in our public life of such a significance and complexity that it prompts a public work of philosophical reflection and creativity.

One thing that frustrated me about philosophy as a discipline, from the time I started work on the project that would be Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, was the disconnect of its creative thinking from the concerns of the world. 

In turbulent times like these, we need contributions to our politics that encourage thought – not thought instead of action, but thought that is one with action. Protest that generates policy. Creativity in harmony with activism.

I’m developing a new brand of blended philosophical research and creativity with worldly activism and social engagement. And my essay at the Reply Collective, “The Pragmatic Radicalism of the Multitude’s Power,” is both a sketch of what that writing style would be, as well as an example. 

How it’s an example I’ve already explained: a work of abstract philosophical creativity, produced on an occasion. But what’s the concept? What is pragmatic radicalism?

When I first floated the title to Fuller, he told me it sounded paradoxical. And that’s definitely part of its spark. A paradox – broadly speaking – is the juxtaposition of several ideas that don’t typically fit together. To me, there are two kinds of paradoxes. 

Vicious paradoxes confuse, frustrate, and arrest thought. But creative paradoxes let you work through a new way of thinking while you figure out the logic by which the juxtaposed ideas make sense together. A new harmony emerges from a dissonant collision.

Pragmatic radicalism is fundamentally about expanding
the realm of the conceivable in your society's public
conversations and thinking.
Pragmatic radicalism sounds paradoxical. Radicalism is a pure idealism, usually thought of as a refusal to compromise, the refusal to give up on anything but your opponents’ total capitulation. A radical’s hopes are usually so distant from the real world that their achievement seems impossible, but they’re committed to them totally anyway.

Pragmatism appears the precise opposite. You have ideals, but you’re prepared to accept compromise with opponents or askew allies – to make allies from opponents – to achieve some progress toward those ideals. Pragmatism is political realism, while radicalism is a refusal of the real’s resistance to your ideals.

Pragmatic radicalism embraces ideals, but also acknowledges and pushes against the resistance of the world as it is to achieve those ideals. It is the admission that practical achievement in politics can take other routes than compromise alone. 

Pragmatic radicalism is philosophical in that it develops new and revolutionarily different frameworks for our political and social institutions and relationships. It’s pragmatic in its resolute focus on material action to achieve those goals. Not compromise, but community organizing to bring these radical ideas to public discourse and make them seem ordinary.

Our current political climate is full of pragmatic radicalism, for both democratic and fascist ideals. One impressive achievement of the Trump campaign has been rapidly bringing ideals of white supremacism and strongman leadership to mainstream political discourse. Though it took much longer, UKIP has been successful in not only making Britain’s exit from the European Union popularly plausible, but apparently a coming reality.

More details at the website.
Thankfully, the Sanders campaign achieved a similar miracle in returning social democratic policy to America’s mainstream discourse – even embedding these ideas in the policy platform of the previously horrifyingly compromised Democratic Party. 

Most importantly, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought its radical critique of America’s police, court, and prison systems to the realm of mainstream plausibility. BLM has launched several concrete policy platforms for institutional reform, first the policing reform packages of Campaign Zero, and recently the larger policy framework of Movement 4 Black Lives.

The Arab Spring – and its ripples throughout the Arab world, as well as the refugee movements from the Syrian Civil War and Iraq’s war against ISIS – was similarly a movement of pragmatic radicalism. An explosive moment of democracy’s becoming conceivable in the Middle East. 

Communication – networked community organizing and cultivating social media communities – is the essential medium of pragmatic radicalism’s transformation of political possibilities. Practicing that communication of simultaneous advocacy and philosophical creativity is the task of the contemporary public intellectual

Maybe it won’t be the university or the academy that will product these thought leaders. It seems there’s a wider community of well-educated activists and organizers driving this model of politics and social transformation.

Maybe the occasional blue-collar scholar.

1 comment:

  1. I have been describing myself as a pragmatic radical for about a year now. I am interested to see your writing on the term, as it closely mirrors how I envisaged it working as a concept (but never wrote it down).

    I developed my version of the term in response to hearing people in the political centre continually describe themselves as 'pragmatic' as an opposition to the radicalism offered by politicians like Corbyn, Sanders and Melenchon. I, however, felt that at the heart of these 'radical' leaders platform was a pragmatism that recognised the size and systematic nature of the problems society faces. This radicalism was in fact a result of pragmatism.

    I feel that the climate crisis is probably the most clear example where the pragmatic answer is undoubtedly radical.

    I have found the phrase very useful in describing my own politics, which I would argue are informed by research and thought, as well as frustrating political moderates who seem to feel some degree of ownership over the term.