Muhammad Domun took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post he writes about ‘radical’ – one of the most politically charged of philosophical keywords.
“I was determined that my Radicalism should not be called in question.”
-Charles Dickens ( The letters of Charles Dickens)
From the new elected FIFA president to make radical realignment to football to David Cameron’s nonsensical arguments on the “traditional submissiveness of Muslim women” being key to the radicalisation of Muslim men. The words radical, radicalism and radicalisation remains some of the most overused, and in all likelihood misused, words in politics and media today. Stemming from the late Latin word Radix, the word radical originated in the 14th century, meaning “of or having roots. However, the general use of the word where it usually means going to the origin of a concept is from 1650s. The political sense of the word which refers to changing from the roots was
first recorded in 1802, whilst radical reform was a current phrase since 1786. It was not until 1921 that the word radical gained the connotations of unconventional. Nowadays radical generally means relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough. Radicalism stems from 1817 coined by no other than Bentham himself in his “Plan of parliamentary reform, in the form of a catechism”. Bentham and his legacy which led to this concept of philosophical radicalism is something we will discuss in greater details later on. Radicalisation has its political origins stemming in 1820. It also has a much damning interpretation with the Home Office defining radicalisation as “The process by which people come to support terrorism and violent extremism and, in some cases, then join terrorist groups.” In essence, the word radical itself intimates change, the concepts of radicals, radicalism and radicalisation remain politically indeterminate,since it is defined solely by the fundamental character of the desire for change, rather than by any particular political principles, or description of the desired end-state of the reform. It challenges the status quo and asks for more.
The term philosophical radicalism is in reference to a group of utilitarians, who had a very idealistic social formula: reduce pain and increase pleasure. Amidst the accusation of hedonism, the Philosophical radicalism maintained that all laws and institutions should exist based on their usefulness or utility to the general happiness of the mass. This felicific calculus, stemmed from the cornerstone of Jeremy Bentham’s manifesto of utilitarianism, the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Bentham famously remarked that:
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure, it is to them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as determine what we shall do.”
Whilst this may seem generally in order of things and certainly not radical the second premise of Bentham and the Philosophical radicals may have been slightly troublesome. To their logic as all the contemporary existing systems in the words were falling or had failed to accommodate the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the Philosophical radicals concluded that all existing systems should be abolished and substituted for systems more beneficial to the perpetual happiness of the people. Yet,
ollowing true to the steps of Bentham they sustained that this could only be done through gradual reforms and not violent revolution. The Philosophical Radicals did not only source from Bentham, they also took from Malthus, Ricardo, and Hartley. Among their midst are famous names such as John and James stuart Mill, George Grote and John Roebuck. They spread their ideas through a series of publications; namely Morning Chronicle, Westminster Review, and London Review. Their main focus was electoral reforms. Whilst their effort to establish a radical party in the parliament did not succeed, their utilitarian ideas did permeate politics and had leading roles between 1820-1850; some even arguing that it was an age of reform.
Philosophical anarchist William Godwin, yes the same person who wrote Jack and the Beanstalk, was similarly attracted to the radical concepts of Bentham. Whilst he conformed to the notion of the world being composed of rational men who seek pleasure and avoid pain, Godwin concluded that the greatest happiness can only be a reality if there were no law, no state, no marriage, no state-sponsored morality and no church. In essence Godwin was against anything that held man from being truly human. In response to conflict Godwin argued that all could be solved through “disinterested benevolence”. This disinterested benevolence was, of course, intellectual discourses, honesty and sincerity, which could all be achieved had man discuss things rationally. Alas, according to Godwin, under the modern system men take what they do not have, kill what they do not like and exploit others for their own materialistic gains.
With what delight must every individual friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine which has been the perennial cause of the vices or mankind, and which . . . has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and not otherwise removable than by its utter annihilation.
The question remains to what was individuals like Bentha
m, Gowin and those in the philosophical radicalism movement calling for, this remains a question to be answered the short and perhaps hugely sweeping answer would be that it was a group of men trying to solve mankind’s qualms through rationality, but embedded in the longer and perhaps more accurate answer was individuals trying to reform and change society.
Radicalism in Politics.
Whilst Radicalism may have had its origins in politics, its connotations has morphed into something quite unrecognisable since the 1980s. Whilst prior to the 80s, in Britain at least, radicalism was mostly associated to the left, the radical Right briefly forgotten in Britain, reared it all too familiar head again in 1980s. Such has been the legacy of this radicalism of the right in Britain, in fact, that it was thought somewhat convenient and even correct to invent the oxymoronic idea of a radical centre in order to combat it, appropriating the rhetoric of radicalism for its opposite: a white-collar government of gradual sectorial changes aimed at maintaining the status quo – in essence, conservatism, in the most Burkean sense possible. This anti-thesis of radicalism still holds strong as so many liberal parties in Europe still name themselves “radical” but are very much centrist.
In Britain, contrary to popular beliefs, its not so much of a bad thing to be regarded as a radical albeit which side of the fence you stand on does matter. For one, the late Geoffrey Howe was celebrated as a quietly spoken radical by George Osborne, whilst David Cameron was urged to be “fearlessly radical” when it comes to a few of his reforms. Yet amongst Labour is very scared of portraying themselves as such, why? Maybe because the Tories have four more years in power whilst Labour are still reeling from the lost of supporters from the 2015 general elections.
For some reason calling Cameron or Osborne radical resonate strong leadership, whilst calling Corbyn radical insinuate crazy leftie. Similarly, on the very wrong side of radicalism you have the likes of ISIS and Iran, who last time I checked do not really like each other. Yet they are still portrayed as radical as it seems a perfect umbrella to place their vicious authoritarianism approach. Indeed, the decision to name process of a British Muslim becoming sympathetic to ISIS as radicalisation seems horribly problematic as you are figuratively endorsing ISIS’s dubious assertion that they represent Islam. However, it seems that this may just have slipped the mind of the government’s think tanks as the Government strategy paper “Prevent” mentions radicalisation no less than one hundred and eighty times. Yet, it completely fails to mention that ISIS do not represent the true roots of Islam and the piousness of ISIS fighters itself is very dubious. To the government the route that Muslims should take is the one of becoming a “moderate Muslim”. Well, “moderate”, as Raymon Williams argued in his brilliant Keywords, “is often a euphemistic term for everyone, however insistent and committed, who is not a radical.” Thus all Muslims should hold their beliefs half-heartedly and less than half committed or risk of being accused of being radicalised. Yet it seems that its for the good of all of us if the Conservative party revels in radical extremism
Hence, in conclusion the word radical and its compartments all call for change. Whether its change towards the status quo or against it. Its no surprise that a word of such volatile nature is misused and misunderstood. Nonetheless, it is still a crying shame to see how politicians are using such ambiguous words in such a circular and highly racialised manner.