“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”
– Raymond Williams
(ed. Originally published Jan. 19, 2012 – here.)
It has become fashionable in some quarters within the Occupy movement, particularly in Los Angeles, to deride others as “radicals,” to decry them – quite publicly – as something “other” and outside of “us,” as it were. Sometimes, this nefarious practice even goes so far as to suggest that radicals are more than that – they are police infiltrators or “provocateurs.”
It has become commonplace within OLA to toss this word – radical – around as if applying that label to someone, in and of itself, may serve to mitigate their influence or even to dismiss their suggestions altogether. In light of this, it has become imperative that we come to an understanding of what, precisely, it means to be a radical in the United States in 2012.
Let’s start with a working definition of the word itself. Angela Davis once noted, “radical simply means “grasping things at the root.” Davis wasn’t making some esoteric point about so-called “radicals,” she was actually paraphrasing the dictionary definition of the word itself:
: of, relating to, or proceeding from a root
The word radical made its way into the English language, as so many words did, by way of Latin. In fact, to further demonstrate that point – consider the radish. The radish is an edible, root vegetable. It shares the common, Latin “root” of radical – “radix.” Radicals, then, almost by very definition – are inclined to focus on the primary causes of social and economic injustice – the roots. Not content to dither with half-measures and other reformist pablum – for instance, merely restoring Glass-Steagall or overturning the ruling in Citizens United via Constitutional Amendment – radicals seek a comprehensive approach to establishing equanimity in our global community.
In much the same way that so-called “radical surgery” or “radical medicine” addresses the root cause of disease or illness, radicals in our contemporary United States and throughout the world seek to address the root causes of our current maladies. While radicals may differ in what they define those roots to be or what particular arrows from a broad quiver of diversified tactics they choose to employ to address them, what they share in common is a desire to alter or effect the root itself.
It is only after we reach the third definition in Merriam-Webster that we find even a hint of radical as “other” or epithet.This usage seems to be the province of the establishment, the corporatist so-called “reformists” of both American “left” and “right.” To wit:
3 a : very different from the usual or traditional
But what does it mean to be “different from the usual or traditional?” It could be argued that the usual American participates in their democracy in the prescribed way – namely, by diligently doing their duty only insofar as voting when required. But even that is a tenuous argument, considering that in 2010, participation of eligible voters was a mere 38% of the voting-aged population. And this is not an aberration, as many Democrats claim. Contrary to the Democratic Party forced meme – so-called “progressives” didn’t abandon the political process – in fact – mid-term election turnout in the United States has consistently been in the 37-39% range.
Even in 2008, an election many proclaimed to be a watershed moment in American, electoral politics and generally regarded as a fundamentally important “election” for this nation (ed. the are never “important”), voter turnout was a mere 56.8% of eligible voters. While that was the greatest turnout since 1968 – it still represents little more than simple majority of eligible voters.
It would seem, then, that any participation in political struggle outside of pulling a lever on Election Day is, itself – by this definition – a radical act. Activism and organizing is – in contrast to the participatory province of the vast majority of the population – indeed radically “different from the usual or traditional” form of political participation. Indeed, the occupation and the ongoing General Assemblies are radical in this sense, and our participation in them marks us all as radicals in the eyes of the state – and the status quo it serves.
Something happened to many of us when we saw a small, radical band of people Occupying Wall Street. We felt it. We heard the code words; “horizontal,” “transparent,” “participatory,” and so on. We were given the courage to embrace our own radicalism. We were inspired to participate in ways that the vast majority of people don’t consider. In short, we were radicalized.
Some of us already were self-described radicals, while many of us seem to be having trouble coming to grips with that appellation. But the truth is – much like the writers of the Port Huron statement were keenly aware:
“We are a minority — the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally-functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through”, beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now.”
The truth is: we’re all radicals now. We were radicals the second we closed our laptops and participated in something other than writing a blog. Even if we write reformist piffle when we log back on, we’re radicals because we don’t just write. We occupy. We engage. We resist. We strike. So embrace it. Love it. We’ll all be in the same jail cells and courtrooms (self-described “liberals” and “radicals” alike) – we might as well get to know each other better and understand that – relatively speaking –
OccupyLA is radical. To occupy is fucking radical. Now let’s go after the roots, together!