The Radical

“Elections are no time to discuss serious issues” — Kim Campbell, former Conservative PM of Canada

Contrary to Ms. Campbell’s rather absurd remarks about elections, I think they should be ideal times to renew the electorate’s confidence in democracy and to re-educate the public about democratic principles. Public school teachers should duly dust off George Orwell’s essay on “Politics and the English Language” and be well practiced in propaganda analysis themselves. An election should be the ideal time to address the problem of the “democratic deficit“, both in terms of the functioning of our democratic institutions, and in the public’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of democracy itself as the practice of “self-government”.

Canada is presently enduring it’s 42nd general election, and for an avid student of “the new normal” and “the end of history” such as myself, the present Theatre of the Absurd is a real treasure trove of the symptoms of contemporary deficit and deficiency, such as the Right Honourable Kim Campbell’s rather fatuous remarks about the frivolity of elections, if not democracy itself.

A healthy political life should bring out the best in people, not the worst, but it seems W.B. Yeats was correct when, in his poem on civilisational decadence entitled “The Second Coming“, he noted how “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

There is an evident deficit of sobriety and clarity in the political discourse of the day. It’s quite painful to listen to the speeches of the party leaders, or to read the commentaries of the pundits and the partisan interests — of the hacks and flacks of both the official and the arm-chair variety. You really do come away from it all with the impression that civilisation is doomed if this is what passes for “intelligence” at our “end of history” and in “the new normal”. It’s the “politics of the small-minded”, as Globe & Mail political columnist Jeffrey Simpson recently called it. (Has Jeffrey been reading The Chrysalis by chance?)

The deliberate attempt to confound our reason and logic, and to perplex and mystify our perception of things is probably the worst of it because it is an assault on our consciousness and the integrity of our consciousness itself. It’s what we call “Mephistophelian”. Unfortunately, it seems to be very effective. All too effective.

Someone took the “polite” out of politics, and it’s probably the same “someone” who put the “con” in “conservative”. I shouldn’t blame the conservatives alone, of course (even though Aristotle did for the decadence of Greek civilisation). In the absence of any real ideas amongst the parties involved, all that’s left is the intoxication of powerlust. In “the new normal”, neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism, and neo-socialism are all pretty much identical in attitude. Ideas and “principles” really don’t seem to matter much at “the end of history”.

In the mudslinging contest, the mud gets into all or our eyes and ears. Opacity is the name of the game. Take the word “radical” — the subject of today’s post. All the parties are accusing each other of being “radical”. The word has become so meaningless, in effect, that anything leftwards of Attila the Hun can be deemed “radical”, and Mr. Tony Blair’s appeal to his Labour Party to seize “the radical centre” can even seem reasonable and plausible, when it is in fact quite meaningless.

So, in the spirit of George Orwell, let’s try to get our bearings in “the new normal” and put some clarity into the meaning of the word “radical”.

The word comes from the Latin “radix” meaning “the root” or “from the root”. It’s first use as a political term dates from around 1802 and it was used to identify reformers within the British Labour Party who began to question the party’s fundamentals. “Radical” and “Reformer” were synonymous terms, meaning to “get to the root of things”, or to ask penetrating questions about the “roots” or “root causes”.

Apparently, scrutinising the roots to account for problems in the “fruits”, as it were, came to be seen as indecent and improper, so that around the turn of the last century “radical” had come to mean “unconventional” or “eccentric” or “extremist”, and most often used in that sense by those with something to hide — the proverbial “skeletons in the closet”. Getting to the root of things, or even suggesting that the political party should be based on the authority of “the grassroots” (rather than top-down) was seen as “militant” or “extremist”. “Question Authority” — that is, skepticism — was deemed “radical” not because authority was questioned directly, but because questions were asked about the roots of that authority — the bases of its legitimacy and of legitimation. Applying critical reason to that legitimacy and “convention”, and testing it for its truth or falsity, came to be seen as illegitimate and “unconventional”.

In consequence, the exercise of critical reason (that is, “compare and contrast”, which is the proper function of reason) has come to be seen as an impropriety, which does not reflect well on the contemporary state of reason itself. The kid who once shouted “but the emperor has no clothes” would probably have been dismissed as a “radical”.

This drive “to get to the root of things” and not accept the appearances as final — that’s the value of the true “radical”. In fact, I would say that Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” and Jean Gebser’s philosophy of “the ever-present origin” are truly “radical” in that sense. The word “radical” is also connected to the word “radius” and “radiant”, of course because the root or radix is the “vital centre”, and as such the “truth” or source of the appearances. The radix, as such, is the centre of the “cross of reality” and the source of its radiant arms, not the arms themselves. As such, it is identical with what Jean Gebser calls “ever-present origin”.

Jung's four psychological functionsTo abandon the vital centre for the extremes is the true “impropriety” or extremism. But in “the new normal” everything has become topsy-turveydom. It’s another example of the inversion of values, or devaluation of values, that Nietzsche described as nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”.

Tony Blair’s “radical centre”or “Third Way” might actually make some sense if it was identical with this “vital centre”, but it’s not. It is, politically speaking, a “No-Man’s Land” of fuzzy, indistinct fence-sitter’s politics that is neither here nor there, and does not know whether it is coming or going.  Canada’s party of Social Democracy, the New Democratic Party (NDP) seems to suffer from the same delusion. The problem here is that Mr. Blair doesn’t understand the fourfold nature of the human. His “Third Way” is a dialectical product, a “synthesis” of Left and Right, which was, unfortunately, also how “National Socialism” described itself.  Blair would be on safer ground if he understood in what way the “radical centre” and the “vital centre” are the same. But to do that, he’ld have to understand William Blake, Rosenstock-Huessy, and Jean Gebser and the meaning of the mandala, which he doesn’t.

Blair’s “radical centre” — and the apparent attempt of Canada’s NDP to follow it — is just another example of what I call “Khayyam’s Caution”: “only a hair separates the false from the true”. And it is the same as “The Well” of Rumi’s poem,

We seem to be sitting still,
but we are actually moving,
and the fantasies of phenomena
are sliding through us,
like ideas through curtains.
They go to the well of deep love
inside each of us.
They fill their jars there
and they leave.
There is a source they come from,
and a fountain inside here.
Be generous and grateful.
Confess when you’re not.
We cannot know
what the divine intelligence has in mind.
Who am I,
standing in the midst of this
thought-traffic?
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