A Radical Definition of Radical

In Short:

Radical — to be radical means to oppose the orthodoxies of the times, be they religious, political, social, institutional, economic, etc.  One is more radical, the more fundamental and total the change for which they agitate.

In more detail:

Because the meaning of radical has been overdetermined, we have fallen prey to many a radical movement that claim to be conservative.

We need to rediscover the original meaning of the word because it offers a more abstract definition of the principle that is so importantly captured by it. This helps to identify radicalism outside of its usual purview. For, most often, radicalism is associated with the revolutionary ideologies of the left: Marxism, socialism, communism, anarchism, most prominently. But, as the discussion of the word and its origins that follows will demonstrate, someone’s radicality is related to their commitment to fundamental social, political, and economic change.

This meaning stays true to the etymology of the word, which can be traced back to a post-Classical Latin origin, radicalis. It means relating to or forming the root. Thus, to be radical means to seek foundational change, to cut back the brush of what just is to the root, and to start fresh.

A good starting point for understanding radical might be to contrast it with reformist. A reformist accepts what is as is, except for a few tweaks here or there to enable a system to function as its intended. The radical, on the other hand, wants as clean a slate as possible on which to build something new.

The question for the radical, and there is some ambiguity harkening back to its latin roots, is what constitutes radical change. The latin roots leaves space between relating to and forming the root. These are two slightly different things. In the latter, relating to fundamental change could mean preserving some aspects of the old system but altering it in ways that alter the very foundation of the system itself. Forming the root implies erasing the old system in its entirety and replacing it with an entirely new system.

Even then I could see how this might be a toothless distinction. For it could be that a system is already determined by its function. Replacing one system of communication with another does not replace the fact that the systems themselves are all means of communication.

To this I would reply: but the social, political, and economic consequences of these different systems of communication vary wildly. In simply relating to the root, the implementation of radical agendas can have thundering reverberations throughout society.

With this definition in mind, we can start to identify all the radicals in our midst, most prominently the neo-liberal movement that has come to dominate the politico-economic landscape. A sort of new corporatism has emerged and it is fundamentally transforming the world we live in, demonizing classic notions of publicness and hollowing out or even removing altogether the institutions and social safety nets formalized after WW2. This is a radical agenda, relating to the root of society. It is also a simplitistic, verging on puritanical rethinking of capitalism, both hyper and reductive, a ruthless combination. This is only one of many current radical movements posing as conservative.

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