Radical Pathologies

I’ve already posted a few radical pathologies, but in my latest post I had to refer to some other pathologies. So for now, I’ll post what I think will be the complete list of pathologies. I’ll update this to contain links as I keep writing posts about individual misfeatures, as well as possibly to indicate those I’m certainly not going to write in length about.

The general motivation is that the behavior of right-wing and left-wing radicals, as well as of radicals who have some features from both wings (e.g. libertarians), is very similar. I once remarked about them, “They’re clowns when out of power and tyrants when in power,” which is certainly true; beginning with the Russian Revolution of 1917, no regime based on a radical revolution, violent or not, has failed to become deeply authoritarian and often totalitarian. Out of power radicals often associate with more moderate people, leeching power away from more serious political groupings, but in power they’re invariably tyrannical.

My radical pathologies series often indicates the fallacies underlying the intellectual thinking behind radicalism, but when untempered by utter powerlessness, these fallacies always combine to produce tragic results.

Trivialization: radicals often consider their own views trivial, and argue from first principles. For libertarians, it’s freedom; for Marxists, it’s equality; for religious fundamentalists, it’s morality; for radical feminists, it’s gender equality. This turns into a political tactic, wherein the radical will invite the recruit by appealing to some trivial principle, and then tell him he must support the entire agenda as a member of the movement in good standing.

Personal purity: although radicals would like to gain power, their political tactics are a series of circular firing squads. They prefer personal integrity to political effectiveness, and whenever their tactics fail, they conclude that failure was the result of insufficient purity.

Symbolism: symbols and words are far more important to radicals than actions. Right-wing Christians spend political capital on getting religious references into constitutions and making people celebrate Christmas, neglecting more important issues like abortion, marriage, education, and charity funding. The radical left is busy making sure points of interests are named after the right people, instead of agitating for the causes these people fought for. “Political correctness” began as a leftist pejorative against leftists who were too concerned with symbolism.

Totalization: radicals typically pick a single issue and, going beyond asserting that it’s especially important, say that it’s the only issue that matters. Radical feminists have honed that with their claims that all of the world’s evils are due to rape, and anarchists have said similar things about the state or even civilizations. Christians and Muslims have their doctrines of Original Sin, which they use to analyze every political issue. When it comes right down to it, they prefer to attribute all ills to a single villain.

Extremism: radicals always value extremism, seeking to become the most extreme individuals in the movement and despising moderation and compromise. They especially hate people who succeed by compromising on a few principles, which they will then proceed to totalize as a defense mechanism. This misfeature tends to occur in inverse proportion to totalization and symbolism: radicals who don’t totalize or fetishize symbolic battles seek instead to be the most extreme on all issues simultaneously; it’s these radicals who I normally call fusion radicals, since they tend to fuse single-issue radical movements together.

Theoretical thought: in most cases, radicals display an imbalance of abstraction and concreteness, strongly preferring abstraction. Intra-radical arguments are mostly about first principles and theories rather than empirical data, which they never really believe in, or even specific policy details. This causes absurd debates about points of doctrine: right-wing Christians debate which Testament is more important or whether it’s Biblical to kill homosexuals, radical feminists debate whether men can be feminists, and left-wing ethnic nationalists debate which ethnic narratives to manufacture.

Excessive solidarity: radicals expect complete solidarity with the cause, and consider support an all or nothing issue. As such, they do their best to hide the few unholy alliances they do engage in. Some radical feminists, such as Sheila Jeffreys, have stopped having sex with men in solidarity with women; ethnic nationalists will go to great lengths to defend almost any action committed by people of the same ethnicity; and religious fundamentalists try living their entire lives in God’s service.

Schismaticism: lacking any mechanism to enforce solidarity, however, radicals schism whenever a doctrinal issue splits their groups. This tends to continue almost ad infinitum; the People’s Front of Judea was fictional, but the absurd splits among Protestant denominations as well as the hatred sex-positive and sex-negative radical feminists have for each other are real.

Paranoia: radicals are in constant fear for the success of their revolutions, even after they’ve attained absolute power. It’s largely this pathology that causes their regime styles to be so totalitarian – unlike conservatives, they never display an attitude of “Let them hate us as long as they’re out of power.” Out of power, this paranoia leads to random purges of people who are perceived as dishonest or insufficiently extreme. In addition, radicals of each camp consider the other camp(s) a highly unified conspiracy to trample all that is decent, rather than a heap of splinter groups.

Puritanism: most radicals structure their entire lives around the movement, especially sex. Any sexual act that violates their ideals is considered degenerate; this is true not just for right-wing radicals, who are extremely conservative, but also for left-wing ones. Marxism was traditionally anti-sex, and radical feminism obsesses about patriarchal sex. Libertarians try restructuring sex and marriage based not on love or enjoyment but on what spites the government.

Anti-intellectualism: radicals hate any intellectual inquiry that isn’t based on their chosen first principles, which never include empiricism. Religious conservatives have done their best to delegitimize science for questioning their religions; so have deconstructionists, with “relativism” replacing “religion.” Instead, they prefer to engage in pseudo-intellectual exercises based on doctrine rather than facts: libertarians have Austrian economics, radical leftists of all kinds have dialectics or critical theory, and religious fundamentalists have theology.

I hope to write about these misfeatures in this order, but if the order changes, I’ll shuffle this list so that it points to posts in increasing order.

Afterward, or in conjunction, I’m going to write more generally about the four-way division of activists into radicals, progressives, reformers/incrementalists, and conservatives. Although radicals are the most pathological, fringe, and useless of all four and lead to the worst regimes, the other three groups have more than enough pathologies of their own.

For example, I wrote about one progressive pathology just less than three months ago; in fact that misfeature is a pathological expression of the progressive tendency to organize into distinct movements, which is overall positive, except when radicals turn it into totalization and schismaticism.

For another example, although radicals tend to hate democracy and civil liberties and apologize for totalitarian regimes based on the right ideology, so do conservatives; mistrust of the people and support for the elites is a conservative fallacy, which radicals have magnified into paranoia and to some degree excessive solidarity.

At the end, politics is a haggle among progressives, reformers, and conservatives, with different power centers in different systems (in the US, the center is about halfway between reformism and conservatism, and progressives rarely have power). Radicalism is something that lurks on the margins, just like Marxism and libertarianism often loom when discussing economics, even when the discussed alternatives are (neo-)Keynesianism and monetarism, or import replacement and capital-aided growth.

14 Responses to Radical Pathologies

  1. Matthias says:

    Are radicals just those activists that display these pathologies, or is there some criterion external to these that defines them as “radical” (beyond “political groups I dislike but don’t have to worry about ever coming to anything”)?

  2. Alon Levy says:

    The best external definition is based on attitudes toward change. Conservatives want to keep the status quo as it is, more or less. Reformists want to change it gradually and using electoral methods. Progressives want to reform the system rapidly regardless of what’s popular in the present, and emphasize legal methods and social activism more. Radicals want to replace the system entirely.

    The main motivating force behind my radical pathology posts is that reactionaries, who want to return things to the way they were, act exactly like radicals, and often talk of replacing the system with an older one (think Dominionism or starve-the-beast conservatism).

  3. […] Alon Levy wrote up a list of traits (he calls them “pathologies) that most radicals share. I used to be a radical myself (anarchy was my sin), believing that politics and society should move toward the ideal state as rapidly and as completely as possible. The idea that moving too aggressively might cause more harm than good was anathema to me. I couldn’t see the wisdom in implementing half measures, and gauging the success or failure of those measures before proceeding. […]

  4. […] Pathology: Totalization Totalization is one of the pathologies that distinguishes radical and non-radical activists the most markedly. Radicals typically pick a […]

  5. […] is one of the pathologies that distinguishes radical and non-radical activists the most markedly. Radicals typically pick a […]

  6. […] is not to suggest that feminism works like sexism. But some of the pathological characteristics of radicalism are results of its fundamentally egalitarian worldview, which focuses on internal […]

  7. […] Pathology: Extremism Extremism is at the same time the most important radical pathology and the least secure of the 11 pathologies that typify radicals. In both cases, it’s because […]

  8. […] is at the same time the most important radical pathology and the least secure of the 11 pathologies that typify radicals. In both cases, it’s because […]

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