Radical Pathology: Totalization

Totalization is one of the pathologies that distinguishes radical and non-radical activists the most markedly. Radicals typically pick a single villain—modernity, the patriarchy, government, capitalism—and then proceed to argue that this villain is the source of all trouble in the world. Non-radical activists do engage in trumping hierarchies and prioritize issues, but only radicals will claim that the world fits into a neat scheme in which all evil flows directly from one original sin, and that the only sensible thing to do is fight that one sin.

First, consider the somewhat weaker misfeature of having a single villain ideology. For example, libertarianism posits government regulation as the single villain, and shoehorns all other evils into an anti-government framework. War and slavery and racism can pretty easily be blamed on government, but note that libertarians never accept the contributions of the free market to each. More egregiously, they also blame poverty on the welfare state.

Parallel single villain views can be found in all other radical movements. Radical feminists define themselves around the belief that the patriarchy is the root oppression. The modern Dominionist movement formed by totalizing secularism and viewing other traditional fundamentalist villains, like corporatism, as mere distractions. Post-colonialism totalizes Western imperialism. Islamism fuses the goals of Dominionism and post-colonialism, totalizing Western-influenced cultural liberalism.

In this totalized framework, the attitude toward other evils is often indifference. The preferred route is subordination to the single villain, but sometimes it’s not possible due to political reasons or uncomfortable implications.

For example, the Dominionists’ indifference toward anti-Christian capitalism doesn’t stem from a change in American Christianity. Instead, it stems from the fact that Dominionists found that the Republican Party was most responsive to their immediate cultural concerns. That’s at least the best way of explaining why prosperity theology arose at the exact moment churches were decentered in the left and abortion became a political issue.

In contrast, libertarians don’t ignore racism and sexism because of a political alliance with racists and sexists. If they did, they’d remain silent on these two issues the way they do on civil liberties, instead of actively arguing that racism and sexism no longer exist. Their delusion likely stems from the fact that if they admit racism and sexism still exist, they will have to admit that some government regulation is necessary, or at least that the market is not perfect.

In light of my article on personal purity, you might ask yourself how come these radicals sacrifice some of their agenda for political cohesion. The answer is that like Orwell’s pacifists, they’re always less tolerant toward natural allies than toward natural enemies.

To see that in action, consider radical feminism and gay rights. Catharine MacKinnon wrote that the gay rights movement’s focus on “the penis’s right to penetrate the anus” was “male supremacist” because it attacked homophobia without attacking sexism. While MacKinnon also publicly denies any connection to Christian fundamentalists, there’s documentation she allied herself with them to ban pornography. No such documentation exists for a coordinated campaign with gay rights activists or liberal pro-choicers.

MacKinnon’s attitude toward gay rights activism as well as toward mainstream pro-choice politics is another possible radical response to other evils, derision. This is strongest when directed not against the evil itself, but against people who spend resources on fighting it. James Dobson’s attack on fundamentalists who support creation care is a good example of this in action.

While trivialization, personal purity, and symbolism are misfeatures that inflict all radicals equally, totalization tilts left. Its origin is in the left-wing penchant for dividing into single-issue movements in order to maximize popular support. People who like the status quo can have a single conservative movement, but people who want change may focus on very different areas of change.

An unfortunate byproduct of that progressive structure is infighting among people who always prioritize very different issues, and often deprecate parallel movements’ issues. However, progressives tend to stop short of totalization: Echidne of the Snakes and Violet Socks both repeatedly claim there’s more tolerance of sexism than of racism, but only Violet talks about root oppressions.

But totalization is more than just an extreme version of trumping hierarchies. A liberal feminist may think sexism is worse than racism, but she’s typically too close to the liberal mainstream to be able to deprecate anti-racist activism by saying sexism is the root evil. The liberal attachment to historical progressive movements, like civil rights, abolition, and suffrage, stunts any notion that there is a root oppression.

Radicals have no such compunctions. A radical movement might draw inspiration from national or ideological heroes, but has little meaningful attachment to them. If it’s attached to them, it’s likelier to project its beliefs on them than to imitate them; hence, American fundamentalists’ belief that the founding fathers were Christian fanatics.

In light of the progressive origin of totalization, it’s important to ask why it’s nonetheless equally strong in radical leftists and in radical rightists. The best answer is based on two observations, both of which are based on a break between radicals and conservatives.

First, while conservatives don’t want much change, except for making the country militarily stronger, reactionaries do want change. It just happens they want it backward and employ ideological mechanisms that render them identical to left-wing revolutionaries, without passing a reformist or progressive phase. Therefore, there can be disagreements over what kind of changes to support. Dominionists want to keep capitalism but revert to idealized Victorian morality; fascists want to subordinate economics and morality alike to nationalism; old-style fundamentalists want to fight both capitalism and secularism.

And second, both the radical left and the radical right have a progressive view of the world. Dominionists have the original one: the world is progressing toward greater faith in Jesus, culminating in Judgment Day. Islamists have the same view, only with Muslim imagery. Marxists have a clearly progressive view of history. In contrast, modern conservatism is born of skepticism of human improvement; in East Asia, conservatism is also closely coupled to a cyclic view of history.

So, to sum, progressives escape totalization entirely because of their emphasis on liberal movements of different forms, while conservatives escape it because they support the status quo. Reformists never have any radical pathology; their own pathologies are those of excessive centrism, not those of extremism.

Speaking of reformists, one of the curious ramifications of totalization is that radicals sometimes display excessive centrism when it comes to mainstream politics. Radicals care very little for their own purported side’s parties and organizations, so they tend to adopt a centrist view of politics. The US Green Party’s voters engage in equivocation of the Democrats and the Republicans just as much as mainstream media pundits.

That obviously connects to personal purity, but also to totalization. If a mode of activism isn’t properly subordinated to the single villain, it must be worthless. Therefore, radical feminists deny that Western sexual mores were less sexist in 1968 than in 1958, libertarians deny that the Homeland Security Bill is more intrusive than the estate tax, and Dominionists deny that contraception reduces the abortion rate.

Radicals don’t have a monopoly on failing to recognize that the world is complicated. Monism dates back to pre-Socratic Greece. However, radicals are the only kind of political activists whose simplemindedness takes the form of totalization of a single villain. Only radicals take insensitivity to real people’s concerns to the degree displayed by Marxists who brush off everything but capitalism, libertarians who do everything but government, and religious fundamentalists who do everything but modern secularism.

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