Radical 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 it affects not only radicals, but also most conservatives and progressives, especially those who are members of party or movement bases. In its weakest form, it leads people to brag about having the lowest or highest composite Political Compass score; in its strongest, it leads to sustained delusions about the nature of the political spectrum.

The basic idea that promotes extremism is the notion that there’s always someone who’s more leftist (or libertarian, or fundamentalist) than you. From that vantage point, less extreme people are viewed as potential traitors to the movement, as Kate Millett was to the Dworkinians. Becoming ever more extreme is then one way of proving authenticity.

This manifests itself in how radicals argue with one another. “They’re not really radical” is hurled as an insult in radical circles, just like “they’re too radical to be able to implement their ideas” is in mainstream ones. Extremism naturally flourishes in communities that eschew compromise, and radicals tend to value personal purity too much to compromise on anything.

It may seem trivial that radicals are extreme. But in fact there is a very strong non-trivial observation, namely that radical pathologies tend to cooccur. Personal purity can arise from every political orientation or ideology, but it tends to be more present among people more prone to extremism or totalization. Likewise, those people who have given up on causing any real political change content themselves with becoming ever more unacceptable to the mainstream they hate.

Once extremism is established as a badge of authenticity, it tends to spread to ridiculous dimensions. It’s true that James Dobson is less radical than Jerry Falwell, who is less radical than Pat Robertson, who is less radical than R. J. Rushdoony. A Dominionist is likely to talk predominantly to other Dominionists because of the shared ideology; in that milieu, he can easily believe that Dobson is a moderate, and thence portray the 90% of the political spectrum that’s on Dobson’s left as liberal.

Extremism sometimes manifests itself in the formation of fusions – for example, the radical right in the United States is a fusion of Christian fundamentalism, which used to be economically left-wing, and libertarianism, which is nominally socially liberal. Both kinds of radicalism became part of an incidental Republican coalition, but once both social conservatism and unrestrained capitalism became associated with the right, right-wing extremists started fusing the two in order to become more radical than their colleagues who were associated with only one of the two movements.

This only happens when extremism acts on some conventional left-right scale. It can also act on individual movements, which then only segregate themselves away from other political groups even more. The prime example here is libertarianism, or at least the part of it that isn’t part of any conservative coalition; big-L libertarians aim not to be right-wing or left-wing, but simply libertarian. Similarly, radical feminism tends to view itself as separate from the rest of the left, so that radical feminists usually display extremism by adopting ever crazier attitudes about sex, which their more conventionally extreme socialist feminist colleagues use as evidence that they’re not really radical.

In fact, the example of radical feminism versus social feminism shows how in certain cases, extremism can exert a force opposite to this of totalization and symbolism. Socialist feminists are conventionally extreme in that they integrate radical feminism, Marxism, and antiracism into one hyper-radicalized ideology, but they don’t conventionally totalize gender or spend what little political capital they have on such symbolic issues as pornography. In contrast, radical feminists are only extreme with respect to gender, but often not with respect to race or class; however, they engage in extensive totalization.

In a more theoretical framework, this is because totalization requires that the radical care about nothing except one cause, and extremism requires that he care about many different causes at once. Totalization might require unholy alliances; extremism views them with the same suspicion that the mainstream does. Extremism requires solidarity with many other movements; totalization has a problem with their lack of singleminded devotion to the totalized cause.

This largely explains the schism between big-L libertarians who associate themselves with neither the left nor the right, and conservative libertarians who associate themselves with Dominionists. The latter group has a somewhat easier time  fusing into one radical movement than the ragtag left because most Dominionists believe in prosperity theology, so that even if they care more about abortion, they at least don’t snub the libertarians. But even the left has always had a central radical movement, centering on class to the exclusion of gender, nationality, and often race.

As for symbolism, it tends to cooccur with totalization more than with extremism. Part of being the most fringe is saying that less extreme (and hence lesser) people’s struggles are worthless. There’s no inherent reason why radical environmentalists would decide to cast themselves as more extreme than environmentalists who tell people not to shower; however, since the latter group is almost self-evidently nutty, another radical can easily carve up territory to its left by telling it the truth and then saying similar but untrue things about mainstream activism. It helps to think of Michael Pollan as such a radical; in his case, the symbolism he eschews is organic food, which he portrays as still not pure enough.

On the other hand, trivialization and personal purity hold for all radicals, regardless of whether they’re single-issue radicals, who emphasize totalization, or fusion radicals, who emphasize extremism. All libertarians argue that libertarianism trivially follows from basic freedom, regardless of whether they’re allied with religious conservatives or not. All right-wing Dominionists eschew putrefying alliances with other fundamentalists even when it entails losing political battles.

The reason extremism is so important a radical pathology is that it’s often what creates a radical. Radicals aren’t synthesized de novo. Radicalization tends to follow disillusionment with the dominant political system, reaching beyond disillusionment with only one party or ideology. But that alone doesn’t always create a radical; it can easily create a progressive or a conservative or a reformer. It’s the stress of extremism that pulls progressives and conservatives away from the center, until they become so radical that they’re indistinguishable. Once one has a framework in which anything that is considered mainstream is automatically bad, one often turns authoritarian just by rejecting the usual notions of deliberative democracy, pluralism, and realism.

And at the same time, it’s so pervasive among progressives and conservatives that it’s almost not a radical pathology. It’s certainly true that other pathological attributes that reach progressives and conservatives – for example, delusions of media bias – are not really radical pathologies. But extremism is central to radicalism, while the perception of pervasive media bias isn’t and can easily be subsumed under other pathologies, such as paranoia.

4 Responses to Radical Pathology: Extremism

  1. neo-nazi dude says:

    what do you call a jewish woman’s boobs? jewbs! ha ha ha ha (joke borrowed from South Park)

  2. SLC says:

    Re Dobson

    How did Mr. Levy arrive at the conclusion that James Dobson is less radical then Jerry Fallwell? Both of them are f****** born-agains with not a dimes worth of difference between them.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    I’m basing it mostly on the fact that Dobson supports birth control, as long as it prevents conception rather than implantation (in theory, of course; in practice, he’s for abstinence-only sex education and against access to contraception).

    The other two “less radical than ___” comments are pretty secure, though. Robertson has engaged in eliminationism while Falwell to my knowledge never has, and Rushdoony is the person Dominionists point to when they argue that they’re not batshit insane.

  4. SLC says:

    Re Falwell

    In fairness to Falwell, he has shown some signs in the past few years of being soft on homosexuals (several years ago, he had dinner with a group representing gays).

    Re Robertson

    Robertson is clearly a nutcase, re his comments about Ariel Sharons’ stroke, the situation in New Orleans, and the outcome of the Kitzmiller case in Dover, Pa.

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