In his emotional speech on the occasion of his investiture as the leader of the Liberi e Uguali (the Italian Free and Equal) party, Pietro Grasso surprised listeners by singing the praises of the term “radical.”
This is a good opportunity to reflect again on the meaning of this word.
This is an immediately useful undertaking, as it gives us the opportunity to clarify once and for all (or one might at least hope) that “radical” does not mean extremist, sectarian, or fundamentalist, as it does in the mainstream press, which has an interest in putting to shame those who think of politics as something that can change social relations. In the lexicon of the Left, this term has a much more high-minded meaning, as well as a much nobler origin. Historically, the word goes back to the young Marx, for whom “to be radical is to grasp things by the root.”
Accordingly, “radical” is not a synonym for “extremist,” but for “profound.” A radical politics is one that looks at the hidden hierarchies of income and power upon which the entire social edifice is built. It is not limited to the management of what is already there. The latter is politics downgraded to the level of mere administration, which has caused the European Left to lose its tradition and historical function. It is the bread and butter of most of our political forces, flanked by the media giants, creators of a superstructure of spectacle where commercialized fiction is used to paper over the abysses of real iniquity.
Of course, I am aware of the fact that we often find, particularly among youth groups and movements, the naive claim that radical analysis could be transformed into immediate action, skipping the step of political mediation, which is the concerted manner of changing existing reality that takes into account the balance of power.
Today, the Left is either radical or nothing at all. And in Italy, the Left is very much behind the times. The social phenomena that have been developing for more than a decade are of unprecedented severity. Never before in the contemporary history of Europe and the world have the choices of the ruling classes translated into such continued and threatening forms of social regress, for such a long period of time and for extensive portions of society as a whole.
The passage of time used to bring more progress and well-being. But nowadays, the passing years only bring further impoverishment for many layers of society and threats of even more regression. The E.U.’s austerity policy has been a germ of social violence for almost 10 years. This is the origin of so-called populisms and of the resurgent forms of fascism. They arise from a need for radical political action—meaning an effective change in the actions of parties and governments—that the Left no longer satisfies.
“Radical,” yes—but also “anti-capitalist.” The word “capitalism” has disappeared from the lexicon of the contemporary Left and not by accident. The founder of the Italian Democratic Party (PD) set out from the start the principle of equidistance toward both workers and employers. But how could a party be of the Left if it equates those who exploit with those who are exploited? Of course, we are not in the 19th century anymore, and in our small and medium enterprises we find examples of benevolent entrepreneurs. But we are still living in a capitalist society.
The term “anti-capitalist” also needs to be clarified, and defended from the ideological attempts to criminalize it. It does not allude to an insurrectionist project. There are no more Winter Palaces to storm. But the adjective has the great symbolic and philosophical value of pointing toward a systemic alternative to the misery of the present. It gives meaning and direction to political action, redeeming it from its particularity and projecting it within a universalistic scope, toward building a new, actually possible world.
Whenever one sets out to erase the distinctions between Right and Left, one often leaves out the fact that the latter possesses another particular element that defines it, in addition to the other well-known elements: It has always accompanied daily political action with a systematic theoretical elaboration, with the constant analysis of the capitalist mode of production and its transformations.
This is the necessary precondition, not only for making political action effective in practice, but also for being able to indicate a profoundly different, alternative perspective to the present one. For some, especially for those who already have a “voice,” the present is fine just the way it is. But for the vast number of people in a subaltern condition, it is not. For the new generations of our era, looking up at the sky of possibility, the current status quo offers no future at all, only something reduced to whatever new technological product is thrown out onto the market. The future is the next Apple smartphone, and nothing more.
But a society that is incapable of nurturing “a dream of something” is doomed to fester and disintegrate in the spiritual desert of nihilism.
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