Radicalism in a time of austerity
Just a couple of quick thoughts on radicalism in the aftermath of the Greek elections. Paul Krugman rightly points out that Syriza’s policies aren’t radical. Syriza is proposing sensible things: rejigging its unfair debt obligations, investing and reflating the economy, just like in Germany after the second world war. These policies are what any sensible policymaker would do in response to years of failed austerity. It’s the eurocrats who are radical, proposing fiscal rectitude in a full-on depression.
The situation reminds me of Scotland’s Radical Independence Conference last year after the referendum. Several speakers pointed out that what the so-called radicals wanted was pretty mainstream. Calls for tax to go up a bit aren’t exactly Trotskyite. The top rate of income tax under Margaret Thatcher was 60%, higher than any Scottish party or campaign group is currently proposing. It isn’t ‘extreme’ to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction or to ask for a society which looks after the worst off.
One reading of this situation is that conservatives have succeeded in dragging the debate so far to the right that today’s firebrands are reduced to saying things that would have seemed middle-of-the-road two decades ago. Maybe that’s partly true.
But it’s also important to remember that radical doesn’t mean extreme or fanatical. It’s from the Latin radix, meaning root. There’s a sense in which radicalism is to do with stripping away the superficial and delving to the bottom of a problem. Today’s radicals are, like their forebears, addressing the roots of economic and social concerns. They’re not posturing, wild-eyed fanatics. In a sense, it’s a source of optimism that many people have reached the end of their patience and are being forced to see things as they really are, coalescing around the doable and showing up right-wingers and austerians as the fantasists.