Action tends to expand into the possibility space available to it. A sink is an available possibility space that draws in energy without returning it.
We can define radicalism not by its conspicuous oppositionalism or militancy, but by its effort to intentionally transform social systems. The radical Left is a loose constellation of attempts to achieve maximal human freedom and equality through intentional social-systemic transformation. Any process which draws energy from that trajectory without returning it can be considered a sink.
We can identify some sinks by examining radical praxis through an evolutionary lens. This involves asking the simple question, how does radical praxis reproduce itself? Our answers must be relativist, anti-essentialist, and non-teleological.
A tangled-systems approach organizes knowledge of social relations into multiple systems operating across multiple scales, all irreducible to each other. In this way tangled-systems thinking is different from both methodological individualism and dialectical thinking.
Here are a few very rough ideas, organized into three scales: micro (individual subjectivity), meso (groups, communities, institutions), and macro (the world as a whole). The intrinsic factors reproduce radical praxis in ways that return or add energy to it over the medium to long term. The extrinsic factors reproduce radical praxis over the short term but ultimately draw energy away from it in the medium to long run, i.e. they function as sinks.
I’ve written these with socialism in mind but I think they could apply to any Left radicalism, such as radical feminism, anti-racism, and so on.
Caveat: My use of the terms ‘energy’ and ‘sink’ are analogous, not literal. All of the claims in this post are hypothetical, not proven.
1. Individuals find radical praxis rationally and intuitively plausible, given exposure to particular evidence, life experience, and methods of rationality.
a) Of course the same is true of other modes of praxis (liberalism, conservatism, etc.).
b) The rational and intuitive plausibility of radical praxis should increase the more that it demonstrable achieves its goals, i.e. succeeds in building workable, fruitful egalitarian relations, in the short to medium term.
2. Individuals find it personally liberating to understand certain personal vicissitudes, such as poverty, as inevitable products of a social system which they experience in common with many others, rather than as personal failings which they must bear alone.
3. Individuals can anticipate and aspire to the meso- and macro-level benefits described below.
1. Dialectical thinking’s polemic tendencies and reassignment of moral worth map onto the psychodynamics of trauma. Therapy and struggle synergise to a certain extent.
a) In the long run, however, personal resolution of trauma cannot depend on the achievement of social revolution, and the strategic needs of revolutionary struggle are not always served by the therapeutic needs of traumatized subjectivities.
b) Personal healing and social transformation overlap but also they operate on different spatial and temporal scales and therefore must be carefully distinguished for the good of both.
2. The radical rejection of the social order entailed by dialectical frameworks resonates with the egoistic pursuit of personal transcendence of social constraint.
a) Ultimately, however, radical praxis aims to replace certain forms of social constraint and social freedom (elitist, exploitative, unsustainable) with other forms of social constraint and social freedom (egalitarian, sustainable, etc.).
b) It is not actually possible for human beings to transcend social constraint as such. We can only ever appear to do so. We achieve this appearance by occupying a local pinnacle of naturalized relations of domination.
1. Radical praxis fosters solidarity, community, mutual aid among the oppressed, thereby reproducing itself through the formation of social groups, networks, movements.
2. Radical praxis provides an overall direction for collective action, reproducing itself as a mode of practice.
a) I am firmly convinced that the marginality of radical socialism today results not from cultural hegemony but from the blockage of practice. Without practical successes movements cannot move, and so they stagnate or dry up.
1. Dialectical thinking encourages the construction of a strict us-them duality and aggressive boundary work.
a) This defends the movement against appropriation in the short term. But a politics of us-them cannot become the basis for an inclusive, emancipatory egalitarian social order. The movement preserves its radicalism at the cost of being complicit in its own marginality and/or of reproducing authoritarian oppression in its own practice (manifested in “trashing” for instance).
2. Radical praxis functions as a vehicle for cultural, symbolic, social, and political capital.
a) Cultural and symbolic capital: appropriation of movement language and imagery for personal sophistication and/or coolness.
b) Social capital: involvement in radical politics as a means to form personal networks useful outside the movement.
c) Political capital: marginal appropriation, through co-optation, of the movement’s energies by political entrepreneurs, ultimately including electorally successful political parties.
d) All of these appropriations can be a form of short term movement success; the movement has made a difference. But the transformation of egalitarian projects into forms of capital ultimately runs exactly opposite to the definitive aims of Left radicalism, which are to transform forms of capital into egalitarian relations.
3. Likewise, radical praxis partially aligns with the dynamics of local religious traditions through which people pursue spiritual transcendence.
a) For instance, it’s easy to see the marks of Protestant Christianity in the tropes of asceticism, altruism, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom that appear in some cultural products of some North American left movements.
b) Again, these resonances can feed the movement in the short-to-medium term but may undermine it in the medium-to-long term. Religious movements aim at spiritual transcendence of the mundane, whereas radical social movements aim at immanent transformation of the mundane. The two aims can harmonize but the inner logic of each is distinct.
1. Radical movements emerge as antitheses of systems of domination. Material conditions permitting, relations of domination can engender their own opposition. It’s this opposition that allows them to be defined as domination at all. Multiple such systems operate in mutually entangled, mutually irreducible dialectical processes. Each dialectic tends towards its own overcoming.
a) So for instance, contradictory relations of capitalist production materially and symbolically constitute human beings as workers, workers who are impoverished and denigrated relative to capitalists and who therefore, in order to achieve full humanity, must abolish capitalism and thereby abolish themselves as workers.
b) Likewise, patriarchy materially and symbolically produces human beings as women, white supremacy produces human beings as Black, colonialism produces human beings as Indigenous, and so on, all of them materially and symbolically constituted in relation to men, Whites, settlers, and so on, all of whom are compelled towards actions which tend, intentionally or otherwise, towards the abolition of gender, race, colonialism, and so on.
c) The multiple dialectics sometimes reinforce each other, sometimes undermine each other, sometimes have little to do with each other.
d) Not all inequalities result from dialectics. Some forms of inequality (e.g. ageism) emerge as byproducts of these more fundamental dialectics.
State power itself emerges from the practical dialectical relation between sovereigns and subjects.
The literal sovereign is the individual or collective agent who exercises effective control over military and police force and, by extension, the law, taxation, and public expenditure. Most people live outside of this agency, as subjects — literally, subject to the power of the sovereign. Representative democracy only mitigates this contradiction.
The dialectical struggles between the literal sovereign and subjects engenders an ever-shifting balance of power between the two. This balance of power is fetishized and appears in ideology as a normative order or social contract. The terms of this contract represent, in idealized terms, the aggregation of the various détentes, compromises, alliances, and ongoing struggles among the various factions or fractions into which the sovereign and its subjects are divided. This idealization is the figurative sovereign.
Attempts to unify the various oppressed poles of the other major dialectics (of class, gender, race, and so on) generate various attempts at normative order represented by various countercultural projects. The ensembles of concrete practices of which these countercultures are idealizations are counter-sovereigns, intended to replace the sovereign by changing the population who exercises sovereignty and the logic by which sovereignty is exercised.
Ultimately, however, a counter-sovereignty as represented in a counterculture or counterhegemony requires its own form of sovereign-subject alienation. To actually abolish this alienation requires the distribution of real sovereign power horizontally throughout the population. The technical challenges involved in doing so are formidable and social theory has barely begun to scratch the surface of these challenges.
In the meantime, the struggles between sovereign and subject, and the production by oppressed groups of various attempts at counter-sovereignty, absorbs much of the energies generated by the other major dialectics. This absorption causes substantive changes in the distribution and exercise of political power. We should not dismiss these changes because they fall short of complete systemic transformation.
The real abolition of class, of gender, of race, and so on, will require the practical achievement of far more radical forms of horizontal democratic accountability and reciprocity than have been achieved in modern societies. People who work towards social equality are already in the process of developing these form through a laborious and often blind trial-and-error process. Social theory could contribute more than it currently is doing.