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The Death of Radicality

June 25th, 2018

For the majority of young Americans, progressivism has taken on a uniquely bourgeois focus that detracts from any radical thought. Historical movements for change, such as anti-imperialism or racial justice, have been either discarded or fronted in the perspective of individual "wokeness"; student political radicality has been overtaken by the radical chic.

Progressive students are very much willing to fight for social justice and against oppression, so long as it doesn't cut too deep into their education or career prospects. Students idolize historical radicals and mourn contemporary tragedies—often very loudly and publicly, so that the whole world might know where they stand. The new accessibility of social media combined with the constant need for validation has given young people a new character of political involvement: one in which overlaying a rainbow flag on a profile picture suffices in supporting the struggle for LGBT+ rights. But beyond the occasional quote, namedrop, or moral support, progressive students often lack anything political beyond a vague resistance to oppression.

Thankfully, this false consciousness is not harmful in itself—but trouble comes when these "woke" inanities are mistaken for substantive progress.

The presentation of these organizations as legitimate means of progress deludes us into thinking that the few clubs and interest groups we join count towards changing society. If we fall into this deluded trap, the idea that these moments constitute real action, then we should abandon hope and shelve any idea of progress for the future.
Living a "woke" life for these few years at colleges only conditions us for a "woke" life beyond college: one devoid of meaningful progressiveness or radicality. The majority of students clearly prefer the ease of being able to signal their virtue via prominent displays of alignment with progressive values over directly acting on their claimed beliefs against the slightest resistance: see the walkout. We now value appearing fashionably left-wing over being moored in sound progressive and leftist ideology. The new radical chic is of being woke, being an ally, and being anti-Trump—and it is sapping young people's radical spirit at an alarming rate.

Being "woke" as a student is no longer a realization of political consciousness, but instead a declaration of morality. The term began as a very real and succinct description of a realization of the societal diseases around oneself. The first recorded usage of "woke" in a political setting came from a Black union representative from the American Mine Workers, whose condition was probably less than ideal. For a majority of Americans, however, our lives are far from that of Black trade-unionists in the 40's. We've appropriated this term, which originated as an accurate description of political consciousness, for our own twisted method of virtue signalling.

The degeneration of the term "woke" goes hand-in-hand with the self-affirming nature of "allies" in the United States. In theory, an ally is someone who supports an oppressed group, to which they do not personally belong, in their struggle for societal emancipation. Taken out of context, there is nothing wrong with being an "ally". One doesn't have to be part of an oppressed group to support them in their liberation movement—indeed, change for an oppressed group often depends on the allyship of other members of society. It goes without saying that the majority of progressive American youths would gladly support any number of identity groups against the forces of oppression. Why then, is it that we need to declare ourselves as "allies"? It seems that we as young progressives have passed the point where the announcement of allyship turned from genuine concern for the oppressed into another form of self-validating virtue signalling.

The most common criticisms of Trump—rudeness, vulgarity, and personal distastefulness—damningly reveal the focus of the "woke" and the "allies" of students. Attacking Trump over the superficial is far easier than digging into the nitty-gritty of his atrocious policy-making. However, it almost seems as if any attack on Trump, whether for his personality or for his policies, is boiled down in the minds of progressive youths into a simple attack on Trump.

Nuanced and ideologically grounded responses to Trump are notably lacking across university and high school campuses. If we only respond to the daily outbursts from Trump, what will happen when the next neo-conservative crypto-fascist comes around with a shred of tact?

Given our track record, we'd probably be fine with it, so long as we called them out for every time they swore at a reporter or made a sexist comment or had sex with some porn-star. Our attacks that we levy at Trump must be from a theoretically sound perspective, lest we forget what we stand for as progressives and radicals. If we hope to stand against the looming reactionary darkness, we should best bring the torch of solid ideology with us to light the way.

Of course, all this hinges on the assumption that progressive students are willing to fight for what they believe in. Perhaps it gives us too much credit to assume that we are capable and willing to fight for social justice. Given that we have chosen the path of hollow platitudes over thorough ideological considerations, maybe the current expressions of wokeness and virtue signalling are the highest form we could hope to achieve.

The administration gives us the means and methods to develop our own principles. Few other schools have whole days dedicated to discussions of social issues. Yet, we continue to view our political and social selves from the perspective of what clubs or affinity groups we participate in rather than personal convictions and well-founded beliefs.

No one stands in the way of progressive students' personal ideological development, but solid progressive politics are still lacking. There is hardly a stigma against progressive politics in American schools. If anything, one would expect that the few conservatives on those campuses would have the least capability to develop their beliefs and understanding of the world.

Despite all the factors stacked against them, a disproportionate number of my philosophically and ideologically inclined friends are conservatives. It seems as if the overwhelming progressive culture of youth politics has made us complacent with holding fists in the air and feeling guilty for being white or not a person of color. Clearly, we have the capability to reach out and seize well-read and thought-out politics, but progressives have made a choice not to. Our own political habits have made us lazy and self-satisfied, and that could be the death knell for the future of American radicality.

Ultimately, it is the burden of students themselves to take up the mantle of progressivism that they have claimed. It is no longer enough to be woke or an ally. If we truly want to be the ideological future, then it is essential that we cast off the self-affirming norms so commonplace today. Now more than ever, political consciousness in all forms must be developed as fast as possible—and not just holding a fist up.

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