Reading Chris Huhne's pitch for the Liberal Democrat leadership in yesterday's Guardian, I was struck by how tired the language of 'radicalism' has become, now well over a decade since Blair started using it. Perhaps this is my problem not Huhne's: maybe it's wrong to expect our politicians to be constantly rebranding themselves with fresh rhetoric. Except this is precisely what the language of 'radicalism' promises. Neo-philiac politics now encounters the same problem that creative destruction poses to business, namely that it is the self-proclaimed innovators and not the conservatives who run the greater risk of looking out-dated. Last year's 'New Improved' soap powder looks considerably more tired than a classic bar of Imperial Leather soap from twenty years ago for example. It's a Faustian pact, as Marshall Berman argued; all that is solid melts into air.
But here's another issue altogether. How did the word 'radical' become quite so politically inert to the ears of Middle England in the first place? I'm not familiar with it being used in the United States. Had Bill Clinton used it, I imagine it would have summoned up memories of '68 and the more truly radical years of Democrat Party politics. Does anyone know of a similar term being quite so tolerable to mainstream political audiences elsewhere in the world? And to confuse matters further, lets not forget that the term is also used in 2007 Britain in the context of 'radical Islamism' or 'young Muslims being radicalised'. We can presume that this latter phrase does not refer to them being seduced by Alan Milburn's public service modernisation agenda.
So the term represents something of a mystery. The Thomas Frank explanation offers few clues in this situation. The Conquest of Cool argument looked at how the language of 68 radicalism was imported from a political context to the sphere of consumption, as a way of inciting people to express their authentic identity via retail. The New Spirit of Capitalism makes a parallel claim about management theory. But when Blair, Milburn, Huhne et al have adopted this language, it ostensibly remains within the political sphere. Of course some elements of policy 'radicalism' are the same as those that are found in the private sector (i.e. the restructuring of public sector bureaucracies and the modernisation of service channels). In this respect the language of 68 has gone from political sphere, to market, and full circle back into the political sphere. This re-entry of radical rhetoric back into politics still presents something of a conundrum. The language ought to have remained dangerous in some way, but clearly it has not (or else they wouldn't be using it).
One explanation would suggest that there is some dialectic between signifier and signified: that 'radicalism' can be repeated as a mantra, as an alternative to it being practiced as a political act. I have argued something similar about the term 'community'. This would suggest that Blair had to wait until radical practice was almost entirely absent from British politics (something which occurred during Neil Kinnock's leadership), before then reviving the chimera of 'radicalism' as an inert political ideal. But I'm not convinced that 'radicalism' is something that very many British people feel any particular nostalgia for anyway.
Or maybe that's the point: because the British have no particular memory of radical politics - it having been largely subsumed into the labour movement in a way that the American Left never was - the term conjures little in the way of nightmares. Our 1968 was tame in comparison to that of the French and the Americans.
So this Blairite, fin de siecle radicalism is something significantly greater than a reorganisation of Whitehall, but substantially less than a reorganisation of society. What would be an example of it? Academy schools perhaps, and the various things that Blair hoped to do in the 'radical second term' that we were cruelly denied by events overseas. But what were these going to be anyway? They exist in some shady zone between new techniques of management and new visions of society, as nothing more nor less than pure policy. The fact that Huhne feels comfortable attaching the word 'radical' to his policy ambitions suggests that policy is an insufficiently dangerous force in society to scare people. But this must also indicate that it is an insufficiently powerful force in society to change very much either. This is politics without risk.