What is RadicalxChange?

by Feb 25, 2019

I have recently published a series of three posts critiquing leading ideologies of capitalism, statism, and nationalism from which I dissent. I deliberately kept these posts mostly critical rather than offering solutions, largely because so much of my work has been devoted to building something new, I thought it valuable to defend why something new was needed. However, since my last major attempt at laying out my views comprehensively (my book with Eric A. Posner, Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society), these have evolved and broadened significantly. Furthermore, that book is long and focuses on a series of largely independent policy recommendations rather than an integrated social philosophy.

This post therefore aims to offer a reasonably concise positive exposition of the emerging cluster of ideas I have come to hold and associate with the RadicalxChange (RxC) movement. While a leading strength of RxC movement is the concrete formalism that accompanies many of its ideas, I deliberately shy away from describing any of these in significant detail here (though I will allude to some). Instead I focus on broad philosophical principles. These principles are broader in their application than any specific design, as specific designs may succeed or fail in instantiating the broader principles depending on social and historical context. For example, some instantiations may be more appropriate to a longer-term, more fundamental redesign of social institutions, while others may work better in the near term. All can be derived, however, from the same underlying philosophy.

A historical name for this philosophy is Liberal Radicalism, though I will refer to these ideas as “RadicalxChange” given the misunderstandings rife with the world “Liberal” in the contemporary US context. That philosophy aims to solve a central paradox of contemporary political philosophy. An important political attitude in the post-Enlightenment world is a general suspicion of hierarchical, historically derived, arbitrary or concentrated authority, and sympathy for spontaneous order. Examples include the nation state, corporations, tight-knit traditional communities, and the relations of feudalism.

However, most of the attempts to formalize such “decentralized” or “liberal” social institutions (especially through capitalism and standard one-person-one-vote schemes) have been internally incoherent and ultimately rigid and self-defeating. To take a few recent examples:

  • The advent of internet was promised by many advocates to bring the flowering of democracy and decentralized participation, but has led to a perhaps historically unprecedented concentration of power in a few large platforms.
  • Many believed that majoritarian democracy would save Mynamar from years of military rule, but arguably ended up as a significant contributor to a genocide.
  • Privatizing the US radio spectrum by auction was supposed to efficiently allocate it, but significant hold out by over-the-air broadcasters has gummed up much of it and the rest has been monopolized by a few unpopular and inefficient legacy carries (Verizon, AT&T and Sprint).
  • Globalization and deregulation were heralded as paths to higher wages, but seem to have been accompanied with stagnant living standards for the working class in wealthy countries.

These are but a few of the latest examples, but the pattern is as old as liberalism itself, exemplified by the vast inequality and instability of the early twentieth century and the democratic rise of fascism.
Why have so many attempts to create liberal institutions, especially those relying heavily on a majoritarian state paired with a capitalist economy, failed?

The basic problem, as I discuss extensively in my critique, is that capitalism does not work well for social processes with “increasing returns”, that is circumstances where a group of people can accomplish more together than the sum of what they can separately. But such processes are the essence of civilization and social life. Capitalism thus ends up neglecting public goods, creating monopolies, or both, that generate large and sustained inequalities.

The usual liberal reaction is some form of democracy to address these failures, restraining or breaking monopoly power and democratically providing public goods. But traditional democracies based on fixed structures like the nation-state rarely match the structure of those who need to be served by any given public good or who are oppressed by a particular monopoly. Thus, democratic states easily become rigid and even illiberal, oppressing minorities in their midst, neglecting their deleterious effects on those outside the democratic polity and obstructing more effective cross-state collective action.

Liberal Radicalism was a philosophical tradition that takes these “radical” critiques of liberalism seriously and seeks to design a liberalism that can work in a fundamentally diverse but social world. It attempted to, wherever possible, combine the flexibility and dynamism of capitalism with the public spirit and inclination towards the common good of democracy. No institutions as formal or simple as capitalism or one-person-one-vote have historically been known to instantiate such an approach; an important motivation for RadicalxChange is to develop such institutions. Nonetheless, many thinkers and social systems have tried to piece together, in a time and place, Liberal Radical institutions. Some notable examples:

  • The system of checks and balances in the United States Constitution defended in The Federalist by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and the similar Girondin constitution of the Marquis de Condorcet.
  • The diverse system of different levels of government and civil society that sustained American democracy according to Alexis de Tocqueville.
  • The emergence of democratically-governed labor unions to combat the problem of corporate power, as celebrated and theorized by Beatrice and Sydney Webb.
  • Antitrust policies aimed at combatting monopoly power and taxes on land rents created by urbanization, as promoted by Henry George.
  • The “council system” of self-selection into political leadership proposed by Hannah Arendt, among others.
  • The liberal and social democratic welfare states of the mid-20th century in Europe and the United States.
  • The liberal international order of restraints on the power of nation-states that emerged especially in the wake of the Second World War.

These examples are diverse in a variety of ways and there are many things on which the relevant thinkers and actors would disagree. Yet the core idea of RadicalxChange is to try to build formal institutions, nearly as clearly articulated and as broadly applicable as “capitalism” and “majoritarian statism”, that roughly have the character of the above examples. In order to be able to do that, it is important to try to articulate a set of high-level principles more abstract than any particular design that represent the goals of the movement.

Any set of principles can easily err in three ways. First, it may be either two specific in its prescriptions and thus too rigidly fixed on a particular set of institutions. Second, it may be too comprehensive in its claims, reaching well beyond the political and becoming prescriptive about fundamental aspects of human nature and what it is to live a good life that a liberal does not believe belong in politics. Third, it may be too vague to meaningfully guide action by ruling out authoritarian or capitalistic systems and failing to provide a useful north star for action.

In describing the principles below, most of the historical figures and movements above, and many participants in the current RadicalxChange movement, will feel I have erred in one or more of these directions at various points, and in some cases they will certainly be right. Nonetheless, I have done my best to balance these concerns as a first draft upon which I hope others will improve. I have numbered these principles not out of numerology or because I think there is any specific number out there, but for ease of reference. I have also named them briefly, for similar reasons.

  1. Beyond Capitalism v. Statism: Both capitalism and democratic statism are fundamentally flawed. At minimum they must check and balance each other. Yet wherever possible we should strive not just for a compromising middle path between them but for institutions that genuinely combine their strengths. In particular, we should seek to combine the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism in generating new technologies and creating organizations that supply emergent demands based on these technologies on the one hand with the on-going responsiveness to the community served that democratic nation-states allow.
  2. Beyond Individualism v. Collectivism: Both atomic individualism and hegemonic collectivism (such as nationalism) are flawed visions of personal identity. In a vibrant society, identity is constituted not overwhelmingly by membership of a single group or mostly by a vision of autonomy/self-reliance, but instead by memberships in a unique and evolving pattern of social commitments to a variety of communities.
  3. Against Isolation and Totalitarianism: The ultimate evils of a society are isolated individualism and totalitarianism. While these may seem opposites, they are ultimately two sides of the same coin, as both erase the diversity of social commitments that make an individual life rich and the diversity of individuals that make social life rich; think of the way that solitary confinement replicates many features of totalitarianism. Their opposite is diverse, overlapping and interweaving forms of social life.
  4. Emergent, Responsive Social Organization: New, emergent, responsive forms of social organization should be fostered to gradually replace increasingly irrelevant historical forms of organization, without abruptly discarding the past. Entrepreneurs who challenge business incumbents, new forms of governance (such as subnational, supranational and cross-cutting governance) that disrupt incumbent governments and a wide range of civil society all deserve support, but none should be seen as a panacea. Democratic and accountable forms of organization, that seek to maximize the benefits accruing to those they serve, should be fostered wherever possible to supplant plutocratic, autocratic or profit-oriented organizations. The organizations most to be admired are those that are responsive, fitted to their time and social circumstances and democratically accountable to those they serve. At the same time, attempts to suddenly “build a new world” and wipe away past institutions that are still relevant should be resisted.
  5. Tying Social and Technological Innovation: Social and technological innovation are both desirable and should progress as much as possible in parallel. When social innovation runs ahead of the technologies needed to instantiate it, it usually fails and leads to violence. For example, new modes of governance usually require new information and communications technologies to support and formalize them or they can degenerate into dictatorship. When technological innovation runs ahead of social innovation, it becomes the basis of dangerous private concentrations of power and erodes democracy. For example, heavy industrialism requires labor organization to avoid the domination of capital and a level of global governance to avoid climate catastrophe. Modern information technologies and transportation technologies that allow globalization require new forms of governance corresponding to the patterns of collaboration they allow.
  6. Equilibrium Between Individuals and Communities: Communities and individuals should each flow from and be in equilibrium with the other. Community identity and interest should be derivable from an interaction of preferences, knowledge, and interests of the individuals that make them up. Individual identities and interests should be derivable from the emergent culture of communities. Monopolies by individuals over communities and commonwealth should be feared and fought, but so too should a monopoly by a single community over the identity of an individual.
  7. Diversely Shared Property: Absolute private property and absolute national sovereignty are both, and roughly equally, to be avoided. Both the financial benefits and the prerogative to use capital should appropriately be shared across many levels of community, roughly in proportion to the needs of those different communities to use them and the contributions their efforts made to create them. Freedom of movement within nations, across territory, including land typically considered “private property”, and freedom of movement across nations, including across typically closed borders, are both desirable, at least under some conditions, but neither should be absolute, free or possible with unlimited “private property” in tow.
  8. Equal but Flexible Voice: A narrow vision of democracy as absolute equality of influence, vote or voice on every issue within a fixed polity is undesirable. Instead, we should seek a process by which the political leadership of a diverse range of polities emerges through the bottom-up desire for engagement of citizens in these different polities to which they are committed to different degrees. While equality of dignity and voice overall is a central value, individuals will and should choose different leadership paths, some focusing in leadership within one community, others participating more lightly in several. Some of these communities will be narrower, but deeper, others broader but shallower.
  9. Democratizing Capitalism, Blurring the State: Wherever feasible, we should seek to democratize agglomerations of private power and capital, by a combination (based on efficacy in the circumstance) of preventing or breaking up these agglomerations, democratizing them internally, or creating countervailing power to restrain them. Wherever feasible, we should seek to make the use of state power more flexible and responsive, by a combination (based on efficacy in the circumstance) of decentralization, enfranchising those without a voice in present exercise of state power and the creation of cross-national democratic institutions.
  10. Subsidiarity Beyond Geography: Rather than either centralization or decentralization, a diverse ecosystem of polities should emerge based on the principle of subsidiarity. This principle can be stated either as “everything should be handled at the lowest level of government capable of capturing the crucial necessary spillover effects associated with that domain of policy” or “everything should be handled at the highest level of government capable of flexibility accommodating important local differences and information”. These may seem like opposite principles, but in practice they are overdetermined, as any structure will end up straining both local knowledge and the ability to incorporate relevant interactions. Given this, to form the best levels of organization, we should avoid focus exclusively on physical locality and seek forms of organization that respond to the patterns of interaction and commitment (linguistic, cultural, social, network-based, interest-based, occupational, relation to environmental features) that are relevant to the common interests at hand.
  11. Social Plasticity: Human conceptions of community are plastic to changing social dynamics; we should not be excessively attentive to the forms of social organization that characterized the past, especially when these do not themselves have deep historical roots. On the other hand, attempts to impose rather than to allow to emerge new forms of social structure should be resisted as authoritarian and forms of tradition with enduring value to the individuals who participate in them should be maintained and affirmed. We should seek formal polities that respond to social evolution at the same time as they shape it without seeking to monopolize the process of identity formation.
  12. Political Economy, not Economics and Politics: Sharp divides between the economic/private and the political/public should be avoided wherever possible. Agency, flexibility and choice of issues and communities to prioritize are important political values; reason, equality and cooperation deserve attention in the economy. Sharp divides between exit and voice should also be avoided and replaced by more gradual processes of shifting commitments.
  13. Erosion and Taming, not Violent Overthrow: While the concentration of power in institutions like states and corporations are to be resisted, attempts to rapidly change power structures without clearly tested alternative bases of legitimacy have typically ended up recentralizing power in more dangerously concentrated forms. Breaking existing power structures therefore requires a careful combination of concerted and growing bottom-up experimentation that can gradually replace existing power structures (“erosion”) and action through existing power structures to restrain and check the excesses of other such structures and bring attention to alternatives (“taming”).
  14. Work Within the System to Replace It: To the maximum extent possible, erosion should occur in ways that harness and beat existing power structures at their own game, rather than through extra-system means that could precipitate violence. Within the democratic politics of nation states this means building political movements capable of winning widespread political assent and healing existing political divisions. Within capitalism this means build more-productive-than-capitalism entrepreneurial organizations that through their greater productivity accumulate capital that can be used to bring more resources under more just management. Only once such forms have robustly proven their legitimacy and the ability to offer sustainably liberal structures for social organization should they be formalized by supplanting existing capitalist and democratic institutions.
  15. Collaborate with Power to Contain It: Efforts to tame existing concentrations of power must naturally run through existing institutions, through mechanisms like showing private companies how they can improve their profit by competing more vigorously, organizing politically for regulations that break concentrations of private power, and encouraging private companies to resist attempts by authoritarian states to concentrate power over information. These efforts will require collaboration with problematic existing power structures which are often worthwhile so long as excessive legitimation of those power structures compared to the reforms thereby achieved can be avoided.
  16. Live Your Values: The most important goal of social reform should be to build new, widely-shared visions of legitimacy that and underpin a society in which violence is therefore of minimal importance. Building such widely-shared notion of legitimacy requires a broad social conversation and imagination, something impossible without incorporating a diversity of means of communication and community organization. Art, entertainment, and connections to a wide range of pre-existing civil society will be critical to facilitating such a conversation. Such approaches can build broad-based social movements capable of not just exercising power, but instantiating in their practices new forms of legitimacy. Such a diverse interlinking of social forces in turn mirrors fundamental RadicalxChange values. As such, building a RadicalxChange society requires living the values described here and, while constantly experimenting with how these can be formalized at smaller scales, formalizing them in the large only once they have pervaded social life.

While I think these principles are in some sense common sensical, I do believe they run sufficiently counter to the principles of capitalism, statism and nationalism that they form a distinct ideology sufficient to guide future action at least loosely.

Note: I am especially grateful to Chris Muller and Itai Sher for excellent comments on this blog post, though I do not claim either endorses my views here.