Extremist has become a dirty word. Suicide bombers, plane hijackers, masked ‘anarchists’ bent on chaos – these are the visual memes attached to the word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an Extremist is “a person who holds extreme (far from Moderate) political or religious views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action”. By this definition, every social movement that ever made a difference, was an Extremist movement. For transformative change to happen, someone has to think differently. If the law is unjust, someone has to break it. Conversely, supporters of slavery, holocaust, the subjugation of women and other unjust yet mainstream barbarities were, technically, Moderates. So perhaps it’s not the Extremists we need to be worrying about…but the Moderates.
The Middle Ground Doesn’t Exist
Politics across the West has become a race for the so called centre or middle ground. This is based on a conception of politics as a single line, with extremes at left and right. Imagine then that the majority of the public is clustered around the middle of this line, with ever decreasing numbers as you move outward either end. The politician who places themselves smack bang in the middle of this line will therefore gain support from the majority. A politician who places themselves to far either side risks alienating the majority and appearing ‘extreme’. All those people clustered around the middle of the line are ‘Moderates’. All those further out to left or right are ‘Extremists’, or at the very least, holders of ‘extreme views’. But, this is merely one way of conceiving of politics.
In reality, most people do not have a binary view on matters of politics. For many who do have such a view, the matter is more about conforming and belonging in an assigned community, than it is their actual belief system. In this way, this sliding scale of left and right pigeon holes people and boxes in their ability to think critically about matters on an issue by issue basis. I speak to many in ‘the left’ who shamefacedly whisper ‘I actually think genetic modification is a really incredible scientific breakthrough that could potentially be a force for good in the world. But I hate Monsanto and all they stand for, and that scares me’. I have had conversations with people on the right who have trouble reconciling ‘community’ and ‘self-reliance’ – as those on ‘the right’ generally have a nostalgia for community and tradition which most of their economic arguments serve to destroy. It is a much more difficult thought to maintain than that single line, but imagine we are all actually just individuals, all with a unique set of experiences, genes, conversations and thoughts. While some graphical chart might plot those opinions and form a distribution, that is not a dynamic representation of reality.
There is a sea of people and a sea of opinions and they fluctuate not only by categories of race, class, gender, sexuality and age – but within a single person. It is because most of us know this of ourselves that everyone thinks they are on the middle ground. Everyone’s views seem entirely rational, sensible and coherent to themselves. The fact then that someone holds seemingly contrary views to you, makes them extreme, as you know yourself to be on the middle ground. If we are all on the middle ground, and we have such extraordinarily divergent views on matters, then there is no such thing as the middle ground.
The Moderate – Conservatism Uber Alles
Instead of that happy compromise in the centre of two extremes, moderation is actually a naturally conservative position. It essentially says, ‘look, things aren’t so bad, and who knows what’s going to happen if we change this thing too fast or too much?’ – as if there was some delicate balancing act to maintain and failure would mean chaos, destruction and death.
But what if the status quo is chaos, destruction and death?
The prevailing order we live under today is Neoliberalism: presented as the theoretical opposite of Communism (that’s a whole other blogpost).
Now, if a present day, western Moderate was asked whether Communism worked, they would likely say no. They would point to the brutality, authoritarianism, deprivation, and overbearing bureaucracy. Many of these people would never have studied Russia, China, Cuba or any other Communist state pre or during Communism, so have no context for these statements whatsoever. In short, in their condemnation of Communism, their requirement for evidence is low, as is their sympathy for the system and its proponents.
So what of the results of our system? Does it really perform any better? And how does the Moderate respond to its failures?
Under the neoliberal system set up at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 with the creation of the IMF, World Bank and the modern neoliberal economy – 21,000 starve to death every day, that’s a person every four seconds. And hunger is getting worse. In Africa, neoliberalism’s source of cheap labour and natural resources, the number of hungry people grew from 175 million to 239 million people between 1990-1992 and 2010-2012. Hunger has also risen by almost 20% in so called ‘developed’ countries, during the same period. Much of the world, whether classed as ‘developing’ or ‘developed’ by neoliberal standards, is getting hungrier.
Of the 2.2bn children on the planet, 1bn (almost half) of them live in poverty – that is below $1.25 per day.
22,000 children die every day because they are too poor to live. These deaths come from hunger, malnutrition, and lack of access to healthcare, medicine, clean drinking water, or shelter.
Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
The Red Cross is launching its biggest humanitarian food aid programme since World War II across Europe, including the UK, in peace time 2013. The social impacts of current economics being almost as devastating as a global war.
Inequality of wealth, income, consumption and power is rampant within this system.
80% of people live in nations where the wealth gap is widening.
The richest 0.1% of people in the world, own 81% of all wealth.
The rate of social mobility in the West is no better today than during the Feudal system of the Middle Ages.
Add to all this that unsustainable development, farming practices, energy sources and consumption – largely undertaken by the richest, are now having catastrophic impacts on our climate and ecology – which largely impact the poorest.
The Moderate would point to what incremental and inconsistent improvements can be seen, even if these are made in spite of, rather than because of neoliberalism ( i.e. charity, social democracy, public services and nationalisation) and say, ‘see – it’s not so bad.’ They would cling to the hopes of best intentions by the individuals and organisations delivering such appalling results.
In short, when it comes to the status quo, the Moderate’s requirement for evidence of failure is high, and their sympathy for the system and its proponents is high.
In an Extreme Status Quo, the Moderates are Extremists
If the status quo is extreme, then those so-called Moderates who vouch for it are not Moderate at all. They are supporting, passively or actively, an Extremist system. They are willing to make apologies for the political, religious and economic leaders who suppress, starve, brutalise and kill people, plants and animals across the world.
Those people that retain their individual capacity for free thought, compassion and judgement, and condemn such barbarity, should stop hanging their heads in shame. There is nothing wrong with you. You are not mad. You are not alone. You are human, and are not willing to compromise your humanity for the sake of fitting in, being popular or maintaining your own peace of mind.
Indian philosopher and fellow Extremist Jiddu Krishnamurti once wrote:
He was right. Being an Extremist, when the Moderate opinion backs an unjust, unequal and corrupt status quo is a courageous act.
Martin Luther-King, in his letter from Birmingham City Jail, made perhaps the most eloquent case against moderation.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white Moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”;
It could be that the greatest barrier to a just world is not the tiny proportion of the globe who retain overwhelming control and power, but the majority of the rest who not only consent to the disparity, but defend and enforce it. If it is Extremist to stand for a world where each person is guaranteed an equal standard of healthcare, food, water, shelter, education, quality of life and to contribute the best of themselves…is Extremist really such a dirty word?
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