Radicals: The Bottom Line
Book review of Radicals, Outsiders Changing the World by Jamie Bartlett: what if a little bit of radical thinking made you think smarter?
Considering radicals as originals and marginals is easy, we all do it. But what if their way of thinking actually had an impact? What if their methods had things in common? Things we can learn from to understand whether, perhaps, their actions go somewhere?
Radicals is an easy-to-read book which documents how extreme ideas and ways of action proliferate. There’s a lot of food for thought in there, and my take is that you won’t think about radicalism again… Just saying!
Food for Thought: Why You should read ‘Radicals, Outsiders Changing the World’ by Jamie Bartlett.
I used the winter break to think about my writing pipeline for 2019 and I got stuck on a very important question: what book will I write about in January? The dilemma was big! Should I go for something light to start the year optimistically? Or should I opt for something deeper, thus taking a slight risk.
I thought about it and got back to my own basics: my purpose here is to give you some food for thought so I decided to go for something serious.
January is always the time of the year where we tend to reflect on what we are going to do differently over the next few months. With this month’s book suggestion, I decided to give you an opportunity to think about how people think, a chance to try and see things from another angle, a chance to take the new year with, perhaps, a more open-minded approach.
In short, I am hoping to help you start the year on a challenging thinking note. Think before you speak and READ before you think, as it says on my homepage!
So! This month, my book suggestion is Radicals, Outsiders Changing the World by Jamie Bartlett.
I know what you are thinking. Radicals? Oh boy, that’s a heavy start!
But no, not really! Radicals is an interesting book which will give you a challenging perspective on how people think and turn their ideas into real things.
Jamie Bartlett focuses on the extremes here. In an easy to read journalistic style, he explores a variety of topic – all sensitive – which give people the greatest chances to go wild. Think trans-humanism, for instance, or nationalism and radicalism, not to forget psychedelic experiences and the challenge of creating new types of communities in marge of the current world. If that doesn’t give you food for thought…
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author’s main topics explained in detail.
- The book’s main themes, questions, and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Radicals: brief book review (for starters).
Radicals, Outsiders Changing the World by Jamie Bartlett is a book written to explore and document the thinking and acting methods of the most radical elements of our societies.
The topic is serious and challenging because most of us are not used to these ways of thinking. Yet, it provides a great opportunity to try and understand those who try to push their opinions upfront, whether they are innovators or contestants.
Jamie Bartlett doesn’t make the topic heavy and complex. He writes in a journalistic style, and his writing is easy to read, understand and follow. Presented as an expert on online social movements and on the impact of technology on society, he is also described as “one of the world’s leading thinkers on radical politics and technology”. In my opinion, that makes this book an interesting and mind-provoking read.
As Jamie Bartlett writes it, the book is about those “innovators, disruptors, idealists and extremists who think society s broken and believe they know how to fix it”.
Said like that, it is easy to think that radicals are just an illuminated bunch, with crazy ideas and non-sense attitudes. But radicalism is much more complex than that. The term ‘radicals’ does not just describe funny ways of thinking. It refers to a tendency to provoke in ways that make people listen.
Bartlett gives an interesting example at the beginning of his book. Think about women rights! In the late 1800’s, liberal minds made things change in Britain and gave women rights they didn’t have. Like the right to vote, for instance. These things seem basic nowadays, but at the time the idea was challenging, and the action mode was radical.
Such a form of radicalism still exists, of course, and it can be found at various levels. Some criticize the way our capitalist world works by creating communities of their own, outside of the world. Others vote for populist politicians as a means to get rid of the establishment. In the United States, Donald Trump was elected to kick a long-lasting political tradition, Beppe Grillo surfed on a similar wave in Italy, whilst in France, the election of Emmanuel Macron has pushed the historical politicians away from politics in a matter of months.
Having said that, new forms of radical thinking have appeared, promoted by what Jamie Bartlett describes as “three simultaneous mega challenges which are about to crash into our comfortable and complacent political arrangements”.
Technology is one of them, think about Artificial Intelligence and the difficulty to make a transition from the world as we know it to something we barely understand. On this, see my various technology-related reading suggestions.
Climate change is another challenge which needs to be faced – even though we have no real plans on the matter. On this point, I’ll soon publish a commentary of Earth Masters, by Clive Hamilton which you will find worth reading.
The third challenge emphasized by Jamie Bartlett is rather “attitudinal” to the extent that it shows a loss of trust in our democracies and institutions, thus making our world “slow”, “unresponsive” and probably unable to cope with whatever is coming along. A bit as if the future was full of surprises…
Sounds interesting? Keep reading, the comprehensive commentary of the book is coming right below. To sum things up, though:
Radicals: The comprehensive book review.
Radicals, Outsiders Changing the World explores eight examples of radical thinking, all of them focused on issues faced by western liberal democracies. Those issues include trans-humanism, European nationalism, libertarianism or the complex issue of community building to cite but a few.
As usual, though, I’ll regroup these examples into big themes that we can play with.
The first big theme explores the idea that new ideals can be explored. For instance, what if humans became more than humans thanks to technology and innovation, what if our world was so unbalanced that we needed psychedelics to escape? The second theme focuses on political extremism, taking European developments as an example. The third theme provides a mix of the first two and explores the idea that, perhaps, new communities could be created to stop the current excesses.
As usual, this more comprehensive part of the book review starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
Jamie Bartlett explores these major themes:
- Radical thinking
- The challenges faced by our current societies
- Change, and how to adapt to new ways of thinking and doing.
He also asks a variety of questions, including:
- What is radicalism and who are radicals?
- What are the society topics in which radical thinking proliferates?
- How do radicals think, and how do they operate?
- Do radicals have things in common and/or are there significant contradictions?
- Does radical thinking play a role in society?
- What comes next?
Sounds interesting, right? Now, let’s get into the details. Just keep reading!
Radicals – Theme #1: New ideals.
The first big theme in Radicals is that of new ideals, and it is best described with Bartlett’s fascinating description of the transhumanist movement. Be open-minded here, as a reminder the goal is to understand how those ideas develop and strive…
Radically changing the human condition.
I have written various articles about books that focus on the impact of technology on humanity on I’ll make You Think Smart. And trans-humanism is one of those topics that leave me clueless.
One might call it funny and quirky, others call it ambitious and visionary. It’s all a question of perspective, but whether we believe it or not things are happening around the idea that technology is the future of humans.
The big idea is fairly simple to understand: humans are only humans, and technology has the ability to turn us into super-humans. Hence, according to trans-humanists, our lives ought to focus on using technology to improve our condition, and those of us who don’t adopt this mindset basically betray humanity.
Bartlett elaborates extensively on the issue. He explores the science-fiction roots of the phenomenon (starting with Asimov and Huxley) and shows that the trend originates from a discussion embedded in a form of doctrine.
He shows how this doctrine has developed over the years to progressively get capital-rich investors to invest in human robotics and artificial intelligence. More interestingly, he explains how individuals convinced by the ideal – such as Zotlan Istvan – are progressively developing political movements around the doctrine and mindset.
In the US, an immortality bus was created to bring the ideal to the Presidential debate in 2017, thus creating a genuine political dynamic around what has long been pictured as a fantasy ideal.
Elsewhere, bio-hackers work on modifying their own bodies to increase their human performance, on a test and measure basis.
All in all, the dream is to erase death in less than twenty-five years, whilst permitting rejuvenation within thirty-five years. And, unsurprisingly, claims that robots will replace humans are happily dismissed on relatively unexplained grounds.
>> Related Reading: Martin Ford on Robots and Mass-Unemployment.
Radically escaping the reality?
Talking about radical life ideals, Bartlett also tells the story of those people who feel so disconnected from the world they live in that they need to have recourse to psychedelic products to try and escape.
Originally, these experiences were seen as “tools for growth” making part of personal journeys. Soon enough, however, they became a tool for political action used by groups convinced that the society suffered from a spiritual issue.
Against utilitarianism and selfish mindsets, some developed a need for a common consciousness described as a way to give a sense of unity in their lives. Another form of activism, in other words, based on a movement followed by new communities in need of new ideals
Radicals – Theme #2: Political radicalism.
The second important theme explored in Radicals is the issue of political radicalism. As per the first theme, the different examples mentioned here are spread throughout the book, but a common idea nonetheless emerges, i.e. the system needs a reboot.
Radicals and nationalism.
A first example deals with radicals and the idea of a return to nationalism, in Europe and elsewhere. With trends such as immigration, the fall of frontiers and multiculturalism, Jamie Bartlett describes what he identifies as a “time of change” originating from an increasing erosion of national sovereignty.
In this context, radicalism is seen as an act of resistance aimed at preserving the people from a chock of civilization, not less. Anti-this and Anti-that ideologies emerge in response to a variety of developments, and as with the examples mentioned previously a set of processes is progressively being put into place.
Radicals organize their ideas as doctrines, and they create political dynamics to demonstrate their importance (numbers) and influence (muscles). Hence, a form of leadership has appeared, both at the group level and at the political system level.
The confusion appears, however, when radicalism is being questioned by diverging forms of radicalism. In some cases, the arguments seem coherent and carefully elaborated because the purpose is to be perceived as a respectable group. In others, the rationale is simply the necessity to hold someone responsible for a set of problems.
From Europe to Australia, the trend takes place everywhere, and that makes the topic both multifaceted and complex. Jamie Bartlett provides insiders’ perspectives, though, and explains with simple words and examples how subtle the concept of radicalism is. This makes the reading very practical and interesting.
Radicalism and religions, Radicalism and governmental action.
Follows the issue of radicalism and religion. Here, Bartlett explores the idea, expressed by some radicals, that religions (such as Islam) are inherently determined to attack the west, and that radical countermeasures need to be established as a response.
The idea sounds very political and polemical, but as the author notes, it has also been developed at the international level with, in particular, the apparition in international relations of a concept of radicalism prevention.
Said differently? States now rely on radical measures to solve radicalism issues… which eventually leads to creating divisive policies across the world. In Jamie Bartlett’s opinion, therefore, “the bigger issue is what happens when governments enter the marketplace of ideas”.
Oh, and what happens when the world gets bored with religion-based conflicts and decides to turn to environmental extremism? On this, I do recommend a very interesting book on Geoengineering – or the art of using technology to master the climate – by Clive Hamilton.
Grillo and radical populism.
Bartlett takes another good case study, i.e. that of Beppe Grillo and the five-star movement in Italy. In the case of the five-star movement, the radical argument did not emerge as a result of a fear of foreigners but as a rage against corruption, inside the country.
Bartlett talks about a form of “digital populism” here, which he interprets as a generalized defiance against existing institutions giving rise to a form of “digital politics” based on open public discussion, extreme questioning and political argumentation.
In this case, the idea is radical, and so are the means used to convey it. A blog, a TV show, ways to talk to people without letting politicians interfere. Something sharp, which attacks and leaves traces, especially on the establishment and status quo… With these new methods, indeed, also came the idea that political parties as we know them are not necessary, and that the cards can be reshuffled radically.
Jamie Bartlett’s analysis is really interesting, give it a try.
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Radicals – Theme #3: Creating new societies.
The idea that the system needs a general reboot is a common feature of the various radical examples we’ve talked about so far, but Jamie Bartlett has more stories to talk about. In a third theme, he elaborates on those minds which aim at constructing parallel societies, outside of the world.
Radical social experimentation.
The book provides several examples of radical social experimentation.
In some cases, the basic idea is that the society is corrupted, and that “trust comes through radical honestly” and radical lifestyles. Villages seek to attract peace-minded people from the whole world, putting ecology, spirituality and sexual freedom at the core of the ideal.
The message is confusing but in such cases, no political movement is to be found. Things come from experimentation, therefore the approach is different and does not need to be structured. Radicalism takes another form here, both in terms of message and action.
Liberland is another interesting example. Take a swamp, somewhere between Serbia and Croatia. Take a leader who believes that liberty is the ultimate goal, and who therefore decides to create a state where “radical libertarianism” is the rule.
Individual liberties against governmental action. Freedom against rules. The question here is that of state and government roles, between organization, order, and control.
And, again, the radical way of thinking is to be found, with all it entails. New ideas are brought forward, but the message seems confusing and the organization is haphazard. The mindset is anarcho-capitalist (we usually see anarchists breaking banks, not anarchists praising free capital) and the dream is to create a state without borders, materialized mainly online, with virtual identities and cryptocurrencies as a moto. Democracy isn’t wanted, it is despised, which overall leads to asking what society could look like if, like in this case, no government was there to hold the walls together.
Again, Jamie Bartlett’s writing is great food for thought, have a look and see for yourself if you want to find out more.
Radicals: The main conclusions
Jamie Bartlett comes to the following conclusions.
- Radicalism is a state of mind, shared by those who think that the society doesn’t work, and that they can change it with radical change and action. They all share a frustration, reject the status quo, feel disappointed by the existing systems and institutions, and want to revolutionize the world.
- Radical thinking therefore proliferates in relation to numerous issues, ranging from the usual political radicalism to trans-humanism, society development or climate change control.
- Radicals fight for many causes but their modus operandi converges. Radical ideas, but a general lack of organization and a typical difficulty to convey structured and audible messages, which often leads to keeping radicals in marge of the society.
- Despite important contradictions and a profound incompatibility between radicals and the idea of a status quo providing a certain stability to the society, radical thinking has a role to play in terms of shaking ideas and nurturing democracy.
Radicals, Outsiders Changing the World: Food for thought.
To put things simply? I’d say that with Radicals, Outsiders Changing the World, Jamie Bartlett has done a great job of explaining a world which we often see as either unacceptable or eccentric.
The book reads easily. It is well researched. And the ideas explored by the author are illustrated very dynamically, with life experiences and case studies. This means that the book touches upon real issues that everyone should think about.
Bartlett clearly shows that he does not agree with the various trends he discusses. Yet, he nonetheless gives the reader both sides of the discussion. He explores the arguments and elaborates on the politics surrounding them. He also makes the issues human and practical. And that gives the book a real interest when it comes to thinking one step ahead.
At the end of the day, the real value of the book is that Jamie Bartlett doesn’t just list funny profiles here. He shows that alternative ways to see and do are developing, and he suggests that, one way or another, “more and more people will begin to turn to outsiders” if the existing institutions and systems do not take their opinion(s) seriously.
Whether we talk about trans-humanism, radicalism, or women’s rights, the rationale is always the same. Radicals are not just a bunch of funny or dangerous lads. They are those “who advocate fundamental social or political reforms (and) think that something is desperately wrong with the modern society”.
The difficulty with radicals: confusing messages.
An idea comes back throughout the book: whatever their ideals, radicals all face difficulties in getting their messages out. Between fantasy and seriousness, whatever they have to offer might be an option but it tends to be perceived as intangible (at best) or wacky.
In the case of trans-humanism, the argument is usually that the science is already here and that we are already capable of making the world change. But would you be ready to put your life in the
hands circuits of an artificial intelligence? Are you ready to believe someone who tells you that there will be no more dying within twenty-five years?
If you are interested in the issue of trans-humanism, as a matter of fact, see also my reading suggestions on Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari.
In line with this idea, Jamie Bartlett also draws a radical’s profile which helps understanding why getting radical messages right is so complicated.
Most radicals share common traits. Most are angry, obsessed, and therefore determined to make things change, even though such a mindset tends to lead to action before reflexion.
Bartlett provides an interesting analysis here. He talks about the emergence of an “activist subculture”, he describes the apparition of group identities. And he concludes with the idea that, progressively, radicals organize, initiate and cultivate a mindset… which will be transmitted in a constructed manner to the next generation.
New values appear. Radicals are willing to be arrested and willing to face the consequences of their ideal needs. They create their own vocabularies and dress codes, they create forms of governance and institutions. Yet, at the same time, and this is the paradox, they also tend to confuse the ends and the means, which ultimately harms their action.
Surprising, also, is the idea that radicals can’t stand each other. Radicals are so extreme in their ideas that they necessarily have opponents whom they do not accept and with whom they will rather fight than talk.
Radicals: What comes next?
Jamie Bartlett asks a big question throughout his book: what happens next is essential.
We might decide to ignore current and new forms of radical thinking. But the mindsets and methods might just keep growing until the radical way becomes the norm. This happened for the women’s rights, so why couldn’t it work for the current ‘out-of-the-norm’ too?
Said differently, some of the original or disturbing topics of today – whether political, ethical or technological – might be the serious topics of tomorrow, and the question which ought to be considered is that of the credit and attention we should give to those who manifestly don’t agree with us.
Should those discussions be discarded from the public debate? Would no extremes be better? For Bartlett, the issue is crucial and the answer is a definite no. In his words:
“Society’s main job is surely to encourage people to be critical and skeptical thinkers, capable of deciding for themselves. if you remove any and all radical or extremist content, the only long-term result would be dulled and thin-skinned citizens incapable of making up their own minds.”
If that doesn’t make you think smart…
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That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
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