These are precarious times. We live in a world plagued by mass poverty, chronic hunger, wealth inequality, and racism but we seem to lack the will to overcome these preventable miseries. The world order is already ripe for an overhaul yet many are reluctant to admit it. Worse, some of us have refused to believe anymore that things can still change; or that a better future is possible through revolutionary struggle. When did we stop dreaming? Why did we succumb to self-defeating apathy and cynicism?
Even the headline of this essay reflects the kind of uninspiring mentality that prevails today. If our situation is already serious, it warrants nothing less than our urgent action and commitment. Activism then should be a moral duty instead of merely treating it as a choice that we can either adopt or ignore. To paraphrase the philosopher Kant, argue but we should obey our truths.
To speak of activism as necessity is considered taboo in our so-called postmodern world where ambiguity and indetermination are elevated as ethics that truly empower rational human beings. To be clear-cut about politics, instead of engaging in seductive language games, is ridiculed as dogmatic. Anyone who names the political is seen as an unthinking agitator.
Hence, the indirect clamoring for political action; the careful non-articulation of political imperatives that might offend the sensibilities of the post-political population. Furthermore, it should not appear that a person is being coerced to decide on political matters.
Activism? Make it an option, call it volunteerism so that it becomes chic radicalism, defang its subversive goals. Popular activism has to be reintroduced as a rational consumer choice in the free market of political alternatives.
The tragedy of our generation is the naive assumption that we are free to make our choices. Perhaps it is true like the free will of the voter who had to choose between a young dynast, an old porker, and a greedy capitalist. This freedom to choose is the pleasure principle of modern politics.
Our task is to expose the bankruptness of political freedom in the age of neoliberalism. Is it authentic choice when we are confronted with conservative evil on one hand and liberal evil on the other? Our next task is to prove that it is viable to choose the path of radicalism, or politics in perpetual search of the ultimate alternative.
Again, we turn back to activism because it is the familiar representation of what it means to engage in Leftist politics.
Admittedly, activism is not a popular choice in contemporary society. Schools teach children to be employable, the media bombard the public with corporate propaganda, and the government acts as if the present order of things cannot be replaced anymore.
It seems many teenagers today are too busy preparing for a high-paying career in the future that they have little or no time for other pursuits like dreaming a new world, or engaging in activism to change the world. But can we blame them if they are brainwashed to believe that hoarding material possessions makes a person successful and influential? Their enthusiasm for money-making endeavors is related to our unhealthy attitude of glorifying the lives of billionaires and their families. They simply wanted to conform what popular culture is demanding from them.
For many, activism is a one time activity while career-building is a long-term effort. The first may be a noble undertaking but the latter is more significant since it allows individuals to succeed in life which gives them the time, resources, and motivation to pursue feel-good activism through charity. Activism is bypassed in favor of other activities sanctioned by the mainstream order such as family building, career enhancement, and harmless civic participation.
Thus, the need for an early and decisive intervention to defend the idea of activism. Our appeal is to embed activism in our everyday lives. It should be more than a phase in life, an eccentric hobby of angry young people, or nostalgic behavior of retired citizens. We dare say it is a lifelong commitment that should surpass even our devotion to develop our careers.
Activism doesn’t compel us to switch or abandon our careers; we are simply encouraged to rethink our priorities. Why should we think and act like machines that require constant upgrading? This overzealous drive for self-improvement should be refocused to make it more socially relevant. We should not learn new things and improve our way of doing things in order to compete with others but to be more effective in serving the needs of the community.
We build careers but for whom? We enhance our skills but for what purpose? The dominant perspective orders us to think only of ourselves and our families. We are told that individual interest trumps the collective good. Through activism, we learn to broaden our life goals by advancing the politics of social change. We strive to become better individuals and committed activists at the same time. We have activists who are also doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, artists, and engineers. We can pursue that dream job without losing sight of the bigger dream of building a better world for the next generation.
But a lifetime of struggle is often contrasted with an ordinary life buoyed by instant pleasures and illusory luxuries. The latter even entices the socially committed to partake in the fun while allowing them to uphold activism from time to time. Political engagement becomes a part-time affair. Activism is relegated as the reserve ultimate solution in the coming great breakdown of political order. In the meantime, we can enjoy our lives without renouncing the Cause.
The enduring success of capitalism is to make everyone think that the system continues to work. We are too distracted enjoying our virtual fantasies that we failed to notice that we are living in a permanent state of crisis. Apocalypse has already arrived yet our open eyes are blind about it. We see suffering individuals but the structures of exploitation are invisible to us. No wonder the popular brand of activism today is the one that extends momentary relief to victims instead of enjoining them in a mass movement that will destroy the old system of abuse and injustice.
We see ourselves as productive citizens of society who readily contribute our talents and energies to fix what is broken and improve the state of things. This is a fair assessment. Indeed, the system cannot function without tapping the idealism and labor power of the working people. But imagine if all our mental abilities are redirected to introduce the alternative. Activism is a reminder to choose a side in the raging battle between the forces of old and new. The old promises a life of material comfort while the new offers nothing but a chance to remake the world. The old asks us to preserve what humanity has achieved while the new dares us to question what humanity has done.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org