If you think activists are too negative, then would you rather prefer the silent optimism of the apathetic? If unimpressed by the political value of streetnoise activism, would you follow the uncritical collaborationism as exemplified by the politics of former activists in the yellow regime? It is doubtful if people are exposed to an overdose of negative activism; but if they are already tired of whining activists, they are free to indulge in the good news courtesy of government-sponsored news broadcast. However, it should not stop us from pursuing activism that really matters, or radicalism that negates a negative to bring forth the positive.
Politicians disdain negativism and they often exhort the public to share the same sentiment as if it promotes the general good. In the eyes of these politicians and their apologists, no one can surpass activists as fanatic purveyors of negativity. At least United States Vice President Spiro Agnew was a bit creative in dissing critics with his “nattering nabobs of negativism” quote while others are simply acting like spoiled hacienderos who try to deny the pitiful conditions of the country by accusing those who disagree with the government of engaging in too much negativism.
Instead of refuting the indictment, we should affirm it. Yes, we are guilty of being negative. We thrive on negativity and we even eat negative thoughts for breakfast. There is nothing perverse with having this attitude; on the contrary, it reflects a rational knowledge of history which informs us that humanity endured not by ceaselessly cheering the reigning power but by toppling it. What we should worry about is not the existence of stubborn pessimists but the lack of negativity in society. Even if we fail to perceive it, the truth is that there is too much positivity ricocheting all around us.
We exaggerate the presence of negativity which explains our brutal reaction to anything and anyone expressing a contrary opinion. The cost of this behavior is immense. If we mute the noisy activists and if we further shrink the space where they can articulate their views, we are left with only the happy minds crowding our public consciousness. Nothing wrong with this but what if most of the minds belong to sleazy bureaucrats, greedy capitalists, and conservative intellectuals? Indeed, they only constitute the minority but they have the resources, influence, and motivation to project their class-specific and creepy worldview as legitimate and official knowledge.
So when minimum wage workers willingly endorse the privatization of the train service, it reveals more than anything else the triumph of corporate interest in shaping public opinion. It underscores the hegemony of the neoliberal agenda; it is positive ideology at work which we misread as common sense. And so when someone contradicts privatization, we quickly dismiss it as negative knowledge and nuisance criticism.
There is a proliferation of unchallenged positive ideas sustained by the rapid dismissal of negative thinking. The first is dangerous, the latter is tragic. The emperor is no longer naked but someone has to remind him that his clothes were made by slave workers.
Suffering from selective amnesia, politicians have to be continually reminded about the role of negative critique in establishing modern and stronger democracies.
Who would support Agnew now and his defense of US involvement in the Vietnam War? It seems the haciendero has already forgotten that his mother was an eminent ‘negative’ critic of the Martial Law regime. Despite the fundamentalism of hooligan economists, we now know that privatization boosts corporate profit and public misery at the same time.
In other words, democracy and democratic discourse benefit from dissent, which is a nicer way of saying that negativity is essential in modern polity.
Nevertheless, there is a sophisticated way of rejecting the negativity of activists and it is done by alluding to the scandalous lack of sophistication of activists. Negativity is welcome but it must not be a rah-rah brand of activism. Simply put, activists are deemed as simpletons incapable of participating in an intellectual debate. The proofs often cited are the slogans shouted by activists, their placards bearing “formulaic” demands, and their supposed dogmatic adherence to “obsolete” political paradigms.
Apparently, there is an alternative type of activism and it is regarded as intelligent since it disavows the slogans, the street marching, and mob behavior. It is also said to be refreshing as it offers platforms guided by the principles of non-violence and pluralism. Suddenly, activism as we know it appears dull and dictatorial.
As rational beings, and based on the foregoing, should we then already abandon this kind of activism and embrace the third way, the new Left?
The answer is yes if we agree that rah-rah activism is dumb and our fidelity to it makes us dumber.
Indeed, activists use slogans to simplify and popularize a political demand but it doesn’t mean they are unable to comprehend complex political theories. The slogans have propaganda value but beyond the placards, activists are always conceptualizing and preparing various other forms to share their message to different kinds of audience. These materials can range from 140 characters to thesis statements that represent the particular objectives of a political campaign. Are you expecting to embed a Supreme Court petition in a placard?
Yes, shouting is sensational, it attracts attention, and it is also effective. But remember too that rallies mobilize the poor and marginalized who are finally able to express their frustrations and aspirations against the system that exploited them by joining a collective action. Authorities dismiss these political activities as urban inconvenience, we call it direct democracy.
During university basketball games, there is a lot of shouting, hissing, and raising of fists. But you wouldn’t call this crowd behavior as irrational, would you? Activists also shout, heckle and raise fists in rallies, and they do these things not just for fleeting emotional reasons but also to demand tangible goods such as jobs, food, services, and you know, democracy.
Even the activists’ attempt for clarity is suspect. A clear, comprehensive, and hard hitting critique is frowned by some academics who prefer abstract analysis and vague theories that claim to be political and non-political at the same time. ‘Imperyalismo ibagsak!’ is scorned because it is passe but criticizing the ‘Empire’ is intelligent. Don’t call it land reform, it is already asset reform. Language games are fun but when applied to real politics, it ends up serving the status quo because it confuses the public which leads to, well, inaction.
If activists continue to use political categories which we first read in the 1960s such as imperialism and people’s democratic revolution, it is because they wanted to be precise. It is also an assertion that no substantial change has taken place in recent decades, thus the need to continue the struggle.
Peaceful activism is the goal of all but an understanding of historical and political context is necessary. Try preaching non-violence to an indigenous tribe in a militarized mining site. When the grassroots resort to armed struggle to defend their ancestral domain, is it right to call them terrorists? What looks like senseless political violence is actually armed resistance. Context, context.
A street rally is an outstanding example of peaceful activism but we have pseudo-activists who readily equate it with mob rule. Instead of defending the idea of the masses in action, they are quick to assure authorities that their brand of struggle is different because it is lawful, polite, and temporary. Their obsession to disown rah-rah activism reflects their desire to appear respectful in the eyes of the state (as if it is the great aim of politics). No wonder it is easy for some of them to compromise their principles and support the reactionary regime. Intelligent activism degenerates into political opportunism. The horror, the horror!
Do you complain too much against the government? Do you shout slogans? Do you heckle? Are you a hooligan? If the answer is yes, then you must be one of us. Now let’s talk about Hegelian dialectics. To be continued.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org