In the hierarchy of political evils, single issue activism does not figure, and rightfully so. There’s less barbarism in the world because of the heroic work of individuals who never gave up fighting for their chosen advocacy in life. But we cannot deny the rise of a particular brand of activism that reduces politics into a struggle for a single issue. Some people equate political work with lobbying for a micro reform in the bureaucracy. This is supposed to be the inclusive, democratic, and practical kind of activism in the 21st century. Nevertheless, it can be argued that this type of activism is an example of lame politics but there’s really nothing substantially wrong with it.
Single issue activism turns into creepy conservatism if it is done to reject a comprehensive political practice in order not to disrupt the status quo. A so-called smart activism that focuses on a specific advocacy irrespective of what’s happening in society. A political battle launched supposedly in the name of the public even if its rallying call is divorced from the everyday conditions of the masses.
It is an NGO which celebrates government collaboration even during political crisis moments. It is a network of civil society organizations endorsing the passage of a token legislation as if it’s the equivalent of the smashing of status and class privileges. It is the pursuit of some bureaucratic tweaking while mispresenting it as an act of social transformation. It is promoting a specialized knowledge of society while ridiculing the narratives of national liberation movements. Or it is having a total grasp of the political situation but choosing to be an expert at micro resistance.
Still, all things considered, the preceding do not constitute a fundamental political crime.
Single issue activism becomes an anti-people phenomenon if it is deliberately promoted to dilute the people’s struggle in favor of elite interest. It is conspiring to ratify an NGO-friendly issue to redirect political noise away from the politician in power or trapo allies. It is using state resources to amplify public interest on a specific issue with the end goal of preventing opposition forces from hounding the ruling party.
Corruption at the highest level? The president is busy with a civil society-sponsored legislation. Peasant unrest? The bureaucracy has already responded to the demands of legitimate NGOs.
Imagine if all political groups would only stick to their core organizational objectives. Imagine if all NGOs would not advocate beyond what their foreign funders want them to achieve. Imagine non-political associations teaching passivity in the grassroots while state terror is directly and indirectly enforced.
At a time when multitasking is already a popular concept in group dynamics, there exist political formations which cannot or refuse to engage in multiple political campaigns. There are small and big NGOs whose raison d’etre is the advancement of a single issue. They claim to have perfected the art and science of political lobbying yet they couldn’t or wouldn’t use this expertise to support revolutionary organizations. In fact, many of them disdain radicalism as a counter-productive idealism since they prefer the predictable routine of struggling for only a single reform at any given time.
Even a social catastrophe or a looming breakdown of political order couldn’t persuade these so-called activists from abandoning the single issue framework. The convenient alternative for them is to recalibrate the analysis of the political situation so that the single issue advocacy can be justified as a possible political solution.
But there’s an element of deception involved here since it gives false hope to the people that pursuing some reforms here and there within the boundaries of the state would lead to substantial change.
Single issue activism is necessary but it has its limitations. It always needs to be complemented by a broader political goal. It has to be linked to the radical mass movement if its full potential as an act of people empowerment can be realized.
Single issue activism has to be subsumed by radical collective politics. Otherwise, it will be easy for the state to dominate single issue NGOs and make them subservient to the self-serving needs of mainstream political parties. Radicalism is quite simple: combine the reformism of one sector with another sector, then advance a political demand that does not merely require some bureaucratic adjustments. Radicals do engage in a struggle for reforms but believe that man is capable of achieving greater political victories instead of merely begging for crumbs from the state.
Indeed, espousing doable and little interventions that would improve our society yields concrete results. This is the continuing appeal of single issue activism: making people think that change can be instantly measured. That change in one sector can spark a cataclysm in the national and even international community. That the gap between the center and the periphery can be bridged through a simple implementation of reforms by well-meaning individuals and charity groups.
Perhaps it is possible. But what is certain is that history can be made much quicker if we mix the seemingly disparate cases of single issue ‘activisms’ until a more comprehensive and progressive type of politics becomes visible and viable in the community.
If single issue activism can already make an impact on politics, think what unlimited activism can accomplish. Only politicians and reactionaries prefer small doses of activism. We should show to them what real resistance is all about.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org