There are competing conceptions of the good life, but mainstream institutions bombard us with the dangerous ideology that the only way to achieve happiness and success is to acquire material possessions or gain fame in society.
In schools and workplaces, we are told to get ahead of others or else we become pitiful losers in the rat race. Meanwhile, the media and popular culture glorify the lives of self-made billionaires whose rags-to-riches biographies are hailed as exemplary achievements in the modern era.
Thankfully, this self-centered life goal is disputed from time to time by contrary philosophies that enjoin us to cultivate a broader perspective. But this corrective teaching comes only in trickles while we are drowning in the ‘disneyworld’ of the capitalist brainwashing machine. For every reminder to think of others over the self, there are hundreds of images, texts, and codes that instruct and even seduce us to do otherwise. The me-first mantra is almost embedded in everyday life that we are no longer shocked by it.
Then there are the so-called experts of moderation. Essentially, they uphold the status quo but they caution against excessive individualism. They preach the politically-correct value of helping others without altering the exploitative relations that engender social injustice. They also insist that the ‘others’ should behave properly to deserve the charity of society.
These are the individuals who hoard overrated goods and worship material riches in life but they obsessively assuage their guilt by feigning concern for the poor. For them, living the good life is accumulating some petty assets while giving something back to the community. Many of these individuals have a desperate desire for public recognition. In the age of social media, they want to be ‘seen’ enjoying the ‘good life’.
But is it a fundamental evil? Perhaps not. Mainstream society might even elevate this ethic as worthy of emulation. But it is non-conformism at its dullest manifestation.
Getting rich while doing good, what is wrong with it? Nothing. Except that real existing individualism has given us a world inhabited by the privileged few who live in luxury on one hand, and the majority who are plagued by preventable miseries on the other.
The prevailing concept of the good life would do nothing to subvert the situation today. It makes some people feel good about their lives while the rest of the world continue to suffer from extreme deprivation.
It is certainly possible to construct a better world than this.
What is then our alternative vision of the good life? And can we realistically embody the ideal?
The ‘good life’ is selfless devotion to uplift the marginalized and a lifelong struggle to build a just and peaceful society.
To the question about the practicality of fulfilling this vision, we have already known many individuals who symbolize this noble aspiration. In our long history of anti-colonial and anti-dictatorship struggle, we call them heroes. Today, these are the political prisoners who are persecuted because of their beliefs and life-affirming decision to serve the people, the poor, and the proletarian class.
The recently released political prisoners are veteran activists who fought Martial Law and paved the way for the restoration of some of our democratic rights. They are more than revolutionary leaders, they are walking icons of democracy. Apparently, detention didn’t dampen their fighting resolve. The young idealists who dreamed of liberating the landless poor from feudal bondage and foreign oppression continue to struggle for national democracy in their senior years.
Unlike some of their former comrades who became ‘progressive’ apologists of the bureaucracy, these political prisoners never abandoned radicalism. They shunned wealth creation to focus on wealth distribution. They became leaders of a revolutionary party that gained nationwide presence and following yet they disdained personal fame in favor of collective leadership.
They endured numerous hardships and long years of separation from their loved ones as they waged war against multiple social evils.
Is this not clear proof of the viability of living the good life? That we can attain fulfillment by serving the people. That service to others requires sacrifice and continuous struggle. That it is through activism that we affirm our solidarity with others. That finding inner peace, which is the ‘holy grail’ for many professionals today, is best done by fighting for a just peace in society.
We are thankful to the political prisoners for showing us the positive legacy of radicalism. They proved how life inside the revolution could thrive even under the harshest political conditions. More importantly, they demonstrated the value of simple living and non-stop dissent as a creative alternative framework of modern life.
Indeed, there are various interpretations of what it means to live the good life. We tried the dominant approach which encouraged us to get rich and glorious but it only led to disastrous results for the great majority. Perhaps it is time to choose a different approach, a new path, a rethinking of the concept.
Live the good life, but let’s do it the activist way this time. The activist who serves the people and not the politicians or the capitalist class. The activist who follows the mass line, who integrates with farmers and workers, who supports and even joins the people’s army in the countryside. The activist who builds the foundations of a new democracy so that exploitation of man by man will cease. The activist who participates in anonymous collectives working day and night to hasten the arrival of a brighter future. Yes, this is the good life!
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org