Beyond the instagrammable image of a fierce-looking activist with a clenched fist is someone rationalizing and constantly reaffirming his fidelity to radical politics.
Activists are stereotyped as dogmatic simpletons who derive a perverse pleasure in organizing rallies. While it is true that public participation in a collective exercise is indeed a thrilling experience, especially if it involves the symbolic exorcism of society’s superbads, it is wrong to reduce activism as mere attendance in anti-government protests.
Activism is a political stance that aims to change the world, and more realistically but seldom acknowledged, the self. The broader goals of dissent are easily and widely depicted but what is not always rendered visible is the almost miraculous transformation of the individual.
Anyone can experience activism through participation in a political action without making a commitment to the cause other than expressing an ephemeral curiosity for an unconventional activity. But to engage in real activism requires nothing less than a complete rethinking of our concept of the self vis-à-vis political engagement.
Thus, the first essential task of an activist is the remolding of the self. This looks quite easy but it is actually a daunting task. A nonstop process of learning and unlearning a particular worldview, the painful rejection of habits and desires necessary to succeed in the modern world, the willful withdrawal from the ‘servicing of goods’, and the immersion of the self in the grassroots.
Intense politicization and conscientization are mistaken for lazy brainwashing schemes. But even if political education is collectively pursued – study sessions, community organizing, mass campaigns – it is always the individual who ultimately decides if he will go forward and embrace the challenging life of a radical.
Behind a grim and determined young activist is probably someone with an admirable resolve, but he can also be like most people who are dealing with conflicting thoughts and emotions. Can he survive this way of life? Can he really give up comfort and the chance to acquire fame and fortune in mainstream society? Is there no other alternative that demands less sacrifice?
The ambivalence lingers even if he is already a full time activist. Imagine his depressing alienation from family, friends, and the majority who thrive and derive enjoyment under the status quo. Besides, there is always the convenient option to abandon activism, reclaim his old life, and diligently work for status and material riches.
The temptation to give up radicalism rises every time a difficulty is encountered in the political life of an activist such as the failure of a mass campaign, the rapid deterioration of the national situation, state fascism, family woes, and even the demoralizing impact of partisan politics.
That is why an activist is not just someone who articulates a set of doctrines but also one who appears and keeps on reappearing against all odds and detours in the journey to affirm and reaffirm his pledge as a radical.
He overcomes personal tragedies and stubborn doubts by merging the self with the collective pursuit of new politics. It is easy to bemoan this as the creepy dissolution of the self by an impersonal force (the Party, the Collective, the Masses). However, this is not a loss of self but the reemergence of the self in the mass movement.
There she finds a new purpose in life, the philosophical tools to help her see the world as it is and what it ought to be, her fellow crusaders and revolutionaries, and a sense of duty to act resolutely. Her inspiration is the resistance of the masses who have no other claim other than to break free from the bondage of poverty, injustice, and other preventable miseries. Her newfound mentors are activist farmers and workers who exemplify what it means to practice “simpleng pamumuhay at puspusang pakikibaka.”
Suddenly, the activist life ceases to be a mere enumeration of daily hardships since there is now a recognition that all these can be endured to ease the suffering of others, and more importantly, to hasten the emergence of a new world.
That the individual focused on accomplishing a set of political objectives, from the seemingly trivial to the strategic, anchors his sense of fulfillment not by counting the tangibles he acquired but the holistic growth of the mass organization.
That personal struggles are best addressed not by escape and solitude but by taking part in the collective struggle to end the oppression of man by man. The willingness to transcend individual battles in the company of strangers turned comrades in order to be part of a bigger battle slaying more ferocious demons in society.
In other words, a life-affirming awareness that self-care enhances nothing but love of self unless it integrates the ethics of how to be a socially-committed individual.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator.