There’s a rhetoric I have come across recently, around the time of the first protest march in Port Louis. That things won’t change, things don’t change, that our individual actions have no effect. Since then, I’ve seen it everywhere, as much in people I know as in those I don’t. In their words and in their actions. I feel that hope has suffered a defeat, a major defeat. And no one noticed it.
The powerful triumphed in making us feel powerless. This state of mind, that of hopelessness, upon which structures of oppression thrive, has taken over. I don’t pretend to be important activist. I haven’t fought against the system and I haven’t taken any bold stances. Theory, which makes up the entirety of this piece, serves little in the face of getting out there and organizing. This article was inspired, mostly, by that rhetoric of inaction, and could be read as a response to it. The New World Order Neoliberalism — a sort of late-stage version of capitalism, that amplifies its worst sins (namely cuts to social spending, the privatization of everything from which money can be made, and the deregulation of the corporate sector) — is hierarchical in nature. Though they play a central role to it, race and gender — and even status — are of second-consequence to the way the system is designed. Value, here, is the defining factor. You are not a woman, but the capital in your pocket. You are no man, but the labor of your hands.
Books could be — and have been — written about how this system oppresses the middle class and the working class. Below those, at the very bottom of the economic ladder, are the ‘unpeople’. Those we speak of with frowns, or read about once a week in the 100-word side column in the papers. They are the deaths in the Middle East, the famine in Africa, the children trafficked in South America. They are the 805 million people who go to bed hungry every night, the 689 million who live in extreme poverty. They who have suffered the worst of capitalism, and who will, in the future, be the first to suffer the deadliest of its fallouts, climate change. They are conscious choices made by the system, not out of an oversimplified evil, but as a result of the nature of such an ideology. The single best example of this — where they suffered the brunt end of an endeavor by the business class to both make money and keep the general population docile — is military spending. The decision to invest in war, as opposed to social welfare (1). The latter increases the threat of democracy, the threat of popular involvement in decision-making, and that cannot be tolerated. The documents and declassified documents are available out there, if one is willing to look. Forget the mainstream media.
These things aren’t talked about, not in the news, not in debates on prime-time television, and not as the object of blockbuster movies. Where would we be without activism No government in the modern framework is benevolent. If one were, if one did not bow to the power of corporations, it would not be the sitting government. Any action — every action — it takes towards improving the lives of its citizens is only the result of the pressure applied by those very citizens. When speaking of the effects of activism, or pondering them, there is one question we should ask: What has activism prevented? This argument is almost always neglected in favor of What has activism achieved?, for reasons we can speculate at. But let’s first answer the latter. Take any form of oppression — slavery, feudalism, patriarchy, apartheid — and consider how they were overcome (or weakened). The dissidents of the past who fought those battles, knew, as today, that the challenge they undertook would oppose every established norm, that change would not simply come after a few days of work, that they would face powers that could — and did — vilify and ruin them. The rights we now enjoy as human beings exist as a result of the struggle of those men and women whose names we do not know. What more has activism to bring to us? The answers are myriad, and all take the form of a bettering of human rights across the world. The changes that now come will do so in small, incremental doses, easy to miss, and easier to ignore. To the more critical question at hand, it should be clear that, if activists worked not day and night to bring to our eyes the atrocities that this system visits upon those it considers valueless — thus inspiring popular campaigns and unrest — millions more would suffer these horrors.
Unless affiliated to these movements, we have no knowledge of the wars activism prevented, the dictatorships it denied a rise to power, the policies it made impossible to pass, or the sheer amount of violence it kept — and keeps — at bay. History made by faceless men and faceless women The propaganda offices of the world have worked hard and well, in subtle and overt ways, to manufacture a misconception that is now taught in our books and featured in our films. The misconception that great activists of the past were ‘great’. They were not, they were not beyond human, or entities apart from you and me. Their shoulders alone did not carry the entire movements. History will omit the many who worked in the shadow of the Rosa Parks and the Gandhis, the many who organized and got people together. The ‘administrations’ of those frontmen, if you want.
These ordinary people will never be named, and will never be remembered as the pillars upon which those campaigns stood. The reason we are led to believe that only the actions of a single divine person can bring change is to alienate us from the idea of actual activism. To make it look mysterious, above the common man. To hide the constant, year-round work that gets things done. Those who make decisions need us never to entertain such thoughts. They cannot allow people coming together with clear ideas, because that threatens power. They want us to fight, yes, but over negligible things. Like elections — see how much coverage those get every five years, enough for any good citizen to believe that they are paramount to the progress they might expect. (Elections should be, in my opinion, a brief interlude in an activist’s life, where she would decide if it is worth taking the time off the real work to vote for a lesser evil — or, more commonly, against a greater one.) The responsibility of privilege If you’re working 70 hours a week just to put food on the table, then, obviously, yours is not the same accountability as, say, someone born into an affluent middle-class family with a higher education paid and assured for. Those standing on this higher rung of the ladder, imparted time, resources and knowledge, have a choice here. They can make their way through the system, become part of the ‘thinking elite’ and praise the power structure all day long. They can lie to themselves and say they are neutral to whatever conflict is going around, and perpetuate the cycle of oppression. Or they can do otherwise. If you are reading this, I’ll assume that you are onto some level of privilege, and that entails — more than a choice — a responsibility.
A responsibility, for all and any of us, to first acknowledge and question our privilege, our capacity to act when others cannot, to question the truths this system dictates, and to question the existence of any institution that holds power and that imposes hierarchy. The reasons for not acting are manifold. Time, money, security, risk, family, children. Our ‘debts’ to society. Debts which were manufactured consciously, through elaborate mechanisms — such as the creation of wants, of an ever-growing need to consume more, or that of the fear of failure, the need to succeed — to discourage collaboration, encourage vicious competition and establish a clear path through life from which one is not allowed to deviate. In such a framework, it could be argued that those debts are well-founded — and they are, but not enough, I believe, to deter action. Not when facing a system that employs such cruelty and violence, that systematically abuses and persecutes those it deems insignificant. Letting our consciences rest easy One way we avoid this responsibility is by turning the issue onto ourselves. Taking individual actions that wash our hands from the blame.
Consuming less of this, not using any of that. Which is, by no coincidence, one of the basic promises of neoliberalism. That individual action at the end of the supply chain is a substitute for real action, political or otherwise. Veganism, buying second-hand smartphones and walking instead of using a vehicle, are fine things to do, there is no doubt, but they do not change the facts that livestock is still tortured worldwide, that countless die to produce phones, and that the planet is heading towards devastation. Action, blunt, uncompromising, is what will bring progress. Disobedience at the very edge of civil. Taking the fight to the corporations and to the governments that allow and promote oppression. 1. See: Kofsky, F. (1993) Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948: A Successful Campaign to Deceive the Nation, Palgrave Macmillan.