Every action – and inaction – of our lives is political. From the purchases we make, beliefs we act upon, and fears we internalize, we are inescapably political animals. In spite of this unavoidable social reality, various institutions and agencies claim ‘objectivity’ and ‘fairness’ are subverted by political biases, and encourage us to adopt ‘post-ideological worldviews’. News outlets try to one-up each other bragging about how “fair” and “balanced” they are, when in reality they are anything but! From the stories that get included and excluded, reporters and their wardrobes that get primed for our consumption, or viewpoints that are legitimated or subverted in the course of their coverage, every message that the mass media conveys is heavily politicized. With this conceptual dissonance it follows, then, that a great many people have come to misunderstand what it means to be ‘political’. Under this ideologic fugue, populations that are unconscious of their political activism can easily become neutered or subverted into advocating against their best interests.
In Classical Greece one who – for whatever reason – did not participate in politics was known as an ‘idiot’. For these Fathers of Democracy society was recognized as having a responsibility to itself, and it was incumbent upon each and every citizen to actively constitute and censure the government. It wasn’t that the Greeks were any more noble than we are, but that they saw their responsibilities as citizens quite differently than we do today. For them informed participation was the sine qua non of the body politic – apathy was seen as antithetical to freedom. Those who did not actively participate weren’t citizens. Obviously, things have changed quite a bit in 2000 years.
Over the last few decades a growing body of sociological research has attempted to track the proliferation of apathy. Across all segments of life it seems as though society has progressively become atomized and self-interested. Our youth appear irredeemably apathetic, shallow, and insecure, and adults have grown so disconnected with politics fewer than half bother to vote in most elections. Nearly a decade of non-stop war – almost as long as both World Wars combined – has eviscerated the peace movement. And even when the public’s interest is piqued, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. For example, spectator sports and commodified spectacle distracts with frivolity while legitimizing oppositionalism, dishonesty, and greed as social mores. Taken as a whole, isn’t the net result of all this apathy and addiction to spectacle a tacit acceptance of hegemony, injustice and predation?
In any personal or systemic attempt to address this situation, obstacles to depoliticization need to be resolved. From compulsory schooling to property ownership, our lives are enmeshed in webs of transactions, orthodoxies, and taboos that leave us fearful or unable to mount legitimate opposition. For instance, today’s average university graduate carries tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Groaning under the pressure of this economic burden, fewer youths today seem to share previous generations’ radical idealisms. This isn’t without consequence. Another critical obstacle to political participation is society’s addiction to TV. The mass media intentionally and proactively diminishes our agency, subverts our identities, and feeds off our emotions. As enmeshed within media as our lives have become, the impact of families can be even more depoliticizing. Childbirth doesn’t exactly inspire many parents to risk protest – or bread! – lines. Similarly, parents and in-laws, understandably, are apt to emphasize practical over ideologic concerns. Colleagues and friends, meanwhile, often aggressively reject the politicization of ‘friendly discourse’. These networks of influence operate explicitly and implicitly, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think ourselves immune to their influence. Consequently, if we are to become more consciously active in engendering our politicization, we can expect to be assailed by resistance and rejection. Admittedly, weathering this storm is no small task, but I would argue it is an essential component of deriving a coherent self-authoring identity. To do so, we have to discover what is meaningful to us, and this can be quite a challenge while everyone and everything is trying to project its meaning onto us.
Across the political and relational spectrum proselytizers of all stripes try to sell their favoured meanings, and yet few of us take the time to critically discriminate among them. Instead, we adopt others’ meanings (e.g. experts, family, celebrities) as our own and often fail to consider the organizational patterns that constitute our chosen meanings. But if we do take the time to take a meta-perspective on the meanings we engender, we are confronted by hundreds of politicizing agents. From the cradle to the grave, it seems as though all it takes is a sustained, focused gaze upon the human experience before the Great Lie comes crashing down. Once witnessed, in order to maintain any semblance of integrity we are called upon to do something to better the situation.
For all who are willing to see and act, the diversity of human cultural encroachment allows each of us to personalize our politicization. Although there is often a great deal of squabbling and short-sightedness amongst activist causes, I would argue informing ourselves about and getting involved in discussions for change – however ‘misguided’ or ‘masturbatory’ the cause – is several orders of magnitude superior to passive citizenship. In fact, I would be so audacious as to argue that passive political activism is analogous with suicide – in each instance the autonomous agent, the Subject, is subsumed within its shallowness. In contrast, there are as many life-affirming access-points to active politicization as there are stars in the sky. For example, an individual who bears witness to severe class/race-based imbalances in access to healthcare might choose to agitate for universal coverage, or they might get involved in imagining a socioeconomic framework in which the financial incentive for healthcare is removed altogether. Another citizen who bears witness to systemic abuses of legal authority may begin defending the marginalized or resisting class-based criminalization. Others might find their calling in defending Earth [from us]. Their politicizing agent might be something as generalized and diverse as the animal kingdom itself (e.g. animal testing, environmental contamination, radical veganism, etc), or as specific as a particular region, species, or process (e.g. the collapse of global fish-stocks, critically endangered sea turtles, hydraulic fracturing, LBGT, etc). Someone who has a particular fondness for food may become politicized through GMOs, CAFOs, or neurotoxins. Others who are drawn to empowering others’ agency, liberty and freedom might be politicized through disparities in access to Information Communication Technologies, the social justice movement, or the field of education. Wherever we look we will find our privilege and society infused with obscenity and oppression. Thus, in theory our politicization is limited only by our gaze. However, personal experience – or a lack thereof – can often politicize unevenly or superficially.
Over the course of my lifetime I’ve had numerous experiences that challenged and refined my politics. Growing up in a single-parent household with a psychotic and generally absentee mother, I became politicized in my ideals of how men tend to screw women over and had fantasies of one day helping to ‘free’ children from similarly unhealthy families. Watching my car burn to the ground – with all my worldly belongings inside – propelled me on a path of class-consciousness. A job selling vacuum cleaners let me directly experience the spoils of capitalist exploitation. Enlisting in the Army gave me direct experience with American imperialism and irrevocably politicized my views about war and the function of government. My fellow soldiers – mostly minorities struggling to support families – politicized my attitudes about race and class. Experiencing homelessness and stealing food to live politicized my attitudes about social welfare. The repossession of my car – with all my worldly belongings inside – further illuminated class-based antagonisms. A job building an oil rig deeply politicized my working-class sympathies: my co-workers were noticeably more honourable than those I’d met in the military or sales. A constant lack of medical insurance incrementally politicized my attitudes about access to healthcare. An incident which brought this crashing home involved me, my motorcycle, a car that didn’t yield, and the 18-wheeler that was directly behind me. Narrowly escaping serious injury, the randomness of the situation deeply politicized my attitudes about driving, the legal system, and family (I had a live-in girlfriend at the time). Like many other Americans, 9-11 unexpectedly and irreversibly politicized my views about Pax-Americana, hegemony, and cultural bigotry. Having the splendid opportunity to live with hippies politicized my views about drugs, police, music, and pop-culture. Leaving my job, my girl, and my life behind for a grand adventure in Europe politicized my views about what it’s possible for one person to accomplish. While living abroad acute appendicitis nearly killed me, further concretizing my political advocacy for access to healthcare. Years of teaching energized my activism for students while opening my eyes to the bases of cultural indoctrination, institutional prejudice, and class-based privilege. Marriage has politicized me too. And blogging. And legions of other experiences too personal to share in this venue. My lifetime of experience has coalesced to make me irreducibly – and unapologetically – political.
Among those who are similarly politicized or style themselves as walking the Revolutionary Path, Information Communication Technologies provide robust and empowering opportunities for organizing and agitating. For instance, the documentary Us Now chronicles some of these applications (see here for my review), and Charles Leadbeater’s We Think (my review) sketches a vision of ICT-mediated political activism that correlates quite strongly with the views of the Greeks. Furthermore, several of the obstacles to politicization can be mediated by ICTs: the Internet is ushering in the culture of free and challenging economic prejudices, traditional medias like TV are rendered functionally obsolete by the Internet, and through ICT-mediated networking we can meet and collaborate with peers who are otherwise unavailable. Although technology offers the potential to bridge gaps and reconcile imbalances of power, it cannot do so without purposeful application. In full recognition of the potency of society’s ability to politicize, governments and institutions of control struggle to keep us distracted with video games, culture wars, and fantasy. Glittering lights, bells and whistles, and promises of a better future that never arrives attempt to keep us hypnotized and placid. But this path of passive and unconscious politicization is comparable to willfully selling ourselves into slavery. In contrast, those who are conscious of their politicization have their work cut out for them. Without their tenacity and activism, our apathetic social momentum is going to manifest a future far bleaker than anything Orwell or Huxley might’ve imagined. According to Slavoj Žižek, we are confronted by an ‘apocalyptic crisis of the commons’ – a confluence of inter-related processes that could lead to complete economic, social and ecologic collapse. If that’s not something worthy of politicizing for, what is?
Additional Rabbit Holes -
Tags: 9-11, activism, agitprop, biographic, biology, classism, diatribes, environmentalism, information, internet, personal, polemic, politics, poverty, Slavoj Žižek, Strategies for Revolutionaries, technology, warblog comments powered by Disqus