Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Supermarketisation of Activism

Sometime around a couple of months ago, as we sat down to dinner and television, we saw on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that the US Supreme Court had struck down an important section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a part of Civil rights legislation. According to the previous legislation, certain states with a history of racial discrimination could not amend any electoral laws without getting prior permission, or pre clearance, from the Supreme Court. Now, those states can amend electoral laws to make it more difficult for the poorest people to vote, leaving them disenfrachised. For example, people without specific kinds of identity cards would be people without identities as far as voting is concerned. I am not making up this example. American politicians regularly carry out all sorts of gerrymandering in order to be elected, and the nation's democracy gives the word a bad name. Not that it stops them from using it for other countries as a litmus test, one that they are mostly doomed to fail.

Anyway, that night I thought to myself "they'll pass some sort of gay rights bill soon". The very next day, the American Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), thus rejecting as unconstitutional the act which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. It is an important moment in gay rights activism, one well worth celebrating. Why had I been so sure, though, that it would come? Perhaps because it allows the 'you win some, you lose some' narrative of modern activism to be perpetuated.

This is not to imply that there is a conscious deep dark conspiracy wherein 'they', i.e.the sources of institutional power, deliberately take away something one day and give something the next day, thereby keeping protestors in check and appeasing the more conservative elements of society. What I am trying to point out is more insidious. It is the 'supermarketisation' of our activism, wherein we can choose between different causes, and embrace certain oppressions in the name of emancipation in other areas. In this scenario, one step forward and one step backward seems to make perfect sense, even if all it does is keep you in the same place that you started from.

The fragmentation of activism makes it difficult to conceptualise and challenge systemic formulations of any kind. Things are always tackled piecemeal, and it is hoped that these different and independent improvements will aggregate into a better world. At the same time, there is a tacit understanding that some battles will be lost, which effectively nullifies the aggregative utopia even before it comes into being. It is time to claim another way of being radical, it is time to be radical by radically re-ordering the world.