As an activist, I have often asked myself (and others) of what the end goals are of the activities in which I engage. Now, for many of us involved in what is sometimes referred to as “politics with a small ‘p,’ ” these activities carry with them a range of different methods, applications, and purposes.
For some, it might simply be a matter of ethical living. We take care not to purchase goods which we know to have been manufactured in sweatshops. We buy Fair Trade. We shop for our fruit and vegetables locally. Perhaps we are vegetarian or vegan, for animal rights, environmentalist, or other reasons. Fundamentally, any action or consumerist choice we make in our everyday lives which we feel furthers a moral cause.
For others, there might be a further step, that of being involved in campaigning and lobbying. Through an organisation, medium, or even by ourselves, we might focus on any number of justice matters we feel need addressing, and then seek to inform and request action of those who might be in a position to help. This would normally be a politician or employer, who holds a certain sway over such issues. Lobbying, then, centres on giving ourselves a voice, and using the perceived democracy of our Western society to aid the various forms of injustice concerning us, be they climate change, third world debt, the arms trade, the AIDS pandemic, sweatshop labour, and so on.
Then, for others still, even this tactic may be improved upon, by the method labelled “direct action.” Although this term is perhaps somewhat opaque, it is usually employed to refer to marches, protests, blockades, and any other form of action which involves the up-front and hence direct expression of moral outrage against a particular issue. Then again, going on the flexibility of the definition, it might also be used to refer to a purposeful way in which individuals arrange their lives, such as forming intentional communities (as an example). Direct action, as a broad term, may refer to any action, then, in which the individual uses their own voice and power to stand up for their ethics independent of reliance upon other forms of power or media.
The main question I wish to ask here, is this: Might there be a common goal toward which all these forms of ethical expression are moving? Now, this might seem like a very obvious question in the eyes of many, and I wouldn’t hold it against the reader to think me somewhat naive for asking it. “Surely,” I can hear you saying, “The ultimate goal of ethical living, in whatever form it might take, is to correct those circumstances that are perceived to be manifestations of injustice?”
Absolutely, I don’t disagree at all. I would like us, however, to consider this: Whether an individual carries out conscious consumer choices, whether they are involved in campaigning and lobbying, or whether they are carrying out nonviolent direct action, they are expressing themselves in the process of questioning that things are the way they presently are, and are not how they feel the way things should be.
If one buys Fair Trade coffee rather than standard store-bought coffee, they are effectively questioning the traditional system of commerce by which their goods would be provided. If someone writes a letter to their MP asking for more affordable pharmaceutical drugs in developing nations, they are questioning why the system allows such a thing to occur. If someone blocks the entrance to a nuclear weapons facility, they are expressing their firmly-held belief that such immense violence ought not to be used in any circumstance.
Whatever the method or means of expressing our ethics, the politically-conscious individual is inevitably appealing to the political and economic powers which are either unaware of, apathetic towards, or to blame for the myriad forms of local and global injustice.
Here is the crux, then, of my question. Are the political and economic powers reformable? Can they somehow be redeemed, to function as we would have them? Or are there more questions which need to be asked? Is it possible that injustice is itself exacerbated by the powers, by the system of capitalism and governmental control, simply by virtue of what they are?
It seems to me, that these are questions activists need to ask themselves in order to clarify their reasons for engaging in political activity. The environmentalist movement, for example, has often been associated with radical left-wing politics due to the frustration of many of its participants regarding the actions of governmental and corporate organisations, who have, at least in their eyes, appeared to ignore and even detriment the danger of global warming. While it is no longer fair or accurate to say that every environmentalist thinks this way, it does seem as though a significant proportion of the movement have preferred cooperation, consensus, and a simpler way of living, all of which are in some contrast to the ways in which power structures conduct themselves. Even in recent times, when the threat of climate change has forced the general public to show concern, it is becoming ever more apparent of the justice implications climate change has; that is, the nations who liable to create the most carbon-emissions (ie, the wealthier and more technologically-advanced) are in turn creating a larger impact on those countries who create the least (ie, the poorer and less-developed).
The paradigm isn’t just limited to climate change, either. Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, is known to have commented on justice being more than simply flinging change at a beggar. It is also about challenging the very system which causes and allows the beggar to be there are at all.
Likewise, when we talk about cancelling third world debt and creating a better quality of life for developing nations, are we talking simply about “bringing them up to our standard?” Or are we likewise challenging the way our own nations operate, and the wealth they hoarde for themselves? How, then, with these questions in mind, do we correctly set out minds to seek correction within injustice? Do we approach power structures with the idea that they can be reformed? Or are they themselves corrupt entities which must eventually be dismantled as part of our endeavour?
I’m posting no conclusions here, although I’m sure most of you will know what I think already. By all means, please post your thoughts and ideas in the comments for this post.