Do citizens go where they will or are they led? Do they lead or follow? Do they have a free choice or is choice framed in ways that disqualify certain journeys and destinations? Karl Marx, in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,’ said ‘“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’
Pierre Bourdieu, the French Sociologist captured this structure-agency dynamic by observing that there are structuring structures and structured structures. We are not helpless but our potency nevertheless is limited. We make choices but among options permitted.
So we will select. We will vote. We pick a candidate and a political formation. They claim to be revolutionary and committed to revolution. Yes, those words have been appropriated and distorted beyond recognition, but worse, we buy the nonsense. Sometimes we call it ‘change’ of course, but short-change is the typical yield that voters have had to consume for decades.
Sure, there are consolations. The happiness of victory-moment, for example. One or two out of a million promises deliver — that’s a possibility. Crumbs, really. There’s the occasional biggie. Victory over terrorism. The Right to Information Act. Few and far between, that’s what history tells us. They deliver some, but take away more and of that which is taken away they keep a sizable chunk.
Marx’s thesis proceeds thus: ‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.’
Think about all the campaigns this election season. Think of all the election campaigns you’ve lived through. Forget ‘epochs of revolutionary crisis’. Forget the preoccupation with revolutionizing themselves and creating something new. Even in non-revolutionary moments laden with revolutionary rhetoric we see a conjuring up of past spirits and deploying them in the service of achieving political objective. We see the borrowing of names, refreshing of battle slogans, re-wearing of old costumes. There’s disguise and borrowed language.
So, after the pantomime is done, when costumes and makeup are no longer needed and when scripts are dumped in waste paper basket we get to see what’s what. Tragedy or farce. Wine and bottles, new and old.
Should we resign ourselves to this inevitability? Should we say ‘well, this is the best that structures allow?’ Maybe we could talk about revolution. We could talk about stripping disguise, wiping off makeup and ripping apart rhetoric as an everyday practice and not something we briefly consider and even if we do postpone for another day. When politicians say quoting John F Kennedy (not knowing that Kennedy was quoting Khalil Gibran), ‘ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’ we could respond, ‘what you are really saying is ‘do something for me.’
Ask not what you can do for your current political hero, citizen. Ask not what he or she would do for you, citizen. Ask instead what you have done, are doing and could do for one another. Before and after elections.
Anticipate what they would say during election-season. Flip the script. When they begin sentences with ‘I will…,’ stop them and say ‘Thank you, but no, for we have heard those words before and have decided to talk a different language and write/read a different script.’
It is time to talk engagement out of a political arena where we are made to be spectators or else performing monkeys. Well, it was always the right time for engagement to have become something else, but then we’ve not delivered to ourselves, have we?
Let us write with our lives the revolutionary poetry that will power resolve, boost the determination to contest tyranny in all its forms, naked or disguised, in sizes inflated and proportions deliberately diminished so they will go unnoticed. Citizen, your hour is not done. It is never ever done, for tyranny like all things is subject to the eternal laws of birth, decay and death. Citizen, remember that overarching structures are not emotional, that their relentless and clinical reasoning will readily discard a tyrant and a tyranny whose use-by date has passed and pick other players often dressed in the garb of change and revolution. Citizen, innocence in such matters is a luxury you cannot afford.
Citizen, don’t ever forget that your most pernicious and tenacious enemy, i.e. the tyrannies that rain blows on things held precious, often pick you as the most loyal of accomplices even as you rant and rave and fight against them. Citizen, reflect on life-practices, from moment to moment, one thing to another, conversations that are pushed aside or bleed into other conversations. Reflect on the drudgery of the diurnal, citizen. There are innumerable ways in which you play enemy even as you believe you have devoted time, energy, mind and heart to defeat that very same enemy.
We inhabit structures of oppression. The oppression leaves marks that seem inedible. On our bodies and minds are the signatures of oppression inked.
Quo vadis, citizen? Where are you going, friend? As you run against intruder do you entertain the possibility that you could disappear into the body of intrusion? Citizen, your voice is an instrument that is of great value to the enemy. The enemy will try to purchase it. The enemy will like a ventriloquist make you utter the words that will detract from your purpose.
There’s a tomorrow beyond election and elected. We do not stand in Elysian Fields, not as hero nor as applauders of hero and heroics. Neither do we inhabit Unhappy Land. Our work has not ended for it has not begun, for it is the kind of work that never ends. Election after election, regime after regime, we’ve learned and unlearned this truth.
Citizen, you lost nothing by resolving to stop unlearning. Let’s just flip the script. All the time. In the everyday of our struggles, our minor victories and terrible defeats. The person crowned as king could be friend for awhile. The true friend is by your side. The truest friend and the worst enemy is resident in you. That’s a body we need to turn inside out, citizen.
Quo vadis, citizen? Into battle or away from it? To read a terrible script or to write something afresh? There’s no time more auspicious than the after-election moment to reflect on all this, ask the tough questions and attempt answer. Let us wish ourselves luck, citizen. Let us wish ourselves love.