Saturday, 2 May 2009

Know Thy Goal

Being a progressive can be like being a member of a lost tribe. You wander around with others, all yearning for that moment when the foundation can be laid for a new just society. But one false turn after another, and you begin to doubt if you would ever get to where you will truly belong.

It doesn’t help when those claiming to have the skills and vision to lead the way so often end up being disorientated themselves. If you follow them unquestionably, you could find yourself stuck in a cul-de-sac handing even more power to those who already dominate society through their corporate networks; pushed together near a pit of quicksand where the unlucky victims are left to sink to the bottom; or marched towards a cliff edge with cries of courage in your ear and echoes of madness all around.

Is this the avoidable fate for those who want to build more inclusive communities? No, not if we hold on to what we should really bring about – a relentless reduction of power inequalities in every sphere of life. That is the essence of a better world. People being able to interact and cooperate with mutual respect and without fear of intimidation from anyone amassing sufficient power to subjugate them. Take a step forward only where that would lead to a retreat of power imbalance, and that would surely guide you to making the right progress.

If you use this as your moral compass, you would not allow the police to hurt innocent people in the midst of peaceful demonstrations; you would not hand power to the meat industries so that they could create the repulsive conditions leading to BSE, bird flu, swine flu and much besides; you would not deregulate financial institutions so they could take more and more irresponsible risks at the expense of ordinary people’s savings and livelihood; and you would not embrace the arms manufacturers as esteemed exporters of fear and death.

Instead, you would map out where the balance of power has shifted too far towards one side in any significant form of social or economic relationship, and rally support for rectifying it. In some cases, this could mean that despite their protest that they have been too tied up with red tape, corporations are to be regulated more tightly and their offshore havens closed off. In other cases, for all the talk of parental right, aggressive parents who are abusive to teachers would need to be prevented from doing so in the future.

Our journey is not about tracking populist hotspots which the media would favour, nor is it about hoisting a few symbolic flags of defiance for its own sake. It is about changing power relations. Find out where conditions give rise to some being able to use their power disadvantage to deprive others of a fair chance to share in and contribute to the common good, and transform them.

There is a saying that at 50 one reaches the age when one can fully grasp one’s mission in life. The progressive struggle – as a deliberate challenge to unjust power distribution – has been going on for not just 50, or 500, but 2500 years since the Chinese Mohists and Athenian democrats systematically started pressing for more inclusive power structures back in the 5th century BC. Anyone who hasn’t grasped the goal of rolling back power inequalities is perhaps not meant to be a progressive after all.

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