We are not free. That is how I see it, and that is how I experience it. Freedom is a misapprehension, a misconstrued concept that is usually associated with the youth of today.
Young, wild, and free? Dream on. I used to stand with this belief until reality came as unpleasant surprise. Right after college, I thought I had powers to change the world, to make it more humane. But I was wrong. My old friend was right all along: It is such a hell out there. I was so idealistic that my subjectivity crumbled the moment I left the university.
I thought that the might of my ideals and the sharpness of my principles were enough to fight injustice, to challenge the status quo. I thought life after graduation was an opportunity to practice the theories I had learned in the classroom—praxis, as the academe calls it. I thought that sharpening my sociological imagination, putting to the fore taken-for-granted assumptions, transcending the façade of normalcy, was the job a critical sociologist could do outside the four walls of the classroom. I thought having the courage to stand up for what is right would suffice to back this eagerness to be an agent of change. But I soon realized it required more than that.
In the university that professes to be the vanguard of democracy and freedom, I was taught that critical dissent is a profession in itself, and I think I have mastered it well. Despite the ravaging criticisms from the mainstream media and from the (post-political-liberal) petty bourgeoisie, and the ruling class out there, I thought it was enough to master this craft of critical engagement to impart counter-ideologies, to not conform with the culture industry, to harness critical thinking, to convince others that there is an alternative to what we have. I was dismayed.
When I entered the workforce as an ordinary Juan de la Cruz, who spent the day at a computer desk for more than eight hours, the frustration grew more. My sociopolitical aspirations were translated to sending e-mails, doing the regulation tasks, attending meetings, pleasing the bosses, etc. My passion for an active engagement with the politics of the state resulted in mere politics in the office. I felt so lost. I was looking for a proper avenue where I could actualize the idea of being a reflective public intellectual, but that eagerness seems to be nearing oblivion.
Just years ago, I was one of those young people who wished for class distinction to wither away. Now I had become an ordinary employee working my ass off for a meager paycheck, already part of the global capitalist labor chain, for a compensation that defines who I am or, worst, defines the contours of what I can do. This is first-hand exploitation. At least now I get to experience it, but the sad part is, it is way easier to say and to theorize than to feel.
Sometimes I wonder if this is really what Marx calls alienation, if this is the feeling that the critical theorists usually despise. The feeling is indescribable, I must say; it is beyond words. Zizek nailed it when he claimed that sometimes we just feel free simply because we lack the language in which to articulate our unfreedom. This is the sad truth. Just years ago, I was criticizing this system. But now I belong to it; sometimes I even think that I am part of it. The idea is that instead of me introducing thought-provoking claims, I am here giving the pleasant, the popular, and the conventional. A sadder idea here is: This is now my reality.
To somehow ease this tension within me, I went back to the academe. To go back to the discipline that taught me to question things around me, to go back to the sociological canons (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) that bestowed upon me that quality of mind that sees things differently. My first day with the university was quite nostalgic. The militant—even the symbolic—protests have occurred to me again. The burning passion to be a revolutionary was alive again—but with more modesty and maturity, I suppose.
The struggles, obviously, are still there, but they are more realistic to me. Why? Because I have experienced it and I continue to experience it still. My rage is still there for the status quo, but I have now controlled myself to be more reticent with my rants and to control my misguided rage. I believe that this should be done to keep me sane in a world full of oppression and perversion. But have I given up?
I believe, no. I am still fighting the struggle, though not mostly in the streets, but within me, on a personal level. I am struggling to fight for the good in me, the critical in me, and not the petty bourgeois in me. I am struggling to fight for the activist in me, the critical in me, and not the middle-class yuppie in me. I am striving to continue the glorious tradition, in any little way I can, to pose the important questions: “Kung hindi ako, sino?” (If not me, then who?) “Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa?” (If not now, when?)
Whether it be in my social circles or in the academic sphere, I still continue to present the unpleasant, to challenge dominant ideologies, to criticize the state for betraying its promise to the people. Though I think this is quite different now. This struggle is more vulgar, it is more violent. Because this is not just simply politics, this is politics in the personal realm.
Today, sometimes, people around me just ask: Why do you still continue? Why do you have to do that? Because I still believe that there are areas of dissent, entry points for resistance, and spaces for contestations. Because there are still people out there who are oppressed, marginalized, and underrepresented. Because my friend Lenin always reminds me of the sharpest line and advice a comrade can say to his fellows: “The most important thing when ill is to never lose heart… Why despair if you are capable of struggle?”
Alejandro Ibanez, 23, is a sociology graduate student at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.