Activists make the best lovers
As the political establishment loses moral ground to an increasingly organised disestablished, most of the people I meet these days are activists.
Far from the safe lands of cybercampaigning and online petitions millions of us are taking political action every day in response to a deepening economic and social crisis. This is the age we live in – a failing professionalised model of politics alongside a rapid growth in direct action in all its random tatty glory.
For many of us this comes at a small cost of lost Sunday evenings and awkward family dinners but every year hundreds of thousands of activists disappear, lose their jobs and get sent to prison. Even in the UK.
One of them is my friend Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai political activist and literally the best union organiser I have ever met.
Five years ago he was arrested for producing a fairy story in a political magazine he edited. He didn’t write it and the story didn’t mention any actual living people in it but he was arrested under Lese Majeste for high treason against the Thai King and sentenced to 11 years. This was despite a sustained international campaign including Amnesty and the UN to argue his case. He has been denied bail at least 20 times, his family were arrested and he has been denied even pen and paper throughout this process.
I worked with Somyot for a decade, channelling solidarity funding to the small shoots of democracy in the industrial zones around Bangkok. We’d spent hot nights hanging out in cafes munching shrimp and giving English lessons to young workers to get them to talk, mainly to each other and then dare them to join a union.
I remember gentle conversations with young women working as diamond polishers about whether Buddhism argued against collective bargaining – why risk your life to negotiate wages when your suffering takes you up the spiritual food chain in the next life?
I remember the young fashionable men working in the warehouses of Thai Industrial gases, sacked for joining a union and asking for contacts of employment. The German MNC management sweating in their shirts and ties while the activists cooly laughed on the picket line smoking fags and eating fried stuff.
Despite years of international solidarity through Global Unions and Human Rights organisations, we managed very little in the name of social justice. And then the Thai political system just collapsed and an invisible revolution took place.
Like all good trade unionists Somyot has not wasted a good crisis and has spent his incarceration organising Burmese and Moslem prisoners, helping them to read in his role as the Librarian of Bangkok Prison.
To be fair, Somyot is not perfect. He’s literally the worst driver I’ve ever met, he is stubborn and proud and would never ever say sorry even to me when he laughed so hard at the sight of my white hairy western arms he crashed the car we were driving in. Another characteristic of good activists is always, however bleak, to find the funny.
Unlike what appears to be the case for a growing majority of the political elite, all good activists are real human beings and like other human beings too. This probably nailed Somyot being put into prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He is interested in other people and when he asks what they think he opens himself up to the possibility of being influenced by what they say. He is a true democrat.
There is no doubt that the biggest threat to activism is that the heart hardens and we stop caring what other people have to say.
To up the ante activists often have superegos like tanks making us vulnerable to overwork, building crescendos of resentment and burnout. That internal voice that propels us to go on yet another demo or rainy school-night meeting when our precious hearts are screaming out “it is your spiritual duty to stay on the sofa eating crisps”.
Many activists are pretty, urm, shitty to each other, making hard-heart-syndrome an occupational hazard. People undeniably change as they get closer to power and, for those of us that have been activists for several decades, often the enthusiasm of the ‘new’ organising can make us want to cry quietly in the toilets.
Despite being unified in the principles we are at the same time subject to the meanness of its practices – the betrayals and denials that happen every day in politics.
This means that whether you’re a union rep or fighting for mental health services we have no choice but to do it with love. At our best, activists make the best lovers because we open ourselves up to others, understanding profoundly that our imperfections and vulnerabilities are precisely what allows us to rub along.
Much like falling in love, being an activist involves facing up to a paradox in human life. The hazard of opening yourself up to the experience of other people, and your vulnerability to them letting you down, both part of the love bundle of political action.
This week we are marking Somyot’s five years in prison for having independent thoughts and expressing them.
Please take the time to send Somyot a message either through our facebook page CLICK HERE or by sending an old school letter of solidarity to:
Bangkok Remand Prison, Section 1
33 Ngam wong wan road,
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