Neo-liberalism brought with it the commodification of basic rights. With it, began a struggle to fight against this commodification.
But, what happens when the very fight against the commodification of basic rights is commodified?
The makers of the newly announced reality TV show, “The Activist”, witnessed a backlash from people on social media. There is a collective understanding that activism isn’t a competition… Or a social media trend that individuals try once, and move on from.
In the show, we can imagine that the phrase “performative activism”, a kind of activism that is done by someone to increase their social standing rather than being truly devoted to the cause, will find a literal meaning.
However, is it really so surprising—the idea of a show like this?
Mark Fisher, a cultural theorist, speaks of western consumerism in his book “Capitalist Realism”. Fisher says, “The fantasy is that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.”
A bunch of activists will be participating in this show, fighting to win the title of the one “right activist”. The one “right cause” will be picked based on social media metrics and the judges’ opinions. I believe that at the end of the day, it is the pursuit of nothing but the one “right product”.
With the privatisation of public goods comes the privatisation of the “public” itself. People of the country become prey to a plot that intends to profit off the idea of “dissent”.
This is a path many companies have taken throughout the world and in India. Be it via co-opting the idea of sustainability or the pride month of June—they reduce revolutionary movements to marketing campaigns.
The producers of the show decided to aim for a certain section of society, perhaps. Most probably, it is aimed at those who won’t be directly affected by the problems that would be highlighted in the show.
Of course, only when the problems don’t directly affect one, can one afford to sit in the comfort of their rooms and watch a television series based on the same.
For countless months, the farmers of the country have been on the streets, protesting against three farm laws. They have been dealing with drastic weather conditions along with state-sponsored violence. On the other hand, a huge part of the country watches television from their sofas as they comment on the fate of the farmers.
Any reality show on television highlights individuality: the kind where self-interest is given the utmost priority. This is the basis of every game show. Activism, on the other hand, is never about self-interest. When it is portrayed as a game show, it loses its very essence.
Because the show would take social media into account, it would end up making it all about the activist and not about the cause they are representing.
At some point in the future, there is a possibility that the makers of the show might defend their idea by insisting that it is a way for them to promote the causes and give them a platform.
But, the question to ask here is, what sort of a platform can a series meant for entertainment provide?
Instead of seeing the importance of the causes, the viewers would start seeing the issues in isolation. Issues like income inequality, poverty and climate change don’t exist in isolation from one another. They are all a part of a larger structure. Once isolated, the issues no longer remain to be a part of an interconnected whole.
Furthermore, the show intends to rope in three celebrities to “judge” these causes. This leads me to my next question: who, exactly, is qualified to become a judge of these struggles?
We have social scientists analysing social realities every day. More importantly, we have sections of societies living these realities first hand. What kind of justice is this to reduce these struggles to catchphrases meant to attract views and likes?
Once activism becomes a private commodity for the businessmen to profit from, what remains of this activist? The activist becomes a puppet of the very cause they are fighting against.
This is reflective of the nature of capitalism—it can engage in activities that seem like they are against its own existence and still end up promoting itself.
Celebrities often indulge in performative activism. One of the judges, Priyanka Chopra, with her caste and class privilege has always been on top of these hierarchies. What kind of diversity does she represent?
Diversity for the sake of diversity is yet another tool used to manipulate the viewer into thinking real change is taking place.
In real life too, we often find that the space for activism is hijacked by the people who aren’t directly affected by the cause. “Celebrity activists” like Swara Bhasker have been criticised for taking up too much space during protests, where the space belongs to those who are directly impacted by the cause in question.
Is activism of this kind going to bring about any change? The “saviour complex” displayed by those with caste and class privilege is never meant to save anyone.
Shows like these glorify personal liberation at the cost of the larger good. Contestants might explicitly fight for the public on stage but in that very act, they are implicitly promoting private interests.
Although the format of the show has now been changed from being a reality game show to a documentary, the premise made it pretty clear that mass media can take up many forms: from creating an aesthetic out of a shared conflict to switching it up again to appear unproblematic.
A platform like this cannot play a role in social justice for its very goal is to use a cause to promote the show and not the cause in itself.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.