Politics as an Opium of the masses

By Gideon Lasco

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the masses.” – Karl Marx

IN penning those famous lines, Marx must have wondered about the ideals that made people, particularly the working class, content with their lot – instead of harboring subversive thoughts. Religion, in his view, made people docile and content despite the oppression they are experiencing, for it takes away the pain of the present – hence his use of opium, a strong narcotic, as a metaphor.
Marx wrote at the dawn of the industrial period; some people say that we are entering the post-industrial age, even as, arguably, we have never gone past feudalism. Amid the differences and similarities with the past, what can we consider as the opiums of today?

Making sense of hardship

Religion perhaps, remains so, if we look at it from a purely secular perspective. Though it has been in decline in the West, organized religion remains very vibrant, resurgent even, in many parts of the world. As in the time of Marx, religion allows people to make sense of hardships and even calamities, and give them hope that even if we live in an unjust world, there is still divine justice. The charismatic experience, moreover, of lights, music, and communitas, provides a “high” that some neurologists claim is similar to the effect produced by drugs.
Drugs, of course, can be the literal opium of the masses. While opium was, during Marx’s time, accessible only to the wealthy, the industrialization of narcotics and its global spread has meant that even the underemployed tambays can afford them. For my master’s thesis I studied shabu and learned that its users find and make use of its different “functions”: pampagilas, pampagising, pampasigla…and there remains the psychological element: “pantanggal ng problema”. Shabu acts like a true opium by giving them a “high” that temporarily makes them forget their predicaments.

“Legal addictions”

But shabu is not the only narcotic of our time. In our country we have many “legal addictions”, foremost of which is alcohol. Looking at call center agents alone and their patterns of drug and alcohol use should point to the fact that stressful environments engender a demand for substances that can help people drown out their troubles.
Keen observers of Philippine society and culture would also point to the fact that teleseryes have also functioned not just to entertain people but to distract them from the harsh realities of their everyday lives. Thus there is an “escapism” inherent in the plots of these shows: a poor but beautiful maid is discovered by and marries a handsome prince; twins separated at birth are reunited against all odds; the unexpected blushes of one Yaya Dub suffice to beguile one Alden Richards.
What these “opiums” have in common is their abilities to ease people’s pains, and perhaps provide happiness and fulfilment – albeit momentary – that life itself cannot provide. They also provide a feeling of belonging; a togetherness that is part of their potency. Just as religion is received not by individuals, but by congregations, telenovelas are watched together; alcohol is drank in one “tagay”.

Politics can be intoxicating

Imagined or real, politicians can also intoxicate people’s minds by giving them a sense of unity and purpose, a master narrative for what’s happening today, and a vision of a better tomorrow. While nation-building itself is a gargantuan task for which we need to be inspired by leaders we could look up to, there is also a brand of politics that makes use of people’s emotions to legitimize its exponents’ rule, regardless of the direction they’re taking – or their (dis)regard for facts and cherished values. Like the intoxicating alcohol that can distort one’s sense of right and wrong, the emotions this populism inspires can likewise confuse the people’s sense of good and bad – even as they feel too “high” to realize the confusion.
Thus when I see people today pinning their hopes on a political messiah, seeing a glorious future with them, and taking this rosy picture as an article of (blind) faith, I cannot help but think whether this kind of politics, too, plays on the same appeal as religions past and present: an escapism that offers people a future salvation and makes them forget their everyday struggles and pains.
And then I wonder if politics, too, can be an opium for the masses. (Rappler.com)
(Gideon Lasco is a physician, medical anthropologist, and commentator on culture and current events.)


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