Monday, 8 December 2008

Youth power and the progressive future

I have had it up to here - higher than I can reach at my towering 4'11 - with standing by whilst my generation, one of the most enlightened, good-hearted, engaged, interesting bunches of young people ever to grace these undeserving continents, is slagged off as the root of all society's ills.

The last in the Guardian’s 2008 series of debates, fluffily titled Who Owns The Progressive Future?, was put down by its own keynote speaker last week as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party wryly declared that she’d rather share it. Lucas, Bea Campbell, Ken Livingstone and Aditya Chakrabortty made for an engaging panel, but the mood of the debate was distinctly glum. Who owns the progressive future? Not us, was the conclusion, where us was a gathered mass of Guardian readers, most of whom had voted for Blair in 1997. I was going to be good. I was going to sit there and eat my sandwich and be quiet and be grateful for my free ticket. But when the debate turned to blaming the moral failures of today’s youth for progressive political apathy, my fingers started to itch.

A man from the audience deplored the fact that he’d caught his teenage son stealing, and declared that the ‘post-Thatcherite’ generation were ‘politically vapid’ and lacked a ‘moral compass’, at which point I found myself yelling‘absolute rubbish’ across the hall.

Slander. Lazy, unthinking neo-liberal slander that tars a generation already unfairly dismissed as drunken, amoral, apathetic, selfish and useless, the 21st Century’s Gin Lane. I have no time for it.

First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent. And secondly, at no point in my political memory has this generation been apolitical. What we haven’t been is party political, and that’s a very different matter.

I'm sorry to go on about this. But when two million of us marched through London in 2003, demanding that our government refrain from following the United States into what we knew would be our generation's Vietnam, and when we were utterly ignored, many of us ceased to believe in the power of government to change the world. For a lot of us, that was our first experience of direct political involvement - and it wasn't a happy one.

No wonder, then, that we have reacted by abandoning the parties in unprecedented numbers. As the Stop The War generation has grown up, become voteable, fuckable, marrigeable, big enough and ugly enough to make our own decisions, we have inherited a distinct political cynicism combined with an energy to effect positive change in any way we can. As the youth vote has dwindled and membership of mainstream British political parties trickled into the low hundred thousands in every age group, membership of voluntary organisations continues to soar. It is estimated that a third - a third - of 16-25 year olds is directly involved in voluntary work. There are 20 million volunteers in this country, a figure that dwarfs party membership by several degrees.

Just take a look at Redwatch, the spotters' site where fascists can go and wank half-heartedly over mugshots of wooly-hatted crusty lefties on demos (I like to think that this is BNP members' version of the Man In Uniform sexual paradigm). Well, firstly, the leaked membership list now makes Redwatch worse than useless (come on, what are you going to do? Photoshop us? Go through our rubbish? Really? We know where you live now, you terrible useless scum, so come and have a bloody go if you're going to. Are you going to write a letter to the Mail? Are you, really? Bring that storm down!). And secondly, there’s a surprising amount of fit young commies on there: Redwatch is becoming young, taut and hot as under-30s flood the anti-capitalist, green, anti-globalisation, feminist and pro-equality movements.

More of us than ever are on the streets, and fewer and fewer are choosing to engage directly with the political process. In my many soul-destroying hours interning with think-tanks and in dealings with the leached-out little New Labour finishing school that is the NUS, most of the young people I’ve met who would call themselves ‘stakeholders’ in the Tory, Labour or LibDem parties are some of the most spineless, career-oriented, name-dropping, politically vapid slimy Whitehall dishrags I’ve ever come across. They’re probably going to be in power in ten years, worse luck, and these will be the young people that MPs and political decision-makers spend most of their time with. But they do not represent the sum total of political energy amongst my generation.

Who owns the progressive future? Not Labour, not any more. They lost the young British Left unequivocally in 2003, and they might even have lost us anyway, finally sick of being screwed over HE fees, excruciating debt and an employment market that has failed to adapt to new workforce demands, leaving millions unemployed or afraid for their jobs at the start of a breathtaking recession and angry that the best Labour can offer us is ‘Not The Tories’. But despite watching our politicians fail us time after heartwrenching time, Generation Y has still not given up on the idea of saving the world: more of us than ever are socially and politically active; we are connected; we care. We just don’t care about the political process very much, and that's their fault - not ours.

*****

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: A new activist and social community has been set up to encourage and facilitate self-organisation amongst transpeople and their allies in the wake of last month's Stonewall demonstration. T-CAN, the Trans Community Activist Network, is live at http://www.t-can.org.uk/.

26 comments:

  1. "First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent."

    Interesting comment for a Socialist?

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  2. Socialism means believing in a welfare state, believing that the state can and should act as a social equaliser, believing in the redistribution of wealth between the rich and the needy, believing in equal rights, civil rights and the right of every individual to live freely and give as much as they can. It does not mean believing that the state has ultimate responsibility for everything: it's not just school's job to teach kids not to commit basic crimes unless that kid's parents are especially damaged, damaging or absent. Which this guy didn't seem to be.

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  3. "the right of every individual to live freely and give as much as they can."

    Can I choose not to exercise the second right? If not, what does that say about the first one?

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  4. I'm 53 but if I had been there, Penny, you would not have been the only one yelling 'absolute rubbish'.

    The world today is more difficult to live in, more complicated, with greater pressures than the one I grew up in.

    For this man to generalise from one aspect of his son's behaviour to condemn a whole generation seems quite ridiculous.

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  5. "First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent."

    Interesting comment for a Socialist?


    Yeah, I thought so too.

    Other than that, great post, particularly this:

    most of the young people I’ve met who would call themselves ‘stakeholders’ in the Tory, Labour or LibDem parties are some of the most spineless, career-oriented, name-dropping, politically vapid slimy Whitehall dishrags I’ve ever come across. They’re probably going to be in power in ten years, worse luck, and these will be the young people that MPs and political decision-makers spend most of their time with. But they do not represent the sum total of political energy amongst my generation.

    Although, interestingly, when I was in uni, the people at the student union and everything organising the anti-war demos had some of that going on too, you had to register for the demos and they didn't want just anyone going.

    This has influenced a lot of my scepticism about marching and demos, actually, although I certainly would agree, it's really pretty annoying when the young generation gets dismissed as apathetic and apolitical. Hell, when anyone gets dismissed as apathetic and apolitical.

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  6. "most of the young people I’ve met who would call themselves ‘stakeholders’ in the Tory, Labour or LibDem parties are some of the most spineless, career-oriented, name-dropping, politically vapid slimy Whitehall dishrags I’ve ever come across."

    It's a good job I'm old.

    To be fair, I spent most of my twenties with your attitude, and then I realised that to change the system, you have to work from within it. I think you know this, or you wouldn't be going into journalism.

    I can't speak for the Tories, or Labour, but while there are a fair number of arseholes in our party, there are a hell of a lot of bloody good people as well. And mostly, at least for the moment, the good people are winning the arguments. Look at the margin of victory Ros got in the presidential election - and you can't get a less spineless, career-oriented, name-dropping, politically vapid slimy Whitehall dishrags than Ros.

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  7. I just don't think that's true. I think we d come under more attack than any other generation without being demonstrably worse which is awful and alienating but really our generation isn't that great. The majority of people I met at school, at uni, and through my work were apolitical or nimbys. Just the same as in any generation. The whole of the sixties and seventies wasn't radical. AS for the stop the war marches, I went on them. There were quite a few young people but the largest groups were at least ten years old than me and came from all the usual suspects, the unions, the peace charities, the hardline socialist parties. The unfairness of the attack is not that we are brilliant it's that wee really aren't that bad.

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  8. Have you ever tried teaching a young thief that they shouldn't steal?

    Do you think that if you told them it was wrong, that this would work, or that this would be the first time they'd ever heard it?

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  9. I think the point about that incident is that yes, there is often more to juvenile delinquency than parental discipline and choices - there are issues of poverty, deprivation, mental illness or addiction or simple neglect to take into account. But from what I could gather, this wasn't one of those cases- this guy was a well-educated, posh-sounding Guardian reader with enough time and money to come to this debate. This sounds like a simple case of a spoiled child growing up into a spoiled young man (what he stole was an expensive leather jacket, from a club).

    Some kids know it's wrong to steal, and don't. Some know it's wrong, and steal anyway, because they feel they have to or the want to be edgy. Of those, I have least sympathy for privileged kids who shoplift - I went through a brief phase of it myself when I was 17 and extremely ill, and it's a disgusting way to behave.

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  10. '"First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent."

    Interesting comment for a Socialist?'

    Socialists don't say no-one's to blame for crime just because we reckon that if we organise society differently there'll be less of it.

    It takes a very linear conception of responsibility to assume that EITHER you think it a parent has all the responsibility for reducing theft and society none or the other way round. Just because something is primarily a parent's responsibility doesn't mean it's not society's responsibility too.

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  11. Just discovered this blog.

    Every generation comes to expresses the struggle in its own way. And burnt-out former activists will always bemoan that 'we were more radical in our day'. That comes from a 43 year old.

    There is nothing 'un-socialist' about teaching your kids not to steal. Most crime is within working class communities and only middle class wankers seem to glamourize theft.

    Not so sure I agree that socialism means 'believing in the welfare state'. Maybe in defending it from attack, after all the welfare state is a set of reforms won out of struggle, but it's not in itself the vehicle of progress.

    And I wouldn't put so much emphasis on the role of the state as the champion of change either: Certainly not under capitalism.

    journeymanblog

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  12. Mark:

    "the right of every individual to live freely and give as much as they can."

    Can I choose not to exercise the second right? If not, what does that say about the first one?


    The first one is dependent upon the second one, such that if you choose not to do the second, then it means you will deny the first to everyone else.

    All rights are subject to reasonable limitation to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and are dependent upon a responsibility to observe the rights of others. It is my belief that for all people to be able to live to their fullest potential and freedom, it is necessary that all people also give as much as they are able to the community as a whole.

    It can also be argued, based either on economic ideas or on Eastern philosophy, that by rejecting the second you by your own actions infringe upon your ability to exercise the first.

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  13. Snowdrop:

    While I agree that in order for us to reach our full potential it is neccesary for us to work together, I think the word freedom is being used a little too... freely... here.
    Perhaps we have to define terms - to my mind, freedom is a matter of doing want you want (as long as it doesn't impact upon others..blah blah). Having to do whatever you can to help others is a responsibility.
    It is desirable for people to give what they can to their fellows, but when we are forced to contribute to something we have no love for, we become virtual slaves. If people are free to contribute to the things which they consider to be important, (rather than whatever the man at the top thinks is the best idea) the results are better in terms of both efficiency and happiness. Thats why we must be allowed to say "no".

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  14. "To be fair, I spent most of my twenties with your attitude, and then I realised that to change the system, you have to work from within it. I think you know this, or you wouldn't be going into journalism".

    What? just like all those neoliberal "New Labour" ministers that have brought us two wars resulting in the deaths of 10,000's of adults and children and are about to cut the benefits to the poor and needy!

    Good article Penny - keep up the fight!

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  15. My own experience of politics amongst the young is pretty disappointing. I'm 21 and graduated from this July. I was involved in the student union elections every year I was at uni, but trying to mobilise students to vote in these elections was a thankless task. Most were far more interested in being 'ironic', 'random' or buzzing off their tits on MDMA.

    When the student loan company doubled the interest rate, it raised barely an eyebrow among most of my local student population. At my university only 2,000 of over 20,000 students voted in the last union elections. Most students are completely and utterly clueless about the role of the student union on their own campus nevermind the wider NUS, and you can imagine what sort of response you get when you try to broach the subject of national politics.

    That's not to say there aren't young people who do feel strongly, I do know quite a few (though no hotties!) but in general most of the students/young people I met were not at all interested. Maybe my experience is just an anomaly, but I saw no evidence for any 'popular movement'.

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  16. "What? just like all those neoliberal "New Labour" ministers that have brought us two wars resulting in the deaths of 10,000's of adults and children and are about to cut the benefits to the poor and needy!"

    Er... no, in fact. I keep seeing this word "neoliberal" and it seems to mean "authoritarian and nasty" which is the very antithesis of liberalism. So why sully the word liberal?

    I was not in favour of the war.
    I am not in favour of benefit cuts, that's if you believe they are actually going to happen (see Chris Dillow).
    And I don't support the labour party.

    So, I have no idea where that little rant came from, other than your own assumptions, but it's nothing to do with me.

    "working within the system" does not have to mean compromising your principles; it just means you have to occasionally discuss things rationally with the enemy, rather than shouting at them from behind a placard or a picket line.

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  17. Isn't the student union just a big old popularity contest wank-fest?
    I can't actually think of anything I'd have wanted my student union to do for me when I was at university. Cut the price of beer, maybe.

    Not sure if they can do that though.

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  18. Student union elections are just a popularity contest, that's why a pirate was elected as president in York, and I personally find it absolutely appalling that this is the case.

    Student unions are responsible for more than the price of a pint. They offer a huge range of services including important welfare support such as fighting the case of students in landlord disputes (and believe me there are lots); they're responsible for and fund the societies which many students are part of, be it the football team or the drinking society (though from personal experience there's no difference between the two) and the union is also responsible for student media like the newspapers and radio stations that thousands of students use.

    Yet, when it comes to electing these bodies many students couldn't give two hoots. I can understand why students don't vote in general elections when they may feel no parties represent their interests, or consider issues like council tax or wars in faraway lands to be of no concern to them, but to ignore a student union body who work tirelessly everyday to improve the life of students makes no sense at all.

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  19. Perhaps we have to face the possibility that the student activism which was a feature of the late 20th century Anglophone nations (late 1960s to 1990s) was just a historical blip. It's not as if students were protesting in the 1950s. It's not as if they've ever been a major force in change in, say, Japan - although Japan has changed a lot more than we have over the last 50 years.

    What I'm saying is, rather than asking, "Why aren't students protesting!", ask why they would. Not why they *should*, but why they *would* - what would motivate students to do so? In the 1960s it was the threat of being sent off to Vietnam if the war didn't end soon - and that's what radicalized the whole student movement. Today students don't get drafted and don't get beaten up by cops.

    So why *would* they protest any more than non-students?

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  20. P.S Yes, student unions are in general wankfests. Occasionally you get a non-wanker like a socialist candidate, but they never win, because the only 10% of people who bother to vote, are the wankers who are mates with the wanker candidates.

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  21. "Slander. Lazy, unthinking neo-liberal slander that tars a generation already unfairly dismissed as drunken, amoral, apathetic, selfish and useless, the 21st Century’s Gin Lane. I have no time for it."

    Why do think it's only neo-liberals who think a lot of the current generation have been dragged up? How about asking some inner city labour voters what they think of the youth ‘culture’ in their local areas. Actually they’d contradict you completely because in many post-working-class areas large numbers of people under 20 are unpredictable wild savages who cannot be safely approached and don't even understand what manners or consideration, or fathers are. You may have no time for it but then you’re not really speaking for the real working classes, you speak for yourself or rather the working classes as you imagine them to be; enthusiasts of feminism and weak justice. You are substituting facts with wishful thinking; a reliable sign of a decadent mind.

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  22. http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article5348227.ece

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  23. Let's try again: This is what I was pointing at.

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  24. I think it's sweet that you define a generation by a mere five-year interval.

    Some people on that march were already grown-ups. As I recall, rather a lot of us, actually.

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  25. "First of all, if your kid’s a thief, you should bloody well teach him not to steal and stop blaming society for your failures as a parent."

    That's almost exactly what Margaret Thatcher said.

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