Saturday 5 December 2009

World on Fire (1): blue waves and black dogs.

Please be advised that this post is brought to you from the depths of the nastiest and most tenacious bout of clinical depression I've had to fight off for some time. Churchill's 'black dog' is classically imagined as a huge, loping creature, stalking and howling like some great gothic beast; my personal black dog is actually more like one of those horrendous little yappy creatures with the ridiculous hairdos that old ladies and filmstars like to carry around - snarling and worrying at my feet in that weird little hissy way, demanding food, grooming, attention, never quite happy unless I pick it up and take it with me wherever I go. Right now, I'm sat at home chickening out of 'The Wave' climate march, not because I don't care (I do) and not because I'm poorly (I am, but that's never stopped me before) - but because I'm genuinely worried I might start sobbing in the middle of the demo for no reason at all.

I mention this because I want to start using this blog to talk more about climate change, military interventionism, economic armageddon - all those big, depressing things that I've been failing to pay attention to over the last few weeks as small but important feminist stories have been breaking. Don't get me wrong: feminism is the heart of my politics, but only and always when it can be considered in the context of wider, global struggles for justice. Feminism only makes sense to me as a strategic and ideological arm of the global left: this is why intra-movement squabbles make me want to kick things. As a feminist, as a young person, as a liberal and a thinker, there are things I've been putting aside for too long that won't wait, because they are the context for every smaller instance of liberal dissent.

I am not a climate activist, but whenever I talk about equality, women's rights, social justice, I do so with a pressing sense of urgency. For as long as I can remember, I've had the impression that we don't have much time left to put the world to rights before it gets hotter, harder and meaner down here. We don't have time to let gender justice, sexual justice, racial and class equality happen naturally, over the course of several civilising decades; we don't have time to wait for our grandparents' generation of racists and recalcitrants to grow frail and give up the reins of power. Change has to happen soon; it has to happen now, before the planet actually properly catches fire.

I had the good fortune to go drinking with ravishing climate valkyrie Tamsin Omond last night, and on being asked why she had given up a promising career in marketing to become a political activist, she told me quite simply that she 'would have gone crazy otherwise'.

That's a pretty accurate verdict on the state of my generation right now. Whatever our background, nearly all of us are under an immense amount of pressure, struggling to find and keep work or benefits, trying to establish our independence in a world that does not seem to have any room for us. My generation, overwhelmingly, faces a choice between becoming politically active or becoming massively despondent, 'going crazy' with frustration at a world that has turned out so much harder and crueler than we thought it would be even when we'd grown up enough to realise that politicians and business leaders would repeatedly and inevitably let us down.

For once, when I say 'my generation', I'm talking about a very specific group of young people: those who were between nine and sixteen when the World Trade Centre was destroyed in 2001 (for reference, I was three weeks away from turning fifteen at the time), and who are now 18-25 years old, bearing the brunt of the recession, coming to political awareness in a time of immense apathy, the so-called 'lost generation'. How have we got so lost?

In the course of my work for One In Four magazine (the new issue of which is out this week and available to buy online) I read a lot of mental health policy documents. There is a tendency, particularly when politicians talk about mental health, to discuss mental ill health as located in the individual, often in the body, rather than in wider society. If people become depressed, it is because they have a chemical imbalance, or because they were born that way, or because of intimate family imbalances during their childhood, rather than in response to, for example, social disadvantage or economic breakdown.

Of course, mental health difficulty and such attendant problems as addiction, physical ill health, worklessness, poverty and family breakdown can strike anyone, from any social background - just look at lovely Stephen Fry, so bravely and so loquaciously outspoken about his struggle with bipolar disorder. But social and local factors are just as important as predictors of mental health difficulty as genetic factors or childhood distress - and often more immediately relevant, as people with a natural or inherited tendency to mental health difficulty can be more likely to develop problems if they also have to deal with - for example - worklessness, poverty, local deprivation or social chaos. Fortunately, the government's new ten-year mental health strategy, New Horizons, is finally starting to take these facts into account, after years of being told repeatedly and occasionally at volume by mental health charities, think tanks and social researchers that the inequality and political turpitude actually have some bearing on the wellbeing of the population.

It is my firm belief that the current generation of 18-25 year olds have an unique perspective on politics and culture, filtered through a childhood of war, encroaching natural disaster, frantic consumerism and sudden betrayal. We are less employed, more addicted, more mentally unwell and more politically active than any group of young people for many years - although we are moving, on the whole, away from party politics. Exploring why is going to take me more than one post.

I've been engaged to write a chapter for Soundings Magazine and for A Radical Future, a forthcoming ebook written and devised by British activists and academics under 30 years old, on the subject of mental health, young people and politics. I'm going to thrash out some ideas on this blog over the coming weeks, during the Winterval lull.

The series will be titled 'World on Fire', after a discussion I had with my boyfriend last night, during which he ventriloquised rather aptly for our parents' generation:"here, have this planet! It's only slightly on fire!"


  1. I think you're on to something here. I'm slightly older than your generational boundary (turned 28 last week), but I recognise a lot of what you're saying. I'm employed and on the face of it not doing that badly, but the notion that we as a generation (I'd locate the generational boundary at the point at which tuition fees came in, if only as a symbolic marker) were sold a lemon resonates.

    I know a lot of people who are, irrespective of their 'success' in society or otherwise, feel pretty unfulfilled. Those of my peers who stuck to taking drugs have realised that this won't see them through life forever, but those who buckled down and worked hard don't seem any happier. I think that there is a slightly manic tendency on the part of our generation to oscillate between withdrawal and isolation on the one hand, and frantic engagement with a cause - any cause - on the other. We can make great campaigners and great visionaries of social change, but we burn out quickly. Oddly enough, I suspect that blogging about this stuff saps rather than replenishes our desire to change the world.

    Do I feel happy with life? Well, mustn't grumble I suppose. On the whole I'm an optimist and suspect that the good times will arrive sooner or later, but if they don't then I'm going to be pretty annoyed in a few years. I'm not sure if people getting really pissed off is necessarily the best force for positive social change out there, but since society - atomised and cold - makes it hard for people to find worth for themselves by helping others, perhaps it's inevitable.

  2. While I'm always wary of histories of political action that place the current generation as the most politically active/pissed-off/change-driven youth in decades, I find the idea seductive -- even if it's just a myth, it's probably as true as it is false, and may be a myth that we need just to keep going. But it probably pays to bear in mind that outside a relatively self-selecting circle, the sense of despair or frustration does not necessarily lead to a political response, progressive or otherwise. Often it leads to nihilism in one of its many forms.

    It seems obvious, equally, that climate change is a vital area of campaigning for any progressive politics, but (and let me tip my anarcho hat a bit here) it's not something that can be combatted without profound systematic change. I don't want to denigrate the intentions of any of the marchers at the Wave today, but I wonder how pressing institutions of political power to do deals which alter the constitutive bases of that power to their detriment could ever possibly be effective. (I was there briefly, and think on balance it's a good thing, and acknowledge that my view is at best partial as I had to hop back to Oxford very quickly.) We can all get behind the notion that climate change is a bad thing, but calling for it to be stopped begs any number of questions about the way in which capitalist society operates. They're not easy questions to face.

    I've recently been rereading Simon Critchley's 'Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance'; it occurs to me you might find bits of it useful in articulating your thinking. I've no doubt you'll find much to disagree with in it, but it does probe at some of the same questions you do, and in a very smart way.

  3. Sounds like you are descibing Gen-X again. Thatcher's children, Reagan's rugrats. Leaving school at a time of high unemployment and restricted services. Enough red-diaper babes amongst my cohort to feel the disappointment constriction of our horizons.
    ...Enough about me, it's your time now.

  4. "It is my firm belief that the current generation of 18-25 year olds have an unique perspective on politics and culture, filtered through a childhood of war, encroaching natural disaster, frantic consumerism and sudden betrayal."

    Speaking as a member of that demographic - G K Chesterton, who managed some clever turns of phrase despite his Catholicism, said

    "I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid."

  5. I am of your parents' generation and experience anger, grief and incredulity. So many individuals do care and take whatever personal action they can but en masse humankind is a sociopath. I was going to say enviropath but having looked up the definition in urban dictionary (how reliable is it though?) it gives a meaning opposite to what I would have expected. On Saturday I'll be marching in Australia and will now take your words along with me and think of you.

    I'm privileged to have grown up in the English countryside and a deep love and respect for nature remains with me. Julian Lennon's "Saltwater" sums it up for me really. Whenever I listen to it, saltwater does well in my eyes.

    Even though you may think you are coming from a frail place at the moment, your words have great strength and impact. Yours is one of a number of feminist blogs that make me feel a little less crazy. And much as I care for animals, Penny Red, I hope you kick that yapping dog good and proper.

  6. I'm 36 and I recognise what you're saying too. It's not just you, and it's not just "young" people. Is it worse for a young person to be unemployed, or poor, or depressed, than for an old person, or someone in between? I think it's a qustion worth asking.

    Enjoy the political platform of being a young person while you can though, milk it for all it's worth.

    Because once you hit 30, or 26, or whereever you're drawing the line, you'll have all the same problems, the world will be like it is now, only worse, and someone else will come along, thinking they're the first generation to ever see or think about this stuff, and they'll have v.little interest or regard for your experience or your voice. It was ever thus.

    Sorry to be glum, but I do get you.

    Oh, and ps on the subject of behing handed a burning planet, take tuition fees: we tried. We really did.

  7. Damn. Today, realised I am longer young and have become part of dream grinding machine.
    Felt despondant. Understandable.

    Then again, maybe perspective of mentally ill drug addicted unemployables not as valuable as first assumed.
    New Labour, New Danger - quite.
    Destroyed youth of nation. Inexcusable.

    Final thought - if student loan is unpayable, good indication that individual shouldn`t have gone to university.
    Pity the taxpayer.

  8. Mark: cheers for that. Constructive. Not at all ad-hominem or victim-blaming.

    Penny: I'm in a similar position to Rob and others. Outside your posited generational boundary, but still frequently assailed by thoughts of the sheer insanity of our current inaction on climate change and similar issues. If I were going to posit a boundary for the generation, I'd suggest those who were too young to vote in 1997, but that's probably just my own personal hatred of Tony Blair showing. And, as others have mentioned, the whole idea is a bit suspicious.

    I look forward to reading the World on Fire series. A word of warning, though: climate deniers are at least as crazy as MRAs.

  9. "It is my firm belief that the current generation of 18-25 year olds have an unique perspective on politics and culture, filtered through a childhood of war, encroaching natural disaster, frantic consumerism and sudden betrayal."

    errr... the world is almost entirely at peace (Cold War anyone?), the pollution we actually experience is much lower than our parents (no more pits, no more near shore sewage releases), frantic consumerism I'll give you, and which sudden betrayal ???

    We're stalled and mostly comfortable.

    Anon of Not Searched

  10. It's hard to know whether this is something that's specific to our generation or has been building slowly for a few decades (since the "End of History"), but I think our attitude towards truth may also play a part in all this. No-one believes anything absolutely, for every argument, there's a "respected" counter-argument (just listen to how the BBC still talks about climate change as a theory), everyone's beliefs are Ok as long as they're personal and don't effect the way you live. Probably we lefties are the worst at this, saying "I'd die for your freedom of speech, but I'll kill you if you believe what you're talking about".

    I did go to The Wave, and found it fascinating how the newspaper reports on it were printed in Saturday's Guardian before the event, and it was not mentioned in today's Observer - because it was yesterday's news and had already happened. They could already write the story on Friday night or whenever they write for the Satuday issues. This kind of makes it not an event - if the media's eyes are anything to go with. The Wave was much more effectively "kettled" than the G20 protests - we did it ourselves!

    Sorry I know this is a ramble. I'm also tired and terribly upset about it all, even if I don't think I'm actually depressed in any sort of medical way. What I think I'm trying to say is that I think we're still in an era of shitty postmodernism that not even 9/11 or 7/7 really shook us out of. It's just so hard to believe in anything anymore. This is the worst possible mood to be trying to get global agreements to tackle Climate Change in.

  11. Er, yeah, try having grown up in the 80s.

  12. Anonymous raises a fair enough point. On many objective measurements, life is better now than it was 50 years ago, and a lot better than it was 67 years ago, or 26 years before that.

    What Laurie and others (maybe including me) argue (and by our very existence demonstrate) is that these things don't actually result in abundant human happiness. We're still capable of being profoundly depressed at times despite the abundance around us. It would be churlish to blame this abundance, as though a return to 'simpler values' or 'sustainable' ways of life (where that means subsistence agriculture or similar) would fix everything. It wouldn't, and would probably make a lot of people unhappier, and it would be unfair for us to take away the things that make them happy. Backwards isn't an option, but it's hard to know how to move forwards.

    Perhaps it has always been this way. Popular culture has always reflected a sense of detachment and disillusionment, particularly amongst the post-1945 youth (go back and listen to, say, some Pink Floyd for example). That's partly why I don't buy the idea that the current youth has any special insight, except perhaps for the fact that they/us have the weight of the previous generation's insights on the same matter behind us, if not their active support in doing anything about it.

  13. @Rob, that's called the human condition. It's not going to get better :-)

    I'm sticking by my stalled and comfortable line. The average 18-30yr old in the UK (more so in London) has enough money to enjoy themselves, no great purpose and no motive or resources to move on to raising a family.

    Read Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters

    There's plenty of malaise, but little actual suffering.

    I think dropping away from party politics is more than just a young person's trend. The two parties are broadly similar now, and there's little drive among the elite to face big issues. That closes off the national-level structural changes that mass politics traditionally fights for.

    Anon of Not Searched

    P.S. Yes, climate change needs to be addressed, but it's hardly being ignored by the governments.

  14. I'm 26 and I feel a bit left out by your generation bracket! The point that the young are suffering most from unemployment is important, but I don't feel that anything significant altered in my situation on my last birthday. I also feel that making the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre the defining reference point of a generation is very US-centric, and plays into lots of discourses around the so-called 'war on terror', which I really think is epiphenomenal.

    Certainly you articulate a lot of things that I also feel, and from a subjective point of view, I fit into your definition quite well. Maybe the relevant 'generation' is, as someone mentioned above, that we are all 'Thatcher's children' - i.e. raised under neoliberalism, with all the atomising psychological effects that has.

    I'm sorry to say though that I agree with James' point - this suffering can just as easily lead to nihilism. We are probably better off looking to earlier generations for positive solutions - even if we do want to ground our politics in a moment of negativity, as John Holloway would argue.

    Well, this work of considering ways to repeat history, better, is already being done all over the place, of course - everything from the left-liberal talk of a 'Green New Deal' to the Trotskyists wanting to relive the Russian Revolution. For my part, I think the cooperative movement and unemployed workers' unions are two forms of organisation that are just are relevant now as they ever were. And as far as feminism goes, I think the Second Wave probably has the most going for it!

  15. Sadly, it's the opposite for me. Political activism seems to have absolutely zero impact on the real world of horrible jobs, and I don't get along socially with the cool, white middle-class kids who overwhelmingly make up "political activist" circles. I know that something has to be done, but the current crop of "political activists" seem to have no clue, and all their decisions are made on the basis of who's "mates" with whom, and if you don't like going to their parties and listening to their fashionable music you're considered irrelevant.

  16. Penny wrote, "Fortunately, the government's new ten-year mental health strategy, New Horizons, is finally starting to take these facts into account".

    Really? Really? You really think this government has a progressive view of mental health? Because all I can see happening is that we are being stigmatised if we don't have jobs. And it is a fact that creative activities for people with mental health problems are being ruthlessly axed due to lack of government funding. They want us all to do more vocational stuff, that is where the funding is.

    Because writing a blog is not as useful to society as being a paid journalist. Like that lovely Jan Moir. Note sarcasm.

  17. I should hope that the entire comment is sarcastic and that you don`t really believe that hardworking folk have some duty to subsidise the blogging of those suffering from mental illness.

  18. Hi there Laurie.

    I have been reading your blog for a while and I enjoy it, although I disagree very strongly with many of your opinions. I am a (right-)libertarian and diametrically opposed on quite a few things. I will keep reading.

    So Tamsin Omond became a climate activist because she 'would have gone crazy otherwise.' -

    Isn't it just that offspring of rich parents who have not shared good moral theories with their children often yearn for a purpose in life?

    I don't see what this has to do with our generation in particular.

    Also, what is your opinion on climate change activism itself? Seems like there would be a conflict between your traditional progress-driven leftism (as I see it from reading your blog a few times) and modern lefty/environmentalist misanthropy.

    - Francis

  19. I was born in 1954, classic baby-boomer. My generation were a lot more politically active than yours, but then we thought we could actually change things. Punk rockers in 1977 really thought we could change the world through music, a risible notion nowadays.

    I think young people nowadays are incredibly spolit and materially better off than any previous generation of young people. But yes, you are unhappy & feel impotent. Why? Because for 30 years we've had neo-liberal policies that promote social inequality imposed on us, & inequality = unhappiness.

    When were we happiest? Back in the bad ol' '70s when equality was on the increase.

    But try and promote equality today and you are howled down by drooling imbeciles going on about "class warfare" or "the politics of envy" (see Tessa Jowell, last weekend). Inequality has risen even more under New Labour than it did under Thatcher.

    All I can prescribe is Gramsci's famous epigram: "Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will".

    I saw my first psychologist when I was ten, at 18 I was in a psychiatric hospital getting ECT and heavy anti-psychotic drugs I didn't need. I've had clinical depression all my life.


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