Sunday 13 June 2010

Youth politics and revolution

I gave this speech yesterday at the youth panel at the Compass conference, 'A New Hope'. After writing this in a fit of pique at the notion of youth politics being co-opted into the conference-going, sandwich-eating mode of adult politics, I got very nervous about actually saying the words out loud, and was sitting next to John Harris of the Guardian as chair, whose columns I adore, which didn't help. Thank you to those who attended and tweeted nice things whilst the event was going on!


Not every generation gets the politics it deserves. When baby boomer journalists and politicians talk about engaging with youth politics, what they generally mean is engaging with a caucus of energetic, compliant under-25s who are willing to give their time for free to causes led by grown ups.

Now more than ever, the young people of Britain need to believe ourselves more than acolytes to the staid, boring liberalism of previous generations. We need to begin to formulate an agenda of our own.

There can be no question that the conditions are right for a youth movement. The young people of Britain are suffering brutal, insulting socio-economic oppression. There are over a million young people of working age not in education, employment or training, which is a polite way of saying "up shit creek without a giro".

Politicians jostle for the most punishing position on welfare reform as millions of us languish on state benefits incomparably less generous than those our parents were able to claim in their summer holidays. Where the baby boomers enjoyed unparalleled social mobility, many of us are finding that the opposite is the case, as we are shut out of the housing market and required to scrabble, sweat and indebt ourselves for a dwindling number of degrees barely worth the paper they're written on, with the grim promise of spending the rest of our lives paying for an economic crisis not of our making in a world that's increasingly on fire.

Just weeks ago, as news came in that the top 10 per cent of earners were getting richer, 21-year-old jobseeker Vicki Harrison took her own life after receiving her 200th rejection slip. Whether a youth movement is appropriate is no longer the question. The question is, why we are not already filling the streets in protest? Where is our anger? Where is our sense of outrage?

There are protest movements, of course. It would be surprising if anyone reading this blog had not been involved, at some point over the past six months, in a demonstration, an online petition or a donation drive. We do not lack energy, or the desire for change, and if there's one thing that's true of my generation it is our willingness to work extremely hard even when the possibility of reward is abstract and abstruse.

What we are missing is a sense of political totality. From environmental activism to the recent protests over the closure of Middlesex University's philosophy department, our protest movements are atomised and fragmented, and too often we focus on fighting for or against individual reforms.

We need to have the courage to see all of our personal battlegrounds - for jobs, housing, education, welfare, digital rights, the environment - as part of a sustained and coherent movement, not just for reform, but for revolution.

For people my age, growing up after the end of the cold war, we have no coherent sense of the possibility of alternatives to neoliberal politics. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek observed that for young people today, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

For us, revolution is a retro concept whose proper use is to sell albums, t-shirts and tickets to hipster discos, rather than a serious political argument.

Many of us openly or privately believe that change can only happen gradually, incrementally, that we can only respond to neoliberal reforms as and when they occur. Youth politics in Britain today is tragically atomised and lacks ideological direction. We urgently need to entertain the notion that another politics is possible, a type of politics that organises collectively to demand the systemic change we crave.

Revolutionary politics involve risk. Revolutionary politics do not involve waiting patiently for adults to make the changes. They do not come from interning at a think tank or opening letters for an MP, and I say this as someone who has done both. Revolutionary politics are different from work experience, and they are unlikely to look good on our CVs.

The young British left has already waited too long and too politely for politicians, political parties and business owners from previous generations to give space to our agenda. We have canvassed for them, distributed their leaflets, worked on their websites, updated their twitter feeds, hashtagged their leadership campaigns, done their photocopying and made their tea, pining all the while for political transcendence. No more; I say no more.

A radical youth movement requires direct action, it will require risk taking, and it will require central, independent organisation. It will not require us to join the communist party or wear a silly hat, but it will require us to risk upsetting, in no particular order, our parents, our future employers, the party machine, and quite possibly the police.

The lost generation has wasted too much time waiting to be found. Through no fault of our own, our generation carries a huge burden of social and financial debt, but we have already wasted too much time counting up what we owe. It's time to start asking instead what the baby boomer generation owes us, and how we can take it back.

No more asking nicely. It's time to get organised, and it's time to get angry.


  1. What agenda were you thinking of? I can't see a coherent one emerging across our generation .. A revolution needs goals, not just aspirations for a better world.

    Anon of Not Searched

  2. If you ever write (another) book, it should be titled "The World On Fire", or something along those lines.

  3. Great. Perfectly describes the far right movement. Are you going to join? And by the way, revolution is a response mechanism. Most people that just like 'drama' are not remembered in history.

  4. Forget Zizek; the most valuable text we can turn to now is Paul Virilio's 1977 book, Speed and Politics. We can extract two key points from Virilio:

    1. The State is not ontologically prior to the police - it only appears to be so due to a topological inversion. In fact, the opposite is the case: the police are ontologically prior to the emergence of the State. What does this mean in practice? Well, recall the scene from many a protest in recent years: people throwing shoes at Downing Street, over the heads at the police. The ideological lie in this scene is that, if only we could get past the police and attack Downing Street directly, we would get closer to something revolutionary. No! This fantasy obscures the traumatic truth that the true revolutionary confrontation is with the police, not the State. The State serves the police as a useful distraction. So, yes, a confrontation with the police. Absolutely.

    2. Virilio makes the point that mass demonstrations, for all their impotence, can be reclaimed as a form of training for the necessary confrontation with the police. So we needn't look back on the last ten years of "carnivalesque" protest as wasted years.

  5. I like the turn to a revolutionary stance, but there's a bit but...

    I'm not convinced that it's possible to square the idea of *revolution* with a social base which is defined by age, e.g. 'under-25s'.

    I guess if you are talking about a generation, e.g. people born after a certain point/within a certain period, it's a broader constituency, and people won't keep growing out of the bracket. But such a category still doesn't seem likely to be the basis of a broad hegemonic movement...!

    Particularly when you bear in mind the economic class disparities within any age bracket... Or the issues of imperialism, racism, etc. etc. Age really isn't that central a factor in oppression except with respect to aspects of reproduction/sexuality/patriarchy.

    Unemployment effects a lot of people; I think the focus on NEETS is just another 'divide and rule' categorisation to split the 'deserving/undeserving poor' (if you don't have a job by 26, you aren't trying hard enough etc).

    Also, I think if you're going to dismiss a particular political party as pseudo-revolutionary, then at the moment there are more obvious candidates than the Communist party, which is relatively populist and reformist for a Marxist grouping, as far as I can gather.

    I don't really understand, either, how this fits with your recent decision to join the Labour party and support Diane Abbott...?

  6. I think this is a really nicely constructed piece. It conceptualises a view of the current situation faced by today's young people very well.

    It's not my view. While I agree that the current economic climate is not great for many young people, I think there's a big difference between those who are facing a few years of interning and low paid work followed by a very nice life - particularly once their parents have downsized and passed on a chunk of the profits to facilitate their offspring's first leap onto the property ladder - and those who are facing a lifetime in rented accommodation, without secure work, rounded off with a few years of misery on a tiny pension.

    It suits right-wing politicians to suggest the baby boomers have screwed it all up for the current generation with greedy demands for a cradle to grave welfare state.

    An under-reported alternative view is that - from a position in the mid-70s where inequality was down and overall standards of living were up - the neo-liberals have screwed everything up for people who are not wealthy by demanding that cash went into the pockets of the richest rather into protecting a generous social safety net.

    It's a particular shame that Mrs Thatcher blew our north sea oil revenues on 'liberalising' the economy when it could have been spent on protecting and positively reforming a social democratic model - as has happened in other European countries.

    I'd be interested to get more of an idea of what your revolution would actually involve and what concerns and interests the majority of young people have in common.

  7. We've been bloody trying. Young people are angry, young people are willing to go to the line. But groups like the NUS are so rotten from being extensions of the Labour Party that they undercut every pro-student action someone tries to initate through it; meanwhile the big political parties, especially the Lib Dems (as I'm sure you learned), are perfectly happy to take a pro-youth message while campaigning and then six hours after the election.

    As for the left...for a lot of the left it's really the same problem. They want young people as warm bodies to pad out their demonstrations but very few left groups take youth seriously at all.

    Any action is going to have to either come from a left group that is actually, honestly friendly, or come entire us youth ourselves. And while I don't object to the latter, don't tell me we're not already trying to do it.

  8. You talk about unity, but then you fall into the trap of creating disunity. It's very common, I am sure people could point to examples where I have made the same mistake. You've never been impolite to me, but you are still, at the end of the day, someone who thinks I spend part of my leisure time serving up misogny.

    However, I recognise that you are going through a difficult time with the separation from your neet friends. I honestly do not mean this in a bad way, but is there no chance you could join them? You are a writer, could you work outside London? Or would that be as alien as Carrie from "Sex and the City" thinking she could move to Paris? (Sorry, sorry, very immature to mention SATC.)

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  10. "It's time to get angry"?
    And you were what before? Mildly ticked off?

  11. ++Ben

    There is a big difference between 20-somethings. Angst is different to being genuinely screwed. There's a lot of unmet expectations and I worry how that's going to play out.

    Anon of Not Searched

  12. From

    Yes that's right, punk is dead
    It's just another cheap product for the consumers head
    Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors
    Schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters
    CBS promote the Clash
    Ain't for revolution, it's just for cash
    Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
    Ain't got a thing to do with your or me

    Movements are systems and systems kill
    Movements are expressions of the public will
    Punk became a movement cos we all felt lost
    Leaders sold out and now we all pay the cost
    Punk narcissism was a social napalm
    Steve Jones started doing real harm
    Preaching revolution, anarchy and change
    Sucked from the system that had given him his name

    Well I'm tired of staring through shit stained glass
    Tired of staring up a superstars arse
    I've got an arse and crap and a name
    I'm just waiting for my fifteen minutes fame

    Steven Jones, you're napalm
    If you're so pretty vacant, why do you smarm?
    Patti Smith, you're napalm, your write with your hand
    But it's Rimbaud's arm

    And me, yes, I, do I want to burn?
    Is there something I can learn?
    Do I need a business man to promote my angle
    Can I resist the carrots that fame and fortune dangle
    I see the velvet zippies in their bondage gear
    The social elite with safetypins in their ear
    I watch and understand that it don't mean a thing
    The scorpions might attack, but the systems stole the sting

    Crass, Levellers, Mr Bragg, etc provided a focal point and a perspective to identify with. Quite hard for the current generation of rap, dance etc to spark a progressive political interest for obvious reasons.
    I don't see a political punk replacement for 2010, but then again I am 42, so maybe I am not supposed to.

  13. "Where is our anger? Where is our sense of outrage?"

    On Facebook, apparently...

  14. Lets be honest. If you are proposing a return to violence and anti governmental militancy you are, to put it just plainly, in la la land.
    You cant possibly treat a democratically elected government ,minority, majority,or coalition, that won tens of millions of votes ,whom each one of us has the right to vote out in a civilised manner, as though their policies are evil and must be resisted by violence and in an uncivil manner.
    If you want to really change things, why don't all these small far left parties just meld into one. This happened in Germany, where the Left Party does well. There could be democratic elected revolutionary government that we all have the opportunity to vote out after 5 years.
    But when you talk about revolutionary left wing politics for the workers, for the unemployed, for the masses, you have to stop and think for a moment about who these people are.
    Do you really believe that the average disadvantaged Britain would ever approve of such a movement?. Millions of people's Friends and Family Members died in the name of free and fair elections and a representative democratic system. No way, No way, would the average Pensioner who survived the war, the Average NHS Nurse, or the average Disabled person ever condone an uncivil, bloodthirsty anti-democratic violent campaign in their name. I should know as as I hail from a working class Tory and Labour backround

  15. This is a brilliant call to arms, excellently written.

    But it only says what you're against, and that's easy to do. When you can say what you want instead, and it attracts people, you will succeed. That's much harder.

    I hope you keep writing though because I think you're very talented.

  16. Young Stripling16 June 2010 at 19:48

    Cheer up. One year of unpaid workfare is on the way for the "long-term" unemployed under the coalition. If you ain't got a job you'll get an unpaid "pretend" job without pay, training or possibility of progression.

    Thanks Dave!

  17. I,m busy dusting my walking boots off,i,m aged 52,have 2 sons who cannot gain employment,Myself and my partner marched with the miners in the north east during the strike,never paid a penny in poll tax,and was willing to go to prison,but mysteriously never heard anything from the authorities,nothing in this country has been gained through parliamentry process,it has been achieved through direct action on the streets,and if you think voting for a party every 5 years will change anything,i,m afraid your,e deluded,It matters not who you vote for,the bankers and money markets run the country,just watch the news,ftsie,dow jones? wtf,wheres the real news of people being sacked through "austerity measures" I,m afraid when these cuts start hitting me and mine,I,ll be first in line kicking in tesco's doors,and i hope all those affected will get off their knees and protest strongly,Aplogies for the rant,but never mind the "big society" people have fell for the "big lie"

  18. There is much available as a shared platform for reform. 'The Movement' needs economists who haven't drunken the neo-liberal cool aid.

    The first step to job creation is to fight out-sourcing of jobs. No I'm no right-winger but why should a government allow a business to work against the collective interest? Why should western governments allow businesses to support slave labour in foreign countries?

    Another point is to reform corporate governance laws. Senior management needs to be held responsible for it's actions.

    Regulate vulture trading tactics such as short-selling.

    Regulate esoteric financial instruments such as derivatives and CDOs.

    Taxes for the financial trading sector(and all internation trading transactions) and tax break for businesses to encourage PAYE employees.

    Regulate personal income tax bands. More tax for the super-rish, less for minimum wage.

    Increase financial gains tax, reduce tax breaks for mortgages on investment properties and novated leasing.

    Encourage personal savings.

    Reform to break the cosy relationship of government and lobbies.

    I think most far left groups could agree to most of the above points.

  19. it's not the government who are to blame. it's the people who put them there.

    wage war on your parents

    Sous les patios la plage...

  20. > Why should western governments allow businesses to support slave labour in foreign countries?
    Because China makes shoes, we make high-end camera lenses (we do, there's a little cluster of machine shops near Birmingham). We swap, they have more lenses, we have more shoes.

    Regulate vulture trading tactics such as short-selling. - NO, short-sellers are just being penalised for being right. (Naked shorting is sometimes borderline fraud though.)

    Regulate esoteric financial instruments such as derivatives and CDOs. - YES/NO Better contract law and stop banks putting them on balance sheet

    Taxes for the financial trading sector - NO, horrifyingly unworkable. And what makes a banker inherently more evil than a lawyer?

    and all internation trading transactions - NO NO NO That would kill my employer's business. (And we're in the EU so can't.)

    tax break for businesses to encourage PAYE employees. - YES

    Regulate personal income tax bands. More tax for the super-rish, less for minimum wage. -YES, no-one with less than a family wage should be taxed on it.

    Increase financial gains tax - YES, CGT should equal income tax on principle

    reduce tax breaks for mortgages on investment properties and novated leasing. - YES

    Encourage personal savings. - YES (tax credits on ISAs for non-higher rate payers?)

    Reform to break the cosy relationship of government and lobbies. - YES

    Anon of Not Searched

  21. we need to find a new centre with which to engage the wealth possessing 'middle classes', take direct action which involves disruption, not violence, the police are not our enemy they are merely the keepers of the law by which we should abide, they are not the oppressors or oppressed but bystanders, the government are also not our enemy, their policy is. This is what must be focused on as a single cross-generational point of unification, pacifism not violent protest will bring about change.

  22. China Mieville for the Socialist review three years ago. Never say I'm not good to you. And that's it from me, I'm now going to go and gorge myself on booze and chocolate in the best British fashion. Merry non-denominational festivities to all, and bollocks to all that. china manufacturing


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