Divide and conquer? The politics of the generation gap

If the intergenerational divide is allowed to become a full-blown culture war, only the Right will profit. In the face of this, we must re-think how the latest generation organises itself as a political force.

Keir Milburn
20 July 2016
 Stephen Brashear / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Young supporters at a Bernie Sanders rally. Photo: Stephen Brashear / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The ability to define the problems around which politics revolves is a vital means of exercising power. Not only does it set the terms of discussion, it also reconfigures existing divisions and alliances. The Brexit referendum is a classic example. It presented EU membership as the most important political issue of our time - yet the decision to hold it was entirely contingent. The public weren’t clamouring for a vote on the topic. EU membership was ranked the 9th most important issue in opinion polls last year. Cameron decided on a referendum to try and settle Conservative Party factional strife. He assumed Remain would win comfortably, but soon lost control over the narrative. He became trapped by the relentless thirty-year campaign of racist and Eurosceptic media messaging from which he’d previously benefited. Slogans such as “take back control”, allowed the Leave campaign to frame the issue, setting up a chain of equivalence between the EU, immigration, low wages and declining public services. As attention was focussed ever more narrowly upon this line of argument even Remain voters embraced its terms. Post-referendum anti-Brexit protests have shown many young people equating the EU with cultural diversity and freedom of movement. The thousands of dead migrants in the Mediterranean have slipped further out of view. In this article I want to think further about how the referendum might be reconfiguring existing generational divisions. I think Understanding how political generations are produced and shaped will be key to the emerging Left responseunderstanding how political generations are produced and shaped will be key to the emerging Left response.

The divergence of voting patterns between age cohorts has already been well noted. One opinion poll indicated 75% of 18 to 24 year olds voted for remain, while only 38% of 50 to 64 year-olds did the same. Despite early reports that Brexit was the fault of feckless young people’s failure to vote it now looks like the turn out of 18 – 24 year-olds was 64% rather than the 36% originally cited. Headlines such as “Brexit: The Boomer’s Final Betrayal” feed into a longer narrative of older generations pulling up the ladder, removing the rights and freedoms they themselves have enjoyed. Overall, voting patterns make it clear that the longer you had to live with the effects of Brexit, the less likely you were to vote for it. Around the world, the declining economic prospects of younger generations have been the wellspring for resurgent Left projects. Podemos in Spain and Bernie Sander’s campaign in the US provide two examples of this. In the UK, however, there is a real danger that the way the referendum was framed  recompose a generational divide based on divergent economic interests into a generational culture war. Such a war would suit only the interests of the Right.

We can begin to understand this if we position Brexit within an ongoing crisis. In 2008 we saw the collapse of neoliberalism’s economic settlement. Now we are experiencing the collapse of the political settlement that went along with it. In a perceptive referendum post-mortemBoth cohorts need a new economic settlement., Alan Finlayson identifies neoliberal globalisation as the obscured driver of both sides of the Brexit vote. He distinguishes between globalisation’s economic and cultural effects using this to draw up a grid of four groups in the UK with differing attitudes to these impacts. Out of these there are two cohorts that are central to the hopes of the Left. The first consists of those unhappy with the economic effects of globalisation but happy and embedded within the cultural diversity it brings. Think young metropolitans with precarious working and living conditions. The second cohort are those who have also suffered economically from neoliberal globalisation and who also find its cultural effects uncomfortable. Think older voters from the Britain's de-industrialised smaller towns. Both cohorts need a new economic settlement, and this should be the basis of an alliance between them. But the referendum has turned their heads in different directions. A significant proportion of Labour’s deindustrialised heartlands voted Leave alongside a third cohort, who have done well from globalisation economically but feel nostalgic for a fantasy version of our Imperial past; basically the Tory shires. This new alliance must be kept from solidifying. The other task, however, is preventing something hinted at in the pro-EU protests; city based youth aligning with the much smaller urban cohort who are happy with both neoliberalism’s economic and cultural effects. A generational analysis is useful for picking this mess apart but only if we think more deeply about how a political generation forms.

Sociological discussion of this problem traces back to Karl Mannheim’s idea that generations form through shared experience of traumatic events. Young people are particularly susceptible to the impact of such events, having little previous experience within which to locate them. For Mannheim, generational distinctions only become important when episodes of rapid change produce a ‘structure of feeling’ amongst young people at odds with the one that’s dominant. The crisis of 2008 fits the bill. By removing hope of economic improvement it crystalised a much longer divergence of economic outlooks across age cohorts. Unlike previous generation gaps, this one is not primarily an effect of demographic changes. It is, rather, a side effect of a neoliberal settlement in which conditions of work and social reproduction have worsened over time. As such they have affected later cohorts more severely. Generational tension is not a traditional focus for the Left. But under contemporary conditions age is one of the modalities in which class is lived. 

Age is one of the modalities in which class is lived

We can usefully tease apart two different kinds of events, whose traumas create two different types of generations. The first type consists of events that are perceived by those involved to have been created by external forces. The crisis of 2008 is a good example. It was a world changing event that felt as though it was created by forces beyond human control. As such it dramatically altered young people’s life changes and produced a very large, loosely connected and politically ambiguous generation. The second type of event consists of those which feel like they’ve been actively constructed by their participants. The protests and movements of 2011 are a good example. The political generation that formed out of them is much tighter and more coherent than the one produced by 2008. We might think of these as respectively a ‘generation in itself’ and a ‘generation for itself’.

In some countries, such as Spain, the generation of 2011 was large enough to create a new political common sense that is vying for dominance in the sphere of formal politics. In the UK the long 2011, which ran from the 2010 student movement, through Occupy, to the August riots, formed a much smaller generation but one which has stayed highly internally networked. It has also maintained a remarkably consistent political attitude and outlook despite ostensibly changing political positions over the last five years. This generation was born within explosive extra-parliamentary movements yet despite these beginnings they have mirrored their sister generations in other countries and recently engaged with electoral politics, joining the Labour party en masse to support Jeremy Corbyn. The second wave of this sign up took place post-referendum and I was astonished by the unanimity with which the generation acted. This generational cohesion has baffled those outside it leading to hysterical accusations of a Corbyn personality cult. Of course, if you believe that leadership is a purely a matter of charisma then Corbyn is going to be a mystery. He acts as a figurehead to hundreds of thousands of young people despite lacking the ‘right’ personality. In order to maintain your analytical framework despite this contradictory evidence you need to reach for terms of magical thinking such as accusations of ‘cultism’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the defining characteristic of the 2011 generation are a commitment to participative politics as well as a pragmatic openness to strategic action. Something that has evaded previous generations of the Left in the UK.

I always thought that the 2011 generation - understood as an engaged political force - was around 250,000 strong. Recent events make me think its reach is much larger. There have been several attempts, primarily in the Murdoch press, to get anti-Corbynites to join Labour and vote for right-wing candidates. I’m convinced they will fail. They are appealing to an inchoate mass that does not share a collectively self-produced political orientation. Reading a request for action in a newspaper is much less persuasive than the viral pull of seeing one after another of your peers declaring that they’ve just joined Labour. Indeed, it’s this networked coherence that makes a political generation a potentially powerful pole of attraction. So far I have seen how the 2011 generation have hoovered up the generations of social movement veterans that preceded them. The scale of the recent increase in Labour Party membership indicates that their ideas and attitudes have begun to spread. If we are to escape the nascent generational culture war, however, the political generation of 2011 need to find a way to galvanise the larger generation of 2008.

The turn towards the Labour Party is an attempt to do just this but its success is far from certain. Indeed, some of the dangers associated with this move were revealed by the Spanish election results on the Sunday after Brexit. Unidos Podemos, the electoral alliance of the radical Left, were expected to come second, beating the PSOE (socialist party) and perhaps becoming the dominant force in a governing Left coalition. In the end they fell short. Some have speculated that the chaos of Brexit scared the Spanish electorate but those closer to the action blame a growing separation between the structures of Podemos and the ‘bottom up’ politics of their 2011 generation, formed in the huge 15M movement of that year. There is a real paradox at the heart of post-crisis Left politics. An electoral turn tends to drain energy from social movements but without active movements the Left loses the ability to set the terrain to their advantage. Electoral politics is based on engagement with the State and the media, both of which require hierarchical structures that pull against the participative spirit of 2011. But the Left lacks either institutional power or a compliant media so it must rely on extra-parliamentary social movements to produce and frame the problems upon which politics focuses. For an example of how that might work think of what UK Uncut did for the issue of tax evasion.

When examined in this wider historical and geographical context, it becomes apparent that the generation of 2011 is pursuing an international experiment in how to effect change under contemporary conditionsThe 2011 generation is pursuing an international experiment in how to effect change. In the explosive phase of 2011, we discovered a lot about what extra-parliamentary movements could and couldn’t achieve, with the State’s ability to disrupt movements becoming an increasingly evident problem. The subsequent electoral turn had also been discovering its limits, with electoral parties in and out of government stumbling upon the multiple barriers neoliberal elites have erected to keep them from power. If we are to overcome these limits we will need a new organisational ecology on the Left, with different organisations fulfilling different functions while moving in a common direction. Yet this new ecology will only be a symbiotic one if we prepare the ground for it now. The needs of electoral politics, for instance, cannot be allowed to subordinate the needs of other actors. Democratising institutional structures is one avenue for this but we also need extra-parliamentary actors who are autonomous from electoral parties but able to act in sympathy with them. It’s a division of labour that could help extend the hegemony of the 2011 generation over metropolitan youth but it will also be essential in the more difficult task of bridging the cultural gap with the older cohort from the de-industrialised towns. A new economic offer will be key to that but I’m not convinced the proposition of an electoral program will be convincing on it’s own. Institutional politics must also create space for movements to address those problems directly and exercise the leverage that’s absent from the electoral sphere. It’s a strategy that has much still to be worked out but not only do I think it necessary but I also think it captures the direction of travel of the most active cohort of our times, the political generation of 2011

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