You say you want a revolution....

In July an OurKingdom exchange prefigured the current protest of young people across Britain: "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. A radical youth movement requires direct action...". "I believe we should be allying ourselves with all those who feel oppression, not just those of a similar demographic....". "I’m quite serious in calling for revolutionary sentiment. We need to understand how badly we have been let down by the system, because one day we are going to be in charge of that system."
Laurie Penny
30 July 2010

Young people today face a future of debt, joblessness and ecological disaster. How should young people respond to the hardships and humiliations handed down by the older generation? Do we need reform, revolution? Ahead of the UK Feminista summer school this weekend, Laurie Penny, of the Penny Red blog and the New Statesman and Rowenna Davies of the Guardian, debate what the strategy should be. All the posts in this thread will be by women. In parallel with it we have started a discussion between men about the need to end discrimination against women. All genders may join in the comments.

Laurie Penny:

 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.


Rowenna Davies:


You paint a vivid picture of a young, struggling underclass being exploited by adults, and it’s obvious your cry for revolution comes straight from the heart. But do we really want to make age another battleground in our communities? As members of the left, don’t we believe that the real divides in our society aren’t between young and old, but between the rich and poor, the powerful and the vulnerable? Do we really have space for another division?

As a true believer in progressive politics (and at 25, perhaps still a young person), I believe we should be allying ourselves with all those who feel oppression, not just those of a similar demographic. The alternative is to risk segregating ourselves into another youth playpen, disconnected from the left’s mainstream movement. Let’s fight for the bigger picture, not a youthful self-portrait.

It’s a common mistake of adults to assume that because we’re young, we all think and feel the same. Sure, young people tend to feel injustice particularly sharply as a demographic because we all start at the bottom of the jobs pile. But that doesn’t mean that all young people are powerless to the whims of adults. Conservative headquarters are filled with fresh-faced young graduates that are working on policies that screw over people old enough to be their parents and grandparents. How does a “youth movement” deal with that?

Nor do I agree with your vision of revolution, as beautiful as it sounds. Bringing this system to collapse would result in massive economic instability that would undermine the employment chances of all people – young and old. It would fly in the face of the last democratic vote and threaten the social stability of our communities.

So what’s my alternative? Your passionate eloquence leaves my response vulnerable to looking like a tired defence of the status quo. But I share your fierce urgency for change – I just don’t want to see young people tearing down the system. Instead I want to see us enter it, take charge and reshape it. I want to see us filling the youth wings of our political parties and demanding they give us more power, as Young Labour is already doing. One initiative I’m pushing for helps to get young people into local government, not as token youth reps or pen pushers or photocopiers – but as legitimate representatives of their communities.

In short, I want to see a generation that fights for each other rather than on the streets. A youth movement that stands by fellow interns, refuses to work without pay and raises the temperature on educational funding. Yes this will take direct action and organised protest. And yes our targets will often be ‘youth issues’ - but they should always be part of a bigger picture, as the students and lecturers who stood together at Middlesex will tell you.

I can understand your frustration. After thirteen years of a ‘progressive government’, we are still told that we can’t afford to pay for internships, let alone redress substantial inequalities. But we mustn’t underestimate the difference that policy can make, as this Conservative budget is about to prove.

I agree with so much of your clear-spirited diagnosis of the problems. It’s your solutions I’m questioning. Are you completely disillusioned by the system? Is there really no hope for change from within? And if not, why do you keep voting in our elections, and urging others to do the same? Can political parties help turn things around, or might they just as well disband? I’d like to know how you think the system should change to make young people like yourself believe in it again.


Laurie Penny:


You asked if there isn't hope that young people can change the system from within. The short answer is: none at all, if that's all we're planning on doing. For too many people our age, political activism is just something that looks good on our CVs, something that involves photocopying, distributing leaflets and answering the telephone for adult politicians whose agendas we may not necessarily agree with - often for free.

We worry, and rightly so, about being shunned by the establishment, when really we should be trying to impose our own values upon it. Fortunately, that doesn't necessarily have to involve pepper spray and water cannon. You say that you want to see "a youth movement that stands by fellow interns, refuses to work without pay and raises the temperature on educational funding... direct action and organised protest." in my book, that's the very definition of revolution. Revolution is about challenging hierarchies of labour, property and power; it's not just about slogans and terrible hair, and sometimes revolution can work in the gentlest of ways.

You say that a call for young people to rebel poses a risk of further division in our communities, but I firmly believe that generational politics and the politics of class and capital should not be mutually exclusive. Young people in particular need to understand that our place in the hierarchy of labour and property is lowly, insecure and unjust, and only by developing a sense of solidarity and real rage will we begin to approach that understanding appropriately.

My greatest fear for our generation is that we will grow up to inherit a poorer, harsher, more difficult world than our parents without once having mustered the courage to question what brought us to this point.

Even before the financial crash, most of us who grew up through New Labour’s exacting reforms to secondary and higher education have been conditioned from an early age to see ourselves as little more than commodity inputs. Now, with wages low, job security non-existent and seventy of us competing for every vacancy, there is a danger that we will feel too frightened of being left behind by the market to demand our rights to work, housing, a decent standard of living and a sense of security that means more than a neoliberal soundbite. We have been trained to compete, and to see one another as competitors, and this too is a reason to cherish revolutionary spirit.

What do I mean by revolution? Not blood in the streets, although direct action must be a part of any movement. Not just anger: raging at the baby boomers won’t solve any of our problems by itself. Deep ideological questions of class, equality and the nature of late capitalism will continue to matter to people our age long after we have buried our parents and taken on the work of running the country. If we are to stand a chance of doing so with any semblance of maturity and responsibility, we need to remember what it's like to believe in change, change that's not a slogan on a poster or a platitude from a pundit but a concrete plan to improve our lives collectively.

That’s why I’m quite serious in calling for revolutionary sentiment. We need to understand how badly we have been let down by the system, because one day we are going to be in charge of that system. People don't truly treasure things until they've fought for them, and it's only by fighting for political emancipation, equality and social justice that we'll be able to pass those things on to generations who will come after us. If we truly mean to create a decent society for ourselves to inherit, we need to risk upsetting people. We need to risk being badly behaved, and making ourselves less, rather than more employable. To do politics properly, we need to risk getting in trouble.



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