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12 June 2010

Laurie Penny: Forming a Youth Movement

Time to end this atomised politics.

By Laurie Penny

We need the courage to see all of our personal battlegrounds as part of a sustained and coherent movement.

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”.

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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 degree qualifications 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, a 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 are we 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.

People my age, growing up after the end of the cold war, have no coherent sense of the possibility of alternatives to neoliberal politics. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek 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 involves risk. Revolutionary politics does not involve waiting patiently for adults to make the changes. It does 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 is different from work experience, and it is 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.

This post is adapted from a speech made at the Compass “A New Hope” conference, which took place on 12 June.