Young people can’t catch a break. On the one hand, we’re scolded and ridiculed for our apparent lack of engagement with traditional political institutions, which is generally assumed to be a result of our ‘laziness’ or ‘apathy’, with our disillusionment and distrust with politicians that have continually failed us apparently precluding our ‘right to complain’. On the other hand, when we do engage politically, in those rare moments when we do seek to take an active role in our futures, we’re painted as thuggish, fragile or naïve. In short, the message we continually get is: “engage – but not like that!”
The truth is that the established political elite no longer understands what is happening, economically, politically or socially. We are living through a time of systemic economic and political upheaval, where technology, ecology and the inherent contradictions within capitalism itself have created novel circumstances, requiring new means and ends. Youth engagement, when it happens, often looks different from ‘traditional’ political action, because the times, the issues and the stakes are changing. So far, established political institutions and (most) party responses have ranged from the slow to the inadequate to the non-existent.
My generation’s political engagement has both been shaped by and is a reaction against neoliberalism. The suffocating individualism and consumerism of modernity, that erodes collective forms of decision making, converts democratic authority into corporate power, and tears apart social provision as it goes, has severely damaged political engagement over the last few decades. But recently, young people seem to be fighting back against the increasingly bleak-looking futures offered by this system. Rampant inequality, stagnant wages, ecological disaster, spiralling housing costs, sluggish economies more prone to crashing, the cost of higher education more than tripling, a mental health crisis… is it any wonder we’re getting pissed off?
It was announced this month that ‘youthquake’, the revived term denoting ‘A significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people’, has been named the Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. This comes off the back of what is possibly the largest rise in youth political engagement this country has ever seen. Young people played a very significant role, both in terms of activism and votes, in delivering Labour’s better-than-expected result in June’s snap election. Indeed, as the new, energetic campaigning of Momentum taps into various aspects of youth culture, and many young people come to play key roles in the rise of Corbyn, it certainly feels like young people are engaging politically on a level rarely witnessed in Britain.
Yet it’s important to also recognise what hasn’t changed. Youth turnout was still historically low back in June, and still lagging considerably behind older generations, with over 40% of us still not making it to the ballot box. Neither this country, nor even one generation of it, has suddenly had a deeply rooted and profound political (let alone socialist) awakening – yet. What happens next, what this crack in the disillusionment with mainstream politics represents, will be determined by a number of things.
We need those young people not currently actively engaged in politics to shake off virtually every message society has thrown at us since our birth. Neoliberalism has constantly fed us the message, in between gluts of consumerism and bleak times of real poverty and hardship, that the collective endeavour of politics is useless, or undesirable, or both. Individual purchasing decisions are the appropriate forum for self-expression and change, but protest and politics (beyond a once-every-few-years vote) are not. If we’re going to change society, we need to change that narrative rapidly.
there are only possibilities, possibilities for action, possibilities to shape history
This will only happen if those of us already engaged get things right. We need to organise in a way that inspires and empowers our fellows, but also to do so in a way that is willing to listen and to at least in part be shaped by those not yet engaged – a two-way conversation, rather than a righteous monologue. We desperately need a resurgence in engagement with party politics amongst young people, but not one that uncritically accepts Westminster traditions, nor one that ignores the legitimate frustrations young people have with established political culture. Parties should become more horizontal, democratic and participative organisations, moving away from the corporate, centralising and elite-driven projects they have increasingly become. They should become radical, creative campaigning organs in every local community (some, I’m sure, already are). Above all, they need to offer radical solutions that actually answer the questions of our time. Youth engagement can be a huge boon to both of these challenges, but reigniting youth passion for mainstream politics requires political organisations to make the first steps in that direction too.
Corbyn, his party and his politics are not perfect, but that’s just as it should be. There have never been fully-formed answers delivered to people from political elites on high – we’ve always had to claim them for ourselves. There are no inevitabilities, no inexorable processes that mean youth politics is going to go in one direction or another – there are only possibilities, possibilities for action, possibilities to shape history. British politics has, slowly, achingly, begun to shift into a position where long-term, sustained positive change is possible, for the young and for all the other marginalised, oppressed and forgotten groups in society. But that’s all it is: a possibility, a chance. What happens next, whether this ‘youthquake’ is real, sustained and transformative, is up to us.
Featured image credit: Novara Media
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