Sunday, January 28, 2018

Youth Revolt!


Let's see now....1968 was what,  50 years ago? Seems like it's about time for another: youth revolt! And we may be getting one. The signs have been building for awhile. Corbyn's surge to the leadership of the UK Labor Party and then to a way-better-than-expected electoral performance was driven by young voters. Same thing with Bernie Sanders' primary performances in the US. Podemos in Spain. The Left Bloc in Portugal. Syriza in Greece. 5 Star Movement in Italy. Wherever radicalism of a left coloration has reared its head and insisted that the old ways of doing things were simply not adequate to the current situation, it is the young who have been in the lead.

And now we have the JuSos in Germany, the Young Socialist formation within the German SPD, the mainstream social democratic party, leading the charge against yet another "Grand Coalition" or GroKo between the SPD and Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Such a coalition would carry business as usual in Germany to the point of self-parody. The SPD youth are having none of it and are desperately trying to "pull a Corbyn" by encouraging as many people as possible to take out 10 euro party memberships and vote against the GroKo in the upcoming membership referendum ("a tenner against the GroKo").

They may or may not succeed, since their task is probably even more difficult than that faced by the Corbynites. But they are shaking things up and may be a harbinger of trouble to come if German politics settles back in its well-worn grooves. 

The distaste for political business as usual is not confined to young voters of course, as we can see from the wave of right wing populism infecting the western world. But it is most definitely young voters who are driving a rejection of business as usual from the progressive direction. This should be seen as a sign of hope since the contemporary model of capitalism clearly needs major changes to deliver the quality of life and opportunities people are looking for. Tinkering around the edges just isn't going to cut it and it is the young who see this most clearly and are most willing to speak out about it. 

So perhaps we're starting to reach another boiling point. Mainstream left parties in Europe have suffered from aging of their memberships for many years as young voters found other parties to vote for or just weren't interested; that process is only accelerating. Left parties will either change, as the UK Labor Party and, to a lesser extent, our own Democratic Party has, or they will pay a price. 

Am I overestimating the potential importance of these youth-fueled outbreaks on the left, some of which, to be sure, can be a bit strident and unrealistic? Let me quote Arthur Goldhammer, whose excellent article on this topic I commend to you:
Many commentators, myself included, have been quick to fasten on the inadequacies of these youth movements, with their often half-baked ideas, hubristic fantasies of quick revolutionary change, and insufficient appreciation of the complexity and resilience of actually existing economic and social relations. We have tended to interpret the protests as left-wing variants of the right-wing populism we deplore, because like the populists, the young demonstrators, caught up in the contagious enthusiasm of movement politics, mistake their faction for the whole of the body politic. But in making these criticisms we have neglected the flair of the young in sussing out precisely where that body politic has become most sclerotic.
 In other words, "Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall."

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