Some organisations fear freedom, they grow the need for ever greater control over the people who trusted them enough to sign up in the first place. We relish in embracing and enaging with activists, because if we are going to rebuild the left, we need to change the way different parts of it relate to one another and and the way it relates to the wider world itself. Because it's only by being able to write the story together that we will feel part of the story. Because if we really want to empower our activists, we need to give up control and give them power.
Which is why we challenged people who had signed up to our session on Saturday @ Progressive London Conference to share their thoughts & views on the issues facing young people and what we should be doing about them. Before we bring on the debate, you can still sign up to the conf here.
"Matty C Roche's latest offering, 'Materialism, Youth, Apathy and Art,' is not a progressive youth voice. It's not even centrist. It reads like the semi-restrained frothings of a 1930s Anglican priest from the Home Counties, peppering contradictory moral pronouncements with a bizarre, tripped out segue into the story of the Giant Spider of Integration that Walked Through Liverpool and united the working class. With the result, apparently, that 'Liverpool is on the improve'. This pseudo-appropriation of anti-youth reasoning is something that urgently needs a response, and here, I'm going to attempt to offer one.
The funny thing is that whenever people accuse members of their own generation of greed, a lack of empathy and a culture that has been bred of materialism that promotes instant gratification, they normally aren't talking about themselves. Unless Matty, self-proclaimed voice of progressive young London, is prepared to put his hand up and say yes, I, too am one of the degenerate, uncultured, polymanaical masses, he is implicitly suggesting that he himself - as a 'cultural activist' and arts affiliate - represents a gleaming exception to this selfish, sordid stereotype. If he were prepared to look outside his tiny box of self-satisfaction, he would see what an amazing bunch of people 'the youth' actually are - in spite of everything.
"I'm sick of people getting down on Generation Y. We are, in general, good kids doing our damn best to adapt to a world whose social parameters are changing month on month and which doesn't seem to want to allow us any foothold unless we happen to be rich, white, male, middle class, well-connected and talented. We are struggling with a culture which is more drenched in violence, inequality, sexual exploitation, vicious materialism and dangerous chemicals than any age-group before us has had to cope with."
Our parents' generation brought us the sexual revolution, legal emancipation of women and ethnic minorities, the death of religion and small-town community, the tearing down of the cruel old orthodoxies. Their job was comparatively easy. It is our task, now, to live in the rubble and try, block by block, to build something new, something better, whilst wrestling the lingering dregs of prejudice, hatred, poverty, social exclusion and intolerance - and we have no-one to look to for guidance on how the world should work, because our mums and dads had no bloody idea either, and still don't.
The elephant in the room remains that rampant materialism is the problem with our parents' generation, not ours. This sort of young Labour reasoning represents a hideously self-loathing internalisation of a lie that not even our parents even really believed, that greed, lack of empathy and material exclusion are somehow our fault, not theirs.
So don't parrot the old guys and tell us we're lazy, and spoilt, and degenerate. Don't tell 'the youth' that they're useless, undisciplined criminals who merit more police powers, more power to teachers, heavier penal sentences and punishments that reflect the crime and so there is fear of recrimination, even conscription for national service - we don't need to be brought into line. We are, in fact, in the process of re-drawing the line.
And no, 'The Arts' are not going to save us. We've got some arts already, thank you very much. We may not have the kind of arts you want us to have, but this generation is creating more art, more music, writing, performance and brilliant new ideas than ever before, most of it cooked up with pirated equipment in the privacy of our own bedrooms and disseminated over the internet.
"We have the technology. We are creating. What most of us want now is a chance to combine creativity with real social progress, a chance to turn our imaginative brilliance to dreaming up a new world for ourselves, where our arts and our ideals have real relevance. To do that on any scale, we need fiscal emancipation and we need proper education, although some of us seem to be managing perfectly well without either - look at London's anti knife-crime initiative."
Look at the new feminist groups, driven by young men and women from across the social spectrum. Look at the voluntary sector, with almost 2 million young people putting in their time for free for one social cause or another.
Poverty still exists now, but for many of us, poverty is a relative concept....people had to work hard and fight to earn things in the past - I've heard this argument before, the 'nobody's really poor anymore' argument, and it's almost universally put out by people who a) have never been poor, b) have never met anyone poor, or c) are fortunate enough to be slightly richer than their parents were and not have caring duties or dependents. Suck it up, Matty: poverty happens, it happens in this country, it happens in every city, now, every day, and millions of young people all over the country are affected by it - more every day, as the recession bites down and school leavers are refused the jobs in the promise of which they have indebted themselves. Deprivation relates both to material poverty and relative poverty, which creates emotional deprivation, social exclusion and ghettoisation. Relative poverty is, in itself, a serious issue, and just because most of the poorest of Britain's poor normally have more to eat than their African equivalents doesn't mean that it's lots of fun to have to decide between school shoes and keeping the house warm over the winter, as so many families still do.
Today's young people have grown up in a society polarised between rich and poor, those who will and will not inherit, with the illusion of opportunity for all dangled hopelessly above our heads - and the orthodoxy with which this status quo has been enforced has left us with fewer visible progressive options than any generation in a hundred years. Many of us have grown up without the supportive, secure family structure that every child needs, however many live-in parents she happens to have. Many of us have grown up without a real sense of community, or in communities riddled with violence, deprivation, drugs and alcohol abuse. A decent, supportive welfare state with efficient schools, healthcare and social security would be a place to start - but the Welfare Bill going through the Commons as I write represents another slice off the dwindling support structure that Britain's disenfranchised youth once relied upon. The Welfare Bill is yet another sign that the government is not listening to the voices of the young, the poor and the socially excluded, and instead taking another turn in that modish cross-party party game, Pin The Blame On The Working Class.
Matty then launches into a rootless romanticisation of the early 1908s as a time when 'unemployment was at an all-time high. People had little or nothing – but they all had nothing together. Few prospects, poverty, and dead-end jobs made people want to fight for a better existence. Workers would be politicized and made aware of issues by their trade unions and there would be a cohesive and constructive vent for their anger and frustrations...now, the youth choose hedonism, drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, violence and escapism as their vents.'
This is a truly odd piece of rhetoric. Bizzarre New Labour appropriation of the 'best' parts of Thatcherite free-marketeering and individuation along with a weird fetishisation of the deprivation that they caused is a strange trait that's cropped up in centrist thought over the past few years - New Labour bears a great deal of responsibility for the demise of the trade union movement, and yet its orthodoxy remains that 'things were better back then - we were miserable, sure, but we had each other'. All of which sounds a little too much like a certain Monty Python sketch to be taken entirely seriously, especially if you actually talk to any of the actual people who actually had to live it at the time. The early 80s was nobody's utopia.
One thing the early 80s didn’t have, however, was the hypocrisy of today’s youth-oriented politics. As the bloody teeth of this recession clamp down, we’re realising we’ve been had. The exams we martyred ourselves for, the university education – free to our parents, but not to us – that we indebted ourselves for, the better life that we were promised if we worked hard and played the game whose rules were constantly being rewritten under the table, all of that has been exposed as so much lies and hot air. A million of us are unemployed, and that figure is growing, and when a million of us marched on London in 2003, the voice of young Britain was not listened to then as it is not listened to now. So don’t point the finger and tell us we have too little faith in the political process before you look at how this administration has treated its young people.
The latent class terror that runs in sticky rills under the surface of this article peels away one of its veils when Matty states that the problem is 'a lack of discipline, morals and understanding of where you've come from,' combined with apparent failure to respect our elders. Well, when our elders show us something to respect, maybe we'll listen, but not when what they offer us is insistent othering, othering of the kind that is horribly internalised in this syntactically woeful article. The extent of Matty's direct and wholly undeserved primitivisation of the deprived and/or disrespectful youth he so vilifies is grotesquely exposed in the final paragraph: 'people can't be changed by pushing them form the back, nor can you drag along an unwilling dog and expect him not to dig in his heels.' Unwilling dogs. That's what we are. Apparently.This is like sticking a giant 'kick me' sign on the back of young Labour. This is appalling. The youth of today are better than this - yes, for all our booze and drugs and sexual freedoms and music that goes beep. I'll tell you what we have going for us that our parents' generation didn't. We have the temerity to have grown up in the cruellest, most hypocritical and most politically disenfranchising of callous capitalist societies for a hundred years and not be cowed.
"We have the technology, and we’ve taught ourselves to use it. We have the courage to adapt to this constantly-changing world, however repeatedly it keeps kicking us in the teeth. Most importantly, as my housemate reminds me, we have much better hair. Suck it up, Matty. It’s politics that are going to have to change for us."
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