Free Associations to Generation
This is an edited extract from Moments of Excess, a Free Association anthology published by PM Press.
There’s a great clip on YouTube (http://tinyurl.com/lubwkq). A young man at a festival is performing a crazy freak-out, oblivious to anyone and anything apart from the music. After a while he’s joined by another reveller, and the pair start dancing together, circling around and responding to each other’s moves. But the real turning point comes when they are joined by a third: a private routine becomes a public event, open to everyone. One, two, three more people join in. Then another half-dozen. The momentum is unstoppable. Whooping and screaming, people start running in from all directions and within minutes the ﬁeld is transformed into a mass of whirling bodies.
It is a brilliant demonstration of what makes a ‘movement’ move. On screen you can actually see social relations beginning to shift in a way that resonates with bystanders; they pick up the theme and make it their own in a glorious process of innovation and acceleration. By the end of the song the audience has been utterly transformed: it is energised and expectant, searching for a new opportunity to express itself. Indeed the event will leave traces even after the festival has ended.
Social movements have a similar dynamic. But they don’t just consist of moments of resonance; they also include periods of dissonance. They can ﬁnd themselves unable to move as their once novel issues, ideas and practices become saturated and lose their purchase. At such moments, if they are to expand further or continue to move, they must displace their limits and change shape. If the organisational experiences of past generation are mechanically repeated, then new potential is obscured. A movement must be given room to move.
On 23 November 2010 while student protests were taking place across the UK, there was a march, several thousand strong, through the city of Leeds. Unusually, the march contained many school kids, sixth-formers and college students, in addition to university students and staff. This novel mix produced an exciting, militant and disobedient atmosphere, which culminated in the spontaneous occupation of a building in Leeds University. A lecture theatre was soon ﬁlled with over a thousand people, along with a portable sound system and a projector that showed rolling news. A large group of youth danced raucously at the front while the whole room erupted into wild cheering each time the news showed footage of a student demonstration. The atmosphere was edgy, almost out of control, but utterly electric.
Unfortunately this remarkable scene lasted only two and a half songs before some veteran student activists switched the music off. A small argument ensued: the sixth-formers wanted the music back on, while others shouted them down. The undergraduate activists, who had control of the microphone, argued that ‘this has to be a serious occupation’, and wanted to draw up a list of demands to put to the university. After an ill-deﬁned vote it was announced that those who wanted to continue dancing could go outside, although the sound system was never turned back on. Within an hour people were proposing the election of an occupation steering committee. This sparked an interminable and bad-tempered debate but by this time the excitement and energy had gone—along with 80% of the people.
It would be easy to score cheap political points from this tale, but it was, in fact, a very difﬁcult situation. The original feeling of unity masked real divisions, and as things broke down complex dynamics of class, race and gender emerged. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: it simply meant this was a moment of real movement. The protest had brought together people who might usually be antagonistic or at least wouldn’t have encountered each other with such a sense of shared purpose before. Perhaps the mistake was to mechanically impose a model of organisation that didn’t recognise the novelty of the situation. The student left had a ﬁrm idea of what a student occupation should look like and they knew the sort of organisation that could bring this about. But while that model might have been appropriate for previous occupations, this one was different. It had, at least initially, a very different composition. Many of the sixth-formers and younger teenagers were not used to the culture and expectations of the students left and were alienated by the introduction of layers of bureaucracy. In response the undergraduate left turned in on itself, excluding those that didn’t resemble themselves.
Talkin’ ‘bout my generation…
Social movements come into being by creating problems; or rather, movements form as they make speciﬁc issues into problems that must be addressed. The particular shape or logic of that problem can affect the initial composition of the movement, inﬂuencing potential participants, natural allies and apparent antecedents. Many recent movements have formed around problems that might lead us to expect youth to be the dominant political category of our time. Indeed many commentators have tried to play up an inter-generational tension between the post-war baby boomers—who ‘have had it all’—and contemporary generations who must now pay the costs.
In Greece, for instance, the uprising of December 2008 was sparked by the police murder of a 15-year-old. Many identiﬁed the underlying cause as the disenchantment of the ‘700 euro generation’; so-called because few could envisage ever earning more than this subsistence income. There’s a similar dynamic in struggles around climate change, as the time lag between the emission of carbon and its effects pushes the costs of climate change onto future generations. And some of the most exciting recent struggles have been against the neoliberal reform of universities, with student movements emerging across Europe and the US. In the UK many of us from older political generations have been inspired by the students’ anger, energy, and willingness to take risk and experiment. Yet movements move precisely because they exceed the speciﬁc issues of their emergence. As one problematic becomes saturated, movements shift to another as they seek to generalise themselves. The UK student movements have not deﬁned themselves primarily in terms of youth— the experience of the Leeds occupation shows how a political generation cannot simply be based on shared age. Indeed one of the most unexpected effects of the last few months has been the re-emergence of class as a legitimate way of talking about politics. In France, the recent wave of protest 2006 struggles against the CPE (the contrat première embauche or ﬁrst employment contract), which primarily affected the young. But the 2010 revolt was actually sparked by pension reforms, uniting young and old alike. In Greece, the struggles of the 700 euro generation have since become generalised, as savage austerity measures have lowered living standards across all ages.
Is there still a special connection between radicalism and youth? One recent commentator, ignoring the much more difﬁcult conditions of contemporary students, has argued that ‘Students are always ﬁrst—energy, time and lack of children make protest easy.’ But our present idea of ‘youth’ is a relatively recent invention. Its creation coincided with the post-war boom, full and stable employment and the birth of rock’n’roll. The teenager was created as someone who was different—not yet a full part of the labour market, although old enough to be a consumer. The period of growing up and moving away from school and family life is a time of risk, play and experimentation. But discipline has to be imposed. Workers have to be made. Old values (which might have been based on love and sharing) have to be unlearnt and replaced with the values of the labour market. Where there’s no workplace, the neoliberal state steps in, unleashing harsh regimes on the unemployed, and disciplining students with a reduction in funding and increasing levels of debt.
But if youth is a socio-political category encompassing those without a stable place in the economy, the current crisis is threatening to make youths of us all. The neoliberal deal was based on displacing any antagonism as far into the future as possible. Rising house prices were used to compensate for falling real wages, and a credit-fuelled consumer boom in the global North has ﬁlled our homes with an endless parade of things. All that has now gone, taking with it many of the ways we thought we’d protected ourselves. The future has been blown wide open. And the things we thought had given us solidity are revealed to be nothing but commodities or empty dreams. In moments of crisis, just as in moments of excess, the world we inhabit is shown to be a poor substitute for life..
“Driven to admit that there is, perhaps, some tension in society, when perhaps overwhelming pressure brings industry to a standstill or barricades to the streets years after the liberals had dismissed the notion as ‘dated romanticism’, the journalist invents the notion that this constitutes a clash of generations. Youth, after all, is not a permanent condition, and a clash of generation is not so fundamentally dangerous to the art of government as would be a clash between rulers and ruled.”
/ from The Floodgates of Anarchy by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer, as quoted on the back cover of the Clash’s ﬁrst single ‘White Riot’/‘1977’
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