Dimensions of the global youth revolt

Chilean student protest

THE YEAR 2011 will go down in history as a year of youth revolt. Throughout the year, beginning with the Arab Spring, protests, riots, and revolutions involving tens of millions of teenagers and twenty-somethings have shaken the global political order. International business media outlets from the Financial Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Economist have been fretting openly for months about today’s rebellious young people.2 Commentators across the political spectrum have already started comparing 2011 to that seminal year of international youth rebellion, 1968.

It’s not difficult to see why. The uprisings and revolutions of the “Arab Spring,” where a majority of the populace is younger than twenty-five; the “Lost Generation” of Europe and the movement of the indignados that took over public squares across Spain and Greece this summer; the ongoing mass demonstrations of Chilean students; and the Occupy encampments that have broken through the ossified US political climate and ignited a new mass social movement—all of these movements show how young people have led the way in a growing wave of social upheaval.

These new movements have emerged as a direct consequence of the global economic downturn, which has darkened the futures of many millions of young people. Youth unemployment in particular has become a major international crisis—Peter Coy, writing in Bloomberg Businessweek called it “a ticking time bomb.”2 Even in countries that have weathered the downturn better than most, rising social inequality and neoliberal capitalism’s inherent drive toward privatization and the decimation of public services mimic the austerity measures faced elsewhere. There is a growing consciousness that the crisis of capitalism has created a global Lost Generation, cut off from many of the opportunities and material possibilities of the previous generation.

Today, this generation’s struggles, from Cairo to New York to Santiago, have revived the tradition of mass revolutionary politics and breathed life into an international left that for decades faced nothing but defeat and retreat. In the span of one short year, all existing political assumptions have been turned on their heads. Previously unassailable dictators have fallen, “hopelessly conservative” Americans have occupied public spaces in hundreds of cities and towns across the United States, and “apathetic” youth “bought off” by cell phones and social media have turned these new technologies into weapons against the system. In country after country, these movements have burst through the restraints of the existing order, calling into question a political and economic setup that has catered only to the rich and the banks at the expense of everyone else.

Where is today’s youth revolt heading? What are the key debates developing within the movements? What are the prospects for, and responsibilities of, the left in this time of crisis and resistance? This article will offer some initial answers to these questions and attempt to lay out the contours of the developing international youth rebellion.

Youth and the crisis
The crisis facing youth today is deep and broad, cutting across national borders and affecting those from all but the most privileged backgrounds. A combination of devastating cuts to education, skyrocketing student debt loads, and meager youth employment opportunities faces not only working-class but also middle-class young people at every turn. The primary channels through which young people become integrated into society—education and early employment—are being cut back and choked off, making them unavailable to most youth. Add into the mix political systems that appear not to know or care about the crisis they have helped to create, and the result is an explosive mix of insecurity, precariousness, frustration, and anger. It is alarming how similar these conditions are in different countries around the world.

A brief look at the numbers shows that young people are being disproportionately affected by the current crisis of capitalism. Mass youth unemployment has gripped large parts of the globe, with unstable, badly paying jobs for those young people who can find work. Our generation has produced the largest-ever cohort of unemployed youth, according to the International Labor Organization. The ILO’s data show that youth unemployment spiked in an unprecedented way over the past four years—by 50 percent more than in previous recessions.3

The epicenter of this crisis is located in the Arab world. In a region where two out of three people are under the age of thirty, some estimates put the youth unemployment rate as high as 40 percent. In Europe, the overall rate tops 20 percent.4 In Spain and Greece, nearly 45 percent of young people have no job. In the United States, the Labor Department pegs youth unemployment at 18 percent, which is almost certainly an underestimation.5 For Black youth in the United States, the rate stands at 31 percent, or 44 percent for those with no high school diploma.6

These are devastating numbers. But they don’t tell the full story. The job search period has become desperately long in many countries —often exceeding one year. In the developed world, the shredding of the social safety net has made going that long with no income very difficult. In the developing world, most jobless youth face extreme poverty—and so do many who do have work. For these millions, joblessness at a young age will lead to a lifetime of lower wages.

Even before the crisis, neoliberalism tended to rely to an ever-greater extent on precarious labor: in other words, even those young people with jobs usually have low-wage, short-term employment. Across Europe, these are the mileuristas, young people earning less than a thousand euros per month, usually in jobs with six-month contracts that provide no benefits. In the Arab world, these are people like Mohamed Bouazizi, the street peddler whose self-immolation sparked Tunisia’s revolution last spring—young people, often well-educated, who exist on the margins of the economy, working for themselves because there is no other work to be found.

This crisis radicalizes people and fuels protest, on the one hand, but it can also lead to desperation. In Britain earlier this year, twenty-one-year-old Vicki Harrison killed herself after receiving her two hundredth job application rejection. A recent survey in Britain revealed that more than half of the eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds questioned said they were thinking of emigrating because of the lack of job prospects.7 That is an astounding figure coming from one of the centers of world capitalism.

To put it simply, we are witnessing a whole generation being locked out of the economy. As growth stagnates across the developed world, and as Europe veers back toward another round of financial crisis, these young people will continue to find themselves on the outside looking in. For defenders of the system, they will represent a long-term threat to social stability. For radicals and revolutionaries, they represent an urgent challenge. These young people, who are neither students nor in the workforce, are not an easy group to organize.

The youth unemployment crisis has a flip side: the unprecedented attacks facing education systems across the developed world. In our age of austerity, the ruling class is taking from schools what it gives to the bankers. In country after country, “budget discipline” and “belt tightening” have become the watchwords of politicians bent on foisting the costs of the crisis onto workers and those who rely on public services. Neoliberalism’s unceasing drive toward privatization has only exacerbated the sharp inequalities that increasingly define education in the era of the Great Recession. Policymakers in developed countries are pushing most students from non-elite backgrounds into the bottom of a two-tier educational system, while opening universities to military and defense programs and private funders, such as the billionaire industrialist ideologues Charles and David Koch.

The educational experience of working-class students today would be almost unrecognizable to someone who grew up thirty or forty years ago, when higher education opportunities were still expanding. For public school students, barriers to educational advancement start long before college. K–12 schools are absorbing round after round of budget cuts as public school teachers have become a convenient target for politicians looking for scapegoats. Those public school students who successfully fight their way through a crumbling public school system arrive at graduation only to find that sharply rising tuition costs put college out of reach. Those who take on enough debt to make it through college find themselves facing a depressed job market and low wages that will make it impossible to ever pay down their loans. Education has become a trap.

In higher education, budget cuts are decimating the amount of funding available for public university systems and financial aid, funneling millions of aspiring graduates into the student debt whirlpool and preventing many from completing a degree at all. Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Britain have all cut their higher education budgets by more than 10 percent over the past two years, with a corresponding rise in what students must pay to attend university. In Britain, the cuts last year amounted to 14 percent of the budget, resulting in a tripling of student fees, and the slashing of teaching budgets by 40 percent.

Students in the United States face a particularly unsustainable situation. Already much more expensive than in Europe, higher public education in the United States has seen similarly massive cuts and fee hikes in a number of states. Tuition rates increased by 8.3 percent overall this year, far outpacing inflation and of course wages, which are falling. Since 2000, tuition at public universities has doubled. Meanwhile, the federal government has consistently cut non-loan financial aid, resulting in an average student debt load of $25,000 for the class of 2010.8 The yearly amount borrowed per student has increased over the past decade by 63 percent, and the most recent data shows that student defaults increased from 6.7 percent in 2007 to 8.8 percent in 2009. By the end of 2011, the total student debt load in the United States may reach the $1 trillion mark, outpacing total US credit card debt by more than $100 billion.9

While this setup may benefit the 1 percent who run society and use mass indebtedness to pad their pockets, this absolutely cannot continue. It is utterly unsustainable. To claim otherwise is to repeat the mistake of those who insisted the debt-laden housing market would never crash. This is especially true as more and more students graduate and find only low-paying work or no work at all. Yet the irrational dictates of profit and privatization are such that European capitalists are now moving to emulate the US model and have begun talking openly about the need to expand student debt in Europe.10 Meanwhile, in South America, politicians cling desperately to a fully privatized and extremely unequal education system that is now fueling mass resistance.

These are the conditions that have produced the mass struggles of 2011, breaking through the uneasy calm that prevailed after the onset of recession in 2008. In both education and employment, the speed with which these crises developed was bound to produce struggle as students and youth found the rug pulled out from under them. Yet the dynamics of neoliberalism created radicalization and resistance even before the crisis began. Budget cuts, fee hikes, privatizations, attacks on social services, precarious work situations, and growing income inequality are not new phenomena. All of these tendencies have existed for decades—as part of what many on the left call a “one-sided class war” that defined the neoliberal era of capitalism.

The current radicalization has roots in the long-term accumulation of historical changes brought about over three decades of neoliberal capitalism. Like all economic impulses under capitalism, the driving force behind these changes was a need to maximize profit. This is why capitalists have relentlessly pursued “flexible” labor markets for decades—busting unions, eliminating job protections, eroding wages and benefits, and throwing many out of work along the way. This is why politicians and administrators have attempted widespread restructuring of the university, cutting costs, deskilling the academic workforce, and reintroducing the profit motive where possible. As George Monbiot wrote in 2002, “Our schools are being privatized not for the benefit of our children, but for the benefit of our corporations.”11 These processes have spawned some unsettling institutions: temp agencies, unpaid internships, and the for-profit university.12They have also brought us to where we are today. These changes have destabilized an entire generation—and led to a historic fightback.

From Europe to the Arab world and back
Today’s movements represent the first sustained challenge to the global ruling classes and the post–Great Recession politics of austerity. Though struggles broke out in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, these were largely sporadic and did not cohere or gather much momentum. Since late 2010, however, things have moved decisively to a higher stage. The outbreak of youth-led struggles over the past year has propelled the entire class struggle forward. After more than three years of recession and crisis, and after more than three decades of one-sided class war, a new international left is finally coming into being.

Though the tipping point most certainly arrived with the Arab revolutions in December and January, an important prelude to the upsurge came in late summer and early fall 2010, when France exploded into protest against a proposal by President Nicolas Sarkozy to raise the retirement age by two years. Significantly, the protest movement involved student strikes that shut down college campuses and over 700 high schools across the country, at times resulting in violent showdowns between teenagers and the police.13

Then, in early November, the largest student protests in a generation hit Ireland, with as many as 40,000 young people on the streets of Dublin. Exactly a week later, on November 10, a massive student demonstration erupted on the streets of London. With an unexpectedly large turnout of 50,000, the march took a militant turn when thousands of students surrounded and occupied 30 Millbank, the headquarters of the Conservative Party. This action made headlines around the world and built momentum for subsequent protests on November 24 and 30 and December 9. In the final protest, a wrong turn by the limo carrying Charles, Prince of Wales, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, brought them into the middle of the demonstration, where the young protesters attacked the royal couple’s vehicle in a now-infamous scene.14 The British protests, like those in Ireland, were called against proposed cuts to the education budget that involved a tripling of university fees and the complete elimination of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, a stipend for sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds from low-income families.

With commentators in London wringing their hands over this “bad behavior” by young Brits, Italian students called mass demonstrations in late November and early December, several of which morphed into battles with riot police. These protests—again in response to “reform” measures that cut higher education spending by $12 billion—blockaded roadways, train stations, and airports in several cities across Italy. The demonstrators undertook brief occupations of major international landmarks such as the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

These events were soon to be eclipsed: at the end of the year, the Arab world caught fire. On December 17, 2010, the Tunisian revolution began, sparked by a poor, college-educated street vendor, twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire in a desperate act of protest. Demonstrations erupted across the country, and within weeks, brought down the hated dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Though Tunisia’s trade unions played a central role in the revolution, another sustaining force behind the mass street demonstrations was the hittistes, the unemployed youth: literally “those who lean against the wall.”

The successful Tunisian revolution opened the floodgates across the dictator-ridden region of North Africa and the Middle East, as millions of people in half a dozen or more countries poured into the streets in a matter of weeks. Mass anti-government demonstrations hit nearly every country from Morocco to Bahrain. The movement in Egypt surged to the forefront, as protesters flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other cities by the hundreds of thousands to demand an end to Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year reign. The Egyptian revolutionary process began on January 25 with demonstrations organized by the April 6 Youth Movement. As in Tunisia, unemployed youth played a central role in the round-the-clock demonstrations and battles with security forces in Tahrir, as well as in Alexandria and other cities. By February 11, the movement was celebrating Mubarak’s ouster.

Mubarak’s fall was greeted joyously by millions the world over who had followed the struggle in Egypt. It was a massive victory. Along with the fall of Ben Ali, this marked the first real victory won by the popular movements internationally, and it propelled the struggle forward. It seemed as though every week a new mass protest was erupting in a different country.

As Mubarak stumbled through his last few days in power, and as a round of student strikes shook Puerto Rico,15 a mass struggle emerged in the American Midwest. Tens of thousands of trade unionists, along with graduate students, undergrads, high school students, and even middle schoolers poured into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, and occupied the state capitol building for weeks to protest a series of egregious legislative attacks against public-sector unions by Republican Governor Scott Walker.16

In March, massive protests hit Portugal, bringing into the streets of Lisbon and Porto tens of thousands of the Geração à Rasca, the “desperate generation,” or literally, “the generation just scraping by.” Spain, Europe’s capital of youth unemployment, erupted on May 15, with young indignados and juventud sin futuro—the “outraged” and “youth with no future”—capturing headlines as they occupied Madrid’s Plaza del Sol and central plazas in other Spanish cities by the tens of thousands.

This “movement of the squares” soon spread to Greece. As the government of George Papandreou tried to push through a round of austerity measures in June, young people took over Athens’ Syntagma Square in front of the parliament building, providing a focal point for mass anger and strike action by workers.

This first phase of the struggle ended in an impasse during the summer. Outside of Tunisia and Egypt, none of the movements had won victories. From Greece to Spain to Britain to Wisconsin, politicians forced their austerity measures through. In Spain and Greece, it seemed that even more conservative governments were poised to come to power. Western imperialism struck back against the Arab Spring in Libya, using the cover of humanitarian intervention to convert Libya’s rebel movement against Muammar el-Qaddafi into a proxy army for US and European imperialist interests. Even the powerful Egyptian revolution hit a wall as the movement ousted Mubarak, only to find him replaced by Mubarak’s generals. These military leaders, organized in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), didn’t improve the lives of ordinary Egyptians, focusing instead on containing and defusing the revolutionary movement.17

Yet, despite a general lack of victories, the first round of struggle produced undeniably important advances. For one thing, the politics of popular protest emerged as the only possible way out of the crisis facing young people and workers. This in itself is a big advance. Each new struggle also began self-consciously referencing the one that came before it in a process of international generalization and solidarity. This has raised the consciousness of the millions involved in the struggle—giving everyone a sense that they are part of an international movement. People began to see that their struggles are not particular to their circumstances alone.

The young protesters in Athens began calling themselves indignados in reference to the movement in Spain, which was itself a conscious imitation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In Madison, similarly, there were overt references to Tahrir. And from Cairo came a photograph of a young man standing with a sign: “Egypt stands with Wisconsin: One world, one pain.” This international generalization and solidarity is very significant. This process has continued as the struggle has picked back up in recent months.

Round two?
As this article is being written, it would appear that a new round of struggle has begun. The flashpoints so far are the student struggle in Latin America, centered in Chile; the eruption of the Occupy movement in the United States; and a new round of revolutionary struggles in Egypt, this time aimed against SCAF.18Important student demonstrations and occupations are also underway in Britain, both in solidarity with Occupy and in support of the mass strike of 2.5 million British public-sector workers on November 30.

Beginning in the middle of the year, Chile’s students breathed life into the international struggle with a movement of street protests and school occupations to fight for more state funding for education and to make all schools public. The movement has sustained regular mass mobilizations in Santiago for months now and has set off massive unrest across the country. Chile’s movement has inspired similar, though smaller, student movements in Colombia and Argentina. In August, Chilean students brought as many as 600,000 protesters into the streets, working with the labor movement who called a coinciding forty-eight-hour mass strike.19

Significantly, Chile’s economy has continued its strong growth through the international recession. Yet the student struggle has given voice to broader anger over inequality and the right-wing government’s allegiance to privatization and cutting social services. Chile has the most unequal distribution of wealth in all of Latin America and an educational system that is almost entirely privatized. The system, in which the working class and poor are forced into debt to pay for inadequate schools while a small number of students of wealthy parents can afford high-quality private schooling, has been dubbed “educational apartheid.”20

Meanwhile, the unthinkable happened—a mass movement bloomed in the United States. Occupy Wall Street began on September 17 with a small group determined to make a symbolic stand against the banks and their economic and political power. It has grown into an international movement that has also taken up key battles around police brutality, freedom of speech, and First Amendment rights. Nobody imagined that Occupy would grow like it has—spreading to hundreds of cities and towns across North America and becoming a focal point for a range of different struggles, including the labor movement. As of this writing, Occupy encampments are being forcibly evicted across the country, most recently in Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. But these setbacks have not routed the movement—instead, the stage of struggle is shifting from public encampments to student struggles against cuts, anti-eviction campaigns, and so on.

Occupy, like the upheavals in the Middle East, Greece, and Wisconsin, is not strictly a youth movement, but the encampments in city after city have been undeniably held together by youth—often by unemployed youth and graduate students. It also has spread to college campuses and directly taken up the fight around student loan debt forgiveness. The emergence of the first mass movement in the heart of world imperialism in more than a generation is a development whose significance cannot be overstated.

Now, new flashpoints are emerging in Egypt and Britain. In late November, Tahrir Square again filled with hundreds of thousands of protesters and erupted into street battles with security forces. The target now has become the military rulers who took over from Mubarak. And Britain, on November 30, saw its largest strike since 1926 as 2.5 million workers struck for one day to protest the conservative government’s attempts to cut pensions. This day of action was preceded by student demonstrations and occupations to build support for the strike.

It is still too early to draw a balance sheet on this new round of struggle. Many variables could swing the situation in one way or another—including the looming possibility of a euro zone breakup, a second round of global financial panic, a new revolutionary breakthrough in Egypt, or a high-profile incident of repression in Europe or the United States. What is remarkable about 2011 is that the upheaval seems to be just beginning.

Youth radicalization: Then and now
Is 2011 another 1968? That year saw mass upheaval from Mexico to Pakistan to Poland. In the United States, students occupied and shut down their campuses. Black people led urban rebellions in dozens of cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and protesters fought with police outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Young people rose up against Stalinist rule in Prague. The year’s high point came with a general strike in France in May, which brought out 10 million workers. It was the biggest strike in history up to that point, and it ushered in a revolutionary crisis whose reverberations are still felt to this day.

The parallels between today and the late sixties are notable—as are the differences. For similarities, both years share a long list of youth-led upheavals in multiple countries that led to fundamental and long-term political shifts internationally. Both years witnessed revolutions or near-revolutions. Both years saw mass working-class actions to challenge the priorities of capitalism. However, some of the differences between 1968 and today are stark. Unlike in 1968, war and imperialism are not the key issue underpinning the youth radicalization. The student movement of the late sixties was driven by the fight against the US war in Vietnam. This issue clearly has some resonance today, in the context of multiple imperialist wars, but it is by no means the main catalyst of the radicalization.

Today, it is clearly the economic crisis that is driving things forward. This is a dramatic difference from 1968. The radicalization of the late sixties took place in the context of the long postwar boom, the longest sustained boom capitalism has ever produced. Living standards for most workers in the developed countries rose during this period. Indeed, when an economic downturn hit in the early 1970s, the movement ran aground. According to the late British Marxist Chris Harman, after a period of rising struggle, “in 1974, the whole world economy entered its first full-blown crisis since the Second World War.” Instead of acting as a spur toward further struggle, the crisis “broke the back of the upsurge of struggle, it defused the upturn in struggle.”21

Then, the recession helped end the radicalization. Today, it is driving the radicalization forward. This is not a neutral difference in root cause. It has important implications for the political direction and future of today’s movement. A radicalization rooted in a deep economic crisis suggests that today’s struggles will begin to challenge capitalism itself in a much more profound way. And, as noted earlier, 1968 was the high point of years of struggles that spanned the late sixties and early seventies. On the other hand, 2011 is only the beginning of a years-long period of increasing social unrest—and already it has taken on massive proportions.

There is also a key structural difference. Today’s youth revolt is not just a student phenomenon—unemployed youth are a key component of the struggle. But there are differences even regarding the position of students and the university in society. The student revolts of the sixties came after a period of major expansion of higher education. Whereas in the prewar period universities had largely educated the sons and daughters of the ruling elite, in the decades after World War II state-funded higher education expanded rapidly to meet capitalism’s growing demand for skilled labor, managers and administrators, public servants, and professionals. The world’s student population increased dramatically in order to meet the growing demand for a more educated workforce.22 Between 1945 and 1975, the US population increased by 65 percent, but the number of students enrolled in higher education increased from 1.7 million to 11.2 million—a 659 percent increase.23 This pattern was repeated in Britain, France, Italy, and elsewhere.

The tensions within this rapid expansion of the education system—such as overcrowding in facilities and repressive authority structures on campus—were a key factor that led to the 1968 student revolts. British socialists Alex Callinicos and Simon Turner wrote at the time that “the demands imposed upon the university in transition from the old ways to the new have generated great dissatisfaction among the student body and sections of the faculty.”24

This occurred during an era when universities were largely state-funded and either free or relatively inexpensive, and government programs to help finance tuition were more readily available for those in need. Many students then did not have to work their way through school, much less take out student loans. The situation is very different today. Today’s radicalization takes place after a period in which higher education is being rolled back, privatized, and made less and less accessible. The class composition of the student population has shifted substantially over the past fifty years. For example, in the 1960s only around 8 percent of young people in Britain went to university. Today around 40 percent do. In the United States, the latter number is over 50 percent. Though universities still include a large percentage of middle- and ruling-class students, attending college has also become a regular part of working-class life—though a large percentage of working-class students do not finish college.25

Again, this historical difference carries important political implications. Today’s students are more directly connected to the working class, and their grievances in relation to campus life are more oriented on questions of the political and economic priorities of society as a whole, rather than on questions specific to campus life. If students in France in May 1968 were eager to reach out to the working class and join together in struggle, that impetus is likely to be even stronger today. This is something that has already begun to happen in country after country: students and unorganized youth consciously reaching out to organized labor. It is not difficult to understand why the new movements have consciously reached out to the organized working class. Again, Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement stands as a prime example—the date April 6 refers to a strike in the textile town of Mahalla.

Many of these differences suggest that today’s movement could become more powerful than the movement of 1968. However, today’s movement is not yet as politically mature as the movement of the late sixties. The years of mass civil rights struggles that preceded 1968 had already educated and radicalized thousands of activists across the United States. Furthermore, the international consciousness of liberation struggles in Asia and Africa, many of which claimed to be fighting for some version of socialism, raised the overall political level of youth radicalization in the developed countries. As Harman noted, “it was a period in which revolutionary socialist ideas, which had been marginal in virtually every country of the world, began to move toward the center of the political stage.”26 In that regard, we still have to catch up to 1968.

On the other hand, the dominant left political forces in the sixties, Stalinism and Maoism, ended up handicapping the movement. In France, for example, the French Communist Party actually tried to prevent fraternization between student revolutionaries and young workers on strike at Renault. The Communists refused to recognize the general strike and made efforts to de-escalate and rein in the workers’ movement.27 Unlike 1968, today’s nascent generation of radicals will not have to deal with the hegemonic influence of Stalinism (though Stalinism has not completely disappeared). The flip side of this, however, is that the left is much weaker today than it was in 1968.

Capitalism, youth, and the working class
How are we to understand the role of youth within these various movements? In nearly all of the countries we have discussed, the struggles were not composed exclusively of young people or students. Also, it should be noted that in those struggles which achieved victories—Egypt and Tunisia—the strike action of organized workers was the decisive factor in tipping the balance.

However, almost all of these movements were led or initiated by youth or students—such as the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt. Even in situations in which youth were not the largest or most important component of the struggle, they have often been among the first to get out into the streets and to give confidence to workers and other layers of society to fight back.

In modern capitalist society, young people are uniquely positioned to respond to social crisis. As Chris Harman wrote: “Young people, students especially, are very sensitive to the outbreak of social crisis. They often react to the crisis before other groups in society. Protests can develop seemingly ‘out of nowhere’ to involve thousands…in a matter of days.”28

Student struggles, specifically, tend to have certain unique features:

Student struggles are extremely volatile. Because of the fragmentation and isolation that is their existence, students can move very quickly between passivity and militancy. When they do rebel they do so with tremendous force, inventiveness and spirit, rapidly generalising and taking the struggle beyond grievances specific to their situation to a rebellion against the capitalist system. At the same time, once the particular struggle they are involved in is on the downturn, they can relapse very quickly into complete apathy.29

The late 1960s saw a flourishing of Marxist theory on the topic of student and youth struggles. Drawing on the experience of the radical movements of their day, many Marxists came to argue that student protests can act as a “detonator” for wider social movements. Students and youth can play an important role in giving confidence to different social layers, including workers, to fight back.

Yet “youth” do not really exist as a distinct, coherent social force or category of analysis. The concept of a “generational struggle,” though popular across the political spectrum, is highly problematic; it is even being used as a means to pit young workers against older workers, by claiming that the retirement benefits of the elderly are responsible for the dire economic straits of young people. Coy’s Bloomberg Businessweek piece gives a typical illustration of this argument:

In many countries the young are being crushed by a gerontocracy of older workers who appear determined to cling to the better jobs as long as possible and then, when they do retire, demand impossibly rich private and public pensions that the younger generation will be forced to shoulder. In short, the fissure between young and old is deepening. “The older generations have eaten the future of the younger ones,” former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato told Corriere della Sera.30

Similarly, the New York Times ran an op-ed about unemployed recent college graduates that listed as one of the factors feeding youth joblessness the fact that “entitlements for the elderly are untouchable.”31

These arguments create a false impression of comfort among the elderly in order to blame one part of the working class for the problems faced by another part of the same class. The not-so-hidden agenda here is more austerity—as if money cut from Social Security would end youth unemployment. The reality is that older workers are also suffering severe deprivations in the crisis. The few public benefits that still exist need to be maintained and expanded, not ended. If Coy is looking for something “impossibly rich” to tax in order to help young workers, he could start at Wall Street and work his way toward the Pentagon. This barely concealed propaganda campaign cannot explain how it is that French high school students are willing to engage in mass protest to resist the raising of the retirement age. What French students understand—and the New York Times does not—is that working-class students eventually become working-class retirees, and that the latter are the parents and grandparents of the former.

The idea that the movement is “generational” misses some obvious things about the struggle. While from Cairo to Madison to OWS, young people have played a leading role and in most instances a catalytic one, these struggles have brought out people of all ages, including workers. There is a crucial class dynamic to the struggle, represented by the slogan “we are the 99 percent,” that is tapping into discontent among workers and the poor of all ages.

Moreover, within the current generation of young people are ruling-class youth who will always be able to afford higher education and whose material security is guaranteed by their social position. Theories of “generational struggle” lump together these groups of youth with radically different backgrounds and material interests in a way that doesn’t match up with reality.

Nevertheless, there is value in understanding youth as a descriptive category, without asserting that age represents any real division of material interests in society. It is simply a fact that the first layers of protesters in country after country where mass struggles have emerged recently have been drawn from the section of the population that is younger than thirty. This reflects a reality that youth tend to be less beaten down by the system, less fettered by the past, and thus quicker to action. As Harman writes, “students can show a level of verve, imagination and fighting spirit that has often been knocked out of their elders by the daily grind of the existing system.”32

A debate has emerged relating to two connected questions: What is the role of ideology and politics within the movement? And what is the role of the Internet and social media in fueling the upsurge in youth protest?

Much has been made so far of the supposedly “non-ideological” character of the youth movement in the developed countries. The movements of the squares in Greece and Spain, as well as the Occupy movement in the US, have all displayed open hostility at various moments toward all organized political tendencies, including those of the far left. The movement in Spain also initially showed hostility to the main labor unions because of their deep ties to the social-democratic Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, the main force behind Spain’s austerity program. Occupy has celebrated the spontaneity of its movement, its leaderlessness, its ability to rely on “horizontal communication networks,” and its lack of developed political demands, strategy, and tactics. On the left, these developments have disoriented some and provoked bitter sectarian denunciations from others. On the other side of the political spectrum, some of the bourgeois press have taken this to absurd lengths, going so far as to call mass protests against austerity, unemployment, and Spain’s two-party political system “anti-political.” This is obviously false and reflects only the wishful thinking of ruling-class ideologues.

This dynamic is very similar to the early 1960s, when a sort of semi-anarchist anti-politics dominated the early student movement. In a society where there is restrictive, sometimes violent authoritarian rule at every point in young people’s lives, and moreover, where politics is associated with political parties that have spent the better part of the last several decades presiding, whatever their political coloring, over neoliberal austerity, this reaction among young people is not at all surprising.

This suggests that almost organic to any developing youth struggle is a process of education, or reeducation, in struggle in which people rediscover politics in a different way. As Geoff Bailey wrote in an early issue of this magazine, “There is no such thing as a non-ideological movement. Every movement needs a set of ideas to explain the world that it is trying to change and to articulate what it is fighting for, even if…that ideology is a combination of ideas that challenge the existing social system and others that accept many of the assumptions designed to maintain that system.” 33 Radical and revolutionary ideas develop out of the struggle itself, in the clash of ideas and strategies that emerge out of competing forces and tendencies in the struggle.

While we should reject the political parties that answer to the banks and that have thrust the crisis upon us, this does not mean jettisoning politics altogether. Rejecting clear politics for a movement does not mean being “anti-political.” It means that the strongest political tendencies in society as a whole will dominate. For the United States today, that means liberalism. As we can already see with the attempts to channel Occupy into Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, if we don’t define what our movement is about politically, someone else will do it for us.

Yet it would obviously be a mistake to write off these protests because there is some hostility within them to the organized left. In fact, the insistence on being “non-political” is not a new phenomenon for emerging youth movements. The American socialist Hal Draper, writing about student radicals in 1968, had this to say: “The new radicals are non-ideological in the sense that they refuse to, or are disinclined to, generalize their ideas and positions. They are inclined to substitute a moral approach . . . for political and social analysis as much as possible.”34

Any initial wariness shown by protesters toward the organized left is not a permanent situation, and for the left to take it as such—or to promote it—would be a mistake. As a mass movement bursts into existence, political divisions tend to be subsumed beneath a general sentiment of unity for the overarching goal: the “day of rage,” the fall of Mubarak, the taking of the plaza. In this moment, there is broad resistance against the introduction of sharper political debates or divisions. Over time, the revolt itself will create a new consciousness. As Draper pointed out in relation to 1968, and as will surely hold true today, old ideas quickly fall away as the movement grows and encounters new obstacles. This explains why, at the beginning of the struggles of the 1960s, students who began as vaguely anti-authoritarian, often influenced by mainstream liberal ideas, ended up as revolutionaries as they confronted the system and were forced to name it.

Already there is a seriousness being forced upon the movement due to state repression. The British court system has begun handing down harsh prison sentences for students involved in last year’s protests. One such case is that of Zenon Mitchell Kotsakis, a student at Sussex who has been sentenced to fifteen months for taking part in the demonstration outside Millbank Tower last year.

Furthermore, the state or right-wing vigilantes have killed or nearly killed young people in a number of countries. Students were killed this year in both Colombia and Chile. Alfie Meadows was severely injured in Britain. Iraq veteran Scott Olsen was nearly killed by a police tear-gas canister in Oakland. And of course the violence visited upon the Arab revolutionaries is well known.

The repression will force those in the movement to think more seriously about what to do about the police, how to protect the movement, and what role the state plays in society. These are all political questions. Struggle is the best teacher. Millions of young people have already participated in mass struggles this year—many will be changed for the rest of their lives. For many, the process of the struggle itself will draw them toward organization and politics.

Social media
As for social media, everyone agrees that these new technologies and means of communication certainly have made an impact. However, that impact has been exaggerated and distorted both by the right and by the left. On the right, the argument mimics the old conservative argument about television and the Vietnam War. Conservatives will argue to this day that television created the movement against the Vietnam War, rather than the brutality, lies, and injustice of the war. Now, a similar argument has arisen from certain quarters whose Orientalist outlook prevents them from giving full credit to the Arabs who actually made their own revolutions. These people put forward the argument that Facebook and Twitter created the Arab Spring. Jonny Jones wrote in a recent issue of International Socialism: “It is understandable that the mainstream press would leap upon social media as the reason why the Arab revolutions were finally able to break out. After all, revolutions were something that belonged to a bygone age and the working class was supposed to be finished as an agent of social change.”35

Many activists and commentators have put forward a perspective on the new movements that place a great emphasis on the role that social media can play in the new movements of today, creating horizontal networks of activists that bypass formal organizations and leadership. No doubt every movement in history has used as effectively as possible the means of communication available to it, and the movements described in the this article have naturally, therefore, used Facebook, Twitter, live streaming video, and other social media to their advantage.

Nevertheless, while the talk of online “horizontal networks” replacing the need for traditional organization sounds good, it’s simply not true. Any ongoing struggle requires meetings, discussions, and debates over which way forward. Hence the General Assemblies and the working groups in the Occupy movement in every city. Moreover, the cause of the discontent that produces social struggle is not social media. A Facebook page calling for a revolution is just as meaningless (or meaningful) as a leaflet calling for one if the social and economic conditions for having a revolution haven’t yet matured: conditions that are in part shaped by what organizations of radicals and militants do in workplaces, in communities, and on campuses.

As Jones points out, in last year’s British student movement, the schools that had the biggest contingents on the marches and the first walkouts and occupations also had well-established networks of socialists and radicals who were building on the ground. It wasn’t just a case of who had the best Facebook page, though clearly that’s important. This was proven in Egypt by the fact that when Mubarak cut off the Internet to try to quell the protests, activists and organizers simply turned to more traditional forms of organization using leaflets, runners, and so on, and the movement continued to swell.

Ideology and the organized left
Though the forces of the organized left are weak, they must be ready to meet this challenge. Young people today are growing up at a time when ruling-class ideology is weaker than at any point in more than a generation. Economic crises always discredit society’s rulers and precipitate ideological and political crisis. This is true no matter what the political system, whether it’s a dictatorship or a bourgeois “democracy.”

As with the changes in employment and education, in the realm of ideology the new youth radicalism flows not only from the effects of the crisis, but also from the long-term accumulation of contradictions under neoliberalism. Today’s post–Cold War generation of young people is deeply familiar with promises of the peace and prosperity that were supposed to accompany the “triumph” of Western capitalist democracy. A generation later, these promises ring hollow as we live with the reality of expanding war and social crisis. What Francis Fukuyama twenty years ago called “the end of history,” to which Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “there is no alternative”—that ideological bubble has burst before our eyes.

In the United States alone, there are millions of twenty-somethings who have never known another reality besides falling living standards, mountains of personal debt, dying social services, union-busting, and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small minority. Having to live through these conditions has created latent radicalism among this generation that, as we have seen, can emerge suddenly and catch on like wildfire.

Furthermore, another, deeply destabilizing element has been added to the mix: climate change. Climate change has fundamentally impacted the consciousness of young people today, who are quite aware that they will live to see wrenching changes to the planet in which large parts of the world may become uninhabitable by humans. This awareness deals a very serious ideological blow to the notion that the current system is in any way stable and able to provide for people over the long term.

Now, with the emergence of sustained mass struggles that are beginning to pose a concrete alternative to the status quo, left-wing political alternatives have the potential to grow to an extent unseen in decades.

The world economic crisis of 2008 has led to a political crisis that is giving birth to new struggles and opening up space for the reemergence of a revolutionary anti-capitalist left. The youth revolt described in this article represents the first stages of that process. Unlike 1968, this new radicalization is unfolding at a moment of protracted world economic instability. It is this confluence of economic, social, and environmental crisis that makes it possible, and necessary, to link issues of environmental degradation and the rights of women, immigrants, and oppressed nationalities and groups with the question of economic inequality and class exploitation.

The left today is just beginning to emerge from a period of extreme impotence, but in some ways the reset button has been pushed. The young revolutionaries of tomorrow don’t have Stalinism or McCarthyism hanging over their heads like the radicals of earlier periods did. The mass struggles emerging today will give a new generation the opportunity to learn politics in the streets, to learn new lessons and generalize from their struggles, to build new organizations and revive old ones, to be forged and educated as a new generation of radicals and revolutionaries. This is an incredibly exciting development, one that we should welcome and embrace. We’ve been waiting for it for many years.

  1. “The jobless summer,” Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2011; “Youth unemployment: A lost generation,” Economist, July 5, 2011; Peter Coy, “The youth unemployment bomb,” Bloomberg Businessweek, February 2, 2011; “Why the world’s youth is in a revolting state of mind,” Financial Times, February 18, 2011.
  2. Coy, “The youth unemployment bomb.”
  3. Global Employment Trends for Youth, International Labor Office, Geneva, August, 2010; “The jobless young: Left behind,” Economist, September 10, 2011; Julia Werdigier, “Young Britons are willing, but few jobs are in sight,” New York Times, November 16, 2011; “Arab youth unemployment: Roots, risks, and responses,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 10, 2011; Ellen Knickmeyer, “The Arab world’s youth army,” Foreign Policy, January 27, 2011.
  4. Riva Froymovich, “Europe’s youth face scarcity of jobs,” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2011.
  5. “Employment and unemployment among youth summary,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 24, 2011.
  6. “The jobless young.”
  7. “Lack of jobs force Britain’s youth to look abroad for work,” Mail Online, March 20, 2011.
  8. Justin Pope, “Is student loan, education bubble next?” CBS News, November 6, 2011.
  9. Krystal Modigell, “Student loan debt nears $1 trillion,” The Oracle (University of Florida), November 2, 2011; Dennis Cauchon, “Student loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion this year,” USA Today, October 25, 2011.
  10. “EU’s plan for modernizing education horrifies European students,” European Students Union, September 20, 2011, http://www.esu-online.org.
  11. George Monbiot, “Schooling up for sale,” Guardian, January 8, 2002.
  12. Doniella Maher, “The for-profit university scam,” Socialist Worker, October 5, 2010; Allie Grassgreen, “Intern nation,” Inside Higher Education, April 15, 2011.
  13. “French police fire tear gas at stone-throwing high school students,” MSNBC, October 19, 2010.
  14. “Amateur footage of attack on Charles and Camilla’s car,” Telegraph, December 10, 2010.
  15. Rosanna Rodriguez, “The battle for UPR heats up,” Socialist Worker, February 17, 2011.
  16. Lee Sustar, “The lessons of Wisconsin,” International Socialist Review, Issue 77, May–June 2011.
  17. For a full analysis of the Egyptian revolution, see Sameh Naguib, “Egypt’s unfinished revolution,” International Socialist Review, Issue 79, September–October 2011.
  18. “Egypt’s revolution returns to the streets,” interview with Mostafa Ali, Socialist Worker, November 23, 2011.
  19. For an analysis of the struggle in Chile, see Jeffrey R. Webber, “Chile’s new left: more than a student movement,”International Socialist Review, Issue 80, November–December 2011.
  20. Jason Farbman, “Chile’s long hot winter,” Socialist Worker, August 31, 2011.
  21. Ahmed Shawki, interview with Chris Harman, “1968–1998: The dynamics of struggle,” International Socialist Review, Spring 1998.
  22. “The worldwide youth radicalization and the tasks of Fourth International,” (June 1969), available at www.marxists.org.
  23. Arthur M. Cohen and Carrie B. Kisker, The Shaping of American Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 188.
  24. Alex Callinicos and Simon Turner, “The student movement today,” International Socialism 75, February 1975, available at www.marxists.org.
  25. About 85 percent of the population graduates from high school. Of these, only 70 percent make it to college, and only 57 percent of this group graduates with a bachelor’s degree. Students from the highest-income families are almost eight times as likely as those from the lowest-income families to earn a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four. (“Once leader, US lags in college degrees,” New York Times, July 23, 2010). In a 2008 study, four-year colleges graduated less than 60 percent of their students over a six-year period. (Mark Schneider, “How bad are our graduation rates?” The ­American, May 2, 2010, www.american.com.)
  26. “1968–1998: The dynamics of struggle.”
  27. Mary Alice Waters, “The French student revolt,” International ­Socialist Review, Vol.29 No.4, July-August 1968, available at www.marxists.org.
  28. Chris Harman, “Student power?” Socialist Worker Review, January 1987.
  29. Callinicos and Turner, “The student movement today.”
  30. Coy, “The youth unemployment bomb.”
  31. Matthew C. Klein, “Educated, unemployed, and frustrated,” New York Times, March 20, 2011.
  32. Chris Harman, “Students and revolt,” Socialist Worker (UK), ­January 23, 2009.
  33. Geoff Bailey, “The rise and fall of SDS,” International Socialist ­Review, Issue 31, September-October 2003.
  34. Quoted in Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (London: Bookmarks, 1998), 43.
  35. Jonny Jones, “Social media and social movements,” International Socialism, Issue 130, April 4, 2011.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story