I’ve fallen very much in love with Laurie Penny’s blog Penny Red, where she has a post up about my absolute favorite topic: the need for generational war against the baby boomers. Although she’s writing about the U.K., Penny’s analysis goes double for young people in the U.S.
“When I look at the defeated deference with which my generation treats its elders, I want to take young people by their collective shoulders and shake them. The young are in the process of being screwed over in a variety of cold and creative ways by an age group who are richer, freer and more powerful than any generation this country has seen or is likely to see again, and yet we have so far failed to come up with any sort of collective response to indignities that the baby boomers simply would not have stood for when they were young.”
At Maryland, I devoted a lot of column-inches to inciting students to rise up against their elders. As my college housemates surely remember, I could usually be found in the hours before my deadline pacing around my room talking to the walls about how David Brooks’s condescending ass would be the first in the Gulag. Here’s an example from a column titled “Adults: Ruining Society for The Rest of Us,”
“Imagine there’s a group of people who have proven themselves so generally inept that anything they touch turns to dust. Imagine this group has put the entire world on the brink of ecological catastrophe, left the international financial system in ruins and stuck the U.S. in two pointless wars that don’t appear to be ending any time soon. They’ve spent billions bailing out banks and cutting taxes for the rich while the middle class dwindles to a memory and Americans suffer with no health care coverage. Frequent readers might think I’m referring to the marginal Republican party or the larger capitalist bourgeoisie. I’m not. Nor am I talking about Democrats, academics, immigrants or the media. I’m talking about the group that is responsible for the state of the world that my fellow students and I will inherit: adults.”
My simmering rage has only increased since graduation, having experienced first- and second-hand sky-high youth unemployment. A lot of the “jobs” available don’t even deserve the title. Most internships are scams, clearly on the wrong side of the Department of Labor’s standards, and keep young people dependent on their parents. (The topic of another column.) But what’s really infuriating, what cuts the deepest in Brooks’s applauding columns, is the degree to which so many in my generation remain committed to our parents’ ideologies, even when they have nothing left to offer us. We chase exploitative gigs like they’re the entry-level positions from days past. If there’s less space on the ladder to success, the thinking goes, we just have to claw that much harder. It’s not going to work for most of us, but we all have to eat, so expect clawing. But on some base level, the young people I talk to know that, as Penny writes, “we’ve been had.”
Fortunately, there’s always a silver-lining. As the Marxist maxim goes, loser wins. So the question is: in what ways could this screwing-over be revealed as a win for today’s young people? I surely don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I can write some about what I imagine in the minutes before falling asleep every night. Walter Benjamin wrote that every epoch dreams the next, so I try to dream big. (Note: I fully intend to re-use this Benjamin quote in a forthcoming Inception review. You’ve been warned.) If the job-market continues to remain untenable for so many young people, then the modes of living devised by and for our parents will continue to be unfeasible for us. I mean this both in terms of living lives centered around consumption, but also the physical habitats they’ve built. Unaffordable cities and alienated suburbs allow little space for the precariat. We will not be able to live so far from each other. In order to survive and have a chance to live, we will need to build communities of support rather than competition. If families are those groups of people against whom we refuse to fight in the race up the ladder, then young people are going to need bigger families.
I use the strong and somewhat off-putting language of “generational war” for the same reason Tiqqun uses “civil war,” because this is how we will be understood. In the coming years, we will require new forms of organization, and they will inevitably come into conflict with the status quo. We find ourselves unable to live like our parents because the illusion of prosperity on which they depended has evaporated. The search for new forms has so far been relatively unthreatening: DIY culture can be appropriated, and don’t even get me started on “living sustainably” or “green.” These can be and are sold back to us. A few years down the line, I dream of a synthesis of the best parts of these co-optable tactics (like urban gardens and community bike repair) and the more radical (occupations, debt communes, squats). If spaces do not open for young people, then we must pry the cracks in what exists now. We must learn to plant in fissures, to build in gaps. In this case, a shut door may not reveal an open window, but instead a weak point in a wall.
In the Jean-Luc Nancy lecture I put up in the last Aggregate Supply, he speaks of Heidegger’s ‘with’ as an existential condition. We are, by nature (natura), with each other. The way things are going, our generation will perhaps experience the existential ‘with’ more closely than our parents did. If we are to have a shot, I believe young people must collapse the distance between what we think of as “activism” or “organizing” and ways of living with each other. Instead of organizing spectacles to win the attentions of managers, let us build communities of struggle devoted not to their respective perpetuation, but to the production of knowledges and art, of new forms of organization, of food, of fun.
I certainly feel the same anger and frustration that Penny describes, but there’s also the joy of potential. Those who live in a time when beaten paths have grown precarious perish or become trailblazers. My feeling is that the left will find purchase with the young when the ways of living it makes present become more appealing than the alternative. Given that the alternative consists of, in Penny’s words, choking off our resentment behind forced smiles, I’m optimistic. Loser wins and winner loses, but we don’t win a generational war just by out-surviving our parents while repeating their mistakes. We have the opportunity to bring forth new forms of organizing ourselves, of living with rather than near each other, and for that I’m excited. So, even with all the shit, I’m still glad to be young and alive at the same time.