My generation isn’t apathetic. Telling us we are is an insult to democracy

by Sam Fowles

We keep getting told that we’re not interested in “politics”, the reality is we’re just doing it better.

Apparently I don’t give a shit. Or at least my generation doesn’t. The story is we hate “politics”. Or, to use the most popular parlance, we’ve “lost faith” in it. We think “all politicians are the same” so we don’t vote.

Our elders are turning to UKIP in droves. Apparently because Nigel Farage will say things that ordinary politicians, hamstrung by their own bland, focus grouped platitudes, simply can’t.

Well yes, he does. It’s called extremism.

My generation’s collective decision to go home and watch The Inbetweeners again rather than vote for UKIP is possibly the strongest argument there is for putting us in charge of the country as soon as possible.

More importantly though, to say we don’t care about politics is just wrong. My generation may just be the most political in history. With Twitter, Facebook and blogs we’re analysing and commenting on the world around us on a far greater scale than our parents.

We have marched in our thousands against the war in Iraq, tuition fees and for fairer alternatives to the coalition’s economic masochism. Student activism and politics is a growing, not a declining phenomenon. No More Page 3, possibly the most important socio-political movement of the decade, is the brainchild of 20-somethings spread through social media and receiving it’s most decisive support through student unions.

Even outside those activities more overtly labelled “political”, my generation are churning out videos, songs, stories, plays, flashmobs and slutwalks which challenge every cultural dictum, from gender norms to post modernist theory.

So why does the prevailing opinion seem to be that we’re apathetic? Perhaps because people keep telling us we are. This is a story that’s being pedaled primarily by print media, TV and, somewhat paradoxically, politicians themselves.

Why do those most obviously involved in politics seem so desperate to convince us “millenials” that they’re irrelevant to us? That we are not interested in listening to them, debating their ideas or voting for them?

They’re scared.

In twenty years time Michael Gove’s school “reforms” will have ensured a generation of automatons; all wonderfully proficient at factoring quadratics, but less adept at more seditious activities like thinking for themselves. We millenials, on the other hand, were educated in the namby-pamby Labour system and thus spent our formative years immersed in interpretive dance and Marxism. Along the way we picked up a taste for asking questions and (what really makes us a problem) we now have so many ways to ask them.

One of the myriad effects of social media is that we now have a plethora of means with which to question, dissect and challenge authority. Most terrifying of all social media is a phenomenon which our elders have yet to truly understand. They don’t know how to engage with us, so they try to convince us that we don’t want to listen.

But this is a perilous discourse. To fail to engage in politics is to fail to engage with democracy. Individual politicians, even ruling elites, come and go, but democracy is the beating heart of our nation. Ironically the best way to dispose of those politicians, whom we are so often told we hate, is to vote them out.

The anti-politics discourse contributes to an insidious stealth war against our democracy. Unions (essentially groups of workers who have got together and elected spokespeople in order to more effectively influence the democratic process) are derided as holding the country to ransom. At the same time we are constantly told that our public utilities, prisons, health service, education and even our armed forces, are better controlled by private companies with absolutely no democratic accountability to those who are taxed to pay for them.

I’m not trying to speak for a generation here. At most I represent myself and the three people I just chatted to in Starbucks. But better writers than me are setting a new agenda.

We’re not interested in winding back the clock. We don’t see the world as an epic struggle between capital and labour. And we don’t have all the answers. Yet.

What we do see is people being disempowered. And not just by the government. What marks out the political discourse of my generation is that we have organised against any power which negatively impacts our lives. From The Sun to G4S. Our politics isn’t about state versus individual any more, it’s about us versus the world.

That’s why they don’t want us. Those pedaling the apathy story are a fading elite and Russell Brand is a 21st century scab. Their time has come and gone. They are waging a public policy war on millenials; charging us some of the highest tuition fees in europe, denying us housing, expecting us to spend years working for free if we ever hope to have a shot at a fulfilling career and trying to blame us for the mess.

But none of this is going to stop us. It may not be this election, it may not even be the next, but we’ve got a hell of a lot of ideas of our own and we’ve a hell of a lot of ways to point out the hypocrisy in yours. So we’re coming for you. We’re coming for you with smart phones, e-petitions, occupations and twitter. But most of all, some time soon, we’re coming for you with ballot papers.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and blogs at the Huffington Post


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16 Responses to “My generation isn’t apathetic. Telling us we are is an insult to democracy”

  1. To Sam,

    Phew! Nothing like a bit of passion, and you are right. Our political masters – and believe me it’s worse in Wales – seem to be scared silly of speaking out.

    Just one point.

    You speak as a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary: Bloomsbury and Islington revisited perhaps? The Arab Spring was led largely by the unemployed, uneducated and disadvantged.

    There were few graduates knocking about on the peripheries.

    Your political awareness is of course pointed and commendable, but I remain sceptical as to whether all your fellows are of the same inclination.

    The street is not the pretty world of academia.

    Good luck!

    Julian Ruck

  2. Rallan says:

    “I’m not trying to speak for a generation here..”

    You clearly are. But you don’t. Not at all.

  3. Danny says:

    My computer must be playing up. The address bar says “labour-uncut.co.uk” but the article is sensible and well-written.

    No doubt the bilious comments will soon follow to restore the equilibrium.

  4. Matt says:

    >So we’re coming for you. We’re coming for you with smart phones, e-petitions, occupations and twitter. But most of all, some time soon, we’re coming for you with ballot papers.

    You seem to have some pretty-well ingrained prejudices, but I’m hearing the Goodies’ music in my head. Where’s the Trandem?

    Here you come. Into town. Getting up. Falling down.

    Who are we supposed to be impressed by?

    If No More Page 3, with its noisy bullying using fictional allegations and hardly a shred of evidence to support its central claims, is the best that has been done then I don’t think the non-left has much to worry about.

    Lots of passion in the piece, but I’m sorry – I don’t believe you.

  5. Matt says:

    >Who are we supposed to be impressed by?

    That is a serious question, btw. I’ve been looking for several years and have yet to find anything impressive.

  6. Henrik says:

    Ah bless. That’s the true and authentic voice of the growing-up Left. Back in the day you could have signed up for the Major Attlee Battalion, or gone on a hunger march, or got seven bells kicked out of you in a Solidarity With The Miners demo, or hung around outside the Student’s Union peddling Socialist Worker, taking care to generate a properly proletarian accent.

    It’s so unfair that all those avenues are closed off to you, that the Party barely exists as a party, never mind giving you the chance to form a vanguard party, that the proletariat doesn’t give a toss and that your fierce political commitment is entirely irrelevant to the national debate.

    Still, fair play to you for trying to inject some ideological zeal into the Labour Party (if that’s what you’re trying to do, it’s not entirely clear to me what your desired end state is, presumably my fault, I’m old, after all).

  7. John reid says:

    Danny do you read labour-uncut ,the rest of the time, thi king you’re going to see badly written , unsensable comments?

  8. Ex Labour says:

    @ Sam

    So passionate, yet so ignorant. So forthright, yet so condescending.

    I would have written more but my forty-something brain forgot how to operate my iPhone.

  9. Tafia says:

    Sam, until Blair and the dash for the centre, politics was extremism. What passes as politics today is bland, middle class, middle Britain inclusive consensual bollocks. And boring to boot.

    I grew up in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s. The times of Militant, Thatcher, the 3 day week, massive inflation, interest rates at 15%, the IMF bail-out under Callaghan, public sector cuts that make Camerons look feeble. No heating in schools and hospitals, along with no hot water or lighting in the schools. Power restricted to area rotas. Nurses and council workers having pay cuts forced on them. Sugar shortages, bread shortages, government controlled prices on bacon, cheese, butter. Currency controls.

    Now they were days of extremes.

  10. Robert says:

    Politics is frustrating and often appears pointless. However, we are very lucky to live in a democracy. Make the most of it by voting as much as possible and doing any other activity that you think will be useful. Instead of whining like that poser Brand, get stuck in!

  11. To Taffia,

    Damn, I have to agree with you Taffia!

    We must be the same age.

    All the best,

    Julian

  12. swatantra says:

    If you carried out a survey you might find that 90% of young people aren’t that much interested in politics; they’ve got other more important things to think about. Its only a few that are, and most of them are doing PPE or a combination of politics at Uni. Thats why Votes at 16 is pretty pointless.

  13. Sam says:

    Hi – Comments seen approximately 40% less angry this week. I must be growing on you…

    On a more serious note – thanks for taking the time to comment. As you may have noticed, I think discussions online are pretty important.

    I’m going to take the last comment first because I think my answer to it really opens up the debate for the others:

    1. “90% of young people aren’t that much interested in politics”.

    This is the misconception I was trying to correct with this post! It’s true, we millenials probably aren’t that interested by what are traditionally defined as “politics”. We couldn’t care less about whatever the proletariat is and we, more than any other voting group polled, think Boris is an idiot.

    But that doesn’t mean we’re not engaged with politics. Politics is everything that is going on around us. It is people with power taking decisions and it is the effects of those decisions on our lives. Millenials are completely engaged with this because, through social media, we are commenting on it all the time. We’re engaged on an issue basis rather than a partisan party basis. And this isn’t confined to those who did PPE (I read History at undergraduate incidentally, a couple of my particularly political friends read drama). When we marched against tuition fees (a march which was, incidentally, comprised almost entirely of people who would not be affected by higher fees but thought it was wrong nonetheless) the streets were not filled only with students from a single department of Durham or Oxford.

    The great democratising influence of social media is that it means anyone can engage with the issues around them. In the past those who wanted to comment on politics had to write in a magazine or a book i.e. they had to pay or pursued someone to publish them. Fortunately for people like me, that’s no longer the case. It’s true that not every comment we produce is going to be gold dust, but what matters is that we’re saying something.

    It’s just a matter of time (and perhaps some more people suggesting it) before that engagement with issues and events turns is exercised at the ballot box.

    2. Politics used to be extreme/radical. Now the “Party” is irrelevant and the “proletariat” don’t care.

    I’m sure lots and lots of people don’t care about politics. That’s not the point. The point is that lots of other people do.

    But I personally don’t care about vanguards within the party. The very notion of internecine strife amongst members of the all encompassing institution of “the party” is both boring and old. You’re right Henrik, to say that the idea of political parties is becoming out of date though. Political engagement is less and less to do with parties and more and more to do with issues. From a personal perspective I couldn’t care less whether you’re from the People’s Front of Judea or the Judean People’s Front. That’s the sort of politics that millenials definitely are losing engagement with.

    It’s the clinging to ideology of the major parties that is turning people off politics. Social media is a distinctly non ideological forum. It’s quite difficult to fit a dialectic analysis into 140 characters, but it’s very easy to say you’ve been to 12 interviews and still had your benefits cut.

    It’s my hope that my generation will move beyond the political battles based on ideology that defined the 20th Century. Policy based on ideology is always dangerous because eventually it becomes about fulfilling the tenets of the ideology rather than solving the practical problems.

    3. I’m not very street.

    Well you have me pegged there Julian. I live in South West London and I definitely don’t (nor have I ever tried – except once in a school production of “Mary Poppins”) to speak with a proletarian accent. In fact, if you google enough you can find a video of me speaking greek at the installation of the Lord Rector of St Andrews whilst wearing a white tie and gown. But I’m not really embarrassed by this. Although all of this is based on the hard work of my parents, who had much less fortunate starts. I don’t think being fortunate in life disqualifies one from engagement in politics. Indeed, I think it gives one a greater obligation to ask why your draw in the lottery of birth is allowed to dictate your opportunities to such a dramatic extent.

    But all this couldn’t be less relevant to my point. Everyone will have some sort of cultural bias with what they write. As E.H. Carr points out, even if one is commenting on that culturally bias they will be doing so from their own culturally biased point of view!

    This is why social media can be so valuable. It’s the realisation of Milton’s exhortation to let truth and falsehood grapple. We each contribute by throwing our ideas out there. Ironically you’ve demonstrated this perfectly Julian – by exposing my inherent bias!

    Finally…

    4. Matt doesn’t like No More Page 3. I’ve already written about Page 3 and the evidence behind opposing it.

    http://leftcentral.org.uk/2012/01/31/marx-out-of-10-for-page-3s-apologists/

    As for the bit about the Goodies, I definitely don;t get the reference. Can’t really help you with any TV shows that pre date “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”… Maybe I’m too young. Was it in black and white..?

    In terms of who should impress you: watch the videos of the Youth Parliament that people have posted on the Huff Post version of this post. Read the text of Alistair Moffat or Hilary Clinton’s speeches at the University of St Andrews this year. Read Owen Jones, Laurie Penny and Eleanor Margolis. Go to a DebateMate workshop with Year 9s. I’m impressed by people every day. Why do you think I’m so happy that my generation have so many ways to make our voices heard? That’s the thing Rallan – even if I wanted to I couldn’t be the voice of my generation – the point is each of us can have our own voice now.

  14. Henrik says:

    The difficulty of an ideology-free and Party-free future, of course, is that voices will only be heard individually or, at best, as occasional choruses when a particular issue strikes a chord, whether sensible or not sensible. Paradoxically, the more folk can shout and present their ideas, the more the good ideas will be lost in the noise and chaos. There will therefore need to be some way of discriminating nonsense from Bedlam from good sense and this implies some form of filtering. I have no idea, in the absence of organised, structured and persistent political groupings, let’s call them ‘parties’, how this could be achieved.

    Now, I’m by no means a Labour supporter and haven’t been one for nearly 30 years, but I do think it’s important that the ideas that the Labour movement have continue to be brought to the electorate’s attention, in much the same way I believe it important that wicked fascist nonsense from the BNP and barking mad lunatic tankie drivel also get a hearing – the cure for bad politics is argument and informed discussion.

    Carrying on an informed discussion and ensuring that we continue to understand what’s already happened require a consensual discussion space which we can’t achieve with several million folk, engaged to a greater or lesser extent, on perhaps only one or two issues (which may be pivotal to them but utterly irrelevant to the majority).

    In an ideal world, Sam, how would you turn the very specific and intermittent political engagement you describe into real-world effects?

  15. Ex Labour says:

    @ Henrik

    The problem with political engagement is that those with a political interest and who are willing to engage and discuss are faced with characters like Sam.

    Like most politicians today they have no real life experience but have come through the student ranks and I find they often have insular and simplistic views. If you chop out all of Sam’s loquacious periphrastic verbiage his basic message is Labour good, Tories evil – and we’ve seen the extent to which he pursue’s this line via his previous scribblings on here. There is no wider or deeper understanding of the issues in his myopic view. There is no room for “consensual discussion space” as you call it.

    Unfortunately the hard left narrative of his and others within the Labour movement has turned me away in recent years. He says we should look to Owen Jones and Laura Penny who are yet more of the same brand. To my way of thinking their brand of poilitics is a type of “fascism” also.

    The truth is that the British public have lost faith in politics and politicans and extreme messages are not a way to engage the wider population.

  16. Sam says:

    Thats an interesting question Henrik, and I appreciate it’s very much the “missing piece” in terms of the ideas I was trying to put forward.

    I think that the eventual destination of what, for simplicity’s sake, I’ve been calling “millennial” engagement with politics, will be party based and, most probably involving the existing parties. However, I hope that our issue based focus will force those parties to evolve rather than the millennial generation just fitting in to the existing shape.

    I hope fact that millennial engagement is primarily issue, rather than ideology, based will mean that the existing parties evolve in the direction of evidenced based policy making rather than simply the application of contrasting ideologies. Obviously not everyone is going to be satisfied with the eventual product but I hope it will be a different product to that which we have now.

    In this way the views of the labour movement will still be represented (as will the BNP/Conservatives/UKIP/Liberals etc) but perhaps the views of those movements will not conform to the ideological paradigms that defined them for the last hundred years.

    To return to the original point of my post though – this is mostly conjecture, but it does suggest that disappointment (not disengagement) with “politics as it is currently expressed” is very different from disengagement from “politics”.

    Ex-Labour

    Thats right! None of this namby pamby debate about issues – just call me a fascist and be done with it!

    Although I must commend you on the increased range of adjectives. Throw in a bit of latin and you’ll sound almost as pretentious as me…

    As I’ve pointed out, much of the British public is very much engaged with politics, just in a different way to that traditionally conceived. I don’t think one needs nebulous “life experience” to engage with that. I just think one needs ideas and, preferably, some predilection for analysing them based on evidence. Indeed, the “life experience” discourse only serves to attempt to bar younger generations from engaging with social or political issues. It’s just elitism in a different form.

    Be careful of mistaking passion for extremism. Passion is the life blood of engagement. It’s essential in anyone who hopes to make any sort of impact in the world, no matter how small. But one can be passionate about the most mundane, middle of the road ideas.

    I’m no politician but my political passions are the rule of law and engagement with society. Hardly revolutionary. But you’ll note that, when I write about them, I use my name.

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