A decade ago, political radicalism was something that happened ‘over there,’ in places that lurked between the pages of the international news section. Today, outrage at the status quo has boiled over in previous bastions of stability. A general zeitgeist of rage against the status quo is emerging over rising inequality, stagnant growth and inaction on climate change. It has surfaced a level of division and violence in the West not seen since the Cold War, with even children now on the streets. Elsewhere, Hong Kong, Iraq and Lebanon verge on revolution, alongside swathes of Latin America. Even where I live in Barcelona, I felt first-hand the rush of panic as the crowd around me dissolved into a mass of pushing bodies and screams as the sirens and tear gas roared up.
Whether they are successful or not, whether they last a week, a month, a year, these convulsions will likely come to an end. Much of the coverage to date has focused on the immediate demands and their political implications. However, this overlooks what could be the most significant long-term legacy of these movements: the radicalisation and politicisation of a generation of young people.
The experiences of youth are informative and go on to shape future engagement with politics. By the time we reach adulthood our political preferences and identity tend to be fixed. Our political preferences, our perception of what politics should look like, of how the world really works, these all form in our youth. People coming of age today have lived under a mounting sense of crisis in the shadow of the great recession. On all sides of politics there is mounting polarisation and the feeling that a resolution requires more than some kind words and a handshake. Many young people are having their first political experience on the street, with a placard instead of ballot paper. They are experiencing politics not as some abstract exercise in a school gymnasium every four years, but as a very real struggle.
We owe part of this to technology. These protests connect a far greater number of people today. The wave of protests today is global in a way that the protests of 1968 could only dream of being. Dispersed across the world, these protestors are connected in a way impossible to imagine even a decade ago. There is the possibility of a real collective consciousness as people see – literally – others like them all around the world, making the same demands from the same people. This technology also means that the front-line experience is now shared by those who may be thousands of miles away. With a click, we all sit as silent witnesses to the tear gas and batons.
This constant connection sustains an ambient buzz around these convulsions, the kind of thing people refer to when they shrug at a party and say “yea, the world’s fucked hey?” While this might generate apathy in some, it also normalises the constant parade of images which reinforce politics as something which is furious, radical and dismissive of established authority. A generation socialised into a world portrayed this way will, in time, come to see the world that way. We might have not seen the end of political division for a long time to come.
For governments looking to ride out this wave of discontent, the future looks grim. The longer this resistance goes on, the more radicalised the environment is going to become. Personally, I think this bodes well for the future, young people who are more aware of problems in the world and accustomed to acting can only be a good thing.
This was written in the middle of March 2020, two months before George Floyds murder and the ensuing conflagration. I see no reason not to double down on my argument.