August 2011 marked the end of the United Nations’ first International Year of Youth (IYY). The IYY aimed to put young people at the very centre of international debates and to encourage their participation in global development efforts and decision-making at local, national and global levels.
As the events of Egypt, the UK, Chile, Greece, New York and Spain, and more recently Italy and Colombia, show, the timing of the IYY was opportune. These protests have one important thread: a growing youth discontent and disillusion. This has been expressed both through acts of hostility as highlighted by the UK riots, as well creativity as we have seen in Chile and Spain. These events that are united around a moment, with no single leader or call for action. Rather, what has emerged is a multitude of events brought on by a growing sense of frustration.
This is a generation of young people who are struggling to be heard in a time of uncertainty, hyper-commodification, the withdrawal of the nation state and political processes that seem further and further removed from their lived experience. According to social scientist Engin Isin, such issues have led to intense "struggles over citizenship" that are associated with "global movements and flows of capital, labour and people".
In Spain, the 15-M movement , also known as "los Indignados" (or the outraged), is a citizen movement that took to camp on the streets and plazas of Madrid and other cities on 15 May 2011. Epitomised by the camp at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, this burst in civil unrest had been developing for years in Spain in light of the decaying Spanish economy. The demonstrators showed their anger at corruption, precarious work practices and the influence of financial institutions by painting over 200 statements on walls around the city.
Many of these sentiments resonate strongly in the New York outraged camping outside Wall Street.
The contagion has also spread to Italy where on October 7 over 100,000 students and people marched in over 100 cities against the Berlusconi reforms to education, echoing similar protests that took place in Italy in late 2010.
The same day, one million Chileans voted in a four-question student-organised citizen plebiscite including several thousand Chileans voting online from over 25 countries. Over 90 per cent of the votes supported the student demands.
The ongoing wave of massive protests and mobilisations in Chile started in Santiago and Valparaiso in May 2011 at the same time as the 15-M in Madrid. Some demonstrations, like the June 16 protest, gathered around 200,000 protesters, among the largest since the return to democracy in 1990. These demonstrations must be seen as a continuum of student unrest in Chile that began with massive protests in early 2006 in what was known as the "penguin revolution". The movement is lead by the tertiary student federations and actually is comprised by a network of self-organised groups. There are still over 600 public schools and 25 public universities "en toma" (in lock down). The resurgence of the student movement has also coincided with a climate of uncertainty and massive protests on environmental issues in response to plans to build mega dams in Patagonia.
These events are part of a larger social movement that is demanding substantial reforms of Chile’s economic and political model. This economic model, established in the 1980s through profound neoliberal reforms during the military regime, has been sustained and expanded after 20 years of democratic rule. Today Chile is the OECD country with highest levels of social inequality.
Violence, looting and general destruction became the focus of the London riots — again ignoring the recent history of frustration with austerity measures throughout the United Kingdom .
A brick through the window is not equivalent to the decision to avoid the ballot box on election day, but there is an increasing disconnection between young people and formal politics that is dramatically altering the nature of citizenship.
The concept of the citizenship has always been fraught with polarities that account for permanent tensions, argues philosopher Etienne Balibar. These tensions include the notion of rights as opposed to duties, membership and exclusion, participation and representation or entitlements and responsibilities. When the state is experiencing crisis, these constitutive tensions can become genuine antinomies which confront individuals and collectives with radical choices.
As these highlight, what we are witnessing in many countries is a general feeling amongst young people that traditional political processes are neither appealing or nor accessible.
Danish thinker Henrik Bang , argues that this frustration and disillusion has led to a dramatic change in political engagement. Rather than joining a political party, Bang argues there is a focus driven by a specific political outcome or "project" that allows people to come together around shared values. In the case of the Chilean student movement this is clearly exemplified by the performative nature of the student protests where massive public performances have been staged. For example, the thousand-strong "kissathon" of students kissing each other "for the love of education", or the several thousand that performed Michael Jackson’s Thriller in front of La Moneda presidential palace last June to convey how students feel like zombies, ‘killed’ and left in limbo by the current education system. Or the performance of superheroes, another massive public demonstration of creativity and the fact that citizenship is constructed by how individuals and collectives construct their political subjectivity on a daily basis.
This entails a more diverse citizenry whose attitudes towards civic institutions are complex. This complexity is driven by a number of factors including changing migration patterns and the "non-citizen citizen" that includes migrant workers and refugees, privatisation, the withdrawal of the modern state form service delivery to citizens, technological changes and so on. Such changes mean that we must understand citizenship as something that is both complex and constantly re-negotiated.
Unsurprisingly, conservative commentators have been frothing at the mouth in their attacks on such protests. Miranda Devine blamed lesbian couples for the London riots while Charlie Lynn, a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, claimed it was only a matter of time before society fell apart as "organised ethnic gangs run drug-syndicates and money laundering operations with little fear of prosecution" and "in the west lawless teenage gangs roam the streets with menace at night." Writing for the Punch, Sophia Mirabella dismissed the Occupy Movement as a glib and childish fantasy.
What they miss, however, is the growing sense of frustration that real people are being ignored at the expense of established interests. No one really knows where all these different protests will end up, but what must change is the blind adherence to a market ideology that has led to such feelings. Things may seem stable at the moment, but unless young people buy back into our democratic processes, then the very foundations of our society could be threatened.
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