English-speaking countries lack a precise equivalent to the Turkish Language Association (TDK), with the consequent fact that the task of the TDK most Turkish citizens are aware of (compiling dictionaries and making rulings about spelling) are left to a variety of institutions which directly produce dictionaries, which compete with one another for influence.
Among the most influential in the 21st century is OxfordDictionaries.com, the online reflection of the Oxford University Press’s tradition of the compilation, editing, and propagation of English dictionaries. To close out 2017, Oxford Dictionaries chose as their word of the year youthquake, a neologism dating back to the 1960s which refers to a sudden shift in social norms owing to the counter-hegemonic motion of the younger generations.
Why has a term which came into being decades ago suddenly become popular again in the English-speaking world? Beyond the general definition, what is our theoretical understanding of the trends to which it refers, and how can we analyse its role in the larger political dynamics? Specifically, how do young people relate to popular democracy and the potential for radical change in politics?
Oxford Dictionaries’ Youthquakes
Oxford Dictionaries define a youthquake as ”a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”. By this definition, of course, nothing is more commonplace than a youthquake. They are constant. A youthquake occurs every time a quantitative difference in age groups becomes qualitative, in other words, whenever we would want to use the word ‘generation’ to describe an age difference. And indeed, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the word was first used to “describe the youth-led fashion and music movement of the swinging sixties, which saw baby boomers reject the traditional values of their parents. As in 2017, the UK was at the heart of the youthquake, with ‘the London Look’ of boutique street-style individualism taking the high fashion houses of Paris, Milan, and New York by storm to inform a new mass-produced, ready-to-wear fashion directive worldwide.”
But nearly any year could be chosen to show how young people in that year embrace music and fashion which is distinct from that preferred by the generation before. To choose a year at random, were the consumer cultural tastes of youth in 1972 not different to those of their parents? 1988? 2005? 2016? ‘The London Look’ is not why this term is the word of the year, and Oxford Dictionaries show it in the statistics for the year:
The word is not being revived ‘from below’, through colloquial English. It is being revived, as Oxford Dictionaries note, in large part by professional commentators (journalists, politicians, etc.) trying to put a name to the trend they are observing ‘from above’. The first spike in the table above coincides with the British general election in which the mass mobilisation of young people behind Corbyn rocked the foundation of the Conservative government. This victory was achieved even with limited time to prepare for this election as Prime Minister Theresa May had called a snap election, following a campaign within the Labour Party whereby the Blairite right wing to try to bring down Corbyn and restore the party to its status as left wing of the Conservative Party. The twin failures of the Blairites and the Conservative Party is indeed a testament to the power of the youth in changing the course of the Labour Party. Why were the youth so energised?
For decades, the Labour Party of Britain, in common with all other “Labour Parties” in English-speaking imperialist countries, has possessed a clear bourgeois character in spite of its name, and has defended the imperialist bourgeoisie’s wars in exchange for social programmes for the labour aristocracy at home. However, despite the considerable exploitation extracted from the colonies and semi-colonies of British imperialism, since neoliberal restructuring (roughly the Thatcher era), the Labour Party and its bourgeois leadership have played a significant role in weakening labour unions and cutting social programmes at home. Hence, this party of relative “class peace” in Britain played a role in sharpening the contradictions between labour and capital.
Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity in the leadership contest within the Labour Party was a rare moment in British electoral politics of common cause between the British poor and the victims of British imperialism. For decades, Corbyn has taken a consistent and principled stance against British imperialist wars and in favour of national liberation movements from Ireland to Palestine and Kurdistan. The Momentum movement behind him has grown in no small part thanks to the tremendous energy of the youth, who have suffered in real economic terms from neoliberal austerity, and whose rebellious nature makes them relatively open to radical movements for liberation around the world.
The younger generation who have joined Momentum include many of the same youth who joined the student protests of late 2010 against the cuts in funding to university education. Now in their late 20s, they are joined by still younger people who share a similar class background and consequent anger at the austerity regime. This includes many youth from the working classes of inconsistent employment, for whom survival between jobs is made difficult. The cuts to education, healthcare, housing, and all other necessities of life have been constant under Conservative governments. And ever since the Thatcher government and its predatory neoliberal reforms, the response of the Labour Party has been to accept them because “there is no alternative”. In fact, the austerity regime is only “necessary” in the eyes of the Blairite leadership of Labour because the party seeks a “class peace”, and does not defend a politics based on the needs of labour to the exclusion of the needs of capital.
And herein lies the limit to Momentum’s momentum, to Corbyn’s brand of “socialism”: even in the ‘For the many, not the few’ manifesto put forth as the party’s new programme, the party is described as a “party of small businesses”. Corbyn is accused of many small compromises which would likely increase in quantity and perhaps fundamental quality if he were to become Prime Minister.
But this, in fact, is not our main concern here: our concern is that a class struggle is being waged within the Labour Party. It is the forces of capital which have tried through various underhanded means to oust Corbyn, one of those rare social democrats who, on an individual level, seems quite principled and conscientious. It is the power of labour which rushes to his defence, trying to hold onto a livable life in the face of inhuman attacks on their livelihood by the austerity regime. The British state and its servants in the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the right wing of the Labour Party are for now in conflict with a significant wing of the Labour Party, including trade unions and thousands and thousands of youth organised through Momentum. This has great significance. Communists in Britain must engage with these youth as they would engage in a strike, defending gains and teaching the masses they can demand yet more. The youth within the principled reformist wing of the Labour Party could be the revolutionaries of tomorrow, much as Dev-Genç (Revolutionary Youth) emerged from TİP (Workers Party of Turkey) in the Turkish context.
In fact, the youthful quality of Momentum at present provides communists in Britain with great potential: the internet culture of the youth allows for the quick spread of propaganda in the form of music, writing, and humour. Many of the newly politicised youth in Momentum are eager to raise red flags and sing songs of revolution. As Corbyn defends the Kurdish Liberation Movement consistently, many are being drawn into this culture of popular democratic revolution and international solidarity by the Rojava Revolution. Is the energy of the post-crisis youth an unstoppable tidal wave which cannot but result in revolutionary change wherever it is concentrated?
New Zealand – Good News and Bad News
There is, in fact, something that can be learnt about this very question from Oxford Dictionaries: after providing us with the example of Corbyn, they note that an even bigger spike occurred in political commentators using the term youthquake later in 2017, without any actual particular change being effected by youth (in Oxford Dictionaries’ own words: “It was in September that the second, and largest, spike in usage of youthquake was recorded for the year – and a youthquake wasn’t even required to deliver this data.”).
Continuing to quote from Oxford Dictionaries, what happened was that “thanks to the precedent established in the UK, in New Zealand use of youthquake to discuss young people’s engagement in politics was rapidly picked up by politicians and the press alike during the country’s general election. The word enjoyed increased and sustained usage both prior to and after the polling.” In other words, there was no youthquake in terms of the definition whereby youth actually reshape the cultural or political order.
In fact, the opposite occurred: the bourgeois press were attempting to create a perception of the New Zealand Labour Party’s Jacinda Ardern as a Corbyn-like people’s champion, who brought out a record number of youth to bring her to power as the new Prime Minister of New Zealand. The reason the press and politicians were trumpetting this false youthquake even louder than Corbyn is the same as the reason it was not in fact a youthquake, either in terms of having been effected by the youth or in terms of being a substantial change to the status quo of New Zealand politics.
Jacinda Ardern, far from being an opponent of the neoliberalism of Tony Blair’s British Labour Party, worked directly under Tony Blair while he was Prime Minister, serving as a policy advisor to him during the Iraq War. Although to be completely fair to her, she bravely questioned the wisdom of the war to Tony Blair’s face in 2011, several months after all British troops had been withdrawn from Iraq. This stunning display of bravery towards Tony Blair by Ardern followed a general trend of the British Labour Party trying to conceal their culpability in the Iraq War, and their fundamentally unchanged politics since Tony Blair’s leadership ended in mid-2007.
Within the British context, it’s important to state the limitations of Corbynism in theory and in practice. But the beginnings of popular democratic struggle pushing back against the politics of the imperialist bourgeoisie cannot be ignored, even within the reformist Labour Party. Within the New Zealand context, there is no such trend of popular engagement, and there is no positive reformism to speak of in the New Zealand Labour Party. This is noteworthy, because New Zealand has been in no way spared the neoliberal assault on social programmes that we see in Britain.
The Labour Party of New Zealand, supposedly brought to power in 2017 by youthful enthusiasm for left-wing politics, xenophobically campaigned against foreign businesses importing migrant labour at low cost… with staff made up of unpaid international students who were compensated with appalling living conditions. Their campaign condemned ‘neoliberalism’ with regard to its ability to provide housing to New Zealanders, but only to focus on the problem of foreigners buying homes. The Labour Party’s promised opposition to the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a free trade agreement) has been reversed once they came to power. The list goes on, but the message is clear: if young people in New Zealand shifted the political dynamics in 2017, they simply changed which branch of New Zealand neoliberal imperialist leadership would benefit from the plunder.
There is good news and bad news about the narrative from the bourgeois press that the current New Zealand government is the result of youthful engagement with politics:
The good news is that there was not a particularly dramatic draw of young people to elections on the basis of Ardern’s Blairite politics. The media was desperate to sell Ardern as the youthful face of Labour, a sincere figure like Corbyn, but without all of that dreadful anti-imperialism. Thus the talk of the youthquake: the youthful masses rallied to Ardern’s banner and delivered unto her the prime ministership. The actual electoral statistics for New Zealand in 2017, however, tell a somewhat different story. In fact, the numbers of elderly voters increased by more than those of young voters from the previous election, and the turnout in general was less than in 2005, a year which saw the re-election of a far less inspiring Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark. Hundreds of thousands of youth did not vote. The good news, in other words, is that the New Zealand Labour Party’s neoliberalism is not the hot new trend among the youth in that country.
The bad news, however, is that the bourgeois media does play a role as shaper of ideology and discourse, if not always to the extent they wish. This propaganda is still effective in some sense on some section of the youth. That is, while young people did not vote in any greater numbers than four years prior, a sort of cult of personality around the personage of Ardern did manage to take root among those youth who were already committed to the Labour Party’s brand of politics. Further, there is basically no political force in the electoral sphere which opposes austerity or neoliberalism in any meaningful sense. In other words, the bad news is that the youth who already supported the Labour Party now do so more passionately, and may be harder to reach.
The progressive youth in New Zealand are divided and demoralised. They lack any representation in electoral democracy which might challenge the current order even slightly for the foreseeable future. And yet they have good reason to demand an alternative: New Zealand’s homelessness and housing issues, unemployment and insufficient benefits, the impoverishment and discrimination against the indigenous Māori people: all of these are well known and frequently discussed. Where is the youthquake? Why don’t the youth respond to this crisis, bring these social ills to the table, and replace Ardern with a Kiwi Corbyn?
Because elections are not democracy, they are only a place where we can articulate democracy. The shift in political culture in England did not start with Corbyn, and it must not end with Corbyn. It was being built for many long years in the workplaces, in the universities, in the streets. Many of those who support Corbyn spent years in the anti-war movement (as Corbyn himself did), which was opposed by the Labour Party as it was by the Conservative Party. Momentum is, in some sense, a popular democratic process which is being imposed on the bourgeois parliament. We must see its limitations, its reformism, but we must also see that it has been able to carry forward some sort of class struggle within the British Labour Party and achieve some victories.
If the youth in New Zealand are waiting for their own Corbyn to simply come along, that will never happen, because that’s not how Corbyn himself emerged. Conversely, if the cult of Corbyn becomes too great in Britain, it may eclipse the social movements which allowed it to exist, and be more easily co-opted by the bourgeoisie.
Why does the New Zealand Labour Party need a false Corbyn? Why does the right wing of the British Labour Party fear Corbyn? What lies behind the political youthquakes, real and imagined? ‘The crisis’, is the invariable answer, from Marxists around the world. But what do we mean by this? What is the relationship between the market fluctuations and the restlessness of the youth?
In the western imperial centres, where the superprofits extracted from semi-colonial countries and the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union allowed for relative prosperity for all social classes of the oppressor nations, ‘class peace’ has been the common assumption for young and old alike. Each new generation expects to advance in terms of living standards beyond their parents, and this trend was seen for several decades.
With the neoliberal restructuring of the 1980s, the youth in these imperialist countries began to lose their certainty of their economic future. But the trends were conflicting. On the one hand, the 1980s saw neoliberal restructuring which assaulted unions and social programmes. This period also witnessed the abandonment of “social” pretense by social democratic parties, whose bourgeois leadership fell in line immediately with the neoliberal order. This would appear to herald the re-emergence of class struggle in these same countries, at least shortly thereafter. But the 1990s saw these same imperialist powers able to extract superprofits from an even broader territory, thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union. The gap between social classes was growing, but the crumbs of imperialist plunder still benefited the oppressor nations.
The 2008 crisis has resolved this contradiction to a great extent in favour of class struggle. The profit motive always limits the bourgeoisie’s ability to ‘share’, and the crisis has forced it to impose ever more violent forms of austerity, including in the imperialist centres, to protect its profits. Over the same period, the fickle employment opportunities for the youth have been less and less sufficient, particularly in colonies and semi-colonial countries, where the generally high unemployment rate is growing at an alarming rate. Even in semi-colonial countries like Turkey where birth rates are slowing, the young population desperately need more jobs, and capitalism cannot create them without risking profits.
The anger of these youth is easy to account for. Their political potential, however, can be subverted: jobless youth in Egypt overthrew a government, only to lose hope in the face of a military coup. New Zealanders facing unemployment and insufficient benefits and a housing crisis vote for Ardern and nothing changes, but there is no rebellion.
There is only one remedy for the problem of organised bourgeois forces subverting spontaneous popular demands: the people must teach themselves their own politics, their own power. They must build organisations through the process of struggle, and those organisations must go back to the people with this same message. In the final instance, this means not only doing politics outside of the parliament, but going beyond the parliament entirely, into a new political order, where the people are empowered and in power.
Of course, this proposal, when stated explicitly to the unorganised masses, sounds fantastic. Can such a space be built where real popular democracy reigns?
Gezi Resistance, Rojava Revolution
Our answer is clear: not only can such spaces be built in real life, we have seen them built. We have seen with our own eyes masses of people defy the state, and organise themselves. Furthermore, we have seen that young people are particularly eager to embrace such spaces. In several cities in Iran quite recently, we have seen this in practice. Before that, we saw it at Gezi, and before that at Occupy Wall Street, and before that in Tunisia. Each of these seem, in retrospect, to be isolated moments. But for the youth who took part in them, they were formative. To have not only witnessed Gezi, but to have taken part in it during your most formative years, makes radical politics seem natural.
The generation for whom Gezi was the first time many of them witnessed with their own eyes the state suppressing the masses, is also the generation which is most likely to vote for the HDP. This is because the HDP is the only party in parliament which exhorts its voting public to become more deeply involved in local politics, to not surrender politics to the ballot box and bureaucracy, but to embrace politics in every field of daily life, from the workplace to the school to the square. The politics that the resistant youth of Gezi learned in the streets was the politics they expressed in the immense victory of the HDP in the June 7th elections.
The HDP is also the only party in parliament to defend “the developing revolution in Rojava”, its “valuable initiatives for democratic popular sovereignty” and its “experiences based on popular assemblies”. Many young people from various ethnic, religious, national, and class backgrounds have gone to Rojava to defend the revolution, risking and in some cases sacrificing their lives for a project which they believed would establish a democracy beyond the bourgeois horizons. The fact that those who went from Turkey to Rojava came from pro-HDP milieus and supported radical democratic projects in Turkey was extremely important, particularly after the defence of Kobanê caught the world’s attention. In Turkey, the friends, family, and comrades of those who died defending Kobanê were a significant force behind the HDP’s June 7th victory.
The “popular assemblies” in Rojava which the HDP defend have a long tradition in radical left politics, going back to the October Revolution, an event which serves as such a singular inspiration for so many millions of revolutionaries that it is no surprise this organisational form inspires to this day. When one considers young Marxist-Leninists from Turkey, like Ayşe Deniz Karacagil or Ulaş Bayraktaroğlu, who travelled to Syria to defend these popular assemblies and fight the political Islamist fascists of ISIS, they had become radicalised fighting the police during the Gezi resistance, which itself was organised on the basis of “popular assemblies”.
Nor was this a particularity of Turkey: one of the most famous international martyrs was Michael Israel, a young labour organiser from the US who was killed while defending the Rojava Revolution. He was no thrill-seeker off to seek adventure in a distant geography. His own politics had been shaped by protest against the US invasion of Iraq, and he had a strong foundation in socialist struggle in his own country, including his organising experience during the Occupy movement, which was based on a popular assembly system (“general assemblies”/”GA”).
At first glance, fighting with gun in hand against ISIS might seem like another world when compared to Taksim or the Occupy movement. But a connection, a universality in struggle, was perceived by these young people, and many more like them. For the Ayşes and Ulaşes, the slogan “this is just the beginning, the struggle continues!” naturally carried them from Antalya and Istanbul to Raqqa. Because in their eyes, it was one anti-fascist struggle.
Today, as the contradictions in human society between imperialists and the colonised nations, between capitalists and the impoverished masses, between patriarchy and women and LGBT, between all oppressors and oppressed become sharper and clearer before our very eyes, we must look to the generations which are inheriting this world which runs on profits, which is wracked by war and choked by pollution.
Young people are themselves a field of struggle, and youthquakes in the political sphere are the result of honest organising in this field. Everywhere they can see that they do not fundamentally control their own lives. And yet everywhere a lack of leadership is blamed for this state of affairs. How is this contradiction between the need for leadership and the alienation of not having control of your own life to be resolved?
Simply put, revolutionary leadership proves itself on the basis of its genuine understanding of the people, and ability to foster in the people a political consciousness that trends towards self-leadership. The dialectic of vanguardism is such that the people lead their own leadership. The material reality of popular struggle must form the basis of the leadership’s analysis, this vanguard must materially intervene to (re)shape the consciousness of the masses.
How many Marxist organisations in Turkey have fallen by the wayside for neglecting this most crucial organisational dialectic? The people do indeed lead vanguard organisations, and they can lead them to their irrelevance and demise if the organisations do not adapt to the material reality of the people. In Turkey, however, if there is one problem the revolutionary left does not face, it is a lack of organisations. DEV-GENÇ provided Turkey with the seeds of what would become tens of still active left organisations. While the moustached uncles who dominate some of these organisations may imply otherwise, these organisations come from a heritage of young people from across the Turkey of yesteryear who were filled with revolutionary passion. Those that truly desire to defend this heritage will not underestimate the youth in the same state today.
Victory is not a foregone conclusion in Turkey, but this history shows the potential of youth in uncertain times. One hundred years have passed since the October Revolution, which allowed the Bolsheviks to plant communist parties shaped in their image in nearly every country. Since then, imperialist wars, fascist coups, and neoliberal plunder have demoralised the masses in the four corners of the world. Modern revisionism within the revolutionary movement and postmodern attacks on dialectical materialism as a method in the academy have robbed these demoralised masses of the most powerful intellectual weapon in countless countries. But we have never lived in a world that was as obviously international as the world today. Through the internet, critically-minded youth, even in small places where no revolutionary organisation exists, can learn about a vast international world of struggle. These rebel youth, in whatever country, have the potential to rebuild in their own material context. Out of them can come new movements, new organisations, new struggles which reflect and are reflected in every sphere of social life.
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