New Internationalist

Why selling out is no longer an option

October 2012

Capitalism’s betrayals will cost youth dear. Laurie Penny’s call to arms.

People have started asking me and my friends when we’re going to sell out, move on and get real jobs, like they did after the Sixties. We are told that pretty soon, we’ll need to face reality.

Whenever anyone tells you that, it’s important to remember that the so-called ‘reality’ that we’re being ordered to face, in the way that one might be told to face the wall, was and is built on debt and sand: it is a specific agenda whose survival depends on everyone else continuing to believe that there is no alternative. As an anonymous aide told writer Ron Suskind in the early Bush years: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’

Young people today don’t get to sell out. We don’t get to slink away into comfortable jobs, because for a great many of us, there are no jobs: 25 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds in Britain and North America are unemployed or under-employed, rising to 50 per cent in Greece and Spain. We don’t get to retreat into the country and live off the land, because the land is being torn apart for the last dregs of dirty oil.

Jacopo Rosati Youth
Jacopo Rosati

The concept of generation war usually obscures as much as it reveals. This is not least because the notion allows a class conflict that is unique to its historical moment to be phrased as an everyday tantrum against mum and dad, experienced collectively, the kids kicking off against the old folks, inevitable and, ultimately, dismissible.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing the least bit Oedipal about the uprisings swelling and fading and swelling again in waves across the world right now. Oedipus, in the old myth, killed the king his father, on the road to Thebes and went on to take over the kingdom. In our story, if young people don’t stand and defend it, there’s not going to be a kingdom left to inherit.

Aspects of this conflict are inevitably generational for one reason and one reason only. The people currently in charge of the money, resources and the political capital – call them the ‘one per cent’, call them oligarchs or call them, if you’ve a certain sort of surname, mum and dad – aren’t going to be around by the time the real shit hits the fan.

When the levee breaks

By the time the oil runs out, by the time the flood waters start to break the levees of wealthy Western cities, by the time the social safety net has been eroded to the point at which none of us without private doctors can imagine old age without fear, all of those people will be safely in the ground, in hardwood coffins in the cold earth far away from human suffering. That’s all it is. An accident of timing. The schedule we’re working with allows those currently in power to gamble on debt futures and profit from resource wars that their grandchildren will have to finish without fearing for their own personal comfort; and that affects every decision being made or delayed in our names.

The people currently in charge won't be around by the time the real shit hits the fan

In some ways, what we’re seeing now is the end of those particular Sixties: the point at which the anxious, calcifying faux-freedom that people were sold in place of the intimate, dreadful, total cultural liberation they craved reached its logical conclusion in financial feudalism and social collapse.

What differentiates it from the 1960s is that so many young people don’t have homes to go back to. Many of them never will, not homes of their own, especially if they are growing up without assets, saddled with student debt and credit-card loans. Graduates and school-leavers across the developed world are facing a future where they are almost certainly going to be poorer, sicker and less prosperous than their parents. That in itself makes this generation, as journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason puts it, ‘the human expression of a broken economic model’.

Where the ‘baby boomers’ almost universally enjoyed better healthcare, welfare and education than their parents and walked out of school into a world of easy employment, the future we grew up expecting – one in which growth continued, jobs were available and a trajectory of marriage, mortgage and pension plan was relatively easy to come by in return for a lifetime of extremely hard work – is in ruins. The resistance movements of 2010-12 have been, more than anything else, an expression of betrayal; a realization of what has been lost. What comes next has to be the blueprint for a different sort of future.

The future-makers

The young people currently negotiating direct action in the face of a future mortgaged to finance the gambling of the super-rich have no time to wait for their hair to grow. The drugs are worse these days, anyway, and the police more efficient. This is not a generation war, but a new class war expressing itself along generational lines.

A lot of lies and half-truths have been told about the Occupy generation and its equivalents. Some of them have been fostered by movement members themselves. When I visited Occupy London in January, some of its spokespeople were keen for me not to write a story giving away the fact that so many long-term residents of the protest camp on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral were homeless people with multiple mental health and substance abuse problems. In fact, it’s been the young, the lost and the homeless who have driven these movements from the start – and to say otherwise would be doing a great disservice to everyone involved.

Everywhere the so-called futureless generation is discovering that it has to invent the future for itself, with whatever tools it has to hand, even if it’s just a row of bashed-up tents and a way with anti-surveillance software. The greatest weakness and most-mocked feature of the new protest movements – that they’re peopled by youngsters grown old before their time, by lost kids and self-destructive vagrants, by nervous proto-revolutionaries hiding their cynicism behind straggly protest beards and unwashed hippies in V for Vendetta masks – is also their greatest strength. They don’t get to sell out, and they don’t get to go home. Somehow or other, they’ve got to make a new future.

Laurie Penny, 25, is a feminist author and journalist who writes for The Independent, New Statesman and The Nation, among others.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 456 This feature was published in the October 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 JamesWilson 11 Oct 12

    Loved the article. Got kids. Two. They are young and I am worried about exactly what you say Laurie. I also reminded me of a song by a local australian band named The Drones, written by Gareth Liddiard, called Oh My. You might like it.

    Oh My lyrics

    People are a waste of food
    You'll never hear the end
    They're only ever happy
    When they're burying their friends
    And they take take take
    But they never take a hint
    The ice caps getting skinny
    Still they're not concerned
    They're very near extinct

    People are a waste of food
    The end is nearly nigh
    They've always said the sky would fall
    Now it is you have to wonder why
    You want to shrink your stinky footprint?
    Get your tubes tied
    Or even better yet
    Go commit suicide
    They can't say you didn't try

    And oh my,
    Well i hear the sound of horses' hooves
    Come the middle of the night
    And oh my,
    Its time to get your gun license
    I see four horsemen riding through
    A cold and endless night

    If money is the root of evil
    Fear of death is worse
    This mortal coil is not a test
    And you can't hide in a purse
    So don't go casting no dispersions in the street
    { From: }
    'Cause the half the world that starves
    Will know the half you're in
    Does not deserve to eat

    And oh my,
    Well i hear the sound of horses' hooves
    Come the middle of the night
    And oh my,
    It's time to get your gun license
    I see four horsemen riding through
    A cold and endless night

    People are a waste of food
    Don't bother learning Chinese
    Thou shalt find oneself perturbed
    By less verbose calamities
    Just get some Heinz baked beans,
    A 12 gauge, bandolier and tinned dog food
    We'll eat your dog, bury our dead
    Or eat them instead
    That's entirely up to you

    And oh my,
    I hear the sound of unshod hooves come the middle of
    the night
    And oh why
    Well, from now on 'til your grandkids finally get what
    you deserve
    I'm going to be stuck here with you wookies
    Eating fortune cookies
    Until my guts churn

  2. #2 Thomas Paign 12 Oct 12

    Your Generation
    Written by Thomas Paign, 2012
    Performed by TBD, 2012

    U People will try to keep us d-down (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    While U work us into the ground (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    To support a future that’s already been s-s-sold (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    I hope U die before U get old (Talkin' 'bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    Why don't U all f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    U better listen to what we all s-s-say (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    We are trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    To defend our future from your g-g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    Why don't U all f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    And don't try to s-steal our p-pay-day (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    I am trying to cause a b-big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    I'm takin’ this message to the entire n-n-nation (Talkin' 'bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    Pop your boner pills and p-play away (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    Kick the can again our w-w-way (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    We’ll no longer do what we’ve been t-t-told (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    Gotta steal our future back from the o-o-old (Talkin' 'bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

    U People will try to keep us d-down (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    While U work us into the ground (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    To support a future that’s already been s-s-sold (Talkin' 'bout your generation)
    Yeah, I hope U die before U get old (Talkin' 'bout your generation)

    This is your generation
    This is your generation, Granny

  3. #3 vapid ness 21 Oct 12

    The major points made in this article are good, pointing out the differences between the economic, social and envirnomental differences between the 1960s and now.
    However, like many texts written about the evolution of radicalism during the 20th and 21st centuries it (perhaps understandably) relies on relatively mainstream interpretations of the radicalism and work of previous generations rather than the words and deeds of the people involved in activism over the years.
    The basic assumption that everyone involved in activism in the 60s 'sold out' or even had an option to sell out isn't right. Involvement in many activities in the 60s could and did lead to blacklisting by the Economic League and its successor organisations, meaning that getting work wasn't possible. Sometimes you could get casual work but long term work leading to job and home security wasn't an option. This organisation was still operating through to the 90s, and there are still similar organisations operating in sectors like construction, oil and so on.
    Although many of my contemporaries have relatively secure jobs now, most of us involved in activism in the 80s did not have the option of selling out, for some of the same reasons its not available now. The reason that things aren't as bad as they might be environmentally as they could be is because of the work of previous generations- no, we haven't got as much done as we might, but given what we were up against any progress is laudable. In the same way anything that improves democratisation and helps remove the stranglehold of the 1% is still excellent now.
    We have access to brilliant resources, not least the experience of those that came before us. I've watched people at Occupy actions use the same methods we've been using at meetings for years/decades- previous experience means not having to reinvent the wheel, although you should always be checking that a wheel is the best tool for the job being done now.
    In the 80s we had the experience of people in the 60s, they had the experience of people working to resist dictatorship at home and abroad before, during and after the war, they had people around during the Depression, and they had the experience of people around in the 19th century, and so on.
    One of the most useful things to learn from previous generations is how not to burn out, how to avoid self recrimination and subversion from outside agents, and how to keep on making a difference. You can't do everything all the time, but you can keep on doing what you can.
    Occupy sites look pretty much like similar places have for decades, and pretty similar to where I live now. Experience and enthusiasm need to work together to make a future, especially if enthusiasm isn't going to burn out. Effort can be spent making a difference instead of working out how to create site infrastructure like loos, water supply and cooking. Older folk have seen too many friends opt out and be lost as a result of burning out, illness and depression- and some of us can help with ways of avoiding the worst. We all need to work together, and you're right, selling out isn't an option. For anyone.

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This article was originally published in issue 456

New Internationalist Magazine issue 456
Issue 456

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