Dissent, Protest, and Revolution: The New Europe in Crisis

By Andrew R. Myers
2012, Vol. 4 No. 03 | pg. 2/4 |

The Youth, A New Generation and Political Activism

Equally as perplexing as the economic crises for European politicians are the protests and occupy movements across Europe. The new generation of Europeans, what Reid calls the “‘E’ generation,” baffles reporters and politicians alike (Reid 2004, Chap. 8). The same criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the United States have been applied to the various European movements. They lack a ‘plan’ for change. They have too idealist or unrealistic goals. They raise more questions than answers. Their issues with the current order are too ‘broad.’

Although local officials, such as in Madrid, are using police forces to evacuate protestors, the coverage given to the movements detaches the general from the reality of the events. Conservative politicians and rightist parties see a lack of work ethic and willingness to adapt to the current situation (Marquand). As political scientists, the protest movements must not escape the understanding of the phenomenon of the European crises. As engine drivers of political dissent, regardless of the credibility or feasibility of their demands, the protestors represent an emerging historical movement. If the situation in Europe is to be understood, intellectuals must consider the meta-historical implications at hand or any analysis will be incomplete (Wolin 2011). Thus this paper will dig deeper into background of the protestors themselves. What defines this generation of student protestors? What differentiates themselves from the politicians they deem inadequate, or worse, ignorant of the reality at hand?

Through much of the past twenty years following fall of soviet communism, a new generation of citizens has grown alongside the development of the ‘New Europe.’ Known as “Generation Y” or the “Millennials,” a new social demographic is emerging. Descendents of Generation X, the demographic makeup of the western world has slowly shifted away from Baby Boomer politics to Generation X. Generation X, known for their “edgy” political movements (anarchism, punks, casual sex, rock and roll) now increasingly holds the political reigns. Although the youth in Generation Y identify strongly with the idea of “Europe” many see the system itself as broken (Marquand 2011).

In an interesting point of contrast, the European youth don’t blame their Generation X parents for their problems, but instead their criticisms are global and international in nature (Marquand 2011). Generation Y has grown up without much concern over the Cold War, Soviet communism or a split Europe. Instead they are watching the popular narrative of Europe fall apart. As one report explains, “Young protestors in Europe express growing distrust of leaders and blame politicians for having fewer prospects than their parents” (UPI 2011).

Generation Y symbolizes a new demographic politically, one that sees politics more as a farce than a representation of the needs and desires of the citizens of Europe. They see politics as incapable of fixing or indifferent to the growing jobless youth and “idealism has given way to skepticism among many young people, who express distrust of political elites” (UPI 2011). Instead of disliking a particular party, many protestors feel politics itself is the problem. They critique the system, not their parents for holding them down (Generation X’s great calling card).

Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations explains, "They see the political class as closed, opaque, corrupt, insensitive. All polls show a wide feeling among youth that the political class and elites are a problem" (UPI 2011). Albeit educated, the jobless youth often have to return home (“46 percent of Europeans under 34 live with at least one parent”), confounding their generation X parents who expect them to get an education and an accompanying job (Marquand 2011).

The youthful European resentment of the contemporary culture, characterized by the generational gap, does not however appear to be a historical aberration. Rather, the disparity between political perception and worldview can be found across historical generational differences. The flappers of the 1920’s in the United States challenged their parents’ conceptions of austerity. The Punk movements of the 1970s and 1980s in both Europe and the United States represented a radical rejection of culture and authority. Parents telling their offspring they are wrong might be one of the few truths of history, but the relationship has now become increasingly important as an educated, yet suspicious youth takes on civil disobedience to illustrate their points. And worse, they have older generations of non-centrists backing them up.

Radicalists both of the left and the right have been pushing the ideas of ‘Generation Protest’ for longer than most of Generation Y have been alive. In contrast, a general distrusting of politics is fueling the elder generation to caricature the protesting youth as out of touch. In Madrid, the protestors were mocked as the media “dubbed the youth as ‘Ni-Nis’ (neither this nor that),” which meant “neither workers nor students” (Marquand 2011). A highly educated group of unemployed students retort that they are Ni-Nis only in that “they supported neither center-left Socialists, nor the center-right Popular Party, something akin in the US to a pox on both Democratic and Republican houses” (Marquand 2011). Similar glib depictions of the youth in British media and politics “bear no relation to the vulnerable situation they feel themselves in" (Marquand 2011).

Perhaps the most important distinction of Generation Y from Generation X arises from their technological differences. Generation Y is also dubbed the “Millennial” generation because it lives day-to-day with technologies that the students of the 70s and 80s never had. The Internet, personal computers, social media and cell phones are so commonplace with the youth generation that constant global communication is possible. The influence of social media in the Arab Spring revolution, including Twitter and Facebook, are undeniably playing a part in the European protests (Marquand 2011).

The nature of the Internet makes understanding a starting point for protests nearly impossible to determine (Economist 2011). While corporations can control media outlets on television (a marquee technology for Generation X), controlling the Internet is incredibly difficult. Anyone can post on blogs, torrent files, host websites, and investigate outside television media. One Athenian student sufficiently surmised this characteristic of a “cybergeneration” in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor: "We want the truth. I don't want to believe, I want to know. I like facts. I like proof . . . I am always online. When it comes to Greek politics and the debt crisis, I draw my own conclusions" (Marquand 2011).

One additional aspect of the movement should be noted. Though at the writing of this paper the protest movements across the western world are meeting police crackdowns and governmental evictions, the protests overall are still growing. The camps and occupies do not plan on giving up, either. Most of their camps are made to “last indefinitely” (Economist 2011). Protests over the same circumstances that students in London, New York, Madrid and Rome want to expose as unfair and unacceptable have now started in over 900 cities and 80 plus countries worldwide (Economist 2011).

Occupy Wall Street is but one of these movements. Puerta del Sol is only one movement. Yet, the protest continues to grow in other areas of Europe. Media coverage continues to be perplexed by a lack of practical demands and the general, broad nature of their criticisms. However a few elements are held in common: “They think need matters more than greed. They like decisions by consensus, distrust elites and feel that capitalism’s pains and gains are unfairly shared” Economist 2011). In any situation, there are few calling for small economic changes. Instead, the call to overcome globalized capitalism and the apocalyptic talk of collapse remains constant.

The Influence of Globalization

Commonplace in the growing European protests are criticisms of the globalization of capitalism and the exploitation of workers. Whether explicitly, such as in the case of Die Linke and the London protests, or implicitly in the cases of Puerta del Sol, the educated youth give the impression of distraught workers. These criticisms notwithstanding, Generation Y exists within a particular political culture. Globalization has become more of a political reality than a debate. The turn of the twenty-first century represented an academic realization of the nature and reach of a globalized world (see: Anthony Gidden’s “Runaway World”). The 1999 Seattle WTO protests foreshadow the anti-globalization nature of the European protests in an all too familiar fashion. Yet twelve years later, political analysts, including this author, cannot help but feel something is different this time.

What, if anything, distinguishes the occupy protests from the anti-globalization protests of the end of the 20th century? In the discussion of the youth generation, their technological nature certainly shows a different knowledgeableness of the functioning of the Internet. How many students today would fear “Y2K” in the same extensive fashion that citizens of 1999 did? To delineate between the Seattle protests and the new protests, intentionality remains key. The WTO protests were organized and political in nature, single-minded on a tenable issue. The new wave of protests incorporates a criticism of globalization in a significantly different manner. For one, the latest protests seemed to have been “started spontaneously” without rigorous political planning and instead began as “freelance events gradually linked up with protests in other cities and other countries as they gained momentum” (Economist 2011).

The technology and social communication available to all the masses make antistructural organization possible. Further, the intentions of the Seattle protests sought to inform politicians of their resistance and negative opinion of globalization. The protests of now have been thus far characterized as apolitical, not seeing themselves as an informative protest, but a sit in on the whole structure itself. The irony here should not be lost on the reader. An anti-globalization protest has begun globally, connected through superseding apolitical networks like Facebook and Twitter. These protestors are actually experiencing the new effects of globalization with the loss of jobs. Instead of politically and idealistically being against globalization, students and the unemployed have begun to protest globalized economic systems that they feel are supported by the political structures in place. They are not protesting the cementing of a globalized system, but are aware of the globalized system as cemented already and criticize its propensity to destabilize the economies of their nations.

The academic jury on globalization may not retain the same conviction as the students in London, but some politicians can see where the protestors are coming from. In 2008, the leader of the Dutch Labour Party Wouter Bos argued the economic trends that protestors are now exposing show “‘a new kind of inequality’ in democratic Europe between the winners and losers of globalization” (Taylor 2008). The reality of the globalization of capitalism leaves traditional national economies behind in favor of transnational corporations, outsourcing and exterior production. Bos did ultimately argue that globalization brings a “prospect of prosperity for the poor and freedom to the oppressed,” but the protestors diverge (Taylor 2008).

Regardless of the economic prosperity that globalization offers in whole, protestors may have a legitimate gripe. Raised to believe in the opportunities globalization offers, the reality and the promise for protestors are incongruent. With the stabilization of the EU and its globalized trade power, the system certainly benefited Europe. However, the reality now for a new generation of workers is that of economies without jobs and massive debt; neither signal incredible prosperity nor opportunity. The “dark side” of globalization offers two political problems for the youth generation. The economic crises elucidate the feeling of helplessness for a new generation of workers. Manual labor and production are outsourced and the availability of post-collegiate jobs is shrinking. Young men and women can neither find a job for simply working nor reap the benefits of education for the ‘better jobs’ their parents wanted them to get.

The “millions of victims” of globalization, those who “saw social democracy as the political organizational means available to protect and liberate them from the insecurity and exploitation of an unjust and arbitrary economic system,” have been let down, and the resulting political pessimism should thus be unsurprising at best (Taylor 2008). Secondly, while globalization has resulted in international communication and multiculturalism “the certainties and assurances of national belonging have been jeopardized as never before” (Wolin 2011). National belonging and political representation were carefully preserved in the creation of the European narrative, but for “the denizens of modern democratic societies, there exists a pervasive longing for orientation, direction, and meaning” (Wolin 2011). The resulting split perhaps explains why Robert Taylor sees the future of European social democracy in danger as society runs to rightist and leftist political extremes that reject centralist governance as inadequate and out of touch.

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