Is the students’ conflict intergenerational?

In December, I took part in a Guardian podcast where I said that the students are furious at our parents. They’ve taken our jobs, our homes, our environment and now they’re trying to take away our right to an education. However, many members of the movement in occupations and in blogs have made forceful arguments against the idea of an intergenerational conflict. Here I want to think through the arguments for and against, and consider which approach I think we should adopt.

The Theory

UCLOccupation image

At the UCL Occupation the Daily Mail and Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore, gave a talk on how to present ourselves in the media. She said the best strategy is too push the idea of an intergenerational conflict. People of her generation feel extremely guilty, she said, and exploiting this guilt is the best way to get them on our side.

I believe the reason for the guilt complex currently engulfing the middle-aged middle-classes is due to the fact we live in a liberal society. The idea of intergenerational justice is built in to liberalism.

One of the earliest liberals, John Locke, argued that if people want to acquire property, they must leave “enough and as good for others”. The twentieth century liberal, John Rawls, includes an inter-generational proviso in A Theory of Justice called the “just savings principle”; whereby the current generation must save enough to maintain the fundamental institutions of society into the future. Since the environmental crisis has emerged, the liberal literature on intergenerational justice has gone ballistic. It is a matter of growing concern and enquiry within liberal political philosophy, and so it seems, in the practice of liberal democracies.

Many occupiers and bloggers have rejected this line of argument, however, because they are situated somewhere on the Left.  In far Left, Marxist, philosophy the idea of intergenerational justice doesn’t hold much currency.  The struggle belongs to the proletariat; it is based on class. The proletariat takes no account of age or generational membership; it consists of anyone who is exploited by the capitalist class.  The detractors from the idea of intergenerational conflict are concerned with unity.  What we want, according to this line of argument, is to foster ties with the working class, the unions and public sector workers.  Talking about intergenerational conflict obstructs unity and creates divisions where there should be none.

I want to propose an intermediary position, based on the insights of Critical Theory.  Critical theorists are influenced by Marxism, but instead of accepting the Marxist thesis of historical materialism, they assess actual social movements and theorise their claims in order to advance their normative, emancipatory arguments.

One of the insights of Critical Theory and other continental philosophical traditions, such as postmodernism and poststructuralism, has been to highlight that class constitutes only one kind of social division.  Society is also stratified along the lines of sex, race, ethnicity and status.  Our movement seems to be highlighting another division – the division between generations.

The calls for Left unity are obviously extremely important.  The Left historically has had a tendency to factionalise and fracture, destroying itself from within.  This is a trend the student movement rightly wants to avoid.  However, there is some truth in the intergenerational argument.  On the early demonstrations the vast majority of protesters were young, under the age of about 26; the presence of lecturers and workers was minimal.  The student movement is a youth movement.  Moreover, the cuts we are facing now are a direct result of economic policies and ideologies that have been handed down from the previous generation.

Some of baby boomers have had an amazing time. They’ve presided over an unprecedented era of economic, intellectual and technological growth. But with this has come unprecedented environmental damage, a growing inequality gap between the world’s rich and poor, neo-colonial war and the current economic recession, caused by the voracious appetite for property.  The inequality gap has meant that many people of that generation actually lost-out on a phenomenal scale – witness the decline of England’s industrial North.

The baby boomers that did hugely benefit (or the governments’ they have elected) acted with an astonishing degree of irresponsibility.  They ignored intergenerational responsibilities and responsibilities to the poor (hence the corresponding sense of guilt).  This irresponsibility derives from the wholesale adoption of neoliberal economics.

The Practice

We as a movement can and should (I think) be stressing this point. As the youth wing of a larger struggle, we can come together with other groups, like the unions, whilst highlighting our frustration with decisions taken in the past. We can say that the generation before us acted irresponsibly and failed to take our interests into account by adopting neoliberal policies.

UCLOccupation image

The advantage of this approach is that by highlighting the need for intergenerational justice, we are not just fighting for ourselves, but also for future generations.  By focusing on the irresponsibility of the previous generation and how this is now undermining our life chances, we are saying that this mustn’t happen again; future generations must be taken into account.

Another advantage is that by rejecting the politics of the past twenty years, we are asserting that we want something new.  We want things to change, we want to live in a different world, and if the politicians aren’t going to do this we will do it for ourselves.  Our youth and our desire for a break with the past is a strength: it is exciting, challenging and invigorating.

This standpoint can also foster unity.  Everyone on the Left is anti-neoliberalism. We can unite around this common enemy while also maintaining our particular position. Rather than causing division, it highlights the fact that those of the older generations who campaigned and fought against the policies were right all along. We can come together in renewed struggle to stop another generation making the same mistakes.  We can unite cross-generationally in a rejection of the Right and a desire to reinvigorate the Left.

This unification, however, does not require us to give up our rightful place of finger-pointing at the generation that preceded us, critiquing their unabashed irresponsibility, telling them to pay for it rather than lumping it all on us and future generations, and insisting that we want change.  Now.  We don’t want unmitigated economic growth; we want a new left politics based on equality and responsibility, environmental protection and solidarity.  We want a different world to the one we have inherited.

One final point… Unity is vital to any social movement.  However, within any movement there are different groups, differences of opinion and different reasons for being involved.  We have to acknowledge and respect this.  A blind adoption of “unity” does the Left no favours.  Repressing dissent and subsuming all groups under one common front is what leads to rupture.  We have to accept difference while focusing on our common goals.

In sum, we can call this an intergenerational struggle by drawing out the reason behind it. By making neoliberalism the target, we can assert our unique position, as those bearing the brunt of its mistakes, while uniting with other groups who also oppose it.



Filed under Education, Student Protests

4 responses to “Is the students’ conflict intergenerational?

  1. Pat

    We don’t want unmitigated economic growth; we want a new left politics based on equality and responsibility, environmental protection and solidarity.

    I’ve been ruminating on this over the last few days (re the political placement of new ideas). I have this gut feeling that it isn’t a left / right issue. The points listed above (if you disregard solidarity, or change it for unity) don’t strike me as the preserve of the left? I would argue, that the quote is a suggestion for a more sustainable model for development, rather than the bust / boom cycle we have at present.

    If we consider that Vodafone’s tax avoidance may lead to better pension returns, then the taxation issue becomes a slight problem. It’s a controlled redistribution of wealth, rather than a democratic redistribution. But as our government has encouraged private pensions, then it is part-democratic in it’s nature. That’s not to excuse it morally, but the tax avoidance is chosen by the shareholders to maximise their returns. These returns and income will then also be taxed (I wonder what the differential is?). Now Philip Green is a different matter entirely.

    I think, perhaps alluding to Schumpeter (sp?), the nature of growth isn’t directly controllable – a new technology may well lead to massive changes (once hydrogen fixture is developed, for example), and the sudden redundancy of older models? This would be a tough call to make if you needed to protect one industry which was no longer needed / viable?

    Perhaps the key to this is lifelong learning? Rather than a one-off system, it becomes a more developed system, allowing personal development to occur at any stage. Hopefully a system like this would empower people into taking greater responsibilities for many different things, and make a society with continual development as it’s goal?

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