By an East London teacher
News of students occupying universities across the UK in protest at Israeli atrocities prompted some on the Left to proclaim young people as a new revolutionary force in Britain. This assessment is in part wishful thinking, since if it was accurate, the disproportionate amount of time the Left spends on recruiting and organising students would have some justification.
It is undoubtedly true that there has been an upsurge in student activism around international issues. Many of the school students who walked out of classes in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War are now at university, and their radicalism has not diminished. Any conclusions about a general left-wards shift on the part of the young should be resisted, however. There are no signs that the Gaza campaign will develop into a broader progressive movement. Indeed, research from 2008 shows that students are more likely to express support for the Conservatives than for Labour. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since due to Britain’s inegalitarian education system, university students are disproportionately middle class.
Therein lies the rub. All the talk on the Left about the radicalism of the young is really about the limited radicalism of young, middle class students. What of the working class young people who do not end up going to university, or who are among the 22% of students who fail to complete their university courses? Almost all the articles on working class young people from the Socialist Worker newspaper focus on media demonisation of youth, and the failure of government to meet young people’s needs on education and crime. The following passage, from an article about youth crime, is typical:
Poor education, poverty, inequality, poor life prospects and decimation of local services – these are the conditions in which many of our young people are living and which create the conditions for some to turn to crime and violence.
Working class young people are cast as passive victims without agency. The political views of working class youth, and the way they see themselves and their society, are neglected. If the Left is to have any hope of building support for its politics in the future, it needs to get to grips with the worldview of young people growing up in communities devastated by Thatcherism.
The kids I work with are predominantly from working class backgrounds. Most have parents employed in routine clerical or manual occupations, though a substantial minority come from families where neither parent works. Some are the children of immigrants who, due to lack of job opportunities or their own refusal to accept poverty pay, have set themselves up as self-employed – often in the “black” economy. Over 90% are non-white: Bengalis, West Africans and Caribbeans are the largest ethnic groups. Nearly all are classified as from “socially deprived” backgrounds. They should be part of the target market for Left groups, but very few have any awareness of socialism or progressive politics. Last month, anti-capitalist demonstrators descended on the Excel Exhibition Centre, round the corner from the College where I work. The students viewed the protests with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and indifference, but seemed to feel no sense of identification with the protestors.
Many of my students are highly ambitious – often ludicrously so. Kids with four GCSEs who have trouble reading and writing announce their plans to become corporate lawyers, doctors and businesspeople. I’m often reminded of Delboy from Only Fools and Horses and his reassuring words to a sceptical younger brother: “this time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires!” As with Delboy, the bravado often masks deep insecurities. Through their time in education, a gap grows between their ambitions and their ability to achieve them. The more distant the prospect of educational success becomes, the more they cling to the fantasy of future wealth. Many give up on tasks after the tiniest set back, afraid to grapple with the problem in case the effort makes the anticipated failure more painful. It is common for kids to mock and take delight in the failure of others, as this provides a welcome distraction from their own inadequacies. Many of them refuse to take responsibility for their actions when they experience failure, since to do so would force them to address their weaknesses.
The kids I work with generally reject the idea that anyone could be motivated by altruism or any non-material concerns, and assume people are naturally selfish. They are keenly aware of their own “rights” but often dismissive of the rights of others. The vast majority of students in every class I have taught favour much harsher restrictions on the rights of immigrants, despite the fact that they are generally the descendents of immigrants themselves. They generally accept the view of British society as meritocratic. While most acknowledge the existence of class as a social fact, they do not see it as a structural barrier to material success. Instead of structural explanations, there is widespread support for “conspiracy theory” views of the world, with the Jews or the Freemasons cast as evil masterminds controlling events.
It isn’t hard to imagine the political views that flow from these assumptions about human nature and British society. My students tend to support the neoliberal model of “tolerance”, insisting upon the right of others to pursue their own self interest. On economics, most are firmly opposed to progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth: Tory proposals to raise the inheritance tax threshold and reverse Labour’s increase in the top rate of tax are popular. If I point out to my students that such taxes affect a tiny minority of the population, the response is that they might be in that tiny minority before too long. Most of my students support harsh, authoritarian policies on law and order, and blame crime on individual criminals rather than social factors.
In short, the majority of the working class young people I work with seem to have accepted Thatcherite principles and assumptions in full. There is no society; only competing and ruthless individuals. Collectivism is a doomed endeavour, since people are bound by nature to seek their own benefit at the expense of others. It is easy to move up through the class system, and anyone can “get to the top” with the requisite hard work. People are entitled to the fruits of their labour and have no obligation to give up any of their money in the form of redistributive taxes.
Of course, the picture is far more complex and nuanced than the one I have sketched. In their personal dealings with others, for instance, most of my students amply demonstrate the altruism they deny exists. It is also true that my students do not constitute a representative cross section of British society. Since many are the children of recent immigrants, they do not have the ingrained awareness of class that indigenous British people often do. Those whose parents are self employed are perhaps less likely to be sensitive to class than those whose parents are workers.
Most importantly, they are just kids with no experience of the world of full time work. Once they leave college or university, they are bound to come up against the realities of a deeply unequal and unfair society and their views will surely change. However, the direction of that change is by no means pre-ordained. Someone who has always believed that society is meritocratic will not necessarily abandon that belief once they find themselves unemployed or in a low paid, unsatisfying job. In the absence of a socialist political culture, they are as likely to blame their situation on Eastern European immigrants and cartels of Jewish bankers as they are to point the finger at an exploitative economic system. The evidence is that young people do have reactionary views on a number of issues. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2007 showed that young people were less concerned with economic inequalities and much less supportive of policies to redistribute wealth than older respondents. Indeed, it would be surprising if decades of neoliberal social polices, designed in part to weaken social solidarity and support for collectivism, were not successful in altering the views of those who have grown up under them.
A good way to begin to tackle some of these problems would be to set up community organisations to involve working class young people in activities that prove that altruism and collectivism are possible. The left-leaning Kurdish / Turkish youth organisation DayMer runs a number of such activities for kids in East London, including sports activities and trips away. This approach should not be confused with the left-liberal stance that working class young people are simply bored and do not have enough to do. Of course the dearth of youth and community facilities is something that should be addressed as a matter of urgency, but unless there are community organisations that facilitate activities that engage young people in self-sacrifice and teamwork, attitudes are unlikely to change.
The Left should also build on the elements of the views of working class young people that have progressive potential. Ideas about personal responsibility should be nurtured rather than dismissed as reactionary. For instance, any approach to crime that is seen to absolve criminals of responsibility for their actions is unlikely to gain many adherents among working class youth. Ideas about hard work can also be progressive, but the need to work hard for others as well as to fulfil personal potential should be stressed. Similarly, we should not argue against seeking “success”, but should try to broaden the notion of success to include non-material and intrinsic goals.
Romantic notions of young people as a revolutionary force are wide of the mark at present. In fact, unless community and political organisations can successfully intervene, it seems likely that the Left will have an even harder job recruiting and organising in the working class communities of the future than they have today.
This article was originally published on Left Luggage. Left Luggage has been formed by a small, independent group of community organisers and trade union shop-stewards in the UK. The blog is an attempt to initiate a discussion within the British Left around strategic issues, including questioning some of our most fundamental organising principles.
The site has already featured excellent articles highlighting and analysing the isolation of most of the left from the working class, and providing practical suggestions on how this isolation might be overcome.