France: a ‘revolution’ to preserve the status quo
In the past, youthful rebels were heroically indifferent to their long-term security. The French protesters are obsessed with theirs.
Throughout history, young people have been in the forefront of protest. Revolutions have relied on the idealism and the energy of the young. Even during periods of stability and social peace, the adult world expects youth to kick back against conventions and rebel. Indeed, acts of defiance and rebellion are an integral part of young people’s development, of their transformation into mature adults. So, do the children currently protesting on the streets of France represent yet another example of generational defiance and rebellion? Yes and no.
In one sense, there is nothing peculiar about young people marching on the streets and chanting radical slogans. However, in one fundamental respect the French protesters’ movement is very different to conventional forms of youthful rebellion. For a start, this isn’t really much of a rebellion. Historically, the youth are animated by an aspiration to change the world, so that the future will look very different to the present. By contrast, the French schoolchildren and students are protesting to preserve the status quo; in fighting to retain the current age of retirement and the pensions system, their concern is to make sure that the present state of affairs continues indefinitely into the future.
Of course, there have been numerous examples of defensive protesting that is aimed at preserving the existing state of affairs. However, the young protesters in France express a caricature of that kind of defensive protesting. There is something very strange about young people becoming preoccupied with the age of retirement and old-age pensions. Listening to the statements made by the protesting youth, one gets the impression that they are all speaking from the same tired script written by an exhausted old-age pensioner.
Perhaps they cultivated this very sensible, defensive demeanour in order to reassure the public, through the media, that their protests are not a threat. However, when one Parisian high-school student expressed her fears that if people had to work for an extra two years then there would be a million fewer jobs for the young, it was clear that this very young person was giving voice to the preoccupations of her grandparents. Numerous other young protesters expressed concern about ‘l’insecurite’. Historically, the young rebel partly because they are heroically indifferent to their long-term security; in contrast, today’s French rebels show that adopting a very old mindset can come at a surprisingly early age.
From the outset, these modern-day ‘children of the revolution’ were thoroughly infantilised by their elders. Time and again, the French cultural elites and media assured the youngsters that their protest resembled the student rebellions of the 1960s. Courtesy of a severe historical amnesia about what really occurred in the 1960s, an imaginary revolution has been constructed. With a wink and a nod, French adult society has communicated its approval of the youth’s pension protests.
In reality, there is a fundamental difference between the real thing, those protests of the Sixties, and its impoverished imitation today. One sought to change the world; the other wants to preserve it. The youth of the Sixties challenged the old France, whereas today’s youth have been self-consciously sanctioned by the old to hit the streets and stir up a storm.
Bereft of a political project or any vision for the future, French grown-ups have resorted to inciting the young to give President Nicolas Sarkozy – or ‘Sarko’ – a hard time. The French are not alone in this. Only a few years ago, schoolkids in England were celebrated by crusty grown-ups for going on strike and protesting against the war in Iraq. Hiding behind children has become a widely practised activity amongst twenty-first century adults, who parasitically feed on the energy of the youth.
Back in 2003, Britain’s Stop the War coalition could rely on groups of schoolteachers and university lecturers to instruct their students to protest against the Iraq War. In such circumstances, taking time off from school was not so much an act of defiance as a demonstration of responsible behaviour, which was likely to gain the approval of the citizenship studies teacher. These are modern-day versions of a medieval children’s crusade. The concerns and actions of these young protesters are not really the outcome of a generationally inspired radicalism. Rather, the youth is behaving in a way that is expected of them by their society. And indirectly, what this radicalism really expresses is the emptying out of adult identity.
Adult fantasies about youth
Society’s interest in and representation of youth are invariably driven by an adult agenda. So, what is truly interesting about many protests today is not so much the activities of the protesters themselves, but the way in which youth are perceived and represented. For a long time now, Western culture has tried to make sense of its hopes and fears through its interpretation of youthful behaviour. Often, youth are presented as having qualities that elude the old. Young people are endowed with characteristics like innocence, idealism, altruism and bravery. On a bad day, however, adult fantasies about young people focus on their depravity; youth are cast in the role of undisciplined, decadent and easily corrupted delinquents.
When adults are confident of their status and their authority, they can live with and reconcile their often conflicting fantasies about the young. For example, in classical antiquity the elders had no problem living with the cult of youthfulness. ‘Youth meant a healthy physique, beauty, and sexual attraction’, notes one fascinating study of the subject, before adding that, unlike today, the old in ancient times were ‘not goaded’ into being young (1). The line separating the generations was underwritten by a belief that only the old had the moral authority to run society. Indeed, in Ancient Greece and Rome, it was widely believed that ‘the young were not to be trusted with public affairs, that they were easily “corrupted” intellectually and morally and therefore a threat not only to themselves but to society at large’ (2).
For a variety of reasons, since modern times adult perceptions of the young have changed in Western society. Although the metaphor of youthful depravity still persists, the idealisation of youth has steadily gained momentum over the past three centuries. In the nineteenth century, radical and nationalist movements self-consciously adopted the word ‘Young’ to describe their parties. From the Young Italy movement to the Young Turks, a self-conscious emphasis on age conveyed an aspiration for change. Nineteenth-century Italian nationalist leaders demanded that the movement put youth at the head of its rebellion. This fantasy was carried on by Mussolini, who projected Youth as the ‘man of the future’ or, as he put it, a ‘young man not corrupted by the bourgeois and liberal past’.
In the interwar period, adult fantasies about a youthful vanguard became more powerful still. This was an era in which there was an intense concern about cultural decadence and decline. Cultural pessimism, it seems, is one of the driving forces behind the modern apotheosis of the young. In the interwar period, youth were cast in the role of a generation that would put right the mess created by their elders. It was in this era that the platitude about the young fixing adult problems gained influence in popular culture. Numerous publications predicted that the ‘revolt of the young against the old’ would help to save civilisation from the terrible damage inflicted on it by a generation steeped in the ways of the old.
The emptying out of adult identity
In recent decades, grown-up fantasies about the young have acquired an unusually desperate and confused character. So, what has changed? The main thing is that the identity of being an adult has lost much of its cultural weight and validation. Consequently, adult society often attempts to resolve the emptying out of its identity and authority by living through its young people.
Adults have become confused about how to conduct their relations with children. And this confusion is compounded by cultural trends that dispute and challenge the idea of adult authority (3). Since the 1960s glorification of youth culture, many parents have felt uncomfortable with their role as responsible adults. For some time now, parents, teachers and other adults involved with children have gone out of their way to cross the generational divide and become young people’s friends rather than mentors. Uncertainties about adulthood are invariably linked to changing ideas about childhood. In a world where maturity is disparaged as being ‘past it’, and the older generation is seen as having no special claim to wisdom, parents feel increasingly awkward about exercising authority.
Contemporary culture continually presents parents in a bad light. Popular culture portrays them as out-of-touch deadbeats who are insensitive to the needs of young people. In contrast, children are represented as essentially smart, streetwise and resourceful. This depreciation of adulthood, alongside the elevation of the child, is strikingly conveyed through TV shows and popular films. Children are regularly depicted as being morally superior to grown-ups, while their parents and other adults are depicted as craven fools. The depreciation of adulthood coincides with the idealisation of childhood and of young people.
Until the twentieth century, calling into question the power of elders focused on the manner in which authority was exercised. Youthful critics pointed to the failures, betrayals and cowardice of their elders – but they did not question the right of elders to possess authority. By contrast, over the past century the criticism of adult authority has acquired a more ideological and cultural dimension, leading to what has been described as the ‘de-authorisation of elders’. The elders no longer possess moral or cultural authority. Indeed, in recent times it is not only the authority of the old that has been called into question, but the authority of all adults.
It is this de-authorisation of adulthood that has encouraged the current tendency to defer to the youth. Time and again politicians lecture the public to ‘listen to the youth’; parenting experts have deified the ‘children’s voice’; and of course we are told that ‘children never lie’. In such circumstances, the claim that you are speaking on behalf of children or expressing the interests of the youth – or better still, getting a group of kids in front of the camera to mouth your message – is a way of legitimising your particular outlook. Speaking through the mouths of babes is now a popular pursuit amongst the European cultural elite. In France they have done it big time, with the old sanctioning the young to go out and pursue a ‘revolution’ dedicated to preserving the status quo.
Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival this weekend in London.
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