Sun, sea and working-class hedonism

It is a fear of adulthood, not the spectre of neoliberalism, that is keeping today's youth bombed out of their minds.

Neil Davenport

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A clubbing holiday to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza is often seen as a rite-of-passage for British youth. The island has also become a magnet for youngsters seeking work around the clubs in order to extend the sun-baked fun for longer than two weeks. But there are those who prefer to talk up the ‘dark side’: behind the clubland glitz and glamour of Ibiza, and other Med hotspots like Magaluf and Faliraki, it seems there lurks a seedy underbelly where criminality, violence, exploitation and prostitution are rife.

The apparent shadowy side of Ibiza, and the dangers it poses to young clubbers, is the subject of a new study, Deviance and Risk on Holiday, by British sociologist Daniel Briggs. Influenced by the work of Slavoj Žižek, Briggs’ thesis is that young people’s wild hedonism is a form of ‘unfreedom’ because their behaviour has been scripted for them by a relentless consumerist culture. It may appear as a free decision to reject any social constraints at Ibiza, including gorging on Olympian levels of drugs and booze, but this is the ‘free-market ideology at work’ according to Briggs. In the process, young people have become gullible automatons to a giant money-making scheme. In other words, the bombed-out youth at Ibiza are just too dim to realise they’re merely being manipulated by ‘capitalismo extremiso’ at great expense to their wallets and physical wellbeing.

Briggs wins no marks for originality here. Borrowing the language of radical academia to slam the drinking, unthinking masses has become as mainstream as an Ibiza club anthem. No amount of neutral-sounding jargon can disguise a familiar class-loathing and hatred for the trappings of a modern-day consumer society. Briggs admits that upper- and middle-class youth in the more exclusive domains of Ibiza indulge in exactly the same levels of excess as the building-site lads he follows around. The difference, however, is that weary headshaking at working-class consumption habits and lifestyles is always a way to deride their economic position in society. Highlighting their supposed ‘stupidity’ through their drug and alcohol intake attempts to naturalise class inequalities. ‘These people’ get the lowly positions in society they clearly deserve.

Risky pleasures

Briggs has to admit that there is nothing new or novel about hedonistic weekends or holiday blowouts. All-night dancing fuelled by pills and booze has been a youthful pleasure for young British working-class people since the days of the Northern Soul all-nighters in the late Sixties. The skilled working classes’ desire to save money and spend it on expensive clothes and holidays – a modernist aspiration if ever there was one – has a familiar history, too. The only difference with Ibiza is that it’s done on a bigger, grander and more hi-tech scale than previously. True, there have been numerous fatalities in Ibiza due to drunken antics gone horribly wrong (like falling from hotel balconies), but the apparent life-threatening risks to clubbers that Briggs alludes to are overstated.

Besides, the fact that the young people in his study want to take risks in a cautionary age, where every facet of existence comes with a health warning, is to be commended. Briggs tells many a sorry tale of youngsters seeking work in the clubs only to be exploited, rack up debt and fall into crime. Of course, there are huge limitations in seeking a living through the club scene; the low wages and casual nature of the work militate against ever earning very much. But such a life is still preferable to the current fad for living indefinitely with mum and dad. At least these ‘career tourists’ have the guts to seek out a living in Ibiza. The last thing young people need is another academic or commentator trying to persuade them that it’s a dangerous, terrifying world out there.

So for all the lurid tales, both in the press and in this book, even the very worst of the young people’s behaviour here isn’t tantamount to the end of civilisation. Most of us can relate to that youthful feeling of invincibility when boozing and partying. And it is also the case that, despite some clubbers getting into tricky situations with bouncers or others, on the whole they come back from Ibiza hungover but unscathed.

The old hedonism and the new

Nevertheless, it would be equally wrong to believe that there is nothing new in the patterns of behaviour detailed here. Indeed, through researching their attitudes to Ibiza, drinking and drugs, Briggs’ ethnographic research has provided some useful insights on what’s changed among British youth, particularly for the working classes. From how and why young people get drunk through to their attitudes towards work and relationships, there are destructive influences having a malign impact on young people. At times, he hits the bullseye regarding the withering of class identity, work ethic and community ties, but his preoccupation with the ‘neoliberal ideology’ means he’s unwilling to transform such interesting footnotes into defining chapters.

So what has changed and why, if at all, is it significant? In the past, weekend and holiday booze-ups were a release from the physical demands of back-breaking factory work. It was a brief moment to let off steam after the crushing monotony of unsatisfying graft. In The Conditions of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels notes that drunkards vomiting in the gutter were the brutalised consequences of a brutalising social system.

Most of the ‘lads’ in Briggs study work casually on building sites, which suggests they are not always in work, while many others are either unemployed or part-time drug dealers. As Briggs notes, for some it seems that Ibiza is simply an extension of their lives back home rather than a form of escapism from a 12-hour shift. It seems the nature of hedonism, then, has changed. Whereas once it was a therapeutic means to blot out the working week, for a significant number it’s an extension of an indolent, precarious lifestyle.

Avoiding adulthood

In Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, such boozy excess by the main character Arthur Seaton was seen as a brief moment before adult responsibilities of marriage and family beckoned. The discipline of work and raising a family quickly replaced long drinking benders at weekends and beyond. For bohemians with independent means, the masses’ willingness to embrace marriage and raising children at a relatively young age was always a sign of their ‘dumb’, conformist tendencies. In fact, embracing adult responsibilities was always a way through which working-class people could be taken seriously in society. Even today, when a mortgage, marriage and kids are sneered at for being straight and ‘bourgeois’, taking on these trappings of adulthood still shows substance and seriousness – and, for the working masses, being taken seriously was very important.

The same was also true of their relationship to work. Holding down regular employment, even during periods of economic insecurity, was important to the self-identity of the working class and recognition that economic independence was allied to political independence. It is true that the ‘job for life’ economy of the immediate postwar years has been replaced by insecure, low-paid employment for many. Equally, the housing crisis also makes it difficult for young adults to establish a family home. Nevertheless, other economic periods throughout British history have been equally tough and this didn’t automatically lead to couples avoiding adult responsibilities. The sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott demonstrated how, in the 1920s, the extended family network provided practical and financial support for a young adult couple raising a family.

The desire of the young people in Briggs’ book seems to be to free themselves from any adult responsibilities. This isn’t a couple of weeks of fun in the sun, but a desire for an existence of necking pills and boozing indefinitely. The oft-repeated phrase associated with Ibiza is ‘living the dream’. It’s meant to denote living the high life – always a good thing – but here it also means being free from the adult responsibilities associated with work, raising a family, politics or basic societal norms. The palpable rage and bitterness that some of the lads carry around with them is not born of old-fashioned class anger – and Briggs admits that class identity does not exist among those he is studying in any meaningful way – but a resentment towards the expectations of responsibility that come with adult life. These Ibiza escapists feel a strong resentment towards anything or anybody that may impinge on their own sense of self, be that work, relationships or community expectations of behaviour. The phrase ‘we do want we want’ among the lads is identical to that of the rioters interviewed in 2011 and suggests similar corrosive influences at work. It isn’t the wonders of flash advertising that are shaping norms here, but the narcissism of therapy culture.

Of course, many young people have found adjusting from adolescence to adulthood difficult and, in their twenties, some will experience ‘lost years’ along the way. But in Briggs’ study, there’s a palpable sense that adulthood, in terms of responsibility, independence and a desire to make an impact on society, holds no appeal whatsoever for the Ibiza ravers. Historically, working-class youth, compared to slacker-minded students and hippie dropouts, were often quicker to learn to drive, get a job, marry and have kids than the middle classes. That the lads in the study aspire to behave like bohemian students indicates that something fundamentally has changed in British society.

High culture in crisis

Briggs argues that such hedonistic identities have been shaped by rampant ‘neoliberalism’ and a celebrity culture that champions excess and ‘hyper consumption’. But this line of thinking side-steps why traditional adult identities no longer have any appeal. Why has the presentist expression of ‘seizing the moment’ become a key identity for the young people in his study?

Briggs discusses how the cohort in his sample have become ‘decoupled’ from established and traditional social values grounded in work, family and community. He blames neoliberalism for eroding such strong pillars of society, but it is the erosion of political certainties, rather than economic uncertainty, which helps explain the changes. The ideological victory of the free market over socialism by the early Nineties had a number of important ramifications. Firstly, sensing a degree of isolation from the rest of society, the political elites began distancing themselves from the towering pillars of Western civilisation – its achievements, values and cultural excellence. It was as if they finally agreed with postmodern relativists from a decade previously that the Western canon was no better, just different, from lower cultural forms.

The desire to be ‘relevant’ to what it imagined the masses were interested in didn’t democratise cultural or political participation, but devalued society’s intellectual content. The outcome flattered laziness and encouraged a suspicion towards higher cultural forms throughout society. It is often forgotten, but popular culture in the past often acted as gateway to higher cultural forms. In the 1970s and 1980s, precocious youth would utilise high art, literature and avant-garde music as a springboard to challenge the limitations of British society. (See A joyless depiction of the post-punk era.) The withering away of high-cultural reference points in society has had the knock-on effect of debasing popular culture and encouraging a proud philistinism and nihilism right across society.

As part of the ‘relevance’ agenda, British society has undergone a sort of cultural socialisation in reverse, whereby youth culture has become indistinguishable from popular culture. Anything from the BBC’s wall-to-wall Glastonbury festival coverage to the release of a new Arctic Monkeys album can be treated as a matter of grave cultural importance. Briggs is right when examining the queasy content of BBC3 shows, such as Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, or how Radio 1 seems to exhort young people to live for the weekend only. Such developments have hardly gone unnoticed. Big Issue founder and former Workers Revolutionary Party organiser, John Bird, was on to something when he said ‘if you talk about high culture these days, you’re called a snob. It’s absolutely grim.’

Re-socialising society

Consequently, the traditional script of adulthood that once helped socialise young people has been eroded more subtly and perniciously by the instrumentalist turn of our education system and wider culture. The tyranny of ‘relevance’ means that young people are not furnished with an historical imagination that can conceptualise change and transformation. This is important because without it, young people only see themselves ‘in the present’ and therefore have no understanding of themselves and the society they are meant to be part of. This lack of a sense of historical change excludes the possibility of personal transformation and encourages the type of negative fatalism displayed in this book.

As an experienced sixth-form teacher, I find that one of the biggest maturing influences on teenagers is the grasping of how ideas connect with, and shape, wider society. As such, adult society can appear dynamic and susceptible to change. It forces self-centred teenagers to start occupying their minds with something other than their own narrow and banal existences. The presentism expressed by the young ravers in Briggs study, the elevation of what they have experienced over what they may have learnt and understood, has been influenced by the decline of an historical imagination from the elites downwards. A society that has lost the capacity for historical thinking ends up losing an effective mechanism to socialise young people.

All this is compounded by young people’s alienation from adult norms and, it seems, older adults in the setting of a bar or pub. It seems part of the appeal of Ibiza and the Club 18-30 setup is that young people can get away from the informal, communal restrictions of the local pub. Elsewhere, Briggs reveals how, back in the UK, young clubbers bypass pubs altogether by downing half a bottle of vodka around their friends’ houses before heading to a club. Not only are they more likely to get blind drink very quickly but, devoid of any older adult influences, their behaviour is more likely to be erratic and out of control.

Where once appearing sober even while thoroughly inebriated was the norm, now young adults put on a pantomime display of acting recklessly in order to prove they’re not ‘boring people’ – that is, they’re not like adults. And rather than a weekend blowout as a way to cope with work, now it seems that displays of hedonism are considered to be someone’s lifework. Among the people observed by Briggs, hedonism has become their defining identity and acts of hedonism their crowning achievement.

All of this, however, doesn’t mean that Ibiza and superclubs are a problem in need of a regulatory solution. That young people can book cheap flights and have the capacity for ‘hyper-consumption’ and holiday excess are the hallmarks of material progress in modern society. It is equally positive that young people want to take risks, experiment and aspire to the good life of luxury and enjoyment. On this count, Briggs is wrong to bemoan the consumerism of the young and, at times, this book seems like an invitation for radical Islamists to pay a visit with bombs. Nevertheless, Deviance and Risk on Holiday provides important snapshots on the shocking failure of British society to socialise young people into adult responsibilities and adult patterns of drinking.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics/sociology teacher in London. He is speaking at the debate Last orders: calling time on the pub at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 20 October.

Deviance and Risk on Holiday: An Ethnography of British Tourists in Ibiza, by Daniel Briggs, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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