In 1930, the Communist thinker Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prisons Notebooks that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying, and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
The mass, radical demonstrations of young people in the last months have caught many by surprise. From Greece to France, from Italy to Britain, crowds of young women and men, often teenagers, have taken to the streets and protested against their governments. This protest has been mostly characterized by direct action and the refusal of political affiliation. In addition, young protesters have shot thousands of photos and videos to visualize their protest. By disseminating these images in the internet, young people have been able to tackle the official media representations of the protest and recount their stories by themselves. Unexpectedly, youth radicalism has become again one of the main issues in the political agenda. Reactions from politics and the public opinion have ranged from stereotypical scaremongering to open support. What has become clear very rapidly, however, is that the demands of young people can no longer be ignored.
What these protests tell us is that the new generations are not necessarily distant from politics, as generally argued. The real point here, is what we mean by politics. If politics is a party game played by a limited elite of white male adult upper class lads, young people are effectively distant from politics. If politics is the process of conflict and negotiation between different groups of society, the protest of young people is the most political act, for it is the way in which young people assert their public presence as a collective group. In this sense, the protest of young people is not simply occupation, but repossession of the public space by a "subaltern group" (subaltern for young people are not a constitutive part of the ruling class that decides upon their lives - the protest of schoolgirls and schoolboys who cannot vote and stand up against the rise of the tuition fees that the government wants them to pay is a case in point),
What students protest tells us is also that the narcotizing representation of society promoted by mainstream media, however hegemonial it is, cannot completely stifle conflict where the rifts between different groups of society become too evident (as in the case of tuition fees). In addition, the skill of young people in using the new commercial media (e.g. Facebook) and consumption object (e.g. iPhones) as a means to protest shows us how subaltern groups are never passive targets, but agents able at using the new consumption items to their own ends.
Of course, young people by themselves cannot save the world (differently from what the Italian writer Elsa Morante wrote on the spur of 1968 in her book Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini). First, they are far from being a homogeneous group. The most important rift is between those who are in education and those who are outside education, which is intertwined (but does not coincide) with class divisions. Among students, those who seem most militant seem to come from a middle-class background (especially where the parents work in the public administration) or from a working-class background. These young people are those who experience more directly the collapse of the post-war consensus – and of its “meritocratic” rhetoric based on personal improvement through education. Many students coming from a middle class background know that they will be asked to work more, in more insecure conditions, and with less (or no) welfare insurances as compared to their parents. Students coming from a working-class background are aware that the reform of the school and university system will thwart the possibility for working-class teenagers (e.g. their siblings) to improve their social condition through education (as themselves are trying to do).
A new “political generation” arises when a group of young people enter collectively the public arena on the basis of a new, pervasive and urgent issue. This issue becomes the defining trait of the political identity of those young people. For the 1917 generation of Communists, for example, that issue was revolution; for the 1945 generation of resistance fighters, that issue was Antifascism; for the 1968 generation, that issue was the Vietnam war and anti-authoritarism. It is too early to say whether we can speak of a 2008-2010 generation. In case, we might probably speak of a “generation of the crisis”. The real point, here, is what the term crisis refers to. So far, the Western governments have tried to turn a crisis of the financial economy into a crisis of the welfare state, of public education, of all the remnants of social justice inherited from the Keynesian era. If young people and all the other groups who are affected by these policies are able to form a new “historical bloc” and fight back, however, the meaning of the term might shift into “crisis of neoliberalism”. This would be the best legacy that the 2008-2010 generation might bequeath to the generations to come.