Rootless and Ruthless
Illustration by Imp KerrIt’s two in the morning and I’m bent over a laptop watching 50 homeless protesters chant “occupy!” as police drive them out of the old bank building where they were living. From The New Inquiry Magazine, No. 1: Precarity. Subscribe for $2. This is happening live: One of the occupiers has managed to get a wobbly video link up and running, and the officers guarding the doors are surrounded by a thicket of jeering cameras. Meanwhile, activists in Oakland and New York are being arrested as they attempt to take over empty corporate spaces, turning them into social centers and cooperatives. As the political classes impose austerity across the developed world, the facts of inequality and human need and the determination to do something about them are gradually becoming weaponized.
Precarity is opportunity. Fuck social mobility. Fuck security. Fuck money. Fuck rising above your class rather than with it. Fuck marriage, mortgage, monogamy, and every other small, ugly ambition we were bullied into pursuing. We should have abandoned them long before we were obliged to do so, and now we have no choice. This generation is on the cusp of waking up from the American Dream, just in time to see the urgency of the task ahead of us. We have five years until catastrophic climate change becomes a foregone conclusion, possibly far less time than that before the next massive financial crash, and 30 years of economic orthodoxy to turn around. But we also have each other, we have 20 years of indoctrination into the special sort of ruthlessness that neoliberal self-fashioning breeds in its children, and — most important — we have very little to lose. The power generation has no idea what it’s got coming.
Doomed youth isn’t so sympathetic when it’s screaming defiance in your face. Around the time that respectable center-left publications began to run hand-wringing features on “the lost generation,” I was living with a coterie of unemployed friends in London’s Turnpike Lane, watching old science-fiction series ripped off the internet and dreaming of a future where we could be proud of ourselves. We tried terribly hard to save each other, in the way that young people do, sharing out whatever meager bits of work and welfare we could get our hands on, nursing one another ineffectually through the shock of walking out of school and college into a world that didn’t want us. It took us two years to realize that we couldn’t save one another, not one by one. We had to do it together, or not at all, all of us, the lost boys and girls of the credit crunch with no jobs, no prospects, no safe places to live, none of the things we played the game for all our young lives.
“We are the 99%” began as a cry of shock for many of the largely white-collar, white-skinned, educated people populating the eponymous Tumblr blog in September 2011. It was a shock that it was happening to people like us, too. Shock at how everything we’ve been told to want and work and indebt ourselves for is out of reach, that our degrees matter so little in the end. Shock that we, too, have had our futures mortgaged by the financial elite, and all our entitled indignation makes the police not a jot less likely to beat, brutalize, and arrest us if we step out of line. Shock that our modest dreams of marriage, mortgage, security, and shopping matter so little to a global elite determined to grind every last bit of profit out of ordinary people before the next big crash.
It’s all right, though, because they were lonely little dreams, and sudden precarity has allowed us to shake ourselves awake. living precariously isn’t fun, but since young graduates and school-leavers have little choice in the matter, we may as well seize the opportunity to divest ourselves of the haggard aspirations we’ve been casting toward our entire lives. So, if you can’t find work, say fuck work. If you can’t afford an apartment, say fuck rent. If the possibility of a safe, cozy future with a house, a spouse, and somewhere for your kids to play is rapidly disappearing from the list of options, take the list and rip it up and start again. Radical politics used to include housing cooperatives, squatted estates, alternative family arrangements, and the idea of solidarity lived in practice. It’s time to dust off some of those ideas and update them for an age when movements are being overtaken by networks.
It has to be war. Occupy is the latest declaration of it: The clue is in the name. Over the past two years, I’ve seen organizing, occupying, squatting, resisting; I’ve seen swarms of students and activists storming the palaces of power in Whitehall, young people fighting the police at the doors of the Wall Street Stock Exchange; alternative communities were being built in the dead spaces hoarded by the propertied elite to accumulate capital as millions turn chill and go hungry. The cracks in capitalism are getting wider, and if we are smart enough and brave enough we can force those cracks open until the whole thing shakes.
We are the new young left: precarious, rootless, ruthless, entitled, digitally enabled, and we are beginning to set the agenda. The Occupy trend and the student and people’s movements that preceded it in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East have been spearheaded by a new class of dissident — the social group that economic journalist Paul Mason calls “the graduate with no future.”
We are only beginning to feel the significance of this demographic. To understand what these protests are about, you have to understand what it feels like to be 21 and staring into a future that’s closing in front of you like a great, dark mouth. First you get scared, and then you get angry — and the political potential of that anger should not be underestimated. It’s the sort of anger that looks for answers and finds them on the streets and in the books our parents put aside when solidarity ceased to be a word for polite company.
The Occupy movement is throwing cold water on the 30-year mass hallucination of the neoliberal consensus. It is giving the lie to the idea that there is no alternative to a world of speculative financial bubbles and individual immiseration. The gradual monopolization of wealth and power by a very small section of society was made acceptable to the rest of the population only because of the clever marketing of the fantasy that we might, with enough hard work and expensive education, break through to those rarified circles of large cars, healthy kids, and meaningful work. It was the fuck-you fantasy of social mobility, the future as lottery, bought for cheap at a drugstore and played out on television with scantily clad young women spinning the wheel.
The narrative of class transcendence held up the superstructure of free-market ideology. Now that narrative is collapsing, threatening to bring the whole thing crashing down. So let it come down. There is more than enough room for us to build new lives in the rubble.