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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-06-11

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The young have been radicalised by Covid. How will they react?

Spotlight

By Paul Mason PAUL MASON IS A JOURNALIST, WRITER AND FILMMAKER

They have been tested, examined, judged and graded since childhood; told they must excel, compete and succeed. But thanks to Covid-19, across Europe a generation of school and college leavers face a bleak present and an uncertain future. When the Guardian asked Europeans in their late teens and early 20s how the pandemic has made them feel, you might have expected an outpouring of frustration. What arrived was a critique of capitalism. Like their predecessors in the uprisings that followed the 2008 crisis, this generation is ready to draw systemic conclusions from the way political elites have handled the pandemic. They know they will be paying higher taxes, carrying bigger personal debts and facing more uncertainty than any generation since the second world war. They understand that, on top of the aftermath of Covid-19, they will be dealing with a climate emergency. And they are certain they cannot influence the political present. This is an explosive mixture. Young people are responding to the easing of lockdown restrictions with demonstrative partying. Wherever there is political protest they have turned up in large and defiant groups. But behind the release there is deep frustration. Because while older people have mainly borne the physical health risks of Covid, the young have borne the mental health risks. “The past year was a wooden stage and I fell right through it,” one respondent writes. Another tells of experiencing something equivalent to a “midlife crisis” at the age of 22. The young were ordered to put their lives on hold to protect a generation that had lived theirs. If that had been accompanied by money, support and above all some gestural sympathy towards the socially liberal views of the under24s, the blow might have been softened. Instead they heard their lifestyles ridiculed as “woke”. So the question is, how do the young react? They will search for political alternatives. If I had to predict where this goes next, it would not be towards the anarchism of the early antiglobalisation movement, but towards the kind of “climate Bolshevism” advocated by the Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm. Social democracy, says Malm, has no theory of catastrophe: the same could be said of liberalism and mainstream Green politics. They are not designed for urgent action. Their replacement has to be radical, centralist and merciless. This generation has a theory of catastrophe. They have seen how effectively centralised power can be wielded; how swiftly injustice can be meted out; how hollow the claims to legitimacy of a government that cannot organise a lockdown campaign. If they discover a new, collective project, I doubt it will be gradualist, or its ambitions small.

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