Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Puerta de Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, Bloombergville in New York City, and the current “street riots” in London have been only some of the sites of dissent in which young people have attempted to counter perceived injustice embodied by dictators, self-interested politicians and insatiable corporate and financial institutions. The global economic system is under extreme pressure, and these dissenters are not just reacting to the uncertainty; they are taking advantage of it in an attempt imagine a more “democratic” world.
While it is in the Middle East and Europe that disenfranchised young people have most recently demonstrated the power of dissent, this is not a peril from which the U.S. is exempt. With more austerity measures looming, young Americans who grew up believing that a college education and good grades would secure their futures are finding out that the meritocratic ideal does not necessarily hold true. Many more are discovering that a university education is completely out of reach. With approximately one percent of Americans holding 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, along with consistent double digit unemployment rates for young Americans under 25, it is foolish to believe that such an uprising could not occur in the United States.
Not four years ago, a generation was promised “change.” This generation has since become estranged from political parties; however, they are not apolitical. They constantly share political commentaries on Facebook and Twitter; they read books such as Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land; former French diplomat, resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Stephane Hessel’s Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous!; and The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee, which has enjoyed enormous success on Amazon over the past year. These books threaten what Hessel calls “peaceful insurrections,” as well as a more extreme insurrection foretold by the Invisible Committee. We are already seeing both scenarios abroad.
What started off as an “Arab Spring” has inspired the first “glocal youth movement”—a global manifestation with local variants. Dissidents worldwide are inspiring each other through online communities, taking over public squares and streets, attracting like-minded individuals, and then organizing assemblies, actions and projects. They are not rebels without a cause; they are “indignant” activists who intend to subvert an oppressive global economic system. These young people are asking fundamental questions such as “Why is there such disparity?” and “How can we fight forces that inhibit democracy?” The reappropriation of these public spaces has had varied results. In the Middle East, dictators have been overthrown. In New York, settlers have been arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct.” In London, they are vilified and called “hoodlums.” While some oppose dictators, and others oppose politicians and bankers, what all of these movements are fighting against is capitalist and patriarchal oppression.
One BBC reporter accused the young Londoners of “mindless, brainless work of people committing arson.” This is an over-simplification. The riots are the product of marginalization and hopelessness. The cause of these riots is not mindless, but rather expresses the desperation felt by those who are most affected by the austerity measures and feel there is no other way to have their “voice” heard. This is a battle between the haves and the have-nots—and there are decidedly more have-nots in this world.
In Madrid, the “15th of May” movement, a very different variation of this glocal youth movement, has demonstrated the discipline and hope of the young “participants.” While some have called this movement “vague,” it is shockingly comprehensive and detailed. The movement is composed of commissions that organize the functions of the movement (legal, action, activities, neighborhood, national, international, infrastructure, etc.) and specialized “work projects” ranging from culture, education, politics, economy, animal rights, environment, social work, feminist, gender and sexuality issues, science and technology, religion, and migration, to name a few. As politics become more polarized, young Spaniards are searching for new options; they are holding assemblies and are experimenting with how a democracy ought to function in the 21st century. Participants submit proposals and have a vote in the decisions of the movement.
Currently, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards are connected via email lists and Facebook, creating a network of people that can quickly be activated. While news reports and politicians would have the general public believe that the encampments at the Puerta de Sol have dispersed, any visitor to the plaza can see that the indignant dissenters continue active in the plaza, and have even built elaborate shelters in attempt to establish permanency. “Punto Sol,” or Sun Point, acts as a hub to organize international and city-wide assemblies, public demonstrations, workshops, art projects, music and street theatre that attempt to disrupt everyday life with simple demonstrations of democratic discourse.
Let this be a warning. Unlike many young people in the U.K., the Spanish activists still have hope in their socialist government and their capacity to change it. If financial institutions no longer have faith in politicians’ ability to lead, what will happen when Americans give up? The global financial crisis has incited a new sort of activism, which could soon jump over the pond. We do not yet know what young Americans are capable of doing. These will not be just angry, rebellious kids; they will be indignant activists who have nothing to lose.