Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 324 | Julio 2008


Latin America

What’s up, Old Man? A Look at Young People’s Politics

Young people’s political participation which is starting to cause concern in Nicaragua, has been sparking reflection in Latin America for some years. This article is one such look at the subject. While not specifically about Nicaragua, it fits many aspects of our reality.

Sergio Balardini

We’re sick of being compared to the generation of old militants who never stop pointing out that things were better in their times, and that they were the best. If that’s so true, why are we like we are now? And what’s left to do?” This is how young people starting out in politics are speaking today.

Many adults, particularly former militants, criticize the new generations for their supposed lack of commitment. But we argue that before formulating sententious ques-tionings, it’s worth putting things into context: the profound political, economic and cultural changes of recent decades transformed the modes of youth participation in Latin America. What was previously seen as an arena for sacrifice, utopias and discipline is now conceived of as a place for face-to-face dialogue and the possibility of obtaining concrete results, in which games and fun also have their role.

A little bit of history...

Recurrently, in both the media and party or politicized circles, a moment comes in which the topic de rigueur is to characterize the new generations as apathetic and indifferent. Those who sustain such criticism are frequently older former party members who developed some form of social or political militancy during their youth in the epic sixties and seventies, which have now taken on the proportions of myth. Given such expressions, more often than not morally loaded with a sententious vocation, we need an analysis that reveals the contexts in which youths of different moments have socialized to find coordinates that will help us avoid abstract or a-historical comparisons. Furthermore, if we’re to get into the question of the changes in youth participation in recent decades, we need to take a quick look at history, because history provides perspective and helps construct meaning.

What were the political-cultural keys of the sixties and seventies? We propose as central the concepts of change as the transformation of reality and volition as an expression of participation in determining decisions, the motor force and direction of that transformation. These two concepts were etched in a context of strong political and ideological radicalization, the result of the Socialism-Capitalism dispute and of the decolonization and national liberation processes, with Algeria, Vietnam and Cuba as paradigms. This triad defined with great clarity the characteristics assumed by political participation during those years: volition as the motor force of radical changes. Politics was volition, and was transforming.

A generational dimension also emerged at that time with a protagonistic presence of young people, who with the fervor of greater autonomy began expanding their sphere of influence and gradually taking control, first and foremost of the decisions relevant to their own lives.

This was largely made possible by the post-war welfare state, which allowed them more time for themselves, at the same time as the arenas in which peers came together (school, university) were also expanding. The welfare state also allowed young people, in their role as workers, to decide about their own income, which was previously destined to support the family. What began as generational disputes in the family gradually projected out and ended up taking on other fields and demands. The rejection of previous institutionality slowly became generalized. The fight against authoritarianism and injustice spread in imaginary concentric circles from the family to the school system, to the world of work and finally to the political struggle for world transformation.

Exceptional period of
ruptures by young people

What produced the exceptionality of the sixties, then, was the combination of the generational struggle and the political and ideological radicalization. That circumstance was expressed in the special social, cultural and political leadership role taken on by those young people, which crossed and challenged geography.

It was a time in which young people broke with their parents’ world and with their parents themselves, and this was reflected in politics. Their reference points were either their peers—other young people, which produced a new institutionality with new leaders and organizations popping up here and there—or their “grandparents” (Marx, Lenin, Mao, Perón, Fanon and Marcuse, among others). No “parents” were political reference points for that generation.

However, all this must not be interpreted as a juvenile fad without any platforms of ideas. On the contrary, such platforms were very present and became the symbolic mortar of the era. As Beatriz Sarlo pointed out, “The guerrilla movement of the seventies, or the political radicalization, was not an emotional adventure. That ideological density is what has to be restituted to eradicate the idea that it was a youth adventure.”

In a critical text of the period (1976), Daniel Bell points to what he considers the greatest evil of his time (the early seventies): an extension of political demands to include a new menu, with an appetite for services that would improve the “quality of life” in the capitalist countries themselves. In Bell’s view, these requirements eroded the economy, put the capital gains rate at risk and thus contradicted the capitalist economy’s very development. He warned in his essay that politics—volition—betrayed the economy and necessarily had to generate an important crisis. This formulation, expressed in the context of the central countries, would have its correlate in the thesis on the “excess of democracy,” which tried to give an account of the situation in the peripheral countries.

With the state beseeched and sometimes instrumental¬ized by grassroots sectors demanding responses to their needs and their calls for justice, sectors of capital interpreted the crisis of the state and its effects on governability as the product of an “overload of demands” that had to stop.

A new era: technological change,
unemployment and skepticism

The clash of interests inherent in the crisis played itself out in a rightwing solution, via liberal reforms to break up a welfare state that was taking on water on all sides. These reforms were supported by fierce repression and proscription, unleashed through successive coups under the umbrella of the National Security Doctrine and guided by the reports on the “crisis of governability” produced by Crozier and Huntington for the Trilateral Commission. This response to the social and political mobilization sought to bring to a close the boom of grassroots demands and struggles in Latin America.

The following stage saw an acceleration of changes aimed at modifying the conditions of the sphere of production—through automation, computer processing and new management models—with the consequent reduction in the number of jobs and in salaries. The demand for greater productivity increases was accompanied by the fear of losing one’s job and a reduction of struggles for social and labor rights.

Meanwhile, in many cases the democracies that returned to the region during the eighties and nineties had to deal with the requirement that these reforms be legitimized and consolidated. Citizens gradually got the sensation that an era had arrived in which the state of things could not be significantly transformed. This went hand in hand with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the touted end of the Cold War ideologies, an idea that had its invested advocates. Traditional participation was increasingly viewed as not very relevant and disillusionment could be detected. As a result of all this, the participatory flow fell to a minimal expression. Although recovered with each new hope, it lasted for less time and skepticism tended to establish itself as the prevailing climate of our era.

Trom the cold war bipolarity
to today’s global reorganization

We need to ask about social and political participation generally, and that of young people in particular, in this context, so different from the previous period, in order to grasp its enormous differences.

As Pilar Calveiro explained in her work Política y/o violencia. Una aproximación a la guerrilla de los años 70 (Politics and/or violence. An approximation to the guerrilla movement of the seventies), “The bipolar cold war organization was based on a constellation of arenas and values that claimed the state, public and political spheres as principles of universality. It recognized struggle, confrontation and revolution as, if not unique political forms, certainly valid and valuable ones.

“National, ideological and gender borders were defined and protected. There was an extraordinary tendency to classify, especially with respect to binary forms of organization—exploited and exploiters, just and unjust, right and wrong… As part of their achievements, people demanded the discipline, reason and effort that the institutions had imprinted on them. It could be said that, as a tendency, these features organized their world vision.

“In contrast, the global reorganization we are witnessing has constructed a totally different constellation, based on valuing civil society and the private sphere in opposition to the state and the political system, almost always demonized. It encourages concertation and, with some hypocrisy, condemns all open forms of violence, especially political.

“It is moving toward the rupture or erasing of borders—by transnationals, hybrids, transgenics. Diversities are exalted and, to allow free expression, so is organization into networks. The personalizing and individualizing of everything is defended, as is feeling and enjoyment. These values, which hide an authoritarian potential as powerful as the previous ones—although expressed differently—are presented as virtually unchallengeable in today’s world, precisely because they are part of the reconfiguring of subjects and their self-identity.”

Utopia and radical change left behind

In the sixties and seventies, politics was experienced as the place from which to transform reality, in a perspective laced with utopia that acquired meaning, involved values and implied the volition for and possibility of radical change. “We were convinced we could change everything,” said José Pablo Feinmann in Juliana Periodista (Journalist Juliana). “The situation was totally different from today’s; we were sure we were witnessing an exceptional historical event. The Vietnam war, the liberation of third world peoples, the Cuban Revolution, Mao in China... They were years in which the idea of changing the world was part of being young. We had the certainty that anything was possible.”

That sense of politics as a place for transforming the world turned inside out in the eighties and nineties, when economics subordinated it and attempted to convert it into pure technique and administration. Both politics and transformation were sidelined because it was argued that things can’t change.

It also meant naturalizing social relations. Naturalizing meant recognizing that there were poor before and there will always be the poor. Such naturalization conceals the fact that there is no nature at work there, but human decisions: it has to do with the society, the culture and the politics. To this must be added something we all know today: that politics didn’t even fill its promise of administering honestly and efficiently. It administered, but making a devaluated transformation of what was real, often with little efficiency and a great deal of corruption.

With respect to society and culture, we are now living in times that celebrate the instantaneous, a narcissistic culture that seeks immediate satisfaction and falling back on the individual and on the effects of a kind of displacement from the public to the private sphere and from the long-lasting to the ephemeral.

The generational confrontation also takes a different tone: “Faced with other adults: percentages of parents who would like to be young forever, politicians motivated only by power and money, employers who make their riches in murky businesses, are concerned about facelifts and their personal trainer, play golf, go out at night, have a good time, hang out with their daughters’ boyfriends, already know it all and don’t care about anything or anybody,” as Feinmann describes it.

So, wherever we look, the nineties could be described as the sixties in reverse, what until yesterday was an alternative is brought into the mainstream and what until recently was “mainstream” becomes just another possibility in a wide open menu.

Other forms of participation

Which young people participate now and how do they do it? Leslie Serna described some new characteristics of young people’s participation in 1998.

- New causes for mobilizing, among which could be mentioned defense of the environment, the promotion and defense of human, sexual and reproductive rights, and support of the indigenous cause.

- Focus on immediate action, geared to quick and effective resolution “here and now” of the situations they’re facing. This could link up with a radical long-term solution, but they reject basing themselves on a non-evident future and seek to start constructing a new type of society in the present through a different ethics of action, also resulting from lack of confidence in representation. In any event, “changing the world” starts now, contributing to the change in the world immediately surrounding them.

- Positioning the individual in the organization, which is far from the conceptions in which the collective mass dilutes one in favor of a “higher” interest. Young people currently recover the individual dimension as something fundamental and aren’t willing to lose their individuality in a mass organization, which leads them to participate in organizations of another size and setting and in specific initiatives, often with a low degree of institutionalization.

- Emphasis on horizontality in the debate and coordination processes, with the promotion of more horizontal working group, roundtable or network formats, looking for respect for autonomy, very distrustful and rejecting top-down or democratic centralist entities.

Party-less political actions

Today’s young people constantly negotiate and rarely confront. They learned to negotiate from childhood, with their parents, with adults generally, and know how to resolve the apparent paradox of negotiating and guiding themselves toward direct action. Looked at from the seventies, this presumed paradox would involve diluting the tactics in the strategy, objective and ultimate ends. But as Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.” Taking over a school is just a way to be sure its roof get fixed and not a moment of accumulation along the road to a revolutionary future.

When today’s young people take part, they try to do it in arenas with concrete, proximate face-to-face relations, in which effectiveness is linked to the effort made, where the product of their participation is visible or tangible. They take time-bound actions, with concrete claims and demands related to their life by a certain proximity, not channeled through traditional organizations.

Contrary to what happened in the seventies, these young people don’t worry about the “organizational balance”—party-building, for example—but about the concrete balance of what got resolved, a balance sheet of results, whether it be socio-community actions, cultural management or denunciations. We’ve seen this in Argentina and other places, where they have protested massively in the streets or in silent marches linked to situations of injustice, demonstrated on behalf of public education, collaborated as volunteers helping in cases of natural disasters, repudiating the action or inaction of state entities—particularly the police, going out to work in territories “abandoned” by the State, making effigies of people responsible for human rights violations and coming out against the coups of the past.

We’ve seen them in political actions not led by a party, even though some young party members took part in them. They are more inclined to get involved in projects of a concrete initiative than with those aimed at representing interests. It’s not that they’re protecting themselves in a disinterested apathy and have no answers: in their new sensitivity, the motivations, places and instances of participation respond ever less to the traditional channels.

They are no longer in parties

To their devaluation of politics as an instrument of change, young people frequently also experience it as an arena of manipulation in the service of some leader, in which corruption also appears to differing degrees. Partisan politics doesn’t seduce massive contingents of young people. Many of those who do get involved visualize politics as a place for professional activism, with a strong technical profile and in accord with technocratic politics. Others see it as an employment office in times of high unemployment. The social refutation of politics reached the point of coming up with this synthesis: if the person who takes part is a grassroots young person, “he got a job,” if from the middle-class sectors, “he’s stealing” and if from the upper sectors “he doesn’t like to work” or “doesn’t know what to do with his life.”

We must also recognize there are those who, having had some kind of socialization linked to politics understood as transformation, favored by their closeness to activists of previous decades, still work inside party structures with the conviction that even now things can change and that the work has to be done because injustices abound.

Militancy and the violence of yesterday

In generational terms, the militants of the sixties and seventies bore a very strong moral mandate that can be understood in both a positive and negative sense. A mandate of discipline, of morals, of duty that demanded and underpinned each of its actions; links in a grander project In this framework, “militancy” was linked to a politics burdened with elements of hierarchy, discipline and top-down structures, which built a closed artifact that was difficult to permeate. Likewise, the terms in which the antagonisms were posed, as a radical exclusion of the other, included a “friend-enemy” logic in which the elimination of the other was a possible outcome. Questions of security, cultural morals, rigidities and certainties defined a militant who associated solidarity with sacrifice. The existence of certainties function in many cases to legitimate short cuts and methods that would hypothetically bring the just times faster, with the known consequences.

But, situating things in their proper place and time, we shouldn’t forget, as Pilar Calveiro says, that “the radical young people of the seventies had learned the political value of violence in a society that had used it from many years earlier and they militarized their revolutionary practice influenced by the foco theories of Che, cream of the revolutionary circles in the sixties and seventies. They were, in consequence, a faithful product of their society and of the political controversies of the period. They can’t be viewed as a sudden sprouting of madness, but constituted a phenomenon consistent with their moment and country, from which they gathered some of their more brilliant and more tragic traits.

Today’s participation

Starting in the nineties we find a relatively greater presence of young people who participate in informal and nontraditional arenas and organizations, who don’t like to call their practice “militancy” and who also try to have a good time, detaching themselves from the image of the suffering militant, who seemed to bear the load of too much guilt and responsibilities and to leave little room for entertainment and daily life.

Instead of committing themselves from a closed moral order and rigid duty, their participation refers to a conjunction of ethics and esthetics, with attention to ways, processes and figures. It is concerned as much with how things are done as with the objective sought. The political aspect is made up of an esthetic of ethics and an ethics of esthetics. In this new scene, one glimpses young people willing to take part in actions sifted with an educational play aspect, an expressive-communicative component, which indicates the innovative presence of children’s culture in the field of politics, beyond the issue of whether the demands are general or specifically youthful. In tune with that, an effective appeal can no longer be made from the discourse of pure ideas if there’s no evidence behind it of examples and the practice sustaining them. In this regard, one recognizes the recycled remains of operations closest to publicity marketing.

They are challenging the parties

The forms of participation that many youth are proposing today would have been impugned and vetoed in former times. But it’s important to understand that we’re facing the emergence of a different sensitivity: it’s no longer just about engaging in a conscious and responsible action; it also has to be free and enjoyable.

At present, many young people take part in socio-cultural and socio-community projects and wonder about the meaning of their practices, which implies a politicization process in the most positive sense of the term. Others are doing it in the disputes of party politics. In this regard, it’s important to understand that their contribution to constructing a participatory civil society makes parties nervous by urging them to be better. Yesterday, today and in the future there will be party militants, just as there will be those who engage in socio-community actions and those who participate in socio-cultural projects. The beneficial thing is to recognize that all this wealth is necessary, that it must coexist with autonomy and that the two can and must cooperate and eventually link up: neither of these spheres must attempt to supplant and resolve the other.

It’s not apathy

We don’t share the thesis of generalized apathy: there is no abstract indifference but rather scant interest in party life and in the traditional channels of participation. This circumstance is of course worrying, as parties are irreplaceable institutions of democratic life, but it implies a challenge of renewal for the political forces and their practices. There are no participatory trans-historical models to replicate, although there is experience to transmit.

Sergio Balardini is a psychologist specializing in adolescence and youth and public youth policies. He coordinated the Youth Project of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO). This text appeared in Nueva Sociedad, November-December 2005.

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