Is Another Youth Rebellion in the Making?

Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Young Socialist leader Kevin Kühnert speaks at the SPD convention in Bonn

On Sunday, January 21, German Social Democrats gathered at a special party convention in Bonn narrowly gave the green light to further discussions with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats about forming a new Grand Coalition, or GroKo. Now comes word, however, that German youth opposed to a continuation of the GroKo are responding to calls to join the SPD in order to be in a position to vote against a new deal with the chancellor when the final agreement is put to a vote of the full party membership as promised by party leader Martin Schulz.

At the Bonn convention, one of the most outspoken opponents of a new GroKo was Kevin Kühnert, the 28-year-old leader of the JuSos, or Young Socialists. Despite cries of “Foul!” from party elders, Kühnert insists that he sees “no problem” with enrolling new members as long as they share the basic values of the SPD. The JuSos have hit on a catchy slogan to mobilize what they hope will be a groundswell of generational opposition to a deal between Merkel and Schulz: “Stop the GroKo with a ten-spot,” alluding to the ten-euro fee for joining the party and thus purchasing a right to vote in the upcoming referendum. And in the days since the Bonn vote, there has indeed been a sharp uptick in applications to join the SPD.

It may be wishful thinking to believe that the JuSos can register enough new members before the referendum to determine the outcome in a party that boasts some 450,000 members. Yet no one really knows how the rank-and-file view the terms of the preliminary agreement worked out between Merkel and Schulz. The close vote in Bonn suggests a deeply divided party. New members recruited over the next month or so could swing the vote, just as the flood of pro-Corbyn young people joining the Labour Party in Britain changed the party’s complexion and swung it decisively to the left.

Indeed, it may be worth reflecting on the signs that have cropped up in many places lately that a restive younger generation is seeking ways to assert its presence on the political stage. It is 50 years since 1968, the year in which a generation of young people born during or shortly after World War II noisily announced that it would soon be a political force to be reckoned with. Now, half a century later, youthful impatience with the status quo is evident everywhere.

In addition to the German and British cases already mentioned, one could cite the Sanders phenomenon in the United States, which put the Democratic Party on notice that it could no longer remain set in its ways. Even before that, Occupy Wall Street was largely a youth movement. So was the Podemos movement in Spain and the Nuit Debout protest in France. Even the election of 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron as president of France was in part an expression of youthful resentment of the foreclosure of political debate by an entrenched older generation, now largely swept away by the tidal wave of Macron’s En Marche movement.

For the past several years political observers around the world have been obsessed, for good reason, with the rise of populism, especially populism of the right-wing nationalist variety. The subject was hardly avoidable, but the intensity of the debate has hindered recognition of more hopeful stirrings in the electorate. Many commentators, myself included, have been quick to fasten on the inadequacies of these youth movements, with their often half-baked ideas, hubristic fantasies of quick revolutionary change, and insufficient appreciation of the complexity and resilience of actually existing economic and social relations. We have tended to interpret the protests as left-wing variants of the right-wing populism we deplore, because like the populists, the young demonstrators, caught up in the contagious enthusiasm of movement politics, mistake their faction for the whole of the body politic. But in making these criticisms we have neglected the flair of the young in sussing out precisely where that body politic has become most sclerotic.

There are two kinds of error in politics: the first is to overestimate the potential of organized political will to effect durable social change; the second is to underestimate it. Change is always slower than one expects and rarely comes in precisely the form envisioned by those who seek it. The transformation that began across the industrialized world in the 1980s was in many ways rooted in the youth movements of the 1960s, although most who participated in those movements certainly did not anticipate and would not have approved of the changes for which those movements paved the way. The social movements of 2018 may prove no less significant in the long run, and the distance between intentions and outcomes may prove no less surprising. “Between the idea and the reality,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.”

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