Saturday, 6 March 2010

Challenging apathy in the young should not mean advocating electoralism

In today's Guardian, Samuel Palin explains why he is unlikely to "grace my local polling station." He is in "good company," with "more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds are not currently registered to vote." However, he suggests that the reason for this is not apathy, but rather the fact that "I have nobody to vote for." The thrust of the article is similar to one the day before by Sian Anderson.

For Sian, the problem is that "given how young people consume media, it should be pretty obvious that anything involving too much in-depth research and analysis is a no-go for engaging young people in politics." We need to "get to the core of what young people are engaged with these days," which apparently entails "brief[ing] rapper 50 Cent to talk to young people about the importance of voting in a way they can understand" and other such gimmicks.

For Samuel, "young people tend to vote for the left" but "Labour's lurch to the right in the 1990s has left us with a plain vanilla political landscape." As a result, "on all of the issues young people are supposed to care about – hell, on all of the issues – there is little to choose between the major parties."

Both are of the opinion that, either through appealing to the vaccuity of a teenage stereotype or by offering a token "left" party on the ballot, teenagers could be persuaded to vote. Personally, I doubt it. In fact, I will agree with the media stereotype they both decry and say that a considerable majority of teenagers are politically unaware and utterly apathetic.

This is hardly their fault. Apathy defuses class consciousness and the awareness that leads to resistance. It is in the better interests of the ruling class to foster exactly such a culture, carving idols out of people who are famous for - let's be frank - little to sweet-fuck-all of worth. But even if this weren't true, and one could stamp political awareness into children through the school system or the use of "role models" who can "connect" with kids, would we want to? Even if the analysis on offer in these two Guardian articles weren't hollow, patronising, and ignorant of basic realities, would the effect of the prescribed medicine be a positive one?

I would argue no, because all that Samuel and Rian are offering us is an (ineffective) way to get young people to believe in the worth of electoral politics. It will not revive their awareness of class and class conflict. It will not educate them on how to organise effective resistance against injustice or to mobilise masses of people. Rather, it will pull the next generation into the same trap that the last generation fell for - believing that putting an "x" in a box is all that you need to do to make a difference to society. Especially amongst a demographic deprived of the collective memory of centuries of often brutal class struggle, such a belief will do far more harm than good.

If we want to get my generation and those after us more engaged in a way that makes a difference, then we do have to challenge the broader culture of apathy. But we have to do so whilst pulling them away from the mainstream political system, not into it.