Young people are winning arguments but losing battles

This column appeared in the Jersey Evening Post on the 31st of May, 2016.

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The medium-term financial plan (MTFP) lays out strategies to address the Island’s deficit and outlines a familiar recipe of austerity. It involves spending cuts in the public sector and privatizations, without touching corporate profits. In June, decisions will be made on this. We also have the Brexit referendum to look forward to although it remains unclear how an ‘in’ or ‘out’ will affect our island. Democracy, governance and economic prosperity are common threads in both. Who rules us and how does it influence our living standards? Do we have any input?

All of Europe has struggled with austerity. Right-wing governments have promoted flexible labour laws resulting in more zero-hour contracts and privatizations. Our economies would become more competitive and our budgets more balanced. Austerity might hurt, they said, but it has also put us back on the road to recovery.

Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues the opposite: “One of the longest-standing propositions in economics is the balanced-budget multiplier — increasing taxes and expenditures in tandem stimulates the economy. And if taxes target the rich, and spending targets the poor, the multiplier can be especially high.” On the longer term, he states, austerity lays the foundation for the next economic slump. This affects young people in particular.

Research shows that across the Western world, people under thirty are increasingly pessimistic about the future. They see their education systems and welfare provisions being stripped, while global wealth is growing, laying bare the priorities of a political establishment that seems increasingly alienated.

Sanders, Corbyn, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have given electoral expressions to this dynamic. We see a more radical response in France, where the Nuit Debout movement is virtually bringing the nation to a standstill. Millions of young people are resisting Francois Hollande’s austerity measures. They assemble in the squares to debate sustainability, democracy and the semi-dictatorial state of emergency which remains in place. But these movements have so far been unable to hold their ground. Could they do so in the future?

At the same time, political polarisation is also expressed through the rise of xenophobic, anti-immigration parties. They represent the older generation’s fears of a changing world and the unravelling of the societies they once knew.

Italian philosopher Gramsci famously said: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

We see those symptoms today in the fundamentalisms of market-driven austerity, global terrorism and rising levels of intolerance. Young people are winning arguments but losing battles. They will need to figure out ways to build on optimism. It would be interesting to see how our island’s young people view the MTFP. Are their voices audible?

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