Eating Our Young
The Vancouver riot was a festival of the oppressed
by John F. Conway
Oppression: the imposition of unjust burdens. —Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
The scramble to explain the riot in Vancouver following game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs has been particularly grotesque. Officials speak ominously of thugs, professional anarchists, G-20 rioters, the Black Bloc - suggesting we are afflicted with a secret, well-organized underworld of politically motivated, professional mayhem artists travelling hither and yon to rampage in our streets when opportunity knocks. Others dismiss the whole thing as one big drunken street brawl - hundreds of boozed up young people just got out of hand.
Then there are those who point the finger at the hysteria of fan hype and the celebration of violence in hockey - Don Cherry is to blame.
However the finger is pointed, the judgment is clear: politicians in power - the mayor, the premier, and ministers in the Harper government - are demanding tough prosecutions and stiff jail sentences as they enlist the whole population into a vigilante posse (substitute cell phone images for six guns and the noose).
The elephant in the room that most of us are avoiding is that this was a youth riot, and it was not just about hockey or boozed-up mayhem or male displays of vigour.
It was about an increasingly profound sense of alienation among young people, and a symptom of the emergence of an ominous cleavage between the generations.
This was the most visually documented riot in Canadian history. We all saw the images and what we saw was many hundreds of our young people on a rampage of rioting - overturning and burning vehicles, smashing windows, looting stores. Many more hundreds looked on, cheering and clapping while staying aloof from the action. And even more hundreds just watched and recorded the images on their cell phones.
These were not poor kids. The evidence is increasing that they were largely middle and upper middle class, among the most privileged young people in Canada. There are reports of them streaming home on the trains and buses, clutching their looted treasures in their hands and talking avidly about the event.
What is happening? How can we explain this?
It is difficult to persuade many Canadians that our young people, including those from secure families with decent incomes and good homes among the skilled working and middle classes, are oppressed. But oppression does not necessarily mean grinding poverty and homelessness, though such groups are among the most oppressed. Oppression can also involve a sense of hopelessness, despair and insecurity because the real world is not as promised, and there is no place to be found in it for you.
Oppression simply means the imposition of unjust burdens - and the unjust burdens we have piled on our young people since the advent of neoliberalism, and with the fallout from the recent recession, have perhaps reached a breaking point.
Young people today, including the well educated, suffer an unemployment rate twice the national average. The "luckier" ones emerge from long years of education burdened with $30,000 to 50,000 in student loan debt and little prospect of securing a "career" job. Many cobble together a living with three or four part-time jobs with low wages, no benefits and no future, and watch the years dribble away as they walk an economic treadmill that seems to have no exit.
We have betrayed our young people. Those of us - their parents and grandparents - who enjoyed the security of an elaborate social security net, have either collaborated in, or failed to resist, the cuts that have shredded that net beyond recognition in the last 30 years. Those of us who found secure career jobs with good benefits and good pensions have often collaborated in saving our own entitlements by bargaining them away for new, young colleagues joining us on the job.
And unions? They have salvaged the situation of existing workers by sacrificing new hires - lower wages for young workers, fewer benefits, downgraded pensions. And unions have saved the good jobs of as many incumbents as possible by failing to resist the transfer of jobs to off-shore, low wage areas. Granted they may have lost the fight, but very early on they simply gave up and rolled over. At universities, secure tenured professors have allowed union contracts to be gutted for new hires, allowing the creation of an army of contract, part-time teachers, while protecting their own entitlements.
Projections indicate that this will be the first generation since the Industrial Revolution to experience a permanent decrease in lifetime real income compared to that enjoyed by their parents.
For many young people, both the society that is re-engineering itself into a very unhappy and insecure place, and the older generation - willing to sacrifice the future of young people in order to save themselves - are increasingly seen as the enemy.
This is a socially and politically dangerous situation.
When a society begins to see the emergence of inarticulate rage among a large element of the population who see themselves locked into an apparently hopeless situation, then that society is at risk. This is particularly true in a situation that is poorly understood by those who see themselves as oppressed, and who hence can imagine no remedies, no way out.
In sociology we refer to such a situation as alienation and anomie. Alienation emerges for many reasons, but one of the most important sources of structural alienation occurs when there is a disconnection between the promises a society makes and the ability of its institutions to deliver on those promises. We tell our young people to work hard, study, get an education, build your resumé, listen to those older and wiser, and, if you do all that, then your future is secure. Sometimes we even make stupid impossible promises, like you can be whatever you dream you want to be. We have been successful in this. Studies tell us that young people have excessively unrealistic expectations about a future with a highly paid successful career, a big house, kids, interesting vacations around the world - all the dreams purveyed on the media to provoke consumer excess.
But when young people listen to us and follow our advice and put in years of work and effort only to find it was all a big lie, then we have a serious problem of our own making.
For large numbers of our young people, perhaps even most, there is no secure future to be found and deepening alienation sets in. This alienation often morphs into anomie, which Durkheim described as a state of being without laws, without hope, without beliefs. Since society's promised connection between means and goals has been severed in the real, lived experience of a growing number of young people, the belief system attached to it begins to crumble.
The last time such a scenario occurred in recent history was the 1960s. The New Left emerged, largely led by the most privileged among Canadian young people, battling for student power, an end to the Vietnam War, civil rights, an end to poverty, the rights of women. The hypocrisy of the society and its leading elements was scathingly and relentlessly criticized. Sweeping changes in the society and its institutions were demanded. The battle had the look and feel of a war between the generations, as the so-called generation gap widened to a chasm.
But these young people had security - there were jobs and careers for the taking. They knew their future was secure, and the biggest problem was in deciding which career path to follow. And in their battle with the Establishment, as it was called, they chose political engagement through direct action.
What path of resistance this new generation of alienated young people choose remains to be seen. We have seen the riot in Vancouver (and there were youth riots back in the '60s, even in Regina). We have seen some political engagement during the G-20 and globalization protests over the years. How this generation finally decides to deal with its alienation will be the crucible in which our future society takes shape.