It has been well documented, that the large-scale struggles in the middle-east and North Africa, were actually initiated by a new generation of young people. It is clear that in the struggles that followed within Europe the younger generation also played, and continue to play, a leading role. However, this development poses an important question. Do the activist youth of the Arab Spring and those in what promises to be the European Summer or autumn, represent more than just themselves? We know roughly what they want; jobs, decent standards of living and freedom of expression. We know they are internet savvy, disenchanted with formal politics and promote their own and others self-activity across and beyond national boundaries. But what possible sector of modern society do they really represent? They are clearly not a traditional, blue-collar workforce, nor do they represent an emerging middle-class of future small shopkeepers, entrepreneurs or professional civil servants. The reason is obvious. It is a fact that the scale of commodity distribution and sale has followed that of commodity production. Large supermarket orientated industries have squeezed out the small distributors of goods and increasingly of services. The whole global system has reached a stage of technological maturity which requires an educated workforce to enable its industry, commerce and state institutions to function and develop. As a consequence of this requirement, considerable past effort was directed into the provision of University and Polytechnic education and the stages necessary to gain entry to these establishments of higher and further education. Therefore the educated youth of the 21st century are a distinctive product of the advanced, and now crisis-ridden stage of capitalist development.
In this context it is important to recognise that such is the productivity of modern agriculture, industry and commerce, that the enormous wealth created by those working in these broad areas is sufficient to support a large mass of citizens not directly involved in these essential economic activities. In addition to supporting the wealth-saturated capitalist class and a decreasing number of middling bourgeoisie, those blue-collar workers active in supplying food, engineering, building, transport, energy, mining, communication, water, sewage and disposal products and services, also provide them for white-collar workers. Those currently engaged in education, social services, medicine, science, sports, leisure and entertainment etc., or who are trained for such disciplines, are in fact a distinctive product of 20th and 21st century capitalism. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries of capitalist development, such white-collar occupations were either absent or minimal. Now, however, they are substantial. The result of this social process throughout the world, is the existence of large numbers of highly educated working people who, along with their blue-collar colleagues, are economically superfluous. This section of citizens is being offered no illusions as to their right to a guaranteed equitable position in their respective societies. Nor are they considered entitled to a comfortable old-age when they have expended their energies in fulfilling their duties to their fellow citizens. It has now been made clear that under the current system, the working life-time is to be extended beyond 65 for some and permanently truncated by long-term unemployment for others.
The youth activists of today are a generation of working people who should have everything they need to be fully human. They are eminently capable and worthy of being active members of a collective working community and participating in its decision-making processes, yet are being denied both these essential aspects of human life. Due to the class structure and crisis nature of the present system they have less than a minimum necessary to fulfil their potential. This contradiction, between what should be their inheritance and what they are actually granted by the system, occurs precisely at a time when there are obvious – often glaring – levels of unprecedented wealth. It is undoubtedly the case that the young activists in the middle-east, North Africa and Europe, have been educated and trained according to the previously estimated needs of the current system, but now find through no fault of their own, they are surplus to requirements. And so according to the logic of capitalist economics, like any other commodity whose value cannot be realised, they are to be discounted or discarded completely. The same process, of technological advancement, which displaced many 20th century skilled blue-collar workers and left them to their own devices, has now had the same effect upon the skilled white-collar workers of the 21st. The present system of production and distribution for profit means that any workers whose skills cannot be used profitably are always surplus to requirements, no matter how well educated or skilled they are. But whilst non-human commodities when no longer valuable stay where they are dumped and subsequently crumble and perish, human beings are not always so passive.
So what are the ‘active’ options for human beings faced with the prospect of economic and social exclusion? Under modern socio-economic systems people either produce collectively or they do not produce at all. The scale of production and distribution of essential goods and services is gigantic. Self-employment is only possible for a miniscule number of people under modern conditions. The means of production, distribution and consumption are as a consequence inescapably collective and international in scope. They are also presently only set in motion by the pursuit of profit and halted when profits fall. The options therefore are few. People can emigrate – as many continue to do; they can turn to the black economy – as many also have; or they can refuse to be treated as disposable commodities and assert their humanity. They can employ their skills in questioning the distribution of wealth and challenging the system which governs this present state of affairs. It is the latter process which is increasingly embraced by the activist youth.
The newly qualified students and youth have arrived on the 21st century economic scene during a period of technological development for which the present system requires less numbers of highly skilled white-collar and blue-collar workers and this coincides with a cycle of extreme economic and financial crisis. The young people active in the middle-east, North Africa and Europe, therefore now belong to a sphere of modern society which has taken on an almost universal character. This is precisely because they suffer from a universally induced symptom of the modern capitalist system. For this reason, they are in a position to become the mouthpiece, the representatives of, and pole of attraction for, all oppressed and suffering humanity, as they did in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain and elsewhere. They are among those who should share in the collective benefits of all previous generations of human wealth creation and ingenuity, but they have inherited only social, economic and political exclusion. Their treatment as dispensable units of labour power is the archetypal experience of over 90% of humanity past, present and future. However, this new generation have also acquired the research skills, literacy and collective ingenuity to articulate the injustice and unsustainable character of the present system and to seriously confront it.
In their continuing struggle for decent standards of living, their current ‘uprisings’ will need to become overtly anti-capitalist and not just anti-regime. In questioning the capitalist system they will need to reach out to each other, beyond national boundaries and at the same time avoid an uncritical acceptance of the elitist and sectarian panaceas offered by previous generations of so-called ‘socialists’ and anti-capitalists. For these have failed to build anything of substance, and whilst advocating unity among working people, have failed to overcome their own petty sectarian divisions. Indeed, for many decades they have strenuously promoted such divisions. On the few occasions they have been given power, those in these particular traditions, have only replaced one set of socio-political dictators with another.