The concept of progress is premised on the idea of catastrophe. That ?things have gone so far? is the catastrophe. Catastrophe is not something that awaits us, it is that which has already come to pass.
-Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
As of 2011, in the aftermath of the Greek financial crisis, there exists a new ?lost generation? in Europe. In France it has been euphemistically dubbed the ?Kleenex generation.? It consists of a contingent of youth whose hopes for a better future have been dashed. It is a generation that has become ?disposable,? whose expectations and dreams have been sacrificed on the twin altars of European monetary union and globalization. It is a generation that, as a rule, is overeducated and underemployed. Its members now face the prospect of low-paying, part-time jobs, and having to live with their parents for the foreseeable future?possibly until their forties?since they cannot afford their own dwellings. As the German literary critic Walter Benjamin, quoting August Strindberg, observed appositely: ?Hell is nothing that awaits us; it is this life in the here and now.?
Benjamin?s apercu suggests that the contemporary European crisis is a semi-permanent condition. It raises the specter that, ?after the crisis,? things will continue to look much as they do now.
In Greece and Spain, youth unemployment hovers around an unprecedented 45 percent. Last spring, European youth, numbering in the tens of thousands, demonstrated peacefully across the continent?in England, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (the so-called 15-M movement, which began in Madrid?s Puerta del Sol). But their efforts were to no avail. The European governments and financial institutions that are responsible for the crisis remain wholly unmoved by the younger generation?s plight. European elites who have attained affluence and financial security are, unconscionably, washing their hands of responsibility and closing the doors behind them.
To make matters worse, the fortunes of Europe?s social democratic parties, once the champions of ?capitalism with a human face? and a strong ?social state,? have recently plummeted. They are out of office in all major EU countries?England, France, Germany and Italy?and there are few signs that their return is imminent. In a sense, they are merely paying the price for having abandoned, during the 1990s, their strong postwar commitment to social rights and social justice. In many respects, their programs have become indistinguishable from the platforms of their center-right opponents who now hold office in almost all EU nations, Greece and Spain excepted. (In Denmark, a coalition led by the Social Democrats surged to victory in elections last month, ending ten years of conservative rule.)
How should Europe?s ever-burgeoning ?reserve army of the unemployed? respond? Drastic times demand drastic remedies. It is time for downtrodden European youth to redouble their efforts and borrow a page from the playbook of the Middle Eastern youth who, nine months ago, courageously launched the Arab Spring. Young Europeans must form grassroots organizations, encourage self-help groups, and launch citizens? initiatives in order to maintain pressure on callous and unresponsive European political elites.
The meaning and purpose of the European Union must also change. Europe must reorient its focus to the inequities of the so-called ?two-thirds society??two-thirds of society basks in affluence, while the other third languishes in poverty?and foreground the ?social rights? that lay at the heart of the postwar European project.
Image: an assembly at the Puerta del Sol this July (Nemo, Wikimedia Commons)