‘I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.” Brave New World
We didn’t think it would be this hard.
The reason I can’t quite summon a sparkly opinion about the US president-elect, or the various ways in which George Osborne is a disgrace to right-wing social economists everywhere, or what the car-crash spectacle of I’m A Celeb 2008 really signifies, is a lingering sense of betrayal. We’re good kids. We did everything we were told to do: we went to the schools our parents picked for us and then to university because that’s what everyone does these days, because everyone knows you need a degree or two to get yourself employed even if it lands you in crushing debt. Somehow, we made it through three years of higher education only to find that our parents’ generation finally broke the economy for us and no degree in the world is going to make us any more employable, or fit us out with the training we need to make decent lives for ourselves. They told us that if we worked hard and did as we were told and stayed off the crack and didn’t get pregnant, then the shiny new neo-liberal free-market world would be our playpen. They told us that if we behaved, we’d all get jobs in advertising and end up partying at Bungalow 8 with Peaches Geldof and Jaime Winstone. They lied.
And you know what? I’m sick of being lied to. I’m sick of accepting a shitty deal for myself and my loved ones because I’m told that it can’t be any different. I’m sick of swallowing nonsense from a nominally liberal government that refuses to tax the wealthy to fund decent healthcare and welfare for people on the ground and yet comes up with untold billions when a real banking crisis hits. I’m sick of being told that nothing can change. I just don’t believe it any more.
What the neo-liberal consensus has been achingly effective at doing is persuading the generation that has grown up knowing nothing else that there can be nothing else. We hear of different political paradigms like fairy stories, with international communism as the wicked old witch who gets cooked in her own oven at the end of chapter three. But in real life, the story goes on. The kids grow up, and the honey walls of the gingerbread cottage begin to crack and crumble.
And now the sheen has worn away, we can see with older eyes that although we are living in one of the richest countries in the world, with more than enough credit to its name for every citizen to live a comfortable and free life, millions of us still live in poverty, misery and personal and economic servitude. The amount that our government has spent on trident, the Iraq war and the maintenance of a massive standing army over the past three years could have eradicated child poverty in Britain. There is a choice here, and it’s a choice that our elected leaders are making for us every single day.
The way the right and left wing corps in the press have used the tiny body of Baby ‘P’ as a bargaining chip is vile. But the point stands that there remains a vanguard of British citizens who continue to believe that, in a pinch, the state is there to protect their children. The state is there to enact justice and social decency. Our expectations of the state are justly high, and if the state fails in its duty, it deserves to be raked over the coals. There remains a social democratic consensus beating just below the surface of the British psyche, and the nation’s response to the horrific case of Baby P bears that consensus out.
There is a hunger in this country for social democracy, for socialist ideals if not for socialism itself, and that hunger will only rumble the louder as this recession bites. Change needs to happen, and fast. As Saint Toynbee pointed out in a recent Guardian article, the last recession created a lost generation of young people entering the workforce unable to find jobs. I fear that the slow creak of social stagnation has already begun for my peer group, and that this time our leaders’ failure to adapt to the transition between the information age and the industrial age will take a cruel chunk out of our futures. Whilst ministers squabble about how and whether and when to fund skills training, a generation of 16-to-27- year olds slides slowly into unemployment. We are not asking for the earth. We are asking for the chance to earn our keep.