On young political narratives of hopelessness, and Franz Kafka

Poverty

Poverty – a flashcard from my focus group methodology

The following is an adapted excerpt from a thematic literature review, following a pilot study, that I carried out last spring. I proposed the finding that young people’s experience during the contemporary transition to adulthood challenges researchers with a complex, dualistic relationship between narratives as young people make reflexive, self-narrative transitions to adulthood. The accepted narrative is something like Horatio Alger Jr.’s ‘bootstrap’ novelle about the heroic self-made man. I drew examples from Nayak and Kehily’s studies of young masculinity and femininity during the dual transition of individuals from childhood to independence, and, as a period effect, the transition of British society from an industrial one to a neo-liberalist economy (Nayak and Kehily, 2008) in which making one’s own way in the world represents both a newfound freedom and new post-industrial shackle.

Dissonant political narratives

As such there is dissonance between this accepted narrative and young people’s narrations of their own experiences, their hopes, and anxieties.In terms of narratives young people seem to find the transition to adulthood less coherent with normative structures like educational pathways to a “respectable job” (Skeggs, 1997), particularly for less privileged young people since narratives of the self along such pathways are not available to all (Skeggs, 1997, Ribbens-McCarthy et al., 2002) as illustrated by the young people in Lawy et al. who narrate their lives in the typical stages between school, getting GCSE’s, training, and finding jobs even if their ‘actual’ self narrative is completely different (2009: 746-748).

In this dissonance young people’s narratives better resemble those in Franz Kafka’s novels, like The Trial, in which the main protagonist Joseph K. must rise by degrees up the hierarchy of power even though “to move up the hierarchy is to become confused, to be told less, to be made even more painfully aware of the epistemological hiatus on which the entire sequence of events is based” (Kavanagh, 1972: 243). The young person is not just constructing his own CV in advance but, like Kafka’s hero, trying to understand the code behind, and integrate with in the individual’s own narrative existence, what appears to be an absurd and arbitrary system for meting out success and failure. If we take this perspective on young people’s realities,it is perhaps the most intriguing insight provided by Lawy et al. that even in the face of the most difficult systematic frustrations – arbitrary loss of employment, for example, simply because “they didn’t want to keep me” – the young people in the investigation are determined “not to cede control of their lives to structural forces outside of their control” (Lawy et al., 2009: 750). The transition to adulthood is about resolving a conflict between the reality we want to create and the increasing confusion, and increasingly painful awareness in many cases, at a normative pathway to adulthood that promises payback for civic and political engagement but rescinds citizenship at will in the same way that the economic system promises individuals control over their lives through hard work, yet subjects them to numerous systematic risks and pressures outside their control.

Suppressing political engagement

A familiar illustration, abiding even after a decade, that may elucidate this proposed finding is the alienation between young people and conventional politics linked to the Iraq invasion in 2003 (Cushion, 2004, Mead, 2004, Cushion, 2007, Sloam, 2007, Banaji, 2008, Pachi and Barrett, 2012, Theocharis, 2012). Alienation arising from a mutual disunion between elites and the citizenry, along with the perception that politicians are an untrustworthy class, is not unique to younger generations. The disconnection between prescribed paths to engagement and adulthood, and later treatment by those who prescribed these normative pathways, is a characteristic experience for contemporary young people. There is something reminiscent of Kafka’s impressions of the world – at least to this humble reader – about living in a system where adults don’t appear to trust politics, yet castigate young people for expressing cynicism; where the system proposes a reality in which adulthood is reached through gradual stepping stones like joining a community and engaging in peaceful democratic action to ‘get out and get heard’, but cracks down on young people’s demonstrations. The Iraq invasion also illustrates a tension between the ideal narrative of politics and the state as “de-moralized” with regulatory and administrative functions (Manning, 2012) and the increasingly confusing reality as young people became involved in politics that the state and politicians are not so, that like in a Kafka novel as one moves up the hierarchy of civic and political engagement one is told less and understands less, and the more young people engaged as democratic citizens by speaking up against the war, demonstrating in public, and organizing strikes in schools, the more they were chastised for lacking good citizenship (Cushion, 2004, Banaji, 2008). In this context it is not surprising that the anti-political culture of disenchantment with politics, even the “hatred” of politics (Hay and Stoker, 2009), in the UK is manifest among young people as a switch from institutional politics to extra-institutional activities like petitioning, boycotting, demonstrating and protesting (Theocharis, 2012: 165).

Navigating arbitrary trials

What I propose, and try to indicate with allusion to Franz Kafka, is that this switch is not simply a matter of the younger generation “rebooting democracy” (Sloam, 2007) – a term used here to stand for the general democratization/empowerment thematic central to considerations of young antipolitics in the literature, that young people are moving away from old politics to more efficacious methods for getting democratic politics done – but a dissonance in the transition to adulthood between hope and doom in their own reflexive narratives of self as well as ‘supply-side’ ones, and sensations of both alienation and opposition arising from what I referred to earlier as the increasing confusion and increasingly painful awareness of risk in transitions to adulthood. If we consider young people’s political engagement during the transition to adulthood through this lens it may follow to regard the politics in antipolitics as opposition. Perhaps it is possible to think of young people’s oppositional narratives during transition as politicized opposition. Returning to the example of the young working class “thick bunch” (Lawy et al., 2009) who gave conflicting autobiographies, identifying oneself “working to live, not living to work” reiterates how young people are expected to live to work, and expected when asked by an adult to fashion their identities based on transitions to employment, yet construct their own lives in active opposition.

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