Political disengagement among the younger generation is neither apathy nor ignorance, it is a highly complex product of a post-political, hyper-normalised age of absurdity, in which culture has outrun politics.
In various conversations I’ve had recently, in mostly informal settings, I’ve come across more and more of my peers identifying as apolitical. I don’t believe it is a new word or concept but finding my peers at this University using it has led me to wonder whether there is a very particular context of its usage by our generation which could warrant attention, and I think there is.
My automatic response tends to be: “I hate it when people say that because it doesn’t mean anything, I don’t even think that’s an answer and if it is, it’s a lazy one.” That reply comes from basic logic which states that if you don’t care then you’re complicit, if you’re not angry then you’re not paying attention, and being in an educated and most likely privileged position, you should care about something even if you have the privilege of not needing to; thus being ‘apolitical’ is in itself a political action. Despite the farce of Westminster and modern political debate in the media, and the tired performance of the deconstructed pragmatic factions we call parties, politics is about government – people’s lives depend on it. A calculated excess death toll as a product of the Conservative Government’s austerity was placed at 300,000 (University of Glasgow, 2019). Politics is mostly a game that goes in circles and plays out in an educated middle-class space. Though on the surface its mode seems similar in tone to celebrity culture or reality shows, its impact is structural and immense. Somewhere in our parliamentary system, the real aim is lost. Tory MP Charles Walker, commenting on the fiasco of Liz Truss, said he’d “had enough of talentless people putting the tick in the right box not in the national interest, but because it’s in their own personal interest”. If party players were removed from the arena and governance was simply expert-led and democratically mediated, we’d have no spectacle or circus. It is in part this spectacle and circus that I think young people reject, though it’s important not to conflate disillusioned with apolitical, and I think that’s partly what people mean when they say that.
Aside from that, I also think there is a specific layer of context in that Oxford has an odd, low-level hostile environment for informal political debate. Thus, when someone says they’re apolitical, does that just mean you’re a Tory who doesn’t want to argue with me and be known as a Tory? Or a liberal who doesn’t want to be seen as an overbearing communist? There’s a hesitancy that somewhat evades explanation, however at the same time I can’t speak for the environment at other universities.
There’s definitely a feeling of fighting for space when it comes to expressing political opinions, especially, and not that I sympathise, if your opinions deviate from liberal hegemony (enter a victim complex). There is a presence of the two major parties on campus, but the atmosphere has changed in a way which I think also affects those traditional student grassroots organisations. In addition, it’s important to note that the Oxford Union refocuses a lot of political energy in Oxford. The odd micro-parliament in Oxford’s insulated bubble is perhaps not greatly affected by the deeply concerning changes facing political engagement, but the same cannot be said for life outside that introspective vacuum.
Something that led me to specifically think about student politics was a conversation with my mother, who was a first-generation university student, and the daughter of a miner from West Yorkshire. When she attended Keele University in 1978 she became a grassroots socialist campaigner, and later stood on the picket protesting the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, working within the peace movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). As I listened to her reminisce, the disparity between her experience and my own struck me. She said to me that if there were union strikes at the level we’ve seen recently when she was a student, they’d all have been there with them. I suppose our alternative is reading or re-posting a round up by SimplePolitics on Instagram and scrolling past a video of Matty Healy saying “we support the union strikers, can’t demonise it, it’s just how industrial action works” in autotune.
We can look specifically to our political parties today. Although an increasingly outmoded system, the partisan binary on which British politics has depended still commands political debate and its language. Perhaps through the turmoil of the last 10 years neither of the parties have seemed a credible option, and though young people are informed enough to see through the Westminster circus (and I believe this to be an important distinction), they have neither the desire nor the inertia to mobilise an alternative. Jeremy Corbyn can divide the left as well as the entire electorate. Love him or hate him, I think had an undeniable ideology. The Conservative ideology is to not have one, and I don’t believe Keir Starmer has any ideology other than murky centrist pragmatism. His reluctance to associate with the left and the leash which the Blairite old guard have him on will stop him from ever putting forward a convincing argument for some of his policies which are actually quite radical (recommending the nationalisation of industry and bigger steps to be Carbon-Neutral). Such a convincing argument could perhaps push past the political culture-stagnation that I will outline: There is an alternative to the non-functional inequality and capitalism in this country, and we are in desperate need of it. That which prevents the two major parties from providing credible change is part of the same cultural shift that has pulled the common mind of the youth into disillusionment. Culture has moved faster than politics, and that abrasive disparity produces apathy, cynicism and populism, leading to an interdependent cycle rendering politics as we know it obsolete.
It can be observed that it has been much easier for the far-right to mobilise young people, perhaps owing to the vicious cycle of populism. For example, people such as Andrew Tate and platforms such as 4chan both utilise the internet as a mobilising force, border on conspiracy and occupy liminal spaces outside of the political and cultural mainstream. They speak to a reactionary cultural niche of the digitally-literate generation, perhaps pushing back against liberal wokeness and a crisis of what is objectively appropriate and ‘liberal’. On the other side, there’s Momentum’s effective campaigning amongst 18-24 voters in the 2019 election, which I would argue combined effective media campaigns and genuine socialist policies which rang clearly for young people, who generally lean more to the left as a result of relatively progressive hegemony (Labour had a 43 point lead among voters aged 18-24). Despite these examples the dominant truth of the younger generation is a global cultural crisis which has coincided with, and in part contributed to, changing youth culture.
Without sounding shallow and trite, I can’t help but notice the feeling that being political is somewhat uncool. Even considering our language, we’d rather talk about an unimpeachable intuition of aesthetic judgement, vibes, than put forward an opinion someone might dispute with the ‘warring ethical imperatives of public discourse’ (see New Statesman article by Nick Burns ‘In defence of Vibes’ on how we are in a ‘sentimentally stunted’ age). Rather than using social media to voice opinions about things that will never change, we satirise our post-truth and post-woke era. We are ’chronically online’, shouting through a hyper-referential interface, hyper-engaged in compressed and digitised aestheticism that we obsessively categorise. The number of abstract concepts and jargon needed to describe online existence speaks to its surrealism and complexity. As a generation we champion being unbothered and unproblematic, as well as extremely self-aware and cynical. Perhaps the environment that produced Cancel Culture has removed the possibility for real political debate within our generation and made a mockery of its pretences. All of this then just results in bizarre online presences like Matty Healy, who purposefully provokes cancel culture in a hyper self-aware para-social performance. In the 21st century there’s been a cultural apocalypse which I don’t think many people have really comprehended. Coming from a generation that has known nothing else makes that even more difficult.
Not only have we only ever known a digital age, but we have only ever known a capitalist digital age. Mark Fisher coined the term ‘Capitalist Realism’ in his 2009 book, which is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”, which can be considered to have been enshrined since Bush and Blair, post-neoliberalism and post 9/11. To consider again a left wing 19-year-old in 1979 holding a placard, my mum was a student at a time when there was an alternative to neoliberalism and capitalism, at least in theory. In addition, the marketisation of higher education over the last 10 years has changed the nature of student engagement and changed the perceived dynamic; rather than being part of a progressive and exploratory academy, students are paying customers. We no longer have the same cultural anchors and levels of class consciousness as our 20th century counterparts, partly as a result of a highly individualist post-neoliberal view of education.
Considering Britain in the 21st century, most political commentators would comment on trends of partisan dealignment and cultural embourgeoisement, and how Brexit and the precedent it set for democracy and debate did irreversible damage to political discourse in this country. These seismic events have contributed to the youth’s perception of the contemporary standard of modern British politics, and indeed this forms a substantial part of the last 20 years as one of the most culturally and politically bizarre periods of recent history. Beyond this however, there have been deeper and more subtle changes, which are much less remarked upon. We must consider the speed at which culture shifts as a result of globalised hyper connectivity, and the ‘hyper-normalisation’ of the deeply destabilising events of the last 20 years, from 9/11 to Trump, Blair to Brexit. Adam Curtis explores this concept in a slightly overlong art-film/political documentary hybrid (Hypernormalisation, 2016), which in short puts forward the idea that in the face of uncertainty and absurdity, we have retreated into an oversimplified version of normality, accepting a completely fake version of the world. The term itself was first used in Alexei Yurchak’s 2006 book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, in which Yurchak puts forward that for decades the Soviet system was known to be failing, but as no alternative was imaginable, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining the false pretence of a functioning society. Over time this pretence was accepted as reality, thus this effect was termed ‘hypernormalisation’. As neoliberalism offered ‘a world without politics’ created through the democracy of commercial choice, politicians were concerned with managing a post-political world, what Henry Kissinger termed ‘constructive ambiguity’ or lying. Thus, the myth of trickle-down economics masks the reality of longer working hours, worse conditions, a dysfunctional housing market and the gradual decline of the welfare state. Curtis suggests this disparity between this narrative and experience has created a ‘cognitive dissonance’; he sets out that “the stories politicians and their collaborators in the media tell us about the world no longer make sense”.
This cognitive dissonance creates a distance and thereby creates space for counterculture, which I think young people effectively harness whilst being in tune with what created it. Though this may all sound far-fetched and complicated, I think it is something our generation has understood and done without realising it. Curtis also draws attention to the inherent flaw of ‘clicktivism’: Liberals expressing anger in cyberspace is only shown to other liberals as a result of the algorithms used by social media corporations, thus waves of mass public anger can gain no momentum due to the limited audience. The capacity for digitised cultural processing of the younger generation and their competence in using social media to gauge current issues means they are savvy to this loophole, and effectively laugh in the face of hopeless online activism and digitised politics. All the while millennials and older generations are trying to utilise the internet as a mode of campaigning, shouting into the void and further creating cynicism within their younger counterparts whom they are trying to engage.
Consider a platform like TikTok, where younger people are extremely culturally informed and use social media in a way which has a huge impact. However, I do think that we have a completely distorted understanding of representation and identity; social media has changed from ‘this is what I’m doing’ to ‘this is who I am’. In addition, prescribed identification is endemic; we all want to be told if we’re ‘a clean girl’, ‘a coquette girl’, or in our ‘feral era’. What colour is my personality? Do I want a Scandinavian summer? Am I into old-money core? Cottage core? We get our clothes from mood boards, reading lists from TikTok and our jokes from TV clips and memes. We love categorisation and reference: acute, generally meaningless aesthetic categorisation and hyper-specific reference. At the same time, there’s Marxist theory being discussed on TikTok, satirical edits of Liz Truss or of Zara Sultanah and Angela Rayner. When political commentators comment on youth disengagement, they tend to deem young people as lacking political awareness and interest or not understanding issues of class and the economy, but this is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of cultural engagement amongst our generation. In a trend that is eerily reminiscent of an Adam Curtis documentary, ‘Corecore’ videos trending on TikTok present internet niche aesthetics in surreal 15-second clips over emotional lo-fi, merging internet content in juxtapositions that generally criticise mass-consumption, focusing on themes of anti-capitalism. Their tone is not one of outrage or passion, but eerie dystopian hopelessness. I believe many young people have intuitively reached the same conclusion as Adam Curtis, without the reference point of previous decades free of capitalist realism and absurd societal fragmentation. In an age of the democratisation of information and images, young people mass process information, and have unconsciously become exhausted and desensitised. What is hyper-normalisation if you were born to it? It manifests as apathy, but it is really naturalised awareness to the point of static indifference.
The apolitical alternative is so attractive to young people because it rejects the tired media circus of Westminster, throws the toys out of the pram when there is no longer an answer to our generation’s obsessive need for hyper-identification and sets us outside of a cultural monolith we see to be disingenuous. In this country it is testament to a party system that is no longer fit for purpose and is more broadly the result of a culture that has moved faster than politics, dragging it behind in the dirt and shredding it into bits for populist hounds which young people are generally too savvy to pander to. This is not an unfeeling generation that does not have the capacity for politics, but one that is unconvinced by the naturalisation of a global cultural crisis, as we were reared on the method of its preservation. I suppose I don’t want to write this as a call to arms, or some kind of attempt at mobilisation.
I do think that as a generation we need to wake up to the collapsing global capitalist system and the dysfunction of its political institutions, and I think we need to think more critically about what exactly has meant we have outrun them.