Essay

Being political now

IN THE BEGINNING was the '60s. Or so we're told – the culture wars can be traced back to the second wave of feminism, the pill, traditions fractured, authority called into question. A lot of symbolic weight for a decade to bear, and its images are burned into our collective imagination. At the Museum of Brisbane, they jump off the walls – photos of long-haired protesters in bellbottoms confronting Special Branch detectives in brown suits and unruly sideburns; posters, badges, banners, summonses. The Taking to the Streets exhibition (on display until September 24, 2006) revives memories of the causes and experience that symbolise a generation.

I recall another exhibition held at the Queensland Art Gallery a decade ago, which recreated a typical student lounge room from the '80s, the symbols of radicalism and a political lifestyle evoked by material things. The "greed is good" decade was another decade of radicalism in Queensland. But understanding the nameless decade – the millennium, the noughties, the period that radio announcers can only describe as now ("playing the best hits from the '80s, '90s and now") – is more challenging.

Yet there are contradictions. Another snapshot of '60s life can be found in old copies of the University of Queensland student magazine Semper Floreat: masses of male students eating in the old main "refec" in 1967 wearing ties. It is easy to forget that the '60s also marked the beginning of the radical right and religious movements which dominate politics now.

Not long ago, a lazy editor could always fill space with an article comparing numbers at student protests with the remembered experience of the Vietnam War generation. These images have been turned into commodities, sweeping generalisations targeted at a Baby Boomer audience. Now we are more likely to read about the new conservatism of youth. Gen Y, we are told, believes in "traditional values". The "new conservatism" sits uneasily either with the truth that the "old conservatism" originated in the '60s or the other oft-repeated stereotypes of today's youth: celebrity-obsessed and scatter-brained. Whichever way youth is represented, it's a problem. The emotional appeal in the picture of the "Howard youth" reaches beyond the conservative commentators. Phillip Adams fans can comfort themselves with another stereotype – they, the original radicals, knew how to do youth better than the young. And politics can proceed without taking into account how the world has changed, and how it's still changing.

 

SIXTIES CULTURE SHARED two things new to modernist politics. The first – most powerfully asserted by the feminist movement – was that the personal was political. The public space of politics, the space dominated by grey-suited and homburg-hatted patriarchs, was forced to recognise that much of what was relegated to the private sphere produced inequality. The second change – and one that also deserves the appellation of revolutionary – was a demand that politics be opened up. Participation was the objective. That applied as much to protestors on the streets of Paris, Washington or Brisbane as to Reagan's and Thatcher's legions of young conservative activists.

Expanding the scope of the political and demanding participation (really, demands for democratisation) did not just highlight particular issues, but also sought to alter the political process. It's intriguing to read in Joan Didion's wonderful book Political Fictions (Knopf, 2001), how "process" was talked about in 1988 when the first George Bush was elected. Didion, a wry and perceptive observer of the margins and strangeness of American life, was invited for the first time to cover a political campaign. The process, it seemed, in the jargon of the political players, was quite distinct from "issues". Actually doing something was less fashionable than mobilising grievances through symbolism. Ironically, the attack on "elites" which drove this symbolism was itself orchestrated by an elite of political consultants and strategists.

The story of democratic politics over the last few decades is one of contrasts. While Samuel Huntington writes admiringly of "waves of democratisation" in what was once called the Third World, indices of political participation fall in all Western nations. In Australia, laments about the Australian Labor Party often point to the backgrounds of new MPs – political staffers, union officials, ministerial advisers. But this ignores the broader professionalisation of politics – the Greens now have media advisers moving into seats, and there's a well-recognised career path for aspiring Liberals from university onwards.

Max Weber, in his famous essay of 1918, Politics as a Vocation, contrasted those who "live for politics" with those who "live off politics". Weber was writing about the beginnings of mass political parties early last century, but the justly famous social scientist was prescient. Big P politics is now about closure, about exclusion. It's about managing media messages – about anything but participation. The same politicians who occasionally, in a burst of high-minded rhetoric, bemoan the decline of civic participation in politics often work to keep people out of political parties. Smaller numbers, stacked branches, factional networks all lend themselves to control and management – even manipulation. Participation is more unpredictable. Even left-ofcentre social theorist German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in his dense tome Between Facts and Norms(Polity Press, 1996) accepts that the eruption of citizens into decision-making is a most exceptional event in today's stage-managed theatre of politics.

We still live in an age where politics is a spectacle – perhaps occasionally entertaining, but never enticing. It's no wonder that "apathy" is the usual response, although Didion notes research which shows that the putatively apathetic share social attitudes with those who participate in the ritual act of voting. It may not be apathy, but rather the "do not enter" signs erected around the political field, which are to blame.

While political observers often decry youth for disengagement with politics, they miss an important fact. In this disengagement, youth are not the exception. As political scientist Ariadne Vroman has observed, their disengagement mirrors the attitude of the community generally, and is a response to the closed political games played elsewhere.

 

"YOUNG FOGEYS", OR "Howard youth", are the most recent generational stereotype. Journalist Caroline Overington developed the notion in a chapter she wrote for the News Ltd hagiography of a decade of Coalition government, The Howard Factor (Melbourne University Press, 2006). The depth of thinking was illustrated by the title of a feature article in The Australian (February 27, 2006, p10) which presented her arguments, "Howard's South Park pals". It is hard to imagine John Winston Howard enjoying an episode ofSouth Park's anarchic, irreverent and subversive wit. A fit of apoplexy may be more likely.

Overington based her argument on data from the Australian Elections Survey which found that young people voted for the Liberal Party in greater proportions at the 2004 election than at previous elections. The weakness of the data has since been highlighted by critics who point out that, with only 127 respondents in a self-administered survey, the sample was not reliably representative. Bloggers Peter Brent, Andrew Leigh and Andrew Norton also pointed to highly selective use of a few opinion polls which, contrary to the vast majority, bore out the thesis.

Overington's arguments illustrate two common features of "generation-journalism": a poor grasp of statistics, and a rush to generalise on the basis of limited information. Generation-journalism is the topic de jure in social affairs reporting (and increasingly in the business pages, where surveys announcing "what Gen Y wants" are a regular feature). It is a topic that displays the limits of Australian journalism's capacity to seriously analyse social and political issues.

The chapter fitted into the then-fashionable narrative "Howard the all conquering political genius". Claiming that a majority of young people voted for parties of the right in the 2004 election, Overington piled on the "generationalist" clichés: the hair at Palm Sunday marches was grey; young people were too busy to protest; and people were more focused on having kids than making revolution (despite the average age of women having their first child continuing to rise). In an illustration of the closed world of political analysis, much of her "evidence" came from other columnists, including her colleague Denis Shanahan, who wrote in The Australian that the "young fogies" had "deserted Labor ... dramatically". Yet even the figures she quoted showed that 49 per cent voted for what she termed "parties of the Left" and only 41 per cent for the Coalition.

This cluster of statistical blindness and sweeping generalisation is consistent with the standard rhetoric about "generationalism". It holds whether we are talking about Baby Boomers – how many working-class men with a trade education now in their fifties spent their youth with flowers in their hair, protest signs in hand? – or Gen Y.

While there is good reason to believe that generations have similar attitudes and similar life experiences, and while these may differ between cohorts, it is nonsense to assume that there is no difference within generations. The trope of unsupported and exaggerated claims, the desire to inscribe sameness – these reflect the origins of "generation talk" in marketing and advertising. As a result, differences are usually in the realm of culture.

Glen Fuller, at his Disambiguation blog, gives a telling example. It is frequently noted that twentysomethings tend to live at home with their parents. There are several, contradictory spins which variously prove the fogey factor: they prefer their parents' company to that of their peers; dangerous immaturity, a sign of refusal to make the transition from youth to adulthood; a marketing opportunity, as those without rent or mortgages to pay have more disposable income for clothes and cocktails; or a sign of the economic pressures as a result of university fees and high-cost housing. Rarely are any statistics cited to justify the "trend". And, as Fuller points out acerbically, the most likely explanation is the increased need for education and the declining number of full-time jobs. But the material is never allowed to trump the cultural in generation-journalism.

 

THE TRUTH OF youth politics is less exciting. There is no unanimity in social and political attitudes among Gen Y. But there was no unanimity among earlier generations either. The fact that distinct shifts in social and political behaviour (which cross the spectrum from left to right) began in the '60s suggests that a bit of digging may find something similar happening now – another period of social and economic transformation. In searching for such signs, comparison with the '60s is not helpful. The numbers attending rallies were actually never very large, except on a few spectacular occasions – and voter turnout in student elections was higher in the early '90s than it had been three decades earlier.

University of Sydney political scientist Ariadne Vroman is one of the few Australian researchers to have surveyed youth on attitudes to, and participation in, politics. Her findings, reported in the Australian Journal of Political Science in 2003, make interesting reading for those who believe that Gen Y and Gen X are apathetic, and for those who are intrigued by the "young fogeys". Vroman found a heartening degree of political participation, though much of this participation takes place outside the closed institutional political process. She demonstrates that in this there is no difference whatsoever between young people and the Australian population generally.

Vroman's research disclosed – in addition to the activism which persists, albeit somewhat disorganised, around environmental and other post-materialist issues rather than partisan issues – that almost all of the 284 people she surveyed were involved in some form of civic or political participation. This involvement was not necessarily more individualistic than collective. Unfortunately, there are no historical data on the degree of activism and civic participation from comparable age groups in earlier generations. Murray Goot from Macquarie University has shown that young people are generally disengaged from organised politics: their lives are full with the business of living. This is not a new phenomenon, but rather a constant over time. Meanwhile, the symbolic weight of the '60s obscures the continuing conservatism of many of that era's youth.

 

WHAT, THEN, OF the charge – made by American sociologist Robert Putnam among others – that the issues around which participation and protest are organised are more "private" or "personal" than the "public" issues which allegedly excited Baby Boomers? Again, there are multiple confusions. Sixties activism (or '80s activism, for that matter) was not partisan in the sense of being centred around support for a particular political party. The age of mass politics in the West died decades earlier – as politics began to concern itself more with "the administration of things" than with class struggle or competing social visions of capitalism or communism. Feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism and other post-materialist movements of the '60s and early '70s were attempts to open up the political and politicise the personal. Mainstream politics responded inadequately, preferring to reduce political questions to economics, and to displace lifestyle politics into symbolic culture wars.

There is no doubt that one phenomenon which affects those who grew up in the '80s and '90s is the post-traditional nature of identity. As sociologists such as Anthony Giddens argue, the defining nature of our world is choice, and this applies to identities as much as commodities. If you are born a Baptist, you can choose to become a Buddhist. If your parents are conservative Christians, you can still be bisexual. Negotiating identity choices remains difficult, but there is a link between a society where consumption and choice are lionised and lauded, and a politics of personal identity.

My research and anecdotal evidence from teaching at Griffith University bolsters the argument that Gen Y students are adept at making links between the local and the global. And they want to see change in the world. This is not easily reduced to a partisan affiliation, and is not easily captured in a poster to be hung on a museum wall in thirty years' time.

Much political activism now takes place on the internet. The oft-decried individualism and consumption-orientated stereotypes of Gen Y are reflected politically through the use of new media. If social change is now reduced to shifts in social identity rather than joining a closed political process and putting the firewall up, then the negotiation of values through LiveJournal, MySpace and blogs is a new politics of the personal. This is played out across a much broader scope and in a much more collective way than the politics of an ALP branch meeting in a school hall on a cold night.

Phenomena such as Moveon.org, Getup.org.au, Indy-Media and blogs are increasingly mobilising political involvement. Importantly, such media provide an opportunity for youth themselves to talk back to power, and to challenge many of the tired myths which sustain the closed and selfreferential world of politics and its media acolytes.

New attitudes to the global, new forms of sexual identity, and even identifications organised around fashion or music are different to the protest songs that united past generations, but if people think that a new politics of the social is not being articulated in these spaces, then they simply don't know where to look. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues, many of us are "shopping for a self". But what he may have overlooked is that we're doing this in a wired, interactive and increasingly global way. And that, too, will change the world.

If you require a monument to the symbolism of the '60s, go to the Museum of Brisbane and have a look around. But if you think that the impulses the '60s created towards the politicisation of the personal and participation in reframing life choices are dead, log on to the internet.

Much of the thrust of the culture wars and the narrowing of politics to its bare instrumental bones – which has stepped in tandem with the professionalisation of politics over the last few decades – has been an attempt to put these impulses back into easily labelled and stored boxes. Much of the generationalist discourse is about designing those boxes, complete with "up-to-date" bells and whistles, and selling them. But politics is a way of creating genuinely new things in the world. That has not stopped – and it won't stop. It is just finding new modes of expression and engagement. The challenge for the media, and for politicians, is to catch up and wake up to a social and political revolution that is well underway in cyberspace, if not yet on the streets. 

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