Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Divide Between "Reform" and "Change"

I’m beginning to notice a “divide” in the dissident movement, between the boomers and generation X (for lack of a better word), between those with jobs in the public and voluntary sector, and those who have only known the “private” one, between those who have made quite a nice middle class living through a job that consists of “making society better” and those whose jobs have only involved making shareholders wealthier, who have no hope in Hell of a middle class livelihood, and who don’t believe this system is redeemable.

I want to explore this because if such a divide does exist, I believe it is better to prepare ourselves for it so we deal with it better.

In essence this divide takes looks like this: while the boomers want reform, calling out for using existing institutions to make things better, generation X either wants a radical overhaul of society or nothing.

This may very well be caused by the differences between the old and the young. But is there more to it than that? I have noticed it doesn’t always take the form of “old” vs “young” but rather “person employed in the public sector” vs “person who has only worked in call centres”.

I was reminded of this divide once again yesterday, during a social gathering with fellow feminists. I noticed those discussing their jobs with pride and joy, jobs which consisted of “doing very worthy things for society”, while others remained suspiciously quiet. I was amongst the latter. Working part time for Evil Coffee Company on the minimum wage is not something that brings me (or my mother) either pride or joy. It is also something which most certainly does not consist of a “very worthy thing for society”. If anything, the opposite is true.

Today this “divide” showed up in the form of a post inLiberal Conspiracy, on the topic of people’s low trust for public institutions. From the title alone I could tell that the author must be middle aged. She was. I have never heard a young person wondering why the public doesn’t trust the institutions in our society. Compared with what we have to face in our daily lives “trust” is the least of our worries.

So while middle aged, middle class public sector workers ask “how do we improve the system we have so that it works better for people”, young dissidents go on a mad one and ask “smash the damn system!”. Or they remain entirely apathetic; one extreme or the other.

I seems to be the case that older dissidents working “inside” the system, believe it to be a possible force for good. And believe it has been a force for good. However, for those people “outside” of the system, who have neither benefited from its good deeds, nor have contributed to it, the “system” is an alien entity that must be ignored or gotten rid off. In short, we can’t work with it. It never gave us anything, it has never come to us asking for our opinion, why should we even consider it when trying to build an alternative?

This attitude is dangerous. The public sector may be under attack; it may be dwindling away; it may have been out of its depth for the past few decades. But it’s still there, and ignoring it won’t help. It may be a crap ally, but it is the only ally we have in an otherwise very corrupt system.
Similarly, it may not be very wise to put all our eggs in the public sector basket. The public sector is, at the end of the day, a grand collection of plasters. It does contain the torrent of pain and misery that the system would otherwise inflict but it can’t stop it.

The solution may lie somewhere in the middle. If the goal is to help people who are suffering, the first port of call should be meeting their most urgent demands. That is something the public and voluntary sector can do. However, in order for things to really change, in order to capture the hearts of people, we need to keep waving the flag of radical political reform. Revolution. Socialism. You name it. In the face of universal suffering a bit of reform here and there won’t do.

As always, it all starts with compassion. (I believe this will be the sentence I shall use the most in my whole “career”). I would greatly appreciate it if middle aged, middle class people could try to imagine what it must feel like for a struggling young person in today’s world. I know they can do it.
Last year a 40 year old man working with young people said to me, very plainly, that things are “sh*t” for young people, there’s nothing for them. And it’s true. A young woman working with homeless people said that banks, when dealing with crisis loans, “treat you like a piece of sh*t”.

I know for a fact that working in the public sector does not automatically blind people to the reality of the dispossessed. Yet it must be said that those two public sector workers I mentioned were members of the Socialist Workers Party, an organization that, for all its defects, keeps the fine tradition of rebelling against the economic and political system alive.

The current system has failed us, or we wouldn’t be in the position we are in at the moment. Improving people’s lives momentarily is a very noble goal. But if we want to radically change society, we need to go back to political struggle. Except for those who have never left.


Anon said...

This is very interesting Mary Tracy. I'm fascinated by generational stuff. I'm just over 40, so generation X by most reckonings. And everything I've read talks about how our generation was ignored. I still feel that way. I feel like any interest in "young people" these days is for 20-somethings -- the children of the Boomers. When generation X was young, they were too busy...becoming stockbrokers in the 80s? I dunno. So the disinterest in social institutions you talk about I think is very real. But I also personally am frustrated by what is happening in the US WRT union busting and stripping of collective bargaining rights -- a lot of people of generation X might not benefit from them, but I don't think they really understand the implications of getting rid of them. Also, in the US, there is the "creative class" of people my age and younger working in design and tech and making pretty good money, which ALSO leads them to be disinterested in the troubles of people who aren't doing so well, who have JOBS versus careers, and not out of lack of interest or ability either.

A very interesting discussion.

Mary Tracy said...

I'm fascinated by generational stuff too. Though mostly I end up blaming the "boomers" generation for everything. Which I think is legitimate, considering that all generations are responsible for the world they leave to the future generations.