The betrayed generation

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Our societies are supersaturated with unrecognised anger that can suddenly crystallise around a single incident of police abuse or state repression. Yet although the seeds of revolt have been so flagrantly sown bourgeois society seldom recognises its own harvest.

In Los Angeles in 1992, for example, every teenager on the streets (or, for that matter, every cop on the beat) knew that Armageddon was coming. The widening faultlines between inner-city youth and city government should have been visible to even the most naive observer: there were weekly mass arrests, innumerable police shootings of unarmed kids, indiscriminate profiling of youth of colour as gangsters, outrageous double standards of justice, and so on.

Yet when the eruption occurred, in the wake of the court verdict that exonerated the police who had almost beaten Rodney King to death, the political and media elites reacted as if some secret, unpredictable force had been unleashed from the depths of the earth.

The media (mostly flying overhead in helicopters) subsequently attempted to manage the world's perception of the riot by drastic simplification and stereotyping: black gangs were in the streets burning and looting. In fact, the Rodney King verdict became the nucleus around which very diverse grievances coalesced.

Few of the thousands arrested were actually gang members and only about a third were even African American. The majority were poor immigrants or their children, arrested for looting diapers, shoes and televisions from neighbourhood stores. The economy of Los Angeles was then (as today) in deep recession and the poor Latino neighbourhoods west and south of downtown were most affected. But the press had never reported on their misery, so the "bread riot" dimension of the uprising was largely ignored.

Similarly, in Greece today, a "normal" police atrocity has triggered an eruption that is stereotyped as inexplicable anger and blamed on shadowy anarchists: when, in fact, "low-intensity civil war" seems to have long characterised the relationship between police and various strata of youth.

I have utterly no qualification to comment on the specific Greek conditions, but I have the impression that there are important contrasts with France in 2005. Spatial segregation of immigrant and poor youth seems less extreme than in Paris, but job prospects for petty bourgeois kids are considerably worse: the intersection of these two conditions brings into the streets of Athens a more diverse coalition of students and young unemployed adults. Moreover, they inherit a tradition of protest and culture of resistance that is unique in Europe.

What do Greek youth demand? Surely, they perceive with ruthless clarity that the world depression forecloses traditional reforms of the educational system and employment markets. So why would they have any faith in another iteration of the social democratic PASOK and its broken promises?

This is an original species of revolt, prefigured by earlier riots in Los Angeles, London and Paris, but arising from a new and more profound understanding that the future has been looted in advance. Indeed, what generation in modern history (apart from the sons of Europe in 1914) has ever been so comprehensively betrayed by the patriarchs?

I agonise about this question because I have four children, and even the youngest understands that their future may be radically different from my past.

My "baby-boom" cohort bequeaths to its children a broken world economy, stupefying extremes of social inequality, brutal wars on the imperial frontiers, and an out of control planetary climate.

Athens is being widely envisioned as the answer to the question, "After Seattle, then what"? The anti-WTO demonstrations and the "Battle of Seattle" in 1999 opened a new era of non-violent protest and grassroots activism. Now an entire cycle of protest has come to an end just as the Wall Street boiler room of globalised capitalism has exploded, leaving in its wake both more radical problems and new opportunities for radicalism.

There is a danger, of course, in overstating the importance of an eruption in a specific national setting - but the world has become kindling and Athens is the first spark.