Culture & ideas Ideas

Debate: Erasmus generation, you’re Europe’s last hope

24 October 2012
Gazeta Wyborcza Warsaw

Mural at the Okupado social centre in Casablanca, Madrid, October 2012.

Mural at the Okupado social centre in Casablanca, Madrid, October 2012.

Don’t count on EU leaders to get us out of the crisis. The future will be shaped by the youth they have forgotten, writes Polish philosopher Jarosław Makowski, as Brussels seeks funds to help the student exchange programme survive the budget cuts.

Until now, sociologists have focused on the so-called “lost generation”. Politicians had been wary of using the phrase, until Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister, broke the conspiracy of silence, telling his young compatriots: “You’re a lost generation”. Or, more precisely, “The truth, and unfortunately it’s not a pleasant one, is that the promise of hope – in terms of transformation and improvement to the system – will be only for those youth who will come of age in few years.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron could have argued the same thing, but it’s Mr Monti who has paved the way. This means that leaders will soon start preaching “good news” so as to make young people forget about the life that their parents enjoyed. Let’s put things straight: it is the incumbent political and intellectual elites that are to blame for Europe’s crisis today. They are a generation of leaders who grew up in a “crystal palace”.

Interestingly, the sheltered existence they led, enjoying prosperity and security, wasn’t of their own making. Merkel and Cameron, like former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and ex-British PM Tony Blair before them, inherited it from their predecessors – and turned out to have been but an efficient “consumer cooperative”, as Zygmunt Bauman puts it, consuming the fruits of somebody else’s work and basking in the glow of successes that weren’t theirs.

Europe was created and built by a generation for which a tragic past – embodied by Auschwitz – had been a living experience. The European Union’s founding fathers – Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schumann or Alcide De Gasperi – understood that only by working together could they build something lasting and good. European solidarity proved a blessing.

Not profit but sustainable development

Today’s ruling elites lived in entirely different conditions, enjoying security, peace, and systematic improvement in living standards. This was the effect of building a reasonable welfare state. How is it that after such a spectacular success Europe is experiencing today what is perhaps an equally spectacular fiasco? It’s because of the present elites’ belief that they simply inherited the EU from their predecessors, rather than having it on loan for their children. The mentality and spirit of the people leading Europe today can be summed up thus: “Let’s enjoy life as much as we can because soon the EU will be just a memory”.

What is Europe’s greatest, most burning issue today? We see it in the streets and squares of our cities. “We have the right to vote, but we have no work!” cry the young unemployed. We have a democracy, but no bread or homes. A precariat is emerging in front of our very eyes. What sort of people does it consist of? An apt and curt answer is given by Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class: virtually everyone. At its core are young people.

And the only thing they get to hear from their leaders is that they are a “lost generation”, that the EU may collapse. The precariat, Standing notes, experiences “four A’s”: anger, anomie (i.e. the breakdown of social bonds), anxiety, and alienation. The result of such a social mood is the “enraged citizen” that we saw in action in London’s streets in the summer of 2011. These are the “new poor” who have nothing in common with the helplessness of the homeless. A generation facing a lifetime prospect of protracted unemployment or flexi-jobs below their qualifications and ambitions. Such a situation breeds anger and fury.

The question we are facing today is this: how can we forge courage from this fury? Firstly, let’s not forget that courage in thought derives from a courage of vision. Let’s therefore say it out loud: “Let’s not be afraid of our hatred”. We have the right to it, our situation being as it is. There is only one condition: anger, revolt, and, ultimately, hatred must not be directed against another. It must not be directed against my fellow human being, because then it would be a case of pouring oil on flames.

We would turn our world into an utter nightmare. The hatred and rage that millions of young Europeans carry in their hearts today have to be directed against indifference. Our categorical imperative today is this: “I hate my indifference”. Secondly, Claus Leggewie writes in his famous book, Mut statt Wut [“Courage Instead of Rage”], that great changes require “constructive imagination and initiative”. So who can make sure that it is not egoism but solidarity, not lethal competition but collaboration, not profit but sustainable development, that will again become the lodestars that a united Europe will follow?

Let’s state first who will certainly not do it, for reasons that are moral, intellectual, as well as spiritual. It is Europe’s leaders. Those who for the last two years have been saving the EU so successfully that it may soon become but a memory. The leaders are not the solution to the Union’s problems, but their source. Asking Merkel or Hollande to pull us out of the current crisis is like asking a blind person to discuss Impressionist paintings.

A crisis of hope

So who? However crazy this may sound, I think that Europe’s last resort is the Erasmus generation. A project that, as we hear from the eurocrats in Brussels, is so extravagant it may have to be scrapped as part of its “austerity measures”. For why should we be spending taxpayers’ money on grants for young Europeans who, as rumour has it, spend most of their time enjoying themselves? On the other hand, do the eurocrats’ conferences, debates and study trips, plus the accompanying servicing costs, all financed with our taxes, serve the EU’s cohesion better than funding young people the experience of studying and living in another country?

The Eramus generation is one faced with a prospect of joblessness. A generation experiencing a crisis of hope. At the same time, it is one that has grown to know Europe’s diversity through peer contact. A generation that, because of its hopeless situation, understands what the great Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, called the “solidarity of the shocked”. This common fate means that the Erasmus generation knows today that the world as we know it is coming to an end. What is beginning? The future is in our hands. A time is coming for today’s “lost generation” to start constructing a new Europe. We need a new progressive policy that would not be based on the logic of growth, but on a radical departure from it. Today, the really free are not those saying “more, more, more” (more shopping, more credit, more devastation of Mother Earth), but those who have the strength and faith to say “enough!”

Members of the Erasmus generation, I know you are without work, consistently deprived of hopes for a better future, but today you are Europe’s last chance. Who will save the EU if not you? When, if not today? Do it for yourselves and your children. The “European dream” is in your hands.

Translated from the Polish by Marcin Wawrzyńczak

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