Sunday, 1 July 2012

Democracy's Debt to Young People

We’ve heard plenty about the nation’s financial debt (which in the UK the richest 5% can pay off by parting with just 5% of their wealth). What we never hear about is the democratic debt we owe young people.

Each new generation is told the story of the Second World War – how authoritarian oppression was defeated to make it safe for democracy to thrive. No more subjugation of the weak and vulnerable by anyone possessing such power that their commands were irresistible. All citizens would be equal. All would have the opportunity to work and earn a decent living. Where businesses fail to deliver, the democratic state would provide a safety net. Dignity is guaranteed for everyone, from cradle to grave.

The implication is that in far off countries where there is no democracy, people might have to resort to uprising and revolution to secure an equal say in how their life-chances are determined. But in an established democracy like the UK or the US, the young should be grateful for what has been put in place for them – a democratic system under which each counts for one and no more.

But has the promise of democracy been fulfilled? In the post-war period, there was for a time a sense of collective endeavour. A guarantee of the basic wellbeing of all was a universal badge of civilization, not a target of vilification by the ‘I’m alright Jack’ brigade. The needs of woefully neglected groups – women, gay, ethnic minorities, the disabled, etc – were addressed in the name of equal respect, not derided as a fringe obsession. But as plutocratic forces regrouped, power was once more concentrated in a tiny elite.

From the late 1970s on, the wealthiest 5% set about buying and exercising more influence over who would be elected to government; what laws would be passed or repealed; how an ever greater share of society’s resources would flow to them; how urgently required environmental actions would be held back to protect their profits; and how public services would be handed to profit-seeking bodies subservient to the priorities of those with the most money.

Democracy, far from becoming an integral part of our society, has been pushed further away from the reach of citizens. Most young people have no say about the key decisions affecting them in schools or universities. If they were fortunate enough to get a job, unless it is with a worker cooperative or partnership, they would have to go along with whatever their employer chooses. Their local government continues to lose power to large commercial interests (through privatisation and deregulation). At the level of national government, corporate wealth ensures candidates supportive of their agenda are more often elected than those who are opposed. And when the rich won’t pay their taxes, their friends in government respond with plans to scrap housing benefits for the under-25.

Plutocratic politicians never tire of telling young people they must be ‘work ready’ and eager to serve business goals. But if we are ever to have a true democracy, young people must be given what is owed them: the power and responsibility to have an equal say about decisions that affect them – one citizen, one vote, at school, the workplace and every level of society, with no distortion by wealth or status.

[Follow Henry B Tam’s updates on Twitter]