Will The Young Save Europe From The Rise of The Far Right?

Albena Azmanova | 11 June 2024
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A generation defined by economic insecurity is grabbing for a guardrail, not engaging for emancipation.

The far right is poised to make dramatic gains in the European elections this weekend, displacing the Greens as the third force in the European Parliament. The consequences of the populists becoming kingmakers in the hemisphere would be grave: a political culture of ‘discipline and punish’, of enmity to foreigners and hostility to ecological concerns would trump the agenda of cultural diversity and inclusion, environmental sustainability and civic freedoms. That progressive policy mix has been promoted until recently by a broad coalition of parliamentary forces, from the radical and moderate left and the Greens through to elements of the centre right.

What might yet counter this perilous shift? One could draw hope from an increase in the youth vote. Turnout among the young has been rising in national and European elections. Moreover, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Malta are extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds (and Greece to 17 year-olds). The latest Eurobarometer registers a fairly high interest in the elections among voters under 24, with most (63 per cent) vouching to vote and an overwhelming majority (86 per cent) agreeing voting is important to keep democracy strong.

With long lives ahead of them, the young have the biggest stake in the future; they also tend to think big and act boldly—or at least they are expected to. Fridays For Future, the youth-led international climate movement, was started in 2018 by a schoolgirl in Stockholm with a placard. The previous year French high-school students took to the streets during the presidential election to demand a future beyond the polarity on offer: Ni Marine, ni Macron; nipatrie, ni patron. And university students are now leading the international protests against the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Gaza, defying police violence, political repression and intimidation by businesses threatening to withhold employment.

Improbable scenario

The felicitous scenario of a ‘velvet revolution’ by the young blocking the rise of the far right at the ballot-box is however improbable—as other evidence indicates. Opinion surveys in western democracies repeatedly indicate that young people are more miserable than older generations and more likely to doubt the merits of democracy; they also increasingly vote for the reactionary right.

In Belgium, Germany, Finland, France and Portugal, younger voters, especially men, have been backing parties of the far right in numbers often exceeding their elders. In these countries, leftist green parties which overwhelmingly took the youth vote in the recent past have been losing ground. Probably most remarkable is the popularity of the far right among French youth: in an Ifoppoll in April, 32 per cent of 18-to-25-year-olds declared they intended to vote for the Rassemblement National, with no difference between women and men.

A similar shift is at work in the United States. Survey data earlier this year revealed that the former president, Donald Trump, had been gaining support among young voters, in a remarkable reversal of the established trend of young people in the US supporting the Democratic Party. The ‘silent majority’ of young people—those not attending the climate and anti-war marches—seem to be driven by the same worries that keep the old awake at night: cost-of-living concerns and especially worries about affordable housing.

Eurobarometer indicates that poverty, social exclusion and public health are top worries for voters in Europe, followed closely by the state of the economy and the job market, as well as EU defence and security. Yet the puzzle remains: Europe is awash with social discontent but the fury of the masses is fuelling a far-right insurgency. The left is failing to harness that discontent, although its trademark issues—poverty and unemployment—are now more salient for voters than the far right’s flagship of ‘immigration’.

Economic insecurity

It has become commonplace to contend that far-right populism has surged due to the impoverishment caused by the financial meltdown of 2008. The rage of the masses has also been attributed to growing inequality. The rise of anti-establishment, populist parties however began in the 1990s, a decade of unprecedented affluence, solid economic growth and low unemployment. But a new development entered our lives then—economic insecurity, especially fear of job loss.

Towards the end of the 20th century, national ‘competitiveness’ in the globally integrated market became the policy priority. Governments across the ideological spectrum began slashing social spending and reducing employment security, to help businesses become more ‘nimble’. This insecurity affected not just unskilled workers in precarious, poorly paid jobs but also well-paid professionals, who found themselves working longer hours and managing growing responsibilities as staff numbers were kept low to minimise overheads. Stress and burnout in the workplace have been on the rise for more than a decade and are at a record high, according to Gallup’s 2023 annual report covering 116 countries.

We are suffering an epidemic of precarity, whose syndrome—a feeling of incapacity to cope—is shared by rich and poor, young and old, men and women alike. If the old are living in fear of job loss, the young fear they will never land a job, no matter how many master’s degrees and unpaid internships shine on their curriculum vitae.

The overwhelming concern for the majority, of the ‘99 per cent’, is precarity: they feel vulnerable politically, economically, culturally and physically. It is this broad spectrum of vulnerability which the far right so masterfully harnesses with its typical policy formula of increased social protection (but excluding cultural, religious or geographic ‘outsiders’), low taxation and ‘law and order’.

Quest for safety

But why is the left failing to channel the Angst of the masses into a creative revolt, in the name of a better life for all? Insecurity triggers a quest for safety and thus nurtures a conservative fear of change or, worse, a reactionary longing for autocratic shortcuts to stability.

Precarity erodes pre-existing solidarities within groups, as everyone is now out to save their own skin. The affluent are abandoning the poor and the working classes are once again turning against scapegoated immigrants out of fear of job loss. Members of various minorities are competing for the status of victimhood as, with the demise of the welfare state, this is the only apparent avenue to social protection, while ruling elites source their power from the patronage they can selectively bestow.

Perhaps worst of all, economic insecurity is politically debilitating: it directs all our efforts towards finding and stabilising sources of income, leaving neither time nor energy for larger battles about the kind of life we want to live. The toxic combination of Angst and introspection that haunts the young is even encoded in the evolution of popular music. In a recent article in Nature, Austrian and German scholars noted that over the past five decades song lyrics had grown angrier and more introvertedly self-obsessed.

As they were plotting the revolution of the 1960s, some American students issued a manifesto, known as the Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society. The first sentence of this 1962 document read: ‘We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.’

If we want people, old as well as young, to think big again, to embrace the sacrifices that are needed in the name of a healthier planet and a more peaceful world, they need to be offered some economic stability—not the implausible promises about equality in affluence the mainstream parties invariably pledge. Economic stability is an unglamorous value. But without stable ground we cannot walk tall and reach for the skies.

As a Bulgarian proverb puts it, ‘The hungry chicken dreams of corn.’ Of corn, not blue skies.

Albena Azmanova ([email protected]) is a professor of political and social science at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. Her most recent book is Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity can Achieve Radical Change without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press).

This article was originally published on Social Europe.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.