The emergence of a new youth

Are the current alter-globalization movements a new type of social movements, that is to say, are they “new social movement"[1]?

Dr, researcher Geoffrey Pleyers, from University of Louvain, asks with a smile on this Friday 10 of February 2012, during the plenary session of the conference entitled Citizenship transformation in a global world, in which he speaks conjointly with professor Carles Feixa, from University of Lleida, Catalonia.

The two lecturers, specialized in social movement studies (Pleyers) and anthropology (Feixa) suggest that current mobilizations are led by a specific generation, that the first calls “a generation of global citizens” and the second “an indignant generation”. This difference on terms reflects the fact that while Pleyers is working on institutionalized movements – ATTAC, Greenpeace and local organizations – as well as on spontaneous movements – or so-called –, such as the Spanish indignados or the Occupy Wall Street, Feixa is focusing on the second type.

So this “generation” of activists claims to be re-inventing democracy, as the precedent one used to do. Can we conclude that they are wrong? It seems indeed that every generation, if they have got little memory of former protests; always find new action resources, related to their own social and historical background. To understand the current cases, the two lecturers highlight three specific elements: the emergence of a new youth (less young than it used to be), the importance of indignation and the kind of action they lead.
What is this new youth so important? Because young people have always been the most active in social movements; because they are a mirror of the feelings and hopes of a society; because they are in crisis, so they are an agent of shocks[2]. However, in our global world the transition to adulthood has been delayed, which implies that claimers are nowadays between 25 and 35 years old. They have got more time to travel, more knowledge and skills as a consequence of the higher education and they also own more consumption goods. In spite of everything they have got, their precarious jobs do not fulfill their expectations, and they are maintained as “happy slaves,” depending on their parents' money.
That may explain why their trust in classical national representative democracy is damaged. Their international experience and the incapacity of national governments to deal with global issues and to contain economical neo-liberalism ruined their allegiance to their representatives. In this point the “indignation” – a new vocable in the claimers' vocabulary, from Stéphane Hessel's[3] book's title – shows up as a political concept, which proved able to gather thousands of people.
If institutionalized social movements and spontaneous ones are similar in their will to challenge neo-liberalism and current political regimes, they also share resources and sometimes a repertoire of contention. First of all, this generation uses the new multimedia tools, shows professor Feixa: as a consequence appears a new way of communicating (for instance new vocabulary, use of Twitter…). Moreover, thanks to their education, the claimers reached a huge creativity: for instance in Madrid a camp, very similar to a small city, conceived and realized by architectural students was set up.
However, according to Pleyers' topology, the alter-globalization movement is divided into two sub-types; The first one, that Pleyers calls “the way of subjectivity”, aims the local scale, it values experience and cultural transformation. Radically “anti-power” those movements may appear as a hedonist way to protest. If the spontaneous movements fit in this type, it seems to be originally designed to describe local cultural organization. The second one, “the way of reason”, is highly institutionalized. Such as ATTAC or Greenpeace they are full of expert and economical debates. Besides, they aim global arenas and sometimes get to become real counter-power. Then, in order to gather all their members they organized events, such as concerts, turning their members into passive activists.
So, although the current movements sometimes turn out to be very technocratic and to promote a sporadic activism, the lecturers conclude enthusiastically that “the movidas” (local action), “mobilizations” (national or regional action with sectoral objectives) and “movements”[4] (global goals and action) managed to provide alternative meanings to the crisis and to point out the limits of our democracies.

Martine Ligier
The writer has studied history and sociology of social movements at Sciences-po Rennes.

1  Common expression in social movements studies used by Touraine to describe the social movements emerging in the 1970's.
2 Quoted by C. Feixa those explanations come from the philosopher J. L. Aranguren.
3 See also: Ignacio Ramonet’s article A call to outrage about Stéphane Hessel in Other News (February 15, 2011).
4 This division relative to the scale of a social movement was made by C. Feixa.


Professor Carles Feixa is at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Lleida, Spain. He has been visiting scholar at universities in Rome, Mexico, Paris, Berkeley/California, Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile and Newcastle. He has conducted fieldwork in Spain and Latin America and authored several books, including Jovens na America Latina (with A. Caccia-Bava and Y. Gonzalez, 2004, Escrituras) and Global Youth? Hybrid Identities, Plural Worlds (with P. Nilan, London & New York, 2006). Professor Feixa has acted as an advisor for youth policies of the United Nations and Vice President of the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee Sociology of Youth.

Dr Geoffrey Pleyers is FNRS Researcher at the U.C. Louvain (Belgium) and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and at the CADIS (EHESS, Paris). He teaches sociology of globalization and social movement at the U.C.Louvain and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris). He has conducted fieldwork on the global justice movement, World Social Forums, youth political commitment, young people in Bangalore, critical consumerism and social movements in Latin America. His latest books include Alter-Globalization. Becoming Actors in the Global Age (pdf-file) (Polity, 2011), La Consummation Critique (as editor, DDB, Paris, 2011) and Movimientos Sociales (ed. with S. Zermeño & F. Mestries, Anthropos, Barcelona, 2007). Dr Pleyers is the vice president of RC47 Social movements of the International Sociological Association and the chair of RT 21 Mouvements sociaux of the French Sociological Association.