The hooliganism of losers

A Europe long at peace is once again a seething continent. In France, Greece and Spain crowds of youths are out demonstrating against their situation, and in London they have reduced neighbourhoods to rubble and ashes. What is going wrong here? wonders a German columnist.

Published on 25 August 2011 at 14:51
Madrid, May 2011. "Youth without a future". A dummy in Puerta del Sol square, where protesters from the "Democracy Now" movement gathered.

An investor from China or India loaded with millions of dollars or euros who comes to Europe wondering where he might invest them will land in a continent where, after decades of calm, the political and social climate is once again heating up. The London riots that followed the death of a 29-year-old probable criminal have, for the time being, only just settled down.

Nowhere in the riots were any posters or banners held aloft; the more down-to-earth goal was, apparently, to wreck and to loot. Attempts to trot out a political sounding board to cover up essentially criminal activities were already getting underway during that very first night of rioting in London. Quickly, everyone nodded in agreement that the mob brought together by Twitter were the marginalised victims of the cold-hearted austerity of the Tories and Lib-Dems.

Europe has lived well beyond its means

Now they’re popping up again, the talking heads and experts who were always so sure that only pouring more money into the districts taken over by the mobs would stave off this kind of disorder. And, as always, they insinuate that the more doggedly the British government pushes through its austerity measures, the more we’ll just have to expect these anarchic rebellions. Somewhat at odds with that interpretation was the response of the Labour MPs from the hotspots, who show far less ‘understanding’ for the violence of a mob that they see for what these arsonists actually are: criminals.

The riots in London are the mere hooliganism of losers on the margins of a society that has little sympathy for losers. Among the arsonists are people who no longer have any values, who have grown accustomed to getting money from the state and who complain if the benefits aren’t as generous as they once were. Far more Europeans – and among them many young faces – are going to have to confront this problem in the foreseeable future.

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Since all the countries in Europe have, in part, lived well beyond their means, they will invariably have to cut back on their spending. And so the musty illusion of a prosperous EU will be abandoned – that idea that everything is continuously getting better without us Europeans actually having to work especially hard at it. The past 66 years of peace have been paid for by an ever more bounteous welfare state. That's over.

They don’t have any plan for tomorrow

The acts of juvenile rebellion that we have seen convey a mood of fear and inflexibility that fails to take on board the reality that this generation is actually better off than its predecessors. All over the world, in both the affluent and the emerging nations, skilled workers are in demand. Never before has the outlook for young, well educated people been as bright as it is today. Curiosity, flexibility and a spirit of adventure are all that is asked for – but there’s precious little of that in the rowdy sub-culture of rioters among today’s youth.

Where protests strive constructively to win more and better education to improve one’s chances for a brighter future, those demonstrations are driven by an impulse that is neither exactly heroic nor pathetic; but, rather, valuable and worth the fight. Youth unemployment in Italy and Spain is shockingly high, and consequently, opportunities to get ahead are much reduced. Young people want the same gilt-edged privileges that their parents' generation enjoyed, but they don’t yet understand that merely holding onto those privileges is what is shutting them out of the labour force.

Those out complaining in Madrid and Athens are, unfortunately, all too often precisely those who don’t have any plan for tomorrow, those who can only turn their noses up at what the politicians set down in front of them. That’s what binds them to that crowd that, particularly in London, strikes fear into their own community, and damages and nearly destroys it.

Overwhelming majority of young Europeans are pragmatists

Europe needs once more a positive narrative about itself, as Die Welt editor Clemens Wergin writes in his blog – a narrative that will persuade the rest of the world that Europe is ready to take on the future. Europe’s youth, especially in this era of demographic crisis, will have to shoulder a special responsibility for this.

The overwhelming majority of young Europeans have decided, rather soundly, on a mildly heroic, highly sensible pragmatism: to become fully qualified, multilingual and hopefully spend some semesters or academic years abroad. That’s why the European protests of the recent weeks and months should not be glorified as some sort of emancipatory outcry, but as a terminal moraine for that old Europe that combines excessive demands with little initiative and dodges the economic facts.

Before that hypothetical investor from China or Singapore departs these shores with head hung low, we can only hope he was able to watch another vision of a future Europe that also flickered across the television screens: on the morning after, young people, brought together by twitter too, holding brooms up high as they set out to sweep up around London. To tackle the problems, not just gripe.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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