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Laurie Penny: 'We Are Everywhere'

Writing in Dazed & Confused's March issue, the 24-year-old political firebrand and Dazed Live speaker assesses the growing mood of solidarity among this country’s newly radicalised youth and explains why protest needs a sense of fun

On a chilly January day in front of the Bank of England, a hundred students and school pupils from inner London are dancing their taut arses off. The sky is steel-grey; financiers and office workers on their lunch hour smile bemusedly at the impromptu rave that has gathered in front of the tight-beating heart of the British economy to protest against a government that consistently put the interests of profit before the interests of people, of young people, poor people, disadvantaged people, people like us, people like our families. The bass pounds out through the empty granite echo chamber of the City of London. In a tight knot of heat and energy, in the rain, we dance.

This so-called “lost generation” has wasted a lot of time waiting to be found. Through no fault of our own, our generation carries a huge burden of social and financial debt, and we have been schooled from the day we learned language to work hard, smile politely, and not question any authority figure who might one day give us a job or a passing grade. This paralysis of spirit endured long past the point when that atomised paranoia was likely to be any use; after the 2008 economic crash, we wasted years in bitter inertia, counting up the money we suddenly owed, throwing a depressed, ironic shrug up at the political storm clouds gathering overhead, wondering where our futures went.

In November, everything changed. Since the first brick went through the window at Millbank tower, since the young people of Britain realised that resistance and defiance were not only possible but necessary, everything has changed; changed utterly. No more waiting around for the adults and the ruling elites to make space in a world that doesn’t want us. No more asking nicely. The lost generation has realised that the energy of youth is more than a commodity, and now we want what’s ours. It’s time to get organised, and it’s
time to get angry.

Dancing in front of the Bank of England, most of us had never realised until very recently how liberating anger, properly directed, can be – how liberating, and how much fun. Pulling shapes with a man in a pig mask and a hundred excited kids with an economic alternative for this barely-elected government, I struggle to remember whether I have ever really danced in quite this way. I struggle to remember whether the desperate contortions I pulled in overpriced nightclubs in my teens and early 20s were really dancing, or just weary jerking-about, waiting for transcendence. After half an hour, despite the wind and cold, I’m sweating; I step outside the impromptu moshpit for a breather, and run into a couple of bankers in pinstriped suits and their early 30s.

One of them is swinging a black umbrella and glancing disapprovingly at the young lads who have started breakdancing to dubstep on the flagstones, perhaps unaware quite how much of a capitalist caricature he looks. “I’m glad they’re having fun,” he says, “I’m just not sure what they’re trying to achieve. Who’s going to listen to them – are they really expecting anything to change, just because of some dancing?” He considers the crowd. “I’m happy for them, but can’t they all just get a job? I did.”

Well, no, they can’t. For most of the young people dancing desperately in the rain today, the past three years have been spent watching the labour market implode, and the effective privatisation of the university system is the last straw for young people already re-rolling scraps of hope from the butt-ends of what we’d imagined our futures would be.

Hope is what we have needed more than anything, and we understand that it won’t come from polite protest. When young people marched as part of that million through London in 2003, demanding that our government refrain from following the United States into what we knew would be our generation’s Vietnam, and when we were utterly ignored, many of us ceased to believe in the power of government to change the world. For a lot of us, that was our first experience of direct political involvement – and it wasn’t a happy one.

What this generation needs is not endless shock stories; it’s not dour repetition of our responsibilities, and it’s not guilt-trips. What the newly politicised youth needs is energy, inspiration, a sense not only of the consequences of inertia but of the viscerally thrilling possibilities for change. What we need, most of all, is a comprehensive sense of fun. On the steps of the bank, the bass pounds through the damp, misanthropic wind – and a hundred kids scream and hug each other and dance for an uncowed future free from fear. The power of this collective energy recalls the euphoria of the rave scene, the last great underground youth movement – but this is a natural high. Where the clubbers of the late 80s and 90s used chemicals to stimulate these feelings, all these young people need are radical politics and a hunger for change.

Before all this began, my greatest fear for myself and my friends was that we would grow up to inherit a more difficult world than our parents without once having mustered the courage to question what brought us here. I am not afraid any more. Set against the ironic apathy of a lost generation trained to see one another primarily as competitors in an ugly world, the new spirit of solidarity dazzles with its clarity of purpose. We are no longer the lost generation. Whatever comes next, the politics of hope have returned.

Photo by Craig Thomas
Text by Laurie Penny

Come and check out Laurie Penny live in action at Dazed Live on April 9. The political and cultural commentator is part of the 'Dazed Lab', a group of galavanizing speakers - all under the age of 35 - that will take over east London for a day or inspiration, dance and rebellion. More info on Dazed Live HERE and click HERE to buy tickets