The descent of the barbarians

The student rallies in Britain during the past few weeks against a decision by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to raise the cap on university fees have erupted in the wake of a similar wave of youth protests across the Channel, in countries including France, Germany and Italy. Across Europe, in the states that make up the more prosperous core as well as the poorer nations on the continent’s periphery, young people are reacting to the curtailing of the welfare state as national governments cut spending on education, culture and social protection. British students are not reacting only to the hikes in the cieling on tuition fees (lawmakers have voted to triple costs). In the same way, their continental peers are not reacting simply to reforms aimed at cynically connecting education to the production process. In both cases, the deeper reason behind the protests is that young people are being called upon to fund a big chunk of their studies, to sacrifice part of their youth and vitality before they have even started their careers. Instead, they are told to put up with an unstable, insecure environment (on both a social and an employment level) which is a priori poor and strictly predetermined. The protesting young people are in most cases society’s most educated and promising representatives, they are the middle-class youth that was meant to inject the elites with new life and sensibilities; that would provide fresh content into our late modern democracies. The protests are a reaction to the specter of exclusion: exclusion from social mobility, exclusion from the future and compression into a suffocating present. Swept by protests, Europe shows signs of intellectual fatigue. On top of that it is plagued by inept leaders, social stagnation, a compression of public space, a weakening of civic life, a growing moral relativism and a deification of individualism. In a sense, this diverse Europe is experiencing a painful transition, moving away from the tradition of Greek democracy and Roman Christian universalism, and toward a gloomy postmodern state of flux. It’s as if Europe awaits the descent of the barbarians. The cries of the approaching mobs are sending shivers down the spine of the youth of the old Albion and of the old continent.

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