Generating Futures: Youth in the Age of Incivility

Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff explore the growing pertinence of juveniles— or, more accurately, their impertinence in our age of “Millennial Capitalism.”


That sense of physical, social, and moral crisis congeals, perhaps more than anywhere else, in the contemporary predicament of youth, now widely under scrutiny. Generation, in fact, seems to be an especially fertile site into which class anxieties are displaced. Perhaps that much is overdetermined: it is on the backs of the pubescent that concerns about social reproduction—about the viability of the continuing present—have almost always been saddled. Nonetheless, generation as a principle of distinction, consciousness, and struggle has long been neglected, or taken for granted, by theorists of political economy. This will no longer do: The growing pertinence of juveniles— or, more accurately, their impertinence—is an ineluctable feature of the present moment, from Chicago to Cape Town, Calcutta to Caracas. Preadulthood, of course, is a historically constructed category: While, in much of the late-twentieth-century English-speaking world, young white persons are teenagers, their black counterparts are youth, adolescents with attitude. And most often, if not always, male. There are startling similarities in the current situation of youth the world over, similarities that appear to arise out of the workings of neoliberal capitalism and the changing planetary order of which we have spoken. These similarities seem to be founded on a doubling, on simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. On one hand is their much remarked exclusion from local economies, especially from shrinking, mutating blue-collar sectors. As the expansion of the free market runs up against the demise of the welfare state, the modernist ideal in which each generation does better than its predecessor is mocked by conditions that disenfranchise the unskilled young of the inner city and the countryside (cf. Abdullah ….). Denied full, waged citizenship in the nation-state, many of them take to the streets, often the only place where, in an era of privatization, a lumpen public can be seen and heard. The profile of these populations reflects also the feminization of post-Fordist labor, which further disrupts gender relations and domestic reproduction among working people, creating a concomitant ‘‘crisis of masculinity’’: a crisis as audible in U.S. gangsta rap as in South African gang rape, as visible in the parodic castration of The Full Monty as in the deadly machismo of soccer violence or the echoing corridors of Columbine High. This crisis is not confined to youth or workers, of course—world cinema has made that point cogently in recent years— but it is magnified among them.

On the other hand is the recent rise of assertive, global youth cultures of desire, self-expression, and representation; in some places, too, of potent, if unconventional, forms of politicization. Pre-adults have long been at the frontiers of the transnational: the waxing U.S. economy in the 1950s was marked by the emergence of ‘‘teens’’ as a consumer category with its own distinctive, internationally marketable culture. This, however, intensified immeasurably during the 1980s and 1990s. To a greater extent than ever before, generation became a concrete principle of mobilization, inflecting other dimensions of difference, not least class, in whose displacements it is closely entailed.

Youth activism, clearly, has been hugely facilitated by the flow of information, styles, and currencies across old sovereign boundaries. The signifying practices on which it is based appear to flourish, more than most things, with space-time compression. This is not to imply that the young form a ‘‘homogeneous, sociological category of peoplewhich thinks, organizes and acts’’ in coherent ways. The fact that youth culture is increasingly capacious in its reach does not mean that the situation of ‘‘kids,’’ or the nature of their social experience, is everywhere the same. But it is to say that, in recent times, this segment of the population has gained unprecedented autonomy as a social category an und für sich, both in and for itself; this in spite, or maybe because, of its relative marginalization from the normative world of work and wage. In many Western contexts they, along with other disenfranchised persons (notably the homeless and the unemployed), constitute a kind of counternation: a virtual citizenry with its own twilight economies, its own spaces of production and recreation, its own modalities of politics with which to address the economic and political conditions that determine its plight. As a consequence, youth tend everywhere to occupy the innovative, uncharted borderlands along which the global meets the local. This is often made manifest in the elaboration of creolized argots, of streetspeak and cybertalk, that give voice to imaginative worlds very different from those of the parental generation. But these borderlands are also sites of tension, particularly for disadvantaged young people from postrevolutionary societies, from inner cities, and from other terrors incognita who seek to make good on the promises of the free market; also for anyone who jostles against the incivilities, illegalities, and importunities of these precocious entrepreneurs.

At the opening of the new century, the image of youth-as-trouble has gained an advanced capitalist twist as impatient adolescents ‘‘take the waiting out of wanting’’ by developing remarkably diverse forms of illicit enterprise—from drug trafficking and computer hacking in the urban United States, through the ‘‘bush’’ economies of West and Central Africa, which trade diamonds and dollars, guns and gasoline over long distances, to the supply of services both legal and lethal. In this they try to link the poles of consumption and production and to break into the cycle of accumulation, often by flouting received rules and conventions. The young have felt their power, power born partly of the sheer weight of numbers, partly of a growing inclination and capacity to turn to the use of force, partly of a willingness to hold polite society to ransom. Bill Buford has suggested that British soccer fans experience a compelling sense of community in moments of concerted violence. Others have said the same of gangland wars in North American cities, witch burning in the northerly provinces of South Africa, and cognate social practices elsewhere. Is it surprising, then, that so many juveniles see themselves as ironic, mutant citizens of a new world order? Or that the standardized nightmare of the genteel mainstream is an increasingly universal image of the adolescent, a larger-than-life figure wearing absurdly expensive sports shoes, headphones blaring gangsta rap, beeper tied to a global underground economy—in short, a sinister caricature of the corporate mogul? Is this not a dramatic embodiment of the dark side of consumerism, of a riotous return of the repressed, of a parallel politics of class, social reproduction, and civil society? Precisely because of its fusion of monstrosity, energy, and creativity, this figure also subsumes some of the more complex aspects of millennial capitalism, if in the manner of a grotesque: its tendency to spark the pursuit of new ways and means for the production of wealth; its ambivalent, contradictory engagement with the nation-state; its play on the presence and absence of civil society.


An excerpt from Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming by Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff

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One Response to “Generating Futures: Youth in the Age of Incivility”
  1. Deandra 27 February 2017 at 6:40 am #

    I actually found this more ennnitareitg than James Joyce.