by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 12
May 2020

Are the young turning into progressive authoritarians?

by Peter Franklin
Greta Thunberg speaks to campaigners in Washington, DC, on 13 September, 2019

Are “authoritarian states better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis?”

Astonishingly, 53% of young Europeans (aged 16-29) seem to think so. This compares to 42% for the 30-49 age group and just 35% for the 50-69 age group.

These figures come from a poll conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation for the Europe’s Stories project at Oxford University. The project’s leader, Timothy Garton Ash, contrasts this against another finding which was that an “astonishing 71% of Europeans are now in favour of introducing a universal basic income”:

What kind of historical moment will this turn out to be, for Europe and the world? It could lead us to the best of times. It could lead us to the worst of times.
- Timothy Garton Ash

Garton Ash wasn’t the only one to be both delighted and dismayed by the poll results. For instance, here’s a reaction from Rutger Bregman, the Left-wing intellectual of the moment:

Huge majority of Europeans in favour of universal basic income. Most want carbon neutrality in 2030, bigger role for the state, mandatory minimum wage and more. Bye bye neoliberalism.
- Rutger Bregman

On the other hand, he said the response to the authoritarian states versus democracy question was “disturbing”.

So, how do we resolve this apparent paradox? Are young Europeans a bunch of ‘progressive authoritarians’? I’m not so sure. The poll was conducted in March, when the news was full of stories about how China had cracked down on the Covid epidemic, while western governments were still wondering what to do. Even if young people believe that authoritarian regimes are “better equipped” to deal with crisis situations than democracies, that doesn’t mean that they prefer authoritarianism to democracy.

As for the progressive parts of the equation — the stuff about Universal Basic Income, climate change etc — the poll provides scant evidence that the young are more radical than their elders. It’s true that younger respondents were more likely to favour a “ban on petrol and diesel vehicles”; but, on the other hand, older respondents preferred a “ban on non-essential flying”.

It does seem clear that young have less faith in the capability of their governments than the older age groups do. But then they have had a different formative experience. For earlier generations there was the winning of the Second World War; the founding of the NHS; never having “had it so good”; the Space Age; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the advent of the Internet; and the exuberant optimism of the 1990s. There were disasters too, of course; but a sense that “things can only get better” prevailed.

Millennials and Post-Millennials are too young to remember any of that. Their world began with 9/11 and went on to the invasion of Iraq, the Global Financial Crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, the populist backlash and now a global pandemic.

Well, bad stuff happens — but, from a western perspective, where’s the good to set against it? Where are the great achievements of the 20th century? This is an age of democracy without heroism, government without breakthroughs, politics without inspiration.

It’s not really surprising that the young are less than impressed.

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