Young and Oppressed: Revolution Kid Style
The first essay in this pamphlet, "Young and Oppressed," was originally published only a year ago, though it was written more than a year previous. I have not made substantial changes to this edition, though I was tempted to do so. It stands best as is, written by a 17 year-old and a 20 year-old.
The first edition was released by Behind Enemy Lines Publications, now Critical Mess Media, on the occasion of my co-author's 19th birthday. Now Sara is 20, and I am 23. We are getting older all the time, but we both attest to feeling youthful, which is what counts.
The obvious change in this edition, besides the publisher, is the inclusion of a second essay, written by myself (with the inclusion of some material written with Sara Zia), called "Revolution Kid Style." The title is taken from a popular slogan, origin unknown. That saying seems to sum up what this world needs dearly at this hour. The call is for all young people to wake up and make change in this world before this world has permanently changed them.
Another difference you might notice is the lack of quotations from other sources which adorned the margins of the last edition. In order to make room for all the new material, including a glossary of terms, I opted to scrap most of the quotes. The bibliography has not been updated, though it may be for the standard edition.
This is a special edition, produced literally the night before the 1997 Youth Summit organized by the National Child Rights Alliance. That means it is liable to be changed slightly and reissued when we have more time to work on it. This is not an official product of Critical Mess Media, but the standard edition will be.
Anal retentive readers will probably find several errors, both large and small, in the content of this pamphlet. Well, that's life. Hopefully, they will be corrected in the second edition.
I sincerely hope activists, young and old, will find much of value in these pages. Many of the ideas presented are purposely vague and ambiguous, because it is my intention to leave readers open to draw your own conclusions. What is important is that we initiate and maintain discourse on the vital subjects of youth oppression and liberation. It is far less important that we give the answers than that we seek them.
I truly hope readers will get in touch with Sara and me regarding what is written here. I publish a zine called Dissident Scrapbook which is a forum for discourse regarding youth lib issues. As well, we are still looking to begin a zine at Critical Mess Media entitled Kid Lib. Most of all, we just love hearing from other young rads who generally share our beliefs and concerns.
—Brian A. Dominick
While most common oppressions, such as sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, even speciesism, have been identified, widely acknowledged, thoroughly discussed and deeply analyzed, one oppression remains largely untouched. This fact is astonishing given that the group oppressed by this ignored injustice is one to which every adult human has once belonged. It is the one oppression with which all humans can identify, having suffered from it directly. It is not an oppression of a tiny minority to which few will ever belong. It is not the oppression of people who can be blamed themselves — by any stretch of the imagination — for being among the oppressed.
The oppressed group is that of young people — all young people.
As we will further demonstrate, adults and adult institutions in our society regularly commit acts of abuse, coercion, deprivation, indoctrination and invalidation against young people. From the moment of conception, young people are oppressed by their elders, entirely based on the difference in age, via a process known as "ageism."
As an oppression in need of acknowledgment and understanding, ageism is vital to oppression theory. Yet its overall framework has long been ignored. Sure, many an author has attempted to discuss the relationship between parent and child, teacher and pupil, detention center officer and detainee, etc. But when has it been stated that adult society, as an institution, oppresses the young regularly, consistently, and without exception? And when has it been stated further, in any detail, that this oppression is vital to, and largely born of, society's need for maintenance at such absurd, atrocious levels?
Let's face it: when adults look at oppression theory, they do so from a "grown up" perspective — one which sees right over the heads of even their own children. While the Left takes great pride in its defense of women, the impoverished, racial and religious minorities, etc., it fails to realize that among the most thoroughly and widely oppressed are society's young. In our struggle for true liberation, we can leave no one behind — especially not those to whom the torch of revolution shall be passed. That is why ageism needs to be recognized.
Which brings us to why ageism is unique among oppressions: we are all directly its victims. It is not at all presumptuous to claim that the one oppressive dynamic* of which we have all been on the receiving end is that of ageism. Indeed, we are all victims of every oppression acted out in our society. But none other than ageism claims each of us like a man carves a notch on his headboard, like a bombardier a stencil on his airplane, a capitalist a dollar in his bank account.
That is significant. When we step back and observe the social engineering performed by society's institutions upon its members, oppressions are plainly spotted in the tool chest of the dominant. Among those oppressions which help maintain the power positions of the wealthy white Christian heterosexual male elitist adult, ageism is universal. It is also, unlike the others which are interchangeable, completely indispensable to society's maintenance of individual apathy.
In order to be a permanent victim of an unjust society's power structure — that is, accepting and not resisting one's own victimization — one must be engineered as a child to remain docile in the face of oppression. Certainly young people who are impoverished, female, African American, gay or otherwise in position to be oppressed, are conditioned for disempowerment. But what about white male children of upper class parents? Why do they show the same signs of submission and apathy when confronted by oppressors? Why do they, by and large, fail to expose and resist injustices, both in concept and in everyday encounters? Could it be because, as children, they undergo a rigorous process of indoctrination, both formal and informal, in schools, on television, at church, in the home? Could it be because they have been abused and coerced by legal systems, parents, teachers, police? Because they have been invalidated by overpowering institutions and individuals whose purpose it has been to teach them of their "incompetence," their "worthlessness"? Could they be so as a result of having been deprived of their right to self management, of simple needs, indeed of love and understanding and support? Could it be, at last, because throughout childhood and adolescence they have been treated as adult society has seen fit for its young — ignored, conditioned, neglected, brutalized, violated and compelled?
Then, as adults, they reproduce their own suffering, this time inflicting it upon those the society of which they are now full members has traditionally oppressed. As adults, they are offered power over — if no one else — the people on whose behalf few stand: their children, their younger neighbors, their adolescent customers, their voiceless constituents.
It is clear that ageism is not just another oppression. In some cases (few would disagree) age difference, aside from being the basis for oppression, is a justification for special treatment. Surely children require guidance as they learn for themselves about social realities. In many cases, clear bounds need setting by adults, for the child's safety and indeed for her or his benefit. But how much more often than not does the relationship between adult and young person — between adult institution and the young population — become counterproductive, destructive, outright violent? Why are these inequities not exposed, denounced and struggled against by those of us who regularly fight other oppressions?
These issues, equal in importance to the full examination of ageism itself, are in dire need of discourse. With that in mind, we hope to present, from our own biased perspective as young people, what we see as the issue: What is ageism? How does it manifest itself in practice? What are its results?
Few oppressions are more obvious than those perpetrated by governments. From laws to bureaucracies, the manipulation factor in state systems is staggering. The most blatant mechanism employed by government towards the oppression of its subjects is certainly the legal system. Consistently, it is laws made specifically against young people which most flagrantly display the state's contempt for their youthful attitudes; mindsets which by their nature contradict prevailing social values and norms. After all, young people are one of the only oppressed groups which the
There is little validity to the argument that young people, due to their inexperience, need to be protected from themselves by agents of the state. It is the government's own interests which require defense from young people's natural lack of subordination and submission. Hence, authoritarian structures are forced to protect themselves by containing the expression of free thought and activity by children and adolescents. As a sort of insurance policy, the government stunts self-confidence, individuality and creativity at the earliest age possible, knowing full well that its resurgence in adult life will then be unlikely. People must be trained for submission when they are most vulnerable to impression, which happens to be when they are young.
The government displays its contempt for young people's ability to determine the courses of their own lives by trying to restrict their access to everything from R-rated movies and ear piercing to alcohol and tobacco. Conflicting with the concurrent pressures introduced by the market economy — which encourage participation in "risqué" entertainment, exotic fashion and drug usage — the imposition of such limitations is counterproductive at best, probably even devastating. The mixed messages conveyed by the two wings of the establishment that possess the farthest-reaching influence pit (commercially manufactured) impulse against (state-imposed) inhibitions, and the confused results are ruinous.
Another outstanding and pressingly current example of legal ageism is the rash of curfew laws which is presently sweeping the nation. While crime rates hover at mid-1970s levels, violent incidences have become increasingly concentrated among the young community, particularly in urban areas. Rather than take an approach which could be labeled even slightly rational, many local governments have decided to pass new laws and further restrict the rights of young people. Though laws will never keep young people indoors, they will surely keep them out of places where they can safely meet and recreate. Meanwhile, the boredom, frustration and despair felt by many young people is only fueled and aggravated. This is a clear example of coercive power used to deprive young people of the freedom to act as they choose, regardless of whether harm would be done to themselves or someone else (the usual accepted criteria for determining legislation).
As few clear-minded folks would dispute, modern states have managed with alarming success to master the art of indoctrination. Without using severe and boisterous methods of brainwashing, the government has achieved the relatively efficient production of numbed minds, conditioned for obedience, servitude and, in turn, the perpetuation and magnification of state power. Not only does the state define the curricula which will be imposed upon any student whose parents cannot afford private school (and upon many whose can), but it forces them to attend classes in Eurocentric barbarism, as dictated by powerful adults who define education standards. Those mental factories which the government does not control it at least regulates.
In the classroom, the student learns, above all else, that learning is boring, degrading and difficult. Based on quantitative systems of instruction, even the most progressive mainstream schools educate young people of little else than submission, assimilation and conformity. It's not what you learn that counts, it's how much you can prove you know. More still, as education standards and expectations regress, the rule is who knows more, not if anyone knows anything of relevance.
The enforced process of hand-raising, through which the student demonstrates her or his subservience to the teacher, is a classic display of the demeaning relationship promoted by formal scholastic activity. The teacher, at the same time, is an adult who is chosen unpluralistically and given ultimate authority — not only in the sense of "expertise" but also of "power." That is, the class is being run by someone who is vastly different in age from the students, and was chosen not because of leadership competence but knowledge alone; charisma, compatibility and attitude being irrelevant.
While the teacher is dictating many rules and little important knowledge, the students are being stratified and segregated. Young people begin the process of discrimination by gender, class, race, etc., which reflects the attitudes of parents and teachers, before they are in grade school. "Boys are good at math and science, girls needn't so much as try their best." "Black students do not possess the capacity to learn as well as whites, so we'd might as well spend less energy trying to teach them." The pattern is irrational, but it has been consistent and unwavering for centuries.
Although experimentation with a progressive concept known as "inclusive education" is now being undertaken around the country, the separation of students according to their perceived ability to learn is still dominant throughout most
Formal education, whether it be collegiate or secondary, is wonderful practice for one experience which can be looked forward to by prospective adults: routinization. School teaches people to fall into line, obey rules and, most of all, to qualify. Whether one learns anything or not, one had better pass the final; whether one works a fulfilling job as an adult, one had better bring home a paycheck.
Other government institutions practice ageism as well. There is little argument on the Left that the
As our world becomes more and more technologically advanced, it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain any sense of individuality. As humanity is herded and oppressed as a whole, it is the young who receive the most trampling. As if the isolation felt by adults is not enough, their needs are often fulfilled by the state (over which adults at least have some power) far prior to the needs of their children. We live in a system where even those adults whose voices are allowed hearing receive very little from the power structure which holds them down. So how can we (especially those of us on the Left) have gone so long without recognizing that young people, whose voices are seldom heard if ever, are even more severely oppressed by that same, inherently violent system of authority and subordination?
Anytime an economic apparatus exists which is not specifically designed for equity it will oppress certain groups in society. Throughout the world one of the groups most heavily oppressed by nearly all economic systems is that of young people. In relation to the work force, young people are violated in several ways. At times they are excluded from the workplace; at other times they are forced against their will to become a part of it. Moreover, at the other end of the assembly line, primarily in the market system, capital* exploits the paradoxical combination of young people's youthful open-mindedness and their desire to assimilate.
In a system of centralized capital, whereby wealth and power are manipulated by interests other than those of society as a whole, the individual's needs are automatically excluded from the concern of those coordinating the flow of capital. Whether an economy is public but coordinatorist or "free" but private, young people constitute the last group to have a say in the management process (again regardless of how little voice most adults may have). Therefore, as they are ignored by the rule makers, the economic activity of young people is drastically restricted, perhaps more so than any other oppressed group.
Where politics collide with economics, the state has substantial influence over the economic freedom of young people. The system of compulsory education, whereby young people are forced to work without pay, is similar to slavery, the product being the student her or his self. Prior to the age of 16, people are neither allowed to work at a regular job nor to leave school. Even after 16 adolescents are offered a limited spectrum of opportunities in the workplace, almost never including work which could possibly be considered empowering.
Although child labor laws were originally created to protect young people from exploitation by business and parents, and they undoubtedly serve that purpose today, in many cases they also prevent adolescents from obtaining money legally and without soliciting parents. And while family incomes vary, they are hardly indicative of the amount of money children will be allowed. Still, when children below age 16 are permitted to work, most commonly in the family business or farm, their labor is heavily exploited by parents who treat them as capital. This demonstrates the importance of a substantially deep look at economic institutions as a whole in their relationship to young people. Any time the capitalist system can exploit, it will, and those with no recourse are by definition most vulnerable.
Of course, there is a fundamental difference between young people and adults where this matter is concerned. Namely, young people are still socializing (or being socialized) at a rapid pace, and thus schooling is of greater importance than the production, through labor, of other goods. However, the fact remains that the education apparatus is an industry, and the chief laborers — not teachers or administrators but the students themselves — are not rewarded for their labor in the same way workers in other industries are. In this case, the students are not necessarily alienated from the fruits of their labor (i.e., themselves), but are alienated from the process by which production takes place.
While young people in the
Such is not meant to imply that society should pity those young people who cannot afford the latest fashions and the action figure or video game of the month, so long as they have sufficient clothing and entertainment. Rather, we should recognize that it is a primary purpose of private capitalist institutions to take advantage of young people's culturally reinforced need to conform and their search for identity, as well as their relatively free minds whose desires and initiatives are malleable.
One of the market's most manipulative and socially-destructive weapons is its elimination, via the "entertainment industry," of the community and family relations which previously raised children without heavy commercial interference. We have seen the substitution of seemingly realistic film and television for actual experience.
More subtly, the commercial aspects of the modern market serve to manipulate or even eliminate the community and family relation as well. A 30-second dousche advertisement on TV, in which an imaginary daughter confronts her make-believe mother with simulated feminine problems (e.g., the "not-so-fresh feeling"), actually replaces an entire conversation between real-life mother and daughter. Not only does the adolescent woman, as viewer, no longer think she needs to discuss certain personal things with her mother, but now she even knows the name of the product she is supposed to use.
The contradiction of want creation and accompanying restrictions from the ability to satisfy those wants places young people in a position which is even more blatantly discriminatory than capital's obvious abuse of women and minority races. Yet, while the Left adamantly supports the rights of those oppressed groups to have access to satisfactory amounts of wealth and privilege, young people's right to economic independence is almost nowhere advocated.
As young people are forced into dependence on parents and (often) the paternal state, their own potential is neglected and invalidated. Meanwhile, the state system forces them into a subjective conditioning process while young people are economically manipulated to, in all their social activity, serve the interests of capitalists.
In an alternative economy, the production of laborers could easily be taken into account as such, and the producers rewarded for their efforts. Such an economy could separate young people's consumption rights from those of their parents, thus circumventing the problem of misappropriation of excessive or inadequate amounts of goods to those young people. Furthermore, by eradicating markets and capital, we could eliminate misguiding commercial pressures and the inheritance of intemperate or deficient wealth.
Taking a look at communities in our society, generally identified by race, ethnicity, heritage or religion, it is plain that the institutions within these communities oppress young people regularly. Particularly by respecting coercive and invalidating traditions, whereby young people are treated as less than whole, groups identified as communities intimidate and violate their younger members.
Simply speaking, the very fact that young people are so often born into communities which are identified as somehow separate from others is oppressive. The idea that differences in race, for example, are even acknowledged at all is oppressive, as it creates an immediate identity crisis experienced early on in a child's social development. That a child's skin pigmentation differs from another's is one thing; that such characteristics are of importance in life is another matter altogether, undoubtedly initiating a pattern of heavy distress. Soon, as the child grows, the race factor becomes accepted, and all the social strife it causes seems natural. But it remains unnatural, a truth even radical* theorists are still having trouble understanding. We teach young people of color to take pride in their race, which may well serve to "empower" them as individuals; but doing so also perpetuates the myth that race is a rational concept in and of itself. Children do not understand the idea of race until they are taught it's perceived importance by adult society, a kind of informal indoctrination.
Then, of course, there is formal indoctrination. Judaism and Christianity both contain official structures by which young people are trained to accept dogmatic "truths" which have relevance to them not because the concepts are rational per se, but because they are hereditary. So we have a situation where young people, once again, are born into oppressive systems, inheriting them from parents who promote their relevance only because those parents themselves were born into them.
As children are taught one religion (the religion), they learn that they must live in accordance with the dictates of that religion — the only acceptable manner. To do otherwise would yield Hell or worse. Such manipulative power is highly coercive, and it sees that choice is removed from the individual student, a quite invalidating condition.
Moreover, many religions have formal "rites of passage" by which young members are graduated into "adulthood". This systematically segregates children from adults in an official capacity, denying the younger indoctrinees the validity of full-fledged membership in the culture, and forcing upon the adolescents the responsibilities of religious maturity.
Community identification is also the basis by which parents usually decide to perform circumcision on male children. Circumcision is among the most painful acts any human will likely experience, and the psychological trauma, not to mention physical mutilation, has deep-rooted effects both psychologically and socially. Indeed, those circumcised will later be offered positions as oppressors when they might chastise a fellow young male's uncircumcised penis in a high school locker room. Circumcision performed for social reasons is a form of child abuse, based on cultural standards.
Many community-based programs, in which young people's participation is often encouraged if not enforced by parents and other adult community members, have oppressive aspects. Organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, despite facilitating some positive learning experiences, encouraging social activity and introducing young people to diverse cultures, are noted for their narrow conceptions of community and family, as well as their strict foundation in Judeo-Christian doctrine. By forcing young members to wear uniforms, salute the American flag and pray to the other god, these groups forego their progressive potential to enter the business of mind-molding.
Formal scholastic sports, again despite their positive potential, also serve to oppress many young people. By restricting access to participation based on athletic ability, they invalidate any young person who cannot "make the team." Further, among those who are not excluded, a competitive mindset is encouraged. Winning is rewarded while losing or even tying is punished, externally by adult coaches and internally between team members. Instead of encouraging teamwork and communitarian ethics, school athletic programs teach young people to look out for themselves, regardless of who else might be hurt.
Many leftists tout the merits of community identification, which no doubt exist. But the idea that individuals should inherit such identifications rather than acquire them by personal choice as they grow is absurd; that skin color or place of birth or bloodline are determining factors of community identification is a ridiculous and damaging injustice which must be further addressed.
It is in the kinship sphere of social activity that interpersonal relations are formed. This sphere also houses the most direct oppressions of young people, and it is where internalized oppression among and between young people primarily takes place. Inside personal relationships, the young person contends not only with oppressions from adult family members and friends but also siblings and peers.
The most obvious forms of ageism are perhaps those perpetrated by parents and legal guardians. Not unlike a corporation or bureaucracy, the family unit is a top-down hierarchical institution. Parents play the roles of absolute managers in a cell where level of authority is determined by seniority.
Before we investigate the relationship between parent and child, let us expose a few notions which set the stage for active oppressions but are rarely identified as oppressions themselves.
First, we must take into account the reasons for which parents typically have children. While the reasons themselves do not necessarily ensure oppression during the actual life of a young person, they potentially promote oppressive attitudes and behavior towards children by their parents. In this age, parents seldom produce children for economic reasons (though this is not unheard of), but child-bearing is nonetheless often carried out largely for the selfish benefit of the parents themselves.
All too commonly, children are a source of entertainment, toys with which "mature" adults can play and still be respected by their peers. Children are also used by parents as cohesion between themselves while their own partnership is elsewise failing. Parents also intend to live vicariously through their children, having their offspring achieve things they never could. And at risk of defying politically correct normalcy, it is our assertion that single parents or lesbian/gay couples often conceive or adopt children in order to make social statements. That isn't to imply that such people are incapable of being suitable parents, but rather that human life should not be produced for use as political or social protest signs.
Of course, oppression is not predetermined in all cases, and the reasons for which children are born are not all for the advantage of the parent at the expense of the child. But there is a significant relationship between parents' intentions, which are often just to appease cultural expectations of adulthood, and the methods by which families socialize their offspring.
Another component of parenthood which is taken for granted but as such is no less oppressive is the notion that children are wards of parents or guardians. "Ownership" of children is determined simply by their physical origin or by legal documentation which grants control to otherwise unrelated adults. Certainly children need protection, and to some extent guidance, but that this should be dictated by one or two or even three individuals is preposterous. Pluralism is so often lacking in familial relationships, but this is rarely connected to the narrow social and personal characteristics of those raised in such an unpluralistic manner. Again, we clearly see tradition conflicting with the actual needs of young people, depriving them of diversity for the sake of parental self-satisfaction via the idea that children exist as personal property.
In the debate over "family values," where is the voice of children, the very people most affected?
It is in the context of family that gender and other roles are first accumulated. Children acquire their sense of self in large part by mimicking the actions of their parents, the rationalization coming much later in life. Hence, when parents exhibit roles of dominance and submission based on sex, their children will adopt similar roles as they grow socially. For instance, a young female who repeatedly observes her mother depending on her father financially, emotionally, etc., is likely to become dependent on males herself, abandoning any potential for independence. Similarly, a male who constantly witnesses his father's dominance, coercion and abuse of his mother will probably espouse an overpowerful role in future relationships with women. Role imposition is a type of informal indoctrination.
While the gender roles delegated to young people have been exposed and explored by feminists quite sufficiently, it must be noted that gender assimilation is a process controlled by parents and other adults, thus making them ageist as well as sexist. Unlike adult women who fall pray to sexism, the sex roles of girls are directly dictated by adults, those who society acknowledges universally as having legitimate authority over young people.
Young people also experience ageism when parents and other adults inflict feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness, causing psychological dysfunction, an indisputable example of invalidation. Using guilt and manipulation as tools, parents coerce young people into performing tasks which they themselves lack the desire to carry out. When children are not acting on the dictates of their parents, they are often called "unhelpful" or "no good," regardless of the fact that they are seldom offered or even shown the benefits of equitable participation in the function of family.
Parents are hardly seen as friends by their children, but rather as figures of authority. This is a loss for both child and parent, depriving them of a potentially wonderful and equally rewarding relationship based on trust, openness and companionship. Instead of this ideal, mistrust of adults is learned as a defense mechanism (often a necessary one). Coupled with the "generation gap" (which is not at all inherent to familial relationships, but is unique to those in which parents deny their children respect, camaraderie and understanding), the actual basis of parent-child relationship activity is oppression-ridden.
Sexual abuse between adults and children, during which the elder takes advantage of the young person's impressionability and lack of understanding, as well as physical size, are acknowledged as widespread. But it must be stated that this is an oppression founded strictly on age differences. By understanding pedophilia, we can begin to recognize the extent to which adult dominance over the young actually reaches. More importantly, knowing how common such abuse actually is, we can realize how common and widespread less extreme and less apparent abuses must be.
All forms of child abuse must be recognized as something aside from ordinary violence. Besides being the victim's first introduction to cruelty, abuse causes children to inherit a pattern of violence, prompting them to act similarly towards their peers and, in adulthood, towards their own children. Even more directly than most oppressive activities, child abuse has been clinically proven to be self-perpetuating.
Anyone who believes parents and guardians possess legitimate authority over "their" children must either overlook the severity and frequency of these violations or deem them acceptable. The only remedy for this dynamic, which has likely existed throughout human history, is the elimination of parental authority. The role of parent as dictator must be replaced by nurturer. With humans, nurturing consists mainly of oversight, with guidance and control limited to a minimum.
All known social oppressions can be shown to possess a phenomenal characteristic known as "internalized oppression" whereby members of the oppressed group actually oppress each other in unwitting service to their interested oppressors. The internal self-destructive activities of the black community are among the most obvious examples of this. Also, the self-perpetuation of dependent and submissive activity among women, through defining each other by their relationships to men, is yet another example of internalized oppression.
Among young people, there are several such examples. Segregated almost entirely from valuable interaction with adults, much socialization takes place strictly between and among groups of children — yet they mirror relationships indicative of adult society. Young people consistently form cliques at school, practicing exclusion and limiting their own exposure to variety. They invalidate and even abuse each other verbally, physically and sexually based on racist, classist and sexist assumptions. Of late, it has also been noted that the most recent generation of young people insists on invalidating achievers in the classroom. Low scholastic achievement is often rewarded with acceptance while high achievement is penalized by exclusion. All these activities and many more are carried out solely based on association by age.
Now That We Know...
This indictment of adult society, the first part to a manifesto of sorts, is by no means complete. Many volumes could (and hopefully will) be written on these matters. There is much more to discuss and investigate regarding ageism in theory and practice. For now, identifying the most glaring applications and most basic theories will have to suffice.
Of course, this essay wouldn't have been written had its authors not honestly believed there was hope for change and progress. If we can agree to acknowledge the existence of ageism as a far-reaching, powerful and thus significant oppression, we can perhaps initiate discourse on the liberation of young people, an act equal in importance to the liberation of all other oppressed groups.
Let's face it: young people are the future; they always have been. It is the values and perceptions instilled in young people which will carry over into adult life and dominate social activity therein.
One idea is that adults should instill as few values and perspectives as possible, thus freeing the "nature of youth" to develop on its own in a free manner of socialization, in the absence of indoctrination and social engineering. Already the topic of discussion and debate in certain, limited forums, this idea has become known as "youthism," whereby the free-spirits, open minds, curiosities and reasoning capacities, along with the desire for freedom, so often found in our young before they are extensively engineered by the dominant forces of society, can be nurtured not by dictators or even leaders but by free association. Indeed, we are all born anarchists, defiant to irrational oppressions, but are then molded by social forces largely beyond our control.
What would happen if these dominant forces never were allowed to dig their claws into the minds and hearts of our young? Would children reach the conclusions that classism, sexism, authoritarianism, racism, etc. are rational and just on their own accord? Is it possible that they might never recognize that power should be inequitably distributed among individuals and groups?
Might we find that the corruption of adults begins with the corruption of children, a reciprocal and indeed cyclical process? And might we see that indeed the nurturing process, delicate yet vital, is in dire need of revolution?
Young children display an outstanding propensity to resist most oppressions. While a child can be easily convinced that strawberry milk comes from a pink cow, once s/he learns that there is no such animal, s/he will immediately discard the illusion. However, a child cannot be convinced that such absurdities as war and money make sense. They are irrational phenomena, the comprehension of which comes not with "maturity" in the sense that we know it, but through indoctrination and conditioning.
We are conditioned as children—through interaction in various types of relationships with adults—to accept the unacceptable conditions of our own limitations and submit to authority which exists only because we believe in it. Most four year-old children who haven't been exposed to massive doses of television cannot accept the concept of war. You can tell such a child, when asked why war exists, that war just is. The child will certainly not accept this sort of answer, as we all know from experience; children require explanations. So you can explain the ideas of patriarchy, capital, power and authority. Again, the child will not understand your explanation. This is not because s/he does not possess the ability to comprehend simple theories, but rather because the concept itself does not make sense. "How do these people get this `capital,' this `power'?" the child will ask. Well, how do they? It doesn't make sense to the child because s/he has not yet been conditioned by adults and other children to accept the absurd. Once such conditioning, known as the maturation process, has taken hold, young people become increasingly susceptible to irrational concepts, assumptions and beliefs.
The greatest defense against oppression, then, is that possessed by all at birth, but eroded and repressed as we age. It is our youth which best protects us from the imposition of others' will, and it is youth which is necessarily destroyed by all oppressive apparatuses before we can be successfully subjugated by them. Youth is not necessarily possessed only by those who are young in age. It is a state of mind which can be attained by anyone, was once possessed by everyone, but is rarely present in anyone beyond adolescence.
The very process of becoming an adult entails the imposition of compromise and conformity. The state of mature adulthood as currently defined by society is preposterous and detrimental. Adults are violent towards each other, they rule each other and make demands upon their peers. Worst of all, they introduce these and other harmful activities to young people who will then practice them throughout their lives.
Society imposes "norms" of "success" and "maturity" on adults in a manner that is perhaps more disgusting than those applied to young people. By defining and regulating the qualifications "mature" persons are expected to meet, adult society harshly oppresses its members. With the eradication of youth comes vulnerability to complete coercion by the state, by capital, and by community and kin.
The stabilization of this norm is carried out rather simply as a continuation of ageism, this time used to oppress adults themselves. In order to maintain an absence of youth in "mature" members of society, similar techniques as those performed to oppress young people are necessary. All spheres of life continue to oppress adults in order to force their adherence to the status quo.
Competition, which is first taught to children, causes adults to evaluate themselves in comparison to others based on societal standards rather than true personal beliefs. Like war, capital, religion, property, bigotry and other violent institutions, the idea of competition is manufactured by adult society for purposes of utility. All of these things regulate the many components of society, serving "progress" efficiently and sustaining the positions of elites at the expense of the many.
The standards enforced on adults in modern society include the maintenance of a "secure" family life as well as economic and social "independence" (from extended family and government, anyway; adult society does not recognize subservience to the managers of the capitalist system as dependence). "Mature" adults are also expected to possess some kind of diploma as proof of their intellectual and conformist qualifications.
The concept of gender roles was first devised by adults. Gender oppression is demonstrated to and practiced on young people by adults. Were it not for adults' teaching of gender inequity to young people, such imbalance would never be perpetuated, it not being inherent to the species. Men are assigned the role of provider, encouraged to dominate the wife and children, and expected to manage the family's affairs. The man at least pretends to be the most informed member of the nuclear family, regardless of his actual understanding of anything. At the same time, the woman's role is to remain attractive (to appease her keeper) and subservient, but also rule over the children. Her input is incidental at best in the real process of dominating family matters.
Adults are expected to act "grown up." As their youth has been all but entirely eradicated, this is not a very high expectation. Being "grown up" means discarding all curiosity, creativity and sense of adventure. At least, these things are redefined to meet acceptable norms. For instance, the stock market, lottery and bridge matches become "adventuresome," however inconsistent with youthful activities. Once the adult accepts her/his loss of youth, the concept of possessing potential and opportunity begins to evaporate, except as defined by the Establishment, in quantitative, commodified terms of "career" and "family" and "community" and so on. No longer is the adult a hopeful person; s/he is now limited and confined to a specific role and a predetermined future.
In the workplace, the ominous practice of routinization picks up where schooling left off, restricting the lives of adults. The job becomes a place where adults fulfill requirements presented to them, day in and day out. Rarely are they allowed to stray from the very specific course of self degradation and counterproductivity which is commonly referred to as a career.
Home and family life become chores for the adult. Having to manage the formal economic aspects of family leadership is an invalidating experience, especially given that capitalists and the state leave little room for independent economic thought and activity. Since society does not promote participatory family structures, decisions and coordination are conducted by the parents, usually the father. Having to make authoritative decisions, as patriarchal figures often perceive their functions, is oppressive because it isolates the ruler from his/her charges and casts relationship roles as governor and governed rather than as companions. Of course, this is not nearly as oppressive as having decisions made for you, which is the totality of the child's experience.
In their personal and private activity, adults are affected by ageism as their recreational pastimes are bogged down by discouragement of actual participation. Passive observation becomes the primary means by which adults are encouraged to engage in entertainment. Sitting on bleachers replaces playing on a field; television replaces reading; pornography replaces sexual encounters, etc.
In the political sphere, adults begin to accept their alienation from being able to actively partake in the decision-making processes which govern their lives. It becomes clear that, due to control of their information sources and governmental "representation" by forces outside their reach, people are hardly capable of directing their own lives. And hence the completion of the cycle of authority and oppression, as the oppressed adults then turn to young people to carry out the pattern formed hundreds of generations ago.
Apathetic and passive, adults who have had their youth eroded by ageism become disenchanted with life in general. Without diversity and challenging experiences, life becomes dull, and they lose their youthful zest for it. With their loss of interest in life, adults begin to lose their own identity, and once someone has become ignorant of her/his own identity, ignorance itself becomes a dominant characteristic.
Youth and Idealism
The one threat those presently in power fear most seriously of all is the prospect that they will cease to be taken seriously. If all of the insane constructs which the Establishment has cooked up over the centuries, ranging from the dominance of male over female to government over subjects to boss over workers and so on, were to be deemed as ridiculous as they truly are and replaced with a sensible, radical ideal of freedom, solidarity, community, equity, compassion, diversity and peace, the gig would be up. That would be the end of the Establishment as we know it, the entirety of its authority rooted in our perceptions of its legitimacy. Once we deem those presently in power unworthy of our subservience, the beliefs which they instill in themselves and us will crumble, and so will the dynamics of systemic oppression.
Psychologists have identified a peculiar condition with which most children, many adolescents and even a few adults seem to be afflicted. Known as infantile omnipotence, it leads victims to perceive themselves as somewhat invincible, unaware of their own limitations, unable to acknowledge that some things remain impossible no matter how hard one sets one's mind to their achievement.
When people don't understand what they cannot do, they often end up doing those things. Most of what we're supposed to understand as impossible has to do with limitations set upon us by social forces. Sure, if you jump out of a window, you aren't going to fly, because it is impossible to defy gravity. But what about making social change? When people feel like they can radically change the world, that's very dangerous to those who are quite happy with it the way things are. It is a threat. Which is exactly why, at a very early age, we begin hearing that one, universal invalidation—in English, it goes something like this: "That's just the way things are. (Now go play with your toys.)" This is the answer to all the questions that can't be answered in a simple manner because their standard adult answers are too irrational to be explained to a child, to someone who doesn't have preconceived notions of how easily one must accept absurdity in everyday life. Mommy, why do white people treat black people like dirt? Daddy, why do you have to work so much while your boss goes on vacation all the time? Mommy, why do you curse at me and hit me?
That's just the way things are, Dear.
Kids don't believe in settling for things "the way they are." Kids think they can do anything. They feel powerful and valid. So adults and other kids invalidate them regularly. Do kids not grow up to change the world because the world in fact is unchangeable? or is it because they have been convinced of their impotency by a rigorous process of daily, hourly invalidations? After all the invalidations we suffer as children, and there are many more waiting in adulthood just in case some feelings of potency still linger within us, it's amazing anyone does anything nonconformist at all. We are taught that we are useful in one way and one way only: as servants to the Establishment and its order.
Yet some of us refuse to play the assigned roles. Some of us resist at any cost. We tend to choose one of three paths of resistance. Many of us turn to rebellion without praxis*, committing crimes or being otherwise obnoxious pests. Others among us "drop out" of life for as long as we can stand total alienation from a self-alienated society. But a few of us actually enter a life of conscious, focused resistance. We attempt to subvert the status quo rather than simply annoy or avoid it. We attack it where possible and build alternatives to it, making our resistance stronger and stronger as time goes on. Eventually, though, enough time passes that we cease to be "young people"; this also happens to be the point at which we surrender or suppress the last vestiges of our youth, the time when we "sell out."
Can it be that, at some certain age, be it 21 or 25 or 30, we cease to be young and enter a phase of life characterized by realism, narcissism and pessimism? Can it be that this is natural; that it is somehow genetically predetermined?
I think not. If you know any "adults" who do not fit well into the above description—and doubtless you do—then you either think they are genetic mutants; or, more probably, that they have gone through a social process which has made them so. Which would mean that those adults who have gone from being "cool" as kids to being jerks as grown-ups must too have changed via a social process not unlike the one we've detailed. There probably are not oppressor genes in human beings, though we cannot say for sure.
What is to be Liberated?
Some of us resist, at any cost, the transition from victim to victimizer. Some would call this a transition from oppressed to oppressor, but as I've demonstrated, becoming a "mature adult" in society's eyes and being forced to live like one is quite oppressive in and of itself. Sure, as an adult you can victimize children via ageism; you can have power over the powerless. But that's really a pretty pathetic type of power, and I don't think it balances out in the end once we consider what we lose when we lose our youth: spontaneity, free spirit, curiosity, playfulness, and so on—the list of losses is really quite great. And it's not as though adults have much authentic self-determination or autonomy of which to speak. Sure, they have more legal rights, and more leeway in many aspects of life. But becoming an adult does not mean becoming free.
We don't "age out" of being oppressed. If we did, then there would be no reason to have a youth liberation movement; we could wait to be liberated by the natural process of "growing up." We'd just need a youth rights movement, one which advocates civil protections for young people.
This denotes a very important point, one vital to comprehending how we should approach our activism around youth issues. Liberation is profoundly different from rights advocacy. It is much more complicated and far less tangible. But the benefits of liberation are also greater than those of civil rights. Surely, we will need to fight for an entirely different treatment of young people in this society. As Sara Zia Ebrahimi and I outlined in "Young and Oppressed," the abuse, coercion, deprivation, indoctrination and invalidation suffered by young people, based on their age alone, is tremendous and reprehensible. It needs to be stopped.
But we also need to destroy the perspective which recognizes age as a legitimate basis for discrimination between classes of people. The adult/child dichotomy is the foundation upon which ageism, and thus a form of social engineering, exists. In order to oppress systematically, oppressors must devise a relatively clear differential between themselves and the oppressed. That is, they must create a class or category of people (or animals) whom they can oppress. In any oppressive dynamic, there must be a distinct "us"-and-"them" dichotomy. There must be a consciousness among oppressors that they are in the dominant class; but, from the oppressors' standpoint, there shouldn't be any such understanding among the oppressed. This is very important. Not only must the oppressed be kept alienated from their oppressors, but they must also be kept alienated from one another, lest they identify, expose and attempt to abolish the dichotomy.
Alienation takes many forms, though. One can be near totally alienated from someone with whom one has direct contact on a daily basis. Without consciousness of the class system under which one lives, there is no opportunity for class unity. So social oppressions must be disguised as natural relationships. People of color must be convinced of the inevitability of their oppression; women must be convinced of the unavoidability of their oppression; workers must be convinced of the sanity of the economic system which allows them to be oppressed by owners; children must be convinced of the naturalness of their oppression. Or, whenever possible, these oppressed classes must be convinced that they are not oppressed at all. The socially constructed dichotomies which differentiate between man and woman, person of color and white, proletarian* and owner, child and adult—all of these must be rationalized by oppressors and internalized by the oppressed.
So what happens when the oppressed begin to challenge the absurd notions which have held them down, as classes, for centuries? What happens when some among the oppressed begin agitating to raise consciousness of the dynamic between their class and the oppressors? When these things happen, the dichotomies, not one of them tangible or defensible, begin the slow process of ideological decay. The dogmas upon which sexism, racism, economic classism, speciesism and ageism rely are shown to be absurd; and, theoretically, at least, revolution and liberation ensue. But without class consciousness, there can be no solidarity among the oppressed.
Along with a recognition of the false dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed, class consciousness delves into a comprehension of the institutional nature of oppression. There is a conflict between classes, not between agents. That is to say, oppressions manifest themselves in the actions of victimizers towards their victims, but the real antagonisms exist between the notions of dichotomies, of dominance and submission, rule and ruled. It is through this radical awareness that women come to see the enemy not as men but as patriarchy, an ideology; people of color recognize that whiteness, rather than whites, is the worthy adversary; workers learn to fight capital instead of capitalists, and so on.
Likewise, young people must learn that adults are not what is to be fought. Instead, the ideological construct that is adultocracy must be contended with.
All of this may seem kind of wishy washy liberal, as though I am trying to exonerate or encourage pity upon victimizers by saying that they, too, are oppressed. While we must certainly recognize the conditions that place victimizers in positions of power, that doesn't mean the strategy for liberation is to appeal to them, as oppressed people, and hope that they will seek liberation from their roles and thus free the rest of us from racism, sexism, ageism, etc. I entertain no such pipe dreams.
But what I do want to highlight is the absolute necessity of the institutional approach to the liberation struggle. When we attack, we must attack the ideologies and systems which harbor oppressions. When we create, we must create total alternatives which in no way resemble those ideologies and systems which have oppressed both victim and victimizer. We mustn't limit ourselves to defense against abuse, coercion, deprivation, indoctrination and invalidation; we must destroy that which now facilitates these horrors and build a society in which radically different perspectives are fostered.
For the youth liberation movement, adultocracy is the chief adversary. Its agents, we must remember, are not only adults but also other young people who have internalized notions of the adult/child dichotomy and thus perpetuate disruption of class consciousness. In other words, we are all oppressors of one kind or another. This primarily takes the form of invalidation. How often do we see kids who feel worthless because they are kids? And who abuse those kids who do not feel worthless as such? If we did not oppress ourselves so efficiently, we would be able to rise up and fight in unity. But alas, we cannot, because we are too busy incorporating ageism into our daily lives.
One of the beautiful aspects of a movement for youth liberation is what it is trying to liberate: youth. Youth liberation, or kid liberation, is not to be confused with "children's liberation" or "kids' liberation." There is a chasmic difference. When what we are trying to liberate is a certain group of people, be it women or people of color or children, the implication is that we think the primary victims of a given oppression are the sole subjects of the liberation process. It ignores the fact that many of those typically identified in the oppressor class are also in need and desirous of liberation.
Cannot men be oppressed by patriarchy? And cannot adults be oppressed by adultocracy?
What happens to a young man who does not see the "value" of being viewed as a "man" in the eyes of society? If he fails to excel at or even participate in sports? or if he is not large and muscular? or if he does not objectify and victimize women? He is chastised, at best, terrorized at worst, by other men of all ages. He is spit upon, looked down upon. He is physically and verbally abused more so than perhaps most women will ever be—all based on his gender. Young women who are not good at sports are not so treated because of it. (They are, of course, mistreated based on the mere fact that they have vaginas instead of penises).
And what of an adult who acts "childish" among other adults? One who dresses "inappropriately," who speaks his mind openly, who is idealistic, impulsive, spontaneous? He too is chastised. Of children, this is expected. When they act this way, it's acceptable, even adorable. But for an adult to act this wayto act liberated!—is blasphemy. No, indeed, the process of age oppression, often disguised as "maturation," ensures that we are bereft of all those aspects of youth which are beautiful, liberated.
The process of liberating youth is just that. We aren't liberating people, we are freeing the spirit of youth. We aren't liberating kids, we are freeing what it is to be a kid.
Youthism is the praxis of youth liberation. It suggests that we are all born liberated, rejecting all forms of authority. The adult world has no patience with this, and with good cause: They don't wait until we are able to communicate and reason before trying to instill in us subservience and break our collective and individual wills—this because once we are old enough to reason, we can see through inherently transparent notions of authority with great ease. In other words, we must be trained from a very young age to accept the unacceptable, to submit to authority, to feel weak in the face of power. This isn't done through open, rational dialog, it's done, at first, by overbearing force. The adult world, as a matter of its own survival, must break us lest we break it.
The process of social engineering in our society is dramatic and far-reaching. To underestimate or oversimplify it's capacities is to sell out an entire movement for authentic liberation. Only a radical critique of social life—one which seeks to eradicate oppression at its roots—will lead to lasting change. We must always trace oppression all the way to its sources.
Patriarchy and Adultocracy
It is to the advantage of youth liberation activists that the feminist movement has, for centuries now, been immersed in developing a critical understanding of the dynamics of gender-based oppression. There are so many similarities between sexism and ageism, not only in dynamics but in manifestation, that an understanding of radical feminism is imperative to an understanding of youthism. The parallels between youth liberation and sexual liberation are also quite staggering, as I hope to demonstrate here.
But with this benefit come some liabilities. The first risk of drawing such broad parallels between sexism and ageism is mistaking them as derivatives of the same oppressive source: patriarchy. What feminists have identified as the force behind sexism is valid indeed; but it is in many ways different from the root of age oppression.
Secondly, we must be aware of the ideological and strategical pitfalls in which a substantial portion of the feminist movement has wound up. The biggest of these is liberalization, and along with it a commodified, co-opted perspective, bereft of radicalism, which has rendered large segments of feminism susceptible to accommodation* by the Establishment. A major problem with most feminist theory is its dependence upon false dichotomies, created in order to render theory and practice of feminism easy to digest. Unfortunately, it is only in the more complicated aspects of both radical feminist and youthist theory that we find the keys to liberation.
Modern radical social theory, somewhat more complex but far less dogmatic than its classical predecessors, recognizes that there are four spheres of social life, all interconnected. Those spheres are, briefly: political, where organizational and governmental relationships are housed, the dynamic being authority; economic, where people and institutions relate to the means of production and consumption; community, defined by heritage, race, religion, ethnicity, birthplace, and so on; and kinship, consisting of familial, sexual and interpersonal relationships. While each of these spheres can be identified and even studied in abstraction from the others, radical social theory can only be understood if one recognizes them in context of all others, none more important than any. A perspective which incorporates an all-encompassing comprehension of these spheres, separately and as a whole, has been called complementary holism.*
It is important to note that any sphere of social relationships can be identified as the primary home to a certain oppression or oppressions. For instance, it is in the political sphere that we find statism, the oppression of people by government; and in the economic sphere, classism, or the oppression of the working class by the owning class, is evident; in the community sphere, we find racism in all its forms.
It is with the kinship sphere that we concern ourselves most for purposes of this essay. There we find the institutions of both family and sex. One might think that patriarchy, which has been defined until now as the source of both gender- and age-based oppressions, is the dominant beast here, victimizing both women and children. But patriarchy does not oppress children as children (it instead oppresses them as individual girls and boys). The age-based oppression of children can be traced elsewhere.
Before we go there, let's define some terms. First of all, what the hell is "patriarchy"? In a general sense, patriarchy is the ideological/conceptual institution which defines "masculinity" and "femininity," placing the former in a dominant position over the latter, both theoretically and practically. Those characteristics termed "masculine" by patriarchy include strength of will, aggressiveness, invulnerability and emotional detachment. "Feminine" characteristics include weakness, passivity, vulnerability and emotionalism. In each case, we see that some characteristics are positive (desirable) and others are not.
It is on this basis that a patriarchal society socially engineers its members to assimilate to certain roles defined either by femininity or masculinity. Such a society takes advantage of anatomical sex difference, the possession of a penis or a vagina, to divide and dichotomize. Those with penises will assimilate to masculinity, those "without" will assimilate to femininity. Naturally, those who socially acquire dominant characteristics will, in turn, be dominant.
Now I am going to do something that has never been done before (to my knowledge): I am going to differentiate between gender-based patriarchy and the age-based ideology I call adultocracy. In a general sense, adultocracy is the ideological/conceptual institution which defines "maturity" and "immaturity," placing the former in a dominant position over the latter, both theoretically and practically. Those characteristics termed "mature" by adultocracy include responsibility, wisdom, realism, constraint and inhibition. "Immature" characteristics include irresponsibility, ignorance, idealism, spontaneity and free-spiritedness. In each case, we see that some of the characteristics are positive (desirable) while others are not.
It is on this basis that adultocratic society socially engineers its members to certain roles defined in terms of maturity. Children are supposed to be irresponsible, ignorant, spontaneous, free-spirited, etc, while adults are expected to be responsible, wise, constrained and inhibited.
Both patriarchy and adultocracy take advantage of what appear to be natural or inherent differences in sex and age respectively. In neither situation, however, is it the case that the characteristics so applied to the different classifications are inherent. As long as there is a strong willed woman or a weak-willed man, a responsible child or an irresponsible adult, and these are not called mutations, we must admit that these are socially-determined characteristics. In most cases, the roles are predetermined and expected of us such to manipulate us into fulfilling them.
It is the case, however, that men, having been encouraged to assimilate to patriarchal characteristics, will be the primary agents of patriarchy, via sexism; just as adults, assimilated to adultocracy, will be the primary perpetrators of ageism.
Because age is a temporary, transitional variable, understanding ageism is more complicated than understanding sexism. First of all, those in the typically oppressed class (children) will become members of the primary oppressor class (adults); but then they will graduate, again, into the realm of the oppressed when they become elderly (though the oppression of old folks exposes new dynamics into which I cannot delve at this juncture).
Another unique feature of ageism is that part of the oppression process seeks to transform victims from one class to another, ie child to adult. During this procedure, all that is "immature" and positive is eradicated, and all that is "mature" and negative is enforced. At the same time they are stripped of their spontaneity and free-spiritedness, young adults are imposed upon with awkward notions of responsibility and wisdom. "Responsibility," in adultocratic terms, means accepting one's place in the rest of the social scheme (economic class, race, gender, etc). "Wisdom" means knowing that everything is as it is supposed to be. "Realism" means understanding that the world sucks but you must make the best of it. When the child is "ignorant," idealistic and irresponsible, s/he resists role imposition and believes s/he can turn the world upside down! There is a strong correlation between the fact that idealism is engineered out of us and the fact that the world has yet to be turned on its head.
Feminism, Anarchism and Youthism
One of the pitfalls the feminist movement has encountered can be traced to its reliance upon petitioning authority to make top-down changes on behalf of women. Beginning in the last century, when the main objective of feminist agitation was women's suffrage, the focus on achieving more power within an inherently corrupt system set the stage on which non-radical feminism would play for a long time to come. This is analogous to the focus on achieving more power within the corporate system, a primary goal of the modern feminist movement.
The problem with this sort of objective is that it renders entire movements susceptible to co-optation* and recuperation. It is often possible to achieve goals which do not challenge the Establishment structurally simply because the system is able to recuperate, even strengthen itself (by saving face) as a result of granting reforms to agitators.
This is not to say that "gains" made by leftist movements are not worthy of recognition by radicals simply because they don't strike death blows to the system. Indeed, many of the non-revolutionary achievements of the past century's struggles have provided valuable space in which activists can work for more radical (fundamental) change.
Nevertheless, we must understand the effect channeling our energy towards reforms will have on our movements. When the authorities are our focus, such as is the case when we petition government for redress of grievances, we must recognize that we are not striking at the root of our problem. When feminism agitates for women's civil rights, it is not attacking patriarchy in any fundamental way — instead it is attacking patriarchal manifestations in government. This is the strategy of indirect action: convincing someone else to make changes for you.
Only a strategy of direct action, which tears down oppressive constructs while simultaneously creating alternative institutional foundations, will lead to authentic liberation. Only when the government and business sector have not had a hand in the granting of "freedoms" will we know for sure that we have appropriated them directly for ourselves.
A significant portion of the new youth movement has named young people's suffrage (voting rights) as a major objective. It would seem to be the case that when we have more control over the government we have more control over our political lives and thus more control over life generally. But this is sadly not the case.
First of all, I don't know to what we'd lower the voting age, but it wouldn't be 4, because that would amount to a child walking into the ballot booth and pulling whatever lever daddy told him or her to before hand. I will generalize so far as to say that most young children, probably pre-junior high, are incapable of making a decision of that nature.
Then again, every human being is inherently incapable of making that decision. Voting is a socially-ingrained and -imposed pathology. The choice is absent, predetermined by powers far from popular accessibility. But the act is portrayed as an expression of freedom.
Emma Goldman brilliantly wrote, on women's suffrage, that "suffrage is an evil, that it has only helped to enslave people, that it has but closed their eyes that they may not see how craftily they were made to submit. [...Woman] can give suffrage no new quality, nor can she receive anything from it that will enhance her own quality. Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. [...] Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life-giving; a creator of free men and women."
The same can be said of children. Intelligently, Goldman modified some of her views later on. The vote can help woman achieve the space needed to "enhance her own quality" "from and through herself." Woman and child can clearly do this much more easily when they are not tied down to a bed or a desk, trapped in a house or a classroom. And perhaps the vote can open possibilities for freedom to children. But it can't provide that freedom. Suffrage is not liberation per se.
All in all, I do not think it's worth the effort. Suffrage is much, much more effective, it being something which can be easily accommodated by the system, as Goldman recognized a century ago, as a way to provide the illusion of real, tangible freedom, essentially in commodity form. You fight for the vote, not for freedom. VOTE = FREEDOM is a misnomer, a false premise.
But isn't it true that because women have the vote, they have been able to make great strides towards liberation? No, women have used political pressure within the governmental process to achieve civil rights—but we cannot mistake civil rights for liberation. Rights are privileges granted by some authority on high, be it God or the state. If you have a list of rights, then rest assured that those are all of your rights. Rights are what authorities use to pacify otherwise restless people—if the people want it and it can't radically affect change within the system, then grant it to them. Rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, can be exploited in radical ways. But the fact that the US Bill of Rights specifically includes the privilege of petitioning government for "redress of grievances" is significant. By that statement, those in power have created for us the easiest path for our movements to follow: the focus on begging the government to make change for us. But real liberation can only come from us. We don't have the right to liberation, and we never will.
Anarchism is the belief that people, as intelligent, social creatures, are capable of organizing their affairs in such a manner as to include equality and cooperation instead of hierarchy, authority or any form of coercion. Anarchism denies neither structure nor order, and it is not an invitation to chaos. Anarchy, the condition of anarchism realized, is one in which mutual aid and cooperation replace competition, where plenty replaces contrived scarcity, where communication replaces atomization and alienation, where love replaces violence.
Still, anarchy is not just something of the future, it is something of the past and present as well. Anarchy is not something we need to create so much as it is something we need to realize! We are all, by nature, able to be anarchistic. Throughout history, humans have organized small portions of their affairs in an anarchistic fashion, more often than not completely without consciousness of doing so. Whenever we share freely, on any scale, asking in return only what others are willing to offer, we are being anarchistic. Anarchy is all around us, it is inside of us; we merely need to accept it, to embrace it, to expand it into every realm of our existence, every thread of our lives' fabric.
But anarchism does not ignore the contradictions which make "merely" accepting and embracing anarchy quite difficult in real life. Instead, it offers a thorough critique of the society and institutions thereof which have so devastatingly damaged us, as a people—to the point that true peace and liberty (ie, anarchy) seem like impossibilities not worth fighting for. Or, almost as bad, dominant social institutions have created an Establishment so efficient that it channels earnest desires for liberation into commodified demands for such goals as civil rights and reforms. That society anarchism seeks to destroy and replace by redefining the field on which the game of social life is played. No longer will our oppressors choose the turf of our struggle.
Anarchism is not about throwing molotov cocktails, wearing circle-A's on our jackets, green hair, spiked wristbands, eyebrow rings and tattoos. It is, very much, about the self—but anarchy sees personal liberation only as the end, the ultimate goal, with social liberation as an essential part of the process. In other words, in order to free oneself, one must free all of society and nature. In the process of working towards social liberation, however, we must all simultaneously endeavor to liberate ourselves on a personal level. Yes, this is a catch-22 of sorts; but it is the most beautiful one I have ever encountered.
Anarchism is about revolution. It is about living revolution. For the anarchist, revolution is a process. We must make now, of the present, what we desire for the future. The revolution is not some utopian society of the future, it is the very process of making change in a radical manner. The revolutionary process is the end in and of itself!
Anarchists have somewhat unique perspectives on every thing from social theory to philosophy to strategies and tactics for social change. Anarchism is the most decidedly radical school of revolutionary thought. It is also the only politically libertarian praxis (combination of theory and practice), because it calls for the abolition of government as we know it and its replacement with small-scale, decentralized, nonhierarchical, personalized, directly democratic and consensual forms of political institutions. Anarchists do not believe governments can be "improved" so long as they maintain authority over the people.
One area where anarchism differs from other schools of revolutionary thought is in its perspective on liberation. Anarchism insists that there is no liberation except for self-liberation; that people cannot be liberated by others, only by themselves. Where variants on marxism and other authoritarian ideologies insist that an elite "vanguard," a relatively small group of enlightened intellectuals, can and must liberate the "masses" on their behalf, anarchism rejects this notion outright.
In other words, the revolution must be made by the people as a whole, not for them by some small band of individuals who consider themselves advanced. Therefore, the anarchist project is to help people empower and educate themselves so they can become revolutionists.
And this, finally, is where youth liberation comes in. We know that ageism, or the oppression of young people based on their age, is a major factor in the perpetuation of all oppression in our society. Ageism, like other oppressions, aids the process of social engineering which the Establishment uses to transform naturally spontaneous, thoughtful individuals into veritable cogs. Understanding ageism as a vital component of oppression, the question becomes: How do we counter this force? How do we liberate people from the process of social engineering?
Unfortunately, we cannot liberate others, even though third parties may oppress them and us alike. We can only liberate ourselves as individuals. But not alone. It is important to keep in mind that in isolation we are virtually helpless in the face of ageism and all other oppressive dynamics. Only when we join together with others in our class (young people) can we begin to counter systemic ageism.
Young people will not be liberated until society undergoes a process of total revolution. There will be no mass liberation of children and adolescents until there is liberation for all from the institutional apparatus which systematically manages their collective oppression. As we have seen in previous sections of this pamphlet, adultocracy, which fosters ageism, is very much a part of the institutional fabric that is Amerikan society. It relies on capital, the state, patriarchy, whiteness, religion, et al, and the reliance is interdependent. If we acknowledge the staggering amounts of power behind these other oppressive systems, and realize that they are indeed dependent upon ageism for the very lifeblood of their existence, then we must accept as true the fact that only radical changes in all these structures, and the abolition of their respective (and complementary) ideologies will yield freedom for young people.
It must also be noted out front that adults will never be able to liberate children. Only children can liberate themselves, just as it is the case that people of color, women and proletarians must liberate themselves. Where and whenever called upon to do so, privileged people (ie, adults) can and should lend whatever help is needed by young people.
Furthermore, we must understand that under the conditions of our current society, adults are in a position of privilege over young people. They benefit from the current social arrangements. For this reason, they will be hesitant at best, and reactionary at worst, in response to demands for increased self-determination by kids. A truly radical approach to the empowerment of young people will necessarily rely on a simultaneous disempowering of adults. Radical kids do not want the same privileges and powers as their parents and other grown-up counterparts; they consistently demand a whole new social structure, with decentralized power in the hands of all. They essentially want to pull the rug out from beneath the present arrangement and knock its adult rulers on their asses.
Finally, in approaching the idea of kid liberation, we must keep in mind that we really want to liberate youth, the mindset of which we are stripped in the process of social engineering. If we see the world in objective terms—that is, if all we do is see what is outside of us—we wind up ignoring the internal, the personal. Freeing our bodies from the dictates of adultocracy and its cohorts like the state and patriarchy will not liberate our spirits. Nor will it liberate those of adults who have already undergone the process of age oppression and had their youth eroded. We must rid our lives of the entire Establishment and all its institutions and agents which systematically oppress us in every way possible.
I'm not talking about a movement for equal rights. I'm not talking about a movement against mere prejudice or pockets of persecution. I'm talking about total revolution in all aspects of life, from the profoundly abstract realm of ideology to the structures which serve it to its insidious manifestations in everyday life.
In organizing a movement to build a new society, we need to structure our social change organizations as microcosmic models of the society we wish to create. If we model ourselves after our oppressors (intentionally or not), we will wind up being oppressors, "win" or lose. When we talk about vision and strategy for a new movement, we must recognize that while the ends do not justify any means, the means always determine the ends. This basic tenet of radical wisdom is what has rendered anarchist revolutionary movements different from their authoritarian counterparts.
So if adultocracy is what we oppose, then we must too oppose its constructs: the state and hierarchy; private property and the mass market; white supremacy and xenophobia; patriarchy; anthro-supremacy; and so on. These are authoritarian concepts devised by adults, all of them at first incomprehensible to children and opposed to kids' basic values.
So in our movement, their can be no private enterprise, no support for the state or creation of parties, no racism, no sexism, no speciesism or eco-ignorance. There is no room for these aberrations.
The youth liberation movement must find and maintain a focus on the issue of ageism. We have to highlight the fact that ageism is a direct problem, and it is at the root of many other problems. Like people of color and women, young people are at greater than normal risk in many areas. We are faced with epidemics like AIDS and sexual abuse more commonly than are white male adults. Thus, issues like AIDS and abuse are important to the liberation struggle. However, we cannot confuse the fight against preventable diseases and violence with the struggle for liberation.
There are already organizations which claim to act in the interests of young people the world over. There will likely be many more to come. Rather than empower young people to act on their own behalves, these organizations ostensibly defend kids from the abuses of parents, government, and so forth. This is the epitome of vanguardism. It is not a terrible thing to have an organized movement, but the focus of that movement should be the empowerment of the individual, because, as we know, we can liberate no one but ourselves.
This does not mean we shouldn't struggle against the oppression of others. We should simply recognize the limitations of doing so and acknowledge how important it is to act for ourselves.
Taking a cue from the radical feminists and anarchists, we should endeavor toward personalized organizing and activism in order to maintain a strong focus on individual growth. As long as we are self-organized (rather than herded together by hierarchs), we will be in solidarity; but only when we are organized explicitly for autonomy and empowerment will we escape the clutches of vanguardism and centralization.
Building a Movement Founded on Ideals
An infinite amount of spontaneous resistance and rebellion, as any parent well knows, can be found among the children of today or any generation in human history. Children rebel and lash out. In some cases, psychology has even recognized this as a natural resistance to authority—but, like most of academia, psychology has little patience with nonconformity or insubordination and thus deems such rebellion "irrational," a condition from which children are best weaned. By accepting this absurd notion of age theory, we internalize adultocracy.
Young people have an amazing capacity to resist authority and oppression. For children, to comprehend the relationship between themselves and adultocracy and thus form a sort of youth class consciousness is to harness that energy and, possibly, form a movement for youth liberation.
And this is precisely what the Establishment fears most. If youth liberation does not take the form of a spectacle—the "thing to do"—the powers that be cannot absorb and accommodate it. If it remains inherently grassroots and radical, stressing the dynamic potential of the individual as well as the potency of the collective, it cannot be consumed by the Establishment. Indeed, it will be the seeds of a new society sprouting amongst the roots of the old.
The youth liberation movement is not now and hopefully never will be an organization in and of itself; neither will it be lead by one. Young people do need to come together, to make ties among the oppressed, not only for mutual aid and solidarity but also for purposes of visibility and propaganda. But as soon as it becomes tangible—the moment it can be clearly defined—it also becomes co-optable.
Youth liberation cannot be rhetoric, it can only be action. It can no more take the form of slogans and raised fists than it can appear on t-shirts and bubble gum wrappers. The revolution will not be televised—nor can it be adorned, nor shouted, nor purchased, nor profited from. It can only be made, and only at the grassroots level.
This is not to say that young revolutionists shouldn't take advantage of every means at their disposal to spread revolutionary spirit. Indeed, we must make it our purpose in life. But as soon as the revolution becomes something that can be sold back to us, or compromised with, it ceases to be revolution at all.
Revolutionary movements on this planet have a bad record. Those which have not been smashed or accommodated have devoured themselves. A thorough understanding of the history behind the revolutionary endeavor is indispensable to the liberationist; as are concepts of social theory, revolutionary vision and strategy. We must go about liberating youth in a somewhat prepared, calculated manner.
Youth liberation is very impractical. Just think of all the obstacles that are in the path of young people seeking freedom from adult society. Children are considered property, which means their owners (parents/guardians) have rights over them, but that kids, as such, have no rights separate from their parents. The law enforces compulsory attendance in school until at least age 16. Leaving home is not a legal option in this country. Attempting to sever ties from abusive parents, a long and arduous undertaking, is known as "parental divorce," as though there was consent to marriage at some point!
The law is certainly not on the side of young people, and so even once the less tangible, more easily opposable ideological constructs of adultocracy in cultural and interpersonal realms has been resisted, there is still that matter of the state with which to be concerned. This is not to mention that the economy treats children as dependents instead of individuals, which renders the independence potentially provided by one's own supply of money seriously deterred.
In this world where the present reality is revered as The End of History, being an idealist is not easy. Indeed, when one lives in "Utopia," why aspire for anything different? It is perhaps easier for children to realize that Utopia is nowhere to be found in this society than it is for adults to discern the same, the former having been told the lie fewer times.
As we approach the 21st Century, there is renewed reason to be optimistic about the prospects for social change. Despite the fact that the institutions which oppress us are becoming more and more powerful, more and more solidified, so too is the revolutionary movement for holistic liberation. In the wake of the 1960s, the North American Left suffered a return to the fractured, issue-specific forms of the Old Left. But now, in the middle of the 1990s, young radicals are rejuvenating and restructuring the liberation movement in this society and throughout much of the world.
I am optimistic. I not only believe that revolution can happen, I become increasingly confident that it will. I can make no predictions as to when or exactly how it will occur, but I can be sure of one thing: the first authentic and lasting revolution in world history will be inspired and made by youth.
The youth liberation movement in the United States and in many other parts of the world is growing at a dramatic pace, perhaps more rapidly than any other. Strongly affected and positively infiltrated by all other liberation movements, including the anarchist, socialist, feminist, anti-racist, intercommunalist, ecology, peace and vegan movements, the campaign for youth liberation carries with it the most holistic demand for social change ever assembled. The demand is for total revolution in every sphere and aspect of social and personal life, from institutional conflict to the everyday.
There is one thing and one thing only that can stop this new movement. That is the possibility that those who struggle in its name will grow up. The struggle for liberation is, to a great extent, a war of attrition. We watch young activists grow older and, in the process, travel from idealist to realist to uninspired, apathetic slob; from radical to liberal to indifferent.
If only we can somehow maintain our idealism while increasing our numbers. The trick, I suppose, is to grow up without ever yielding to adulthood. But that will remain a rare resistance until organized, unified solidarity among young people, the most widely oppressed class in the world, becomes a stable and consistent reality.
The following are terms used in this pamphlet which are either uncommon or to which the author applies specific or unpopular definitions.
Accommodation: The process whereby one side of a struggle, usually the stronger, concedes small victories to its adversary in hopes the latter's demands will subside in compromise
Capital: Private wealth, the means of profiting by virtue of ownership.
Co-optation: Like accommodation, this is the process whereby one side of the struggle incorporates the demands or activities of the other into its own strategy, thus weakening the opponent, or at leat invalidating it.
Dynamics: The social forces operative in a relationship.
Praxis: The organic combination of theory and practicve; applied theory/action based directly on theory.
Proletarian: A member of the proletariat, or the working class; not necessarily lower class, but someone who neither owns nor manages the means of production (capital).
Radical: The root of a problem, or one who seeks the root of a problem; fundamental.
It's important to me that anyone who reads my work does not feel like the thinking stops there. Then challenge to understand issues such as ageism and youth liberation are very intense, especially since not a lot has been written on the subject. Here is a handful of books and pamphlets which you might find useful in further researching these topics. This is by no means a complete list—mostly just stuff I personally recommend.
Albert, Michael, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, Holly Sklar; Liberating Theory; Boston: South End Press, 1986. (This is a more general social theory text; we chose it because it is thorough yet simple to understand and apply.)
Ayotte, Wendy; As Soon as You're Born They Make You Feel Small: Self Determination for Children; independent pamphlet, 1986.*
Chicago Anarchist Youth Federation; Schoolstoppers Textbook; independent pamphlet. ($1 to CAYF c/o WCF, PO Box 81961, Chicago, IL 60681 [???].)
Cooperstein, Robert; Some Notes on the Reproduction of Human Capital; independent pamphlet, 1974.*
Cullen, Stephen; Children in Society: a libertarian critique; London: Freedom Press, 1991 (pamphlet).
Freire, Paulo; Pedogogy of the Oppressed; New York: Herter and Herter, 1971.
Gatto, John Taylor; Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling: Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1992.
Goodman, Paul; Compulsory Mis-education and The Community of Scholars; New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
Illich, Ivan; Deschooling Society; New York: Harrow Books, 1970.
Holt, John; Freedom and Beyond; New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1972.
How Children Fail; New York: Delta, 1964.
Llewellyn, Grace; The Teenage Liberation Handbook: how to quit school and get a real life and education; (publisher and date unavailable).
Miller, Alice; For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence; 3rd edition, New York: Noonday Press, 1990.
*These and other relevant essays can be found in a special edition of Anarchy: A journal of Desire Armed, issue #27, Winter '90-91. I cannot promise that they have back stocked copies available, but you can find out by writing: B.A.L. Press, PO Box 2647, P. Stuyvesant Station, New York, NY 10009.