By Jess Gill
Originally published on fee.org
Should we be romanticising the idea of young people rebelling against the system?
There is a romanticized view that left-wing youth movements are the wave of the future and on the “right side of history.” The stereotypical young idealist is assumed to be a left-wing radical who supports movements such as Black Lives Matter and causes such as the Green New Deal and socialism. The views of young people are generally seen to be represented by figures such as the anti-capitalist Greta Thunberg or the young socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
According to a survey conducted by The Institute of Economic Affairs, 67 percent of younger people say they would like to live in a socialist economic system and 75 percent agree with the notion that “socialism is a good idea but it has failed in the past because it has been badly done.”
It is clear that capitalism and traditional values are heavily stigmatized among Generation Z. As a young person myself, I’ve felt isolated from my peers when I’ve argued against socialism and progressivism. Many of my friends with similar views to me feel the need to censor themselves in order to fit in.
Socialism and leftism are undoubtedly popular with my generation. But it’s worth asking, have these ideologies organically come from new eyes seeing the injustices of the world and wanting to rebel against an oppressive system, or is there another explanation for why these beliefs have become so popular?
Rebel With a Cause
There’s a trend that can help us answer this question. While young people are often angry over the issues of their time, the solutions they advocate are often more of what caused the problem in the first place.
The housing crisis in Britain is a good example. Young people now see home ownership as an unrealistic dream as house prices in the UK have skyrocketed over the past decades. According to the IEAs poll, 78 percent of young people blame the crisis on capitalism and believe that the solution requires large scale government intervention through measures such as rent control and public housing. However, they fail to recognise that the reason why housing is so expensive is because there is a housing shortage due to government restrictions on building.
A similar misattribution of blame characterized the Occupy movement in 2011, which was a response to the Great Recession of 2008. The young protesters demanded more government regulation for Wall Street with the rallying cry that “we are the 99%.” However, the reality is that it was government interference in the financial system that caused the recession.
Young people seeking solutions that would just exacerbate the problem is nothing new. As the economist Ludwig von Mises describes in his book Bureaucracy, the rise of the youth movement in Germany preceding World War One was a reaction to the lack of opportunity from the bureaucratic regime. However, the youth movement lacked a clear grasp of the problem and wanted to expand the system rather than fight against it.
“The youth movement was an expression of the uneasiness that young people felt in face of the gloomy prospects that the general trend toward regimentation offered them. But it was a counterfeit rebellion doomed to failure because it did not dare to fight seriously against the growing menace of government all-round control and totalitarianism. The tumultuous would-be rioters were impotent because they were under the spell of the totalitarian superstitions. They indulged in seditious babble and chanted inflammatory songs, but they wanted first of all government jobs.”
Time and time again we can see that the youth movements that are allegedly fighting the man are in reality empowering him.
And that’s no coincidence. A lot of the time, young people are inadvertently promoting the system, because the system itself is manipulating them.
The modern movements championed by young people today are presented as anti-establishment and grassroots. Yet, the same groups that claim “oppression” are supported by the mainstream media, the government, and big corporations.
While leftists claim they’re fighting against the system by advocating for Black Lives Matter, the system is literally promoting their cause, as shown by BLM leaders meeting with Biden officials. This can also be seen through the attempt to frame trans ideology as an anti-establishment opinion. However, the emperor is shown to have no clothes when you consider that the White House showed its allegiance to the LGBT movement by flying the progressive pride flag next to the American flag.
Youth movements empowering, rather than rebelling against, the system today parallels how young people played a fundamental part of Mao’s cultural revolution. Students were encouraged by the regime to rebel and raid the homes of class enemies and stigmatize them as social outcasts. As historian Frank Dikötter wrote in his book The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976, Mao believed “youthful naiveté and ignorance were positive virtues,” because it made them more manipulable.
Another Brick in the Wall
Furthermore, the causes that are championed as “youth movements” are oftentimes just movements championed by teachers and pushed onto their students. The Libs of TikTok Twitter page demonstrates how radical gender theory has been promoted in education by radical left-wing teachers in the United States. Likewise, in the UK, a video became popular online featuring a teacher referring to a student as “despicable” due to their lack of respect for the gender identity of another student who identified as a cat.
Gender theory has also received institutional backing in the UK where non-profits such as Stonewall and Mermaids have provided resources and lessons on gender for schools around the country. Is there any wonder why so many young people align with leftist views when these views are being heavily promoted in our education system and young people are being told they’re evil if they simply disagree?
Murray Rothbard in The Progressive Era explains how young people were at the front for the cause of prohibition, partially due to the promotion of the cause in the public education system:
“The youth were becoming more pietistic and more militant prohibitionists than their elders. The pietist youth exuded a deep hatred for the saloons, expressed through Young People’s Christian Societies and Interdenominational Sunday school programs. The W.C.T.U. [Woman’s Christian Temperance Union] partly through its highly successful hygiene classes in the public schools, were able to enlist 200,000 youngsters in their affiliate, The Loyal Temperance Legion.”
The Real Rebels
However, there have also been authentic youth movements for genuinely noble causes. A notable example of this is the American Founding Fathers who were mostly younger than forty when fighting in the Revolutionary War. As referenced in the musical, Hamilton was still a young adult when fighting in the battle for independence. The reason that the youthful libertarian revolution that freed America and the west actually was “on the right side of history” was that it was based on good ideas and was not driven by tyrants for their own interests.
So if you’re a young person who doesn’t side with trendy movements, don’t feel bad, since these movements aren’t always on the “right side of history.” While youth movements are often viewed with rose-tinted glasses, the reality is that young people have often been on the side of movements that promote big government and limiting freedom. But this is not rebelliousness. The real rebels are the ones who fight against tyranny, not the ones who prop it up.
Jess Gill is a fellow with FEE’s Henry Hazlitt Project for Educational Journalism. A resident of Manchester in the United Kingdom, she is the host and director of Reasoned UK where she makes daily videos on British politics from a libertarian perspective. She is also the social media strategist of Ladies of Liberty Alliance (LOLA). Follow her on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and Substack.