Faris ŠehovićPhoto by: Humphrey Muleba

Youth in Exile

In today’s world, the topic of youth remains unaddressed. We live in a time where the cult of youth reigns supreme, youth is portrayed as the best time of life; everyone wishes to stay youthful, beautiful, and vital. Today, youth rules the world. In parallel, the reality is harsh – the youth are roaming, lost, facing unemployment, social marginalisation, and overall uncertainty. These all being global phenomena.

Capitalism, which has never been stronger, shapes the cult of youth through its products. Middle-aged adults are concerned with retaining a youthful body and spirit. The primary prerequisite of civil appearance is to remain as young as possible for as long as feasible. That is why we use cosmetics, live under pressure of having a flawless physique and exaggerate with exercise beyond the boundaries of health demands, why we buy clothes, idolise young-looking old people…

According to Alain Badiou in his short essay “The True Life”, which addresses today’s youth invoking Karl Marx, the abandonment of hierarchical society has actually ushered in a “gigantic crisis in humanity’s symbolic organization”. Following thousands of years of hierarchical coded relationships, modern capitalism destroyed traditional codes, hierarchical and idyllic relationships within society (such as family relationships), and created a new structuralization of relationships based on mutual interest-based exchange and money as a universal reference. As a result, today’s youth is formed under the pretext of a neutral freedom. The collapse of a hierarchical society is not necessarily a problem; the problem is what the pretext of a neutral freedom shaped by such relationships has resulted in. We have formed a collective sense of being lost and roaming as a result of the collapse of hierarchical society, which forces us to either combust our lives or build them in conservative ways.

As a result, Alain Badiou offers two paths for young people to choose. He refers to the first of these two paths as “the desire for the West”, or the assertion that there is, and can only be, nothing better than the liberal and capitalist model. It is a path that entails a race for a career, social standing, money, clothes, and luxury holidays. The second path is the reactionary desire for a return to traditional society, i.e., fascization. It is often concealed in the acceptance of national hierarchies (as seen in the glorification of the Serbian, Croatian, or Bosniak nation), simple racism (expressing hatred towards others), or the rising impact of religion on young people and their formation.

The situation of youth in the South Slavic region is further influenced by the post-conflict context and dysfunctional societies in which their development and upbringing are accompanied by ongoing re-traumatization. The youth are atomized, and those atomized individuals must choose between exile and anchoring in the current context. As a result, the paths intersect with Badiou’s hypotheses. The desire for the West entails physical departure to the West, whereas the reactionary model entails remaining in one’s homeland and engaging in the continuous reproduction of a nationalist society constructed on the wreckage of a once modern state.

While one would expect younger generations to be more liberal and open, the reality is quite different. According to a research titled “Youth in a Time of Crisis”, conducted in 2013 by the Institute for Social Research in Zagreb and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on a sample of 1,500 young people born between 1989 and 1999, time in Croatia has begun to run backwards: for the first time, a generation has emerged that is more conservative and traditional than their parents. It is indicative that young people are more opposed to abortion than the overall population, and that there is a greater tendency to glorify one’s nation and increased religiosity. The second finding is not worrisome in itself, but it implies more negative attitudes toward other religions and nations. As a result, only 7% of young people stated they would marry a Serb, and 15% said they would accept a Serb as a neighbour. In a 1999 survey, immediately after the war, 13% of young people said they would marry a Serb, while 22% said they would live next door to one.

We can assume that findings in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia would be similar. The outcomes are the result of a powerful network of nationalist ideologies and religious institutions. This network employs the educational system, cultural institutions, media, and general public sphere perfectly well to shape a young person, and thus a citizen, based on its needs and views. The societies in these countries today best demonstrate how problematic this is and where it will lead us, but they also forbode the future that the current youth will bear.

The confirmation of one of Badiou’s two hypotheses in his essay also demonstrates that our society has become a part of the global capitalist world. Today’s youth are more conservative and anti-revolutionary than their parents. They are the active bearers of society’s new fascization. At the same time, the other path, the one towards the West, is not more progressive because there is no need to invent a new future and principles of how society functions – capitalist patterns are being uncritically embraced and mastered to navigate the career network. Both paths, according to Badiou, are conservative.

However, the question here is – what about those of us who cannot find ourselves in either of these two paths, and who intuitively oppose such a life? We can observe that a large proportion of the youth are in exile. Be it physical exile, leaving their cities and homelands, or internal exile. Internal exile entails confinement to small social circles, well-established café bar routes, passivisation of thought, and the creation of one’s own “little Switzerland”. For us, our streets have become mazes through which we roam atomized, escaping reality, whereas the city and the state have become our enemies.

Is there a path out of exile, out of the maze of streets where we hide from reality and face society passively, out of the maze that leads us into states of depression or indifference, and into the offices of psychotherapists who charge enormous sums for helping the lost youth? Badiou believes that society’s abandoned hierarchization allows young people to use it by attempting to construct a new egalitarian symbolization, a society without a hierarchical structure, rather than conservatively accepting the symbols of capitalist calculation or reactionary fascism.

In our Yugoslav context, there is a catchphrase that “the youth must take over”, and we frequently encounter older people who are dissatisfied with the results of their work or the results of their children, trying to shift responsibility for fixing the situation to the youth. It is their escapism and shifting of responsibility, but we should not be bothered by it. This is not an easy task; it requires constant monitoring of social events, the creation of attitudes about them, discussion, ongoing polemic, and public expression of one’s thoughts. On an individual level, though, he argues that young people must roam, but in a disciplined manner. He expects us to band together and communicate our needs collectively, in the way that feminist movements do these days. Let us endeavour to construct a new world instead of nihilism, negation, and self-destruction. To do so, we must know how to construct, then tear down, and have the power to leave, roam, depart, and return. Today’s youth must be fearless and ready to face the abyss, to do the work and make mistakes.

Dear comrades, wild capitalism and fascism will not bring us a better future, nor bring back the past. We must build our own egalitarian society.

Faris Šehović was born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and he is 24 years old. His educational background is from Political Science, more precisely International relations and Diplomacy. He is currently attending the interdisciplinary MA program at Sarajevo University on European studies, writing and preparing his MA thesis. From the professional point of view, he works for the Boris Divković Foundation as researcher and policy developer for the Foundation. As regards his academic work, his core interests are in the field of social sciences and topics such as geopolitics, identity politics and research of ideologies and correlation between ideology and social reality.

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