Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei!

Well I’m ashamed to admit it but my career as a habitual shoplifter never really got off the ground, or even down the aisle. That doesn’t mean that I no longer need to steal things; while I now earn approximately sixteen times what I got paid for teaching English in Madrid, I’d be horrified to think that I’d reached the peak of my earning potential.

My short-lived interest in retail thievery was inevitably inspired more by political sentiment than by any deep-rooted criminal instincts. What the good people at yomango get up to is of course entirely laudable, and I was quite excited to read in the Guardian about the activities of ‘Germany’s real-life Robin Hood gang’, who have taken to charging en masse into luxury goods stores, taking whatever they like and then distributing it among ‘Germany’s new underclass’:

… interns who worked for months in glamorous publishing houses without being paid, low-wage nursery assistants, mums forced to take part-time jobs as cleaning ladies and “one-euro jobbers”, performing menial tasks under a German government welfare scheme. The gang said it didn’t merely object to capitalism. Instead it was making a stand against Prekarisierung or “precariousness” – the uncertainty facing 20- and lower 30somethings as they try to navigate their way through Europe’s gloomy neo-liberal jobs market.

Although I’ve fortunately never been a victim of it myself, I’ve long found it nauseating that young graduates are often expected to work for a year or more for nichts in the hope that there may at the end of it be a professional job which will afford them the lifestyle which their parents took for granted:

”We are talking about young, relatively well-educated people whose parents easily attained secure jobs and middle-class status. The situation now is far more insecure. For the first time in many generations, young people in Europe have bleaker prospects than their parents did. They are not as optimistic or utopian as people were in the 60s, or as pessimistic and depressed as they were in the 80s. Instead they find themselves having to walk a tightrope.”

If they aren’t working for free, a lot of highly qualified young people are working for casi nada. An article in El País last year highlighted the ‘La generación de los mil euros’, graduates in their late twenties and early thirties who may have diplomas coming out of their culos and speak various foreign languages but just can’t find a job which pays more than a thousand euros a month and who are stuck paying more than a third of their income on rent, living grudgingly in shared apartments, with no savings and no chance of buying a house or sustaining a family, living a hand-to-mouth existence and gradually ‘realising that the future is not where they believed it to be’.

I was reminded of this recently when reading a novel by someone who is emphatically neither young nor Spanish, José Saramago. In his new book, set in an unnamed country, death ceases to kill, and the authorities are suddenly faced with the rapidly mounting panic of the funeral industry and the insurance companies, the collapse of the health system and the overflowing old people’s homes, along with the diplomatically tricky prospect of anyone with an almost-but-not-quite defunct relative simply sneaking them up to the border with the neighbouring country and tipping them over the line into death.

All in all another day at the office for Portugal’s leading octogenarian Nobel-Prize winning ultra-pessimist, then. But what has all this got to do with shoplifting? Nothing whatsoever. It just struck me that there is a potential parallel between ‘young people in Europe (having) bleaker prospects than their parents did’ and the discussion that takes place early in the novel between various academics, government officials and bishops about just what the hell they are going to do:

The eight men seated around the table had been asked to reflect upon the consequences of a future without death and to construct from the available facts a plausible prediction of the new questions that society would have to deal with, along with, it must be said, the inevitable aggravation of the old questions.

Perhaps what we are facing is not a future without death, but a future without a future. Unless things change immediately, and radically, of course, something which surely the vast majority of sane thinking people regard as a virtual impossibility:

The only rational response to both the impending end of the Oil Age and the menace of global warming is to redesign our cities, our farming and our lives. But this cannot happen without massive political pressure, and our problem is that no one ever rioted for austerity.(George Monbiot in the Guardian, December 2nd, 2003)

As we are gradually stripped of the illusion that ongoing exponential economic growth will inevitably lead to human betterment, what new questions will society have to deal with, along with, it must be said, what inevitable aggravations of the old questions?

It’s pretty obvious that for most of the world’s population day-to-day life will become, has become, more of a struggle. But how will the rich live in the future? Will they see any point in continuing to strive for more and more unimaginable wealth in an increasingly threatening climate? Or will they simply slack off and enjoy their riches while the unprotected world crashes and burns?

In JG Ballard’s ‘Cocaine Nights’ his characters have retired from Northern Europe to sunnier parts of the world, to live lives of pure leisure. They soon get bored, and the sterility, isolation and entropy that sets in is underscored by cravings for ‘the Real’, an unsimulated visceral experience of violence and psychological terror, which arrives in the form of a charismatic individual willing to provide such a ‘spectacle’.

Those cravings exist at street level too, I think. It partially explains the phenomenon of yomango and the German Robin Hood gang. What better exemplifies our current fears than the apparent phenomenon of Happy Slapping? Whether or not it actually exists, it fills a Clockwork Orange-shaped hole in our culture – some people are never going to be satisfied with computer game simulations of the ecstasies of random violence and crime.

As someone wise pointed out a while ago: The future holds nothing else but confrontation.