A few things that can be learned from Karl Marx about wealth in capitalism Ruthless Criticism
Translated from MSZ 2-1981

Problems with the young?

Slackers and hooligans, preppies and punks, ravers and squatters, stoners and normies

Dissatisfaction with the youth is older than bourgeois society. Plato lamented that the youth are “no longer like we used to be,” which is why he is often quoted to explain the harmlessness of the “youth problem.” Because the certainty that the youth have yet to become decent members of society – and that they have to do this the same way as the older generation – is usually met with sympathy for the young: “My God, they are still so young.”

That the youth must first become what they are not yet, this negative determination of a time of becoming, is the fundamental bourgeois error as far as the evaluation of the youth is concerned; at the same time, it causes all sorts of silly worries, as if they might not succeed in growing up. It’s just as easy to identify a “crisis of meaning” among the young as it is to identify the failures of the adult world, and there’s a great deal of public concern about whether “these kids will ever play a part in our society.” Well, where else would they?

The problem that a society would suddenly lose its offspring has never really existed before. The unfounded worry about whether they will successfully grow up completely ignores what young people are, and that they already are all that they ever will be. Between the ages of 12 and 20, you don’t need to mature into a society in which you have already spent a dozen years or so of your life, nor does this time used for completing the knowledge and skills needed to prepare for working life differentiate the intellectual abilities of a 15 year old from those of an adult twice his age: more isn’t learned.

The ideology of the maturity process maintains that this stage of life is for the benefit of the adolescents: they learn what they need to, they become what they are supposed to be, in order to find success for themselves in the career world. Young people are considered to be the subjects of their lives – even and especially when the conditions of success list all the requirements by which they are judged. In fact, the ages of life derive their special character exclusively from the different uses that capitalist society makes of these age groups. Accordingly, the youth are by no means a “not yet,” but that’s exactly what they are used as by state and capital. A society does not get the youth it “deserves” – as pedagogical curmudgeons like to report – but the one it needs. What else should young people do other than prepare themselves for what is coming? It’s pointless to expect fundamental criticism, novelty, or subversion from, of all people, those who don’t yet have a say. A few stones might fly and the kids might dress badly, but even in 1981 “getting themselves ready” is the activity of the youth – only, this no longer means the same as it did 10 years ago.

“We weren’t like that!”

everyone thinks at age 25, forgetting that different things were required of them. Until not so long ago, education was not just a means to a career, but already success: the student did not become a member of the elite, he was a member of the elite. The democratization of elite education was initiated with the expansion of schools and universities, and the state and capital signaled to the youth of the time that they had a growing interest in their qualifications. They could be useful as scientifically-trained employees, and more were always needed.

Today, the education system faces a state policy that does not want to produce more academics, but fewer; as well as an economy that, through increased rationalization (yes, the former students did achieve something!), makes itself more and more independent from employees at all levels of the education hierarchy. Overcrowded classrooms and unemployed teachers, “exploding” student numbers and job cuts at the universities, frozen student grant funds and widespread agitation against the “educated elite” signal to the younger generation that the state and the economy have quite conditional interests in them. Since everyone is allowed to study whatever he wants, this doesn’t mean much, and education policy consists only of Ministers of Education fighting against students’ desire for education: they think there is a demand for them as educated people, when it is still not clear whether there is any demand for them at all! There are too many of them in the universities, community colleges, and even high school has become a degree (!) that is inaccessible.

If the increased screening – the shrinking demand for the services of the young – only means that those who climbed to the upper levels of the education system do not reach their goal, but drive away graduates in the next educational level below them from positions that are still privileged, then this “cut-throat competition” has a very unpleasant effect on the normal labor market where capital freely selects, out of a growing supply for its declining demand, those it wants to use – and those it has no use for at all.

In this society, however, being used to increase someone else’s wealth is the “chance” to make a living. Only this chance allows people the inevitable error that the world is – somehow – also their’s, and the effort worth it, even if it is high. “Being used” as an object of exploitation is the basis for people’s interest in “the economy” and the state that sustains it.

The less the material basis of this interest is ensured, the more it becomes the pure virtue of competition. The attitude that kids have to muster is to not want to give up on success – regardless of their chance of achieving it – and its presence decides whether the youngsters turn out any good at all. In addition, they are encouraged by a thousand family and youth magazines with the message that they nevertheless still do have a chance, even if there’s not a straight line to the “dream job” of being a car mechanic:

“What is it about the specter of rising youth unemployment? ‘Nothing at all,’ says the Federal Institute. ‘At present, 3.4% of young workers under the age of 20 are unemployed in the Federal Republic...’ The vocational counsellors recommend girls and boys definitely do an apprenticeship. Anyone who doesn’t have a career will be unemployed sooner. Nobody should expect to get by in life on odd jobs.” (Bunte, Sept. 11, 1980)

Exactly, you could do that in the past – and that was even enough. In bourgeois society, people do not relate their expectations in life to the wealth that exists, but measure what they get in terms of the claims they have acquired and learned in the course of their education. Public school graduates do not demand professor’s salaries; they refer to their modest satisfaction and their narrow-minded pride in “what they do,” that they get what a public school graduate deserves.

Today, however, even these tiered claims are no longer satisfied; the qualifications one has acquired do not count; the training everyone is supposed to receive becomes inaccessible to those who no longer obtain a high school degree, etc. This dissolution of the customary connection between effort and income, which has been brought with the latest policies of the nation, the denunciation of the old “if you can do something, you can be something,” is leading to a division among the youth, into those who now dedicate themselves even more to the virtue of competition, who rely on the fact that in times of lower demand for qualified labor, certificates and qualifications, although they no longer guarantee anything, have become all the more important for this very reason. And into the rest, who immediately see from the intensified selection in school that they have no reason to shine their shoes for anything. For the individual, it is not only after 9 or 13 years that it becomes clear that there is no interest in them, but this is already going on, so that today there are children in the second grade who have already decided that nothing more is going on for them.

But even among those who, as always, pass through the schools, the interest in success separates from the interest in a profession or in school. Today, a high school student must want success in school without being allowed to see it as a preparation for a specific profession chosen in line with some inclination. Likewise, his necessary commitment to success in school is abstracted from knowledge of specific subjects.

In the past, those who were most interested “in the subject” in school, who therefore had an easier time learning and did so more successfully, who had the luxury of not needing to worry about the competition at school, about grades, had the bad student’s purely negative relationship to learning that is gripping all students today. In the past, the security of the baccalaureate after the hurdle of the 10th grade was the prerequisite (of course, not any more) for a free interest in all knowledge (and all the philosophical and artistic nonsense of the bourgeois world), so the reform of higher education has put this free interest in the service of the school competition and thus doomed it. The luxury of student life is over; anyone who wants to make something of himself must make an intense effort to pursue an education in order to acquire a better place in the hierarchy of occupations, which should not be confused with an enthusiasm for education or occupations.

“Many teachers complain that young people are not really interested in anything, are apathetic, listless, resigned.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, August 10, 1980)

Now they are even supposed to be enthusiastic about the whole song and dance! Clearly, the fact that it is no longer a sure thing that one will find an “appropriate” occupation has effects on the mood and state of mind of young people. If political representatives and teachers associations argue about whether less learning is taking place in schools today or whether the competition has become more inhumane than in the past, both are certainly right: more studying is done for exams and nothing is learned at the same time. Kids adapt to the new demands by being more diligent than the previous generation, and more stupid.

Youth – that’s something too!

To the extent that the ideology of a “meritocracy” loses its plausibility, the power of educational appeals is also depleted: “You are permitted, but for that you must also ...” The ideology that it pays to perform one’s duties is no longer in, and so the right to be permitted is simply claimed. Never before have young people been permitted as much as they are today – and they certainly notice this freedom as society’s lack of interest in them. There isn’t even much disappointment about that.

But there is one thing that young people insist on, and that has earned them the insulting name “slackers”: the right not to have to be enthusiastic.

With this mistake – assessing the younger generation’s clearly worsened prospects, the reasons for which they are not interested in and which they do not want to fight, as an obstacle to their partisanship for the whole or as the reason for a legitimate lack of enthusiasm, so that the young act like welfare cases – this is exactly how they show up. They like to present themselves as victims of circumstances they can’t possibly be expected to prevail over, and this is also how they are treated by the media when it mulls over the “problem” of their “disenchantment with the government” with eloquent representatives of the youth.

Young people are no longer “our future,” “our next generation of engineers and skilled workers,” but a recognized social problem. This is democracy: it damages an entire generation and pays it the honor of being declared the number one national social problem. The victims are as free as they are defined to be, and feel exactly that way. Those who take it further write reflective essays about the “problems of youth” and they – even more proud of themselves for not having any prejudices because they renounce judgments – demand only one thing from the adult world: “More understanding for the youth.”

This methodological position towards oneself distinguishes young people today: while other generations always saw the status of adolescents, who are only half-recognized as adults, as a shackle that has to be gotten rid of by earning one’s own income or by other accomplishments (going to university), 18-20 year olds today speak of themselves as teens and demand their “rights as young people.” As these self-confident problem cases of the nation, they are then actually granted a few playgrounds, as well as their own culture, which adults no longer see as an attack on their own.

While other generations wanted to grow up as quickly as possible, today's generation concludes from the hopelessness of their job prospects that growing up is not worthwhile and reclaim the “right to be young!”

“While the adults still assume that the phase of adolescence is a time of preparation, of working for what comes later, ‘life’, today’s adolescents do not see it this way, but consider their adolescence to be an existing, current life.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Aug. 10, 1980)

Well, look here, now the kids think their lives are for living! Youth experts (such a thing as this also now exists!) see a change in values going on here and think that the hopelessness of the kids is just more materialism: they don’t want to wait for life until they are old. But to see youth – and this just means being economically dependent, neither able to nor allowed to do what one wants, and the foolishness of opposing the uptight rationality of competition with nothing more than the freedom to be irrational of those who are not taken seriously – as the goal of one’s own desires is the opposite of knowing what one wants. It is not possible to dismiss their demands as young people for recognition, understanding, and respect as a “youthful folly,” since they are proud of not being taken seriously.

What has been said here about the young refers by no means only to “problem cases” in the narrow sense. A “class consciousness” of youth exists far beyond the circle of those who no longer find jobs. What is a way of life for some, the unemployed, hippies, etc., is cultivated by the rest as the ideology of their daily efforts to be successful. The Bavarian authorities have showed that this worldview of young people as young people can even be mobilized. After the recent mass arrests in Nuremberg, the nation saw a wave of solidarity among students and apprentices. One stands up for young people as young people! And a girl from the country, who certainly never wears purple dungarees, never squats houses, and certainly never throws stones, answered a question about whether all young people are so disenchanted with the state and so alternative: “There is only one youth!” (Bavarian television, April 1,1981)

Squatters – offensive hardship cases

Young people do not criticize their experiences in the education system and on the labor market, nor their increasing exclusion from higher education, the better and more pleasant occupations, many even from the average standard of living, but criticize the fact that they are not needed and do not get enough attention and sympathy. This criticism is not based on a material interest, but on its capitalist prerequisite. Just as the German working class is not lacking in wages but in jobs, so the young do not lack in good prospects, but in a social task. (If this criticism were to go beyond the youth culture realm and become political, it would lead not to labor disputes, but directly to labor services!) Secondly, this false criticism is presented as an unfortunately persistent obstacle to their own enthusiasm for the state and the society. This is the insolence of the subservient person who expects to be able to get something by referring to a restraint on his will to be ruled.

Squatters notice this second side. They become active as neglected social cases. They don’t beg, they don’t want to be “passive deadbeats,” but take what they need in order to practice their youthful way of life. Like the negroes in the slums of the USA with their riots, they only refer to the public neglect of their needs, so they believe themselves to be entitled to some things as social cases. This weak criticism, which against all experience sees the state, property, and homeownership as actually terrific social providers, is taken very seriously by them when they “justify” taking an empty house, without even thinking of a fight against property and its rule. Even a right to violence is derived from the standpoint of the rebellious social case – and this too is handled like a German version of the Harlem edition. Without the slightest calculation as to the effects of an action on the other side, a window pane gets broken “in order to express our enormous rage,” or a Christmas tree is lit on fire because there must be a “ruckus” (or “riot”) “if the Senate won’t listen to us!” The psychological relation to the riot, which is calculated not to agitate or harm the enemy, but to help the emotional life of the stone thrower, then manifests itself in the short-sightedness that led to the arrests in Nuremberg: without even thinking about the fact that they had to conjure up a confrontation with the police by throwing stones, they calmly went to the Center for Young People after committing the crime and discussed the question of violence, where they were taken by complete surprise when the police came to make arrests.

In this way, they get the attention from the society that they want from it – and get only as long as the authorities quite freely refrain from evicting them from houses – until this is done anyway. Second, the squatters get what they apparently want most from the society: the feeling of being needed, of having a community-building task to devote themselves to:

“Where everything is so broken, we have finally found a meaningful job here.”(Nuremberg squatters)

Meaning for the little people

Ten years ago, there was a generation of young academics who were so sure of success that they could choose from the different professions that were open to their members and set standards. The students were so enthusiastic about the possibility of “meaningful” work as academics that they temporarily turned down the reality of their bourgeois careers because of their professional ideals. They were so sure that they would be needed that they set conditions for belonging to the better status.

Today, because they are not needed as much, young people develop the ideal of a genuine community in which value is placed on their participation. And because they are no longer supposed to, they search for meaning. While generations of successful people found meaning in the idealization of their professions – a teacher is much more than a teacher, but a molder of human beings with an incredible amount of responsibility –, the higher purpose that one gladly accepts and that makes all the shit seem worthwhile must be sought in people for whom the profession, whether they get one or not, can no longer be a perspective separate from its bourgeois activity.

If today’s youth are enthusiastic about anything, it’s religion, whose heaven, separated from bourgeois life, is more suited to the need for meaning in bad times, when serious professional idealism appears as unauthorized materialism. Mocking the trinity has gone completely out of fashion among the younger generation and the churches are becoming full again; church days ultimately offer the meaning and communal experience that the young are hungry for.

And because they don’t just believe in God, but want to have their own Jesus, youth sects flourish alongside Christian rock services. There, where one has spent one’s last penny, one will then practice the strenuous art of “accepting” without criticism the “others” in complete indifference to their appearance, odor, knowledge, interests, and other individual characteristics. A member of a youth sect makes dedicating their own life to higher purposes, as well as the creation of a genuine, unconditional community, their sole task in life. Thus the need for meaning, otherwise the ideal compensation for failure in competition, in which people formulate their will to continue bearing up, becomes an extra reason for the youth to freak out. They no longer fail, because they don’t want to let themselves be measured by the standards of success.


Normal youths satisfy their need for a purpose worth devoting themselves to and for a community in which they will also be important, in addition to professional and school life, with hobbies in cliques. But because hobbies are chosen purely in opposition to everything has to be done, they usually have little more content than “free,” “completely informal” “do what you want.” (This is all that visitors could report about the self-governing [!] youth centers.) So they quickly become bored by their negative purpose. The sense of a community in a clique is then for many set in the army.

One can also, for example, simply declare oneself a supporter of the town where one lives and practice local patriotism in the fan club of the local football team. Then one spends one’s weekends with fans from the other team and looks forward much more consciously than soldiers to the time when one is ready to attack for one’s cause – “We are we!” In this way, one can prove that it is worthwhile to do something, that there is a community in which one’s own dedication is needed and important, or the same vice versa, that one is nevertheless a special, unique, and unmistakably valuable individual.


Today, when they go dancing, a lot of female hairdressing apprentices no longer go to the nearest bar with a DJ, but afford themselves the “luxury” of “experiencing” the notorious “Saturday Night Fever” of a glittering disco-palace that is expensive for someone in their circumstances. While the rock'n’roll generation sowed their wild oats with handsprings and occasionally turned a stage into matchsticks – there were no “slackers” in those days, but “rowdies” – Beatlemania might be remembered from the pictures of enraptured screaming teenagers who thought Paul was their very personal “little prince” – the disco audience, which takes in all classes, lets itself be persuaded from all possible sides, paying homage, when shaking their limbs to the monotonous sound of the loudspeakers, to a worldview – and believes in it at the same time! The “feeling” that one gets by “totally switching off” every thought and every specific feeling (by the way, this also requires a good deal of musical brutality!) is supposed to be precisely – even though a hundred or so people are doing the same thing in a very small space – the demonstration of an individuality that has acquired its innermost expression here – with flared costumes, light-shows, and war-paint. Still, the most extravagant disco look shows its fixation on the crowd it wants to stand out from.

In consciously distancing themselves from the big disco wave, some youth look back to things that are down-to-earth, close-to-the-roots, go on pilgrimages to folklore sing-alongs and reject the common yardsticks of professional and private success. Girls, for example, wear alluring floppy worker’s jeans, some don't mind wearing homelier things again, even braids come back into fashion along with other self-knitted items. The young gal’s old ideal of marriage, having many children, and family security is once again openly acknowledged here.


While some present the old German housewife as an ideal protesting against the liberated career woman, others are able to neatly set themselves apart by dedicating themselves, in terms of costume, to the casualness and sporty chic of previous, more successful generations. Just as others are indifferent to success, the properly dressed preppies mimic the will to success. It would be completely wrong to accuse these cleanly dressed children of having conservative or worse political intentions; of course, for the sake of display, a few bits of elite theories are taken up, since one is playing the ruling class. According to them, one is sure that the rest of the world, against which one also cultivates a minority consciousness – “we are not understood!” – is plebeian. And yet it is far from certain that these little fellows will even go to college.


The opposite side is not long in coming – and the war between preppies and punks, between people of different style persuasions, can begin (or come to a stop when a new ‘I am somebody’ fashion comes along). While some toy with integration, others – purely negatively – do the opposite: nonconformity. Pedagogical intellects eager for insight become exasperated with this fashion-adverse youth scene when they ask what the clothing and disguises are supposed to express other than the protest: we are different and don’t fit in! In their club names – “No Future,” “Trash” or simply “Punk” – they imagine themselves to be the last dregs of this society. As this scum, they assert something and demand attention from the rest of straight society, which on the one hand they want nothing to do with, but on the other hand reproach for not letting them participate: “I want to shock!” – but that’s not so easy. Twenty years ago, you were a beatnik and a troublemaker if you didn’t cut your hair for four weeks. Today, however, the right to individuality, to be allowed to be quite different, does not yet have to be enforced: short and long hair, skirts and trousers, dingy or dapper, with beard and without – one “is allowed” anything and it doesn’t even blow the minds of old fascists anymore (they wear sideburns too!). You have to shave your head, whiten your face, and stick a safety pin in your cheek to make people turn around.

The politicization of the young

The media people who keep a sharp eye on the youth and worry about whether they will turn out how they were supposed to are always discontent; even the “Bild” complains about slackers:

“Man, people, where is your oomph? You are a boring generation!” (The “Bild” author misses, of all people, whiners.)

The smart kids aren’t critical enough, the nursing home attendants aren’t hard working, and most simply aren’t enthusiastic about anything. As little as journalists have grasped what animates the youth, their huge amount of grumbling shows that they know the “problem of the youth,” which they exaggerate, will not become a problem for the state. Ten years ago, “whiner” was a put-down; today its an honorary title that can’t be awarded!

What the early warners about loyalty to the system are keeping quiet about is the fact that the young are politicized, that they are just as much in favor of the system as a youth can be with bad prospects. They no longer want success, they no longer want to criticize, they only want to be more recognized as youth. Especially in its craziest forms, the youth want to demonstrate nothing more than that they are somebody too, i.e. to see and to present themselves as at least free people, although better – because they lack the material basis for an interest in bourgeois rule, i.e. in the freedom of the citizen. If one can understand why a homeowner regards freedom as “worth defending,” why the employed proletarian says he “has” a job, this youth lacks a reason to want freedom in this way. From this, they draw the conclusion that they will then become idealists of freedom, not want it for something, but simply want themselves to be free people. In this way, young people, with their individualism and longing for a genuine community, become a direct reflection of competition. What becomes of them is no secret either: they get older! And with that, many will take up tedious occupations and hold on to their youthful search for meaning as a harmless compensation – as an alternative hobby. The minority, however, will be wastrels, as everyone now senses, because being German and being employed will have less and less to do with each other.