Most political parties are struggling to attract new members. Their numbers are declining year after year, and fewer young people want to commit to a political party. Does this mean that today’s youth is disinterested in how the world around them could and should be organised and run? Or do young people believe there are better ways of creating change than aligning themselves with an established political members’ club? We think the latter is true. Last year for instance, the Dutch G500 movement showed that political participation is still very much alive. Concerns over the impact of political decisions on future generations – for example the depletion of pension funds – gave rise to G500, which was started by several young people. The initiative called for young people to become members of multiple political parties simultaneously, allowing them to influence agendas throughout the political spectrum and bridge the generation gap. It is one example of young people’s engagement with society and politics. Its subversive approach critiques the established political party system, literally shaking it up by collapsing party boundaries through multi-party affiliation.

Traditional party politics has lost a great deal of its appeal. Not because there is nothing to fight for, but quite the contrary. There’s so much work to be done, that it makes no sense to hold on to political views that were designed to describe a world that doesn’t exist anymore. The world is changing rapidly, while many people hold on to old frameworks. The loosening of ties to political parties allows for the discovery of new allies and friends throughout the political spectrum. However, this article isn’t written to argue for the abolishment of political parties. As political scientists, we are interested in the alternative tools for political mobility that engaged young people choose and use.

The youth food movement tells us a lot about the ways young people want to be engaged and what might be new about this kind of engagement. By ‘youth food movement’ we mean organisations such as Youth Food Movement, as well as other initiatives by young people related to food. There are over a hundred initiatives within the Food Guerrilla network that are supported by Dutch development organisation NCDO (National Commission on Sustainable Development). These include initiatives like Too Good to Waste, Food Sharing and the Neighbour Food Market.

We think the youth food movement is best described as a new public energy field. One characteristic of such an energy field is that it offers a space for politics that is unhindered by existing institutional barriers and established viewpoints. It’s a political environment in the making with lots of room for experimentation.

Let us give an example of an energy field in action. Last summer, Albert Heijn (a large supermarket chain in the Netherlands) decided to unilaterally alter the contractual agreements they had with their suppliers and to pay the farmers less. In response, Youth Food Movement and Food Cabinet organised a flash mob to raise consumer awareness of the supermarket’s unethical behaviour. It featured a clever tag line that played on the chain’s price fighting ad campaigns and helped attract media and consumer attention. Within a day, people from all over the country, including the NAJK (an organisation for young farmers) were joining forces. Influential opinion makers picked it up on social media like Twitter. Then a respected journalist Teun van de Keuken suggested the protest should be broadcast in De Wereld Draait Door (a popular TV chat show). As a consequence of the flash mob, Albert Heijn withdrew their ‘offer’ to the farmers.

This example showcases perfectly how fast and effectively a new public energy field can mobilise a significant number of people. It started with a chat in a café the night before. The next day the flash mob was announced on Facebook and within a couple of hours over a hundred people decided to attend. Most of them were already connected to the youth food movement in one or the other way. This group of ‘followers’ is key to the success of the movement, as was shown recently by a Youtube hit.

Part of the excitement of being involved in the food movement is that the answers to the problems at hand are as yet unknown. Those involved aren’t pretending to know all the answers, but they have an ongoing commitment to work towards sustainable solutions. It’s much more optimistic than most activist groups, and less obligatory. It is more optimistic because the focus is not on what is missing or wrong, but on the chances to create positive change on an individual or small scale level. It is less obligatory because there is only a minimum level of formal organisation. No membership is required. There are no endless and boring meetings. Instead ideas spread through the internet and are caught and put into practice, as in the example of the supermarket flash mob. Although ideas and actions are mostly initiated by a core group, the people involved are not a passive audience. Involvement outside of the core initiator group can best be described as ‘on stand-by,’ ready to support the best, creative ideas and actions. Social media plays a critical role here, but not by fostering the kind of armchair activism it has been criticised for. Within the energy field, it functions as a window of opportunities for the followers to engage.

The sustainability discourse has opened up a new public energy field by engaging both the mainstream food system and alternative ones in its debates. The recently published volume Food Practices in Transition (2012) comments that, ‘The discourse on sustainability is on everyone’s tongue, in the niches, the mainstream food chain and the intervening field of force.’  The new public energy field is this intervening ‘field of force’ and it plays a crucial intermediary role bringing together ideas and actions. The currency of sustainable food has opened the sphere of discourse and created a common language in which diverse stakeholders can converse. Social media has transformed activism among young people because of its reach and fluidity, cultivating its followers invisibly but able to cohere action when needed.  The world of traditional politics and political parties can learn from this idea of public energy fields and tap into them to for critical reflection and implementation. The less institutionalized a movement is, the more it can communicate its ideas fluidly and with currency in the rapidly changing and exchanging public world of social media.

In the meantime on our hustling and bustling third floor, a politically engaged group of youngsters will stay politically engaged, not as a typical political party, but just as a group of young people working on cool projects on a day-to-day basis.

Featured image by Marsmetn Tallahassee 

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