Don’t fear the “millenial generation,” fear the end of the centrality of work, because its absence is what produces lonely people, Adamistic people, Puritans… and jihadists.
At the end of 2012, the sociologist Agnès De Féo conducted a series of interviews of women who had chosen to wear the full veil after its prohibition in France. Among them was Emilie König, who is now on the sanctions list of the UN Security Council and surely the “most wanted woman” by US authorities. It is calculated that she recruited more than two hundred people in Europe for the Islamic State.
Her story, as seen in the interviews, is a true case study. Like other leaders of the Islamic State in France, König, a Breton daughter of functionaries raised in a disfunctional home, had a stormy childhood, and later, precarious jobs serving drinks, which left her with a drug-trafficking husband and two children. The story, the sociologist assures us, is not really reliable; it could be exaggerated and adorned with notes of nonexistent drama. It’s so cliché that a radical group, which was later dissolved by French police, rejected her because it was too archtypical to be true. König was buying into a narrative and pushing it so hard that it wasn’t credible to the sociologist, who admits that at several points, she almost stopped filming.
Her speech was so built on a caricature of herself, that at various times, I questioned whether I should keep collecting her testimony, or whether she was using me to give meaning to her existence through my camera.
At 17, she converted to Islam, despite her family not having any religious culture, and continued working her night job for several years, in spite of her Muslim belief (…) Her religious culture was extremely limited, which is why I always thought of her relationship with the niqab as a form of rebellion against her surroundings (…) In fact, she’s one of the women that started to wear the full veil after 2010, after its use in public places was prohibited, and not before. The niqab allowed her to erase her past, buy herself a new identity and above all, become part of the Salafist community.
That need to have roots, to be part of a story and a narrative, to belong to something, would become obsessive:
She needed belong to a community, to feel part of it. On numerous occasions, she told me that was looking for the respect of others at any cost. (…) She wanted be part of [the first group that rejected her], and not being considered dangerous like the false community she pretended be part of [the jihadist community of France] was a hard blow for someone so narcissistic.
But once inside the story, her frustration about that rejection is really the shame felt by someone was caught in the deception of recounting her fantasies as reality. König doesn’t stop until she contacts the Islamic State, marries a combatant in Syria and finally goes to the front, where she dedicates herself to using phone calls and Facebook and Twitter profiles to recruit to other young people, encouraging them to carry out attacks in France.
Far beyond (and closer than) the Islamic State
The “promised princesses,” the European girls who join the Islamic State, are an edge case, no doubt. But this is true in the same sense as the wave of monastic vocations in Spain: the extreme and striking expression of social tendencies that are growing and increasingly accepted in European societies in crisis. Let’s look at one sentence from the sociologist about König: “for me, she was a middle-class girl who suffered from loneliness.”
Loneliness, the need for belonging… the mother of imagined communities. It’s the same thing that makes isolated soldiers on the border between India and China end up deifying a long-dead patrolman like them.
But all this goes far beyond religious narrative. Let’s take a walk through Twitter or even the “anti-capitalist” nodes of GNU social. We’ll see a thousand daily events turned into slogans and repeated ad nauseum. We can identify that attitude that de Féo describes over and over: conceit, the snide look of superiority that is meant to look ironic or funny, but which is really just one thing: an affirmation of faith that will stand up to any possible question. And seen this way, we recognize that same reaction in many reports from Vice where at the end, the topic is just a backdrop for the journalist to talk to us about him/herself, make a show of their irony and disbelief, and make faces at the camera when the interviewees or subjects aren’t looking.
The lack of existential tools
According to Eva Dreikurs, who is certainly the most influential Adlerian psychologist, we have to face a series of tasks in life (love, work, friendship), basically with two “existential” tools: self-acceptance—knowing how to be alone and learning to deal with oneself—and belonging: finding community through which we can create meaning for our own lives.
Without a real community, a set of people with recognizable names, faces, and affections, with whom to learn, be defined, and face life tasks, self-acceptance collapses, and, in a culture that is more and more influenced by the individualist cultures of the Protestant countries, easily becomes Adamism and narcissism, defensive and hollow egocentrism… but socially accepted at more and more ridiculous levels.
And the lack of a real community is always useful to imagined communities. “Imagined,” not because they’re something unreal or nonexistent—the jihadist network in France is quite real, unfortunately, as are generational movements or political trends. They are imagined because the subject imagines the other members, since they can’t know them, and molds his or her existence according to the story of that imagining. For Emilie König, as is clear in the videos she published on YouTube, jihadists are “the knights of modern times,” the type of man neither her mother nor she could find, the model of father and husband she didn’t have.
Much of the phobia of the “millenial generation” in today’s conversations in Spain, Italy, or France is the expression of the rejection produced by interaction with someone who feels rejected ex ante, who doesn’t have the tools to define themselves outside of a prefabricated framework that sounds hopelessly hollow and withered. These are youth that feel alone in their own generational setting, who don’t feel like peers of those whom others understand to be their peers.
And the reason they don’t is simply that the possibility of conquering work was eliminated from their life map. It’s in doing produtcive things where not only society or the economy are built, but each person’s life, where empathy and a sense of equality are developed… and one builds their own real community. If “listening to the new generation” means forgetting this and lending our ears to narratives of generational victimhood—which could be timeless—it isn’t going to do much good. Even if it produces some electoral or commercial return, it really only serves defeatism.
Don’t fear the the “millenial generation” because it’s going to convert to jihadism. Even if they do a lot of damage, only a few, very few, will do it. But do fear a society where a whole generation shares loneliness that turns them into mass murderers. Fear the end of the centrality of work, and look for alternatives to recover it, because its absence is what produces lonely people, Adamistic people, monks… and jihadists.