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We Read Theory So You Don't Have To

Theory Bites 2: Youth Liberation & The First Prison

by Theory Reader

Ep 9 - Theory Bites 2: Youth Liberation & The First Prison

We’ve got another short Theory Bites! First we discuss Youth Liberation - (I)An-ok Ta Chai, 2004, and then First Prison - William Gillis, 2018


Case Closed / Detective Conan (video)

Flanders’ Parents (video)

Dead Poets Society Dad (video - was that last episode?)

Rutger Bregman Real Life Lord of the Flies (article)

Angelica’s Last Stand (paywalled video)

When schools become The Lord of the Rings (tweet)


Twitter: @workstheorypod



Produced, edited, and transcribed by Allyson

Theme song by


Works in Theory

Theory Bites: Youth Liberation and The First Prison

Elysha: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to another Works In Theory - Theory Bites. I am Elysha here from Works In Theory Podcast, and I am here with Tom-

Tom: Tom!

Elysha: And Nate. 

Nate: I'm Nate. 

Elysha: Yes. I don't know why we wanted folks to say their own names, but I did. And they did it. And I love that. So thank you. 

Nate: Yeah.

Elysha: We're going to try and smush two articles together today for this one bite. So this is big bite or two small bites. Both of these articles came from the anarchist library dot org. Which is sort of a loosely moderated library, archive of different anarchist texts. And I wanted to mention that because they're a great resource. If you're interested in browsing around for yourself,

Tom: But you shouldn't have to, our podcast is all you need. So don't worry too much [00:01:00] about that.

Elysha: Yeah, but just, just so that, you know, the tool is out there, you don't need it. You don't need you. Didn't, it's fine. But like it's, anarchist library dot org, and I just really wanted to mention it for these two texts because, the authors of these, you may not have heard of in the same way that you've heard of Emma Goldman.

So we've got two pieces here. I'm really not sure what order we're going to do them in, but we've got one by William Gillis, which is called The First Prison and one by (I)An-ok Ta Chai, which is called Youth Liberation

Nate: So I say, let's start with the youth liberation piece. Both because it's written earlier it's from 2004 versus the other one is from 2018. And because it's a little shorter.

Tom: Yeah. So the the premise of this one, the kind of question that I think I took out of it was we treat adults as infallible and self-sufficient children are incapable. But like, is that true? And are we just conditioning children for subservience to the state capitalism, other forms of control? Or [00:02:00] should we treat them with mutual respect and treat it like any other issue, any other anarchist position?

And it's similar to the Goldman piece, but I think it's it's got some distinctions. For one thing, I think it's a little more extreme.

Nate: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. In fact, you keep saying children, but the author actually would prefer that we say kids.

Tom: Oh, you're right!

Nate: Yeah, they bring up the fact that children sort of has like a connotation of like "childish", of like, "less developed" you know, just like built right into it. And even though the piece is called Youth Liberation, they said youth tends to refer to teenagers, which is, you know, generally correct.

And so what they're talking about as a, gerontocracy like just an overall system of like hierarchy in which adults have domination over kids. 

Elysha: The piece kind of opens up, asking the question of: how are people in society treated? And you can tell a lot about society based on how they treat their children and they're elderly. And I feel like we're kind of at like, [00:03:00] an era of reckoning with that, at least around here, we had so much trouble with like care homes for elderly people through the pandemic and schools brought up their absolute array of challenges as well.

And you know, not all of those are specifically rooted in like how we treat children, but kind of they are. And the idea that yeah - what we're talking about here, that kids are entirely dependent on those structures and require that control that like you have to go to school, you have to decide every aspect of their lives and it needs to be within the structure.

Maybe our, all of our lives would be a lot easier if we were a little easier on like those early years. 

Nate: Yeah, definitely. And you know, you bring up this idea that kids according to our society, like need to be controlled need to like, not be able to make their own decisions because they're dependent, you know? The other says it's an often [00:04:00] unspoken notion that adults are omniscient or infallible or not dependent on help and support while kids are.

Which of course is not true. Right? Like adults make mistakes all the time, just like kids do. But we don't base any sort of specific hierarchy over adults that way, like, I thought this was kind of interesting food for thought. The other says:

"It all becomes apparent if one reflects on how it proposition to systematically dominate people who are physically ill, injured, ignorant ill-informed, or intoxicated, all of which are also temporary conditions like childhood that would be universally laughed at and dismissed."

I guess the idea here is the same arguments that say kids, you need to be dominated. Could also be used to say that injured, ignorant or intoxicated people need to be dominated because, you know, they can make stupid mistakes or they are not infallible or omniscient. But of course we wouldn't say that it's right for those people to be dominated. 

Tom: Yeah. If we didn't let intoxicated people have free will, we wouldn't have much of a government, [00:05:00] I think. 

Elysha: Or a lot of art. 

Tom: That's true too.

Nate: It's interesting you bring bec ause we talked about this a little bit offline, but when I was reading this part about the idea that we wouldn't let adults who are, you know, in some way in capable of making their own decisions, we wouldn't let them be dominated.

That's actually not exactly true. You know, and I brought up the, the whole Free Britney thing with Britney Spears and her conservatorship. Like the whole idea behind that is that she is not, you know, for whatever reason able to make her own decisions. And therefore, like there are other people who are legally able to dominate her and make decisions for her.

 The whole Free Britney Movement is the idea that we recognize that's wrong, that she is able to make her own decisions and she should be allowed to make mistakes just like anybody else. But it's all premised on this idea that she's somehow more childlike, you know? And that brings in this idea that, that like, well, why is, why is that accepted for children? You know, I think a lot of the arguments for Free Britney would use [00:06:00] language like, "Well, she's an adult. She can make her own decisions." But like children can make their own decisions too.

Tom: Yeah. And like, this comes up a lot with acting, especially where, like children are often taken advantage of by parents and by agents or whatever. They work them a lot and make a lot of money off with the kids and the kids don't see any of it. And usually end up kind of wrecking their lives because it's very traumatic to kind of like have that duality of life where you're seen as a superstar that doesn't make any money and has no will.

Nate: Yeah, exactly. It's hard to imagine that these kids would be any worse off if they were allowed to make decisions themselves.

Elysha: No doubt. 

Tom: I have a quote here:

"The domination of kids breaks the wills of people and inserts authoritarian programming, so that they can later reproduce situations such as the state capitalism and gerontocracy when they get older themselves."

Nate: Yeah. A hundred percent and yeah. So I don't know how you, you all feel about this. Like how much you agree with the idea of youth liberation. You [00:07:00] know, I think I do agree with it and it's broad terms. I don't think I agree with everything we were going to talk about in both of these pieces. One point that the author makes towards the end, which I think is salient and worth keeping in mind is that like these kinds of things that seem really natural, these like hierarchies that seem really natural are like exactly the type of things that as anarchists we should be questioning. Cause every hierarchy at some point was considered natural.

Tom: They say:

"Youth liberation is not a new idea, a lot of people have written about it and articulated it in different ways. There are already a number of people out there practicing, or at least trying to practice autonomy, respecting ways of relating with kids. With this being the case, it only makes sense for anarchists to have youth liberation fully integrated with the rest of the anarchist perspective, gerontocracy needs to be right up there with capitalism, the state patriarchy and white supremacy as institutions of social control that as anarchists, we aim to destroy."

Elysha: Can we spend this into a discussion of one of those other institutions of social control - the piece by William Gillis that we're reading is [00:08:00] called The First Prison

Nate: I think it's time to move on to that one.

Elysha: One of the main points that we wanted to highlight is the idea that adult supremacy, gerontocracy, paints itself as a kind of meritocracy, you're only denied political agency because you don't yet have mental agency, but there is no mechanism, not a single one under adults who primacy whereby a six year old might prove qualifications to obtain their freedom and equal status.

So in this world that we live in, there's nothing a kid can do to prove to you that they deserve to make whichever decision is that you're withholding from them. The only way to do that to gain that freedom is to graduate away from childhood turn 18, turn 14, turn 16, turn 21, whatever the arbitrary number is that all of a sudden means that yes, we can finally make those decisions for ourselves out of nowhere.

And this is probably like tying back into some of the other conversations we've had [00:09:00] of not being given the tools of like critical thinking and like that decision making, like that first taste of freedom is like, just when your ID says that you are old enough.

Nate: Yeah, or well, and Gillis says in his mind, it's actually that you, the reason the teenagers are given autonomy is simply because they're now big enough to fight back. They're big enough to beat up their parents. 

Elysha: They can band together for resistance and physically overwhelmed their masters. Would you say, would William Gillis say. 

Nate: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Which is interesting, you know, like, and this. Did give me pause. You know, when you think about it, like it is obviously, if you were to try to explain youth liberation to somebody who'd never heard about it, I think one of their first responses would be something like, "well, you know, kids just aren't smart enough or aren't mature enough to make their own decisions."

And then, you know, if you come back, could a child do to prove to you, they were mature enough? Like, would you accept some proof from a six-year-old that they were mature enough to make their own decisions? And, you know, I certainly can't that go, [00:10:00] but that would be so.

Tom: That's one of the, I think the major premises in this article is about, you know, if you were suddenly transformed into a child, it's a very like Detective Conan, anime sort of premise of like, if you were a kid, would you suddenly be able to convince people that you know enough to do things without them controlling your life and - probably not, but I don't know. 

I found it interesting that as time went on, we went from a hundred years ago to, you know, 2004 to now 2018 in this one, it has gotten more and more - I mean, like of course we have cherry picked, we just gotten three articles, but - it just got more extreme sounding.

 Maybe it's something to be extreme about. Like, it's been a hundred years since Goldman wrote, you know, about the child and its enemies. And we're still basically dealing with the same question: at what point do we treat children like people or sorry, kids. I keep doing that.

I honestly think that (I)An-ok Ta C hai made [00:11:00] a pretty good point, that we use children as a derogatory kind of word. So I've been really trying to think about like, should I, maybe I should exercise that from my vocabulary and just say kids.

Elysha: Yeah. I'm probably not gonna like fight people over it, but I think it's definitely worth considering just because of how powerful, like the words that we use and their connotations are. Right. The idea of like childish and all those negatives. But it sort of painting the idea of like lacking that autonomy, lacking the good sense to be able to make decisions. And that is "childish," like trying to separate those from the young human individuals in question. 

Nate: From the kids. Yeah. Yeah, totally. And actually I think Gillis even sort of expands on that a little and, and adds a little bit more weight to that argument. He points out that like all hierarchy is like, whether it be white supremacy, patriarchy, et cetera, like they're all sort of premised on this analogy of the oppressed class [00:12:00] as childish, you know, as more childlike than the oppressor class.

So, it's built into the very language of all hierarchies.

Elysha: We talk about, you know, what is the root of like injustice in our society. And there is not one that is how it got to be. It gets to be so pervasive. Like just all the different layers that we all get fucked around in the world. And like, yes, absolutely age is one of those.

And gerontocracy is one of those right alongside, obviously with different historical weights, of you white supremacy and the other ones that you mentioned, patriarchy.

Tom: Yeah, there's a quote in this piece that says:

"Every hierarchy, every abuse, every act of domination that seeks to justify or excuse itself, appeals through analogy to the rule of adults over children. We're all indoctrinated from birth in ways of, "Because I said so." The flags of supposed experience, benevolence, and familial obligation are are the first of many paraded through our lives to celebrate the suppression of our agency, the dismissal of our desires, the reduction of our personhood. Our whole [00:13:00] world is caught in a cycle of abuse, largely unexamined and unnamed. And at its root lies our dehumanization of children." 

Nate: And I think that sort of brings it back to what I mentioned earlier about this sort of like seeming natural, this like hierarchy of adults over children seeming natural. Opponents of this idea of youth liberation might point to like non-human animals, and be like, well, look like every, every species has adults or at least mammals have adults that in birds have adults that take care of children or that are like in charge of children.

And I think that, like, that kind of puts me in the mind of, of Bookchin's argument: the hierarchy is different than having different roles. So like, yes adult bird has to feed and teaches children how to fly, but in no sense, does a dominate the baby birds, does it like tell the baby birds what to do.

And so I think that we can use that notion of hierarchy as being like, sort of like a systemic thing an institutionalized thing to dispense with the idea that somehow the [00:14:00] hierarchy of adults over children is natural.

Tom: Yeah, but appeals to nature- they don't do it for me. So like, even, even if you're able to be like, yeah, but the mama bear, I don't know, puts their cubs to bed at 8:00 PM. I'd be like, I don't care. Like mama bear, can't speak. I need to talk to humans about human things. This also is a pretty I think contentious essay when we talked about it, we were a little, like, some of this maybe is, is advocating for a position, but not giving a lot of evidence as to why I think. And for instance, there was a point in it about the cool aunt and I think we all had kind of, some questions about that. I don't actually have anything written. Does anyone have anything written about.

Nate: Well, Hey, let me let me find the quote here so we can give the listeners some context. Gillis says:

" The cool aunt, the preschool teacher functioning as an aid relief worker to come briefly to take selfies with you as a prop. They're not co-conspirators, they're the incomplete flotsam, the corpses of children who tried to make it over the finish line intact. Incomplete insurgents into adulthood were worn [00:15:00] down and forgot that mission. They're not undercover children, but the warped remains. Poorly formed adults perhaps, but adults still."

He's talking about, people who try to give children more agency, I guess, or try to like respect children more. Yeah. That's not cutting it for Gillis. But like you said, Tom, I'm not exactly clear on why. 

Elysha: Yeah. Or like what, the alternative is that Gillis wants from us. 

Nate: Yeah, what would be a complete insurgent or an undercover child. 

Elysha: Cause there is definitely a gap there that needs to be bridged. Because like we are told like we've been talking about here, like all of these experiences in childhood. Lead us to then reproduce that gerontocracy that same like hierarchy of adults over children.

And, you know, the idea here that even the cool aunt, who's trying to show up for you. Like they're still not doing it. And I get like the impulse to be combative at [00:16:00] that, but it doesn't really provide any sort of like, ideas of like how we can make that better. It's just "this sucks." And like, "they're not here for you and no one's coming to free you."

Tom: Is the only real solution here that this cool aunt, or this person should like take you from your parents and be like "here's a hundred dollars on a car, have fun. Your life begins now." Like, what is, what is the what is it, the inclination, what are we supposed to do with that feeling? It paints a good picture of, you know, there's the uncle that smokes weed or whatever. And they're cool. They're not real strict and they're not whatever, but at the end of the day you have to go back to your parents. And so I guess they're not liberating enough, so, but I don't know what it would be. And maybe Gillis is just pointing out that these things exist and they're not contradictory to what I'm saying.

Nate: Yeah, for sure. And you know, maybe it has something to do with, like, if we're [00:17:00] taking, Gillis' worldview at its word. Because it's so systemic because like we live in a adult supremacist society, a gerontocracy like adults can never be totally complicit because they can always if push comes to shove, resort to ordering children around.

But yeah, like, I don't know, that's it just seems like a bleak picture. Like can there not be a John Brown of adults for children? I don't know. 

So what do you all think about this idea of youth liberation and everything we've read in these two essays and the Goldman piece? 

Tom: I think it's really gotten me to think a lot about it. Of course I don't have children, so it's hard. I can't put anything to practice. I can only be the cool uncle or whatever which I've been trying to be. My, my partner is doing better than me, even there you know, telling their brother stop yelling at your kids.

But I don't know, the main issues I see with this is that it's kind of like a chicken and the egg thing of like, well, how do we get to a point of youth liberation without fundamentally changing all of society? [00:18:00] But how do we fundamentally change all of society without changing now that you're liberating you with? Right. 

Nate: Yeah, definitely. You know, and I think, I, I agree with you in that, like it's given me a lot to think about. And as I mentioned, when we were talking about the first piece, I think that we should be questioning things that seem natural, hierarchies that seem natural. And I think that there's definitely an amount of adult supremacy in our society.

Maybe the answer is something that we talked about in the Dewey episode. That idea that like adults have had more experience and that can guide children while still letting children make the decisions themselves. I don't think it's oppressive to stop somebody from touching a hot stove, right?

Elysha: Something that I've been thinking about a little bit is so, near me, there is a Land Back camp. Some of the local indigenous folks have come together and reclaimed some land. 

There's just so much that they are learning and some of it they are sharing. I heard a really wonderful [00:19:00] conversation about the ways that youth leadership emerges in their land back camp and how really, it feels like it comes down to just giving everyone involved the space to be themselves and just, you know, treating everyone as humans, treating kids as humans because they are, and they have agency and they have ideas and they have passions.

A lot of like beauty and like new ceremony and stuff, has come out of teenagers who have proposed ideas for action to everyone and like just the power that comes out of that. I think that Indigenous resistance movements like from what I've noticed, like they do a great job of centering youth as the future. 

Nate: And just like acknowledging that I good ideas can come from youth, right. You know, there may be some things we know better than kids, just because we've been around longer. But in a sense, this is like that old thing of like, deferring to the boot maker in [00:20:00] the topic of boots.Right? 

To tell a kid that doesn't know that a hot stove is going to burn them, not to touch a stove isn't being oppressive. Just like plumber is not oppressing me when he tells me how to do something with my plumbing. And what we just have to be careful not to. Turn that into an idea where we always know better than kids in every circumstance, but like you were saying, Elysha acknowledged that kids can teach us things too.

Elysha: And there are definitely things that can come with experience. If we're specifically talking about this Land Back camp experience, there are youth there that probably don't know a lot of the traditional, like land skills, like, building shelter and like keeping fire and that kind of thing.

That all needs to be taught as well. You're not oppressing people by sharing what, you know, in that way. It's kind of just how building those relationships work. 

Tom: You know, I was trying to think of like, when did we show respect to kids? When do we treat them as adults? And it's usually when they do something for, I'm going to say [00:21:00] capitalism? Like, you know, they invent something, they, make some progress, some invention or some science thing. I understand that science is not directly capitalistic inherently, but it's kind of like it's in service to it right now. And so, much of what we see of kids as being like, you know, good work is usually you're doing, you know, something that we expect from adults.

Nate: Or like,, I don't know, on a more positive example, like Gretta Thunberg.

Elysha: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. 

Tom: Which once, once that started you know, kind of bucking against the system, she got a lot less play time. Right?

Nate: Definitely. And even that though, like, and this is something that Gillis points out when he talks about "how would you be able to prove yourself?" If a kid somehow like does prove to be incredibly intelligent, skips a bunch of grades and goes to college as a kid, you know, it's like, they're just treated as like precocious, but like, it's not like they get autonomy.It's not like their parents don't get to make decisions. 

Tom: There's a [00:22:00] really great episode of Rugrats if you've ever seen that that show or that episode where angelica starts a lemondate stand, but like as a capitalist and then the workers basically rise up unionize, start their own stand, like make it a worker co-op. It's really incredible.

Speaking of kids working, that's a very dangerous topic maybe to bring up. But I think it's, you know, it's not in any of these pieces, but it's something I think we talked a little bit about and I've been just thinking about it a bunch.

When can kids work? What is child labor? We don't bat an eye at Bob's Burgers really, cause it's a family affair, and it's a cartoon. But like that's allowed, right? Like kids can work for their family. I think under the normal age of legally working.

Nate: Yeah. And so it like brings up this question of like, would youth autonomy, would youth liberation mean that like kids were free to be wage slaves? But I think, you know, we talked about this a bit offline. I think that, like, what's interesting about that is it sort of like brings up the [00:23:00] libertarian argument of the, you know, the sort of lie that when you become a wage slave, like you're somehow entering into like, like you're, you're choosing to enter into a contract. That you're like, you know, like making a free choice to, to become an employee. It's sort of reinforced by the idea that we don't let kids do it. Well, kids can't become wage slaves because that's a mutually agreed upon contract. And only like adults who are able to make those sort of decisions can become wage slaves.

But maybe the answer is just that all work is exploitative, whether it's with adults or with children.

Elysha: There's a lot of work that we do that's not really considered work though. Like if we're talking, talking about like, what does it mean for kids to work? We were talking about this a little bit too, and I don't know if it gets too spirally, but like what qualifies as work and what work is appropriate for kids? 

Tom: And like, I can see if, if you take out the, the need to make money to survive, that opens up a lot more of the dialogue- how do we [00:24:00] determine what's appropriate? And it's kind of interesting because he would still end up with, you know, the parents would probably have some amount of a say over what kind of jobs or what kind of work that a kid would do.

But you'd also wouldn't require it, right? It would be a lot easier to figure out, I think those kinds of thorny areas of, you know, what is appropriate, what is not, because it would just be kind of obvious. It'd be like, well, look, this is very difficult work. It's dangerous, children shouldn't be doing it. You shouldn't make your children do it. There's no reason to do it because we don't need money. You know, you're not doing it for a profit or whatever. So it just takes away a lot of those incentives to make people do stupid, bad things at an earlier age.

Nate: Yeah, the idea being that is wrong to make kids work because it's wrong to exploit them, to force them to do something they don't want to do. But then like, it's okay to exploit adults. It's okay to force adults to do something they don't want to do, but maybe, we just shouldn't be forcing anyone to do anything they don't want to do.

Tom: Thinking about, you know, the inverse of this, what happens with [00:25:00] youth liberation and the common conception I think of what that looks like is something like Flanders parentsin The Simpsons where it's just like, "we've tried nothing, we're all out of ideas."

Like they don't know how to raise their child, they don't do anything. And I think that can be something that can be done, but I don't know, like where, what is the middle ground? Is it actually true? Like as someone, without kids, I don't know what it would be like to not punish children or to punish children.

Right. Like, I don't know the actual material consequences of what happens when I make a decision based around my own personal belief system or whatever. Like does it play out? And that's the thing that I think is missing from these essays, maybe. And I don't have a clear understanding of what it is. And that's, I think again, like what the Dewey book was trying to get at was more structure around that.

Nate: Yeah. So you're saying the popular conception would be, well, if we don't force kids to do stuff that just kinda like run wild and [00:26:00] be like terrible little brats or something.

Tom: Yeah, Yeah.

Nate: Again, like with us not having kids talk to say whether that's true or not, but, I think that, especially like in the Goldman piece, she talked about, well, no, like children are humans who can come to their own conclusions of what's good and bad.

And, you know, I think that these authors would, would say that that's not the case that letting kids do what they want is not going to lead to total chaos. And like you said,in Dewey, he says we can guide kids and use our experience to suggest to them what might be the best experiences to have.

But that doesn't necessarily have to be the same thing as forcing them to do what we want them to do.

Tom: Yeah, not to answer my own question, but there was that Lord of the Flies article, which I'll link in the show notes, but where, you know, a lot of people look at Lord of the Flies as an example of what would happen if kids could do whatever they wanted. And that it would just be like just terrible tribal chaos, basically.

When really it just ends up being like trying to do the right thing, do the best thing as you can. 

Nate: Yeah. And she was saying something like, you have to [00:27:00] basically this argument that we've been talking about, that you have to like force rules on kids or else it's going to be Lord of the Rings/Lord of the Flies.

Tom: But always trying to steal your precious.

Nate: Yes.


It was a bad tweet, but we could link that in the show notes too. 

Tom: Yeah, I'm good. 

Elysha: All right. Well, we did it. Thanks for making your way through another Theory Bites with Works In Theory Podcast, and we will be back when we're back!

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Ep 12: Season 1 Retrospective

by Theory Reader

Ep 11: What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun? (w/Coffee with Comrades)

Dedicated to the memory of David Graeber. Rest in power.

by Theory Reader