By Colin Jenkins
Apr 11, 2015
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in late-2011 may have provided a glimpse into our social and political future, if Millennials have anything to say about it. During the height of the Occupy movement, and following the collapse of the latest capitalist Ponzi scheme (mortgage-backed securities), those who identified between the ages of 18 to 29 had a more favorable view of “socialism” than they did “capitalism.”
The quote often loosely assigned to Winston Churchill – “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart; If a man is not a conservative by 40, he has no brain” – may come to mind. But are the results of this poll merely the sign of naïve, utopian-laden minds, as this quote suggests, or do they represent a sane and collective response to the continued failures of a capitalist system that seeks to funnel wealth to a few at the top? Fortunately, for those who seek social and economic justice for the working-class majority, the wave of Leftist political activity that has swept the US over the past few years suggests the latter.
The emerging forms of Leftism within the Millennial generation are far removed from the highly romanticized brand of Communism that occupied prior generations. The Soviet system has been six-feet deep for going on two decades. The Cold War bogeyman of the past has given way to new forms of fabricated “evils” like “Islamic extremists,” “border-crossing drug cartels” and “terrorists.” For these reasons, “Socialism” is no longer a scary word. And the total absence of Left-wing politics in the United States is a void that is screaming to be filled. This need – and opportune time - has created a healthy combination of traditional and new political philosophies, including everything from Anarchism, Syndicalism, and participatory economics to a revival of Marxism and radical labor movements.
Their attributes, along with the era in which they have been placed, make Millennials the most promising generation for radical change and Left unity in American history.
Millennials are intersectional by nature. Overall,, society has become more accepting of lifestyles that were once considered “alternative.” With the advent of the Internet, people are more connected than ever before. The inherently sheltered mentality that once plagued a majority that could not experience cultures outside of its own neighborhoods, let alone across continents, has been shattered by social media.
Despite the continued inability for working people to travel, they can now make connections with those on the other side of the world for relatively little cost. This has allowed for a recognition of commonalities; for a realization that, “hey, she or he is not much different than I am – we are interested in the same things, talk about the same things, have the same worries, and the same dreams.” In her book, Solidarity Politics for Millennials, Ange-Marie Hancock tells us, “there are 84 million members of the Millennial Generation and scholars agree that they are far more engaged politically and have far more progressive views on race, class, gender and sexual orientation issues than Generation X or Baby Boomers.” At 84-million strong, the millennial generation is bigger than the Baby Boomers, who peaked at 76 million. It’s also much more diverse than its radical predecessors. Of the 76 million Baby Boomers, 72% of them were white. Of the 84 million millennials, only 56% are white.
This worldly view has created more tolerance, and has allowed for social and political engagement to become more inclusive; not only in terms of acceptance, but more so because many have learned that struggles are shared. Movements geared towards Women’s Rights have begun to realize that non-white sisters can no longer be excluded. Movements aimed at gaining civil rights have realized that oppressed communities must join forces. The LGBT Rights movement has learned that their struggle has inherent commonalities with the others. And, most importantly, these movements are beginning to realize the class struggle that is shared by all. Millennials get this; and this makes them a promising force for effecting social change through high degrees of Left unity.
The fact that Millennials are so far removed from Soviet-era Leftism has served them well in showing solidarity across the board. The sectarian brand of Communism that inundated movements based in the 1960s – and for many of those with ties to that era, still does – has no influence on the younger generations. The theoretical nuances of Mao, Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin are more of an afterthought worthy of random consideration rather than the crux of entire sub-movements which make the Left enemies within itself while ignoring the real enemy - Capitalism.
Those who are drawn to the Left through social justice movements – like Millennials mostly are - carry a blank theoretical slate with them, ala tabula rasa. They have not been influenced by Cold War propaganda, red-baiting, McCarthyism, Trotskyist polemics against Mao, or Anarchist hatred towards Lenin. Because of this, they tend to approach theory with open minds. This piecemeal approach allows them to consider different points, varied nuances, and a host of ideas without letting in-fighting cloud the broader movement with egotistic smokescreens – another valuable attribute toward the creation of Left unity.
A variety of social issues have drawn Millennials to activism, most notably those related to equal rights and the environment. As mentioned before, the accessibility to millions upon millions of people via the Internet has helped forge a generation that leans towards tolerance and rejects bigotry.
Polls have consistently shown a Millennial theme centered on issues of “equality.” When asked “which are the most important challenges we face as a country,” the issue of equality ranked highest, above other choices such as opportunity, faith, patriotism, and personal responsibility. 87% of respondents are in favor of policies that guarantee equal pay for women, 82% are in favor of increased funding for education, 76% support minimum wage increases, and 76% believe tuition at community colleges should be free. Furthermore, 76% of MIllennials polled believe the government should be “more involved” in helping the poor and creating retirement security for senior citizens.
This theme suggests a radical shift from the self-centered mentality which preached “personal responsibility” since the 1980s to a cooperative and caring approach to the country’s majority. And it has resulted in a highly activist generation which was “on the front lines of the Occupy movement and at the heart of the first Obama campaign - which had the feeling of a movement for many” before it eroded to business as usual. The latest movements against police brutality, which swept the nation after the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice, and include #blacklivesmatter, #ferguson, and #handsupdontshoot, have largely been the result of organized efforts by Millennials.
Emerging forms of leftism are based in the horizontal organizational structures often stressed in anarchist philosophy, which stand in direct contrast to the more hierarchical approaches used by the traditional Left. This trend could be seen in the Occupy movement, which was heavily influenced by the anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical themes of anarchism.
In regards to Occupy, David Graeber points to four specific tendencies which were rooted in anarchism: (1) The refusal to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions, (2) The refusal to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal order, (3) The refusal to create an internal hierarchy, but instead to create a form of consensus-based direct democracy, and (4) The embrace of prefigurative politics.
The use of prefigurative politics rejects the rationalization of “a means to an end” by forging political movements that consciously reflect the society for which they strive for. The old Wobbly declaration of “building a new world in the shell of the old” meant just that – if we want a world without class division, then our movement should not impose its own class divisions through a mirrored hierarchy. Graeber describes this approach best in his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropologist:
“When protesters in Seattle (1999 WTO) chanted ‘this is what democracy looks like,’ they meant to be taken literally. In the best tradition of direct action, they not only confronted a certain form of power, exposing its mechanisms and attempting literally to stop it in its tracks: they did it in a way which demonstrated why the kind of social relations on which it is based were unnecessary. This is why all the condescending remarks about the movement being dominated by a bunch of dumb kids with no coherent ideology completely missed the mark. The diversity was a function of the decentralized form of organization, and this organization was the movement’s ideology.”
The Occupy movement carried forward in the same manner, drawing the same types of criticisms from mainstream talking heads that have difficulties imagining a world without hierarchy; and, in turn, have difficulties comprehending an approach that doesn’t include “leaders” and figureheads. In this sense, their belittling is the ultimate irony.
A Product of the Times
More than anything, the USAmerican Millennial worldview is being shaped by its material conditions in the world, which, thanks to a few centuries of capitalism topped off with three decades of neoliberalism, have left them in dire straits.
The formative years of the Millennial generation have been shaped by war expenditures and corporate bailouts in the trillions of dollars, a housing crash fueled by rampant Wall Street corruption, a student loan bubble that has grown to over a trillion dollars, the loss of millions of full-time jobs, and unemployment and underemployment rates that have reached unprecedented highs. All of this has occurred alongside a record-breaking stock market, unprecedented corporate wealth, corrupt politics, and public funding of private wealth that would have made Mussolini blush.
The erosion of the middle class has created millions upon millions of additional working-class Millennials left out in the cold and without means for social mobility in the coming decades. The profitization of education has left millions more either straddled with a lifetime of student debt or the inability to afford a college education that hardly guarantees a living-wage job in the end. In addition, the Millennial landscape includes over 45 million USAmericans living in poverty, 49 million suffering from “food insecurity,” and 46 million relying on food stamps.
Capitalism has failed. Millennials, more than anyone else, are faced with the harsh and inhumane realities of this system. For this reason, they are primed to challenge it. With promising attributes centered within Left unity, emerging movements are primed to destroy it. They have taken Arundhati Roy to heart: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."