Looking Back in Anger

In matters of life and fate, timing is everything. Culturally, socially, materially, the setting of your upbringing, specific to time and place, cannot but impress itself on you. And the parts of your upbringing that are not unique to you, but which are shared by all your coevals, likewise inform their sensibilities, bringing about a cohort of young people with similar experiences, common attitudes, kindred beliefs — in other words, a new generation. At least, that is the first assumption of the theory of generations. Generations, the theory holds, are defined by the events that their constituents witness together; by the culture that shapes them and which in turn they shape. Some generations are noted for the upheavals they lived through, others for those they precipitated. Some revered the past, while others broke with it. In the popular though specious tradition of generation-naming, some are lauded as “the greatest,” while others are maligned as “lost” or “silent.” Others yet are known by a single aloof letter (“Gen X”), or named for their sudden abundance (“baby boomers”) or for the timing of their births (“millennials”).

Keir Milburn has recently made his own contribution to this tradition with his book, Generation Left. “Something remarkable has happened over the last few years,” Milburn claims. “Young people are much more likely to vote Left and hold left-wing views, while older generations are more likely to vote Right and hold conservative social, and increasingly political, views.” The book “traces the emergence of Generation Left through two international waves of development: the protest wave of 2011 and the electoral turn in the years that followed,” with the financial crisis of 2008 being “the key event of our time.”

Milburn’s notion of generations is based on that of early-twentieth-century German sociologist Karl Mannheim. In Mannheim’s eyes, generations form not one after another, in cycles or in sequence, but only in reaction to moments of rapid, widespread, and disruptive change. These convulsive fits impress themselves deeply on young people’s budding sense of reality. Conversely older people, whose worldviews have already coalesced, tend to ascribe to such disruptions much less gravity. The resulting discrepancy between the attitudes of the old and the young, according to Mannheim, marks the emergence of a new generation.

In Milburn’s telling, the Mannheimian spasm that spawned Generation Left was the financial crisis of 2008. After thirty years of stability, interest rates were low and regulation was relaxed. Blamelessly, many Americans saw their chance to buy a home, with a white picket fence and all the rest. Banks gambled, issuing unprecedented millions of “subprime” mortgages — high-risk mortgages lent to customers with poor credit — to take advantage of the swell in demand. Then the housing bubble burst. Subprime mortgage-borrowers defaulted, and mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) became nearly worthless. Banks and other financial institutions, having masses of “toxic” MBSs on their books, seized up and threatened to fold. Almighty dollars were suddenly in short supply. Markets crashed, evictions and foreclosures abounded, unemployment surged. Bailouts of historic proportions, issued by the Federal Reserve, propped up not only those American institutions famously deemed “too big to fail,” but the deeply interconnected economy of entire the globe. In short, the suburbs wept, Wall Street heaved, the world groaned, and the Fed saved the day.

Did it really? In a classic case of “socialism for the rich and rugged capitalism for the poor,” the wealthy perpetrators of the crash got off easy; all things considered, many even made hay of it. The Fed never quite weaned Wall Street off its teat, putting by trillions-worth of assets in order to prop up the financial sector. Meanwhile, droves of Americans, and much of the world besides, never recovered. A decade later, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that the average American had lost $70,000 in lifetime income as a result of the Great Recession. Roughly 7.5 million American jobs were lost between 2007 and 2009, with the middle- and working-classes particularly hard-hit. And though labour’s share of American GDP, in wages and benefits, has been eroding for decades, a study conducted last year by consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that three quarters of the nine-per-cent decrease between 1947 and 2016 took place since the dawn of the new millennium. As Dante Dallavalle and Christian Parenti remarked in Jacobin, labour’s share of the national income “has not yet even returned to pre-recession levels.” The tide did rise, but only a very few big boats were lifted while the rest ran aground.

During the decade that followed, many came into maturity not only less prosperous but, in violation of the great promise of postwar capitalism, with poorer prospects than their parents. Growing up in the face of greater adversity — lower wages, greater debt, higher property prices, a more precarious job-market — members of Generation Left were thus, according to Milburn, more likely than their elders to be drawn to radical alternatives. They were not as inclined to cling to the past, nor were they as adverse to risk, having less to lose. They were more sympathetic to the notion of, say, occupying Zuccotti Park, not only to decry the Fed’s handling of the financial crisis but to call for a total restructuring of an unjust and broken “system.” Milburn draws a straight line between the youthful enthusiasm for Occupy Wall Street and other protests in 2011 and, in the years following, support for an ascendant “left populism” in Europe and North America. Trading placards for clipboards, by Milburn’s account, Occupiers and their comrades sank their energies into the campaigns of Podemos in Spain, SYRIZA in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, and Bernie Sanders in the United States.

As evidence of this “electoral turn,” Milburn cites a “much-repeated” finding of the British polling firm YouGov. The firm found that, in the United Kingdom’s general election in 2017, the likelihood of voting for the Conservative part increased (and for Labour, decreased) by nine per cent for every 10 years’ increase in a voter’s age, representing “an amazing 97 percentage point gap in voting intention between youngest and oldest voters.” And this “historically unprecedented” fissure opened up quickly: in the general election of 2010, it was a mere 15 points. As for the United States, Milburn points to the swelling membership of the Democratic Socialists of America, which grew from just 6,500 in 2016 to 50,000 in 2018; and whose average age fell from 68 to 33 between 2013 and 2017. Meanwhile, outspoken social-democrat Bernie Sanders won over younger voters in the contest to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Among those 17 to 29 years of age, Sanders received 72 per cent of votes; Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, received 28 per cent. (These numbers were almost exactly the inverse in the case of senior Democrats.) Young Brits and Americans (at least the Democrats among them) indeed appear to be listing left of their elders, at least as far as is permitted within the framework of mainstream politics.

Sanders may have charmed Democrats under 30. But what about young Republicans? According to an exit poll published in The New York Times, 55 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 voted for Clinton in 2016. But 37 per cent of the same cohort voted for the current president, the same proportion that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. If young Democrats have drifted leftwards, there seems to be little evidence of any erosion of loyalty among their Republican peers. However, without finer longterm data, and given the dramatically different political programs that Trump and Romney each offered voters during their respective campaigns, it is difficult to determine whether any kind of ideological trend whatsoever underlies these figures. Meanwhile, in terms of policy, the still-dominant establishment wings of both parties are pushing each towards the other. As Gore Vidal quipped in 2004, “we have only one political party in the United States, the Property Party, with two right wings, Republican and Democrat.”

Which speaks to perhaps the most compelling part of Milburn’s argument. Generation Left’s parents, the baby boomers, “enjoyed … abundant cheap property, then — for those who acquired assets during the 1970s and 1980s — growing house prices, share prices and pension pots,” as reported by William Davies. In the United Kingdom, “73 per cent of those aged between 65 and 74 own their own home … compared to less than 5 per cent of under-35s.” Generation Left may as well be called Generation Rent, as Milburn jests. By and large, young people are earning less and spending more of it than ever on debts and rent.

To put things further into context, a typical British member of Generation Left “will spend ‘an average of £44,000 more on rent in their 20s’” than his or her baby-boomer counterpart. Last year, the American listings platform Apartment List estimated that “only 25 percent of millennial renters will be able to afford a 10 percent down payment on a median-priced home in the next 5 years.” To boot, according to Milburn, “young people are taking on huge sums of student debt only to discover a chronic shortage in graduate-level jobs.” Moreover, in 2016, British think tank Resolution Foundation found that, in the United Kingdom, “those aged 65–74 now hold more wealth than the entire population aged under 45 (a group more than twice their size).” In the United States, the median net worth of people under 35 is just $11,000, as reported by MarketWatch. Those over 75, on the other hand, have a median net worth just shy of $265,000 (skewed, no doubt, by the preponderance of the aging rich). Unlike that of the 1960s, the rift between Generation Left and its antecedents is, fundamentally, about something other than culture. As Milburn has it, it is a class-struggle delineated by age and defined by vast disparity in material wealth.

But enough of statistics. The point is that, far from the lazy, entitled children which reactionaries would have you believe they are, young people now coming of age have much to be upset about. The typical slanders that befall them speak more to the insecurities of their slanderers than to anything resembling reality. That young people are questioning the precepts of neoliberalism, as Milburn aims to show, has its basis in both material and historical circumstances. Their answers, however, may yet prove wanting.

For it is important to remember the other ideological answer, in the United States, to the events of 2008 — namely, the Tea Party movement. Representing the opposite face of the proverbial coin, it shared with Generation Left a resentment for the establishment and an eagerness for a more radical, populist politics. As much as Occupy served as a galvanizing prelude to Sanders’ run for the presidency, so could the Tea Party be construed as a portent of Donald Trump’s. And in the United Kingdom, the forces of Brexit standing behind Boris Johnson’s premiership marched to a similarly reactionary tune. Yet these transatlantic cousins have another thing in common: despite the efforts of left-listing youths, they won. Neither Corbyn nor Sanders came close to gaining the highest of offices; nor, as is now clear, will they. In light of these shortcomings, as well as those of SYRIZA and Podemos, claims of a left-wing resurgence must duly be tempered. “A new Generation Left exists for sure,” William Davies concludes. “But how they will eventually impose themselves politically, and when, is still unclear.” All the while, they must continue to fight against a rabid and rising — and presently more powerful — right-wing, which risks crushing their enthusiasm entirely.

A dozen years have passed since the financial crisis. Due to the coronavirus, the world is now set to plunge once more into recession; or as more and more economists predict, depression. If it is any kind of sign, the trillions of taxpayer dollars that the current administration has set aside for (mostly corporate) relief, dwarf the measly $831 billion that Obama approved in 2009. Further, at the time of writing, at least 36 million Americans have filed unemployment claims due to the pandemic. “The only other time in American history when unemployment was that high,” wrote Jeffry Bartash for MarketWatch, “was in the early stages of the Great Depression.” By all accounts, this time things will be far, far worse than the last.

It may be easy to wish for a post-pandemic Generation Left to “eventually impose themselves politically” in the wake of ongoing blunder and ruin. But time is short; and beyond the coronavirus, other hazards loom. In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock one hundred seconds away from midnight, closer than at any time since its establishment in 1947. The World Food Program expects the number of hungry people in the world to nearly double, from 135 to 265 million, by the end of this year. And though the climate crisis has been allayed temporarily by a plummet in fossil-fuel consumption, it will resume with a vengeance once everyone returns to work — that is, everyone who still has a job. As of yet, the pre-pandemic system persists largely unchanged.

Moreover, as Sanders himself has noted, in 2016 no more than three Americans — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — own more wealth than the bottom half of the country. In 2017, eight men (Bezos, Gates, and Buffet among them) owned as much as the poorest half of the world’s population — 3.7 billion people, by Oxfam’s count. At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that nearly 40 million (12 per cent of Americans) lived in poverty, half of them in “deep” poverty. (That is, on an income of less than roughly $6,000 for a single individual, or less than double that for a family of four.) Last year alone, almost 140 million Americans reported financial hardship due to overwhelming medical expenses. This is all to say nothing of the fallout from the pandemic, which menaces everyday working people to a vastly greater degree than their wealth-insulated, comfortably self-isolated peers.

Contrary to received neoliberal wisdom, these are not the bitter-but-inevitable facts of life. The extent of inequality and of suffering within the borders of the world’s richest country are the deliberate, though preventable, consequences of policymaking. And perhaps far more so than the last, the current crisis will benefit the usual suspects at the peril of the rest. (Bezos himself has reportedly made over $25 billion, and counting, since January.) Already, some of the hallmarks of the post-2008 era are returning. Right-wing anti-lockdown protests may be ugly, but (seen generously, perhaps) they are at least partly symptomatic of grievances as credible as those of the Tea Party’s or Donald Trump’s followers. Wage earners and factory-floor workers, mortgagors and debtors, medical personnel and migrants, hard-working people of all kinds are hurting. Some form of universal basic income, a temporary rent-freeze, and debt-forgiveness might each do something to mitigate their pain temporarily. But the underlying cause of their anguish cannot be addressed without a broader political reckoning.

As 2016 bore witness, that anguish can quite easily turn into a toxic, yet politically potent, form of rage if exploited by an opportunistic demagogue. If that same fate is to be avoided, if the resentment of the downtrodden is to be reckoned with, if a more just future is to be realized, then more than just the young must get serious about reimagining their politics. For if old and new generations cannot find common cause, then the as-yet neoliberal world risks plunging ever deeper into inequality and instability. As abolitionist minister Theodore Parker said, “things refuse to be mismanaged long.” History offers not a few examples of how things turned out once they reached a breaking point. But history does not repeat itself, and should not be used as a crystal ball. A new political consciousness may yet emerge from this crisis. Whether for better or worse, of the left or the right, it is too soon to say. What seems certain, however, is that the status quo cannot persist for much longer without undergoing a further, fatal rupture. The time is ripe to write what comes next.

Trevor Clarke

Trevor Clarke (not to be confused with Trevor R. R. Clarke, the esteemed author of the eighteen-volume “Swirling Sceptre” series) writes cantankerous polemics filled with half-truths and exaggerations. After a brief career as an itinerant concierge, he settled down to muckraking. His upcoming book, Cerberus and Hades, is a studiously modest description of some harrowing months spent walking Elon Musk’s dogs, Gatsby and Marvin the Martian. He looks out at the world from the banks of the Danube, where he lives like a hermit among Serbian pirates.

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