Few developments have caused as much recent consternation among advocates of free-market capitalism as various findings that millennials, compared to previous generations, are exceptionally receptive to socialism.
A recent Reason-Rupe survey found that a majority of Americans under 30 have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism. Gallup finds that almost 70 percent of young Americans are ready to vote for a “socialist” president. So it has come as no surprise that 70 to 80 percent of young Americans have been voting for Bernie Sanders, the self-declared democratic socialist. Some pundits have been eager to denounce such surveys as momentary aberrations, stemming from the economic crash, or due to lack of knowledge on the part of millennials about the authoritarianism they say is the inevitable result of socialism. They were too young to have been around for Stalin and Mao, they didn’t experience the Cold War, they don’t know to be grateful to capitalism for saving them from global tyranny. The critics dismiss the millennials’ political leanings by repeating Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s mantra, “There is no alternative” (TINA), which prompted the extreme form of capitalism we now know as neoliberalism.
But millennials, in the most positive turn of events since the economic collapse, intuitively understand better. Circumstances not of their choosing have forced them to think outside the capitalist paradigm, which reduces human beings to figures of sales and productivity, and to consider if in their immediate lives, and in the organization of larger collectivities, there might not be more cooperative, nonviolent, mutually beneficial arrangements with better measures of human happiness than GDP growth or other statistics that benefit the financial class.
Indeed, the criticism most heard against the millennial generation’s evolving attachment to socialism is that they don’t understand what the term really means, indulging instead in warm fuzzy talk about cooperation and happiness. But this is precisely the larger meaning of socialism, which the millennial generation—as evidenced in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements—totally comprehends.
Capitalism has only itself to blame, forcing millennials to look for an alternative.
Let’s recall a bit of recent history before amnesia completely erases it. While banks were bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars, the government was not interested in offering serious help to homeowners carrying underwater mortgages (the actual commitment of the U.S. government was $16 trillion to corporations and banks worldwide, as revealed in a 2011 audit prompted by Sanders and others). Facing crushing amounts of debt, millennials have been forced to cohabit with their parents and to downshift ambitions. They have had to relearn the habits of communal living, making do with less, and they are bartering necessary skills because of the permanent casualization of jobs. They are questioning the value of a capitalist education that prepares them for an ideology that is vanishing and an economy that doesn’t exist.
After the Great Depression, regulated capitalism did a good enough job keeping people’s ideas of happiness in balance. Because of job stability, wage growth, and opportunities for mobility, primarily driven by progressive taxation and generous government services, regulated capitalism experienced its heyday during 1945-1973, not just in America but around the world. Since then, however, the Keynesian insight that a certain level of equality must be maintained to preserve capitalism has been abandoned in favor of a neoliberal regime that has privatized, deregulated, and “liberalized” to the point where extreme inequality, a new form of serfdom, has come into being.
Millennials perceive that what is on offer in this election cycle on the part of one side (Trump) is a return to a regulated form of capitalism, but with a frightening nationalist overlay and a disregard for the environment that is not sustainable, and on the other side (Clinton) a continuation of the neoliberal ideology of relying exclusively on the market to make the best decisions on behalf of human welfare. They understand that the reforms of the last eight years have been so mild, as with the Dodd-Frank bill, as to keep neoliberalism in its previous form intact, guaranteeing future cycles of debt, insolvency, and immiseration. They haven’t forgotten that the capitalist class embarked on an austerity campaign, of all things, in 2009 in the U.S. and Europe, precisely the opposite of what was needed to alleviate misery.
But millennials are done with blind faith in the market as the solution to all human problems. They question whether “economic growth” should even be the ultimate pursuit. Ironically, again, it is the extreme form capitalism has taken under neoliberalism that has put millennials under such pressure that they have started asking these questions seriously: Why not work fewer hours? Why not disengage from consumer capitalism? Why trust in capitalist goods to buy happiness? Why not discover the virtues of community, solidarity, and togetherness? It is inchoate still, but this sea change in the way a whole generation defines happiness is what is going to determine the future of American politics.
Millennials understand that overturning capitalist memes to address the immediate social and ecological crises is only the starting point. The more difficult evolution is to reorient human thought, after more than 500 years of capitalist hegemony, to think beyond even democratic or participatory socialism, to a more anarchic, more liberated social organization, where individuals have the potential to achieve freedom and self-realization, precisely the failed promise of capitalism.
To distract attention by pointing to the failure of authoritarian state-driven experiments in socialism is not going to work. Cooperative models not driven by the state have been pervasive throughout history, all through the middle ages for example, or until recently in large parts of the world where capitalism hadn’t yet penetrated. Whenever one forms a spontaneous association to fulfill real needs, whether in a family or community or town, one is embarking on activity that is discounted by capitalism.
In the 19th century, there was the successful cooperative model of Robert Owen, the British cotton-spinner and industrialist, followed in the 20th century with similar ventures by Owen’s counterpart in Japan, Muto Sanji, as well as agricultural, industrial, housing, and banking cooperatives in Australia in the early 20th century, in the Basque region of Spain after World War II, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, and in Sweden, Canada, Denmark, and elsewhere. Today, many examples of the cooperative model operate in Brazil, Venezuela and other Latin American countries, spurred by resistance to the neoliberal model.
The idea is to move beyond money, interpreted in particular ways by capitalism, as the sole means of determining what is valued in human activity. Just because the means of production can be owned collectively does not mean—and indeed should not mean—that the state should be the owner.
In effect, capitalism is losing its future constituency, not just in America, but in other parts of the world as well. It happened among millennials in Latin America in the last decade, as indigenous movements sprouted up, avowing to chart a non-authoritarian path compared to socialisms of the past, all this as the clash between capitalism’s totalizing logic and the health of the planet reached a crescendo.
The current American election is one of the last of the rearguard actions by so-called progressives exploiting the notion that nothing better is possible. This antihumanism, masquerading as pragmatism, asks millennials to buy into the idea that we can only expect the false measures of happiness that capitalism has sold us on.
Cooperation is neither medieval nor tyrannizing; it is rather avant-garde, and it looks like the millennial generation is ready to ride the wave. Millennials are famously optimistic; socialism was designed for just such a breed.