Economics Society

Millenial Socialism Is Here

Last year, I wrote a post in which I noted some of the early observations that Millennials were increasingly tuning into socialist rhetoric and ideas. The blame for this phenomenon lies squarely with modern capitalism, I noted, and we should expect this trend to continue: “capitalists, and I count myself among them, need to get our house in order, or we might wake up to find a lot more 28-year olds asking some unfordable questions…”

Well, this week The Economist cover story makes the same point I did. Their leader explains that socialism is returning to favor among young people because its analysis of what has gone wrong with capitalism is more right than wrong:

Socialism is storming back because it has formed an incisive critique of what has gone wrong in Western societies. Whereas politicians on the right have all too often given up the battle of ideas and retreated towards chauvinism and nostalgia, the left has focused on inequality, the environment, and how to vest power in citizens rather than elites (see article). Yet, although the reborn left gets some things right, its pessimism about the modern world goes too far. Its policies suffer from naivety about budgets, bureaucracies and businesses.

Moreover, the cultural stigma attached to the term for older generations does not resonate with Millennials:

For the American generation which has grown up since the downfall of the ussr, socialism is no longer the boo word it once was. On the left, a lot of Americans are more sceptical than they used to be about capitalism. Indeed, what might be called “millennial socialism” is having something of a cultural moment. Publications like Jacobin and Tribune bedeck the coffee tables of the hip, young and socially conscious. No film has ever made trade unions look cooler than last year’s “Sorry To Bother You”, written and directed by Boots Riley, a rapper and activist. When Piers Morgan, a British television presenter, found it impossible to believe that a young interviewee might come from a left beyond Barack Obama, her response quickly turned up on t-shirts: “I’m literally a communist, you idiot”.

These young socialists are convinced that inequality has gotten out of control and that they world which they are inheriting is rigged to favor the rich (and the politicians who serve them publicly and privately). What’s more, notes The Economist, since wealth generally equals power in democracies, there is also a power inequality that needs to be rebalanced:

… the argument for redistribution of wealth goes beyond economics—and its roots spread far beyond the socialist canon. James Harrington, a political theorist of the 17th century, wrote that “Where there is inequality of estates, there must be inequality of power.” He saw a reasonably even distribution of wealth and the freedom of democratic politics as two sides of the same coin. His ideas were a strong influence on America’s founding fathers. John Adams wrote that “Harrington has shewn that Power always follows Property.” Though Thomas Jefferson plumped for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the rights to be mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, he was inspired by John Locke’s trinity of life, liberty and property, and his love of the yeoman farmer stemmed from his belief that those who produced their own food never needed to bend to the will of another, and thus were truly free.

The Economist argues that the new socialists in the U.S. may be misreading the general population, which may not be in sync with their turn leftwards. After all, the U.S. has a billionaire President with more than a few plutocrats in his Cabinet. I agree with this analysis about the world outside of Jacobin-reading salons; however, who is to say this condition will not change? If nothing else, the LGBT and #metoo movements have shown, in different ways, both how long and short-term social movements can alter where the “consensus position” is on any given topic. Who is to say that socialism won’t either push forward slowly or suddenly explode into the general consciousness of the average American?

I would add one other aspect to this phenomenon The Economist does not discuss, for what’s interesting to me is how similar the new socialists’ ideal state seems to Europe on a good day:

  • Free universal healthcare
  • Free, or almost free, education for life
  • Reformed prisons
  • Workers on corporate boards
  • Perhaps even a Universal Basic Income

In other words, American Millennial socialists may have Europe as a conscious, or unconscious, role model in their heads. The fact that most of them have not lived in Europe, and thus seen the cons that come with the pros, makes the European paradigm even more attractive. This effect should not be underestimated. It’s one thing to dream about a theoretically better good; it’s another to want a better good you can see and read about, even if what what you see or read is incomplete or even misleading.

I know that to many people Millennial socialism will seem like a fad, something that will pass when these young people get older. As a recent Politico piece on the “Green New Deal” noted:

“I would like them to push it as far as they can. I’d like to see it on the floor. I’d like to see them actually have to vote on it,” Rep. Mike Simpson of R-Idaho, a senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told POLITICO. “It’s crazy. It’s loony.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most vocal champions, echoed that sentiment. “Let’s vote on the Green New Deal!” Graham tweeted Friday. “Americans deserve to see what kind of solutions far-left Democrats are offering to deal with climate change.”

I suggest that this reading is wrong. As a reader of Jacobin myself, I find that this new wave of leftists is not the same one that died out decades ago. They understand their history, and they are willing to adapt to make a modified version of socialism a reality.

What should capitalists do about this shift if this is not where we want the country to go? The answer is clear if not easy: we need to reform capitalism and return it to is basic purpose, which is to give everyone a chance to use their talents and efforts to make themselves and society better. As I wrote in a 2017 post on the hyper-concentration of equity ownership:

Capitalism in America and Europe is approaching a crisis. Like most other economic crises, it is growing from the inside out—and it has not been forced upon us by others. It is always tempting for market economists like us to blame governments and regulators. It is also easy because it is obvious that regulations increasingly have hamstrung firms and made markets less competitive. But the crisis of capitalism now is far more about the transformation of ownership and the effects that this silent takeover of firms by institutions is having on corporate behavior and the economy at large. To work better, modern capitalism has to correct its ownership problem.

Or as Michael Tomasky put it so well in The New York Times: “You want fewer socialists? Easy. Stop creating them.” I agree completely, and capitalists ignore this advice at their own peril. Millennials want a new society, and wether it has the “socialist” label or not, they are going to get it.

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