By Rajan Philips –
Karl Marx, the first violin, was only 29, and Frederick Engels, the second fiddle, 27, when they co-wrote the Communist Manifesto that was published in early 1848. As Trotsky wrote nearly a hundred years later, “the young authors were able to look further into the future than anyone before them, and perhaps than anyone since them.” And a full 170 years after the publication of the Manifesto, a new generation of young Americans are raising the banner of socialism in their land that has long been considered the bastion of capitalism and at its highest stage, as Lenin called it, imperialism. They are the American millennials, and their democratic battle cry for socialism has even ‘inspired’ The Economist, once the flagship journal of unmitigated capitalism and now a refined exponent of the market economy and political liberalism, to devote its latest cover page and story to “The Rise of Millennial Socialism” in America.
There is a parallel between what Marx and Engels, two émigré Germans, wrote for communism in the mid-19th century, and what the Americans Millennials are doing for socialism in the early 21st century. With their astounding Manifesto, Marx and Engels brought the egalitarian movement from the secret corners of conspiracy into the limelight of mainstream politics. Over the next century, however, the experience of revolution and socialism in many non-western countries did much to diminish rather than enhance the attractiveness of socialism in western countries. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the induction of formerly socialist countries into the global market economy were hailed as the ultimate victory of capitalism over socialism. Some even wrote about the ‘end of history.’ Rather, it may have been the start of a new historical chapter.
Far more than Europe, America has been quite virulent in its opposition not only to full blown socialism but to anything that seemed like even a distant reflection of it. The two main parties, the Republicans and the Democrats have traditionally been too far to the right of every right-wing party in every other western country. Even President Obama, hardly a radical in economic matters, was berated as a socialist by the Republicans and their Tea Party extremists. And Obama did little to address the alienation of those who felt left behind by the uneven benefits of globalization. The upshot was the “Occupy Movement” that was launched on Wall Street, in New York, in September 2011, even before Obama was through his first term. The street occupancy was the statement on behalf of hugely relatively deprived 99% against the 1% enjoying a hugely disproportionate share of the national and global incomes. Five years later, during the Democratic Party primaries, the Occupy Movement found a political voice in Bernie Sanders, a cranky old throwback to the protest movements of the 1960s. But he was attracting crowds as young as what Marx and Engels were when they wrote their Manifesto.
The election of Donald Trump as America’s President, after initially giving some license to the racist and sexist desperados, has eventually opened the floodgates to others who want an America that is racially, sexually and economically far more equal than it is now and in keepings with its endowments and its promises. Millennial socialism is at once a reaction to everything that Trump venally represents and an aspiration for everything that would make America more equal, fair and just than it is today. Just as Marx and Engels with their Manifesto made communism and socialism mainstream political pursuits, the millennials are making socialism an acceptable addition to America’s political vocabulary. For a new generation of Americans, socialism is “no longer the boo word it once was,” as The Economist said it aptly. Trump has already thrown the gauntlet warning America that the Democratic Party is being hijacked by radical socialists, but even the old Democratic Party leadership has become wise to Trump’s tricks. The leadership is dismissive of Trump’s taunts, because he will call them socialists any way. So, why not enjoy this wave of millennial socialism for as long as it lasts?
To be clear, American millennial socialism is not at all a programmatic endorsement of the old Communist Manifesto. But it does not hide its enthusiasm for what Marx and Engels wrote 170 years ago. In fact, the 2008 financial crisis dramatically increased the fascination for the old Manifesto among the western intelligentsia, political activists and, most of all, the millennial generation. The generational significance is writ large all over the face of millennial socialism – in the election of young radical women to the US Congress in the November 2018 election, in a resounding rebuke of the Trump presidency. The poster-face of millennial socialism is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex (AOC), the young US Congresswoman elected from New York last November. Born to Puerto Rican immigrant parents, AOC was not even a month old when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, apparently signalling the triumph of capitalism over socialism.
AOC and her generation of Americans did not grow up on a diet of anti-Soviet information, but amidst the negative experiences of global capitalism and the spectacular crash of the financial markets in 2008. They are also more sensitized to the effects of climate change. Fighting climate change is the cause of their generation. At 29, the same age as Marx was when he co-wrote the Manifesto, AOC has initiated a proposal to legislate a New Green Deal for America – modelled on President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s for the challenges of the 2020s. Along with fighting income inequality and climate change, the millennials also have a new thrust against gender inequality. All three are markers that clearly distinguish the context of American millennial socialism from the circumstances that both provoked and inspired Marx and Engels in their time.
The circumstances of Marx and Engels were those of primitive capitalism, of widespread exploitation and suffering in the mere effort to live. Marx and Engels predicted the inevitability of capitalism imploding and being overthrown. But capitalism has learnt to live through cycles of prosperous booms and disastrous busts. Millennial socialism is not seeking to overthrow capitalism, but to go further than the compromising ‘third way’ of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who came after the triumphalist capitalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Some of the millennial socialist goals in America are already common practices in other western countries. The goals include free education at all levels, universal health care system, providing public services and, providing guaranteed minimum income and, most of all, the ‘democratization of the economy.’ Millennial socialists also want to push back on the privatization of public utilities and to give government greater role in the provision of public goods and service.
America’s starting point is the most advanced stage in the development of capitalism. The socialist purpose is not to create wealth to lift the poor, but to redistribute the wealth that has already been created. Underpinning the tasks of democratization and redistribution are academic research and writings challenging the more established economic approaches. The Economist provides a brief survey of them: “Keynesianism is not enough” is the academic thinking influencing British Labour circles, and hence the need for economic democratization. Globalization is seen more for its shortcomings than for its benefits in works such as “Capitalist Realism” (Mark Fisher) and Bullshit Jobs (David Graeber). Both in Britain, in the Labour Party, and among the aspiring Democratic presidential candidates in America, there are increasing calls for ‘worker-owned co-operatives’ and ‘regional water authorities’ run by local representatives. There is even a somewhat controversial ‘modern monetary theory (MMT)’ to counter the orthodoxies against deficit financing.
There are theories of cyclical generational changes in American history. Each generation (20-22 years) creates a new turning point within a larger cycle (saeculum) lasting 80-90 years. The Millennials are the third in the current Millennium Saeculum, carrying the ‘heroic’ turning point. How far the millennials can go with their socialist turning point that is specific to America – is the question that will stir American political debate over the next two years as the country struggles to see beyond Donald Trump, a political aberration from the postwar boomer generation. There could not have been a worse representative for that dying (boomer) generation whom millennials blame for much of today’s problems in America and in the world. Trump will of course do everything he can to use the bogey of socialism, in addition to racism, to win a second term. Can the millennials outsmart Trump electorally – that is the question that will have to be answered for history in 2020.