You know it when you see it. The rose emojis, the Chapo Trap House downloads, the Jacobin subscriptions, and the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retweets. This is millennial socialism. But how is it different from the old?
Spoiler: it’s very different. Because whilst the Right continues to fall for to the straw man drawn by Jordan Peterson—that of the ghoulish neo-Stalinist “Cultural Marxist”—the ideological building blocks of millennial socialism have changed.
This “dirtbag left” has a new sense of class, revolution, and democracy.
This is not their parents’ class struggle. Rewind a generation: the idea of the working class as an agent of change, embodying a Hegelian idea of Geist, was fundamental to socialism. The enemy was the middle class, the bourgeoisie—big and petty—exactly as Karl Marx’s described class power in the 19th century. Not anymore.
The slogan “We are the 99 percent” defines millennial socialism.
“I can tell you this: as I suggested we call ourselves the 99 percent,” says Professor David Graeber, the author most recently of Bullshit Jobs. “And I knew what I was thinking.” The slogan that went viral out of Zuccotti Park redefined class power.
“‘We are the 99 percent’ is a class model for a financialized political model. It was a way of talking about class power in a financialized version of capitalism. The idea is anyone but the 1 percent is on the receiving end of it. It allowed us to move beyond the inveterate divisions of traditional leftist politics and create a point of unity for everyone.” By making the enemy “the 1 percent,” it opened the ranks of the Left and made it so anyone who wasn’t Sheldon Adelson could be a socialist.
“People had been throwing around the idea of the 1 percent,” says Graeber. “What really struck us was that it was the same 1 percent of the population that was taking the benefits of all economic growth, that it was the same 1 percent that were making almost all the political campaign contributions. So we were defining them as the people who are turning power into wealth and their wealth into power.”
What this slogan did was break decades of socialist thinking with its virality. The fraying middle class was not the natural ally of the wealthy; it was not protected by the 1 percent. People who looked middle class, thought of themselves as middle class, and had ‘middle class jobs’, but were in fact now drowning in mortgage debt, with their children saddled with vast college debt—these were also victims of the 1 percent.
“I don’t think it’s being emphasized enough: this was a massive shift in public consciousness that Occupy led to, about class and capitalism,” says Graeber.
Zuccotti Park set off a long slow-burning change of perceptions on the Left. Beginning with face-to-face encounters, with a sense that people were out, Occupy transformed into a lasting social force, leaving in its wake a slew of magazines, sites, activists, Twitter communities, intellectuals—a movement that has changed popular culture. And the shifts are real: respondents under 30 rated socialism more positively than capitalism—43 percent to 32 percent—in 2016.
“Where are they getting it from?” says Graeber. “You won’t have seen nothing, ever, nowhere, that would have had anything positive to say about socialism on American television. So it has to be from social movements. And that’s the legacy of Occupy.” Behind the slogan is the idea of an alliance of all against the super rich. Gone is the idea of the working class against the bourgeoisie. The suburban mortgage holder isn’t the enemy anymore; the hedge funds are.
“What I always tell people who tell me that Occupy failed because it didn’t set itself up like the Tea Party and try and get legislation through is that that’s not what we were trying to do. Because of course what we were trying to do was a long-term transformation. And that seems to have worked.”
This has allowed millennial socialism to be a movement for the middle class—class struggle as against the likes of Elon Musk, and not the suburbs. But the Right—keep tuning into that silly Ben Shapiro show—is missing this. When an outlet like Newsmax tries to show that someone in the Democratic Socialists of America of America is middle class, it doesn’t bother millennial socialists one bit. Flagging up that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grew up in a house in Yorktown Heights? That is missing 99 percent of the point.
“Revolution” was to a generation of socialists what Godot was to Vladimir and Estragon. Waiting for the revolution, anticipating the revolution, planning for the revolution, paralyzed a generation of socialists in Britain and America.
“We can’t sit around waiting; our chance is happening right now,” I remember my friend James Schneider told me when he co-founded Momentum to support Jeremy Corbyn. This attitude, and how prevalent it is, matters.
The idea of the revolution crippled a generation of socialist activists and intellectuals. Not anymore. Britain’s millennial socialists believe that the Labour Party can be made the vehicle for the revolution they want—breaking 1 percent financial capitalism—and they can achieve it through the ballot box.
This idea of the revolution could not be more different from the older generation. The old Left—think Perry Anderson and his New Left Review—went from believing Harold Wilson could open the path to socialism through the ballot boxes, to waiting expectantly for a May ‘68-type situation to emerge in the United Kingdom, to writing it off completely as a historic impossibility in the 1990s.
That old idea of the revolution—the massive crowds, the vanguard and the Kalashnikov chic—is so absent from millennial socialism that it’s hard to get across how important it was to the old Left. What for the new is commodified ironic Soviet kitsch was deadly serious to the founders of the New Left Review, for whom October 1917 was an inseparable part of thinking about socialism. Late-night discussions in the upstairs room at pubs in Islington about the exact moment to seize Parliament based on analysing Karl Liebknecht’s mistakes for when the ‘situation’ next comes round? That was the old 1970s Left. Go to the pub with millennial socialists and all you will hear about is party politics.
What Corbyn has done for Britain—turning a generation that might otherwise have gone on to be Vladimirs and Estragons into a party generation—Bernie Sanders has done for America. Through his unashamed class rhetoric and his campaign organization “Our Revolution,” Sanders has mobilized a generation to believe party politics can break the power of the 1 percent.
Now—even more so since the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—millennial socialist activists are convinced that the hollow establishment parties that their forerunners disdained are instruments ripe for the taking. This is chalk and cheese to the old Left. The new want to move the “Miliband window.” When Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband published Parliamentary Socialism in 1961, he spoke for his generation in arguing that Labour was committed to parliamentarism, and thus could never be a socialist party. Both his sons, Ed and David Miliband, as if convinced by his thesis, and that the revolution was never going to happen either, ended up centrist Labour politicians. Today the millennial socialists I know are dedicated to proving that thesis wrong.
And in doing so, they have both downsized and got the violent out the idea of the revolution.
What makes millennial socialism different from what we saw in the Cold War is not just class and revolution but its idea of democracy. This is a generation whose spirit is not Marxist-Leninist or Marxist-Stalinist, but Marxist-anarchist.
The Left has always been an alphabet soup of hyphenated socialists.
But a generation ago, hard Left socialists were likely to have negative understandings of democracy. With a few exceptions here and there, they were either Marxist-Leninist, or Socialist-Trotskyites, or Stalinists, with ideas of “democratic centralism.” Or Western Maoists and Guevaraists, whose Marxism was wedded to the idea of the militarized, paramilitary vanguard. Not anymore.
Yet again this comes from Occupy. “There are a lot of would-be Leninists and Stalinists trying to organize the DSA,” says David Graeber, who identifies as an anarchist himself. “But the general spirit is not with them. It makes sense to talk about what’s happening in the way that Immanuel Wallerstein talked about 1789, 1848 and 1917 being world revolutions, which happened on a certain level all over the world, because they were revolutions that changed political common sense. This is what happened in 2011, with Occupy, the idea of how to organize.”
This is often the trickiest thing for liberals to grasp: for millennial socialists, America does not need a GOSPLAN, a super powerful state, or central planning. What they believe it needs is as much democracy as possible.
Workers’ control, autonomism, corporate democracy, locally supervised nationalized industries—not high-up, mandarin-allocated indicative planning. This is millennial socialism: dreams of socially-owned Ubers and AirBnBs.
You could even say this generation has absorbed part of the neoliberal critique of the state—that it is not the site of liberation—and kept something of the “think global, act local” into which the Left retreated in the 1990s. What they want is a patchwork of social enterprises, collectives, town enterprises, and union-run factories, because they reject Soviet-style centralization.
“What’s happening with people is the basic idea of democracy has changed,” says Graeber. “It no longer has just to do with the state. This is the legacy of Occupy and also seeing how social movements have played out across the world. And there has come to be the idea that you need to have institutions outside of the political structures to maintain democracy that you can integrate with those working inside the political system.”
This is because millennial socialists think in terms of a matrix of oppression.
Intersectionality has convinced this generation—feminism is socialism, anti-racism is socialism, LGBTQI is socialism. Their understanding of it is as a democratic process that reverts marginalization, through above all, voice. “I would compare what has happened since Occupy,” says Graeber, “to feminism and abolitionism—about changing people’s basic moral perceptions.”
Those listening to Jordan Peterson and seeing, like he does, little Soviet troopers in the advance of Corbynism and the Jacobin Generation are missing the point. Leave the psychologist to fight his imaginary Left.
The best place to see what a millennial socialist agenda might look like in practice is the Labour Party’s 2017 report on Alternative Models of Ownership. The expert group commissioned by the party lays into ministerial central planning, the very essence of old socialism, lamenting that in the 20th century “national state ownership has traditionally been in the hands of a private and corporate elite” and that “these industries were heavily constrained in their ability to borrow to finance investment” on the market.
These are some of their alternatives: national profit sharing-schemes, community land trusts, municipal businesses, workers’ cooperatives like Legacoop in Italy or the Mondragon Group in Spain, employee stock ownership plans or a sovereign wealth fund to which FTSE-listed companies are required to issue a percentage of stock on incorporation.
Millennial socialism is not trying to stop the market economy, but to change its players and rewrite its rules.
“What the Labour people are are trying to figure out,” says David Graeber, “Is mixing these notions of bottom-up democracy with a parliamentary model. That’s the puzzle for today. Nobody has yet worked out a way to make these two types of institutions not undercut each other.” But are these wonkish plans going to live up to millennial socialists’ visions of radical democracy?
Maybe not. Ideas never survive contact with the real world in their pure form. But so far this generation has one major advantage: a kind of grassroots energy fueling turnout and internet culture that keeps going viral. And if you believe these millennial socialists will have no effect on real world politics, then you have to be captive to a whole other set of rigid and fossilized beliefs.
Just like Joe Lieberman, Howard Schultz or “fellow Democrats” like James Comey clearly are.