“Old leftists fully wish to hold Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Salvini and co., to account for their post-truthism. Meanwhile the younger leftist is likely to be ‘post-truth’ themselves.”
n recent weeks the phrase “OK, Boomer!” has entered the lexicon to an extent and diffusion rare even in an age as beholden to memes as our own. The exclamative expression (usually appended to an image or gif) is used to dismiss the opinion of an elder interlocutor in online forums and social media feeds. The dismissal only reinforces the accusation that the recipient is rigid, cranky, and out of touch. As such, it is effectively used both by millennials and zoomers online as a mode of silencing critiques from elder generations. To some this may seem like a form of karma after years of millennials being dismissed as “snowflakes”—principally by their immediate forebears, Generation X. However, this deepening of generational conflict threatens to alienate generations from one another at a crucial moment, with the U.K. General election and U.S. Presidential nomination campaigns both in full swing. From the point of view of the Left, this could prove damaging, impeding solidarity building between generations online—and on the campaign trail. Overcoming divisions may require a consideration of the Left’s roots in historical materialism and an acknowledgment that beyond generational traits, people of all ages on the Left share common ground.
Before doing so, it may be useful to visit the complex issue of generation itself, given that, as with social class or gender, there are no fixed boundaries for generations. The earliest birth year for millennials varies between 1978 and 1982, with the latest varying between 1996 and 2004. Right-wing political theorists, William Strauss and Neil Howe give the following dates for post-war generations: Baby Boom Generation (1943–1960); Generation X (1961–1981); Millennial Generation (1982–2004). However, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies defines millennials as being born from 1985–2004, while Bloomberg News recently argued that the goal posts move so often that we ought to forget the divisive notion of generation altogether. With such a slippage, it is at this point unclear where the most recent generation starts—or even what it is called,—though “zoomer“ will be the term used here, with 1997 to 2001 as a crossover point. This means that in recent years, young adults have come to represent a whole new generation looking to prove itself—and providing a new set of traits for their elders to disdain. And herein resides, I’d argue, one reason for heightened tensions—namely, a generation even more technologically absorbed and savvy than the millennial is ready to step up and assert themselves online, to sling mud, and to have mud stuck to them.
Though, to focus on the current round of mud slinging, one principal motivation for the spread of the term “OK,Boomer!” is the belief of millennials and zoomers that the Baby Boomer Generation trashed both the environment and economy. Yet this represents an ahistorical approach that casts the Baby Boomer generation as the master rather than object of material conditions.
This is a battle that could play out for years, only to be replaced by a clash between a subsequent generation and their elders. Though, to focus on the current round of mud slinging, one principal motivation for the spread of the term “OK,Boomer!” is the belief of millennials and zoomers that the Baby Boomer Generation trashed both the environment and economy. Yet this represents an ahistorical approach that casts the Baby Boomer generation as the master rather than object of material conditions. Indeed, the implied notion that millennials would have behaved differently if they had been born between 1946 and 1965—the dates commonly given for the Baby Boomer Generation—reinforces the very idea of exceptionalism that, along with their alleged sensitivity, has earned members of the millennial generation the nickname snowflakes. Leaving aside name-calling for now, the Left needs to develop an appreciation of a relationship to material forces that is shared across generations and which can only be shaped in solidarity among them.
In line with the basic Marxist principle that social relations are shaped by economic conditions, generational traits in any given era can arguably be seen as a product of our relationship to technology. Whilst for Marx this principally involved a consideration of the relations between workers and owners of productive machinery, thinkers of the Frankfurt School incorporated a consideration of cultural and media broadcast technologies into leftist class analysis. In short, if society comprises a small elite who owns the means of production and uses them to extract profit from labor power, then the 20th century’s communications technology ensured that the elite’s power went unchallenged. This point may be crucial to any truce being called between zoomers, millennials, and their elders precisely because the battle lines are often drawn based on differing technological usages between generations, whether wittingly or not.
For example, most millennials will have experienced the early stages of dating as a largely online phenomena, conducted via smartphones and SMS and employing emoticons to convey pathos. It is unlikely that anyone from Generation X can say the same. Indeed, the whole process of building relationships of any kind, from familial bonds to friendship groups, to romantic or sexual relations has undergone such profound changes between Generation X and the millennial generation—with some slippage around the boundary years— that millennials often appear needy, aggressive, and overly emotional in online environments. Yet such negative assumptions fail to see the impact the data economy has had on the socialization process of younger generations. So, rather than being inherently aloof and antisocial, millennials and zoomers have been alienated by technologies that they—by necessity—had to engage with during their formative years, due, of course, to the historical moment they were born into.
This distinction, while apparent on a surface level, is difficult for a leftist Generation Xer or Boomer to fully appreciate, given the top down organization of media messages during the period of their socialization. Put simply, in the ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s, opposing capitalism’s slick media apparatus meant ‘sticking it it the man,’ whether via Xerox’d fanzines, bootleg cassettes, or ‘adbusting.’ However, to reach any audience today entails working with, and for, the very system one opposes—as all online activity feeds into the data economy and, generally, the coffers of a handful of tech giants. While the fundamentals of Marxism cannot be denied here, the media message is crucially no longer one way, and even relatively poor individuals are able to produce and distribute media on a daily basis, with the ever present possibility that a message, image, or video will go viral and reach thousands, if not millions of viewers.
While this increasing horizontalization of culture is, in many senses, positive, it coincides with the virtual impossibility of opting out of a media machine run for the profit of the few. Left-wing and other anti-establishment interests are able to publish and be read as never before in the West, free from the dominant media message should they choose to avoid it. However, the visibility of their message has never been more dependent on the mechanisms of profit than today, not least given the prevalence of social media use over, for example, reading books. Quite simply, groups and individuals opposing capitalism can no longer even feign an autonomy from capital, which in any case was near impossible to achieve even in the mass media era. Accordingly, while the older generations online still envision a struggle against a top down narrative, involving a path of truth and tactics, millennials and zoomers naturally occupy a “post-truth” mentality. It is arguably here that the sentiment behind “OK, Boomer!” can be most usefully located—as a dismissive eye roll at the boundless certainty that even Gen Xers, in their historical position as “postmodernism embodied,” convey online. Old leftists fully wish to hold Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Salvini and co., to account for their post-truthism. Meanwhile the younger leftist is likely to be “post-truth” themselves.
This generational difference can be seen to have played out on the Right during the U.S. presidential elections when young protagonists of the alt-right outright disposed of civil conventions stating that white supremacist sentiments should be confined to a small lunatic fringe kept largely out of sight. Once in power, Trump, buoyed by far-right support, failed to directly denounce murderous far-right protestors. Since then, the far-left appear to be fighting back by appropriating taboo Soviet imagery and speaking openly of violent revolution. This is met by the rise of the Acid Left, which has its origins in the unfinished book Acid Communism by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher. Acid Communism aims at the fostering of a working class consciousness through music, performance and social gatherings influenced by Hippy and Acid house culture. This desire to create a non-rational cohesive working class cultural movement is well-founded, yet it is unclear if the “Acid” influence—relating to LSD and its consciousness building properties—can counteract the strand of the far-left that openly promotes violent uprising. For now, as can been seen on numerous social media forums, the Acid element chimes with a suspicion held against prescriptive statements or policies, often backed up by an “OK, Boomer!” meme or statement. Problematically, this serves to silence the views of people and generations on the Left who have every desire to dismantle social and economic hierarchy—but no desire for an unwinnable bloodbath. As for the aforementioned avowed Stalinists and Leninists, the phrase “OK, Boomer!” has lately practically become a principle part of the lexicon, thrown out as an insult towards elders who reject the embrace of violent revolutionary tactics. Among these elders, we can count Baby Boomer Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders (of the elder Silent Generation).
Of course, bickering among generations is a perennial activity, and it is worth bearing in mind that each generation, since at least the post-war period, has rebelled against its elders. However, the Internet, particularly in its current form, has brought about a multifaceted public battle between generations that has reached new heights in recent weeks, in its scope irreducible to the squabbles between age cohorts that originate within the family and school unit. As we on the Left face electoral battles that are winnable only through sheer grit, solidarity, and well-coordinated social media campaigns, we will all need to engage with other generations in a shared media struggle against a common opponent that has radically altered over the past two decades. We can only do this if we can set aside generational differences and combine the elder generations’ “Us and Them” worldview with the fluid and multifaceted politics of a post-truth left.
Mike Watson is a theorist and critic, who is principally focused on the relationship among culture, new media and politics. He has written for Art Review, Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic and Radical Philosophy. In 2019 he will publish his second book for ZerO Books, Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming and Stranger Things. He holds a PhD