“Millennials occupy the rather strange position of being both an angry and apathetic generation.”
great deal has been written about Millennial and Gen Z anger, particularly how it has now channeled into “overwhelming” support for Bernie Sanders. Some coverage of millennials has been laudatory; some has been highly critical. But complementing these discussions about Millennial frustration is the question of why these same angry people do not typically turn out to vote. Millennials occupy the rather strange position of being both an angry and apathetic generation. As Kendrick Lamar put it: “The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives/Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters/Barricaded blocks and borders/Look what you taught us!” Deep feelings of anger tend to be combined with a sense of powerlessness—for a generation that never learnt of other possibilities to a deeply unjust status quo. It is worth asking how this came about.
The War on Terror and Economic Precarity
If you are Millennial, you grew up in a time period where everyone was told that we had reached the “end of history,” to invoke Francis Fukuyama’s famous thesis. All major political alternatives had been overcome, and liberal capitalism was the only game in town. For many ideologues, who only cared about “winning,” this sounded like an unconditionally great development. Most of these commentators failed to recognize what Fukuyama himself was wise enough to see: that many of us felt we had lost something fundamental with the arrival of the end of history. That is the freedom to remake the world if it turns out to be scarred by serious injustices. When I was a teenager living in Canada, I saw the World Trade Center fall. This was followed by the world’s greatest democracy and its allies—the now immortal bearers of world spirit in an apparently post-historical age—launching an illegal war and breaking with its most fundamental ideals by torturing and disappearing its enemies. For many of my friends and co-workers at the time, this made us fundamentally distrust politicians and virtually every cheesy pundit’s insistence on Western or American exceptionalism. Critics, of course, pointed out that our “enemies” living in scary parts of the world with strange sounding names did far worse things than we did—or insisted that this was all necessary to protect our sacred consumeristic “way of life.” All of this amounted to a stunning display of hypocrisy, as we called ourselves “the good guys,” while insisting that we and we alone were permitted to do truly evil things.
The irony underlying all of these events was that the so-called end of history became a time of deep historical reflection. The declining faith in our self-described masters led many Millennials to look more deeply into their civilization’s past. This was immeasurably aided by new technologies, which facilitated the dissemination of information at breakneck speed. What many of us found was not pretty: long histories of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and oppression. Many of these sins were barely acknowledged until a few decades before we were born, and, even then, they were quickly brushed aside. The same groups calling for Jim Crow in the 1950’s were claiming the consequences of racism were all gone by the 1980’s, which meant we no longer needed to commit to fixing them. Proud declarations about the rights of Western states to close their borders to refugees in the name of national sovereignty looked vulgar when considered along with centuries of imperialism and colonialism. This reinforced our sense that the hypocrisies, on display during the War on Terror, were nothing new. If anything, they were par for the course.
Like unrepentant Soviets claiming Stalinism did not constitute “real communism,” zealots of the “greed is good” coalition insisted that these failures were because we did not have “real capitalism.”
While the War on Terror was wrapping up, we suffered the Great Recession of 2008. Many Millennials still have not recovered and may never fully do so. But, ultimately, the Recession was just the symptom of a much deeper problem. Over the last few decades, the ideal of economic security broke down in the name of securing greater economic efficiency and adaptability. Jobs became more precarious; home ownership became a pie in the sky ideal, security an anachronism, and the notion that you would be rewarded for working hard looked ever more like an empty platitude. In an ironic display of the “PC culture” so berated by right-wing pundits, most of these realities were justified using the most superficially innocuous but ultimately frightening language. Firing people en masse for the crime of being expendable became “restructuring.” Getting rid of permanent positions for short-term contract work became “flexibility.” Losing your job to a machine became “technological automation.” The figures who insisted that all of this was good and necessary not only had no idea a crisis was coming (and may be coming again due to the coronavirus), but they also uniformly lacked the courage to talk about the calamitous effect these changes would have on many. Like unrepentant Soviets claiming Stalinism did not constitute “real communism,” zealots of the “greed is good” coalition insisted that these failures were because we did not have “real capitalism.” Much of the rhetoric sounded less like economics and more like religion; consumers, workers, and government had failed the market, which was now punishing us for our sins. The only solution was sacrifice—at least on the part of the disadvantaged—via the imposition of austerity and the doubling down on labor precarity.
In his book Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put the point very well. In earlier epochs, individuals were threatened by the immutability of a political and economic system that relegated most people to cogs in the machine. This dehumanizing process was inhumane but had the upshot of providing a level of stability and constancy to life, which evaporated in the late 21st century. Now, many of us cannot even be cogs in the machine—since said machine has no need for new workers. Being a millennial means constantly realizing you can be made a wasted life—if the system deems you no longer necessary. The result is much of the anger and apathy on display today, underpinned by a sense of meaninglessness.
Wasted Lives and Cancelled Futures
None of this is to say that Millennials are anti-progress, let alone anti-technology. What it demonstrates is that most of us never had any idea of what we could possibly progress towards. In his classic book Capitalist Realism, the cult philosopher Mark Fisher talked about the fact that it was now easier to comprehend the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Most Millennials I meet do not even necessarily want capitalism to end. What they feel is something else entirely: a dissatisfaction with the claim that this was all there ever could be, along with the inability to even think through how a different future might be created. Fisher goes on to talk about the paradox of looking at the past as a ghostly collection of “cancelled futures.” At the end of history, we were left with the sense that there was no better future worth fighting for. What was left was looking back at all the failed attempts at what might have been. The result is often a feeling of anger—but anger towards generational powerlessness.
None of this is to suggest that most Millennials have really thought through why they gravitate towards post-modern conservatism or millennial socialism. The attraction is based less on intellectual reflection and more on a gut level gravitation towards anything that promises genuine change.
Bauman puts the point very emphatically. As liquid modernity—what I have called post-modernity—sped up, we saw a rising tide of rhetoric about “expendable” people. Refugees, the poor, the inefficient, and so on have all become regarded as unnecessary baggage on the system. The same became true to a lesser degree of the humanists, artists, activists and so on engaged in the meaningless effort of trying to point out an inhumane system’s flaws—and correct them. Of course, no one is “expendable” by nature, even if the people labelling them as such seem to think so. They are expendable according to the logic of the current system, which has apparently become so important its needs transcend even those of the individuals who reproduce it. The comparisons with theological idolatry are not hard to draw. Our era is not—as is sometimes expressed—a secular time, in reality. It is an era where the ideology of the impenetrable system and its human, all too human waste products has come to dominate the globe. And beyond.
This is why both post-modern conservatism and “millennial socialism” (as Nate J. Robinson puts it) have proven very appealing to many. When the present seems hugely inadequate, most of us look to either the past or the future. The nostalgic sensibility offered by the new right promises to restore a purified past that was defined by stability, meaning, and the realization of lost potential. But it can only accomplish this by not targeting the system itself but instead by taking aim at a wide variety of “enemies,” who are blamed for the its failures. The consequence is that the structures that led to the crisis remain, and the victims of its vulgarities are victimized again. By contrast, the millennial socialism offered by figures like Bernie Sanders presents a more dramatic transformation, which sadly looks unlikely to come about in the United States in the near future. None of this is to suggest that most Millennials have really thought through why they gravitate towards post-modern conservatism or millennial socialism. The attraction is based less on intellectual reflection and more on a gut level gravitation towards anything that promises genuine change. But this itself is telling. Change is possibility. And for Millennials who grew up with possibility foreclosed, few things are more appealing.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof