Once upon a time, the question, why is there no socialism in America? bugged a young German economist. And so, in 1906, Werner Sombart published his book called Why is there no Socialism in the United States?
Yet, ever since, people have been trying to answer this question. One way of answering this – surprise, surprise – comes from Europe. By 2022, many Americans still asked themselves, isn’t there something better than capitalism? Today, there seems to be a renewed hope of those we might call the millennial socialism generation – the millennial socialists – for a different economy away from toxic neoliberal capitalism.
There is communism and a general feeling that if you are rich, you are evil, Trump-supporting Elon Musk once told his 18-year-old daughter Vivian, who no longer wants to be associated with him because of his alleged claim that neo-Marxists have taken over universities – perhaps an updated version of McCarthy’s Reds under the Beds!
Elon Musk also imagines “the communist trap”, i.e. socialism. Perhaps the phantasm of the communist trap cooked up by Musk was designed to divert attention away from the horrific working conditions in his factories. It certainly came before Musk’s Twitter fiasco.
Quite apart from the delusions of Mr. Musk – one of the richest capitalists on earth – for years, right-wing libertarian, reactionaries, outright conservative, but also (neo)liberal elite had been worried. They worry about losing the Millennials, those born in the 1980s and 1990s as well as Generation Z – those born after the end of the 1990s. Even the ultra-conservative Cato Institute is worried – a truly worrying sign.
Yet, these conservatives also worry that these generations have been influenced by the Internet – rather than the corporate mass media like, for example, Murdoch’s propaganda outfit Fox. This is a generation that the traditional propaganda outlets of conservatism and reactionary forces can no longer reach.
Yet, reactionaries still differ from traditional conservatives. Reactionary forces need to be included because conservatives – who like to conserve the status quo – do not (in general) attack the Capitol. By contrast, reactionaries do. They dream of a return to a pre-democracy state of affairs.
Beyond all that, the British master propaganda outlet of neoliberal capitalism – The Economist – called the rise of the much-feared millennial socialism, a doctrine that will not solve the problems of capitalism.
Of course, for The Economist, only two things can cure capitalism: capitalism itself and neoliberal capitalism – more of the same. In its well-known tradition, the magazine continued with the supposedly existing threat of the illiberal left. For The Economist, anyone who is not (neo)liberal, is illiberal and a threat to The Economist’s beloved capitalism.
Not surprisingly, Germany’s foremost pro-capitalism daily – The Handelsblatt – agrees when noting on millennial socialism, what the hell is millennial socialism? The answer comes from Germany’s highly popular center-left and somewhat social-democratic magazine called Stern, Millennials don’t criticize capitalism – they just want to break it. For its staunchly conservative counterpart – Focus – it is, left-wing criticism that comes with the wrong solutions. In other words, Germany’s petit bourgeois’ press has made up its mind.
Yet, there still seems to be a longing for classifications and explanations on millennial socialism. At the same time, millennial socialism is an attempt to postulate inter-generational struggles. According to surveys by the US news site Axios, 18 to 34 year olds in the USA are almost evenly divided between those who view capitalism positively (49%) and those who view it negatively (46%). Two years ago, this gap was still 20%.
Among the adults of Generation Z – the 18 to 24 year olds today – only 42% have a positive while 54% have a negative view of capitalism. A Gallup survey found something similar: 51% of 18 to 29 year olds have a positive image of socialism.
Overall, however, 41% of Americans say that they have a positive opinion, while 52% say that they have a negative opinion on socialism. These are highly scary numbers not just for the neoliberal apostles at The Economist. Yet, for 60% of African-Americans, 45% of American women, and a whopping 33% of non-white Republicans, socialism has positive connotations.
According to a report published in July by the UK’s right-wing neoliberal think tank Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK youths have made a decisive turn to the left. Meanwhile, 67% want to live in a socialist economic system.
The picture that emerges, for example, in Greece regarding the political position on the traditional left-right scale – conservatives-vs.-progressives – is somewhat complex. According to Greece’s Eteron institute, almost every fifth respondent refuses to associate themselves with a certain political direction. At the other end of the spectrum – those who have positioned themselves politically – seem to lean more about the progressive side of politics.
Meanwhile, 26.9% of respondents saw themselves on the progressive side, while 17.9% positioned themselves on the right. Moreover, one in four young Greek people also said that they had participated in political rallies in 2021 – an impressive number.
This is particularly remarkable considering the restrictions on the right to assemble in Greece during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, many of Greece’s 25 year olds have grown up with the experience of revolts since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). This was followed by the austerity years of harsh government measures.
Many, if not most 16 year olds were experiencing the peak of their youth in the midst of the GFC’s health crisis in Greece. Unsurprisingly, socialism is very popular among young Greek people in line with a sharp criticism of all that has gone wrong in capitalist societies.
While right-wing populists seem to have abandoned the struggle of ideas and retreated into populism, chauvinism, racism, and nationalism; progressives have focused on inequality, the environment, and the question of income redistribution.
Yet not all “socialist” goals of the millennials are radical. One example is the quest of US millennials for simple universal health care – established in Europe during the last century. Other millennials say that they want to get the benefits of a market economy while introducing a Scandinavian model of a social economy.
Still, other millennials no longer want to return to the prosperity of their parents – baby boomer socialism. In their eyes, the so-called post-war prosperity based on mass consumption is partly responsible for the current crises – including the looming environmental calamity. Nevertheless, there is room for radical ideas.
Millennial socialists know that global, as well as domestic inequality has gotten out of control and that the economy has been manipulated in favor of the wealthy and the corporate elite. They see that the public craves a redistribution of income and power by the state to compensate for this.
They also think that myopia and corporate lobbying have led governments to ignore the increasing likelihood of a climate catastrophe. And, that those who govern society and the economy – neoliberal (de)regulators, adjacent bureaucracies, and corporations – will no longer serve the interest of ordinary people – if they ever did. They will have to be democratized.
In the UK in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s ideological mentor Keith Joseph described the push for the acquisition of residential property as an advancement for the middle-class, i.e. the petit bourgeois. The “always false” neoliberal hope of many supporters of Thatcher was that the right to buy property would solve social problems. The idea was to turn leftwing tenants into conservative homeowners so that they carry the ideology of property-owning mini capitalism to the next election voting diligently for Thatcher.
But instead of neoliberalism’s hallucination of property democracy as promised by Thatcherism, Britain looks more like a landlord’s paradise. Within just two decades of Thatcher’s neoliberal delusions, the likelihood of a young middle-income adult owning a home has more than halved.
Today, those young people are known as generation rent. Thanks to neoliberalism, about half of the under 35s in England are living in private-sector flats. Their life is often defined by usurious rents and permanent insecurity – the life of the precariat.
In many European countries, we see that children no longer believe in inheriting a middle-class lifestyle. At the same time, the dependence on the parental home is increasing. Yet, the biggest concern of millennial socialists is that soon there will not even be a planet left to live on. Unless we move towards a democratic eco-socialist future.
What mainstream media postulates are the fake solutions of the super-rich like Jeff Bezos shooting himself into space and Elon Musk building a colony on Mars – while eating potatoes grown in Musk’s very own Sh***. What is presented is a toxic mixture of escapism, technosolutionism, neoliberal hyper-individualism, and sheer madness. Meanwhile back on earth, we face heat wave after heat wave and ever more environmental disasters with up to half the world on fire during the summer season.
Yet, if billionaires stopped making truckloads of money, they could solve many of these problems and still have enough cash in the bank to live a comfortable life. Yet, they continue to over-consume. As a consequence, and even more as an answer to these pathologies, the new vitality of millennial socialism is remarkable.
During the 1990s, many progressive political parties in Europe and elsewhere moved to the so-called center where, in fact, nothing really moves at all. They claimed – once – to have found The Third Way. They saw it as a compromise between the state and the market. Today, most progressives – including the Millenial socialists – see their third way as a dead end.
In the 2016 US primaries, more young people voted for Bernie Sanders than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. While in France, the majority of French voters under the age of 24 voted for the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in their last presidential elections.
Out of the 10 most famous millennial socialist in the world – among them is the rebellious New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – aptly reflecting the zeitgeist of the generation.
Even though progressive millennial socialists, at times, tend to appear as socially awkward nerds, today they are also a symbol of the cool kids on Instagram and Tiktok, who fancy the redistribution of wealth and power spiced up by a hefty portion of mainstream popular culture.
Some of them are even running for office under the Democratic Socialists of America. When AOC accepted a free invitation to a super-exclusive ball, she appeared in a dress with the inscription Tax the Rich. The liberal Guardian commented, whether or not you thought it was brazen … the stunt took place as a real-life version of the Hunger Games movie. Yet, her action also showed that the elites cannot escape the youth. A youth that let their political muscles play.
Today, the even more mysterious Generation Z is also in the spotlight of a media debate, who, unlike their predecessors, discard all stereotypes regarding their own identity. On the one hand, the reactionary culture war that had broken out in Anglo-Saxon regions was fought out on social media and has long ceased to be a niche issue.
While they were first laughed at on Twitter and Tik Tok for their socialism, now their opinions are the ideas of many. On the other hand, their struggle also finds its expression in the everyday class struggles. Away from the rusted trade union apparatus, the precarious workers of Starbucks, Amazon and other corporations are organizing themselves in independent trade unions.
If you take a closer look, you will see that these young people lead the movements in all its diversity. Whether millennial socialism will gain a serious foothold in Europe is uncertain. So far, no progressive party politician has inspired European as AOC does.
But there are signs of new class politics, as the strikes in hospitals, at the Gorillas’ delivery service or at Amazon, and – the still unsuccessful – movements on global warming shows. Especially with the last topic, it is important to move from frustrated protest towards the future the millennial socialists have laid out in, for example, a manifest entitled, fully automated luxury communism.
Thomas Klikauer has over 800 publications (including 12 books) and writes regularly for BraveNewEurope (Western Europe), the Barricades (Eastern Europe), Buzzflash (USA), Counterpunch (USA), Countercurrents (India), Tikkun (USA), and ZNet (USA). One of his books is on Managerialism (2013).