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5 June 2019

The rise of millennial socialism

Across the world, young activists are turning to old ideas. Why?  

By Gavin Jacobson

Updating his 1976 triptych on the “Main Currents of Marxism” in 2005, the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski predicted that Marx himself would become “more and more what he already is: a chapter from a text book of the history of ideas, a figure that no longer evokes any emotions, simply the author of one of the ‘great books’ of the 19th century – one of those books that very few bother to read but whose titles are known”.

That assumption seemed credible then. But one consequence of the financial crash of 2008 has been the intellectual rehabilitation of Marx. Outside academic precincts, his ideas have been slowly, if not wholly, exfoliated of their association with dictatorship and state-sponsored terror. Recent, if only partial, exonerations have been issued by the Economist and the New York Times, as well as by high-ranking superintendents of the neoliberal order, including Alan Greenspan and Francis Fukuyama.

Marx’s revival is part of a growing interest in socialism and left-political theory, impelled by the crisis of capitalism and boosted by the new media that emerged during the Bush-Obama and Cameron-Clegg years. The most notable titles include n+1 (New York, 2004), Endnotes (Brighton, 2005), The New Inquiry (New York, 2009), and Salvage (London, 2015), while The Baffler was relaunched in 2009 and Dissent, founded in 1954, got a facelift in 2014. Rising above these, at least in style and format, is Jacobin, founded in Washington, DC in 2010, and Novara Media, which followed a year later in London.

Although presented in distinct registers, these journals and websites share certain characteristics. They express a loathing of the war on terror, and disaffection with the precariousness and austerity of millennial life. The London riots in 2010 and the student protests as well as the Occupy protests in 2011-12 were formative moments of dissent that produced new political imaginaries. Academics, writers, bloggers and journalist-activists began to describe post-capitalist futures, as well as contest hard-worn orthodoxies underpinning the left – n+1, for example, attacked the rhetorical stuffiness of traditions like postmodern-ism (the first issue concluded with the line: “it’s time to say what you mean”), while Jacobin looked to the US Civil War (rather than 1789 or 1917) as the signal event of progressive politics.

The literary style was often flippant and playful, an assertion of epicurean youth over old theoretical grandstanding. Above all, these “little magazines” reflected a growing sense of political possibility, a belief that the future wasn’t locked in the image of oligarchic power, but looked simultaneously darker (inequality and ecological collapse) and more hopeful (a recrudescent left). No longer dwelling “in its own marginality and failure”, as the political theorist Wendy Brown had characterised it, the left began to crawl out from the sumps of melancholia.

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But for all the newness of what we might call the new New Left, there is an enduring fidelity to the past and its radical progenitors, including unreconstructed socialists such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. “If nothing else,” Bhaskar Sunkara writes, “we have little hope of realising our aims if we don’t learn from those who marched and organised and dreamed before us”. The founder and publisher of Jacobin, as well as publisher of Catalyst and the revamped Tribune magazine in the UK, Sunkara is surely the most enterprising Marxist on the Anglophone left today. His book isn’t a “manifesto” so much as a smartly composed overture to non-socialists, illuminating both the movement’s history and potential for those who may doubt, worry about, or even hate what they understand as “socialism”.

From the opening, in which he imagines “a day in the life of a socialist citizen”, Sunkara thinks that any good life will be founded on democratic socialism, in which “more, not less, democracy will help solve social ills”. Social democracy may have enhanced the power of labour, but it left capital “structurally dominant”. Even with rich and expansive welfare states, such as Sweden in the 1970s, social democracies remained subject to the financial success of capitalists, whose “economic power translated into enduring power over the political process”.

The  defining  virtue  of democratic socialism is its theory of ownership, demanding the radical extension of democracy into every social and economic realm, and asserting “the moral worth of every person, no matter who they are”. Thus, at the “Bongiovi pasta sauce bottling factory” – which Sunkara uses for his thought experiment – employees collectively own the firm, and run it through workers’ councils selected by a representative system of governance. “You’re more like citizens of a community than owners,” he writes, envisioning a collective no longer subordinate to the will of the market, the boss or distant bureaucracies, but able to “shape the systems that shape their lives”.

Sunkara’s vision is thrillingly non-utopian. When describing the ultimate goal of socialism, he alludes to one of its most brilliant, if saturnine, definitions: “converting hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness”. The phrase was originally conceived by Freud, but was adapted by the political theorist Corey Robin in 2013. And while you wouldn’t put it on the side of a campaign bus, it gets to the heart of what a socialist economy might look like: helping people overcome, in Robin’s words, the “immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life”.

Under capitalism, people waste unreasonable amounts of time and energy tending to their economic lives, whether that’s navigating the byzantine world of US health insurance – numbers, forms and phone calls – or surviving the trials of the UK rental market. Rich people have lawyers and accountants to do this for them, but for most it’s a daily grind requiring “doggedness, savvy, intelligence, and manipulative charm” to acquire basic goods and services. Neoliberalism – broadly defined as the capture and repurposing of the state to create “free” markets, which are then protected from democratic demand – reduces us to “men and women so confronted by the hassle of everyday life that we’re either forced to master it… or become its slaves. We’re either athletes of the market or the support staff who tend to the race.”

Socialists want to give people time and space outside of the market, so that they can do other things. As Sunkara writes: “Imagine ordinary people, with ordinary abilities, having time after their 28-hour work week to explore whatever interests or hobbies strike their fancy (or simply enjoy their right to be bored). The deluge of bad poetry, strange philosophical blog posts, and terrible abstract art will be a sure sign of progress.”

There are more provocative theorists than Sunkara on the American millennial left, and more engaging historians, too. But few of them present the arguments against capitalism and for socialism better than he does. He writes with clarity and light-heartedness – something writers on the left hardly ever do well – and has shrewdly repurposed buzzwords from the liberal centre to make the case for the radical left. The usual socialist argot of justice, equality, class war, dialectics, revolution, the 99 per cent, and so on, is either absent or pared down. Instead, Sunkara emphasises how socialism enables greater choice, leaves markets intact, is about participation and democracy, is created through reform, and is ultimately about freedom – safe-words for the politically curious. In style and endeavour, then, if not in politics, Sunkara might be the heir to Michael Harrington, the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America in 1982, who did so much to promote socialism in the US.

When it comes to ideology, with his emphasis on the democratisation of society, the presiding spirit of Sunkara’s book – and the Jacobin project as a whole – is arguably Ralph Miliband. The majority of The Socialist Manifesto is a bracing historical jaunt around the capital sites and boneyards of the left, recounting its ideological debates, as well as political successes and failures, from Marx to the present. It’s only in the last 28 pages that Sunkara turns to the question of “how we win”, which has distinct echoes of Miliband’s radical reformism. (The “we” here refers to Americans, as Sunkara turns to the political idiosyncrasies of the US, where a “distinct approach” to organising is required given the “uniquely anti-democratic” election laws that ensure the preponderance of the Democratic and Republican parties.)

His recommendations amount to more of a political pep talk than a specific plan of action. Sunkara recognises that politics comes before policies, and wants to get people thinking about their (working) class interests, and not just in terms of race, gender, peace or ecology. Again, this draws on the work of Ralph Miliband, who argued in 1985 that “the exploitation, discrimination and oppression to which women, blacks and gays are subjected is also crucially shaped by the fact that they are workers located at a particular point of the production process and the social structure”.

Prioritising politics over policies is why Sunkara favours Sanders over Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan for everything – “I have a plan for that!” has become her unofficial campaign slogan – but not an alternative politics. It isn’t enough to win the policy argument, nor is it enough to win elections. Today’s socialists speak of the need to win power – not for its own sake, but as the handmaiden of liberty – and that requires a mass movement based on class struggle.

If Sunkara asks “Freedom for whom?” Aaron Bastani wants to know “who will benefit?” Specifically, who will benefit from what he calls the “Third Disruption”, when abundance and “extreme supply” in labour, energy, resources, health, and sustenance lead to a post-scarcity world? Just like information, these things “want to be free”, posings grave dangers for an economic system built and sustained by profit.

The co-founder of Novara Media, Bastani is best known by the public for his comments on subjects such as the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal. There are flashes of his online bravado in Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), with moments of cringe-inducing hyperbole and cliché such as, “we are set for peak human”; “our technology is already making us gods – so we might as well get good at it”; and, “It’s time for us all to stop waiting and make history once more.” But for the most part, his book is a provocative, if rather baggy, reckoning with the end of market capitalism, and what might follow. Indeed, perhaps the best description of FALC and its author is the one Bastani gives to the US billionaire Mark Cuban’s comments on artificial intelligence (AI): “Attention-seeking? Perhaps. Hyperbolic? Absolutely. Wrong? Probably not.”

Bastani’s message is that climate change, resource scarcity, surplus populations, and technical unemployment, are syndromes of a dying socio-economic order. But technological advances in robotics and AI, as well as renewable energies, gene editing, synthetic meats, cellular agricultures, and (eventually) asteroid mining, provide opportunities to achieve FALC. This is when, under a realm of plenty, “labour and leisure blend into one another”, and where work is no longer a means of survival, but a “route to self-development… more akin to play”.

The political stakes are high, not only because, as Bastani claims, societies are closer to making these technological leaps than most people realise, but because the neo-liberal right are planning to shape the Third Disruption in the image of private accumulation and corporate power. Listening to Jeff Bezos speak about space cities, interplanetary economies, and off-world mining, it’s hard not to think of a future run by Amazon-turned-Tyrell Corps.

Bastani’s book isn’t a complete riposte, and load-bearing statements such as, “once the technical barriers are surmounted”, suggest his arguments require more faith from the readers than he might think. Nor does he contend with the fact that capitalism has so tightly bound our collective sense of meaning to work, that post-scarce societies might become more like JG Ballard’s dystopian leisure world in his novel Cocaine Nights than luxury communism.

But in outlining the benefits of decarbonised economies, worker-owned businesses, people’s banks, planet taxes and universal basic services, Bastani is starting to put flesh on the spectre that might one day haunt Europe again. Both his and Sunkara’s books represent what Leszek Kołakowski in 1968 (before his reactionary turn) called “the dynamite of hope that blasts the dead load of ossified systems, institutions, customs, intellectual habits, and closed doctrines. The Left unites those dispersed and often hidden atoms whose movement is, in the last analysis, what we call progress.” 

Gavin Jacobson is commissioning editor for the New Statesman


Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto
Aaron Bastani
Verso, 288pp, £16.99

The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality
Bhaskar Sunkara
Verso, 288pp, £16.99

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