How millennial socialism went global

US-UK activists are forging new ties, by sharing expertise on communications, policy and campaigning.

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In the decade since the 2008 financial crisis, the advanced economies have disappointed on many fronts. Productivity is stagnant across most of the developed world, private debt is three times the size of global GDP, and income inequality in OECD countries is at its highest level in 50 years.

In the US and the UK, these trends are particularly stark. Both are characterised by low productivity, low investment, high private debt and financial instability. It is now possible to speak of a transatlantic disease afflicting not just Anglo-America, but also Canada, Iceland, Ireland and Spain.

It is not a coincidence that these economies were the greatest winners from the pre-crash boom, and some of the greatest losers from the bust. The transatlantic crisis is one of financialisation: the rise and fall of large, international financial institutions that have come to shape the economic activity of business, household and state.

When the crash finally came, the state intervened to bail out the banks, even nationalising the worst-affected institutions. The costs, however, were imposed on ordinary people.

Initially many believed the crisis would herald a left-wing revival. But the complicity of social democratic parties with the pre-crash model aided the right. Meanwhile, the evisceration of public services, cuts to public sector pay and the strengthening of anti-trade union laws all served to weaken those who might have attempted to challenge the free-market consensus.

In this context, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has taken most commentators by surprise. The growing support for these politicians among the young recently prompted the Economist to devote its cover to the rise of “millennial socialism”, a phenomenon to which elites have reacted with a mixture of puzzlement and fear.

But as Zack Exley, a co-founder of Justice Democrats – the US group that supported Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 congressional bid – told me during a recent visit to Washington, DC, the revival of the Anglo-American left is not such a puzzle. “It makes sense,” he says, “that the two countries that fell to neoliberalism first may be the farthest along in organising… resistance to it.”

Alexandra Rojas, the 24-year-old who now runs Justice Democrats, spoke of how young people in the US and the UK are sharing expertise on communications, policy and campaigning.

Perhaps the best example of this transatlantic cross-fertilisation is the demand for a Green New Deal (GND): a mass mobilisation of society’s resources to decarbonise the economy, raise living standards and equalise ownership. The GND was first set out by UK economists during the 2008 crisis, before becoming the signature policy of Ocasio-Cortez’s election campaign. Popularised by Ocasio-Cortez, the GND has travelled back across the Atlantic and is being considered by Corbyn’s Labour.

The demand for a GND has proved most resonant among the young. As Exley observed, this generation is the first to “fully awaken to the terror of extreme global warming” while witnessing capitalism “bankrupt itself – financially, intellectually and morally”.

Adam Klug, one of the founders of Momentum, points out that the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns have faced a common challenge: how do you harness the power of ordinary people against opponents with “more money and establishment power”? Klug has developed a set of campaigning techniques that have been shared across the Atlantic, from the Democrats’ “Bernie Map” and the UK’s mynearestmarginal.com to the “persuasive conversations” canvassing model used by Momentum and exported to the US as part of the Medicare for All campaign.

Young people in the US and the UK are sharing knowledge, developing campaigns and building friendships that will outlast a single electoral cycle. With the far right now organising across borders, the liberal economic order fragmenting and the threat of apocalyptic climate change growing, the transatlantic left faces epic challenges. But it is also becoming clear that only socialists have the ideas, networks and energy needed to meet these global challenges.

The far right, the big banks and multinational corporations do not stop at national borders. But today, neither do the movements resisting them.

Grace Blakeley is the New Statesman’s economics commentator and a research fellow at IPPR. 

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special