Why is “millennial socialism” on the rise? Because liberalism is failing

Millennials who care about freedom aren’t just looking for an alternative system of political and economic relations, but of moral ideals.

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A recent crop of articles about the rise of “millennial socialism” have pondered why young people seem attracted to an old idea. One explanation is that they have misdiagnosed the problems with capitalism. Another, favoured by Donald Trump, is that millennials are “young [and] idealistic”. But if the words of Karl Marx are anything to go by, the conditions of socialism “result from the premises now in existence”. 

To explain why socialism is attractive, it pays to understand why liberalism is not. This is no easy task – liberalism is a broad church of ideas. Not all liberal theories support capitalism (though capitalism would be nowhere without the support of liberalism). Progressive liberals like John Rawls have criticised capitalism and defended alternative forms of social organisation, like property-owning democracy and liberal socialism.

This puts liberalism in a curious position: historically it has been linked to capitalism, but capitalism is about economic structures and liberalism is about ideas. Its core tenet is freedom and its core promise is freedom from fear of despotism or intolerance. For progressive liberals, the failure of capitalism raises a thorny question: is their philosophy still worth defending?

Liberalism produces its own pathologies. Its intellectual origins are rooted in the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and combine three propositions: a theory of morality, a theory of economics and a theory of politics. Early liberal visionaries put forward a distinctive account of power based on these three tenets. They painted a picture of a liberal utopia. But on all three counts, early critics of liberalism recognised the cracks in their project. 

Many approved of liberating individuals from the yoke of authority, and celebrated the emergence of civil society. Yet the criticisms of commercial society that circulated in the 18th century also listed all the destructive qualities that liberalism encouraged: selfishness, greed, envy, distrust and competition, the need for external recognition, rivalry, and exploitation.

As Rousseau observed, the emergence of private property displaced community and escalated social inequalities. It led to the extreme enrichment of some at the expense of others’ destitution. And while liberals credited themselves with the invention of human rights and universal citizenship, conflict between commercial society and the state constantly threatened these ideals. 

The liberal state secures private property and the rights and obligations that enable commercial society to function. But it also has very few of its own resources, and relies on tax contributions from the rich in order to preserve order and stability. This can become so politically divisive that it ends up destroying the liberal ideal of civic solidarity. Put bluntly: the old divisions of class and status return, only in a different form.

To grapple with inequality and guarantee basic welfare standards, the state relied on the international credit and debit system. This cultivated rivalries of a different kind: commercial society expanded outwards, leading to colonial exploitation and the plundering of global resources.

Liberal theories of history did not culminate in a political utopia, but a market utopia, where the global expansion of commercial society was thought to bring prosperity and technological and material development. Socialists are often criticised for endorsing a teleological view of history. But this direction was liberalism’s own making. 

Yet liberalism’s narrative of hope was inherently hierarchical. The price of liberalism is the condemnation of alternative forms of life as inferior stages of historical development. This led to aggressive attacks on people deemed backward and in need of liberal re-education.

Here, liberalism produces its own distinctive fear of colonialism and empire, forces that were necessary to transport the liberal virtues of civil and commercial society to those otherwise unable to realise them.

Liberals often brush aside the history of colonialism as if it had nothing to do with their ideals. But the utopia of commercial society and liberalism’s civilising mission were intrinsically connected. Without grasping this, we fail to understand why even progressive liberals like Mill and Tocqueville, who did not always condone capitalism, were committed to exterminating barbarians.

These threads speak to a question about liberalism’s understanding of freedom and its relationship to power. Liberals seek to limit the power of the state, of religious authorities, and any form of collective organisation that threatens individual freedom.  But in its efforts to disperse power, it generates its own distinctive power structures, its own set of fears, and its own form of unfreedom.

These power structures are anonymised rather than personal, and spontaneous rather than planned. Rather than outright aggression, they breed selfishness and indifference. Fear of liberalism is no less pervasive than the fears that liberalism seeks to abolish. 

Where power is dispersed, spontaneous, and anonymised, it is even more difficult to fight. This is why millennials who care about freedom are looking for an alternative system not just of political and economic relations, but also of moral ideals.

Lea Ypi is professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship. She tweets @lea_ypi