Millennial Socialism and Centrist Dads: Political discourse after neoliberalism | Tom Nicholas


Hi, my name’s Tom. Welcome back to my
channel and, following the very warm reception you gave my Society of the
Spectacle videos, a slightly more overtly political analysis-y video today in
which I’m going to talk about two terms which have been very much on my mind of
late: the first being “millennial socialism” and
the second being “centrist dads”. See, a few months back, I was scrolling on Facebook
(something I try not to make too much of a habit of) and, unsurprisingly
for that website, I was served with an advert. This advert featured a
contemporary reimagining of Alexander Rodchenko’s famous design in which the
actor Lilya Brik jubilantly shouts the word “Books!”. The reworking I was served had substituted out Brik for a clearly 21st century photo of a young woman in a
beanie hat and, in place of the word books, was simply the word “socialism”. I
was intrigued and, clicking the advert, was taken to the website of the
“classically liberal” UK magazine The Economist and to an article which led with
the headlines ‘Millennial socialism: A new kind of left-wing doctrine is
emerging. It is not the answer to capitalism’s problems’. Now, even if you
only put my videos on in the background while doing the cooking—or, as one
commenter once admitted, use them as a sleeping aid—you’ll probably have
established by now that I’m both a millennial and some form of socialist.
But, even if I wasn’t, anyone who hasn’t noticed the rise in recent years of
young people in the UK, America and likely elsewhere aligning themselves
with the politics of the left simply hasn’t been paying attention. Maybe I
hadn’t been reading the right blogs then or watching the correct YouTube
videos because, as far as I could recall, this was the first time that I’d seen
these two words placed together in such a way. I’d seen the connection made
between the unique challenges faced by millennials and an interest in socialism
as a solution to them but I hadn’t really thought of the form of socialism being
embraced as all that different to those that gone before;
a little more technological maybe but still fundamentally rooted in redistributing power and wealth away from elites and towards the working class.
Now, The Economist, of course, wasn’t trying to sketch out the contours of
some kind of generationally-unique form of socialism. The prepending of the
adjective “millennial” here served, instead, simply to invoke the various cultural
codes that have built up around millennials. In the popular imaginary,
millennials are self-centered, incapable of thinking beyond the immediate future
and downright unwilling to grow up. The rhetorical gambit with framing
contemporary socialism as uniquely millennial, then, is to suggest that it too
is naive, misinformed, childish even. Generally speaking, I try to be cautious
of this kind of generational analysis when it comes to politics and political
movements anyway. I know I made a video about “millennialism” as seen through the
eyes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt a while back but too often have I seen
fairly well-off millennials use the severe economic and social challenges
faced by their generation on aggregate as a way of presenting themselves as
equally oppressed. And, though a less crisis-ridden housing market meant that
many working-class baby boomers were able to purchase houses for a portion of
their wage that would be unthinkable now, it’s always seemed reductive to present
any entire generation as privileged or to elide the very real existence of
left-wing boomers. Finally, our society seems to love a binary and so
such discourses tend to entirely forget the existence of Generation X or
Generation Z. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe there was
something to this, particularly if we view the specter of “millennial socialism”
alongside a (slightly dated) meme which appeared on left-wing Twitter in the UK
a few years back: that of the “centrist dad”. The “centrist dad” meme essentially
worked on the same principle to that of “millennial socialism” but
for a different audience. In popular culture, dads might be lovable, they
might be incredible role models, they might be the most doting of parents; they
are rarely, however, cool. And, at risk of destroying a joke through trying to
explain it, the rhetorical flourish here was that centrism, particularly when
exhibited by those who would like to think of themselves as liberal or even
left-wing, was uncool. Then alongside this was an intentionally gendered coding
which called out the often condescending approach that centrists use to get
their points across, particularly to those on their left. It likened it to
“mansplaining” the world from a position of privilege, invoking the spirit of
Homer Simpson condescendingly sighing “oh Lisa” in response to Lisa making an
incredibly well-informed and salient point. Such a spirit has not been
entirely absent in the current debates between candidates for the Democratic
nomination for President of the United States with John Delaney, Joe Biden and
others basically running on the slogan “careful now”. The centrist dad meme
however is, like its millennial socialist counterpart, primarily a rhetorical
device; not all centrists are dads and vice versa. Neither this, nor millennial
socialism, then, are genuine attempts to construct a serious analysis of
contemporary politics along generational lines. Nevertheless, I’ve not been able to
shift the notion that they might provide some insight. They didn’t emerge from
nowhere, right? At least someone at some point felt as though they reflected a
real experience they’d had. And so, I wanted to explore them a little bit
further, to do a light bit of what we might call discourse analysis and to
consider what we’re really talking about when we talk about “millennial socialism”
or “centrist dad”-ism. So, as I discussed in my video on
millennials as seen through the eyes of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable
Kimmy Schmitt, the term ‘millennial’ was first coined by William Strauss and Neil
Howe in their 1991 book Generations: The History of America’s Future.
Unlike the rhetorical devices discussed a moment ago, Strauss and Howe’s work does
attempt to construct a serious socio-historical method based on
generational groupings. It posits that history progresses in cycles of roughly
20 years in which one generation, with an entirely different view of how the world
should be than the previous one, struggles to up turn the status quo
while the older generation seeks to maintain it. Eventually, the members of
the younger generation come to dominate society and such an upturning occurs.
This newly-dominant generation may now have the opportunity to reshape the
world in its own image, yet it won’t be long before its own children begin to
question the assumptions upon which such reshaping relies. Strauss and Howe’s
interpretation of history has been heavily critiqued by academic historians.
James Bowman in the Times Literary Supplement described it as akin to
‘astrology’ in its overly-deterministic view of history which assumes that
everything that has happened was always going to happen and thus ignorance to
the often accidental and avoidable unfolding of events. At a historical
juncture like the present, however, such a retelling of history can be somewhat
endearing. We are clearly going through a period of great political upheaval; the
Overton Window—that is the gamut of ideas which are currently being
discussed in mainstream political discourse and on mainstream platforms—is
much wider than it has been in a long, long time. There’s a very real chance that
the Democratic nominee for President of the United States will support some kind
of universal health care. In the UK, to support the nationalization of key
industries is no longer entirely beyond the pale. On the other hand, the
leaders of the mainstream right-wing parties in both countries are pretty
much out and out white supremacists. A few years ago such a scenario would have
been unthinkable. And, as Bowman’s allusion to astrology suggests, amid such
chaos, Strauss and Howe’s generational analysis can be reassuring, suggesting
that all of this has happened before and will yet happen again without the world
exploding. To suggest that the ‘resurgent left’, as The Economist puts it, is solely
a result of some kind of natural recurring cycle, however, is to ignore the
fact that many of the key policy proposals offered by Bernie Sanders,
Jeremy Corbyn, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al. are responses to historically-specific
material problems. In order to understand why there has been such an
upswing in support for left-wing politics and why this appears to be generational,
then, we need to consider both what material circumstances might have
brought about such an upswing and why some might have had different political
responses to them than others. In seeking to consider where this insurgency of the
mainstream by left-wing politics might have come from, it’s perhaps not all that
shocking that I’m going to suggest we begin by looking at the economic crisis
of 2008. The collapse of the financial sector sent shockwaves through the
capitalist system and had many who previously might have considered it, in
Mark Fisher’s terms, ‘the only viable political and economic system’ briefly
questioning its fundamental tenets. Yet brief is the correct term here for, in truth,
what radical suggestions were presented at that point were given fairly little
airing in mainstream discourse and quickly withered away on the fringes of
popular debate. Bailout packages were drawn up in financial capitals across
the world and order was restored. Nevertheless, in a recent article for the
Financial Times, David McWilliams wondered whether it was ‘worth
considering whether the efforts of the US
Federal Reserve […] to avoid 1930s-style debt deflation ended up spawning a new
generation of socialists’. It is beyond my expertise or the time constraints of
this video to go too deeply into the specifics but McWilliams argues that the
various bailout packages implemented across the world in 2008 largely sought
to avert the total collapse of the mortgage industry; the positive side
effect of this being that it kept a lot of people from losing their homes who
otherwise might have. The subsequent introduction of quantitative easing—in
which, to simplify in the extreme, “extra” money is injected into the economy in
order to encourage spending—, however, actually increased the value of property.
Thus, if you didn’t own and weren’t able to afford a house before the crash, you
certainly weren’t going to be able to afford one afterwards. And, with more
tenants looking to rent, up when rents too. McWilliams’ argument is therefore that
the present rise in mainstream support for left-wing politics is the chickens
of those bailout packages coming home to roost. One might be able to see how such
a scenario could lead to a generational divide. It’s not all about housing but, to
stick with that as an example, it clearly leads to a situation in which someone
who might have been able to buy a home prior to 2008 might not be able to now.
Nevertheless, I’m not an economist and this is already well beyond my expertise
so I think it’d be naive (or arrogant) of me to suggest I could provide a solely
material rationale for our proposed “millennial socialist” – “centrist dad”
schism. Instead, I think it might be more useful to view this divide through an
affective lens, to think about how the financial crisis and it’s aftermath
might have changed the way that many people think about capitalism and why
others might be less keen to do so. So, I mentioned earlier that there is a
tendency in discussing friction between millennials and baby boomers to almost
entirely forget the intermediary generation; so-called Generation
X. And this is notable here because, it seems to me, that many of the most prominent
centrist commentators and politicians are not baby boomers but, instead, Gen
Xers. In the current race for the presidential nomination with the
President of the United States, for instance, Joe Biden may be an out-and-out
boomer but Kamala Harris and John Delaney fall very much on the border between
boomers and gen-x while Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker are pretty firmly in the
latter camp. That isn’t to say all (or even most) centrists are Gen Xers but, and I’m
aware this isn’t a particularly academic way of going about things, it does seem
that many of the strongest advocates for a more tempered response to rising
inequality, the climate emergency and the rise of the far-right
are of this group. Looking over the historical experience of those born
between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, I think we can begin to understand
why this might be the case. This is a generation that came of age during the
Cold War during which capitalism was presented as one and the same as
freedom—whatever that means—with the specter of Soviet Communism presented as the only
and terrible alternative. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came what Francis
Fukuyama anointed ‘the end of history’ and the ‘unabashed victory of economic and
political liberalism’. With capitalism victorious, the so-called Third Way
politics of Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair in the UK and Gerard
Schroeder in Germany compelled mainstream left-wing political parties
across much of the world to end any and all pursuit of major systemic change in
favour of a more “pragmatic” approach which sought to promote progressive
social policies within a neoliberal, free-market economic system. In my recent
episode of What the Theory on the work of Michel Foucault, I discussed his
suggestion that any given historical moment is subject to an ‘épistémè’ which
Foucault defines as ‘something like a world-view, a slice of history common to
all branches of knowledge, which imposes on each one
the same norms and postulates, a general stage of reason, a certain structure of
thought that the [people] of a particular period cannot escape’. The épistémè in
which generation X would have developed their political point of view, then, was
one in which mainstream politics was becoming ever more certain that
neoliberal capitalism was here to stay and that all was left to do was to
manage it, maybe give it a good talking-to every once in a while but
certainly never consider any major restructuring of it. As I said a moment
ago, I don’t mean to argue here that everyone who lived through such an era
would have swallowed its assumptions whole in this way; again,
just as not all Millennials are socialists, not all Gen Xers are
centrists. Yet, if your individual experience of living in such an era, such
an épistémè, allows you to gain a considerable
amount of economic, social and cultural capital or maybe experience social
mobility, perhaps to the point where you’re now running for office or have a
considerable media platform, then you’re likely to think of it pretty favorably
and perhaps to be unwilling to see the world through any other lens. In the wake
of the financial crisis, we’ve seen this épistémè of managerial, technocratic
progressivism lose its grip on society at large. Neoliberalism, even in its
“Third Way” form, has experienced what Jurgen Habermas
refers to as a ‘legitimation crisis’ in which a political system is seen to ‘no
longer provide the economic-political system with ideological resources, but
instead confront it with exorbitant demands’. Whether it results in them
advocating for Green New Deals or Border Walls and Brexit, a change in material
conditions has led to people seeking out new lenses through which to understand
politics and the world; the reason being that, when faced with the present levels
of inequality, the climate emergency or corporations so powerful they can treat
governments with contempt, the old form of centrist liberalism can
provide no useful understanding nor any convincing solutions. And yet, if “Third
Way” neoliberalism has been bred into you your entire existence and, if your entire
conception of the world and sense of self-worth is built on the foundations
of that worldview, then to abandon it is almost unthinkable, you can imagine that
one’s brain would simply refuse to process that information. So, it becomes
easier to view our present state of political dissensus as a blip, a
societal temper tantrum and to talk down oh so condescendingly to anyone who
suggests otherwise. In truth, a purely generational analysis of the state of
political debate in the present, whether predicated on “millennial
socialists”, “centrist dads” or even “Gen X centrists” is highly flawed. Yet I think
one can derive at least some sense of why we may be so prone to trying to explain
things this way in the present by recognizing quite how much the financial
crisis and it’s aftermath has changed the basic assumptions of our political
discourse. There may be little that is particularly “millennial” about the
so-called “Millennial socialism” in terms of it being embraced by one generation
any more than any other. However there is more than one meaning of the word
millennium. The term was once used by Christians to describe the return of
Christ to earth the which point he would supposedly rule for 1000 years and has
since come to stand in for a great moment in the near future where
everything will change, perhaps positively perhaps otherwise. The
financial crisis itself, then, was a millennium of sorts and that the
implosion of the entire capitalist system and its current ailing afterlife
should have given birth to a millennial socialism which offers a genuine, hope-filled
alternative in that sense should be no surprise. On the whole, the
political right has recognized this and largely abandoned their own attempts
to hold the scorched earth of what was once called
the political centre. The real generational divide on the left is less to do with
age and more between those who have woken up to this fact and those who are
still clinging on to the now largely- irrelevant maxims of the past. Thank you
very much for watching this video. Pretty different to some of the stuff I’ve done
before, or maybe I’m thinking that it’s more different than it actually is. I
hope you’ve enjoyed it though. Let me know what you think down below, if you
want to see more things like this (or less, that’s also useful to know if
you’re just like “get on with the theory videos”). And, yeah, if you’ve enjoyed this
and you’re new round here then please do consider subscribing, a thumbs up on the
like thing down below or, if you want to check out my Patreon, that’s always much
appreciated, there’s a little group of us that are starting to gather around that
now and it’s really nice. With all that out of the way, however, thank you so much for
watching once again and have a great week!




Comments
  1. Many young people have been Brainwashed into believing that Corbyn is an avuncular figure were he is in fact a diehard Communist who wants State Control over Peoples Lives and a central Politburo to act as Propaganda distributor….Corbyn is a big fan of Goebbels and his Propaganda techniques

  2. Apologies to Ash who should have got a shoutout at the end of this video for his very generous support on Patreon! Of course, if you'd like to join him in supporting my channel then you can do so at http://patreon.com/tomnicholas

  3. As a Venezuelan who started speaking english 2 or 3 years ago, I pause the video around every 10 seconds because of an unusual word you said, I'm learning a lot with your videos. Keep it up Tom!

  4. Wondeful video as always.
    I always look at the pregelance of cold world media vs the prevalence of terrorism as the dividing line.

  5. Huge props for the sourcing my dude! <3 It's really helpful to be able to just read about these key concepts in a bit more context. Also, very interesting analysis on your part. I feel like this political fork in the road ahead will be decided in large parts by corporations – which doesn't exactly bode well…

  6. Has anyone ever told you you could pass off as Emilie de Ravin's brother? 😂 The actress who played Belle in once upon a time

  7. Really well done! I’d certainly like to see more like this. It was fascinating and unlike much of the other content on YouTube around similar topics.

  8. I really enjoyed this video format. Sometimes I find, in your WTF videos, you get a little detached and "lecturey," but this is really refreshing. For me at least, your unique, straightforward insights ought to go hand in hand with the theoretical side of your channel. Sort of like when you mentioned Foucualt–finding the political, social discussions where theory can offer unique "meta" perspectives has intense educational value.

  9. There is something kind of charming about him. I think it's his accent, brain, and eyes. Does anyone else agree?

  10. It was my first semester at university. I woke up one day, and picked up the Times in the lobby to look at the front page. I saw the graph, with the ubiquitous quantitative symbol that is a graph falling below its X-axis. I knew then the world had changed. But, I learned soon after that people have a much harder time realizing and adjusting to the change.

  11. Once again a wonderful video! I definitely like this format sprinkled in between the WTT videos. This feels a little more informal, like a living room conversation. Perhaps you can create a separate series with this format and tag them in the title. This way viewers can quickly discern between WTT videos and videos like this one.

    Off topic: perhaps a direct link to your Patreon in the video's description might be handy. And I wonder if you've ever seen Adam Curtis' Hypernormalisation? I'm curious what you make of that film.

  12. Great video as usual could you please make a similar video on the rise of right wing kids because I believe the main stream media does a great disservice when it comes to covering them because there are wide variety of political groups with different ideology like FN seems economically socialist , while the Swedish democrats are culturally liberals support gay rights , the Dutch party of freedom also supports gays .

    Economist follows 1950's style liberalism , they almost always supports the western foreign policy irrespective of the consequences eg Iraq war.
    Joe biden is a opportunist ,he follows the flavour of the season. If you follow his old policies it's not that dissimilar to what trump's been up to for eg. Immigration , racism , mass incarceration etc.

    Ultimately I think most of the politicians believe in "cosmetic" changes they don't care about any real substantive long term changes . The epoch creating changes happen once in a lifetime for eg 60's flower power generation. That's why I side with the situationist movement we need to create situation that forces the change to happen rather than relying on politician to do something.

  13. The issue with the bail out package was the government bought bonds back, the people who owned the bonds where used to their steady returns so they invested in property with the money. The issue is quantitative easing did what many government schemes do, they give money to the rich in the hopes they will spend it. No one got wealth by spreading all their money. If they gave the money to the poor who would spend it the media would say they are giving it to people who don’t deserve it, so they give it up the rich, who just keep it.

  14. “Used them as a sleeping aid”

    Oh god, that was me, wasn’t it? I promise I watch the videos first while wide awake, and then go back to them to fall asleep to. It’s because I find your voice soothing. I do the same with Shaun and Three Arrows, so you’re in good company.

    Also- uh, socialism by definition, can’t be an answer to capitalism’s problems. It wants to replace capitalism, not fix it.

  15. I've decided that I will call kids from Gen-Z "Zoomers". I'm betting that most of them are acceleratists in the future.

  16. Really interesting video topic and a well presented argument! However, I do feel that the Strauss and How generational theory was misrepresented here. Although, I can completely sympathize, it's quite a difficult concept to concisely explain. If I may, I would like to address some issues I found with your account.

    Strauss and Howe are positing that generations come in cycles and these generational cycles produce history. It's in this interaction that "social moments" or critical events occur that alternate between secular crises and spiritual awakenings. These social moments are separated by two phases of life lasting around 40 years. A recent example would be the Secular Crises of the Great Depression/WW2 and the counter-cultural Spiritual Awakening of the late 1960s and 1970s. Because these critical events effect generations at different stages of their life-cycles, they help to define history and shape generations.

    Typically, but not always, there are four generational cohorts that make up a complete generational cycle (that usually spans a hundred years). Strauss and Howe have labelled these generational cohorts or types: Idealists, Reactive, Civic and Adaptive, which occur (and have always occurred) in this fixed order. During Spiritual Awakenings (like the 60s/70s) the Idealist types (Boomers) are moving into rising adulthood, while the Reactive type (Gen X) appear as children. During a Secular Crisis (Great Depression/WW2), the Civic type (G.I. Gen) are moving into rising adulthood, while the Adaptive type (Silent Gen) appear as children. Later in life, these generations trigger another social moment and thus keep the cycle turning.

    In comparing the last great cycle to our current one, we can see the pattern emerge: the Missionary Generation and the Boomer Generation are Idealists, the Lost Generation and Gen X are Reactives; the G.I. Generation and Millennials are Civics and the Silent Generation and Gen Z are Adaptives. The first and third generational types: Idealists and Civics dominate public life. This explains why, for example, there is so much emphasis placed on Boomers and Millennials because one redefines the inner world of values and culture, while the other rebuilds the outer-world of technology and institutions.

    The other two types, Reactives (Gen X) and Adaptives (Gen Z), are recessive in public life and act as a check to the excess of the more powerful generations. The Reactives are pragmatists and the Adaptives are compromisers and reformers, working within the institutions rebuilt by the Civics.

    We can see this playing out now. Gen X pragmatists bristle at change, instead they demand piecemeal, centrist/right-wing solutions. Where as the muscular, civic minded Millennials are chomping at the bit to completely upend the system, guided by our Idealist Boomer leaders (Corbyn, Sanders/Warren), while the young Gen Z is quietly following the Millennial lead, and like their Silent grandparents, will be the good bureaucrats that maintain a newly built system. Until a yet to be born Idealist generation comes of age to attack the stale, lifeless culture and spiritual wasteland of the Millennial age and usher in another Cultural Awakening, while sowing the seeds for a far distant Secular Crisis.

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