The Unspecial Gen Y, The Unspecial Economy, And The Neoliberal Fail


I’ve never understood the American obsession with categorizing people as Gen X, Gen Y, Boomers and so forth. It’s so obviously a ploy to develop marketing niches to sell people stuff that it seems silly to me that people take it all seriously – we’re all just people, as people have been down the ages. But apparently some folk have been saying nasty things about Generation Y, that they’re more entitled, more delusional, more “on my darn lawrn!” than previous generations (the ones writing the nasty stuff) ever were.

This is, to use the old and crumbly folk’s phrase, horse-pucky. Older people have been saying this about younger people since time before time and if they all were to be believed then humanity would have long since de-evolved into immobile creatures squatting in swamps and whining about the mosquitoes.  This complaining about “kids today’ not being as respectful, hard-working and stoic as “our generation” is just how humans work, as is the incessant complaining by younger folk that older people have no clue how hard their lives are.  You have to start from that hard fact or not start at all, which is what most of these “everyone except my peers sucks” diatribes forget.

Still, on occasion this forever-war of words throws up something useful, something intrinsically unconnected to the generational gap but still real, immediate and important. Adam Weinstein, currently of ABC/Univision and ex MoJo and Gawker, finds one of those special moments on his own Kinja page today, during an FU rant at critics of Gen Y.

You have no idea about student debt, underemployment, life-long renting. “Stop feeling special” is some shitty advice. I don’t feel special or entitled, just poor. The only thing that makes me special is I have more ballooning debt than you. I’ve tempered the hell out of my expectations of work, and I’ve exceeded those expectations crazily to have one interesting, exciting damned career that’s culminated in some leadership roles for national publications. And I’m still poor and in debt and worked beyond the point where it can be managed with my health and my desire to actually see the son I’m helping to raise.

…This state of affairs does not exist because we’re entitled and have simply declined to work as hard as the people that birthed us. American workers have changed from generation to generation: Since 1979, the alleged Dawn of the Millennial, the average U.S. worker has endured a 75 percent increase in productivity…while real wages stayed flat.

Those changes are blips on a timeline compared to the massive, psyche-altering vicissitudes of American Industry, its self-Taylorization to the point where profit-making and shareholder value have been maximized in ways that Morgans and Carnegies and Vanderbilts couldn’t even have conceived — in ways that have stiffed workers and the families they can no longer afford. Since ’79, the top 1 percent of earners in America has seen their income quadruple.

So take your “revise your expectations! check your ego!” Horatio Alger bullshit, and stuff it. While you’re at it, stuff this economy. Not this GDP, not this unemployment level: this economy, this financial system that establishes complete social and political control over us, that conditions us to believe that we don’t deserve basic shelter and clothing and food and education and existence-sustaining medical care unless we throw our lives into vassalage and hope, pray, that the lords don’t fuck with our retirements or our coverages. (Maybe if we’re extra productive, someday they’ll do a 410K match again, like our ancestors used to talk about!)

Take the system that siphons off our capacities for human flourishing in hopes that we get thrown a little coin of the realm in return. Take that system and blow it up, you cowards.

The point that is most important here, and that Adam may even be missing himself, is that we’re all, across generations, by and large, in the same sucky boat together.

Here’s what happened: the rich ate all the pie and left none for even the ostensibly middle class, let alone the poor underclass of Americans. Nicholas Kristoff, in the pages of the NY Times in 2012:

The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana.

C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

While median wealth in the U.S. plunged 39% during the housing crash, the wealth of the upper 1% dropped less than 12%. The rich aren’t hurting nearly as much as the poor or struggling, and mostly just don’t care about our getting to work – the priority for them is debt reduction because it helps safeguard the value of the investments they hold.

Your Senators and Congressman – and President – no matter which party political label is affixed to them, are on board with this plan because they have no idea what it is to be truly poor in America. While you were suffering, they increased their wealth. The 50 wealthiest lawmakers were worth almost $1.4 billion in 2009, about $85.1 million more than 12 months earlier.  The average net worth of a Senator is almost $14 million. The average net worth of a Congressman is $4.6 million. It seems that America is governed by a bi-partisan coalition of asset-strippers, who have become detached from the common people by virtue of their wealth and therefore find it easy to treat the common people and the nation as if they were “the other”, just another corporation to be parceled up and sold off. “Take what isn’t nailed down and split, who cares what happens after you’re gone.” Their only interest is in delaying the day when they must flee the scene, so that they can continue asset-stripping U.S.A. Inc.

The mainstream media is not guilt free, being complicit in a set of choices that sidelines the poor and struggling not just as a policy choice, but as a social choice. Dan Froomkin, earlier this year:

Nearly 50 million people—about one in six Americans—live in poverty, defined as income below $23,021 a year for a family of four. And yet most news organizations largely ignore the issue. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indexed stories in 52 major mainstream news outlets from 2007 through the first half of 2012 and, according to Mark Jurkowitz, the project’s associate director, “in no year did poverty coverage even come close to accounting for as little as one percent of the news hole. It’s fair to say that when you look at that particular topic, it’s negligible.”

Instead, as Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans notes, at most news organizations poverty comes up sporadically. “Poverty becomes a sort of ‘very special episode’ of journalism that we sort of roll out every so often,” he says.

The reasons for the lack of coverage are familiar. Journalists are drawn more to people making things happen than those struggling to pay bills; poverty is not considered a beat; neither advertisers nor readers are likely to demand more coverage, so neither will editors; and poverty stories are almost always enterprise work, requiring extra time and commitment. Yet persistent poverty is in some ways the ultimate accountability story—because, often, poverty happens by design.

“Poverty exists in a wealthy country largely as a result of political choices, not as a result of pure economics,” argues Sasha Abramsky, a journalist whose upcoming book is called “The American Way of Poverty.” “The U.S. poverty rate is higher than most other developed nations, and the only way you can square that is there are political choices being made—or not being made—that accept a level of poverty that most wealthy democracies have said is unacceptable. We make these policy choices that perpetuate poverty, and then because poverty is so extreme, it becomes impolite to talk about.”

These policy choices continue to be made, and the media continues to be silent about it. The latest census shows that “The number of Americans living in poverty remained steady last year at 15 percent after rising for several years in the wake of the recession” and that the median wage is still stagnant at $51,017. The truth is that the formerly middle class are now as screwed, blued, and tattooed as the rest of us.

the top 1 percent of earners in the nation captured almost half of the growth in income over a period of stellar growth in the U.S. economy. And this came against the backdrop of disappearing good-paying union jobs in manufacturing, and what now appears to be an escalating departure of well-paying middle-skill jobs.

“The middle class think they will be rich someday. The chance that people are going to become super rich is negligible. In fact, what we know is that income mobility up the ladder is slowing down, it’s not increasing,” said Robert Reich, an economist and former U.S. labor secretary, in a recent interview. “It’s harder now for a kid born into a middle-class family to make it. It’s harder for a kid in a lower middle class to do well . . . the story is obvious and so clear that it really needs to be laid out to people.”

If all this is true, and it certainly is, then surely we’re left with little alternative to Weinstein’s call:

Take the system that siphons off our capacities for human flourishing in hopes that we get thrown a little coin of the realm in return. Take that system and blow it up, you cowards.

Let’s be clear about what we’re saying here: neoliberal capitalist economics has failed to deliver the goods for all but the top few percent of the people.

Back in 2011, Freddie DeBoer blasted the sidelining of real left-wing thought in America’s political and economic debates, with special reference to the neoliberal gatekeepers of the “left” blogosphere. Read the whole thing but here’s an extended snippet.

here are two axes of neoliberalism. The first, substantive neoliberalism, means fidelity to the economic policy platform of globalization in the elimination of tariff walls and other impediments to the “free market,” incredible antipathy towards organized labor (and, effectively if not intentionally, towards workers in general), resistance to the regulatory apparatus that has protected workers for decades, and the general belief that the way to ameliorate the moral outrages of capitalism is to pursue more capitalism.

The second axis of neoliberalism, constitutional neoliberalism, is the reflexive antileftism within the ideology. This is the tendency of the neoliberal to assume the superior seriousness of the man to his right and the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the man to his left. This is the sneering, superior neoliberalism, the neoliberalism obsessed with status and authority, the neoliberalism that is utterly in thrall to the idea of Intellectually Seriousness and the notion that possessing it means falling all over yourself to dismiss the actual, historical, socialist left.

…The two intermingle, of course. The neoliberal economic platform is enforced by the attitude that anyone embracing a left-wing critique of that platform is a Stalinist or a misbehaving adolescent. This is the critique of the Very Serious Person: there is a very narrow slice of opinion that is worthy of being considered reasonable or mature, and that anyone who argues outside of it should not be given a seat at the table of serious discussion. Genuinely left-wing opinion is not to be debated but to be dismissed out of hand. Those who argue for a robust series of labor protections, an unapologetic and proud left, a meaningful alternative to the capture of our economic apparatus by corporate power, or (god forbid) something resembling genuine socialism– even to speak as if their arguments require rebuttal is too much. Far better to demonstrate true repudiation by assuming away the left-wing critic than to assume that his or her position is at least worthy of attention.

The reaction was entirely as expected and exemplified by Matt Yglesias – they were simply dismissive, believing themselves as far to the left as it is possible to be and not be “mistaken”.  De Boer expected this:

All I know is that I look out onto an America that seems to me to desperately require a left-wing. American workers have taken it on the chin for thirty years. They have been faced for years with stagnant wages, rising costs, and the hollowing out of the middle class. They are now confronted with that and a cratered job market, where desperate people compete to show how hard they will work in bad conditions for less compensation. Meanwhile, the neoliberal policy apparatus that brought us here refuses even to consider the possibility that it is culpable, so certain of its inherent righteousness and its place in the inevitable march of progress.

Kevin Drum, by contrast, had this to say:

I plead guilty to some general neoliberal instincts, of course, but I plead guilty with (at least) one big exception: I am very decidedly not in favor of undercutting labor rights in order to stimulate economic growth, and I’m decidedly not in favor of relying solely on the tax code to redistribute wealth from the super rich to the rest of us. What’s more, the older I get and the more obvious the devastating effects of the demise of the American labor movement become, the less neoliberal I get. The events of the past two years, in which the massed forces of capital came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the world economy, and yet, phoenix-like, have come out richer and more powerful than before, ought to have convinced nearly everyone that business interests and the rich are now almost literally out of control. After all, if the past two years haven’t done it, what would?

That’s being “reality based”. Kevin rightly points out that “organized labor long ago passed the point of no return, and there’s really no feasible hope of returning it to a state of even moderate influence over American economic life” and wonders “what sort of ground-level, working class organization can take its place as an effective countervailing power against the economic interests of corporations and the rich — which, today, reign virtually unchallenged?” That’s astute, and leads to the same set of questions as Weinstein is asking too, indirectly. If we decide to blow up the current neoliberal, essentially conservative, economic  and political paradigm then what can we replace it with, what would the process of replacement look like, and how long would that take?

My own answer to those pressing questions is an entire other post. I’ve written it before, but here it is again, for what it’s worth.

Only a true Labor movement, a “big tent” party, can alter the current status quo. I have been banging this drum since 2005, making arguments for a coalition of the Left (by which I mean the true constituency of the Left – all of those who are poor and working class). Over the years, I have become more and more cynical – I now do not see the Democratic Party as any possible part of the solution, because the party’s leadership are inextricably part of the problem. I’m not arguing that the Republicans are in any way a better alternative than the Democrats. I’m are simply arguing that Democrats’ actions leave me feeling that they are not worth the Left’s time, money and loyalty. They are well aware that the current system makes them one of only two big fish and that their core agenda is moderate, middle-class and corporate.

Bear with me here while I digress on British political history. In April 1888, Kier Hardie stood for election to the British parliament as an independent labour candidate, after realising that the Liberal Party was happy to call for the votes of working people as its natural due but would never enact more than a tiny proportion of a labour agenda that was at odds with its own essentially rich-elite nature. he lost that election, but it began a process that saw Hardie returned to parliament as the first MP from an independent labour party in 1892 – a process that saw the rise of a Labour Party that by 1924 became the party of government for the first time. That Labour Party – despite it’s latter-day co-opting by the Whigs again, in the Americanised form of the Blairites – is singularly responsible for the UK’s policies of women’s suffrage, of worker’s rights, of universal healthcare, universal education and a social safety net for those who struggle. It’s policies have been copied, in some form or other, the world over.

Despite any regretable tendency to proclaim “not invented here”, the story of the rise of the Labour Party in Britain has important lessons for modern America. While not exact, the analogy is none the less clear: a nation where rule is divided between competing elements of the rich elite – one that pretends to care about the interests of the common people and one that makes no such pretense – with each taking their turn to steer the country, always toward greater power and enrichment for the already rich and powerful, the only difference being the degree of audacity with which that policy is pursued. Those lessons are simple: it takes a long time to build an effective labor movement, and it does that movement no good to keep voting for liberal Whigs in the hope that those members of the rich elite will enact legislation to satisfy any meaningful proportion of the working class’s needs. But as Saul Alinsky once said, “Power goes to two poles — to those who’ve got the money and those who’ve got the people.”

There is no demographic reason why a party of the common people, for the common people, should not be the majority party in the United States. Indeed, there are reasons to believe such a party, responsive to a popular and democratic socialist agenda, could be the natural majority party. The party could not be named the Labor Party – thank McCarthy and his kneejerk legacy – but a Populist Party could, with a couple of decades of organising, see majorities on the Hill and a President in the Oval Office.

It’s important to realise that the current electorate is not the same as the potential electorate. By American standards the turnout for the 2004 Presidential election was high, for example – yet by the standards of other Western democracies it was woefully low. Chris Bowers at MyDD researched who didn’t turn out to vote and came up with some interesting findings. In 2004, for example, the national median income was $35,100 p.a. yet the median income of the electorate was $55,300 – a difference of 57.5%.

In other words, it is mostly the poorest segment of society who don’t vote. Consider that although a presidential election winner might gain 52% of the electorate, he’d still only win 34% of all the possible votes. There is a huge potential constituency out there, between 25% and 30% of the potential electorate, who simply don’t vote – and they don’t vote simply because neither major party have policies that address their concerns! A party that can mobilise that unheard constituency and take even 10% from the current Big Two wins the first national election in which it has built up sufficient organisation to do that mobilization on a nationwide basis.

The standard Democrat response to anyone who suggests such a thing is circular – since a true broadbased party of the poor and working class doesn’t exist it cannot get elected and since it cannot get elected it should not exist. But they show no burning desire to break the cycle of abuse between the left and the party’s leadership. If you’re committed to a progressive or populist approach to government and public service, if you are poor, if you’re an ethnic minority (especially Black or Hispanic), or are a woman concerned with her reproductive rights (which are increasingly under attack), the Democrats have been more than happy to take you for granted and even openly entertain selling you up the river. Everyone is stuck in this cycle until the vast majority who must scrape to make ends meet each month stop voting for them.

The only strategy I see much hope for is that the American Left begin to see the neoliberal pundits of today as political rivals, rather than as outright allies and ends its circular firing squad for a few decades, long enough to mobilize, turn into voters, the 30% or more who are currently able to vote but do not do so. They come overwhelmingly from the poorest segment of society and do not vote purely because they see neither mainstream party as having anything for them. The Left must build its own electorate and its own party, and leave the Democrats to sink or swim as they are able.

As to the tactics, those are simple: we must use the rhetoric and the logic of Class War, for that is indeed what it is. You’re either for us or against us. For a movement of the poor, the struggling and the working-to-get-by (what used to be the Middle Class), or for the interests of corporations and the rich — which, today, reign virtually unchallenged. As Chris Hedges wrote a few years back:

We decry the excesses of capitalism without demanding a dismantling of the corporate state. Liberals bow before a Democratic Party that ignores them and does the bidding of corporations. The reflexive deference to the Democrats by the liberal class is the result of cowardice and fear. It is also the result of an infantile understanding of the mechanisms of power. The divide is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers. And, for all the failings of the communists, they got it.


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