Episode 19: Generation Left, with Keir Milburn & Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction

Welcome to another episode of Fully Automated! Our guest for this episode is Keir Milburn, Lecturer in Political Economy and Organization at the University of Leicester. Keir has a new book out, called Generation Left. I had a chance to discuss the text recently, with my Columbus, OH-based friends, Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction (AKA Charlie Umland and Jim Calder). We liked it so much, we thought we’d reach out to Keir and see if he’d come on the show, to discuss.

American audiences may have heard Keir interviewed by Chuck Mertz a couple of weeks ago, on This Is Hell! We’re kind of hoping this could be a good companion episode to that interview, as we go deep into some aspects of the book that Chuck didn’t have time to address. And there is a LOT going on in this book! It starts by questioning the popular notion that Millennials and Zoomers are a bunch of entitled snowflakes, and suggesting that this myth is actually doing quite a lot of work, politically, in dividing young and old members of the working class, giving them over to the idea that they have fundamentally different interests.

But of course, as with many myths, an investigation of the facts produces a rather different persecutive. It turns out, says Keir, that the generations are stuck in rather different material trajectories. One statement Keir makes early in the book really caught our attention: “the older generation are still tied to the neoliberal hegemony of finance while the young seek to escape it.” But these trajectories are not a given. To the contrary, the logic of neoliberalism forces the Boomer generation to hold onto its material advantages, as a retirement strategy. And, as it does this, it condemns Millennials and Zoomers to a life of debt and forces them into a culture of cynical entrepreneurialism.

In the show, we talk with Keir about the role of events in composing generations. Events, he says, can disrupt our accepted ways of making sense of the world, and lead to the emergence of radically new social energies. But not every disruptive event will necessarily lead to some kind of new configuration, nor will every new configuration necessarily be a progressive one.

One particular event, the 2008 financial crisis, of course looms large in Keir’s story. Unleashing austerity on the developed world, it represents in a sense the apogee of neoliberal governmentality. Milburn cites academic theorists like Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Jennifer Silva to try to explain how neoliberal capitalism tries to get us to think and act as if there is no alternative to neoliberalism, even tho we all know its not working — we know we can’t all be entrepreneurs. (This reminded us a bit of Adam Curtis, and his hyper-normalization documentary). A key figure for Milburn here is Mark Fisher, and his argument about consciousness deflation.

Whatever we want to call this system (authoritarian neoliberalism? zombie capitalism?), clearly it is making us sick. Throughout the text, Milburn make repeated reference to how we are living in the midst of an epidemic of “depression, insomnia and mental distress.” Yet there’s kind of a mystery to unpack here. He cites Jennifer Silva, for example, to explain how capitalism prefers us to internalize these issues, making them questions more to to do with our emotional and psychic resilience, than anything to do with the structure of the economy.

And, as he argues, this way of thinking about our mental wellbeing even showed up in the “assemblyism” of the occupy Wall Street movement. Nevertheless, he insists, Occupy’s approach to the collective discussion of experiences and struggles did offer therapeutic and even political potentials to the young people who participated. And, as we discuss in the show (admittedly not in nearly enough detail) there are things we can learn here, very much in the spirit of the late Mark Fisher, that might be applied to a new model of treating mental and material health.

Today, the reputation of neoliberalism is today irredeemably tarnished. The question before us is how to build and leverage democratic competence and confidence, to build a new order in the face of zombie neoliberalism. We ask Keir about his own podcast, ACFM, and the role the suggest that might yet be played by the so-called “weird left,” as a way of engaging in consciousness raising. He acknowledges that while counter-cultural practices sometimes get a bad rep (and deservedly so), subcultures like punk and DIY do still offer the possibility of “conscious raising” that could meaningfully counter some of the “consciousness deflating” pressures of neoliberalism.

In the closing chapters of your book, however, Milburn is under no illusions: the left has a long history of melancholia. Ultimately, to succeed, says Milburn, generation left is going to have to bridge the generation gap. As he points out, this won’t be easy — boomers are dependent on financial instruments, 401k, stock markets, property values etc. Equally, we know that as much as they depend on these financial assets, they have very little control over them: 85% of the stock market is owned by the top 10%; property values are dependent on development funds, retirement funds, university endowments, etc. So, considering these interests, it may be hard to bring working class boomers around!

To fix this, he claims, we will need to engage in a “dual strategy.” On the one hand, we will need to get serious about wielding the power of the state, and building economies of the commons, to show Boomers that socialism can work for them, too. On the other hand, however, we will need to build political movements capable of holding our representatives in the state to account. This isn’t going to be easy, however. Time and resources are thin on the ground. Solidarity economies, UBI, UBS, etc, can be one answer here. But, as he concludes, the key fact is that we need to build these alliances. If the generation gap really is a class gap, as he argues, then solidarity economies and the like may be the vital tool we need, to help us achieve the the kind of inter-generational unity we need, if we are ever to win.

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