Like many, I have been trying to come to a deeper understanding of the generational divide entrenched in the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election.
The difference is stark. Those under the age of 35 overwhelmingly supported Remain and Clinton. Those over 60 (eg: their parents) overwhelmingly supported Brexit and Trump.
While generational differences are nothing new, and while data suggests people become more conservative later in life, this extreme a separation in two exceedingly vitriolic elections hints at something more complex.
Let’s begin with a particularly challenging statement:
Capitalism as we know it is dying.
I do not mean to suggest that the entire notion of exchanging goods or rewarding someone for labor is dying. Rather, I mean that the version of capitalism we have become accustomed to living under in the post-war period is dying.
Another distinction needs to be drawn between Capitalism as a theoretical concept, and capitalism as it currently exists. It is generally accepted that Communism as originally conceived has never existed, although communist states have and do. I posit that Capitalism as originally conceived never has either.
In order to achieve a truly Communist state the leaders of the revolution must at some point voluntarily surrender their power. Funnily enough, once in power people seem loathe to do that. We therefore get authoritarian states with communist tones and rhetoric.
Capitalism and the notion of a free market as a self-regulating entity is built on the assumption that every consumer has the freedom of choice. Poverty removes choice, and no capitalist society has successfully eradicated poverty. The global and local markets do not function as Capitalism the notion intended because they are skewed by the desperation of those unable to choose freely and the ruthlessness of those willing to take advantage of them.
While the reasons for this and possible solutions to it are up for debate, my only point is that as such we do not live in a truly Capitalist society, but rather in a version of it.
It is this specific version that I say is dying, along with its belief system; a belief system entwined with notions of patriarchy and puritanism stemming from the current global superpower of the United States. Again, there are versions of patriarchy and puritanism all over the world, but the version of capitalism that we live under, and by extension its associated cultural belief system, stem from the United States.
We have all, in addition to the cultures we were raised in, grown up with additional cultural assumptions defined by the US and its version of patriarchal capitalism. As such, we have been taught to accept certain things as basic truths, when in fact they are no more than cultural curiosities. It is worth examining them as such, and understanding capitalism through the lens of the deep, emotional link between culture and popular identity.
A bit of history:
In the post-war period, two global superpowers emerged in the USA and the USSR, representing opposing visions: capitalism (as defined by the USA) and communism (as defined by the USSR). It is monumentally important to recognise that these two superpowers had a fundamentalist devotion to their differing world-views. Neither would give an inch, as any acknowledgement of a flaw in the nation’s governing philosophy risked giving power to a very real military enemy.
As such, entire generations grew up in fear of The Bomb and believing that even questioning their worldview was tantamount to treason. Please do not misunderstand – abhorrent though McCarthyism was, I do not mean to compare it to Stalin’s Gulags. It is not the day-to-day I am calling equivalent, but the depth of fervour with which each side clung to its belief system.
Then the USSR collapsed. What greater vindication could the US capitalists and their allies have asked for? Their conviction deepened. The end of the 80s and the early 90s turned in to a runaway train of fundamentalist patriarchal capitalism, presenting us with the world we live in today.
Let’s jump to a couple of assumptions capitalism makes:
1) Without capitalism no one would do the awful jobs that need doing and society would collapse.
2) The Industrial Revolution is a historical period that has ended.
I propose that future historians will define the Industrial Revolution as the 300 year period from the late 18th century to the mid to late 21st century, when technology rendered human manual labor obsolete.
For that is what is coming. Human manual labor will be technologically obsolete by the end of the century, which completely undermines the necessity for doing jobs that no one wants to do.
Tangentially, this is why I believe the universal basic income is not merely a good idea, but rather a life raft; one with which to keep society as we know it functional for long enough to survive the growing pains of moving to a new version of self-organisation – but that’s a topic for another essay.
The younger generation are living through the decline and fall of a cultural belief system that the older generation struggle to distinguish from their own sense of identity.
Now – onwards! Deeper we go.
Patriarchal capitalism as a culture demands certain things from people. It demands and prizes a lack of emotion, physical strength, individual dominance, ownership, and so on. An environment has been created in which emotions are stifled, and people are punished both physically and mentally for failing to be what capitalism deems “productive”.
Poverty is viewed as an individual failing rather than a systemic one. This creates an environment of fear and self-loathing. This, in turn, is brilliant at forcing people towards the all-American image of being married to the most successful man available or the most sexually desirable woman available, regardless of whether or not that is what the individuals in question actually want. (I wrote an essay On Vulnerability that discusses this aspect of capitalism in more depth.)
What has arisen is a culture in which a generation who have emotionally self-mutilated in order to function have in turn emotionally mutilated their children. This has been done with the most loving of intentions: this is the way the world is; this is therefore what must be done; I had to do it and you will have to do it too; and that’s just how it has to be.
You had also better damn well succeed financially because if you don’t you’re a failure. Don’t fail, because I destroyed myself for you.
Except it hasn’t worked and the younger generation know that. We’re waking up to the fact that capitalism isn’t functioning; certainly not for us. Free from the threat of the Cold War we do not feel as acutely that abandoning capitalism is an assault on our own identities. We are, in fact, already in the process of developing alternative versions – whether consciously or otherwise.
Which means we hold up a deeply uncomfortable mirror to the older generation.
Theresa May can’t ever be perceived as weak because she’s terrified of the idea on a gut level. She is therefore rushing in to something she doesn’t actually believe in. Trump’s entire personality stems from “I promise I’m smart daddy, are you proud of me yet, please stop hitting me”.
This in no way makes what they are doing acceptable, but that’s partly what is going on. That’s the degree of trauma we’re dealing with.
Since patriarchal capitalism itself is a cultural belief system like any other, doesn’t that mean that all those times they forced themselves to do things they didn’t want to; all those times they told themselves this was just the way the world is; all the things they did because they thought they were preparing their children were in fact completely unnecessary?
They were. Every verbal assault, every physical one, every acquiescence to that worldview, every implied encouragement of the indoctrination – all of it – was all utterly unnecessary. The restriction and punishment of their children in the name of protecting them was in fact abusive.
Asking parents to understand that they have sacrificed their lives and often emotionally manipulated or physically abused their children? To accept that they did this in service to a worldview that is ultimately unnecessary?
That’s a big ask.
So what happens instead? They would rather cling to the worldview than acknowledge its flaws, because that’s how fundamentalism works. You acknowledge one flaw and like a tapestry with a loose thread the entire edifice begins to unravel, so defend every stitch with vehemence.
The older generation would rather further abuse the younger than confront its mistakes and the guilt that comes with them.
This is obviously not universally true. There are plenty of young capitalists who are rampantly reaping the benefits of the system. Many young people have forced themselves in to situations they don’t want because they’ve internalised the cultural narrative. Of course there are those in the younger generation who are quite happy with things as they are. It was older liberals who laid the groundwork for the revolutionary movements and modes of thought we see today. I am speaking in the broad strokes revealed by the two elections.
Recently, a friend of mine told a group of my peers how their mother had called them to apologise for voting Leave. The room filled with emotion. It was akin to a father spontaneously calling the son he has beaten and apologising.
For that is how it feels to us, the younger. We are watching the older generation continue to twist the knife rather than acknowledge they have assaulted and traumatised us. The anger and resentment are stirring. There is vehemence brewing, and punitive rage is growing. These things are becoming almost palpable.
To the older generation, I issue this plea:
Start listening to us. Begin to let go of your long-held beliefs and take responsibility for what you have done. If you don’t, then when we come to power (and we will, because, y’know, that’s how time works), the vindictiveness with which we will attack your safety and security in your old age will know no bounds. I don’t mean to threaten. I want to impress upon you the depth of the wounds being inflicted. Please stop.
To the younger, I beg that you reject the narrative they are selling. They are wrong. This divisiveness is unnecessary. You do not need to live according to their rules. Borders are anachronisms. You have the right to live free from fear. You do not have to be defined by having a family or money or a high credit rating. Asking for help and support is not a failure.
Love yourselves. There is nothing wrong with you, no matter how much the old way tries to tell you there is. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and the myriad other mental illnesses we see at increasing rates: these are the natural responses to the crimes perpetrated against you in the name of a fleeting worldview. They are real, but they are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of something wrong with the world.
Find it in yourselves to love them and forgive what they have done to us. Not accept – never accept – but do not internalise it. Do not cave to it. Do not carry the rage and frustration and in so doing surrender to the worldview as unchangeable.
See what they have done. See the ways it has scarred you. Understand it was not your fault. Understand how it both was and wasn’t theirs. Then let go, and let’s begin planning for what comes next.
The future will be what we make it.