In the 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte Marx famously wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” So far, so, as is often the case with Marx, obviously true. He continues, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Again, the truth of this seems readily apparent until you turn towards the quarrels between living generations, and in particular when you turn towards the much maligned Millennials. Self-involved, anxious, technology addicted, and fragile, the rising generation of future leaders reverses this historical picture and weighs like a nightmare on those exiting the scene, albeit too late and not without a struggle.
Kids These Days is a welcome rejoinder not only to this stereotype, but to the whole absurd framing of generational debates that take their terms from Bill Maher and not Marx. As Malcolm Harris so presciently notes, without a full consideration of “the major structures and institutions that have influenced the development of young Americans over the past thirty to forty years…all we have is blinking epiphenomena: entertaining at a glance, but not enough to guide a ship.” Harris moves his reader through the Millennial experience — from a school system ravaged by market logic, to a university system also ravaged by market logic, to an economic landscape that is structured around the most regressive aspects of capitalism, to (primarily negative) encounters with the state, and to a culture wholly exposed to the interests of corporate culture (prominently in the media and pharmaceutical industries). It’s not a pretty picture, but Harris paints a compelling and extremely relevant picture of kids these days.
I sat down with Malcolm Harris, an editor at The New Inquiry, at his undisclosed Philadelphia headquarters, where we discussed the international character of the Millennial experience, the productive and unproductive comparisons with the Boomers and Generation X, and the political importance of understanding why squirrels and chipmunks exist in the same biome.
Michael Schapira: I’ll start with some typically boring questions, though I don’t think they are boring in this case given the nature of your book. The paperback just came out so now you’ve gone through two cycles of media and met a lot of people. So I wanted to ask the question about what surprised you in different experiences of readers, say in groups like international readers, different age cohorts, and maybe different regional cohorts.
Malcolm Harris: I’ve been surprised that people globally have read and identified with it. My analysis is almost all American, as is my knowledge and research. As far as the international picture went, I could have tried to apply my ideas to different countries with my limited knowledge, but I really didn’t want to do that.
But when I put it out I starting hearing from people from all over the world — from Southeast Asia, to the Middle East, to Western Europe. I even went and talked about it in Moscow. I forgot that Millennials are really the first global generation. Everyone in the world is a Millennial, which is the first time that’s ever happened, which makes sense given globalization and the interconnectedness of the world. But they are interested and engaged with the themes of the book, even though they have slightly different reads. They mostly say, “Wow, America sounds terrible!”
We think something similar in America. What about different age cohorts?
I talked about it at a retirement home once, which was pretty interesting. There were some people who said, “Let me tell you about the Korean War, you don’t know hardship…” There are still a few of those folks around, but most of them were like, “I’ve got grandkids. They work so hard all of the time, but they’re still struggling. It just seems too hard to me.” When I showed them this video of a tiny house tour they were horrified. It was like I showed them the inside of a concentration camp. This is what we aspire to. If you’ve never seen a hundred 80 year olds and their faces just drop in horror, it’s something.
There is a certain Gen X attitude that really doesn’t like the book. By any sort of generational analysis their cohort is just less important. It’s smaller, less consequential, and in the roll of the historical dice they got this transitional generation. But they’re like, “Well fuck you, I can’t buy into an analysis that says I’m less important just because of the year I was born.” Well, sorry, I just do the numbers.
They are probably defensive because they were branded in a really self-conscious way. I was born in 1983, so I grew up in Gen X culture. When talk of Millennials started occurring I never thought of myself as a Millennial, until I started thinking about the life experiences I had had. But in a generational split I’d say Gen X were my people.
You felt like a slacker.
Yes, and that still strikes me as a very noble aspiration.
If only. We never had slackerdom.
My second potentially boring question, which my friend Jesse wanted me to ask you, is about a tweet from this morning (which is why it is boring). It was responding to that New York Times article about whether we need less or more nuance. His question was what it was like to have a committed political ideology, but to exist in a media world where that is not normal. He had in mind that you’ve been towing a consistent line, and whereas three or four years ago he would have not agreed with you, he’s kind of come around to your position by revolving around the steady point of your ideology.
That’s all I can hope for. A consistent voice in people’s head.
The second part of this question is what it is like to have that ideology increasingly ratified by how fucked up the world has become. [Editors Note: This wasn’t mentioned in the interview but none other than Francis Fukiyama recently said in an interview that “Socialism ought to come back,” and “Certain things that Karl Marx said are turning out to be true.”]
For the first part of the question, in terms of professional consequences, I’m sort of unaware. Occasionally I can tell it probably hurts me, but it’s hard to see how because I’m not enmeshed in the industry world. I left, I’m down here [in Philadelphia] now, because I didn’t really fit in when I lived in New York. I’m sure there are people who think that I’m actually insane, and I’m not just talking about Wall Street Journal editors. There is that but I can’t be bothered to worry about it because I think about politics in actual terms. This is my job and I make enough money doing it to keep it as my job. Thanks Jesse for paying enough attention to help keep me employed doing this work!
But the second part of the question is about your line having some kind of explanatory power that might require some of these people to cede the point given how the world has developed.
They don’t have to cede the point. They can just switch to saying the same stuff and not acknowledge what I was saying. There is no accountability in the opinion industry, which you notice because the people who advocated for the Iraq war are still in their jobs. I wrestled when I was in high school, and there is a certain meritocracy to it in where you can challenge for your spot every week. Any practice you could say, “I think I can beat that guy, I want his job,” and then you wrestle for it. I can’t say, “Jonathan Chait, I think you suck at your job. Let’s predict ten things and if I win I’m the new Jonathan Chait.” You can’t do that, there is no accountability. You can drive yourselves nuts ranting on Twitter saying, ”See this thing I said five years ago? It’s real,” and send the screenshots. You can drive yourself up a wall with that, and I do it a little bit, but I try not to do it too much because it’s not that productive. But maybe it’s productive sometimes to try and remind people…
…or maybe just to point out that there is no accountability.
It would be nice if people remembered things, and when readers point them out like “Hey, remember two years ago when X said Y…” that’s very heartening as a writer. And it’s good to see things shift in that direction. It’s fun to see people talk about revolution seriously, because they can’t imagine anything else anymore and it’s starting to enter the consciousness.
I want to move to questions about the book. It reminded me of Growing up Absurd, but it’s very different in many ways. Paul Goodman’s basic question is “socialization to what?” You saw the Beats and the Angry Young Men asking this question, and the “to what” was objectionable so growing up in a traditional sense was impossible for them. I wonder if you think that this is still the right question for generations to ask if they fall into a critical mode, and who gets to pose it.
I think that’s a question about the politics of childhood that children ask always, and that’s a lot what the Goodman book is about, questioning your own circumstance. I think there are different kids who question different parts of that circumstance. There are kids who are more affected by the school to prison pipeline and have a greater awareness of how that system works and what it wants from them. That’s distinct from what Goodman was writing about.
I think it’s still a good question, but I think the answer has changed. Part of this book is about the periodization of shifting training costs to workers and their families. Now it’s not this abstract conformity, but the real instrumentalization of education towards job skills, productivity, specialization, and all that.
That does seem like a real important split between the labor component and the cultural component, which seems like the focus of Goodman’s book.
The cultural component is important too, but it doesn’t get at what I’m trying to get at, which is the relationship between children’s work/play and the economy. The focus on the cultural element is because I think it is sometimes too hard to think about the economic element.
I agree, and I don’t want to get hung up on the cultural element because I think that’s sometimes a distraction. But there is one part of it that I think is important. Goodman focuses on the Angry Young Men and the Beats and at one point says why he is not going to talk about women. The generational reckoning now is supposed to be as inclusive as possible. One of the consequences of that, which is in your book and I don’t think is something people would associate with Millennials, is a lot of intra-generational splits, like the growth in youth misogyny, or these interminable debates about race over class. So on the cultural level it seems difficult to pose the generational critique without it falling into these intra-generational conflicts.
How I’ve decided I want to go about this kind of question lately is not allowing any hand waving towards the abstraction of these categories. If we want to talk about gender let’s talk about gender, because that is a specific dynamic that I get into in the book. If we want to talk about race and Millennials let’s talk about race and Millennials specifically, or even more precisely. If we want to talk about country of origin and its confounding influence on Millennial generational comparisons, that’s a useful analytic, we can talk about that. What I don’t think is useful is the general, “What about ‘identity,” referring to “identity” as a category. I don’t think that abstraction has been well constructed.
You can make valid critiques of my methodology focused on some of those splits, and I’ve heard some of them. If you look at home ownership numbers for example, you see this big Millennial/Boomer split. You can explain it using generational differences, but you can also explain it using race because the homeownership rates for non-white people are lower and there are more non-white people in the Millennial cohort. So it’s a confounding variable that we have to look at specifically. At the same time I think there is something useful about a generational comparison.
The Boomers loom large in my imagination because they are in power and were our parents in many cases. How large did they loom in your mind as a comparative generation?
Not as much as you might think because I have young parents. My dad was born in 1965, at the very tail end of the Boomers, so I don’t have that same cultural reaction to Boomer culture. It wasn’t a big part of my life, which was kind of good because it can be a real black hole power culturally — especially culturally. I have a couple steps of distance. In some ways I’m in the first historical group that gets to have two steps of distance from Boomers.
There is a temptation to recapitulate the relationship of Boomers to their parents and describe that as the nature of generational relationships — as if every time it is going to be just that, but more. And that’s totally not true. Boomers are specific.
It’s like drug use. There is this hilarious thing where if you use age and drug use as variables over the past 50-60 years it doesn’t work. It doesn’t give you any information because at one point it’s young people, and then it’s middle age people, and then it’s older people showing increased drug use. If you look by age it doesn’t make any sense, but if you look by cohort it totally makes sense because the Boomers love drugs and every time you measure it, wherever the Boomers are, that is where the people are who love drugs the most.
You’re very fortunate. My parents were born in 1947 and 1948, so they are right in the middle. It does become a mind suck because you see Boomers over-represented in all kinds of institutions. I almost printed out this funny Robert Reich op-ed in Newsweek about how Millennials will save us — the Newsweek website was funny in its own right because it almost crashed my browser. The op-ed is about how Millennials will save us because Millennials are more diverse and more progressive, and all they are lacking is the civic mindedness of Boomers…so they have to go vote in November.
That was the original formulation of Millennials by Howe and Strauss, the marketer guys who came up with the idea of “the Millennials.” They thought this generation was going to totally save us, they are the best thing that is ever going to happen and were in fact very civic minded. They thought that was a signal virtue of our generation. And then the crash hit and it was clear that they weren’t going to retire and would have to fight us for resources. Then it became “Millennials are worthless, they’re so lazy, and we should definitely pay them less.”
I forgot if that was in the book or not, but what is the story behind them?
They were just marketers. And I don’t get into it because most of that generation discourse is such crap. I don’t want to get in the gutter with those guys who are just writing marketing copy. There is way more money in it for these generational analysts because they are writing for companies who want to sell us more stuff.
That is something that is so striking. The book moves through different periods of life that we pass through and from the beginning there is a framing of childhood, a framing of parenting, that is explicitly setting up people to make money on every single stage that you pass through.
That’s the real subsumption of childhood. Now being born is incredibly expensive, there’s a lot of profit there.
Not for the child themselves.
No, the average child doesn’t get any piece of any of this.
I did my degree at Teachers College. The one thing I learned in doing a PhD at an Ed School is that they are fully committed to making money at every stage and any sort of public minded commitment to education is very fringe at this point.
I blame the Obama administration for a lot of that. They were really committed to selling education as pure job preparation.
The next question I want to ask is about college, which relates to this a lot. In many ways college has always been over-represented in generational debates, because that is how you can point to a coming cohort. They are young and about to push into adult life. Now it’s very over-represented in these symbolic ways, like talking about free speech or triggering that are supposed to define Millennials in some way. But it’s also very underrepresented in actually telling the story in a generous and accurate way, which would point to the fact that universities are now so fundamentally involved in the setting out what the future is going to look like for graduates with the student debt problem, or in offloading the cost of job preparation from workplaces to universities who then offload it onto families. So maybe the question is in what ways colleges overrepresented and which ways should they be more central to the story?
A big part of it is which colleges and which college students. Students at a small slice of schools are way overrepresented in the media. Not just in the stories we tell, but in the people who are telling them, and that is obviously not coincidental.
I talk a lot about who the average college student is, and among Millennials the average college student is the average person. More than half of us attend college. A good example I like to use of average education in the Millennial cohort is Cardi B. She attended a local community college and didn’t finish. That is the exact median level of education in the cohort, and it’s higher than past cohorts, which makes Cardi more formally educated than the average American.
We have a really disjointed idea of what it means to be a college student. I mention Sara Goldrick-Rab in the book. She’s an education scholar at Temple who has focused a lot on hunger. Undergraduate students are significantly more likely to be hungry for lack of adequate food than to live on campus. But our picture of who college students are are people who live on campus and have a meal plan. That’s not who college students are on average.
We definitely need to refocus our idea of who a college student is. The vast majority of undergraduates work at least 20 hours a week for pay, for example. So the average college student is also a worker. We don’t think of them in that way. We think of them as Bard students. Even then we think of them as the top 20 percent most privileged students who go to Bard, which is part of an ideological agenda. The people who are putting that out there have something to gain. They oppose the political agenda that is dominant among young people. They are anti-socialist and hate the fact that these ideas are popular amongst young people. They are white supremacists who hate the idea that young people are engaged in struggle against white supremacist institutions. It’s not that complicated.
That’s an old strategy.
They do it every single time. The outside agitators at the university, ”these college students with their blah, blah, blah.”
Higher education is crucially important to the national well being of this country, at least since 1965. It’s not coincidental that we are focused there. We need colleges to work a certain way or the country doesn’t work, and that is what so much of the drama of insurrection in the UCs and Reagan was about. The colleges have to work to produce workers, to produce human capital, or the country doesn’t work. If the Leftists can shut down the colleges they pose a threat to the country.
One of the things that’s not in the book is the sort of death cult that our generation has been socialized into. There is the looming question of imperialism and the forever war. The younger edge of this cohort has never experienced a time when we weren’t in a war.
The book is not super ideologically focused, because that is a whole other world. I wish I had done more with these issues in some ways. Part of what exemplified the global war on terror was the way that so many Americans were insulated from it, and only encountered it in this sinister way that our society was reformulating itself.
It was major for me. How I started engaging in politics was opposing the invasion of Afghanistan when I was 12. These were huge things for some of us. But when I started doing research into the social psychology of generations, one of the things that I found was that individual events and our relationships to them aren’t really what characterize a generational psychology. It’s not like we lived through the Great Depression and that’s why we are this way. It’s the secular changes to society, these long-term changes that shape generations. It’s not whether or not we were alive for 9/11 or what we remember. It’s about that ways that has changed our society in extended ways since then. I’m working on that more now actually.
I only ask because I think it’s a hard thing for any American to come to terms with — our addiction to imperial adventures abroad as a central aspect of how the American identity coheres over time.
It is something that is pretty consistent over American history.
I’m interested the productive uses of pessimism and tragedy, and I thought the end of the book was really good.
Good, I got a lot of shit for the end.
Really. I thought it would have been disingenuous to end the book in a different way. What is the criticism, that is falls into nihilistic cynicism or something like that?
Yeah, which I think shows a curious lack of imagination.
Coming back to an earlier question, I’m curious who this is coming from, for example whether it reflects a generational split.
No, it’s probably a political split, perhaps coming from people who are more moderate and have a reformist agenda. They don’t like the idea that I’m shooting down these possibilities, or they don’t like what we are then reduced to.
This is why I wonder about whether we need to be socialized into a tragic mindset better.
I hope not. I’m an optimist. I was just at Notre Dame and was speaking to people who, let’s just say have a less America-centric view of history and the nature of sacrifice and death and violence and war. Most of us have been told to give up on these big historical questions and think in small tinkering policy terms. I think the American liberal mindset is uniquely ill-suited for approaching our current moment, because it’s so outside of their experience and so not what they were planning for. They keep saying, “No, it’s supposed to go this way. Don’t look over there, let’s just get back to the graph, history is over.”
Historians were the one group that was complimentary of the ending. They said that’s how history works. You don’t get answers.
Something that you do in the book is to try and stay in a very descriptive mode and speak from within the generational experience and buttress it with all kinds of data points. It’s not about an assignation of blame or assigning culprit status to certain groups even if that might be indirectly indicated. I was wondering whether that was a difficult line to keep, to stay within the descriptive mode?
No. It was easy to stay focused on the analytics. It’s an analytic text. The politics are baked in. I don’t have to worry about including them because they are the basis for my analysis. It’s a Marxist book even though Marx never comes up by name. People who are political see the politics very clearly. I didn’t have to say “and Capitalism is bad.” Capitalism works how it works, you can see it.
And that’s partly an aesthetic preference of mine against a certain type of political book that I don’t generally find to be very good. The mode of the political polemic can sometimes be an excuse for less rigorous work.
I want to end with some very unformed questions, sort of thumbs up, thumbs down on different things that are popular either amongst Millennials or because they are associated with an idea about Millennials.
I don’t know her.
Chapo Trap House. I got taken to a live thing in Brooklyn a few years ago and didn’t understand, didn’t really like it, and didn’t get why it was so popular. I’ve come around to it recently, but I’m more interested in why it is so successful, for example bringing in so much money on Patreon or selling out Union Transfer here in Philadelphia for a live show.
I’m not really into comedy. Some people like it a lot, and all sorts of comedians have these fans, where they get angry and say, “You don’t know what’s his name, this great comedian,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t know what’s his name.”
Jordan Peterson, a grifter who even has some support amongst a small group of Millennials.
I blame RadioLab! His whole thing is this bio-psychology nonsense that is extremely popular methodologically in middle brow culture. I think it’s hugely destructive. I shut all the way down as soon as any kind of evo-psych perspective comes up. We really need aggressive reaction not just to his obvious misogyny and weird appropriation of indigenous culture and all his Jungian mysticism, but to the actual, fundamental core of his worldview, which is that evolutionary biology affects individual psychology and life is centered around the competition to spread one’s genes. We need to attack that, it’s so fucking stupid.
A big problem is that people just don’t know how evolution works. Look up the neutral theory. Why are there both squirrels and chipmunks? I encourage your readers to pursue the scientific literature about the competition between squirrels and chipmunks. It will totally blow their minds and make them rethink the way they think about evolution and politics. That is the assault we need on Jordan Peterson: He must answer why and how squirrels and chipmunks share the same habitats.
I wanted to ask about one other figure, a Philadelphia figure. Larry Krasner, our DA who is one of these older white men who, like Bernie and Corbyn, have galvanized so many young people on the Left.
Prosecutors still put people in jail, which is their job, so it’s not like Krasner’s my buddy. But I will say one thing about the people who put him in office — and I don’t mean George Soros, although he certainly helped to the tune of I think $1.8 million. People need to know that the circumstances under which Krasner got elected were extremely exceptional and not generalizable at all as a strategy. You have to have someone with that level of credibility who has built it up over decades. You have to have the Democratic incumbent get sent to jail. And then you have to have someone like Soros pour in obscene amounts of money for a city DA race just to see what happens. But then you also need huge amounts of coordinated grassroots support, which is really what got him the job. The Coalition for a Just DA is the group and they’re working again now under a new name on city council races. They did a good job electing him and have done a good job keeping him accountable. Insofar as they still believe that he remains accountable to them, we can see it as a success.
What I think we haven’t done on the Left in Philadelphia is to push and see what we can get away with now, or to see what their attitude is going to be for prosecuting leftists for political crime. What is constraining us across many parts of the country is the knowledge that prosecutors are going to be really aggressive, and he’s signaled that he’s not going to be that way, so we need to take advantage of it here. We need to think of other tactics and strategies that might be open to us now with someone who is theoretically friendly in the DA’s office. Can we exercise power in a way that we have not been able to and are not able to in other places?
Michael Schapira is an Interviews editor at Full Stop and teaches Philosophy at St. Joseph’s University.