As Timothy Shenk writes in a searching essay for The Nation, there are two pillars to the current Marxist revival. One is the clutch of young intellectuals Shenk dubs the “Millennial Marxists,” whose experience of the financial crisis inspired a new look at Old Karl’s critique of capitalism. The M.M.’s have Occupy Wall Street as a failed-but-interesting political example; they have new-ish journals (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1) where they can experiment and argue; they are beginning to produce books, two of which Shenk reviews and praises.The red scare continues below the fold.
Douthat disputes the origins of the depreciation of capitalism among young leftist intellectuals; after all, things have on average gotten better economically for the 99 percent over the past two generations, he argues, even if growth has slowed. Douthat instead argueis, as he does in seemingly every column he pens, that millennial malaise can instead be ascribed to a breakdown of the cultural and social order:
The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.Of course, if Douthat were interested in finding out the reason for the belief that capitalism is less functional for the average American than it used to be, all he need to is read his own newspaper. While America's richest are still drastically outpacing their global counterparts, the rest of the world is beginning to catch up—or already has—in terms of income for the lower and middle classes.
The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.This view of wealth distribution in the United States falls exactly in line with Thomas Picketty's much-heralded new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which Douthat views as one of the intellectual pillars girding the nascent rise of a kinder, gentler Marxism. Still one could argue that the mere fact that the rest of the world is catching up doesn't necessarily mean that the United States has it bad. And in one sense Douthat is correct that in general, Americans have still made gains in wealth accumulation over the past few generations.
While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.
After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.
But this is millennial Marxism we're talking about here, and it's worth investigating exactly who has benefited from the increase in overall American prosperity. Here's a hint: It's not millennials. Research from the Urban Institute documents that while older Americans have on average seen their wealth accumulation grow substantially compared to their counterparts from 30 years ago, millennial generations have either stagnated or fallen behind: Americans age 29-37 have seen their wealth accumulation drop by over 20 percent compared to their age-mates from 1983. Douthat's protests notwithstanding, the simple fact is that we younger Americans are poorer than we used to be, even as we see older generations grow dramatically richer on average.
Douthat may wish to attribute millennial malaise to a breakdown in the social order rather than economic concerns, but as I discussed last week, these factors cannot be considered in isolation from each other. The economic situation millennials find themselves in is a prime contributor to the social angst to which Douthat ascribes our burgeoning anti-capitalism. Our economic situation is causing us to delay marriage, delay child-rearing and focus on paying down our crushing debt loads rather than pursuing our dreams.
But things aren't so bad, Douthat says. After all, we haven't gone so far down the road of poverty and stagnation that we're contemplating revolution:
Winship’s point raises the possibility that even if Piketty’s broad projections are correct, the future he envisions might be much more stable and sustainable than many on the left tend to assume. Even if the income and wealth distributions look more Victorian, that is, the 99 percent may still be doing well enough to be wary of any political movement that seems too radical, too utopian, too inclined to rock the boat.Okay then. Sure, the average young person may not be so destitute that he or she is willing to foment revolution, even as wealth continues to be concentrated even more heavily in the hands of the select few. But is that the standard that Douthat and his fellow conservatives really want to use to gauge the success of capitalism in our current century? If so, it may not be too long before his fears about a more radical anti-capitalist movement among the young become better-founded.