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What was the Millennial Left?

D. L. Jacobs

Platypus Review 137 | June 2021

Editor’s note: These remarks were first presented on the virtual panel "From Protest to Politics? What was the Millennial Left?", on 28 March, as part of the 2021 Platypus International Convention, with the author speaking alongside John Leveille (associate professor of sociology at West Chester University, author of Searching for Marx in the Occupy Movement), Connor Mauche (Democratic Socialists of America, Class Unity), John Judis (editor at large at Talking Points Memo, author of The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now About the Left) and Ingar Solty (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation). A full video recording can be found on YouTube:

IF I WERE TO ASK a room of leftists in the 2010s what distinguishes them from the Democrats, I would get many responses. One leftist may say: “Well, I am not a Democrat — I only use their facilities or spread socialism amongst the base, over which the leadership does not have any control.”[1] Another leftist, overhearing this, may respond: “But when the elections come around, don’t you pinch your nose and vote for the Democratic Candidate? Whatever work you have done ultimately gets herded into canvassing for the Democratic nominee. I, on the other hand,” — says the second activist — “cannot be a Democrat. I don’t even vote. Instead, I focus on building a base in my community, outside of either party.” The first leftist, may respond by pointing out that the Democratic Party often recruits operatives and gains votes from these same communities that the non-voting leftist organizes in and it would be preferable to have these same people vote for real reforms. Nonetheless, they would agree on one thing: this election is different; this election is an emergency.

Now, this conversation is obviously a caricature, but if it sounds familiar, it is because the satire captures something true about the last decade. There would be no proposal to work in the Republican Party (it’s not like the leadership has control over their base) nor would there be any proposal to work with the protest movements around the Republicans (if you do that, you run the risk being accused of trying to form a red-brown alliance). No, the Left of the last decade were primarily Democrats at the level of political ideology. Currently, it is the Democrats and Republicans, along with their sister capitalist parties around the world, who define what is considered Left and Right. This is why even activists who don’t formally participate in the Democratic Party can be the most intransigent and militant Democrats. They tail after the ideas and trends of the Democratic Party and compete over the voting bloc that the Democrats usually organize — this is currently what is meant by “organize the unorganized.” Their opposition does not provide a new political horizon.

Leszek Kołakowski, in his essay “The Concept of the Left,” argued that the Left must define itself at the level of ideas. For the Left is ultimately about the emancipation of the world and pushing the boundaries of freedom beyond what is actual. The Right, on the other hand for Kolakowski, has “nothing but tactics.” This characterization was not just about the avowed Right but also the opportunistic elements of the official Communist movement of his time, who had become a “New Right.” Today, such a formulation appears to take on an inversion: the problem, rather than strength of the Left, is its inability to even consider tactical questions that could help them achieve their stated aims. In other words, the Left blocks itself at the level of ideas. For example, at the time of the 2016 election, I remember talking to a local leftist in Houston about Trump’s college loan repayment plan[2] and his childcare plan.[3] The Washington Post in October 2016, called his student plan “pretty radical,” just a few months before they said “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Again, liberal reforms but something that at the time, would have been associated with the left of the Democratic Party. My friend’s response to this was to say that Trump was beefsteak-y, a reference to socialists who entered the Nazi party (brown on the outside, red on the inside). But I think what my friend really meant was that Trump was Tomacco-y — red on the outside, brown on the inside. In other words, they were trying to say that I was falling for a trap set by Trump — he was going to trick socialists into supporting him. But rather than being a trap, Trump’s campaign promises, whether or not they were fulfilled, represented a crisis in the political continuum. My friend would have accepted this proposal if it was from a Democrat but ideologically, he accepted the Democratic Party’s characterization of the Republicans and this blocked him at even the simplest tactical level.

The missed opportunity of the last decade-and-a-half was to break with the stranglehold of the political continuum set by the Democrats and Republicans. The administrative parties of the major industrialized nations had lost their ability to politically lead society under the ideologies that they had had since the 1960s and were in freefall. This was a chance for the Left to give form to a political line that cut across the major parties. Instead, the Left retreated from suspicion regarding the received views of leftism (in the 2000s) and distrust of the capitalist parties (Occupy), to trying to capture the Democratic/Labour Party nominations (in the mid-2010s), and have now have arrived at just trying to be a voting or pressure bloc, in-or-around the mainstream capitalist parties. In short, the Millennial Left has ended the decade as “Democrats, Nothing but Democrats.” But this was not predetermined.

The beginning of the decade — 2010 — looked a lot like today, 2021. There was a Democrat in office and the most discussed protest movement — the Tea Party — was sometimes described as “fascist.” The 2010 year of the Platypus Review mainly focused on Marxological questions. Indeed, in an interview with Leo Panitch in Platypus Review 23 from May 2010, entitled “Is Marx Back?,” Panitch said that the politics of the Left had been on the defensive for the preceding several decades. The impetus for the interview was the return of Marxist theory “in light of the economic crisis.”

This was an uncomfortable time for the Left. They had spent the 2000s focused on protesting the Republican Party and ended the decade by helping to elect the first black president of the United States, with a hold on Congress in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Obama’s election had signaled the collapse of the anti-war movement and within several months, it was clear that he was not going to be the progressive the Left had convinced itself he would be. But it was the Tea Party protests that were the first to call the sham and this put the Left on the defensive. The real purpose of reviving Marx’s critique of political economy was rather to shift the onus for the crash from the State onto the private sector and off the state welfare programs that the Left was supporting.[4] Consequently, the Tea Party was labeled everything from Koch brothers astroturf to fascism. Progressives counter-protested in favor of Obamacare — anecdotally, I remember seeing several socialists with a “Pay your damn taxes!” sign. But the Tea Party’s discontents were no more right-wing than its echo in Occupy. They both protested the unfair bailouts for banks and recognized that Main Street would be footing the bill. Thus, Donald Trump was correct to recognize Occupy as not the opposite of, but rather continuous with, the Tea Party. The same could not be said for the Left.

The following year was much more eventful: The Arab Spring, the Wisconsin Occupation, #Occupy Wall Street. This was more what the Left was waiting for. Occupy was exciting: the Arab Spring was in recent memory and there was an expectation that something new must come out of this.[5] I would say that the famous resistance of Occupy to stating concrete demands, reflected some instinct, however negative and mild, that their greatest strength would be the degree to which they could break out of the Democratic-Republican cage. The effect of this was to prompt activists to anxiously look away from the major capitalist parties for something undetermined: where is this going? Are the forms there in Zuccotti Park prefigurative or is this set to be a step to a mass organization?[6] This question had already been germinating to some degree; Jacobin’s first issue was in January of 2011 and terms like “revolutionary subject” had been floated since the Arab Spring.

It was in this period that Millennials purportedly became serious and shifted “from protest to politics.” This seemed to mean everything from joining a Left organization to voting for a democratic socialist candidate in a capitalist party, down to merely identifying positively with the word “socialism” in opinion polls. Post-Occupy, Marxism was used everywhere to justify any Millennial Left activity, under the assumption that this was advancing from the earlier Millennial Left moments. Thus, Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism was dug up to justify voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016; Trotsky was dug up to justify antifa deplatforming in 2017; Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of reformism was used to justify the tailism of the Democratic Party in 2018; the battles between the DNC and the Millennial Left were likened to the founding of the SPD at the Gotha Congress.[8] It was as if, to quote Murray Bookchin, all the “old crap of the thirties” was back again. But this was doubly true in that it was not the radicals of the Second International who were recovered but rather their abuse in the 20th century.

I mention all this to raise the simple question: the Marxism that was revived in the 2010s — was it brought back only to be buried again? Platypus, the project I am part of, started during the anti-war protests of the 2000s and the beginning of the crisis of neoliberalism. The anti-war protesters were taught by either anarchists or Marxists and struggled to go beyond the single issue of ending the war and removing the Republicans from office. The financial crisis that ended the 2000s gave more opportunity to talk about Marxism because the issue of capitalism was raised.[9] Thus, one could expect Marxism to return, but the important question would be for what reason. Capitalism’s greatest resource is its discontents, which often serve the purpose of adapting people to a change in capitalism.[10] Our slogan — “The Left is Dead! Long Live the Left!” — was not meant to be contrarian (which would merely seek attention and lie about the truth) or puritan (“we are the true leftists, who hold the true line”). Rather, we wanted to make conscious the undigested legacy of Marxism that was going to return — or worse, be regurgitated — and how this Marxism was going to pose a task to the Millennials that neither Marx nor Lenin had really ever encountered. The history of the Left, and particularly of its highest expression and self-critique in Marxism, is the history of self-inflicted defeats. Rather than changing the world, the Left has organized defeats, regularly under the guise of preserving gains or progress, and has passed down these obstacles from generation to generation, now finding a new addition with the Millennials. In the 2000s, the means of accommodating the Left to the defeats of the preceding era of capitalism were exhausted, and this created an opening; in fact, at this time, the New Left (Old SDS) told the Millennial Left (Movement for a Democratic Society) not to repeat their mistakes.[11] This gave an opportunity, for good or for ill. Was this going to be a cry of protest before accommodation to capitalism or would the millennials be able to break with the ways in which leftism has been used to adapt people to capitalism?[12] Ultimately, the Millennial Left chose the former and was subject to what Chris Cutrone called the “triple knock-out of Obama, Sanders, and Trump.”

It is important to remember that, following Marx, the political struggle is what “enables us to infer the social truth.”[13] Barack Obama's election kicked the can down the road of a neoliberalism that was already in crisis, perhaps going back to the beginning of the 2000s.[14]

The neoliberal-neoconservative alliance began to suffer with the War on Terror. The overreach of the Patriot Act tested the toleration of the libertarian wing, culminating in the Ron Paul candidacy of 2008. The moral majority was only ever tentatively attached and by 2012, their influence seemed to no longer be decisive.[15] The 1965 Immigration Act, once considered a liberal success for overcoming the eugenics-inspired quotas of the early 20th century, had become obstructive to the demand for labor.[16] The immigration crisis collided with the “skill-biased” technical change in the United States, creating a tension wherein both parties have competed for the swing voters who have tacked back-and-forth between the Democrats and Republicans — from Bill Clinton to Obama to Trump — groping for some sort of resolution. The Tancredo Republicans’ attempt to block Bush’s extension of the Patriot Act was yet another dimension, one which Trump would be able to utilize. The stop-and-frisk approach currently being protested was necessitated by the conditions of deindustrialization, but it did not come solely from the Right. While promoting this approach in 1995, Eric Holder compared the conditions of black Americans in Washington, D.C. in 1995 to those in Selma, Alabama in 1955 in order to link this to a civil rights issue.[17] But since the 1980s, federal police spending as a percentage of GDP has quadrupled and this approach has become extremely costly, both economically and politically, for many major cities.[18] The protests of the 2010s repeated the mistake of the New Left: The conditions of wage-labor were becoming untenable, but the Millennial Left treated the crisis as the norm. Thus, their anti-capitalism has served as vehicle for the reorganization of capitalist production.[19]

The latter part of the 2010s also saw the explosion of wokeness into politics. While that term had predated its mainstream adoption, it became a line along which capitalist politics split. The Left mainly sided somewhere along the “woke line,” but some of the Left responded by defending free speech and criticizing wokeness as an ideology of the ruling class. But neither side was able to treat the split according to the necessity that it expressed. A socialist party would defend free speech, in order to defend civil society from the immanent authoritarianism generated by capitalism, but it would not take a side in the culture war. A Left would recognize the symptomatic reason that gave rise to even policing of language — conservatism, as Wilhelm Reich pointed out in the 1920s, is a function of the contradictory conditions under which we grow up. People adapt to a set of conditions, including mores and etiquette, that potentially become obstacles — “all that is holy becomes profane, all that is solid melts into air.” The culture of digging up tweets casually uploaded from a decade ago is the latest variation in the old symptom described over a century ago: the competition between workers. No, a socialist party would ask what would be necessary for such positions to not matter anymore, and that would be nothing short of the emancipation of humanity. The condition of freedom for each is the condition of freedom for all. The only bad speech would be what would inhibit the fulfillment of this goal.

In fact, of all the parts of Marxism that the Millennial Left reached for, it was the party question that remained the most elusive. I will never forget raising the question of a party to a leftist at a community center in Houston around the 2016 election, after Sanders had lost and Jill Stein saw a small surge in her campaign. They responded to me by saying: “The problem is that for a third party to be viable, you have to get on the ballot and win elections.” I said back that a party for socialism would run candidates but would also participate in the organizing of civil society — what mattered was how the party would mediate the relationship between the political and civil spheres. They were a little confused and responded: “When you speak of a Party, do you mean the Green Party or the Black Panther Party?” While it might seem like a strange comparison, it honestly expressed the moment: they were asking me if I wanted better electoralism or better direct action or some aggregate of both. This view is really a degeneration of an older antinomy in the socialist movement — political vs. social action of Bakunin and Lassalle — but adapted to the present tailist pressure politics, i.e. how to pressure the Democrats.

Consider the common phrase, “The U.S. is a two-party system,” and how much is assumed here. To say that there are two parties is to say that there are two distinct ways of politically leading society. Neither the Democrats or Republicans want that kind of responsibility — it is in their interest to maintain their loyal opposition. The reason the distinction is made by the Left is in order to identify with one of the parties; to justify tactical support for one of them as being the result of something objective, out of their responsibility. In doing so, the Left renders itself superfluous, accepting the horizon set by the Democratic and Republican parties. Consequently, “third parties don’t work,” because they remain minor Democratic/Republican parties. We can understand why this is true through another phrase made popular by Gore Vidal: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party… and it has two right wings.” This is a very limited phrase but I want to use it to demonstrate something. Now, the horizon is different. Going back to the imaginary discussion at the beginning, an opposing party that approached politics in even this limited manner, would not fall to the mainstream horizon. The argument regarding the approach to the Democratic Party would seem parochial, for the horizon of the party would not be about being a better Democratic Party but would instead, raise the organization of society in total.

For a socialist party would relate the political and civil spheres of capitalism together as expressing the contradiction embodied in what was classically called the proletariat — citizens without property. But with the collapse of socialist parties in the 20th century, the ability to mediate this contradiction disintegrated and the Left found itself necessarily under the administrative parties. This collapse has often been explained as a result of objective structural change — “deindustrialization”[20] — but that only avoids the Marxist point that what made the working class the “proletariat” was precisely how it went beyond the factory floor. For there have always been workers and wage-laborers, but the class struggle for Marx and Engels and the radicals of the Second, Third and Fourth Internationals, was always a political struggle. This distinction was pointed out by Leo Panitch on a Platypus panel in 2015, where he said that the period from the 1870s to the 1920s was the first time in history that humanity saw “permanent, self-organized, representative political bodies... of the subordinate class.”[21]

The issue going forward is how the crisis is being resolved. The New Democrats and New Republicans are already coming into their own, with the help of the discontents raised at the beginning of the decade. In the fall of 1960, Michael Harrington outlined his strategy for political realignment of the mainstream parties as forcing the “Southern racists and certain other corruptive elements” out of the Democratic Party. If I replaced the above with “DNC”, “centrists” and perhaps even, “the professional managerial class,” it would be hard to distinguish this from present Left activism, except for the fact that Harrington’s strategy was to realign the Democrats and Republicans, to then allow for the emergence of a socialist party. In other words, a return to the 1900-era Debs standpoint of the Republicans as the capitalist party and the Democrats as the petty-bourgeois party. This strategy did not work and the founding of DSOC over a decade later was as he put it “the defeated remnant of a defeated remnant,” — and yet the Left continues to try to accomplish this very goal, perhaps when it is already on its way out.

The contemporary Right, who continue to make decisions purely on tactics, paradoxically end up being more open to ideas precisely because they are less attached to the prevailing political ideology. They demonstrate that all that is solid can still melt to air, but only negatively. Returning to Kołakowski, if the Left ought to define itself at the level of ideas, and if these ideas currently block the Left, causing it to lag behind historical changes, then this is a problem that should point towards its solution, or ought to — for the Left to be reborn, it needs to overcome itself. |P

[1] Jason Schulman and Bernard Sampson, “Sanders, the Democrats, and the Left,” Platypus Review 86 (May 2016).

[2] Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “Trump just laid out a pretty radical student debt plan,” Washington Post (October 13, 2016).

[3] Heather Long, “Donald Trump: Make child care cheaper,” CNN Business (August 6th 2016).

[4] See also James Heartfield, “Living Marxism,” Platypus Review 9 (December 2008).

[5] See Haseeb Ahmed and Chris Cutrone, “The Occupy movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism today: An interview with Slavoj Žižek,” Platypus Review 42 (December–January 2012).

[6] See for example, “What is the Occupy movement? A roundtable discussion,” Platypus Review 44 (March 2012).

[7] See Timothy Hall, “Subject, class, and the Hegelian legacy in critical social theory,” Platypus Review 37 (July 2011).

[8] Dick Howard, Chris Nineham, Shane Mage, Leo Panitch and Chris Cutrone, “What is capitalism and why should we be against it?” Platypus Review 129 (September 2020).

[9] See Cutrone, “Whither Marxism? Why the occupation movement recalls Seattle 1999,” Platypus Review 41 (November 2011).

[10] See Cutrone, “Symptomology,” Platypus Review 12 (May 2009).

[11] See Cutrone, “The Millennial Left is Dead,” Platypus Review 100 (October 2017) and Laurie Rojas, “The Culture Wars in the Age of Trump,” Platypus Review 131 (November 2020).

[12] Cutrone, “A cry of protest before accommodation? The dialectic of emancipation and domination,” Platypus Review 42 (December–January 2012).

[13] Karl Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” in Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 12–15..

[14] See Cedric Johnson’s opening remarks, “Black politics in the age of Obama,” Platypus Review 57 (June 2013).

[15] Jonathan Merritt, “Election 2012 Marks the End of Evangelical Dominance in Politics,” The Atlantic (November 13th 2012). See also, for the neoconservative White House calling the Evangelicals “goofy,” Jake Tapper and Kendall Evans, “Ex-Bush Aide: White House Officials Called Evangelicals 'Ridiculous,'” ABC News (October 16th 2006).

[16] See Daniel Tichenor, “The Historical Presidency: Lyndon Johnson's Ambivalent Reform: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 46, no. 3 (2016): 691-705.

[17] “Civil rights,” Holder said, “is all about freedom.” But as a result of “the fear and intimidation” that accompanies rampant street violence, “the people of Washington, D.C., in 1995 are in some respects no freer than the people of Selma, Alabama, in 1955.” See Paul Duggan, “D.C. RESIDENTS URGED TO CARE, JOIN WAR ON GUNS,” Washington Post (January 14th 1995).

[18] This has also doubled since the 1990s — see Chris Edwards, “Police Spending Soars at the Federal Level,” Cato (June 8th 2020). See David Brancaccio, Candace Manriquez Wrenn, and Alex Schroeder, “Understanding ‘the hidden costs of police misconduct’ for cities nationwide,” Marketplace (June 1st 2020), and Brian Highsmith, “Defund Our Punishment Bureaucracy,” The American Prospect (June 2nd 2020).

[19] Reflecting on 20 years of feminism in 1986, Juliet Mitchell asked whether the feminist movement was attacking something that was already on its way out and merely giving a “helpful shove to an ideology that was already inappropriate.” See Juliet Mitchell, "Reflections on Twenty Years of Feminism,” in What is Feminism?, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986). The only resources that capitalism has are our discontents and the danger is that our demands become a veil for a more opaque capitalism. See Cutrone, “Symptomology,” Platypus Review 12 (May 2009).

[20] See Aaron Benanav’s opening remarks, “Program and Utopia,” Platypus Review 58 (July 2013).

[21] See Leo Panitch’s opening remarks, “What is political party for the Left?” Platypus Review 74 (March 2015).