Since the Labour Party’s stunning performance in the UK elections of June 8, comparisons between party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Senator Bernie Sanders have come hot and heavy. It makes sense. After all, here are two old guys calling themselves socialists in the age of neoliberalism. They lead movements full of youthful enthusiasm—against austerity, inequality, and rule by the 1 percent, and in favor of a living wage, free higher education, and robust single-payer health care.
But the conversation tends to ignore the most significant thing that the left insurgencies in the United Kingdom and United States hold in common. A new consensus has emerged among young people that is definitely social democratic—as that term has traditionally been used—or democratic socialist—as Bernie and Jeremy have described themselves. By whatever name, young people are insisting on social solutions to social problems. This consensus rejects the privatizing and individualizing trends that have prevailed since the late 1970s.
Remarkably, this generation—raised, educated, and shaped to neatly fit what Zygmunt Bauman calls “individualized society”—is thinking, aspiring, and acting collectively. They are repudiating spurious but once-galvanizing Reaganite claims to limited government and personal responsibility, turning their backs on Margaret Thatcher’s goal of replacing the “collectivist society” with a “personal society.” In the latest election, the new social democrats/democratic socialists demonstrated that three decades of concerted effort have not changed “the heart and soul of the nation” in quite the way that Thatcher wished for.
They were brought up to be self-seeking entrepreneurs, not to feel responsible for each other. They were primed to accept that every last corner of the world, and their own lives, would be organized by the logic of the market. They were taught to see social contradictions as personal, not political problems—to live by Thatcher’s dictum that “there are individual men and women and there are families…. There is no such thing as society.” Yet, instead of becoming cynical free agents, young people are drawn to the sincerity of Corbyn and Sanders. Against the flashy marketing of their opponents, these men express the humility of old-fashioned values such as fairness and equality. As recent surveys show, young people raised to ensure capitalism’s future have become deeply skeptical of it and many are instead drawn to something called “socialism.”
How can the very same young people trained for the capitalist maelstrom form a leftward political vanguard? Of course, the basis of a rebellion against neoliberal individualism has always been there, because nothing can efface the fact that we are fundamentally social beings. We remain so despite the virtual war carried out since Reagan and Thatcher against the collective side of our existence. While many in the older generation have learned to shift for themselves and ignore their social side, the younger generation cannot. The unrestrained harshness of the bottom line helps explain this turn, because rising inequality and economic insecurity have become especially intolerable to young people facing their future. In addition, at least two kinds of generational awareness have heightened their sense of social belonging: threats to the environment and global interconnectedness.
The perils of climate change predispose anyone growing up today to see herself as belonging to the ever-more-besieged natural world: linked with, dependent on, and worried about natural processes and beings everywhere. They increasingly live on the planet Earth.
Additionally, in advanced societies, almost every young person is connected. The universality of smartphones, tablets, and other online devices gives almost every individual access to virtual communication and community. Granted, they do so as part of consumer society, and entertainment and distraction are as important as communication. But even if people have the capacity to disappear into their silos, they are interconnected socially as well as by a global climate, and feel part of something larger than themselves. These are ordinary dimensions of experience for an entire generation.
So the truth about today’s individualism comes out. Despite the formidable social energy invested in it, despite its role in the remaking of economic, educational, cultural, and psychological realities, despite the antisocial rational-choice philosophies that came to dominate academic disciplines such as economics and political science, individualism is increasingly experienced as fundamentally false. Globally interconnected and threatened by the borderless hazards of climate change, members of the younger generation know this in their bones.
On many fronts, neoliberalism has been promoting the privatization of hope—eroding the collective aspiration for the common good. But the left insurgencies of 2016 and 2017 suggest that this has backfired. In these young persons’ movements, hope has become social again.