Monday 3 August 2020

The Zoomers and Class Politics

Generational differences matter and can enhance our understanding of class relations as a moveable feast. Age cohorts, their common cultural properties and experiences and, crucially, their shared politics reveals something about how classes develop and undergo cycles of composition, decomposition, and recomposition. Matthew Goodwin's recent essay on the so-called Zoomers (folks born between 1995 (or 1997) and 2010 (or 2012), depending on preference) is helpful for reminding those stuck to hidebound, static markers of class - such as mainstream political science and its favoured marketing schema of ABC1s and C2DEs - that class is actually liquid, dynamic, and shaped by conjunctural events as well as long-term stable structures. Such as the capital/wage relation, for example.

Goodwin has placed the Zoomers under the microscope because they are the most liberal generation in history. Obviously a matter of some interest to any right-wing thinker. The Zoomers are also more chill when it comes to state intervention and are more radical on matters economic than preceding generations. Okay, but why? The 2008 crash cast a long shadow and in some countries, and particularly so in southern Europe where unemployment among young people was its very own pandemic before the pandemic. This badly affected the millennials, who were just coming of age when the stock markets broke. For the Zoomers, the coronavirus crisis and its subsequent depression are likely to have similar effects when it comes to value systems and politics. True, true, but the trend to social liberalism and economic radicalism was pronounced among Zoomers before Covid-19, and this was the case among Millennials before Lehman Brothers vanished in a blizzard of shredded documents. Events can catalyse more or less latent tendencies, but from whence do they issue in the first place?

The fact larger number of young people have degree-holding parents is certainly true, as there is a strong-correlation between being a graduate and the propensity to be liberal-minded (and why the right are hostile to universities), but for Goodwin we can list the backlash against Trump, the take up of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the cultural clashes of the campus wars as proximate causes. These result in a "hyper-liberalism" in which radical ideas flow freely - feminism and critical race theory merit a mention. Yet this still doesn't provide anything like a satisfying answer. Most Zoomers don't have parents with degrees, most Zoomers of age don't go to university and among those who do, most are not party to the Red Guard-style militancy imagined by plodding and ignorant newspaper columnists. And Trump, as foul as he is, isn't a shadow demon responsible for driving politicisation among young people across different societies with different politics. Indeed, the loathing most of them have toward Trump is a symptom of their politics, not its cause.

Here and there, Goodwin alludes to the significance of class but only in the most superficial, economistic terms. Indeed, we know he's in thrall to mechanistic abstractions when he says our generation of hyper-liberals are "far more heavily on identity than economics, and less interested in traditional drivers like social class." This opposition of class to identity is common enough, there are plenty of people who fancy themselves Marxist who do the same. Indeed, there is a Stalinist sect on the margins of British politics that explicitly markets itself as "anti-woke". However, to understand how class operates in the really existing real world, this guff simply will not do.

The dominant form of labour in the advanced economies, and an increasingly important vector of accumulation in Eastern economies like China and India is immaterial production. This covers a vast range of occupations, but more or less boil down to what mainstream economists call intangibles. Immaterial labour produces information, knowledge, care, and services. The brain or, rather, our social being is mobilised in the process and what our outputs are are less the bushels of wheats and the coats of Marx's Capital, but social relationships themselves. Indeed, as social animals the production of social relationships, in turn, produces human beings. The stuff of immaterial labour is the generation of subjectivities, the manufacture of people of of particular types. And these workers grow more numerous by the day.

The Italian autonomists, particularly Antonio Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato argued that as the welfare state expanded in the post-war period to fill the gaps in the social left by market failure, it effectively meant more workers were drawn into the process of patching the system up. Instead of producing surplus value, they were producing the conditions for the production of surplus value. During the 1980s, some of these activities were parcelled up in institutions and sold off to the private sector, while others were to become sustainable businesses by acting as brokers and surrogates for connectivity and information. The contracting industrial sector in the advanced countries enabled by advanced manufacturing and cheap labour, above all in China, saw the proliferation of ever more niche and specialised forms of service provision. This was accompanied by the reinvention of many a traditional job by embedding them in a digital architecture. This has had a number of consequences, such as more parasitic but visible forms of exploitation, and, because intangible production produces subjectivities and identities, new forms of alienation that fetishise identities emerge as persistent social pathologies.

Why does this matter? Because it conditions successive generations' experience of class, of what it means to sell your labour power. More people from Generation X, my generation, were so employed than the Boomers. More Millennials have experienced immaterial work than the X'ers, and the Zoomers were on track - and still will be when the crisis is over - to spend their entire careers generating intangibles than their predecessors. Therefore the phenomenon of successive generations becoming more liberal and tolerant is rooted in the social capacities demanded of immaterial labour, capacities themselves that have not arisen according to an ineluctable immaterial logic but have become incorporated into them thanks to the efforts of the women's, LGBT, black liberation, and anti-racist movements. Tolerance is a basic property of sociality, which in turn is entirely fundamental to an economics based on intangibles produced by cooperative, social activity. It follows then the nonsense Tories and their dull retainers fulminate against is not a left wing plot, but is an education process appropriate to the demands of capital accumulation.

This presents new vectors of class struggle as it multiplies across the circuits of identity production, but does not in and of itself lend itself to capitalism's spontaneous overthrow. However, what might hasten its demise is the dull compulsion of economic necessity. Zoomers and Millennials tend to be more left wing than Gen X and the Boomers because they're locked out the system. There are not enough jobs to go round, and far too many of them are intrinsically unrewarding, low paid, insecure, and do not lead on to better things. Property acquisition is disproportionately an activity and characteristic of the old, and the double whammy of 2008 and 2020 - with the pandemic, the costs of Brexit, and climate change making itself felt - these are very clear and present reasons for Zoomers not to be cheerful. Corbynism appealed to and represented their interests in conventional politics, and with it gone the greater the likelihood these frustrations will strongly manifest in anti-system protest and action. Dumping statues into the drink is but a foretaste.

Understanding the Zoomers as a generational cohort, their values, their politics,and their understanding of their own position requires much more than reckoning with conjunctural difficulties, counting people with degrees, and pretending the social world is anything like a handful of university campuses. Their strengths lie in the class relations and the struggles that birthed them. And their anger, entirely right, entirely righteous, is bound up with how in stymies them, exploits them, and is content to currently let them rot. No wonder the Tories and right wingers are obsessed with the outward "woke" trappings of this angry, socially liberal generation: they recognise a growing existential threat when they see one.


Anonymous said...

The false opposition of class to identity is very intriguing, however I am not so sure that the rise of attention given to liberation struggles 'is a result of the social capacities demanded of immaterial labour,' why would intangible production demand these capacities?

Bruce said...

From your lips . . .

Anonymous said...

When doing "immaterial labour" you're going to meet lots of different kinds of people and so you have to spend a bit of time thinking about how to accommodate them and not be rude.

DFTM said...

I agree that class and identity politics can’t be easily separated, or even should be. However you can recognise this and still be critical of woke (maybe critical of woke now counts as anti woke in this post modern epoch!)

I broadly support BLM but the problem with them is that they position themselves to be above criticism, by playing the victims card. They do it genuinely I am sure (still I wish BLM would forget the government now and again and start criticising people for holding mass house parties in the middle of a global pandemic and maybe say that isn’t helping the death figures – just a thought guys!).

Not like these so called victims of Maxwell who happily went to the parties of the rich and famous and now demand their loot. Personally I have no sympathy for these groupies who wanted to hang out with the rich and the famous. But they present themselves as victims so we have to be sympathetic right.

The interesting one is Israel and Palestine, you would think the Palestinians would be in the position of BLM but because Israel is the self declared Jewish state any sympathy for the victims is crowded out by holocaust memories. So one victimhood trumps another. And this is the game of post modernism, which intersection of victimhood wins out. You could almost have top trumps for victims!

And there is no room for criticism and therein lies the whole problem with identity politics. Marx would not stand a chance developing a theory of capitalism in this climate! Too much noise.

“these result in a "hyper-liberalism" in which radical ideas flow freely - feminism and critical race theory merit a mention”

It really does depend on how you define liberal. Feminism, since its inception, has wanted to ban this that or the other ( among wanting voting rights etc). And often wants to have its cake and eat it (hence their hostility to transgender rights).

Wanting to ban this that and the other is very much illiberal to my mind but having your cake and eating it seems to cover the whole political spectrum!

Feminists also often want to castrate people, which is something they very much have in common with conservative attitudes to crime and punishment.

Incidentally, radical ideas never flow freely. Modern liberals are A) not radical, B) will shout and split in your face if you say anything that doesn’t fit their moral universe and C) Will try to get anyone they don’t like banned from Twitter and the like.

Mark James said...

Both your blog Phil and Goodwin’s article are really intriguing. I am not sure whether immaterial labour produces the sort of liberalism that is identified. Equally I remain to be convinced that it really is a threat to contemporary capitalism. I know of some theorists in the US who argue that identity politics are a manifestation of contemporary class structures and are a product of working class struggle. But I am not sure partly because a lot of ‘ woke’ culture seems to be a manifestation of the lived experience of relatively privileged youngsters at certain Russell group universities. But I am also a father of a zoomer and he is not convinced that the current 20 somethings are that radical. Liberal yes but not revolutionary. Nonetheless an important debate and it certainly gets you thinking. Cheers.

Unknown said...

I am reading Enjoying What We Don’t Have by Todd McGowan. It is about the politics of the death drive from Marxist perspective. It's very good. There is a good summary review called A Politics of the Death Drive by Randall Terada. I quote from the latter, "The decline of grandiose figures representing the lawful order—such as the local parish priest, the politician, or the leader of the local business com- munity who doubles as the local football coach—has led more and more to a decline in prohibitions and common symbolic mediations, all of which has given rise to the unbearable proxim- ity of the other and the ideology of tolerance through which we mediate this new proximity. Tolerance, however, simply strips away otherness, so that we do not encounter the other in its real dimension, in other words, unmediated by a symbolic structure (p. 117). Tolerance, McGowan argues, stands in the way of a radical ethical posture. Paradoxically, the fantasy of enjoyment that the xenophobe constructs around the other “permits an encounter with the real other that liberal tolerance forecloses...The ethical position thus involves sustaining the liberal’s tolerance within the conservative’s encounter with the real other” (p. 120)." I think this has implications for those upon whom a stronger profile of tolerance is imposed by things like woke culture. The left - even under Corbyn - didn't prioritise sating the pleasure principle of the drive drive. People vote for Trump and Johnson because they perform the amorality and excess that they themselves cannot. Either a dour-faced pleasure-eschewing character emerges (where this death-drive is repressed), or people go through a series of frustrations to the pleasure principle, and become enthralled to political ideologies that prioritise pleasure/the death drive. These are rightwing, conservative at best, fascistic more often at present. Much like the precariate ('the dangerous class') it is entirely possible - given the continuing failure of the left to articulate anything beyond an economic calculus, or a moralistic framing - that Zoomers (the many not being university educated at least) swing to the right.

Andrew Curry said...

@Mark James, @Anonymous: why immaterial labour produces new forms of class politics is well covered in the academic literature on work.

Lash and Urry (1994) describe the main ways in which the labour characteristics of knowledge and services workers differ from those who worked in manufacturing, processing, or administration roles. They identify a number of factors. Labour costs in these industries, they write, especially services, represents a high proportion of the total. They are design intensive, so supplies of adequate labour in the local area are critical. Labour is “implicated” (their phrase) in the services delivery, which is “the intended outcome of a necessarily social process” (p.200). Further, “the social composition of the producers... is often part of what is ‘sold’ to customers” (p. 200)

In turn (Frayne, 2015) says this means that emotional labour, the ability to perform emotional work becomes an integral part of the product or service.

Hardt and Negri argue in their book Declaration, is that “[t]he center of gravity of capitalist production no longer resides in the factory but has drifted outside its walls. Society has become a factory… With this shift, the primary engagement between capitalist and worker also changes.”

Or Cederström and Fleming (2012), “Life itself is now the most lucrative kind of capital being put to work, from the hipster marketing firm to the call center sweatshop.”