5. The Purveyors of Ambiguity

In order for any social group to prompt any lasting change, a narrative first needs to be established.

This is not a given in American thought, where the democratic process as an infallible, self-regulating political device (yes, the free market of politics) is venerated religiously, but this thesis has just spent four chapters explaining how democracy in America, with its dark money, rampant pluralization, and lack of ideological dialogue outside of the dominant ideology, is systematically unable and unwilling to dramatically change in order to address popular concerns (in other words, it is not a democracy). Therefore, if Americans, particularly young Americans, want their informal discussions to metamorphosize into formal changes, they are going to need a movement. And not just a movement, a movement with a narrative, an alternative narrative, with coherent concerns and desires and maybe even demands.

Let us first look at Occupy as a case study of the nature of contemporary sociopolitical movements. Occupy Wall Street, the “people-powered movement” of 2011 that aimed at “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process,” looked like a revival of the thought-to-be-dead occupation-style protest at the time of its inception. It was young, it was unapologetic (the tagline on the Occupy website reads “We kick the ass of the ruling class”), and it expressed discontent with the very systematic structures of neoliberalism that this thesis ultimately condemns. However, by definition, Occupy was ambiguous. Not only did it often haphazardly throw around terms and ideas in situations which made it clear that a large portion of its participators did not intend to touch upon their concrete nuances and historical contexts (see the explosion of the talk of “socialism” and the willy-nilly use of the anarchist “A”), but it was actually a defined part of Occupy’s mantra to avoid metanarrative and structural demands. One of the only defined parts of its mantra, in fact, as “Occupy rejected traditional structures in favor of ‘participatory democracy’ and making all decisions by consensus.” It was an idealistic model that sought to

take democracy back from those who were corrupting it, but what Occupiers did not realize was that the idea of radical democracy accomplishing anything substantial in a setting as large and expansive as general American society is farcical—a dream that the same powers who continue to push the agenda of a laissez faire utopia like to propagate to rationalize that continued upward redistribution of power—, thus the reason it dissipated without so much as any concrete lasting change. In order for Occupy to have demonstrated any potential in pushing for that change, it would have first had to take as assumption that which it spent all of its time discussing: the unavoidable guilt of the 1%, the dissatisfaction with the current “system,” etc. Then it would have had both the platform and the opportunity to discuss real, non-tenuous solutions and demands. Instead, “Occupy famously refused to define its ‘demands,’ […] arguing that [that] was a key ingredient in the movement’s appeal.”

Occupy was in no way a disaster, however. In many ways it was crucial to introducing the millennial generation to a vocabulary of dissent, and without it this thesis would either never have been written or would have been written all but devoid of hope (hope to come in chapter seven). “While Occupy itself has dissipated, its success in riveting public attention to the issue of inequality has endured.” It has sparked smaller-scale, smaller-but-more-concrete-issue movements regarding sexual assault, racism, feminism, and the like, and it has re-kindled the dying ember of opposition. Still, if younger generations continue to build upon Occupy’s developments with movements of the same make and model, corporate consumerism is going to continue to swallow up “progress” and regurgitate its watered-down form to the masses in its advertisements and culture of hip.

Thus, returning to the main point of this chapter, if millennials are not able to be driven by anything positive or negative, and all they have is their confusion and their non-unanimous, ill-defined dissent, it is undeniably unlikely that they will be able to form anything that is both alternative and tangible.

Millennials are very issue-oriented. Instead of adhering to an agenda or an ideology, they tend to take things on a case-by-case basis; and instead of forming a narrative and applying it to issues as they arise, millennials have taken to letting the issues dictate their flimsy non-narrative. They are reactive rather than reactionary, allowing themselves to be blindly swept around by fads and hype, not allowing any concerns or discords to stick to their collective consciousness.

So who are millennials? They are the purveyors of ambiguity. They are market-oriented neoliberals, not at all the watershed generation that Beinart is hoping for. In fact, it is doubtful that they can be referred to as a generation at all, at least in the way that Mannheim described. They are, in effect, only a generation for the sake of the marketers, who have so worn out millennial talk trying to define their tendencies and attributes that they have rendered “millennial” as a term more or less meaningfully unusable by any discipline—so much so that we are starting to see Adweek articles writing millennials off as yesterday’s news and moving on to dissect “the post generation” (another sensational name for the generation after millennials), undoubtedly to unrecognizable and incoherent oblivion.

Now, this is in no way meant to be just another millennial bashing. The account of millennial coming of age given in this thesis is meant to push the school of thought that attributes millennial modes of thinking, especially when it comes to millennial non-generationalism, as being based on forces mostly outside of millennial control. The editorial piece from n+1 magazine mentioned in the preface describes it best: “millennials grew up not self-making but defined and redefined by people several decades older;” and in another paragraph: “articles that worry over the socialization of millennials function as a way of socializing them into an unequal society. This self-fulfilling prophecy has turned out to be tremendously useful to ruling classes who find the remaining institutions of the welfare state frustrating.”

For one, technology and social media, the grand connectors and shrinkers of the world, have pluralized millennials to the point of no return. It is a common assumption in America that, because recent technological advances have exponentially increased communicatory abilities with an exponentially greater number of people, they have also posed more opportunities than ever to unify people under common causes. In actuality, as much as technology has allowed especially millennials to broaden their horizons, it has also exposed them to so much information and so many ideas that one thing cannot possibly take hold and sprout into a movement. Millennials may be more aware of events and issues like Kony or Ferguson or the Defense of Marriage Act or Ebola (which is, despite all but dissolved news coverage, still a problem in west Africa), but once those things disappear from millennials’ newsfeeds, the sense of urgency that once accompanied those topics disappear with them.

One example that has been used over and over to demonstrate the power of social media is the roll that it played in the spread of the Arab Spring. Undoubtedly, if it weren’t for Twitter, the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, would not have taken off like it did, and definitely would not have spread as rapidly. The thing is, social media in the Arab Spring was not used as an ideological platform; it was used simply as a tool to spread a narrative that was constructed offline, both in advance and during the movement itself. In order  for millennials to embrace social media in the way that they think they can, they must first construct an original metanarrative outside of open cyberspace. Until that point, social media just continues to act like a pluralizer.

The other and most important great pluralizer in the lives of millennials is the market state, which has white-washed the confrontation off of the minds of more than just millennials. Since the first widespread popular proliferation of counterculture in America during the 1960s, corporate America has been able to spin dissent into something profitable via co-optation. Co-optation, in this case, describes the process by which business consumer culture subsumes counterculture by stylizing it, advertising it, and selling it back to the masses, thus in the process stripping it of its dissention, and it has been common marketing practice since the advent of rock and roll. Just like anti-Vietnam War hippies were entranced and neutralized with bell-bottom pants, leather vests, and Volkswagen busses, those hipsters dissatisfied with the neoliberal machine are quelled into non-action with thick-rimmed glasses, flannel shirts, and record players. Yet co-optation and the profitable corporate regurgitation of counterculture are topics that seem to be off the radar of many Americans, especially young Americans. In his book, The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank says that “regardless of whether or not co-opters deserve our vilification [a statement deceivingly noncommittal], the process by which they make rebel subcultures their own is clearly an important element of contemporary life,” and it is one that millennials, saturated in neoliberal consumer culture and the language of private enterprise, barely even notice, and thus are unable to combat.

Millennial concerns regarding co-optation, the pro-corporate neoliberal agenda, and the dominance of consumer culture are all shrunk as alternatives to neoliberal business culture sink deeper and deeper into the past. Although it is inevitable that certain pockets of confrontation spring up now and then (e.g. Occupy, Ferguson, etc.), the more embedded the present narrative becomes, the further away things like civil rights movements, labor movements, unions, protests, viable countercultures, etc. get, and thus the less urgent concerns regarding the current narrative seem.

To demonstrate this point, let us revisit the Harvard Institute of Politics study concerning wealth inequality in the United States that was introduced in chapter two.

The above graph demonstrates the full findings of the study, which not only measured the extent of income inequality in the United States (the top bar), but also polled both what Americans thought the actual extent of income inequality was (the middle bar) and what they thought to be the ideal distribution of wealth (the bottom bar). From this we can assert more than the fact that wealth inequality in the United States has reached Dickensian proportions. We can also assert that, although it is clear that there is a difference in terms of what the American population desires in terms of socioeconomic structure and what it thinks it has (and in that there could be hope for a revolutionary up and coming generation), the culture is so steeped in its own false narrative that there is also a huge difference between what it thinks it has and what it actually does have.