Hope is not lost, however! At least by the account of this enthusiastic millennial.
On his trip to America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of “The Social State of the Anglo-Americans” that “there is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that incites men to want all to be strong and esteemed.” He goes on to say:
This passion tends to elevate the small to the rank of the great; but one also encounters a depraved taste for equality in the human heart that brings the weak to want to draw the strong to their level and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom. It is not that peoples whose social state is democratic naturally scorn freedom; on the contrary, they have an instinctive taste for it. But freedom is not the principal and continuous object of their desire; what they love with an eternal love is equality; they dash toward freedom with a rapid impulse and sudden efforts, and if they miss the goal they resign themselves; but nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would sooner consent to perish than to lose it.
De Tocqueville’s point: freedom may trump equality in the narrative of a democracy, but that narrative is contrived. What matters most in the deep down things of human sentiment is equality and fairness.
If, below the surface of some younger comrades, a vision of humanity exists that is more than that which is preached by post-modern capitalism, more than a tightly-knit bundle of action and reaction, a vision that agrees with de Tocqueville’s assertion of the artificiality of the notion of freedom as the penultimate, then it is indeed possible for those comrades to break the neoliberal mold. In truth, if we are to take de Tocqueville’s claim to its extreme conclusion and assert that the human yearning for equality, although suppressed, may never be vanquished, then as long as there are those who are inclined to be attuned to their inner affections, there is no cultural, social, political, or economic system that can permanently oppress the human affinity for equality.
However, no account of human nature can predict the future, and even if we are to believe that the affections of the human heart are always able to break through a systematic suppression, there is no guarantee how, when, or even if that will happen.
Nevertheless, it is worth inquiring into possible scenarios in the contemporary realm that play out to a conclusion in which equality triumphs. Instead of asking, “Where do we go from here?” it is more fitting to ask, “Where can we go from here?” so that the younger generation of minority dissenters is ready to take advantage of whatever revolutionary situation may present itself.
Firstly, it seems as though one possibility is that participation—particularly millennial participation—in the general political process could eventually become so poor that it necessitates the creation of a substantially but not wholly new political outlook; not a new new left with a triumph in the voting booth as Beinart describes, but a new, extra-spectral outlook that seriously questions the role of business in culture and politics and the neoliberal narrative. Instead of millennials overtaking the political process with their voting numbers, the current trend of younger democratic participation (which is undoubtedly exaggerated by millennial-bashers but still significant enough to notice) could continue to worsen; and although it is indeed possible, it is difficult to have a convincing democracy when the largest age demographic all but completely removes itself form the political process. Thus, some political movers and shakers would be forced to take action in order to appeal to millennial voters as the most viable way to try to remain in power, and a top-down rather than a bottom-up movement of new political outlook would result.
The other foreseeable possibility is that a foreign policy disaster could spark a wave of non-interventionalist, and thus anti-neoliberal political action, similar to protests against Vietnam in the 1960s. U.S. foreign policy has become extremely unstable and conflicting in the past two decades, especially in the Middle East. It would not take a miracle for the wrong group to take power in the wrong country, e.g. Yemen or Iraq, or an Iran-Saudi situation could explode. This, of course, would not necessitate a full-fledged revolution, but if American guilt concerning the inhumane actions of its government would build enough, it would undoubtedly shake things up in Washington so much as to necessitate some serious reform. That is, unless the same corporate and political powers that co-opted the counterculture of the 1960s found similar success in quelling the concern of this hypothetical political unrest.
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Whatever may happen in the near future, young Americans must first forge their own, semi-original sociopolitical identity, as well as their own ideology and their own metanarrative, all based primary on a new understanding of human flourishing and secondarily (or not at all) on market forces.
The artist is not dead. The philosopher is not dead. Despite the facts of consumer culture, corporate lordship, and the undeniable co-optation of artistic expression on a mass scale, culture has not been completely stripped of its possibility for dialectical constructiveness. Dystopian novels and films are making a massive comeback, song lyrics are still revolutionary, art for art’s sake is still prevalent among urbanites… It is undoubtedly the case that neoliberal capitalism is still eating up culture and selling it back to us regurgitated, but if a new generation were to embrace something revolutionary for more than its stylistic or entertainment value, sparking an expressive movement that grew too fast for consumer culture to overtake it, then maybe a great awakening could occur, and something new new could rise up.
But, like Perlstein, big predictions make me uneasy, so for now, all that we can do is wait, engage in as many small acts of counterculture as possible, and be prepared to act should the opportunity for something bigger present itself.