1523 words: 10-minute read
It´s a well-known maxim that people grow more right-wing as they get older and there´s plenty of evidence for this. In a recent article, though, Guardian journalist Owen Jones claimed that millennials are bucking the trend: ´No other generation in recorded political history has retained such an entrenched rejection of rightwing politics as they’ve grown older´, he writes.
The unspoken assumption here is that millennials are left-wing and of course there´s a case to be made that they are; Jones refers to millennial commitments to anti-racism and LGBTQ+ rights for example. Most of us would agree that these are indeed progressive commitments and that they have their origins to the left of the political spectrum.
But what is striking about anti-racism and LGBTQ+ rights is how relatively readily they can be taken up by the right. Thinking only of the UK for now, David Cameron´s Conservative Party had little difficulty in adopting these causes, discursively at least, and much has been made of current Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak´s Afro-Indian descent and Hindu religion. This suggests that the progressive values and causes that Owen Jones deploys as evidence for his claim that millennials are hanging onto their left-wing identity are not so exclusively left-wing after all.
Of course there are elements of the right that continue to fight these practices tooth-and-nail (Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary is an example) but this doesn´t detract from the fact that mainstream right-wing parties have had relatively little trouble adopting what Jones implies are left-wing values and practices. So we must conclude either that mainstream right-wing parties are more left-wing that we thought they were, or that Jones´s criterion for ´left-wing-ism´ is less helpful than it might be. Let´s assume that today´s right-wing parties are indeed right-wing, and explore, instead, the thought that we need a better determinant of what it is to be left-wing than being anti-racist or pro-LGBTQ+.
Another possible litmus test would be to check the extent to which millennials cleave to a another left-wing value and objective: collective universalism. Ever since Enlightenment thinking tore into the apparently unassailable legitimacy of hereditary particularism - that there is a class ´born to rule´ - the left in all its guises has maintained a commitment to collective solutions rooted in universal values.
So how are millennials doing on the left-right spectrum if the touchstone is less a commitment to anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights etc, and more to collective universalism? Millennials’ politics is driven by the idea of identity, which, however it is understood in any particular case, is inescapably a subset of the universal. It is true that identity-based demands are often expressed in terms of universal human rights, but there is an inevitable tension between the universalism of human rights and the particularism of identity-based claims.
At root this is because such claims are prone to what philosophers would call ‘epistemological solipsism’. This is the idea that knowledge of what it is like inhabit a given identity, a gay woman for example, is only available to possessors of that identity. As identities multiply and become more refined and fractured, knowledges of subjection and oppression follow suit and the possibility of expressing that knowledge in universal terms becomes more and more remote.
Identity-based politics has always been suspicious of universalism, and with good reason. This mistrust is rooted in the observation that universalism often masks a particularism, usually one that benefits those with economic, political and cultural power. A quotidian and telling example of this is the use of the word ‘man’ to denote ‘humanity’. This apparently innocuous linguistic turn can have profound real-world consequences, as Caroline Criado-Pérez documents in her book Invisible Women where she shows how using men as the stand-in for humanity, and therefore for women too, has had a pervasive - and sometimes disastrous - effect on women’s wellbeing.
Does this mean that millennials are right to double down on political particularism? One detrimental effect of doing so is that their campaigns can only ever be driven by particular interests, thereby missing the point that the injustices suffered by one identity might well be shared with others (men and women’s carceration is a good example). Particularism creates blind spots: as the trees come sharply into focus the wood goes missing.
Collective solutions - another hallmark of left-wing thinking and action - are hard to articulate under conditions of estrangement and separation. In addition, these very conditions militate against developing an over-arching programme that might bring fissiparous identities together in a common programme. I have written elsewhere about how ‘identity-based politics needs criteria drawn from outside any already-existing identity if the aspiration to ¨be human¨ is to be fulfilled’.
But where are these universal criteria to come from? Can we avoid falling into the universals-are-really-particulars trap described by identitarians and discussed above? Well yes, actually, and pretty easily too - in principle at least.
Try a thought experiment. Imagine you’re designing criteria for a society you want to live in. Imagine, further, that you’re thinking about these criteria without knowing who or what you are going to be in that society. You don’t know your gender, race, your social status, intelligence, wealth, religion, sexuality, or physical strength. There is a possibility, therefore, that you could end up as one the poorest, most discriminated -against members of society. So the rational thing for you to do is to design criteria that cater for that eventuality.
What you definitely won’t do is draw up criteria that systematically favour wealthy, white, middle-aged men. In other words we have avoided the universals-are-really-particulars trap.
Of course this is none other than American philosopher John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’, a way of taking out all the contingent factors that could bias us when we think about the principles for a just and fair society. Over the past 50 years his ideas have come in for criticism from across the political spectrum, often with good reason. But the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance’ in an ‘original position’ when devising principles for the just society remains powerfully suggestive as a way of avoiding the universals-are-really-particulars trap. And note: we arrive at universal principles by avoiding all knowledge of exactly the thing that animates much millennial politics: our particular identity.
Given that the veil of ignorance produces the kind of non-discriminatory outcomes that millennial politics supports, is there anything to stop millennials supporting the more economic egalitarian principles that can be derived from behind the veil? After all, if it’s possible that you’d end up at or near the bottom of the socio-economic pile you’d surely want, as a minimum, welfare measures to ensure the greatest possible security for yourself. You might even want principles that would establish a formal economic equality in society through, say, 20-to-1 pay ratios.
The key point is that Conservative or Christian Democrat parties would find these principles much harder to adopt than the identitarian ones that drive Owen Jones’s argument. Such a move would change these parties so radically that they’d no longer be the same right-wing parties in a way that doesn’t seem to be the case with the adoption of anti-racism or LGBTQ+ rights.
There is indeed nothing to stop millennials endorsing socio-economic principles like this and no doubt many of them do. But, crucially, there is no necessary link between identitarian politics and economic egalitarianism. Indeed, data shows that while there has been a general improvement in LGBTI acceptance in 38 OECD countries over the past 40 years, the GINI coefficient in those same countries has gone up in a majority of them, indicating an increase in economic inequality*.
Without much more sophisticated work it is impossible to know if there is a causal link between the increase in equality for discriminated groups in OECD countries and a general decrease in economic equality in the same countries, but what is clear is the contrasting direction of these two trends. Anecdotal evidence is just that - anecdotal - but it is perhaps significant in this context to note two icons of gay rights, Martina Navratilova (tennis) and Megan Rapinoe (soccer), arguing forcefully - and successfully - for equal pay for men and women in their sports, without questioning whether the large sums men are earning (and with which women want parity) are themselves justifiable. It is hard to imagine Navratilova and Rapinoe behind the veil of ignorance arguing for special treatment for tennis and soccer players. After all, they might have ended up as ball girls or boot cleaners.
So is Owen Jones right to say that millennials are bucking the generational trend and sticking to left-wing politics rather than heading rightwards? If we’re happy to say that anti-racism and LGBTQ+ rights (for example) are exclusively left-wing then the answer may be yes. But I’ve argued that right-wing political formations find it relatively easy to to adopt these policies, discursively at least. A stiffer and more unequivocal test would be to ask for commitment to a collective universalism giving rise to a more equal distribution of income and wealth in society. Until and unless that happens, only two left-wing cheers for Owen Jones’s millennials.
* GINI data is taken from either from Our World in Data (changes in income distribution 1990-2015) or Index Mundi (1986-2019), and LGBTI data from the Global Acceptance Index (GAI) for LGBTI people 1981-2020. GAI improved in 30 countries, stayed the same in 7, and got worse in one (Turkey). GINI showed increased economic inequality in 24 countries, increased equality in 11, and the same level of inequality in 3.