Marx for Millennials
November 18, 2013
By Andrew Seal
I saw the best minds of my generation recruited by McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and Bridgewater. The rest of us became Marxists. There have now been quite a few attempts to account for a sudden "resurgence" of Marxism—or at least a new openness to anticapitalism—among people of my generation. (A representative example, an article in Tablet, was subtitled "For those too young to remember the cold war but old enough to be trapped by the Great Recession, Marxism holds new appeal.") Given the dire economic times, especially for twenty- and thirtysomethings, some leftward shift was expected. But this recursion to Marx seems inexplicable, anachronistic, even cavalier. Why Marx? Why Marx now? Common explanations go something like this: Those of us who reached intellectual maturity in the early and mid-2000s spent much of that time feeling adrift, politically torpid, uncompelled by the aging classics of the Theory Era, yet unable to generate anything distinctively new. Then came 2008 and the global financial crisis. The crisis brought to a head what had been whispering in the ears of millennials: a sense of permanent economic precariousness and a distrust of the political and economic remedies of our elders. We realized that we wouldn't escape, through pluck or individual merit, the gruesome combination of a desolate job market and a shredded social safety net. We cast about for a coherent explanation of the crisis that might promise social and systemic remedies. Thus we turned to Marx, whose very unfashionableness, even illegitimacy, suddenly became a cardinal virtue. But that is not exactly how it happened. That there is a resurgence of Marxism is undeniable, although we should be more precise about what is resurgent, and why. A culturally oriented Western Marxism has been inescapable in universities; avoiding names like Gramsci, Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson in a humanities or social-science program would be like walking through Dublin without passing a pub. What is resurgent is therefore not Marxism per se but its more strictly economic texts and concepts; we are reading not just Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" but Capital itself (even the dull second volume!). This revival of Marxist political economy seems to imply a turn away from the cultural emphases of scholarship inspired by Western Marxism and its French cousin, poststructuralism. Framed within a generational narrative, it is tempting to read this shift as a youthful impatience with the "merely cultural" concerns of race, gender, and sexuality, which are best set aside while confronting neoliberalism head on. Yet such a drastic abandonment of the painstaking gains of a generation of scholarship on those cultural questions is less evident than one might think (though it is alarming to me that most Capital-quoters I have encountered are white men). There is indeed for us a sense of exhaustion of the old classics (Derrida, Ricoeur, and Baudrillard all died while I was in college), but it is the voice of these texts that is worn out, not their drive to break apart the invisible foundations of power and privilege. The continuities between today's focus on political economy and the aging Theory Era, however, are often obscured by an exaggerated narrative of willful rediscovery of Marx, as if our inspirations are only our own intelligent resentment of the economy and the powers behind it. Let us not give ourselves too much credit: Marxism, especially its dense texts of political economy, is not a particularly inviting corpus for beginners, and to say that my generation rediscovered it is arrogant. We were introduced. Few of these introductions occurred in the classroom. Instead, our introductions to Marxism typically took the form of breadcrumb trails: stray insights and leading references from an older generation of writers—for me, the critic Scott McLemee, as well as George Scialabba and Michael Bérubé, was particularly influential. (Also helpful was Verso Books, whose book list includes both the Western Marxist canon and many crucial works of Marxist economic theory.) But those writers did not so much lay out a coherent approach to Marxism as identify places where we could pick up the path. Self-initiated but far from self-sufficient, our education in Marxism was piecemeal, our learning curve jagged. Eventually, we would find each other and pool our breadcrumbs. Some of the coverage of the Marxist resurgence has focused on the boomlet in Marxist-leaning journals, mostly based in New York, like n+1, The New Inquiry, and Jacobin (full disclosure: a number of my friends and I have written for those journals). But missing is how secondary those journals really are. Small in circulation, it is their social penumbra that earns them influence—particularly the interaction of their editors, contributors, and readers both online and in the flesh. It is as much the vigorous debates these journals inspire as their content that brings a vitality to Marxist discourse. Because the Marxist revival seems, despite these strong intergenerational ties, so much a generational event, much has also been made of the absence of a cold-war consciousness among the new generation of Marxists, as if we are able to turn to Marx simply because we don't remember the Soviet bloc. Yet perhaps it is not our ignorance but new knowledge that spurs us on: As we move away from the cold war and further into the global war on terror, more and more accounts emerge of the violence inflicted by capitalist regimes across the globe. The 20th century now looks far less like a century of merely red terrors; there was more than enough white terror to go around. Lastly, the financial crisis did help bring about the Marxist revival, but in a far more intimate manner than the popular narrative suggests. It wasn't a macroeconomic crisis that awakened us to the fact that capitalism had a few problems. For many of the young people who now read and write about Marx, especially the graduates of elite colleges, Wall Street was not merely an abstraction, but a place where many people we knew worked. In addition, nearly all private colleges (and many public universities) talk incessantly about—and constantly solicit for—their endowments, and investment bankers and hedge-fund managers routinely fill their trustee boards. Even apart from the enormous issue of student debt, to go to college today is to take a four-year course in the centrality of finance to our political, economic, and intellectual lives. In the first volume of Capital, Marx invites his readers to follow him into the "hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face 'No admittance except on business.'" For Marx, it was only by crossing that threshold that capitalism's inner workings could truly be understood; without that peek into the "hidden abode," the right questions could not even be formulated. Marx was able to move past these signs of "No admittance" largely because of his friendship with Friedrich Engels, whose family held manufacturing concerns in both Germany and England. Could we then say that our friends who ended up on Wall Street, even our colleges themselves, were our Engels, the patrons of our glimpse into the "hidden abode" of finance? Perhaps those Goldman Sachs employees milling around our campuses recruited more than interns.
Andrew Seal is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Yale University.