One is old primarily in so far as he comes to live within a specific, individually acquired, framework of usable past experiences, so that every new experience has its form and its place largely marked out for it in advance.
— Karl Mannheim, The Sociological Problem of Generations, 1928
I was eleven years old when ABC aired The Day After, which remains the most watched television movie in history. More than 100 million of us gathered around our sets that night in late 1983 to watch nuclear war unfold in the American heartland. The blast footage and mushroom clouds were frightening, but it was the depiction of life afterwards that was indelible. A priest in a wrecked and roofless church weeping as he reads from Revelations, his face seething with radiation burns. Bodies dumped in mass graves, their gravediggers doomed to follow. ABC executives were reportedly in tears after seeing the first cut, and when the movie aired, the network sponsored toll-free hotlines staffed by emotional support counselors.
The film’s setting is, of course, a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The movie doesn’t say who launched the first missiles, or why. It was not about the politics of the Cold War, but the stakes. Nonetheless, its graphic depiction of the nuclear threat etched those underlying politics in my young mind. While The Day After stands out in my memory, it was of a piece with a great deal of my Cold War upbringing.
The dystopia depicted by The Day After stood in contrast to my sunlit California childhood. Most days, learning to throw a curveball or getting up the nerve to talk to the pretty girl in my Earth Science class took up my attention—not nuclear holocaust. But I knew the basics of our seemingly simple world politics. The Day After didn’t need exposition to introduce its global antagonists. There was us, the land of the free and the home of the brave. And there was them, the Soviet Union. The socialists.
It’s fair to say that we were fascinated by the USSR and the empire over which it presided. We were frightened by its nuclear arsenal, but also intensely curious about life behind the Iron Curtain. Media filled in the picture. “State Food Store 42, two miles from the Kremlin,” began a 1982 article in the New York Times, “is a dingy, ill-lighted place with floors slick from the slush of Krasnoprudnaya Street.” The writer, Times Moscow Bureau Chief John Burns, described “long lines of heavily clad shoppers,” waiting for their chance to buy “pitiful cuts of beef and mutton, mostly fat and bone.” Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev had recently put food shortages at the top of the Party’s agenda, and Times readers wanted to know how bad the situation had become. Surveying the situation across the Soviet Union, Burns found little reason to fear outright starvation, but reported on “demoralizing shortages and diets that are oppressively bland.”
Peering at Soviet life through the keyhole of printed dispatches and black-and-white, newsprint photographs, I saw little to recommend the socialist empire over the San Francisco suburbs. Grade school was the most oppressive force in my life, and I experienced a rebirth of liberty every weekday afternoon. A yellow school bus dropped my neighborhood friends and I at the corner, its diesel fumes fading into eucalyptus and faint sea breeze. We grabbed our BMXs and became two-wheeled Magellans, cartographers of bike paths and dried creek beds. In the summer we lived at the neighborhood pool, practicing front flips off the diving board. Sometimes we risked a cannonball, splashing the girls gossiping on the hot concrete and earning a whistle of reprimand from the lifeguard.
We were not rich by American standards, but we wanted for nothing that mattered. We could afford generosity. My grandmother was Polish, and every year, we packed a box of outgrown clothing to send to her extended family near Krakow. The Poles sent grateful replies, flowery in an old-world kind of way. They were specific in their requests; how we could supplement the meager products of their command economy. They wanted over-the-counter medicines, makeup, and well-made shoes. We had to ship each shoe in separate packages, my grandmother warned us, or the border guards would steal them. My Polish cousins were particularly overjoyed to receive my outgrown Adidas soccer cleats, needed to navigate the bleak landscape of sodden, socialist Poland.
Living under socialism, we understood, meant being oppressed by more than just bland diets and shoddy goods; it was dangerous. Speak out, and the secret police would take you to the gulag archipelago—a sprawling network of forced-labor camps. Persist, and they subjected you to formalized psychological torture in the infamous Lubyanka prison. The ultimate symbol of oppression was the Berlin Wall, an image that resonates with particular force today: socialism was an empire that had to build walls to keep people in.
Such was the context for the intellectual questions of political economy that were supposedly at the heart of the conflict. In high school, we spent a week or so reading Karl Marx and discussing the Bolsheviks, the rise of Stalin, and the creation of the modern USSR. Our teacher, a gentle man with a sharp mind, proved ecumenical on the subject. “Don’t blame Marx for Lenin’s mistakes,” he told us, trying to recover some of the intellectual depth and complexity the red maw of the Soviet machine had swallowed up.
But my teacher was swimming against the tide. When he first arrived at my school, he had hung portraits of European intellectual figures on the wall of his classroom, Marx among them. When he returned after his first summer break, however, the Marx poster had been removed. The irony did not escape his notice, but he let it go. Some battles are not worth fighting.
Three decades later, the Cold War against socialism was long over. It was 2016, and I was in Seattle, an aspiring writer living off my savings from a lucrative legal career and some fortunate real estate transactions. By the time the Democratic presidential caucus came around that March, the improbable run of the Bernie Sanders campaign was front-page news, so I wasn’t surprised by what I found at the elementary school caucus site. That is to say, I was not taken unawares.
In a gymnasium cluttered with folding tables and stressed out caucus volunteers, I watched person after person—mostly young, but not exclusively—stand up and make the case for “socialism.” Over and over, a current sparked in the recesses of my brain, powering a flashbulb illumination of food lines and ascending warheads.
I would not, then or now, describe myself as a reactionary. I am firmly convinced that the greatest threat to American prosperity and freedom is the concentration of capital in the hands of a few. I believe our government should redistribute wealth in ways that lift up the unfortunate and protect the vulnerable. I believe that the commodification of nearly all aspects of our lives into grist for the marketplace has had an alienating and deleterious effect on our psychological well-being and on our liberty. Nobody should be poor so that another may be rich. As a society, we can do better.
I held these views (though I might have articulated them differently) well before I walked into that 2016 caucus. Yet I no more thought they made me any variety of a socialist than I thought drinking red wine made me French, or listening to Wagner made me a Nazi.
What I found perplexing about the movement was not its specific policy proposals, some of which I agreed with. It was the willing adoption of a label that evoked both threat and failure. That’s not to say my concern was aesthetic. Raising the socialist flag was to proclaim ignorance of the past—an erasure of my own lived experience, and that of many millions who have, under socialism, suffered far worse than my childhood nightmares.
Early in his career, even Sanders himself didn’t use the word to describe his politics. As he told the Boston Globe in 1981, “I did not want to spend half my life explaining that I did not believe in the Soviet Union or in concentration camps.” He has gotten past that reluctance, of course, and among many of his supporters, it never existed. The Democratic Socialists of America have opened chapters in all fifty states. On Instagram and Twitter, socialist rose emojis spread like kudzu.
This emerging movement has been dubbed “millennial socialism,” and it is a useful phrase. The movement’s predominant demographic—as the name suggests—are those who came of age in the new millennium. Though as I saw that day at the caucus, anybody can be a millenial socialist. Furthermore, the movement itself is of the new millenium, forged amidst a capitalist system experiencing both unprecedented success and historic global crises. Every generation calls for revolution. This one is theirs.
But as Bernie and his supporters discovered in the 2020 Democratic primary, the revolution is not yet upon us. It appears I am not alone in my recoil from the socialist label. Polls show starkly different attitudes towards socialism by age group. Once the 2020 Democratic primaries narrowed to a two-man race, 60% of voters under 45 went for Sanders—but only 20% of us older than 45. What has caused such a deep and distinct divide in our politics? Can it really be due in large part, as I suspect it is, to memories of long-expired Cold War antagonisms? Was I really blaming Joseph Stalin for my visceral reluctance to even imagine voting for Bernie Sanders?
The popular term for this phenomenon is “generation gap.” The concept is familiar to us today, but the first serious inquiry into its nature was undertaken by a German sociologist, Karl Mannheim, in his 1928 essay, “The Problem of Generations.”
Mannheim believed that the phenomenon was rooted in our development. In our youth, we are malleable and open to the implications of new information. As we mature, we increasingly filter subsequent experiences through what we learned in our youth. “Early impressions,” Mannheim observed, “tend to coalesce into a natural view of the world. All later experiences then tend to receive their meaning from this original set, whether they appear as that set’s verification and fulfillment or as its negation and antithesis.” Mannheim thought we formed this “natural view” between 17 and 25, although subsequent research suggests that events experienced at younger ages contribute to our world view, and that we may be subject to influence by particularly profound events later in life as well. There is a neurological basis for this theory; our brains go through a period of enhanced flexibility and change in late adolescence, comparable to that which takes place in our first years of life.
What gives rise to generational views—and thus to generation gaps—is that major world events and historical dynamics are formative in a way that transcends individual experience. Subsequent research has borne out Mannheim’s analysis. Surveys of those who lived through world wars, the Summer of Love, and 9/11 show consistent patterns in perceptions based on when those events occurred in people’s lives. The results of this process are prevailing attitudes, deeply held and fundamental to subsequent understanding, that form within generational cohorts, and across class and culture barriers.
When I contemplate this phenomenon in my own life, and how it affects my response to millennial socialism, something else becomes clear. The deep associations that constitute our “natural view of the world” are interconnected concepts. They are passages from the sprawling novel of our lives. My response to the resurgence of socialism is not simply the memory of a frightening movie. It is the product of a framework of understanding that links together an array of concepts like individualism, freedom, optimism, and democracy. Concepts which are not simply abstractions or intellectual puzzles, but vivid memories, the experiences that defined who I am, and my relationship to America and the world beyond.
As America’s Cold War victory became imminent in the 1980s, we did not perceive capitalism as merely a system of production. It was part of a synthesis fusing democracy, rights-based freedoms, and international institutions. And it stood in inextricable opposition to the dark brew of socialist economic planning and authoritarian government.
Nobody understood the layered, emotional nature of the Cold War better than the man who presided over its pivotal phase, Ronald Reagan. Relentlessly upbeat, Reagan always balanced his references to “totalitarian darkness” and the “evil empire” with paeans to “the American experiment in democracy,” and to our commitment to “liberty, this last, best hope of man.” It was all of a piece: our commitment to freedom and democracy and our economic success, set against the socialist dependence on authoritarian rule and their resulting economic failure.
Reagan’s case was an easy one to make. America was rebounding from economic recession and healing from the convulsions of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. It really was, as Reagan put it, “Morning in America.” Meanwhile, on both the economic and political fronts, the great socialist powers were coming apart at the seams. China under Deng Xioping was turning inexorably toward markets to revitalize its sluggish economy. We assumed democratic reform would necessarily follow. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev called the two prongs of his reform program “perestroika” (economic restructuring) and “glasnost” (political openness). We translated them as Russian for “America has won.”
The engine of our victory, we understood, was not so much “capitalism,” but a wider array of values that capitalism inculcates: individualism, ambition, freedom. These values were personified across the cultural and political spectrum, from the Marlboro Man to Bruce Springsteen to Steve Jobs to Abbie Hoffman. But no character better personified the America into which I came of age than Gordon Gekko.
Gekko, the nominal villain of the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street, was a fictional “corporate raider,” played with Oscar-winning panache by Michael Douglas. Gekko was a practitioner of the “leveraged buyout,” a tactic to buy public companies by borrowing heavily, put the company itself up as collateral, then, in theory, use the company’s profits to pay off the debt. Raiders like Gekko argued that many American companies were poorly run by lazy managers more concerned with padding their expense accounts than delivering profits to shareholders. Managers, in turn, accused corporate raiders of looting venerable American companies for short-term profits.
Early in the film, Gekko targets a company called Teldar Paper, and at the shareholder meeting, management excoriates him for his greed. Gekko stands in response, the high priest of a new world order offering his catechism:
The point is, ladies and gentlemen, greed is good. Greed works, greed is right. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all its forms, greed for life, money, love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind — and greed, mark my words — will save not only Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
While Stone and Douglas, lefty products of the 1960s, wrote and played Gekko as a villain, they inadvertently created a hero for the new age. Because here’s the thing: Gekko was not wrong. American management in the 1970s had become moribund. It had grown fat on a generation of success. When growth slowed and foreign competition increased, American managers had engaged in some financial razzle-dazzle of their own. Their strategy was to mass together disparate companies in “conglomerates,” artificial entities that only exacerbated bureaucratic bloat and myopic vision. The leveraged buyout was the hammer that smashed the chains constricting American business. Gekko was a crook (spoiler: he goes to prison at the end of the movie for insider trading) but he was also exactly what he said he was. The individualistic, ambitious key to unlocking a new generation of profitable growth.
Like the conglomerates Gekko dismantled, the synthesized and competing systems represented by the United States and the Soviet Union overwhelmed their component parts, smothered and obscured them. Words like “capitalism” and “socialism,” or “democracy” and “freedom,” are slippery and hard to grasp. As in the famous experiment in which people were asked how a flush toilet works, most people are quite confident that they know what these words mean, but when asked to explain them, find themselves adrift in generalities and unexamined assumptions.
Limited understanding does not preclude the strong opinions. On the contrary, deeply held views on these vague concepts are among the first of the “obvious, important realities” that comprise Mannheim’s natural view of the world. Yet they are invisible to us as anything other than emotional triggers and pre-ordained truths.
Whatever I have come to think about these concepts intellectually, their emotional valence was formed in the era of America triumphant, as the Cold War passed into history and prosperity was promised to us all. The Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, and by the time I graduated high school the next spring, revolutions had swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was months from final dissolution.
At home, California was everything our newly liberated Polish relatives imagined it to be. A landscape of golden hills, dotted with dark green oaks. Our suburban neighborhoods pooled in the wide valleys, connected by rivers of asphalt freeways. My only substantive contact with the organs of state was the driver’s license in my wallet, and that, together with my father’s hand-me-down Ford LTD sedan, burst open my world. Out in the new wilderness of adolescence I learned how to tap a keg without spraying myself with beer, how to roll a joint, how to unhook a bra. Every one of us—my fellow Americans on the verge of adulthood and certain it would be like this forever—worried only about who would buy us beer that weekend, how to talk to the girl or guy we were crushing on, and what CD offered the best next cut for the soundtrack to our wide open future.
For a time, that future delivered on its promises. There were stumbles out of the gate, as we found our footing in the newly unipolar world. The Soviet Union had not even formally dissolved before we found ourselves embarked on a large-scale military adventure in Iraq. But 100 hours after the shooting started, strategic élan and technological superiority won the day. The next year, a shocking acquittal of cops who had ruthlessly beaten Rodney King led to six days of rioting and 10,000 soldiers on the streets of Los Angeles. But even as the smoke cleared, Bill Clinton played his saxophone on Arsenio, and promised a national healing. By my senior year in college, the future had started to appear on our computer screens inside something called a web browser, and technology had never held such promise. With each setback we found our way back to the path of progress, and events only reinforced our optimism.
“We came of age in this hopeful time,” a friend of mine put it to me recently. Then he added, his voice wistful, “And we might look back on it as the greatest time of hope.”
As the optimism of my youth winds down, I wonder how far its momentum has carried me. Like the cartoon coyote, fooled by the roadrunner yet again, I find myself out past the cliff’s edge, legs still spinning, afraid and unwilling to look down.
Capitalism has never promised grace or beauty, or even security. The trade we make, when we submit to the market, is for prosperity and freedom. But I see little evidence that capitalism is holding up its end of the bargain.
Twice in twenty years we have inaugurated a president who lost the popular vote, and who promptly looted the national treasury for the benefit of the wealthiest among us. Swathes of America face declining life expectancies, the grim toll of so-called “deaths of despair.” Working class wages are stagnant, economic generational mobility is declining, wealth accumulation in minority communities is nil. A virus stalks the globe. The seas rise.
The intrusion of the market into every sphere of life, rather than strengthening our civil society against these ills, has dulled our ability to respond. You pick your lane—or the algorithms pick one for you—and everything, from the headlines in your newsfeed to the protein in your refrigerator to the brand of shirt on your back, settles into alignment with your perfectly customized, endlessly reinforcing worldview. Disagreements only deepen, alternatives drift ever farther away.
On the right, the heirs to the Milton Friedman-Ronald Reagan school of conservatism have no adequate answer to global-scale problems and the rapacious conduct of the rich they lionize. It is no surprise that they have been eviscerated politically, deposed by a nativist populism which offers barely the pretense of a responsive program. In the center, the Democratic Party is lost in the wilds of identity politics and incremental solutions, beholden to wealthy donors, and politically neutered by an instinct for capitulation that the right is happy to exploit.
This was not the end of history we were promised. Some days, it feels more like the end times.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. While the shock of the 2016 election faded into a dull ache, I took an increasing interest in those bright-eyed young people who had urged socialism on me at the Seattle caucus.
I started with people I knew, socialists and otherwise, and asked them about their politics, their own formative experiences. I reached out to socialist thinkers and organizers, some prominent in the culture, some just friends of friends. “Tell me how you were radicalized,” I asked them, and every one of them had a story. I interviewed my parents, family friends, and pestered people at parties and wherever the subjects of socialism or capitalism came up.
Failed systems of the past and their definitions don’t interest the millennial socialists I’ve been reading, listening to, and interviewing. They have their hands full, as this publication puts it, “prying sense from our strange present.” Journalist Zach Carter distilled the zeitgeist: “For millennials,” he wrote, “‘capitalism’ means ‘unaccountable rich people ripping off the world,’ while ‘socialism’ simply means ‘not that.’” Carter is in excellent company; ”not that” was pretty much Karl Marx’s definition of socialism as well. Though Marx was and remains socialism’s foremost figure, he wrote almost nothing about how a post-capitalist system would work.
Marx watched the failure of 19th-century utopian socialist communities and understood that building just and prosperous societies is a thorny, perilous endeavor. And indeed, the failures of the 20th-century statist socialist projects in Russia and China gravely stained his reputation and that of the socialist ideals he championed.
But the past is the past. Whereas Moscow and Beijing once illustrated the dangers of statist socialism, they now warn us against blind faith in capitalism. China has at least managed prosperity for its people under its statist capitalism, but at the cost of gross corruption and totalitarian control. Putin’s gangster capitalism has made Russians neither prosperous nor free. Even in Washington, D.C., once the capital of “the free world,” corruption and authoritarianism takes root.
It is not capitalism’s collapse that frightens me, but its evolution.
The (false) lesson of our victory in the Cold War and the subsequent prosperity was that capitalism has an inherent bias towards fairness and justice. Get out of the way, and the market will work its magic. The (true) lesson has only been revealed in the fullness of years: the market is an amoral beast of elemental power. Suppressing it by force is a fool’s errand. But while it can be seductive, it is not your friend. Socialists, we must concede, called that one all along. Now the beast has slipped its chain.
These truths are difficult to perceive through a natural view of the world birthed in the sunshine of California, raised in the chill shadow of nuclear threat, and come of age in the triumph of individualism and prosperity. The facts behind them are evident, but naked facts are less compelling than our Enlightenment traditions would have us believe. Because we perceive them, as Mannheim explained, within the framework of our formative experiences. What gives that framework such power over us is that it is so hard to see. Like Baudelaire’s devil, whose finest trick was convincing us that he did not exist, our own minds deceive us.
We all have our Mannheim frameworks, once we have lived long enough to acquire them. Bias is not something only other people have. It is just easier to see bias in others, while in ourselves, we mainly feel its effects. The clench in our gut as we turn away from an inconvenient fact, the warm embrace we give a confirming opinion. This is the reality of the human experience, recognized not just by Mannheim, but 2,500 years ago by the Buddha, and the subject of Nobel Prize-winning work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Philosophy and science both teach us that there is no shedding of mental frameworks, no red pill, no easy path to unconditioned truth. What we can do, with practice and patience, is get better at recognizing how our experience narrows our perspective, how it predetermines our reaction to new events and ideas.
Ideology can help or hinder in this project. Too often, we fall back on ideology as a kind of external Mannheim framework, an even more reductionist, limiting context that saves us the trouble of considering new facts and experiences in any depth. But systems of ideas, especially those which are distinct from our own natural views, can also provide great clarity—a political “second opinion,” as it were. When the patient on the table is the sick body of capitalism, a healthy dose of socialism could be just the perspective we need.
Of Lenin and Mao’s many crimes, their perversion of socialism should not be overlooked. From Marx through Sanders and beyond, socialist thought ranges far beyond the narrow horizons of Soviet statism or adolescent slogans. Democracy, liberty, and the rights of the individual are fundamental. That’s not to say that socialists are always scrupulous in their support for democracy or individual freedom. Marx himself was unclear and inconsistent about the virtues of democratic versus revolutionary change—but so was Thomas Jefferson. And only one of them owned slaves.
The capitalist tradition does not hold a monopoly on concerns for personal liberty. Before socialism was wed to dictatorship in the public imagination, socialists like Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde wrote persuasively about the corrosive effects of capitalism on individual freedom and expression. Socialists are sometimes more insightful about the nature of freedom and democracy in a capitalist system, because they dare imagine an alternative. By doing so, they see beyond the limited horizons of the marketplace.
Millennial socialists are heirs to this essential tradition. Like that tradition, they are not infallible. Casually dismissing the risks of endowing government with too much power is unconscionable in a world where we carry surveillance machines in our pockets. Reasonable objections to ill-defined, wildly ambitious programs are too often met with hand-waving and invective. Some millennial socialists have a regrettable susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Others are more concerned with aesthetics than praxis. No matter. Movements are made by humans, and these are the failings of our species.
These weaknesses notwithstanding, millennial socialism is, in important respects, the only serious political movement in America today. It is the only one that thinks at the scale of the problems we face. The only one that looks with any perspective on their root causes. Witness the fact that while its standard bearer failed to secure the presidential nomination, his politics defined the terms of the debate and are expected to shape the Democratic Party’s platform. Crises abhor a vacuum.
Mine is not a call for revolution—not the barricades and guillotines kind, anyway. But a serious and far-reaching reassessment of our relationship to the market is urgently overdue. An assessment not limited to feel-good slogans and grand ideas. One that is rooted in the concrete and personal. Commodification, alienation, and exploitation are just words until they are put in the context of life experience—just as the virtues of entrepreneurship and competition are elusive to someone who has only seen them co-opted by concentrated capital.
Crossing chasms—generational or ideological—is a tricky business. Abstractions do not carry well in the thin air between the walls. Arguments that rest on them fare even worse. What makes it across unscathed, even freshened by the journey, are the memories from which we derive our perspectives.
When I interview millennial socialists, or anyone about this topic, I always start with their personal history. Often, the biographical narrative takes up most of the interview, and nearly always, it contains the most interesting parts. Frequently these are moments of revelation, recollections of experiences (generally during formative years) so intense that they punctured my subjects’ perceptual frameworks and reordered their natural views of the world. I have come to know just when I’m going to hear my subject say, “the scales fell from my eyes.” Whether they are seeing objective truth or simply adopting a new framework is beside the point. It is in these moments that I am most moved by their testimony, most inclined to see things from their point of view.
When we share our memories, it’s not natural to be strident, or vacuous, or small-minded, or otherwise undermine ourselves in any of the myriad ways we are prone to when we talk overtly about ideas. I can argue with your conclusions, but I can’t argue with your experiences. And only once we have some understanding of the context through which we are seeing these crises, can we hope to have a productive conversation about how to meet them.