An acquaintance recently sent me this essay written by Zachary Fine, an undergraduate at NYU—a thoughtful examination of why it’s so difficult for millennials to figure out what they like, what they care about, and what to do with themselves. It’s a decided improvement from the condescending, get-off-my-lawn millennial-bashing so beloved by conservatives, curmudgeons, and Wall Street Journal opinion editors.
Fine describes a phenomenon that is instantly, painfully familiar to anyone under 30: our voices feel interchangeable; there is so much contradictory information hurtling toward us at every moment that it’s difficult to ever make a decision or evaluate who in a given debate might be right; as the first generation fully indoctrinated into a culture of affirming every difference of opinion and identity, we’re hanging without any solid ground from which to make a moral or critical judgement or on which to build a meaningful commitment to something. Everywhere, despite whatever earnestness and work ethic millennials may have, they face seemingly endless indistinguishable choices, and respond with defeated detachment—indecision. This is not just a theoretical problem; it saturates the millennial experience to the core, affecting “work, play, politics or even love.”
Fine offers two explanations of this condition: 1) the internet/social media/global information exchange and; 2) “pluralism.” The rise of the internet and the “proliferation of voices has made most of them seem valueless and wholly interchangeable, even for important topics.” It’s happened in an age defined by “pluralism,” by which he means the hegemonic cultural ideology of affirming every position, of respecting an infinite array of differences, of refusing to pass judgement on anyone’s taste, choices, or lifestyle; of treating every position as morally, ethically, aesthetically equal. He also means the academic postmodernism that most of us who get liberal arts degrees encounter in college:
These ideas were reinforced in many humanities departments in Western universities during the 1980s, where facts and claims to objectivity were eagerly jettisoned. Even “the canon” was dislodged from its historically privileged perch, and since then, many liberal-minded professors have avoided opining about “good” literature or “high art” to avoid reinstating an old hegemony. In college today, we continue to learn about the byproducts of absolute truths and intractable forms of ideology, which historically seem inextricably linked to bigotry and prejudice.
Fine’s descriptions of our experience are all correct; I agree that something about what happened to Western culture in the past 40 years has made it very difficult to form and express firm convictions on issues of vital importance. But what is that something? Where did “pluralism” come from? Did it come from English departments in the 1980s? Or did it come from the the globalization of technology? Or was it perhaps entangled with another history, one that is conspicuously absent from Fine’s essay: the globalization of the capitalist economic system?
It’s not a knock on Fine’s essay to say that the critique of postmodern pluralism is hardly a new genre. Since the postmodern heyday, the trends Fine describes have been attacked by critics on both the left and right; Marxists argued that they undermined collective political projects; conservatives like Allan Bloom argued that they destroyed the constructive role education was supposed to play in creating rational, moral citizens. But critiques of postmodernism very often fall prey to what we might call “conservative idealism”; that is, they vastly overstate the degree to which history is driven by “isms.” They fail to consider how much the ideas in the university reflect the material evolution of society—especially relations of capital, production, labor, and markets—as much as they drive them. As Jacques Derrida pointed out in a lecture at Cornell in 1983, every discipline in the Western university is constituted by a network of authority that extends far beyond its walls, and is ultimately shaped by military, economic, and technological “ends.”
While ideas are certainly important, it is fairly clear that global capitalism is the unnamed root that connects all of the phenomena Fine is concerned about. Capitalists hate particularity; industries and markets want as much homogenization, as much interchangeability as possible, and therefore have a massive interest in erasing identities and convictions that obstruct the flow of commodities. This is perfectly compatible with pluralism and the affirmation of infinite differences; in fact, the shallow affirmation of difference is the vehicle by which the capitalist system achieves the homogeneity it can’t survive without. Fine quotes the art critic Craig Owens’ observation that pluralism is “a reduction of difference to absolute indifference, equivalence, interchangeability.” In other words, when every position is valid, none of them has any weight, and thus whatever position you hold, you hold it in a detached, relatively uncommitted way. This is the Platonic ideal of capitalist pluralism: everyone’s differences are affirmed as long as they can be held loosely enough to keep them out of the way of economic exchange. Diversity, then, is a powerful ideological tool by which the capitalist system buys consent; it presents itself as moral or ethical progress, but is really about bringing more and more different kinds of people into the web of the market. As the literary critic Walter Benn Michaels has argued, corporate HR is more excited about “difference” than the most bullshit cultural studies course you can imagine.
If Fine took a closer look, I suspect he might agree that the economic experience of being a 20-something in 2014 has a lot more everyday impact on the way millennials live and think about the world than the English class they took in college. The millennial life is constituted by the light-speed shifts of the market, and the expectation that we will need to maintain maximum flexibility in order to survive financially. Entire industries have been born and died in our lifetimes; no matter which sector we choose as a career direction, we can at best expect it to change almost completely every few years, and at worst have to worry that it could be entirely obliterated by technological change or financial crisis. The financial precarity that is definitive of today’s twenty-somethings, especially outside networks of elite privilege, makes putting down roots in a city, a social circle, or a single career field almost impossible. In a very real sense, we can’t commit because we can’t afford to commit. In another real sense, we have can’t commit because nothing lasts long enough to commit to; our social relations and cultural orientations are swept away, rendered obsolete, reset before they have time to play meaningful roles in our lives.
This is the part of the story that what I called “conservative idealism” leaves out by speaking as if literature professors are the main—or even a major—cause of our malaise. To look only at the ideas that were dominant in the university, without looking at the vast system of economic, military, and geopolitical forces that authorized them and gave them their shape, is to produce a critique that is just another another act in the ideological drama of that system. Millennials were shaped by the pluralist world long before they got lessons in diversity in grade school or lectures on difference in college, and they will have been even if they never encountered those ideas directly. If all we can do is point out where this ideology has been explicitly formulated, then we’ll never figure out where it’s coming from or how to shut it up.
I suspect that Fine’s essay is where a lot of millennials find themselves these days. It’s where I found myself just a few years ago: we know there’s something hollow about a culture for which convictions and judgements are all but taboo, and in which it feels so difficult to find a foothold for a meaningful life. Where everything feels like somebody’s opinion, somebody’s opinion that somebody else will point out is wrong and have a point. Where you only feel like you can be for something to the extent it isn’t against something else, or at least isn’t against something to the extent it would be “divisive” or hurt people’s feelings or start a riot. Why would we, if we can’t really be sure we’re right about anything anyway?
The ironic thing is that some of the very ideas “from the 1980s” that conservative idealists attack have opened a way to answering that question. Those ideas—the deconstruction of old, metaphysical notions of subjectivity and rationality, for example—did us the great service of showing us that we don’t need Logos, God, Vernunft, Geist or another form of absolute ground to still care about living meaningful lives. We don’t have absolute truth anymore, but we’re still here, still alive, and we still care. And it turns out we have a new universalizing force that shapes every one of our lives: an economic system that now encloses most of the globe and has failed to deliver the goods for all but a lucky few. One that is militantly and manifestly anti-human, greedily demanding speed, rationalization, efficiency, and simplicity where human beings are slow, irrational, inefficient, and (wonderfully) complex. The capitalist system thinks it’s roaming the globe in search of “emerging markets,” but it’s also creating exploited workers all over the world who could suddenly realize how much they have in common. No matter how different we are—linguistically, culturally, politically, sexually—there are only a very tiny number of people in the world who wouldn’t be better off if we replaced capitalism.
Capitalism certainly won’t serve as the ground of a new theory of subjectivity, but it can at least begin point the way out of our millennial indecision. It is so dominant, so pervasive, so entangled in our lives and dependent upon us, that it’s not even very hard to start resisting. Like Hegel’s master who is so dependent on his slave that their power relations reverse, it depends on us for its existence; it depends on us living in a certain way it demands—decentered, suspended, isolated, indebted. All we have to do is start living different ways, a little at a time. Start committing to people, places, things. Say yes to your friend’s party Saturday night, and go anyway even when something better comes up. Join an organization that fights for an issue you care about, and keep going even when the meetings are long, boring, and seem pointless. Fight for someone below you, anyone: immigrants, minorities, the homeless, the incarcerated, whoever; you’ll realize you had more in common with them than you thought. Commit to a person or people; stay in the same city with them, live with them, marry them. Join a union, especially if you’re the only member under 50; if there isn’t one where you work, start one. If you can find one that hasn’t retreated into spiritual apoliticism or reactionary traditionalism, I don’t even care if you take up a religion. The point is to build human ties, add little by little to your network of solidarity, make it thicker and stronger. It won’t be enough, but it’ll be a start. Capitalists hate it when human ties get in their way.
Oh, and about that. We’ve grown up in a very weird, short period in human history where hate isn’t a normal part of society, where it’s “divisive” to hate the people who carry $10,000 handbags when teachers are buying school supplies out of their own paychecks. Like everything else, hate has been turned into a private, pathological emotion rather than a constitutive part of any healthy politics. In reality everyone hates; the trick is to learn to hate the right way, to hate because you love something. Don’t hate because people are bad, hate because people are good, especially all the people who struggle, suffer, and die while they’re at work to send skyscrapers plunging up into the Dubai skyline and Apple’s profit margin climbing up the charts. You don’t have to look for who to hate; when you start making decisions and commitments, I promise they’ll find you. You’ll suddenly have a position, and enemies. Not just the individuals whose pernicious designs you might thwart if you’re lucky, but the whole system in which they’re helpless players. It’s the warm glow of systemic hatred—hatred between political enemies—that suddenly finds you when you start resisting. There’s nothing like being hated to shake you out of indecision. It warms you all over, then it starts to burn, and it feels amazing.
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