Don’t just behead that Zombie culture war, burn the body. There are more on the horizon.

I was born on the cusp between Generation X and the Millennials, and share with both generations a distaste for the politics of the Boomers. I sometimes they that only a generation so narcissistic that it couldn’t see past the corpse of its self-righteousness indignation. Now that is inchoate generational rage from the pageant of the Boomer 1960s which every five or so years we must be reminded how beautiful and wonderful the 20-somethings of the late sixties were. Yet, I have always had to reconcile this with the fact that I, while not close to my parents, have a fairly functional relationship with some of them. My mother was a late boomer, and my rage at her generation stems–not so much from resentment–but at the failed promises and half-truths of the people who gave us both 1968 and the Reagan revolution.

So what does this have to do with the culture war and with generational issues? Actually, I suspect quite a bit. I was reading Ben over at Marmalade again and his post “Behead that Zombie Culture War”. There is much to agree with his logic and his generalization, but let’s look at a good bit of the situation:

The Silent and Boomer generations were born before and in many cases grew up before the present culture wars even began (i.e., the 60s; and not really gaining full momentum until the late 60s). Also, they didn’t know the hardships and sacrifices previous generations made. They didn’t experience the oppression that led to the rise of working class movements during the Populist and Progressive Eras. They didn’t experience having to fight for basic rights and protections during an era when industrialism arose. They didn’t experience WWI, didn’t experience Prohibition and the Great Depression, didn’t even experience WWII to any great extent (although some Silents would have memories of it from childhood).
The era of the early lives of Silents and Boomers was a time of mostly peace and prosperity. It was a time when liberalism reigned without much challenge (progressive reform, high union membership, enactment of EPA, progressive taxation, building of infrastructure, the G.I. bill, etc), and this liberalism created a booming economy and growing middle class (along with increasing social mobility, career opportunities, and civil rights). Silents and Boomers, especially the latter, grew up in privilege and entitlement. They only knew the benefits of what previous generations had fought for but not the hardships and sacrifices. For this reason, they became in many ways selfish generations who dismantled much of what they had benefited from, pulling up the ladder behind them so that later generations would struggle and suffer (if you’ve paid attention, you’d notice that Boomer-dominated unions often are more protective of the rights of older workers than of newer workers who tend to be of the younger generations entering the workforce)

There is something to this analysis that there was a generational battle in the 1950s and 1960s that came from a general feeling of prosperity, but I would contest that Generation X and the Millienials haven’t been in an experience of decline for long enough to start saying that is the major cause of the shift. Indeed, the culture wars seems irrelevant to most of us because the wins and loses have pretty much been at a stand-still or about three decades now with just finer and finer points being rehashed in the Supreme Court. So a sort of inertia is going on both sides as they are both largely decontextualized. But this brings me to another of Ben’s points:

As a GenXer, I grew up in the world made by the Boomers. Even as an adult from the mid 90s to the present, the impact of Boomers was mostly in the foreground and the impact of GenX was mostly in the background. If GenXers wanted to play in politics or the marketplace, we largely had to play according to the rules set down by the Boomers (the internet seemingly the only place where GenXers could operate on their own terms). I feel disappointed in my generation for having conceded so much to the Boomers. I know we were a small generation and couldn’t fairly compete with the Boomers, but still I wish we had been more of a thorn in the side of power. Instead, we in many ways just played along and made things even worse, embracing the Reagan era mantra of greed and self-centeredness (my generation playing no small part in helping to cause the economic problems), too many of us becoming politically cynical and apathetic in the process or else bitterly angry in our fight against such apathy. The closest most GenXers got to political involvement was to become anti-statists and anarchists fighting against the New World Order or against the the liberal elites (depending on one’s ideological persuasion), but it was a politics without vision or even much hope, just reactionary activism against Boomer’s society (Tea Party GenXers like Beck and Palin being the prime examples of this GenX style activism). I didn’t get a full doseage of Reagan rhetoric as I was on the younger end of GenX, but I’ve seen its impact on my generation.

Despite my emotional response, I’m still able to step back and look at all of this somewhat objectively. I’m fascinated by the close connection between culture war and class war. They seem to be two sides of the same coin. Generally speaking, both the left and right usually see the culture war of the other side as blatant class war, both sides agreeing that there is a culture war going on even while disagreeing about eachother’s motives, the difference being that the left is more likely to see culture war and class war as inherently linked. Most liberals probably don’t take as an insult the conservative allegation that they are pushing class war. The liberal agrees there is a class war, although they would simply add that the rich are winning. Conservatives often use rhetoric grounded in obvious class war, but for some reason they are unwilling to admit to it. I think it’s because there is no way to admit to the class issue without also admitting to the race issue, those two also being inherently linked (or so it seems to my liberal-biased mind).

The funny thing is that for all the Generation X alienation, there is a still a whiff of spurned promises that the Millennials got even more.  This brings me to an interesting article by Noreen Malone which gets to a real problem on the generation gap which the Millennials, while “Generation X” went through it’s “we’re going to be the first generation that doesn’t do as well as our parents” during the entirety of the 1990s, at no point where there statistics that looked as structurally changed as this:

Nearly 14 percent of college graduates from the classes of 2006 through 2010 can’t find full-time work, and overall just 55.3 percent of people ages 16 to 29 have jobs. That’s the lowest percentage since World War II, as you might have heard an Occupy Wall Street protester point out. (Not coincidentally, one in five young adults now lives below the poverty line.) Almost a quarter more people ages 25 to 34—in other words, people who should be a few years into their independent lives—are living with their parents than at the beginning of the recession.

Being young is supposed to mean you have the luxury of time. But in hard times, a few fallow years can become a lifetime drag on what you earn, sort of the opposite of compound interest. Because the average person grabs 70 percent of their total pay bumps during their first ten years in the workforce, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, having stagnant or nonexistent ­wages during that period means you hit that springboard at a crawl. Economist Lisa Kahn explained to The Atlantic in 2010 that those who graduate into a recession are still earning an average of 10 percent less nearly two decades into their careers. In hard, paycheck-shrinking numbers, the salary lost over that stretch totals around $100,000. That works out to $490 or so less a month, money that could go, say, toward repaying student loans, which for the class of 2009 average $24,000. Those student loans (the responsible borrowing option!) have reportedly passed credit cards as the nation’s largest source of debt. This is not just a rotten moment to be young. It’s a putrid, stinking, several-months-old-stringy-goat-meat moment to be young.

Earlier generations have weathered recessions, of course; this stall we’re in has the look of something nastier. Social Security and Medicare are going to be diminished, at best. Hours worked are up even as hiring staggers along: Blood from a stone looks to be the normal order of things “going forward,” to borrow the business-speak. Economists are warning that even when the economy recuperates, full employment will be lower and growth will be slower—a sad little rhyme that adds up to something decidedly ­unpoetic. A majority of Americans say, for the first time ever, that this generation will not be better off than its parents.

So while Generation X’s retreat was partly from the same excess that generated the Boomer self-righteous, the real economic loss is among the young.   That said, the old conservative yarn about how liberals–boomer and GenX–prepared their children for a world that, would chew them up and spit their entitled asses back out seems to be something that Millenials on aggregate actually recognize:

 It might be hard, in fact, to create a generation more metaphysically ill-equipped to adjust to this new tough-shit world. Yet some of us, somehow, are dealing pretty well.

Now, this Gizmodo rant I linked to seems have missed that point and also missed this:

But Generation X is tired of your sense of entitlement. Generation X also graduated during a recession. It had even shittier jobs, and actually had to pay for its own music. (At least, when music mattered most to it.) Generation X is used to being fucked over. It lost its meager savings in the dot-com bust. Then came George Bush, and 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Generation X bore the brunt of all that. And then came the housing crisis.

You see that the employment statistics were not as bad for Millennials and Generation X, but this is what I think Ben might not be onto, the sense of entitlement and privilege for post-war America was taking a historical outlier as a given: true for Boomers, X, and Millennials. Furthermore, the self-righteous posturing there is indicative of privilege that has been falsely promised by Boomer and Silent parents to both generations, but honestly, I think there is an indication that the Millennials grew up after the shift.  Now, this brings me back to the culture war:

If you look at the people on the left who have painted the darkest picture of what the economic downturn means, they’re a generation ahead: Matt Taibbi, for one, or Ken Layne, the publisher of Wonkette, whose ironized blog prose mixes strangely with his incredibly bleak reading of the economy and culture. (Layne told me, in an e-mail of ambiguous sincerity, that the main advice he would give a recent graduate was to own only what would fit in a backpack and keep a current passport always on hand.) They are unabashedly, feverishly upset. Their words practically sweat clammily. Our generation tends to prefer our dystopian news ­delivered with the impish smile of a Jon Stewart. (I turn the channel when it’s time for scowling, ranting Lewis Black.) Reared to sponge up positive reinforcement that requires only a positive attitude as a buy-in, we are just not that into anger.

If I read the barometer of these articles right, but generations are part of a narrative of decline while the boomers were battling out identity issues (without changing much fiscally for most of the identity’s involved. Black relative income has declined since the 1970s, and integration hasn’t gone so well for it.  In fact, many older Southern blacks such as
Zora Neale Hurston grounds that it would undermine black control of its communities, which, sadly has been largely true.)

This is another thing that these pieces seem to miss: the culture wars have affected different communities quite differently, and much of it does seem like the rantings of the relatively privileged. Which is why the culture war seems like a proxy for class, but it is a proxy for the lower middle class whites to argue with the upper middle class whites. Furthermore, I think that most of the issues of the culture war–with the exception of abortion–have been resolved ultimately in a strange cultural compromise that honestly no boomer would be happy with given their historical ideologies. William Saletan has stated it, “But to make a real difference, he’ll have to tell two truths that the left and the right don’t want to hear: that morality has to be practical, and that practicality requires morals.”

The emerging compromise is born out of practicality from generations which seems to have new zombie bodies to decapitate over who is going to get the most denied it from those Boomers and their taking a historical outlier for normalcy. Meanwhile, what I said about median income increase, while that seems to be reversing. The Devil’s advocate makes this point:

The version of capitalism we live in today, whether it is in USA, socialist Western Europe or not-really-communist China, is built on certain assumptions that are simply not true today.

1. Capitalism, in all of its known forms, is a ponzi scheme that requires a naive, youth-heavy and disposable population to enrich the few. Ironically, communism required the same and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe occurred about a generation after people started having smaller families. Coincidence?

Now tell me- which developed countries are becoming younger and growing at rates approaching those seen say 60 years ago? Even many developing countries now have birth rates and life-expectancies that are essentially equivalent to developed countries.

2. Successful and stable capitalism requires ever-increasing amounts of money changing hands (increased aggregate consumption) but it’s very structure ends up concentrating money in a few hands (reducing aggregate consumption) thereby ultimately destroying the very condition required for its success and stability.

How can you make ever-increasing amounts of profits if you have increasingly fewer and poorer customers? Sure.. you can cook the books for a decade or so, but can you do it forever?

3. Most of the paid-out profits in capitalism are based on projections of future growth and accounting ‘techniques’. In the old days, real growth and technological advancement allowed the scam artists (capitalists) to paper over those discrepancies. Today the system does not have enough real growth or technological breakthroughs to allow the scammers to deliver on their promises.

So they are now effectively sucking blood (money) out of a body (system) which cannot produce more than what is being lost. The requirement for ever-increasing profit in capitalism is a form of parasitism which is totally dependent on the availability of a healthy and growing host to be be sustainable.

4. Successful and stable capitalism is also dependent on the vast majority of people in that system playing by unwritten rules that ensure a reasonably functional society. But would they still do so in face of falling incomes, bailouts for the rich, lack of social safety nets, disintegration of conformity-inducing family units and a general “screw others” attitude?

The information age (last decade) and the rapid decline of group conformity have increasingly created a cynical, detached individual who is only looking out for himself or herself. While the possibility of large-scale and outright violent confrontation has decreased over the last 40 years, dysfunction by a billion small passive-aggressive cuts is a real possibility.

In some ways the current problems are even bigger and more systemic than what Marx foresaw. The systemic defect lies in the underlying system that gave rise to all versions of capitalism, communism, feudalism etc. You simply cannot run a technologically advanced and steady-state society by the paradigms, means, rules and institutions we are familiar with. Nor can you turn back the clock..

You see: that was only the first zombie. Time’s they are a changing and culture with it. The outlier superficial culture wars of the boomers probably haven’t seen anything compared to a battle over what the future might look like.

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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on October 24, 2011, in Economics, Left-turn, Philosophy and Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great examination.

    I do think the various authors miss the point about the Silents. They were the most nervous generation in this century, never believing that they truly could own their successes and always overshadowed by the Greatest Generation. That conflict has been marginalized from the history book, but was obviously the ferment that helped create rock and roll and the figure of the teenager.

    In some ways we’re also buying into the golden age of Capitalism myth when we think of the 1950s as a time “before cultural wars,” unless we’re using a pretty narrow definition of what those wars were / are…

    It was also Silents, remember, that led the various leftist movements in the 1960s as well as the self-help groups of the 1970s and 80s. Although they might have lived in materially secure world, they were always neurotic and uneasy with success, feeling as though they didn’t fit in, highly psychologicalized.

    I understand Gen X disappointment. We wish we could have been more present in the events that shaped the world, but we forget how impossible it was to be heard and seen in the 80s and 90s. When Clinton ran on helping poor young people and then gutted welfare, we knew that there was nothing we could do to alter the shape of politics because they were entirely based on middle-class Boomer values.

    I don’t think Gen Xers feel entitled to any great degree. We have just seen this narrative before.

  2. Fair enough. Particularly good point about the silents, well, get lost in the narrative. I suppose they always have. I am technically Gen X, but barely so. Literally by one year. I feel like I am the embodiment of the transition between the two generations–I remember a life before cellphones and text, but my adult life has been dependent on it in a way a 40-something or even a slightly older thirty-something isn’t. I get both Gen X and Millennial humor.

    But systems are changing faster than anyone can really see… and that should make us worry about what the new culture wars will look like.

  3. I think Gen X and Gen Y are very alike despite a tremendous amount of effort put into constructing Millennials as the new Greatest Generation. This is partially because the economics have remained fairly steady. If you look at a graph of income by age over the last 40 years you’ll see that more and more money was concentrated in older populations.

    This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but what it means is that people in their 30s and 40s have never caught up with where Boomers, Silents or Greatest Generation people were at the same age… and much less separates Generation X and the Millennials economically than separated Gen X and Baby Boomers.

    It will be interesting to see how the technological divide pans out. In many ways I see today’s high-tech as really just a re-skin of stuff that existed 10 or 15 years ago… but that is, of course, coming from an Xer ;)

  4. Benjamin David Steele

    I think I’m focused on a different angle than you. There is a specific experience of GenX that you might not share with being on the cusp, although I too am closer to the cusp than to older GenXers.

    There were many factors that GenX was born into or that happened in their youth: most aborted generation, high rates of divorce and single parents (i.e., latchkey kids with little parental oversight), high rates of childhood violence and suicides, high rates of high school drop outs, a negative atmosphere toward children with people having fewer children, children being less welcome in restaurants, fewer movies made for children, more movies made about evil or monstrous children, high rates of childhood poverty, high rates of unemployment after high school, etc. Some of these factors were shared by Millennials such as high unemployment in the 2000s, but most of these factors had improved by the late 1990s and continue to be improved.

    GenXers was the last generation to have a clear memory of the Cold War. In fact, the Cold War formed the context of the larger world they were born into. I grew up watching post-apocalyptic moviesm, cynical Vietnam War movies, and violent movies in general. Until the late 80s, society and the government was highly oppressive toward alternative culture (e.g., Comic Book Code). I was born into a time right after numerous assassinations and I came of age during a rise in militant homegrown terrorism.

    It wasn’t just about the external world of economics and such. It was about a specific culture. This is explained well in a book I read a while ago and reviewed in my blog:

    Also, if you’re interested, I have some other posts about generations:

    In the last post, I push the culture wars back to earlier 20th century, but that isn’t important. If you look at the culture war, various versions of it have existed since the beginning of the country. In the post you’re responding to here, I was referring to a more distinct era of culture war.

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