Reactionary Progressives and the Youth | Maximilien Lacour

There is a myth amongst progressives that in ‘the youth’ lies a dormant well-spring of progressive energy. For most of their pet concerns – climate change, racial justice, sexual politics, immigration etc. – there is this idea that progressivism is essentially aligned with ‘the youth’. This is a convenient myth that allows them to avoid re-examining their dogmas and dictates and sustains their belief that they stand at the vanguard of history. Every set-back encountered can be blamed on petty-minded seniors and faith that the future belongs to progressivism is maintained.

Nowhere has this been starker than in the Brexit fall-out. The vote to leave was denounced as the unfortunate victory of reactionary old men over a future-facing youth, but that consolation could be found in the fact that these older voters would soon die out and that the pro-European youth would act so as to stop the process. In a by-now notorious article, Polly Toynbee argued for a second referendum on these very grounds, calling on ‘young, fresh faces’ to lead the campaign. 

However, this folkloric ‘youth’ papers over important generational differences between millennials (born circa 1980 to ~1996) and Generation Z and its successors (1996 – ?), differences that may give us reason to doubt the progressive confidence that the youth will deliver the future they desire. During their discussion of the Brexit vote demographics in National Populism, Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell write:

“The different generations had profoundly different life experiences. The older voters who supported Farage came of age amid a very different era, when Britain was heavily white and racist views were commonplace, collective memories of Empire and victory of in the Second World War were strong, universal education was rare, abortion and homosexuality were illegal and the death penalty was still used until the 1960s. In sharp contrast, the young millennials who support Jeremy Corbyn were born between the 1980s and early 2000s: they have only ever known a Britain that is in the EU, has high rates of immigration, where heading off to university is commonplace and where most politicians subscribe to a liberal consensus that supports immigration and the EU.”

Paradoxically then, it seems that millennial progressives – those who broadly espouse socially left-wing views, voted to remain and supported the Corbyn project – are no less reactionary than the older cohort often denounced and derided as being so. Their ideals were formed in a political culture where boundless cosmopolitanism and individual emancipation seemed like sensible aspirations to have, and their often-hysterical political interventions over the last decade or so could be read as reactions to its loss. They grew up in a time when there was still a great deal of optimism about technology, internationalism and social-mobility through university education, and have had to contend with shifts that directly challenge that optimism. However sneery they may be of Blairism, millennial progressives nonetheless remain trapped by the fever-dreams and utopias formed under its aegis.

By contrast, Gen Z and its successors will largely come of age in a political culture where these specific ideals are being made to look foolish and undesirable. None will have any pre-2008 political awareness (though many will remember austerity) and looming large amongst formative political events will be open challenges to progressivism: Brexit, Trump, the Corbyn defeat etc. That is to say nothing of the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

This means that they will have come of age in a political culture riddled with much sharper antagonisms than millennials, one in which consensuses were broken and being openly nationalistic, immigration-sceptic, anti-EU or ‘trad’ was both more and less taboo. Characters like Nigel Farage were no longer treated as droll sideshows to liberal democracy but as serious political actors who either articulated long-repressed worries and anxieties or represented all that is toxic in Britain. Through him and others, globalisation, liberalism and cultural homogenisation no longer felt inevitable – perhaps enough zoomers took notice for a cultural shift away from progressivism to result? 

This is not wholly speculation without basis. Eric Kaufman has already pointed to a possible rightward drift in under-22s. The question is whether it will hold as they age and whether it will pose a significant enough challenge to progressive norms. 

Furthermore, in specific arenas like sexual or art, more than one writer has predicted a backlash against the liberalisation of society and culture largely cheered on by progressive millennials. For example, Katherine Dee and others have argued that there is a wave of sex-negativity approaching. Despite the glib hyper-promiscuity and increasing freedom from sex and gender norms, younger people increasingly report the highest proportion of loneliness in any age-group. It is also not clear that progressive attitudes towards sex and gender always benefit women. In this vein, Dee suggests that younger people will likely react against these, either as an act of edgy rebellion against dominant norms or as a specific response to harmful attitudes and practices:

“…the difference between the “sex negativity” of the 1990s and the sex backlash of the 21st century is that it’s going to have a strong countercultural contingency. It won’t be driven by, for instance, religious groups who feel marginalised by hip-hop music videos on MTV and Clinton’s sexual impropriety; it’ll be driven by people who’ve tried sex work, and the people who would have tried it, had they been born in 1995, not 2005. People who want to rebel.” i

“This is as much a problem of community as anything else. Eroded relationships have a lot to do with the fact that most middle and upper middle-class people in the West lack any sort of identity, inclusion to a group they believe in in a real sense, and connections […] This will be as much a rebellion against the pod as it is anything else. People do not want to be atomized. They do not want to be neutered. Sex dolls are unsustainable. Nobody wants this dystopia […] People are going to rediscover the power of boundaries. You cannot define yourself against something forever, eventually your identity has to be rooted in the present tense, in what you are […]” ii

For my part, I find the latter a more plausible account of why a wave of sex-negativity might occur. The proliferation of technologies like social-media or dating-apps, and a chronic intolerance of discomfort has resulted in a dearth of intimacy, and not just of a sexual or romantic sort. It may be that, disgusted by this situation, zoomers and their successors look back to traditional attitudes as a way of achieving richer and more rewarding relationships. In any case, either of Dee’s scenarios would result in a departure from progressive values and would thus present a challenge to progressive confidence that the future belongs  to them.

The threat of an anti-progressive backlash amongst zoomers has not gone unnoticed by millennial progressives themselves. In a recent article for hub of millennial progressivism Novara Media, James Meadway warns against overconfidence that precarious material conditions such as falling house wages and an inaccessible housing market will push the youth towards progressivism. As he points out, these very same conditions are conducive to the drawing of decidedly non-progressive conclusions. Take the example of unemployment and immigration. Though the material condition of unemployment may lead one to adopt a progressive-friendly attitude that it is the result of exploitative business practices, it may also result in one moving in a non-progressive direction and adopting an anti-immigration stance. Of course, another commentator might have noted that these are not incompatible as high-levels of low-skilled immigration is an exploitative business practice, and opposition to the latter involves opposition to the former but Meadway’s point remains. There is no clear necessary link between precarity and progressive attitudes. Indeed, especially when faced by precarity, people look for security and stability, neither of which are uniquely progressive values.    

It is probably dumb to attempt sweeping predictions of coming generational attitudes, and it may well be that we are headed for the normless, frictionless future imagined by progressives. Nonetheless, I think there are good reasons to think otherwise. If something like an anti-progressive backlash does develop amongst zoomers, it will be a bitter-pill for reactionary millennial progressives to swallow. Personally, I can’t wait to hear about how it is the result of right-wing British media brainwashing rather than the actual failures and parochiality of progressive values.   

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