Saturday, January 14, 2012
The Politics of My Generation and What it Means for the Left
That many young Americans have largely checked out of the political process is neither news nor newsworthy; however, what is worth noting is that this pervasive apathy is not the result of widespread disillusionment. Young Americans have found another way to express themselves and assert their individuality: not ideology through politics or religion, but consumption that creates ideology.
Identification with brands or products has replaced political affiliation and engagement in the political process. Of course this isn't new either, and Tom Wolfe has been writing about it since the 1980's with the essay, "The 'Me' Decade and the Third Great Awakening." Yet, in the digital age, this end of ideology (and beginning of the post-ideological era) has been magnified by social media and its accompanying trends. From Facebook posts of food from restaurants (consumption in the most literal sense) to tweets about the latest sale at some newly opened outlet, the internet has become the main vehicle for asserting one's identity - one based on products that are consumed rather than political or even religious beliefs. Members of the Millennials, and even younger Americans, now identify themselves less by what they believe and more by what they consume partly because of the commercialization of essentially everything around them. They are constantly bombarded with the question: are you a Mac or a PC? Blackberry or iPhone? This, naturally, doesn't end with smartphones. Nearly all goods, from shirts to salad dressing, are taken to be the real indications of personal convictions. And, since the marketing world has been more than happy to supplant identity based on conviction or politics with identity based on consumption, purchasing a good or service is considered to be an inherently political act, imbued with ideology and conviction. It is almost as if consumers now expect that their consumption habits supply them with ideologies to match.
Though those growing up surrounded by the social media and the omnipresent online marketing blitz see their identities based firstly on what kind of phone they use or where they shop, this doesn't mean that young Americans have become more materialistic or have started to consume more. Instead, it explains why politics has been essentially eliminated from their day-to-day discourse. One could go as far to say that this emphasis on identity based on consumption habits explains the popularization and quick corporate co-option of "The Hipster." Analyzed ad nauseam, the end of the hipster can be considered an important even in the the beginning of the new post - ideological era; a cultural phenomenon centered nearly entirely upon consumption habits (rather than music and politics like punk) was pretty much the greatest gift ever given to the corporate world.
To avoid going the way of the hipster, the Occupy movement - and more generally the American left - must now more than ever eschew the empty lifestylism that has crippled prior radical political movements. Yes, being vegan is important, as is buying clothes made by workers who have a say in their wages. But there must be something stronger and more substantive that unites the disparate segments of the left than merely decisions about consumption. Buying organic food at the farmer's market rather than at Whole Foods isn't going to change an exploitive economic model, and going to a thrift store rather than the mall isn't the way to initiate a paradigm shift in labor relations. Instead, the left must focus on ideology and politics. One of the best things that the Occupy movement has done is that it forced into the average American's lexicon the language of class war - inequality, exploitation - and ideas of how to fight it on behalf of the 99 percent. Though the spectacle of late capitalism has sapped the public's energy for radical change, people will still be more likely to rally behind an idea - symbolized by a flag, a slogan, or a group of tents in a park - rather than a change in diet or wardrobe.