Generation Left Rejected History. Does It Have a Future?
A lack of political memory could be the left’s kryptonite.
by Michael Chessum
17 October 2022
It wasn’t inevitable that young people would swing left. In the 2010 general election, the first after the financial crash, David Cameron won among voters aged 18-34. In the second round of the 2017 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen won the support of almost half of 18-24 year-olds. And yet in the polarisation that took hold, Britain’s youth knew exactly which side they were on. By the end of the decade, age had emerged as indisputably the biggest demographic factor in people’s attitudes to politics. Labour beat the Tories by 40 points among voters in their 20s in 2017. The 2010s witnessed the emergence of a generation which defined itself against both the neoliberal consensus of the political establishment and its austerity response to the financial crisis. Why?
I was born in 1989 and grew up in a world that thought leftwing political alternatives were dead. That changed not when Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, but with a wave of revolt that spread across the world in 2011. The Arab spring had multiple starting points: in Spain, it was the 15-M movement and the Indignados; in the US, Occupy Wall Street, Californian student occupations and mass protests in Wisconsin. In Greece, it was mass dissent in response to the bailout package in early 2010. In the UK, the crucial moment was the awakening of an anti-austerity movement that could galvanise an alliance between the dispossessed youngster, the precarious worker and the service users and staff of the embattled public sector – and all that began in the autumn of 2010 when the plate glass of Conservative party headquarters at 30 Millbank was unceremoniously kicked in.
By the autumn of 2011, millions of workers would be on strike. Hundreds of thousands protested, and direct action – from the property damage of black bloc to the Vodafone occupations of UK Uncut – became widespread. Anti-cuts groups sprang up and the tent cities of Occupy spread.
The mass movements of the early 2010s were by and large a revolt against the political establishment as a whole. They were wild, disruptive and uncontrollably bottom-up, at times to the point of being leaderless. They lacked political expression, and vested little hope or trust in the Labour party which, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, supported austerity. When Corbyn ran for Labour leader in 2015 promising “a new kind of politics”, he was channelling this mood. At the core of the revolt was a generation of young people with a specific experience of capitalism, a group Keir Milburn dubbed Generation Left.
Asset prices recovered quickly after the 2008 crash, while median earnings suffered the second-worst drop in the developed world after Greece. High property prices meant that by 2016, those aged 65-74 owned more wealth than everyone in the UK under 45. At the same time, the cost of renting rose sharply and workplace precarity spread.
No future, no past.
When it comes to how they developed politically, though, the crucial thing to understand about this generation is its relationship to history. They complained of having no future – but they lacked a past, too.
In the 30 years prior to the youth radicalisation of the early 2010s, the British left had undergone a series of catastrophic defeats. The combined effect of Thatcherism and Blairism was to marginalise socialist politics in Britain. Trade union membership as a proportion of the overall workforce plummeted from more than half in the early 1980s to less than a quarter. The Labour left had collapsed and in the first seven years of the Blair government, the membership of Britain’s Trotskyist groups roughly halved. It wasn’t just in parliament or on the news that alternatives to neoliberal economics had been marginalised: the left’s roots had been dug up and burned. On many levels, it had lost the ability to reproduce itself as a coherent tradition, relying on moments of mass protest – such as the Iraq war – which boosted its prominence but never really its relevance or organisational strength.
There are many comparisons that can be made between 1968 and 2011. Both were nourished by a global youth revolt and disrupted the existing left. Both shared a nightmare, too: that despite constant technological revolution, historical stasis was closing in (there is a symmetry between Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and Herbert Marcuse’s vision of the growing totalitarian equilibrium in consumer society, “a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom”). But unlike the young radicals of previous decades, the generation that awoke in 2011 was detached from the left’s political traditions. It was like a light that switched on after all the other lights had gone out, and the collective memory of the people who populated it was correspondingly weak.
“Look at the big figures of previous generations of the New Left,” says Jon Moses, a writer and academic who in 2010 played a role in organising students at UCL. “E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, CLR James, Stuart Hall, Perry Anderson, Raymond Williams – they’re all historians, or people grounded in history. But if you look at the intellectual milieu of 2010 and you’re talking about Frederic Jameson, David Harvey, David Graeber, Mark Fisher – and Slavoj Zizek was big at the time too. All big thinkers, but none of them historians, they’re cultural and social theorists.” Right down to the books it was reading, the generation of 2010 was stubbornly ungrounded in the past.
This lack of historical rootedness gave the social movements of the early 2010s a sense of intense creativity and a lack of inhibition. For the large majority of those taking part, the boundaries of what seemed possible to achieve by protest and direct action were not set by historical precedent, but by the strength of feeling and the raw confrontation between themselves and the state. The storming of Millbank was an act of collective imagination, one inspired not by a sense of history but by freedom from it.
Fads and utopias.
One of the defining features of the generation without a history was its strong, but in retrospect short term, addiction to particular concepts and practices. New technology and networked activism was one of them. Observing the Arab Spring, Newsnight journalist Paul Mason noted the ability of networked consciousness to “act like white blood cells against infection so that ultimately truth, or something close to it, persists longer than disinformation.” Earlier in 2011, PhD student, UCL occupier and Novara co-founder Aaron Bastani argued that the ‘open sourcing’ of activism could mean that “many established political organisations[…] may become obsolete.” The nation-state could be replaced by “a networked ‘cosmopolis’ with globalised dynamics of communication and movement of persons, goods and capital.” The utopian visions of the early part of the decade contained an essential truth, but it is impossible to imagine them being written in the era after Brexit, Trump and Cambridge Analytica. As the decade unfolded, we would learn the hard way that technology was not just a tool, but a terrain of struggle.
An antipathy to traditional left politics was a defining feature not only of the student movement but of many of the movements that came later, in particular Occupy. The legacy of Climate Camp was crucial in this. Anarchism, horizontalism and libertarian communism would for some become serious intellectual commitments. But for most, these labels became popular because they acted as a catch-all. Convinced and well-read anarchists shared a label with people who preferred networks to organisations, or thought that social media would end hierarchy, or were hostile to paper-selling, or mistook consensus decision-making for a full worldview, or just hated the police. The vast majority of those who called themselves anarchists would end up as footsoldiers of Corbynism, and most of the people who spent the first half of the decade telling me off for being a member of the Labour party spent the second half of the decade telling me off for being too critical of its leadership.
There is an undeniable sense in which the development of the left throughout the 2010s was driven by an internalisation of the end of history and the context of an all-prevailing hyper-capitalist society. The zeitgeist was not any particular ideology or concept, but rather the very fluidity of those ideologies and concepts.
A kind of consumer logic was also essential to this generation’s intensely pragmatic approach to politics, and went alongside a very different attitude to party politics and left institutions to that of previous generations. Those who went into Labour in the 1970s and 1980s viewed their party membership as an antagonistic activity, a means of agitating and opposing, married to a movement in wider society. To a great extent, the generations that followed viewed political parties as a brand which one supported when they aligned with one’s values. For the overwhelming majority of leftwingers who came of age in the early part of the decade, their disinterest in Labour and other parties was not down to some serious ideological aversion to electoral politics; it was because no credible electoral project existed that corresponded to their own values. When it came into being in the summer of 2015, they exercised their consumer choice and joined it.
But to reduce this generation’s political development to a series of fads or consumer choices would be an underestimation of what these moods represented. The nightmare of historical stasis, and of endlessly intensifying exploitation and environmental collapse, also bred dreams. Like actual dreams, these alternatives were non-linear and defied clear definition. They spent a decade being formulated, torn up, rewritten and experimented with, as their protagonists first awakened to the injustices and democratic failures of the system, and then, slowly, formulated a politics of their own. The dreams of this generation searched constantly for a vessel that was big enough to hold them, and none could: not the protest movement of 2010, not technological utopianism, not horizontalism, and not the “green surge” either.
Eventually, the dreams would come to rest in a project which was in so many ways the opposite of the social movements that they had come from: led from above, with relatively little internal democratic life, and conventionally Labourist. Corbynism was the first and only Labour party project most of its participants had known. Young and old, many were instinctively hostile to the idea of joining Labour, but paradoxically doubly vulnerable to being consumed by its electoralist and parliamentarist logic. The change that the left underwent in the latter half of the 2010s was, as a result, all the more total: less a conversion than an inversion. A great number of the veterans of the social movements had no conception of being “in and against” the Labour party: they were first against it, and then just in it.
We weren’t wrong to give the Labour left a try, and it wasn’t just young who did so. “If you’d said to me ten years earlier that I was going to be in the Labour party,” says activist-academic Seth Wheeler, “I would have told you to stop smoking crack.” Ash Sarkar, a first-year English student in the student revolt of 2010, is one of the few prominent libertarian communists of her generation who remained consistent. As she explains, “Brexit was a splash of cold water in the face. This country is finding meaning in a populism which is based on the idea that people like me aren’t really a part of this country, its institutions, its body politics. Suddenly, there was this realisation that you can’t just abdicate the terrain of ‘where most people are’. And so what Corbynism represented to me was a way to find ‘most people’.”
The real tragedy is not that an electoral turn happened, but that the new left formed by the youth revolts and social movements of the early 2010s failed to cohere itself into a set of political tendencies which could speak for themselves, rather than being swallowed up by the institutional left. We should sort that out for next time.
This article is an edited extract from This Is Only The Beginning: the making of a new left, from anti-austerity to the fall of Corbyn, out now with Bloomsbury.
Michael Chessum is a socialist activist and writer based in London.