Capitalism has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. Capitalism has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. [But] capitalism cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the means of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the capitalist epoch from all earlier ones. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.
John Lanchester quoting Karl Marx (but substituting the word capitalism for the bourgeoisie) in his excellent essay on “Marx at 193,” which I came to via Irredenta. I’m familiar with Marx’s errors, particularly his anthropologically- and morally-confused prescriptions and his overestimation of dialectics as an “objective” mechanism in historical development, but this essay recalls his talents as a diagnostician.
In particular, capitalism’s “constant revolutionizing” is why capitalist culture invariably becomes youth culture, and it is why youth is ever-more-respected as a summary font of natural, progressive, authentic wisdom, despite being by definition the most experientially (and often culturally and intellectually) ignorant part of the population. Given the power culture has to shape political discourse, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say, then, that capitalism brings about kakistocracy, even as it does indeed show the power humanity has to shape itself and the world.
In a revolution, the young are of course those with the least to lose. In our constant revolutions it is therefore natural that the young should become the reliable agents of fury, upheaval, change: this is emphatically not because such change necessarily benefits the young or anyone else; after all, youth tend to be sufficiently ignorant of history and indifferent to their own moral incoherence that one cannot seriously claim that their enthusiasm for change is based on anything like analysis. Rather, the phenomenon of maturing alongside revolutions infuses youth with a sense of their own global, ideological, moral importance. For them, “change” is the fruition of their sole, and probably initial paradigm, while for older individuals revolutions are the disturbance of mostly-uninterrogated paradigms according to whose values their entire life’s meaning has been determined.
Thus: capitalism raises each generation alongside a revolution in “the instruments of production, and thereby the means of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” Each generation comes of age with technologies, media, industries which radically alter the nature of social existence, the structure of cities, the dynamics of relationships, the meanings and values which ostensibly sustain and guide us but which now seem merely to tag along. And quite understandably, each generation thinks that this new paradigm —their paradigm, after all, which they absorb easily and even think they shape— is the last paradigm, or at least that it is largely faultless even if it will be superseded. In its turn, each generation comes to think, too, that its reconnection with lingering traditions is enough to preserve them, that its necessitated reinvention of all culture will endure. The evangelical zeal of youth, whether expressed politically or aesthetically, derives in part from the seemingly historic nature of any given teenager’s maturation: not only is the great bulk of cultural and market activity directed at the young, but they occupy a position of magical moral inevitability: a young person might not be allowed to wear what she wants at the office, but does anyone doubt that the world will be remade in her image, and not that of the dreary old morons from previous generations, already dying on the vine?
Capitalism seems therefore to promote a narcissistic infantility of disposition which itself produces more constant revolutions, especially once enshrined in a national “rebellion” myth instantiated in countless films, books, songs. We produce children who coincide in their growth with the fruition of revolutionary technological and economic phenomena; we inculcate them with stories of revolutionaries and rebels, indeed suggesting that to be young is to rebel, whether or not there is any real, enduring purpose, whether or not the values of one’s forebears are “right” or not (such determinations are incoherently considered invalid, epistemologically, even as they form the basis for all continuing moral action). In other words, capitalism raises revolutionaries: children contemptuous of the past in all aesthetic, moral, and political senses who automatically rebel against everything passed down, and who feel that their arrival is the culmination of a history from which they can learn only trivia, not meanings and values which, having been vetted for millennia experientially by humans no different from them, can direct them in their own lives. In doing so, capitalism increases the likelihood that additional revolutions will occur: every atomized revolutionary inventing culture from scratch has a chance at building the next billion-dollar-gadget, the next attention-sucking media platform, the next block-busting franchise of food or films.
Of course, one errs if one denies that she might also develop any number of manifestly necessary, vital, life-saving and life-improving ideas; even Marx could not deny that it was, after all, this system which has at last shown “what man’s activity can bring about.” It is only a matter of considering the basis of our youth culture: it is not any axiom or principle we’ve discerned through the millennia, nor any scientific theory which supports the infantilization of culture and the empowerment of youth. It is capitalism’s constant revolutions which empower the young, separate them from their forbears, given them their unearned sense of historical apotheosis, and relegate tradition- or elder-based phenomena like “wisdom” to the margins of culture.