Kids These Days

Malcolm Harris

Subtitle: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials.

For me, this was a motivated read; not for trying to familiarize myself with the author's argument, but rather because I was after a specific piece of information which I was led to believe this book contained. For that purpose, it did, but it also makes my impression of what the book was actually about a bit fuzzy. Complicating matters more, I read this book at the same time as Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind, to the point where the two are almost jumbled together in my recollection. Harris turned out to be more helpful for what I needed. Nonetheless, the mere act of trying to summarize this book would be to demand paragraphs of description for something so ordinary and mundane, it would fade away from everyday notice. It's all too familiar, even with its complete lack of conclusion.

Malcolm Harris was probably the first to write the a book about the Millennial generation while being a millennial himself. The frontispiece of the book even lists “(B. 1988)” next to the author's name, as his identity as a person born at this specific point in history is central to his argument. His primary contention is to understand the actual functionings of our cursed demographic as “human capital.” ... not so much people or human beings, but rather as biological vehicles for investment in late-stage capitalism. The entire socialization of this generation could only really be understood through this lens, where parents of even the mildest amount of privilege do not raise families for the sake of their own happiness in life, but instead as instruments for making money. With this understood, a lot of the previously-vexing mysteries of millennial status in western countries crystalize into all-too-clear vision. The student debt crisis taking form in most of the United States and some parts of Canada is perhaps the most obvious psychological scar of this ongoing post-02008 flagellation, but the devil lies in the smaller, more personable details.

Harris' analysis on the socioeconomic conditions of young adults within the 02010's is fairly Marxist in all but direct quotation, but unlike the Marxists of the past, Harris himself is fully subsumed in the neoliberal moment: an ongoing nightmare to which there is no alternative, no matter how desperately one is needed. Despite his pretensions as an anarcho-communist, there is no revolution coming about to save the Harris millennial, nor any opiates for the masses. It was so unbelievably bleak that even my socialist ass didn't bother finishing the book in full; content to get the information I came for, and get out quickly. Mercifully, that happened pretty early on.

As far as that enterprise went, my interest came from the chapters he did on the modern education system, which covered the first full half of the book. The frame of reference he uses is the work of the sociologist of childhood, Jürgen Zinnecker, and the process of “pedagogical masking” which is used to recast the labour one does as a student from being “a job” which one is expected to do, into “learning”: a granted activity which is remunerated in itself, and therefore not requiring money as payment for one's labour. This can quickly turn into a problem when one lives in a society where money is required for virtually everything. It all seems fairly straightforward, but I have some suspicion that Harris' interpretation of Zinnecker might be a little loose with the source material. There's more to be done there, but it seems like a rather obscure source.

The reason this book is noteworthy to me is because Harris is probably the first left-wing source on a topic that always seemed to me like a prime focus for socialist action, but no matter how much I searched I only ever found right-wingers acting on the topic. From the mid-01990's Republican pseudotarianism of Robert Epstein, to even earlier on in the 01970's with the Catholic patriarchalist Ivan Illich: the only books I found which tried to point out issues latent to the education system itself were only done either by conservatives or pre-neoreactionaries. There was the occasional thing done by someone of social-justice leaning about some very specific aspects of when it goes wrong, like the “school-to-prison pipeline,” but never anything that covered the whole range of it. The faintest look at the subject of critical pedagogy showed a very strong conservative bias, even if said conservative thinkers were only ever at the mostly-ignored margins of conservative thought generally. There was a kind of excuse for it when I happened upon a radio series from the 01990's called The Education Debates which tried to explain the reasoning for that, as the process of education itself being an inherently conservative act. While it made sense at the time, or just generally in a vacuum, the underlying assumptions behind it haven't quite aged as well as I hoped. Indeed, the only line of argument that survived the whole series was the one leftist (again, the single one) who warned that the push towards greater education in the mathematics, technology, engineering, and scientific fields was less about advancing the well being of society generally, and more about producing a glut of skilled workers which the capitalist class could then exploit on the cheap. (Presaging this book a little too well, it seems.) The previous authors I've encountered only went through the motions of doing actual research on the subject to find justifications for their highly-specific maladjusted bigotries: Illich being critical of the feminist origins of compulsory schooling and the encroaching secularity of the public schooling system against an idealized religious schooling system, or Epstein wanting to justify his bizarre needs for exploitative child labour and extreme corporal punishment against the slightest possible insubordination.

Perhaps the only reason there was ever any criticism from reactionaries towards the education system, a system whose primary purpose is about the reproduction and entrenchment of social hierarchies and power, is that the education system changed at some point and failed to continue entrenching some aspect that was specific to them, or just wasn't entrenching as strongly as their insecurities demanded. Even today, when the partisan media decides to do some neatly-standardized rail against “too much political correctness on university campuses,” it always boils down to some over-privileged elderlies upset that they can no longer publicly insult the people they think are lesser than them. Whatever the reasons they may give, even when following the university standard of doing research and showing one's work, it always reveals itself as sophistry after the fact. As my brief encounter with Corey Robin taught me of conservatism, there's no “there” there, and I was perhaps a fool for giving them the time of day. This was all back when liberal society at least gave pretensions to “going outside of one's comfort zone” to “hear out both sides of an issue” in some vague deference to a half-forgotten quote of John Stewart Mill, even if it was all a ploy to generate a Chomsky-esque control on the boundaries of acceptable debate. (Back then, I still took that bastard Jordan Peterson seriously, and what a mistake that was!)

That dance took two to tango, and since the election of Barack Obama the right wing generally has slowly given up on cooperative dialogue, with the left, the centre, or anyone, and has started agitating for some demented violence to alleviate their imagined frustrations. With the sophistries revealed, the force holding up that old research on critical pedagogy has weakened considerably, and the foundational prospects for my own interest along with it. While I don't have the same doubts about Harris' grounding, he didn't do much to renew my interest in the topic. Harris' issue, which is the same issue Marxists have in the neoliberal world generally, is that in criticizing the capitalist system he becomes capitalism's biggest triumphalist. To Harris, solutions to this issue are impossible, because capitalist systems would openly prevent any fixes from being applied so long as it continues to benefit from the current state. Regardless if his analysis of the education system's role in the active conversion of students into human capital is correct, any alternatives will never accrue enough material resources to mount an actual challenge. So why bother?

In some ways, compared to the conservatives, I wonder if that's actively worse...

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  • ISBN: 978-0-316-51086-8

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