It’s always puzzled me, this thing about people getting right-wing as they get older. You’d think that the opposite would happen.
I mean, as you get older, you notice that the world keeps having the same problems, and that they tend to have the same underlying causes, and that nothing is ever done about them. You notice more and more of the same kinds of scandals reoccurring over the years, time and again, and always based upon imbalances of power, and upon powerful people being unaccountable. You’re more likely to have a mortgage and debts, the older you are. You’re more likely to owe lots of money to banks and credit agencies, and to be crippled by these debts. You’re more likely to have health problems, and thus to need medical care, and thus to see that the Health Service is underfunded and overstretched. You’re more likely to realise that your investments and savings (if you have any) don’t pay off in anything like the way you’re told they will when you’re younger. You’re more likely to worry about how you will look after yourself and your partner in old age. You’re more likely to notice your retirement receding into the distance. You’re more likely to find yourself paying through the nose for medications that go with age, medications your parents didn’t have to pay through the nose for. You’re more likely to meet more and more people of different ‘races’ and nationalities, and thus to notice that they’re not too different to you. You’re more likely to have been mistreated at work, or sacked, or been forced to find second jobs or third jobs. You’re more likely to have seen talentless people around you rising while you stay still, simply because they were born with advantages you never had. You’re more likely to have lived through several wars and recessions instead of just one or two. You’re more likely to have observed the way the world’s weather systems have catastrophically changed even in the last few decades. You’re more likely to have seen friends’ lives ruined by discrimination or depression or stress. You’re more likely to have seen your parents face an uncertain and neglected old age. And you’re more likely to have kids and grandkids, and to see all the challenges they face. A restricted job market, more and more pressure on them to work harder to have a chance of being employed one day, the escalating cost of further and higher education, more debt earlier in life, less chance of being able to afford to buy a house or even move out of their parents’ home, spiraling costs of living, less social safety nets, a squeezed education system. And on and on it goes.
Decades of life means decades of observing the world getting worse, and the so-called solutions never working, and the so-called progressive parties always selling people out, and the persistence of poverty and corruption never being addressed, and inequality and injustice always being at the root of the problems. And it means becoming more and more vulnerable, as an individual or as part of a family, to the insecurity and hardships capitalism causes and relies upon.
Basically, the saying “you get more right-wing as you get older” is something only applicable to people who are already economically and socially privileged. Such people can afford to dabble with being left-wing when they’re young, if they feel like it. They can rely on rich parents to bankroll such flirtations with leftiness. When they’re young and cushioned, it costs them nothing. Principles are always easier if they cost you nothing. Then, as they get older, they take their place in the system of privilege that was always waiting to welcome them. They see their savings and investments rising (because, generally, the more you have the more you make from it), their property becoming more and more valuable, their financial situation getting comfier and more secure every day. At the very least, they see themselves comparatively insulated. Their parents enjoy a luxurious old-age and then die, leaving them more property and investments and savings. Their own children and grandchildren don’t have to worry about the deficiencies of state education, or the deficiencies of the NHS, or the debts accrued during further and higher education, or the uncertainties of the job market. Jobs wait for them. Economic security is built into life for such people and their families. Like all people with privilege, their primary focus is to hold onto it ferociously. We all know that privilege causes people to feel aggrieved by the faintest suggestion of a challenge to their privilege. This is at the root of much misogyny. Patriarchy causes men think of women as appliances. How angry would you be if your vacuum cleaner suddenly refused to work? I dunno about you, but when things like that happen to me I swear at the errant machine and feel pretty damned aggrieved. Men extend the same logic to women who don’t want to be treated as equipment. And Corey Robin, a historian of ideas, has done some very good work describing how modern conservatism is, at bottom, the ideological expression of the struggle to retain privilege.
This pattern is most pronounced in the very rich, of course. But it used to hold pretty reliably (if scaled down) for the moderately rich, and down to the middle classes. (It even used to hold for a certain extent to the working classes during the long post-war boom, which looks like a utopia of economic justice, job security and progressive welfarism compared to where we are now.) However, like many old cultural certainties of capitalism, this pattern is breaking up – with increasing speed. (Capitalism does this.) The middle classes and petty bourgeoisie are more and more squeezed, more and more threatened by uncertainty. The iron law of neoliberalism is the redistribution of wealth upwards – and this is really just a variation on what always happens in capitalism during its built-in periodic crises. And, the bottom looking increasingly drained, neoliberalism – especially now in this era of crisis and austerity – is feeding on the middle.
Of course, the people in the middle can’t be expected to draw left-wing conclusions from all this. Such people generally drift to… da daaa!… the populist far-right (i.e. UKIP, BNP, the Tea Party, various European equivalents). And, in the absence of organised organs of workers’ struggle, the people at the bottom will often drift that way too. Especially when you factor in the massive effort neoliberal capitalism puts into pushing and sustaining ideological disorientation.
Neoliberal capitalism itself is getting more ideologically right-wing as it gets older. The only sane response is to go in the other direction.
But it’s not easy. Because, with that lifetime of confronting the horrors there also comes a lifetime of getting entangled in the very hard work and stress it takes to navigate them, and the fatalism of seeing nothing ever getting better, and the pessimism of constant defeats, and the confusion sewn by decades of ‘There Is No Alternative’. That’s why the only thing that has a chance of fundamentally altering this downward spiral is a resurgence in working class organisation, in the teeth of the longstanding and hugely-successful neoliberal project of destroying the power of unions.
That’s why every success for the left, however compromised, however embedded in reformist politics and parliamentarianism, has to be seized upon.
Because the dialectic of change has to start somewhere.