Last week, well-regarded Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly had a moment of modest despair. Old politics, he said, didn’t reflect a new and emerged reality, and he described a nation at mild odds with its representatives.  If we started from scratch, he said, our parties would now look very different.

It’s difficult to argue with the suggestion that politics is out of touch, and, so nobody did. Aly was seen to have deftly “nailed it” once more with his description of stuffy old ideologues, and his view that most Australians were “centrist” who craved a centrist party went unchallenged.

Perhaps many of us in Australia just want what Aly and Nick Xenophon believe we do: a reasonable party located at the midpoint of political thought. Many of us may agree, on the face of it, with Aly’s view that, “left and right have almost never been meaningful terms” and that they now are even less meaningful.

Left and right have, says Aly “fragmented into nothing coherent”. At this time, this may still hold true in the minds and the political practice of Australians. But it ain’t the case in the US or the UK, whose social and political conditions have produced a young left who may serve as our Coming Attraction.

This week could bring the public disappearance of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, but it certainly won’t spell the end of the 1970s socialism each man has introduced to a class of young activists and voters. Whatever you happen to think of either chap and however much you may share Aly’s faith in reasonable centrism — just how one declares oneself to be at the meaningful centre of meaningless distinctions is beyond me, but, anyhow — you cannot say that these men have not had a great influence on the young.

Bernie Sanders, who this week traded an endorsement of the “centrist” Clinton for a boost to minimum wage, might be gone. But, as he said in New York City shortly after all his hopes for nomination were done, to a young crowd shouting, “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie”, “This is bigger than Bernie!”

This is bigger than me. If we don’t count marvelous inattention to personal grooming, this statement may be Sanders’ most legitimately socialist act — as others have written, his policies are really just straightforward FDR centrism that only appear left in a time of such profound devotion to supply-side thinking. Whatever Aly thinks about the “meaninglessness” of the left, it revives an old-time meaning for leftists when we see a guy say, “You are not applauding me. You are applauding engagement with these ideas.”

Young people in the US and the UK are engaging with these ideas. We can say, and we often do, that young people are apolitical and young people only care about publishing selfies on Instagram in an Uber. But that they turned out in great and historic number to support and to vote for a man who keeps saying “It’s not about me” — also a key message from that other identifiably left US political movement of the present, Black Lives Matter — must restore some active meaning to Aly’s meaningless left.

Again. Even if you share Aly’s faith in a reasonable middle, and even if you support his curious reading that sees left and right as indistinct historical partners, you cannot say that there are not many young people in Anglophone nations who think you’re wrong. Their attachment to the old ideas of these old guys is documented.

By the end of today, Corbyn may be devoured by a party who insists that he is “unelectable”, despite the plain disagreement of all those, many young, who have joined Labour or allied organisations in order to give a declared socialist their vote. You can be as centrist and reasonable as you wish, but this will not change the fact of a membership surge of more than 100,000 in the last week. This will not change a renewed interest in a part of the left, long marginalised, that arose in the first moments of financialisation.

Younger people do not share our centrist faith in the long boom. The material quality of their lives is not tied to economic growth figures any more than our wages have kept pace with housing prices. This class of voters and activists have had it harder for longer in the US, where debt and underemployment are problems monumental enough to produce dissatisfaction much bigger than Bernie. In a Harvard survey, 51% of US millennials didn’t much fancy capitalism.  

“Left and right have almost never been meaningful terms” is a bold claim and one, I’d suggest, that can be easily upturned by a quick comparison of Capital and The Wealth of Nations, perhaps the two most influential texts for left and right practice respectively. To say that these ideas are either indistinct or have lacked real influence is absurd. I guess it’s slightly less absurd to say that these ideas have “fragmented into nothing coherent”; and certainly, I’ve banged on about the incoherence of the contemporary left to you for several years.

But, it’s just wilful to say that young people have not begun to notice a left and right distinction.

This is bigger than Bernie and more gigantic than Jeremy. It’s every bit as large as the problems that young people face. And you can say, if you will, that we need a new and “reasonable” politics, but given that the very unreasonable effects of 40 years of financialisation are so keenly felt by young people, you better get writing that centrist manifesto.

While you’re doing that, some younger folk plainly feel that older socialists can give them something to work with. And, a handful of us Gen X-ers do as well.

Peter Fray

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