On Wednesday Umair Haque’s posted a Manifesto for Generation M. The post has received some praise and some serious criticism.
I’d be lying if I said the post didn’t resonate with me on certain level – heck, that is why I remixed it (lightly) on Friday night. Many of the manifesto’s ideas and links – and above all, its message of institutional failure – tapped into the challenges and issues Taylor and I sought to weave together in Progressivism’s End: How the Left is Killing Progressive Politics.
Now, at the end of the weekend, having reflected on it further alone, with friends and with Taylor, there is still lots I agree with. We do face a crisis of institutions and, frankly, there are a large number of people who would like to simply dial back the clock (some 10 years, others 35) and say – that’s it, problem solved. I believe Umair is saying that isn’t going to work. And I agree with him.
So having said that, I’ve got two observations and a final mega-remix to make to the Generation M Manifesto.
1. It Ain’t a Generational Divide
In reading the comments (especially this one) and talking with friends I was reminded how Taylor and I shied away from using a generational analysis like that adopted by Umair. This was an explicit choice. Our piece is about the death of progressive politics and what we believe is emerging in its place – it is the kind of narrative that, on the surface, appears to lend itself intuitively to generational divide. But the divide is not generational. First, let’s be honest, there are lots of Social Darwinian, self-centered, materially driven people in every generation.
Consider Canada, which many falsely believe is broadly immune to such thinking despite producing Mark Steyn. But consider the research in Sex in the Snow by Michael Adams. Drawing from his social values surveys, Adams concluded that Gen X could be divided into 5 “tribes.” Two of these tribes – the ‘New Aquarians‘ (13% of Gen Xers) and the ‘Autonomous Post-Materialists‘ (20%) would probably find the ideas in Umair’s Manifesto (as well as, hopefully, Taylor and I’s piece) resonate with them. However, among the other three ‘Gen X’ tribes, many of the ‘Aimless Dependents‘ (27%), the ‘Thrill-Seeking Materialists‘ (25%) and ‘Social Hedonists‘ (13%) would likely fall along a spectrum defined at one extreme by mild interest and the other by outright hostility. Still more would probably feel complete indifference to either Umair’s Manifesto or our piece.
This breakdown is true among Baby Boomers as well. I suspect that Autonomous Rebels (25% of boomers) and Connected Enthusiasts (14%) would be more inclined to identify with much of the Manifesto while Anxious Communitarians, (20% ) and Disengaged Darwinists, (41%) would be less inclined.
In short, a generational analysis simply isn’t accurate. But that is only the half of it. The other reason Taylor and I shied away from generational analysis because such an analysis is likely to hamper the development of a self-identifying and self-organizing group to champion and implement the ideas we (and Umair) highlight. While the Manifesto will inspire some, it’s analytical lens will, however, also alienate potential allies while simultaneously assuming those potentially indifferent or even hostile to its ideas are in agreement. If there is going to be a movement, it is wise to know who’s in, who’s out, and who doesn’t care.
2. It’s About Values
What is notably absent from Umair’s manifesto is any mention of values. It’s not that they aren’t there – it’s that they are left implicit. The values I see reflected in Umair’s post aren’t new; in fact they are quite old. This is the central piece to Taylor and I’s argument – that progressives have become more attached to the institutions they inherited than to the values those institutions were built to serve:
The rise of industrial capitalism during the 19th century led to a series of tense societal changes. These included the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the new possibility of total war. In response, three generations of pragmatically driven “progressives” emerged. Opposing both the socialist left and the laissez-faire right, they championed values such as equality of opportunity, meritocracy, government transparency and empirical inquiry.
This is the source of the crisis. It is not that one generation held values that another didn’t. It’s that the institutions we inherited don’t always reflect those values in a world where globalization, technology and social values have altered how we work, play and live. Taylor and I (and I suspect Umair) are frustrated because we see enormous time, money and energy being spent in an effort to architect our economy, our government and our public spaces to serve and preserve these institutions, rather than ensuring these institutions support us and an economy, government and public space we believe are essential for a prosperous and sustainable future.
So the question becomes how to ensure the values of equality of opportunity, meritocracy, government transparency, empircal inquiry – along with human rights, and the environment, get imbued into the policies, institutions, communities and companies we will inherit and create? It feels like the first step is to articulate them clearly. This way, when some of these new institutions begin to change we’ll know it is time to reform, abandon or simply move on.
3. Post-Potter Authenticity; and Where are the Women?
Finally, some quick hits. In a post-Rebel Sell world we need to be really careful about talking about authenticity. Even the “authentic” is constructed… (If you haven’t read The Rebel Sell – go find a copy. Heath and Potter are brilliant).
Also, where are the women? Umair’s manifesto lists Generation Mers but there is almost nary a women among them. (I only counted one – Flickr had a female co-founder).
Gen M is about passion, responsibility, authenticity, and challenging yesterday’s way of everything. Everywhere I look, I see an explosion of Gen M businesses, NGOs, open-source communities, local initiatives, government. Who’s Gen M? Obama, kind of. Larry and Sergey. The Threadless, Etsy, and Flickr guys. Ev, Biz and the Twitter crew. Tehran 2.0. The folks at Kiva, Talking Points Memo, and FindtheFarmer. Shigeru Miyamoto, Steve Jobs, Muhammad Yunus, and Jeff Sachs are like the grandpas of Gen M. There are tons where these innovators came from.
I’m sure this is a problem that can be crowd sourced – but it had better happen quickly. In our piece, Taylor and I used Tzeporah Berman (Environmental Activisit), Calvin Helin (First Nations Lawyer) and Dan Florizone (Public Servant) as cases. Here I think is another place the manifesto could do with more examples – those doing work in the non-profit and government sector.
A real remix
Again – there are a lot of people who are going to jump on Umair. Indeed on some sites the Law of Fail has already been reached:
Once a web community has decided to dislike a person, topic, or idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation.
I’m not one of them. I understand why Umair is frustrated. I’m not certain that a generational analysis is the right approach but I do agree that we are not sufficiently wrestling with the question of how we redesign market regulation, democratic institutions, financial regulation, etc… to help foster the communities, environment and economy we want for the 21st century.
So with this in mind I’m going to take another cut at remixing the Manifesto. Indeed, it may be so dramatically different it is simply a re-purposing. Increasingly, I sense that we’ve got to put values back into the equation and tackle figure out what are the cleavages in our society that do distinguish those opposed to reform from those in favour – in short, I’m going to remix it into a Neo-Progressive Manifesto.
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