Marxists are often accused of focusing on class and class struggle and, when things don’t go their way, of invoking false (class) consciousness.
Right-wing economists and politicians, for their part, will do anything they can to avoid talking about class. Instead, they’ve invented a new idea: generational struggle.
Take Robert Samuelson. In his view of the world, young people are being squeezed by the demands of an aging population and they can’t be counted on to vote in their own generational interests.
It’s often said that today’s young will ultimately benefit from this lopsided tax-and-transfer system. Old themselves, they will be similarly subsidized by their young. Doubtful. Sooner or later, the system’s oppressive costs will become so obvious that future benefits will be curbed. Chances are the young will still pay for today’s elderly without themselves receiving comparable support. . .
Younger voters seem clueless about advancing their economic interests. In 2008, 18-to-29-year-olds supported Barack Obama by 34 percentage points. They love his pseudo-youthfulness. Or his positions on other issues (immigration, gay rights) trump economics.
So, what is to be done?
If the young won’t help themselves, their parents and grandparents might. They might champion revising retirement programs. Dream on. Parents and grandparents may be worried about their offspring’s prospects, but they’re not so worried as to sacrifice their own. There are real conflicts between the young and old; so far, the young are losing.
The parallel couldn’t be more complete: for the Samuelsons of the world, the problem isn’t class but generations. There’s a generational conflict, which older people are winning. Young people, for their part, suffer from false (generational) consciousness and end up voting against their (generational) interests.
That creates the space for right-wing economists and politicians to step in and make the appropriate changes in the name of young people: raise the retirement age and cut social security and medicare benefits for working people, while keeping taxes low for wealthy individuals and large corporations.
In the end, generational struggle is just class struggle by another name.