Belmont Club

Millennialism's Rebels Without a Cause

Millennialism's Rebels Without a Cause
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, centre, arrives for a meeting in the French National Assembly, in Paris, France, Tuesdays, July 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh )

Kamala Harris quit the 2020 presidential race. Meanwhile, journalists note that the world is caught up in a frenzy of unrest driven by something other than the demand for a “new world.” What’s the connection between the fall of the “female Obama” and an endemic but non-party-led global unrest? The connection may be the decline of millennialism.


The world increasingly finds itself under protest. As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places. … But it is also worth considering what cause or causes these protests might share…

One frequent theme is people objecting to a price increase. … In other words: Protests of workers seem to be becoming less important, and protests of consumers are becoming more important. … Consumer protests organized by the internet are also less likely to be ideological in the traditional left-vs.-right sense. People of widely varying political views, including people who do not have much of a view at all, can get upset by high prices. … One thing is for sure: With mass protests, as with so much else, the internet is changing everything.

They are seemingly rebels without a cause. Yet for most of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st, the great political causes were driven by a desire to reshape the world. No modern celebrity exemplifies this more strikingly than Greta Thunberg. Her program is simple: change everything.

[T]he climate crisis is not just about the environment. It is a crisis of human rights, of justice, and of political will. Colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fueled it. We need to dismantle them all. …

But to change everything, we need everyone. Each and every one of us must participate in the climate resistance movement. We cannot just say we care; we must show it.


Change everything to save the world. Millennialism rests on the assumption that some kind of apocalyptic battle — capitalism vs. communism, jihad vs. infidel, climate warriors vs. deniers. etc. — is at hand. Naturally, a struggle of such importance had to be won by any means necessary. A select vanguard, party, or movement were the people to do the job. Sacrifices would have to be made, collateral damage endured, but no matter; victory would bring a millennial kingdom into being where the masses or even the planet would live happily ever after.

For decades this kind of thinking ruled progressive politics. But the problem was that the vision proved a mirage. Improvement, when it came, was the result of the creativity of millions, not the state planner. Some authors argue that the public has finally lost confidence in the old-time ideologies, embittered by the results, disillusioned by the promise of so much for the delivery of so little.

But there was a deeper source of discontent, derived from what can only be described as a world-historical trauma. A generation ago, faith in revolution still provided a standard of progress … high modernist governments presumed they could cure the human condition. … All they needed was a transcendent project …

That faith has died … there no serious political actors today who believe in the reality, much less the desirability, of revolution. In consequence, radical and democratic politics, which shared the same utopian end-point, have lost their directional coherence. The word “progress” itself has become impolite, an embarrassment. Nobody has a clue which way that lies.


Perhaps the “female Obama” failed because the time for such figures had passed. The very pace of change, the sheer rate of technological advancement has undermined public confidence in politicians’ ability to control the future through Five-Year Plans. Giant state bureaucracies can barely cope with an onrushing future, let alone command it. In fact, such bureaucracies are the very embodiment of inertia. George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures suspects the world is facing a new kind of challenge. In a letter to readers he wrote:

From Hong Kong to Tehran to Buenos Aires, the world appears to be destabilizing. The question that has been raised is whether there is an underlying cause triggering this global unrest. On the surface, the answer to that ought to be no. There is so much unrest throughout the world at any point that it would appear to be merely the normal chaos. Unrest, moreover, is unique to every country and usually has multiple causes. Hong Kong, Tehran and Buenos Aires are very different places, each with its own geopolitical circumstances. Still, there is in this instance one element that is common to them all: 2008. In 2008, the international economic system shifted dramatically, and the changes it wrought have not been fully metabolized.

Not just the 2008 economic effects, but the information balance, which affects the relationship between the elites and the governed, has changed. One can look at the Democratic primary as the story of a party trying to redefine itself after the disaster of 2016 and deciding not to — a challenge that in its own way mirrors the problem of the Republican Party. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most interesting candidates in the Democratic Party are the younger ones who feel in their bones that the future is no longer what it used to be. It has eluded the capacity of old-time apparatchiks to conceive and is potentially more dangerous and wonderful than we can imagine.


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