Millennial's rising preferences for artisanal, local, and genuine products must not minimize the importance of wage labor in the economy.
In July, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight summarized the state of the minimum wage debate in one grand old super-cut of sound bytes. To top off repeated invocations of “class war!” Senator Marco Rubio croons that “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people who have made it and people who will make it.”
Putting aside Oliver’s observation that this statement “makes no sense – economically, mathematically, or even grammatically,” it is nonetheless very informative of the ideology behind the resistance to raising the minimum wage.
Rubio’s rhetoric is an ideological descendent of “free labor ideology,” a defining tenet of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Made famous by historian Eric Foner in his seminal work, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, free labor ideology stood vigorously against the economic dependence of one individual on another.
Although this ideology admirably stood in opposition to slavery, it predated the industrial revolution and thus developed a strange relationship with the rise of the non-propertied, yet emancipated, wage-earning class. When the wage earner was introduced to the dichotomy between the slave and the propertied man, the ideal citizen of free labor ideology remained “a farmer or independent mechanic,” with wage labor on the outside looking in.
In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Foner observes that although the progenitor of capitalism, Adam Smith, had “seen intractable class divisions as an inevitable consequence of economic development,” across the ocean, thinkers and politicians held that “in America, wage labor was a temporary status, and 'laborers for hire do not exist as a class.'”
Eventually, after a grand period of nation building, the industrial revolution, and the progressive movement, wage labor was recognized beyond this transitory status.
But even the most casual observer of American politics knows of the continued ubiquity of the “self-made man” in the political lexicon. Although less blatant, the specific image of the homestead also remains inappropriately fixed in our collective political imagination – and not just with Marco Rubio, but also amongst Millennials who may consider themselves committed progressives.
Weighing in on what is and isn’t “Millennial” has been the media’s fetish for quite awhile now, but earlier this year the Pew Research Center threw some fresh meat into the otherwise overcooked discussion. Their report, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology” identified a “next generation left” that was six times more likely than traditional liberals to agree with the statement “blacks who can’t get ahead are responsible for their own condition.”
The headlines wrote themselves: Millennials are libertarians, Millennials have abandoned the state, seven gifs that show how Millennials are racist, and so on. Amongst the dreck, an exceptional column in The New York Times by Anand Giridharadas distinguishes this anti-institutional vogue as a personal reaction against impersonal big-box capitalism, not a political reaction. In his most potent example, “the locally foraged mushrooms on menus in Brooklyn … are a small-scale elite secession from the ways of ruthless global trade, not a political resistance of it.“
Giridharadas contrasts this urban farm-to-table fascination with the more familiar, anti-state views we see from the right, which are “anchored in rural life.” Yet his local-mushrooms example is his most potent because it hints effectively at an actual connection between this millennial angst and the very old image of bucolic self-sufficiency. It is not just the newfangled app-tech craze of Uber and Venmo driving this reaction, but also a very organic, homestead aesthetic.
In fact, this visual connection has already been made explicit. Look no further than Portlandia’s revised anthem for the city that so infamously exaggerates our generation: the “dream of the 1890s is alive [in Portland].” As front man Fred Armisen notes, remember when “everyone was pickling their own vegetables and brewing their own beer?”
Now obviously, Portlandia is an exaggeration of a particular trend. But this compulsion towards the “genuine” and “artisanal” does permeate our current moment. Not every child of the late 60s was at Woodstock or burning draft cards, but it would be specious to suggest that such cultural touchstones did not and do not affect the generational perspective.
Ultimately, Portlandia’s invocation of the 1890s is cruelly apropos, given that we are now living in what many refer to casually as a “New Gilded Age.” Giridhadaras’ take that, “though some [millennials] may fight it, they cannot, in the main, escape Amazon and its cutthroat brand of capitalism,” is similar to the dominance of industrial tycoons in the late 19th century that overshadowed even the state.
Farm-to-table fascination represents a welcome political-cultural rebellion against the big box, but it shares an aesthetic with the free labor ideology that lifts Senator Rubio’s rhetoric and head into the clouds.
To finish Portlandia’s anthem, front woman Carrie Brownstein notes of 2014 Portland, “it’s like President McKinley was never assassinated.” As a nation, we were lucky enough to have none other than President Theodore Roosevelt fill McKinley’s shoes and plant the seeds of the Progressive Movement that his fifth cousin would later go on to solidify in the New Deal.
Millennials must be careful to not let fascination with the artisan keep them rooted in an era before Roosevelt. This reevaluation of authenticity is, on the whole, a welcome development . But now, just as in the 1890s, the frontier has closed and wage labor is a pressing political, economic, and quotidian reality.
Brit Byrd is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Economic Development and a senior at Columbia University.