Malcolm Harris in conversation with Tony Tulathimutte

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials BY Malcolm Harris. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

I met author Tony Tulathimutte at a reading in Manhattan where he asked the audience to vote on which section of his novel Private Citizens to read from: the one on writer’s workshops or the one on pornography. Porn won, and Tony delivered a complex, funny, and disturbing passage about Will, one of the book’s protagonists, a desperate, recent college graduate. Later, when I saw his blurb recommending Malcolm Harris’s new study, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, I read the book and was impressed by its sweeping socio-economic critique. As the pub date for Kids These Days approaches, I thought it would be interesting to talk with both of them about the book.

Alex Woodend: Kids These Days has two key graphs. One shows that hourly compensation for a typical worker increased by roughly 100 percent since 1948, while productivity increased by roughly 250 percent. The other shows changes in household net worth by age group since 1983, with basically no growth for people ages twenty to forty-six, and dramatic growth—of about 100 percent—for people ages forty-seven and up. Could you talk a little about them?

Malcolm Harris: I talked the publisher out of putting a bunch of blurbs on the back, because I wanted to do these two data representations I thought would really key people in to what it’s actually about. And the graph of productivity versus compensation, which a Marxist would call a graph of the rate of exploitation, is not something we’ve talked about a lot in politics, because it’s not very interesting to Republicans or Democrats. Both of them represent the ownership class, so that discrepancy between what people produce and what they get paid is also how the two political parties get paid.

But we’ve lived through this period, which began at about the time when millennials were born, where the divergence between productivity and compensation has just gotten bigger and bigger. That means people getting more and more screwed every year. This illustrates the immiseration thesis, which states that every hour you work the system gets more powerful and you get weaker. I think that split, more than anything, characterizes the generational cohort.

You see it in the graphs of older cohorts getting much wealthier over time and younger cohorts losing wealth compared to other times. We’re much poorer than twenty-year-olds were forty years ago. Debt is a huge part of it—education debt specifically.

Tony Tulathimutte: If Malcolm’s economic portrait is the mainspring of the lived experience of this generation, then my book’s project is to show how it makes people think of themselves and each other. I tried to make the characters interesting foils to one another, with competing privileges and liabilities, but one thing they have in common is that they’re all enormously self-loathing. In contrast to the stereotype of the entitled millennial or the millennial who expects a gold star for showing up—my editor actually wanted me to call my book The Gold Stars—we’ve internalized the values of the culture we were raised in. We feel like the almost-guaranteed failures are our fault. These things happen in complex ways, but the reigning narrative we got growing up was, “You had no power to stop the economic collapse, you had no power to stop the Iraq War, any protest you do is just a fart in the wind,” so what can we do but be anxious about the future and hate ourselves for our powerlessness?

Woodend: Did you have a political agenda with Private Citizens or were you going for realism?

Tulathimutte: I was trying to avoid being polemical, which is hard when your characters are politically outspoken. And I sort of thought that the book’s politics were subsumed by the project of realism. That politics will come up as a matter of course if you’re talking about people who are living on the brink of a massive recession under a president who started an era-defining, catastrophic war. If you’re taking a broad enough view of their lives you can’t escape the politics. It’s going to be part of what they think about daily, the media they consume, and it’s only proven to be more inescapable as time has worn on.

Harris: But one of the things I liked best about the end was how it keeps going, and then you’re suddenly somewhere different than you were before.

Tulathimutte: It’s about 85 percent realism, but I believe that every book, in order to poleaxe its readers, needs to exceed its own established boundaries and rules at some point. Everything gets demolished toward the end, it breaks loose of conventional third-person narration, there’s a fourth wall rupture, people get maimed . . .

As a novelist, the point is to show a chain of consequences that is an interface between a person’s consciousness and their external world, and if it goes into the world of metaphor, well, metaphor isn’t any less real in literature.

Woodend: Why do you write fiction?

Tulathimutte: It’s the thing that I’m anywhere close to good at. I’m agnostic when it comes to narrative forms, but I suck at most of the other ones. I don’t get to do what I want to do, which involves things like interiority and precision and sometimes just getting chatty about ideas and abstractions. A book can be so rich if you know how to compress properly. But I don’t have a strong political agenda. The books I’m doing now are entirely apolitical, I don’t think there’s even a way you could read them politically.

Harris: Oh, you’d be surprised.

Tulathimutte: I mean on the level of intent, which counts for nothing. But I do worry sometimes about what my responsibility is: the responsibility to entertain versus enlighten versus emancipate. And I don’t know. You learn quickly when something doesn’t suit you or that you can’t do, because you just sit there and nothing comes out. So, you just follow the thing that comes out. Which isn’t to say we’re just automatons, but that writers often don’t really dictate what they want to write about any more than you can control your habits and preferences.

Woodend: That makes me think of Italo Calvino, who was a communist activist, then a reporter and a realistic novelist, before coming around to fantasy, because he felt the way to really affect people and society was to do it indirectly through a deeply internal process.

Tulathimutte: That takes a wide audience for granted. When a successful novel these days sells about ten-thousand copies, you’re presuming a lot about what a general sense of enlightenment among that group is going to achieve.

Harris: My favorite Calvino story is called “The Watcher” and it’s about a communist poll watcher being disillusioned but going home, reading Marx, and being inspired again. It’s a really emotional, affecting story.

Tulathimutte: I would say books are neutral in terms of their actual political effect, even just limiting it to literature. All the leftist writers in the last several decades probably had their political affinities and intentions cancelled out just by Ayn Rand alone.

Harris: Or Tom Clancy.

Tulathimutte: That’s why I balk at saying “everybody should read more.” Read more what?

Harris: John Berger is one of my favorites, and he was almost hilariously—compared to what we think of now—committed to social realism. He believed art was at its best at its most political. His criticism was great too.

Tulathimutte: I’m working on a book of criticism that’s almost entirely worthless as criticism. It’s supposed to be criticism as art and not criticism as criticism. It uses the tone and form and analytic tools of criticism, from a critic in a universe that doesn’t exist. For fun. For example, discussing Bruce Lee’s Game of Death and Asian male representation in a universe where mummies exist. I “argue” that Asian male representation and mummy representation are deeply linked in cinematic tradition.

Harris: Sounds pretty political.

Tulathimutte: I don’t know, but the political effect of art is not just limited to its content. Part of the stereotype against Asians is that we’re not good at language, so simply to exemplify and to prove yourself as capable of articulating your own, and other people’s, experiences is valuable in itself, as a proof of concept. So even if I accidentally wrote something serious and meaningful, it’s still more of an embodiment of values than a delivery device.

Harris: Even putting Tulathimutte on the cover of your book, I’m sure they told you to change it.

Tulathimutte: Yeah, everybody told me to change it to Tony Tula. And it’s not an easy name. I probably cost myself several . . . MILLIONS of sales! But that was a political decision for sure.

Harris: Yeah, and I think it’s also political for young people to write their own stories. I hope some people read my book and gain confidence that their own thoughts and observations about their lives are important.

Tulathimutte: It’s a truism of every generation that the narrative behind them gets formed and intensely pushed and repeated by an older generation for the first twenty years of their existence. And all of it’s disapproving. It’s all disappointment and moral panic.

Harris: At least Gen X got to be slackers and criminals, though.

Woodend: Ta-Nehisi Coates surprised me on TV by saying, “In this particular epoch of history, in fact, our problems are actually a lot better than most people’s.” He mentioned climate later, which kind of changes the equation, but would you agree with him on that?

Harris: We’re not going to be able to not talk about climate anymore when you have major US cities underwater. Certainly the people of Puerto Rico or Houston or the Sonoma Valley don’t feel like things are as good or getting better.

And the statistic that people believe least in this book—and there are a lot of weird stats in this book—is that the ratio between black and white imprisonment has dramatically increased over time. But the rate can’t be worse than under Jim Crow? It’s much, much, much worse than under Jim Crow, in fact, because this prison system didn’t exist the way it does now. They could be as racist as they wanted, but they just lacked the capacity to imprison that many black people. So, a big part of this book is that things are getting worse.

Woodend: Do you stand by your statement at the end of the book that the only way to win is to not play? Or are you more sympathetic than you seem about traditional political methods?

Harris: No, if anything I’m downplaying that, cause there’s no point. Our political system is totally maladapted to anything that’s going on. There’s no way to reform it in the timespan that we need. Maybe in a hundred years you could reform this government to be something more egalitarian. We could have a lot of cycles of dealing with stuff and not dealing with stuff and it could get better, but we don’t have a hundred years. We are screwed in the real immediate term.

Tulathimutte: For sure.

Harris: If you went back five years, and I was as radical as anyone around, and told me that this is what is was gonna look like five years from now? I probably wouldn’t have believed you. This is worse than people imagined. And every year it is. And if you don’t have those objective sort of measurements, you’re just a frog in a slowly warming pot.

Tulathimutte: It was difficult for me to imagine what an American communism would look like, just because America was capitalist even before it was America. Then again, I used to find it difficult to imagine what American fascism would look like. I thought the people with guns would be too angry about that.

Harris: Yeah, me too. Didn’t you think the country had too big of a libertarian streak and that they wouldn’t be into it? No. Whiteness is a helluva thing, man.

Tulathimutte: Hell of a drug.

Woodend: You hint at the end of your book that revolution is the solution, but you didn’t expand on it. Would you like to now?

Harris: Revolution is a serious thing and people are glib about it on the Internet. But this is a country at social war right now. People are dying, more people will die, and revolution is an attempt to stop that process once and for all, to end social war. Treating it with the seriousness it deserves would not fit in this kind of book.

Tulathimutte: Sequel.

Woodend: Will you?

Harris: If I had answers I would go do them. I wouldn’t write a book about it. This is what I wrote because, one, I need a job and stuff to make money, but it has some information and frames people can use to understand what’s going on in their life and why it looks the way it does. I think people are really confused about why their lives are so hard.

Woodend: Do you see any hope on the horizon?

Harris: I think we will witness, in the next five years, the serious return of the American Communist Party, the CPUSA. Not in the forms it exists now. I think those forms are terrible. But there are a lot of very good people who are working toward an idea of contemporary left politics and a contemporary communism that would be very attractive to Americans, and it’s smart and deep and relevant.

People want to live whole, honest lives where they believe in themselves and the people around them and what they’re doing, which is so hard right now.

Tulathimutte: And it’s so hard under the conditions millennials are in. Being riven with self-doubt, self-loathing, and anxiety is not the best position to spark a revolution founded on moral indignation. When you’ve heard so much about it being your fault because you’re lazy.

Harris: And complicit.

Tulathimutte: But that’s what your book is correcting. It puts the righteousness back in our court.

Harris: I hope so, and it feels like that, regardless of my book. It feels like we’re moving toward a better understanding of what the dynamics are right now. What’s hard is that we still don’t have any mechanisms to affect them, so it’s hard to talk about, ’cause it just feels miserable. But people aren’t asked to give themselves up to something larger in a way that might actually help or work or make a difference in the world, and that’s why I believe communism will win, in a material sense, because a lot of people are waiting to be asked and would risk a lot if they were.

Tulathimutte: All I’ll add to that is: People radicalize a lot more quickly and easily than people think.

Harris: And the people who are critics are generally way further behind than they think they are. We think we’re ahead of the sentiments of the people, and that’s always wrong, every single time.

Alex Woodend has translated four novels. He is currently writing one about Jorge Luis Borges in Pennsylvania.