- Interview by
- Daniel Lopez
Australians born after 1980 have not enjoyed what you would describe as “a good run.” The first generation to live entirely under neoliberalism, millennials have endured stagnant wages, insecure work, soaring rents and housing prices, and decades of cuts to health, education, and welfare. It’s an experience starkly at odds with that of baby boomers, who lived in an era of unprecedented, albeit unevenly distributed, progress.
However, as much as landlords in and out of parliament lecture their tenants about frugality and hard work, younger people are increasingly realizing that the system is stacked against them. In his new book, I, Millennial, Melbourne comedian Tom Ballard gives his take on this generational shift to the left:
Millennial outrage is not rooted in a belief that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Rather, we are worn down and infuriated by how hard and unfair the status quo is, when it could clearly be so much fucking better. We know only too well that things could be a lot easier and fairer because for the bulk of our parents’ generation, they were.
This is why, he argues, young, working-class people are turning to the Left for analysis and activism. Jacobin sat down with Tom Ballard to talk about the experiences that politicized him and pushed him into what he describes as “the loving arms of democratic socialism.”
Before we get to the complaining, what’s the best thing about being a millennial?
I’d say it’s our extraordinary access to information. Yes, the internet has been corporatized and privatized, and it’s warped our brains in various ways while enriching some of the worst people in all of human history. But let’s not forget that it was developed and built by the public sector, and still maintains a remarkable capacity for the public good. I’m still pretty grateful for the way that modern technology has transformed my generation’s relationship to knowledge and art and communication. It’s mind-blowing, the ease with which you can listen to, learn about, or watch almost anything right now (including lots of wonderful pornography). And it’s so much easier to form new friendships and solidarity with other human beings all over the planet. For all its terrifying drawbacks, I’m still glad to have been born into the internet age.
Ok, so positives aside, what’s the main millennial experience that pushed you to the left?
I feel like being a renter and aspiring homeowner is definitely up there. In the wake of the 2016 federal election, the “smashed avocado” nonsense entered the public discourse. After all this political chaos and economic stagnation, the idea gained ground that young people can’t afford houses because they spend too much on brunch.
I think that’s when a bunch of light bulbs started going off, and I started asking some bigger questions. How long am I going to have to rent for? Why is it that our parents could buy a house so easily, and now it seems almost impossible? Why is housing so goddamn expensive, and why do we talk about it like having shelter is a fucking luxury? And who the fuck are these people with multiple houses?
I think that subconsciously, I’d kind of swallowed the idea that young people are self-entitled and lazy. But after a while, you realize that everything’s gone to shit, including the economy, public institutions, and the basic premise that our society is fair. And all that was caused by forces bigger than me and my friends checking Twitter too much or buying the wrong products. It made me want to find better answers. That led me down a rabbit hole, which eventually saw me becoming the dirty little socialist I am today.
So, what answers did you find to explain how it got this bad?
Really, I think our problems today are rooted in the political-economic system of capitalism. And specifically, we’re dealing with an Aussie brand of neoliberal capitalism rolled out by Labor and Coalition governments as a response to the economic crisis of the late 1970s.
The celebrated “golden age of reform” of the Hawke-Keating government was neoliberal to its core. The main tenets were that public ownership and government intervention in the economy are bad and that competitive “free” markets are efficient and awesome. Defenders of neoliberalism promised that market forces would make society better. What that meant in practice was mass privatization, deregulation, corporatization and disciplining the labor movement. It created heaps more “freedom” for capital and low-to-no taxes for the wealthy, resulting in the broken, increasingly unequal — and therefore deeply undemocratic — society we have today.
Obviously, the shitty status quo doesn’t suck exclusively for the young. But what I think is unique about millennials is that we are the first generation to come of age in a fully neoliberalized Australia. So for us, the suckage is so much more widespread and comprehensive.
Plus, our experience contrasts starkly with that of our boomer parents, who were born in the long years of economic boom after World War II. When they were young, a strong labor movement and the Keynesian consensus created a tamer version of capitalism in which markets didn’t rule absolutely everything. A begrudging compromise between capital and labor meant that ordinary working people were more empowered than ever before. Things still sucked, but workers could actually do something about that suckage.
How does a class analysis complicate or intersect with a generational analysis?
I was wrestling with this question throughout the book — I suppose I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. But after figuring out what I thought about capitalism and socialism, I eventually saw that class is key to understanding the way our system exploits those on the bottom. That’s the vital point, and in a lot of ways, to frame the problem generationally is bullshit and a media confection. Words like “boomer” or “millennial” are catchall terms that ignore all sorts of class differences and realities. It’s important to keep that in the front of one’s mind.
At the same time, your generation partly shapes your experience of the world and your relationship to culture and politics. Young people do have some basic sense of a kinship, I think, whether that’s because of common cultural touchstones, like music or TV from certain times, or just being around the same age and life stage for big events. This gives people a set of common references. That’s particularly important for a comedian, because you often have to talk in pretty general terms and draw on cultural references to make jokes land.
By its very nature, generational discourse deals in broad generalizations. So when I talk about millennials, I’m speaking very generally. I’m not talking about the few, but very real, millennial billionaires out there. When I’m talking about boomers, I’m talking about the wealthy ones that own a bunch of houses. And while the book is initially set up with a generational frame, that’s basically just a hook to get people interested. Yes, I’ve got a bunch of boomer jokes throughout the book, but hopefully, by the end, readers will realize that it all comes back to class. I tried to make this explicit, for example, by pointing out that some millennials like Mark Zuckerberg have more money than almost anyone else in human history, while at the same time, the fastest growing demographic of homeless people in this country is women over fifty-five. That’s why, at its heart, the book is a call to abandon the intergenerational war for a class one.
Can you tell us more about the perspective comedy can bring?
For my sins, I still really love watching and writing political comedy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fart or cum jokes or just being straight up silly on stage, but for me the comics that I’ve always been really passionate about are the ones who have something to say.
The acts with social commentary and the ability to analyze what’s really going on in the world can remind you of your humanity and make you think about politics and life in a new way. The greats of that genre are people like George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Rod Quantock, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle (his transphobic oeuvre aside). If you can say something funny and true about the system, the way society is organized, the stupidity of human behavior or the outrageous things that we accept are inevitable, and you can say it succinctly, then you’ve hit gold. That’s the comedy I’ve always really loved.
It’s almost bordering on populist philosophy. I’m hesitant to praise stand-up comedians as modern day philosophers — but to me the best comedy is never far away from thinking about life and society, and questions of class, wealth, and power. If you can communicate those kinds of things in a popular, successful way, and make people both think and laugh, that’s a really sweet spot to hit.
If you could choose one single reform to implement, what would it be?
I was watching the coverage of the Queen’s death and it really angered me. Think of all the money, resources, and time that we, as a society, were prepared to put into grieving for this unelected, super-wealthy woman. Meanwhile, my one-hundred-year old grandmother was living in an Australian aged-care facility. Thankfully, it’s one of the not-amazing-but-not-horrific ones.
During the pandemic, we saw the horror created by the deregulation and privatization of the aged care sector. It really is a disgrace and such a clear indictment of neoliberalism. So, my one reform would be to nationalize all the aged-care facilities, so that they can be used for the public good of caring for the elderly, not as a moneymaking exercise.
As the Aged Care Royal Commission pointed out, operating aged care on a market basis leads to cutting corners and the abuse and exploitation of elderly people. It makes anyone with a good conscience sick to their stomach. The idea of making a profit on caring for elderly, vulnerable people is toxic. Instead, if we had a high-quality, nationalized, and universal aged-care system, build around people’s needs, elderly Australians could get the dignity and care they fundamentally deserve.
What does democratic socialism mean to you?
The most succinct summary of democratic socialism that I’ve read comes from Osmond Chiu, writing for the labor-left magazine, Challenge: “Democratic socialism is the idea that everyone should be in power.”
That definition is built on the fundamental idea that democracy is really, really good, and should be expanded to include not only politics, but also the economy. We should have a democratic say over the way the economy works, and our society should be geared toward servicing human needs, not endlessly pursuing profits. Economic democracy would help us share the extraordinary wealth and resources that we have. Just think about how rich we are, how much money is floating around, and how incredible this country could be.
That’s really at the heart of the millennial rage, I think. It’s not that we live in the worst of all worlds — we know that things could be way worse. The frustration comes from knowing that things could be so much better, but they’re not because we live in a class society with a small number of people hoarding wealth, resources, and power.
The inevitable and dreaded question: how do we get there?
Well, my thinking has compelled me to become more active as a member of the Australian Greens. I’m excited by the left-wing, populist, democratic socialist current running through the Greens, most notably in Queensland.
I don’t think you could say that the Greens are a democratic socialist party (yet!). Their federal policy platform could be described as social democratic, and it responds to the realities most Australians experience. Of course, the corporate media presents those policies as too radical. But that kind of platform is probably the most realistic chance we have to get reforms through in Australia.
The success of the Victorian Socialists is very encouraging as well. It reflects the same millennial socialist energy that was sparked by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Some would say that the millennial socialist “moment” is over, and that energy has dissipated. But the problems that radicalized us are still there, and they’re just getting worse. I don’t know if that’s a source of hope, but to me, the best answer is still to go after the system that produces these injustices.
Encouragingly, I really think most young people get it. There is broad resentment toward billionaires and the rich, and how much influence they have over our politics. People know that democracy isn’t delivering actually democratic outcomes and that it’s been hijacked by a minority of rich people. So, at the level of public discourse, I think the most important thing is to explain the origin of these problems in a populist, accessible way. The problem is not just that one market isn’t functioning well, and needs more regulation. The problem is the existence of the market in almost every area of our lives.
What should millennials do?
There are two things I would recommend (in addition to buying my book, which is the greatest praxis of all). The first is reading history and left-wing political analysis. Over the last six years or so, I’ve done a massive crash course in politics, reading Jacobin, listening to podcasts, reading history as much as possible, and trying to understand how we got here. Being able to see reality clearly is like getting rid of the wool they’ve tried to pull over our eyes — and that’s empowering.
Reading leftist history — which is almost entirely absent from the high school curriculum — helps you recognize that so many of the good things we have were won by generations before us through struggle. When you realize that, you effectively join a historic movement that’s been fighting this unjust system for a very long time. I think that can be very encouraging, and something to take heart from.
The second thing is to engage with and join collective left-wing organizations, including your union, your tenants union, and a political party, if you see value in that. By focusing your energy — including your time, which is probably the most valuable resource you have — into trying to make things better, you’re contributing to something that you really care about. Seeing those efforts have a real impact on the people around you is the greatest thing. The level of solidarity that you feel when you go to protests or go out door-knocking for a campaign you’re passionate about is amazing. When you help other people and you win, it’s food for the soul.