Every election season is a time of bemoaning why millennials won’t vote for politicians boldly committed to picking at the edges of their problems. Consider a snapshot of the situation young people face: the unemployment rate for workers under age 25 is 18.1 percent; unemployment for black people who have not graduated from high school is 82.5 percent; the people most likely to be shot by police are black 25–34-year-olds; the national student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion; and the only jobs lucrative enough to pay off college loans are in the financial industry that detonated our economy or Silicon Valley companies deregulating working-class industries.
The future doesn’t hold much hope either, with median household income declining 12.4 percent between 2000 and 2011. Having a family is simply harder to afford now. Meanwhile, each new year sets another low record for union density, meaning we have few levers for turning those income numbers around. Unlike most wealthy countries, the United States lacks universal childcare and maternity leave, so women are stuck with the same old debates over an impossible work-life balance.
We were told that in the knowledge economy good jobs followed higher education; there are few jobs, and we lock ourselves into miserable ones as quickly as possible to feed the loan sharks. The magazine writers who report on self-indulgent 20-somethings (think Time’s “The Me Me Me Generation” cover), the well-meaning guidance counselors who coach kids to “invest in themselves”—they should save their breath. You don’t need a college course to know when you’re getting screwed.
The most grotesque feature of the 2016 election is the razor-thin spectrum of solutions proposed by the front-runners to a historic set of problems. Lost in the noise of the 2016 election cycle is the fact that no viable candidate offers any hope for a radically more equal society: The policies on offer would merely mitigate the dire inequality that has been growing since Reagan. And this is despite the fact that a majority of Americans express widespread discontent with the country’s extreme consolidation of wealth: about three in four Americans think that inequality is a serious problem in the United States. (This places Americans in the mainstream of world opinion, where in all 44 nations polled by Pew, people think inequality is a big problem facing their countries.) It is this popular dissatisfaction that no doubt accounts for the unexpected surge of support for the unlikely long-shot Democratic candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist.
Indeed, the most obvious source of this election’s futility is that popular opinion, expressed through elections, has essentially proved to have no influence on policy. According to a now-famous 2014 Princeton and Northwestern study measuring influence in American politics, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” On key issues like gun control, financial reform, and education spending, the policy-makers’ divergence from popular opinion has been particularly stark. The United States is now, in effect, an oligarchy. Beyond this sad reckoning lies an even more fundamental problem: There is no better alternative on offer. We need a vision of a better future, one that turns our modern capacity for abundant food, shelter, and health into a guarantee that no one will suffer for their lack.
So when people demand that we vote, you can see why the answer comes back: For what?
The economic crash was not just an ugly fluctuation that we’re all trying in good faith to correct. It has provided cover for neoliberal benefit rollbacks—cutting government services in the name of budget crises—in which all of these candidates have participated. Vulnerable people who need the services the most get screwed first: the young, the old, the poor. Eligibility for unemployment benefits has been tightened and opportunities to extend them rejected because we “can’t afford them.”
A college education is edging beyond reach for many of us. In 2012, Congress restricted Pell grants for low-income college students. While national student debt has surpassed $1 trillion, the federal government has made it impossible to default on these college loans—even your Social Security can be garnished to pay them off. And before students even make it to college, they are subjected to schools with such attenuated budgets that physicians have started prescribing Adderall to poor kids to keep them focused in unruly classrooms, whether they have ADD or not. In the words of one doctor, “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
Perhaps it’s wise to modify the kid for the brave new world that will await her: one with constantly shifting and disappearing jobs and no safety net of any kind. It is a truism now that no one expects one career. Most people now in college or high school will have six jobs by the time they’re 26. And let us not mistake flexible work for fulfilling work. This is an age when the power of the boss is so ascendant over the power of the worker that we can be shuffled around to match precisely the needs of capital. Department stores and retailers now use apps that will inform an employee midway through a workday if their services are no longer needed to match customer demand. About half of early-career hourly workers learn their schedule for the week less than one week in advance. A full day’s work, or a “steady” job, is a thing of the past. This is a chronically unstable way to operate in the world, picking up bits of knowledge work, service work, or manual labor as needed.
When asked what factors led to such a dramatic divide between the needs of the average citizen and the actions of the state, Princeton sociologist Martin Gilens, co-author of the 2014 study measuring influence in American politics, cited moneyed lobbying on the one hand, and “the lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of ordinary citizens,” on the other. “Part of that would be the decline of unions in the country, which has been quite dramatic over the last 30 or 40 years,” Gilens added. “And part of it is the lack of a socialist or a worker’s party.”
It is not only in the United States that unions are crumbling and the safety net is being torched in the name of leaner, more responsible budgets. The eurozone, which was once touted as the means to a prosperous and peaceful continent, has revealed itself to be nothing more than a continental system of extraction.
Poor countries in Southern Europe borrowed money from foreign banks before the devastating financial crisis of 2010, only to find themselves unable to pay them back. To protect the euro, much of this debt was restructured and taken over by the troika—the International Monetary Fund, European Commission, and the European Central Bank—that then forced countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy to cut social spending to pay off the debts. Now in Greece, for example, unemployment has hit 25 percent in part because of huge public-sector cuts, and suicide, addiction, and infant mortality are all on the rise because the troika has required cuts in healthcare spending.
For examples of turning radical ideas into platforms for power, we might consider the rise of radical European parties in opposition to this sort of austerity—examples of Gilens’s counterweights to oligarchy. As we write, these parties are being buffeted by international creditors and may collapse, but they have far outpaced Americans in organizing militant-left institutions. Greece elected Syriza, the first radical leftist, antiausterity party to hold power within the EU. Syriza entered government promising to defy troika mandates and leave debt unpaid rather than starve Greeks. They promised, as well, greater democracy in the workplace, supporting enterprises such as the national television station, which had come under worker control during the crisis. In Spain, the Indignados movement, a sort of precursor to Occupy in the United States, has transformed into a political party called Podemos. They, too, promise to defy EU austerity measures, root out corruption, and devolve more democracy to local councils. These parties are quite different from each other, the former born from a fusion of radical-left forces and the other out of a haphazard and less ideologically coherent coalition of regional groups. They will not solve the crisis right away, and may even disintegrate under pressure from the troika, but they provide an example of organizing successfully for power.
The United States has shown glimmers of such radical potential. The surge of youth politicization embodied by Occupy injected class into our public debate back in 2011 and formed connections with antiausterity movements across the world, especially with the Spanish Indignados. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice has forced the whole country to confront not only the violence that oppresses black people in America but also the recession that black America has suffered since 2001. Parts of the movement are putting forward economic programs.
Like Occupy, Black Lives Matter eschews centralized leadership in favor of a more horizontal structure that privileges local autonomy. On December 13, 2014, some 30,000 people marched through New York City in honor of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black victims of police brutality, creating a new normal in the public’s response: Today, police shootings, which are no more prevalent than before, regularly make headline news and inspire mass protests. One of President Barack Obama’s last acts in office will be limiting military equipment for police departments; his reform barely scratches the surface of the problems with American policing, but is one of the first tangible results of the movement at the federal level. No change would be on the agenda without pressure from the new organization.
Young activists in the United States are embedded in other rising leftist forces as well. Fight for 15 is a low-wage workers’ movement that started with promising victories for fast-food workers and has most recently achieved a previously unthinkable $15 minimum wage for all of Los Angeles. The domestic workers’ movement, almost entirely run by and representing immigrant women of color, has organized to achieve a domestic workers’ bills of rights—which includes the right to overtime, days off, and legal protection from sexual harassment—in New York, California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii. The debt-abolition movement, which emerged from Occupy, has recently been the undoing of Corinthian Colleges, a shady for-profit education company that ripped off thousands of students, a few of whom, in an act of economic disobedience, are now refusing to pay their student debts in protest. The immigrants’ rights movement has been tremendously brave, with many young people taking leadership roles and exposing themselves to potential deportation. All of these organizations have enormous challenges ahead of them, especially because most are reliant on centralized labor union and foundation funding and are not self-sustaining through dues or other traditional labor methods. They also represent a tiny fraction of citizens, even as they point to creative ways forward.
So where does that leave us? Some across left-of-center American politics have stepped forward to condemn the new activism. If the reaction to Occupy was “What are your demands?”—shorthand for “show us your reasonable think tank–approved white papers”—then the reaction to Black Lives Matter has not been far off. Establishment liberals such as Al Sharpton have condemned the movement for lacking leaders and have demanded a focus on voter registration and mobilization. Black voter registration did surge in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s killing by police officer Darren Wilson, but in the poignant words of one activist and scholar, “Voting would not have saved Michael Brown.” Certainly, voting for Obama has produced little change, either in the treatment of black people by the police and the criminal-justice system, or for students and their chronic state of debt, or for the falling incomes of ordinary workers.
The unimaginative stance of established politicos demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of grassroots politics. Protests don’t write policy in their first months, but rather shift conversations and tell everyone suffering through American capitalism that they are not alone. More important, all of these movements for change ultimately have one focus: on redistribution—of wealth, power, and justice. Their decentralized structures pose challenges, and are sometimes liabilities, but they indicate a real hunger for democracy, one that may manifest itself differently in the future.
In fact, according to a 2011 Pew poll, a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have a more favorable opinion of socialism than of capitalism. This points to a tremendous churn of radical potential, and while we should not get too utopian about its imminent triumph, it is crucial that we, like the rising European parties, articulate the sort of world we would like to see, the world that no leading candidates have promised. This is a world that could only be born with the force of social movements at its back.
It is time, in other words, for ideas big enough to be worthy of the global discontent that put them on the agenda. The ideas in this volume draw on a rich tradition of socialist proposals, long a force in American politics, only recently quashed into obscurity. It’s easy to forget that socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs won almost a million votes, twice. Or that hundreds of mayors and local officials were socialists in the first half of the 20th century, and that Milwaukee elected three “sewer socialist” mayors, the last as late as 1956. Even today, the Senate boasts a self-described democratic socialist, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. This is not a strain alien to American soil—despite the neo-McCarthyite language of the Republican Party. The modern GOP accuses every Democrat of being a socialist (we wish!) and slurs progressive taxation, universal healthcare, and a host of other decent policies as “foreign” and “European” in order to cast suspicion on anyone left of center.
We propose an alternative vision—both reformist and revolutionary, utopian and pragmatic. Leftists have often shied away from suggesting blueprints, thinking them undemocratic. But proposing a course isn’t the same thing as imposing one. If the movements we’ve embraced in the past couple of years are worth taking seriously, it’s because they can form the political basis for social plans. People want to know that there is another way.
The openness of young people to socialism may indicate two things: They are fed up with being repeatedly let down by capitalism; and people who came to political consciousness after 1989 do not have a vision of socialism heavily influenced by the Cold War. When the economic crisis hit, there was a resurgence of casual interest in Marx, with headlines like “Why Marxism Is on the Rise Again” and “A Generation of Intellectuals Shaped by 2008 Crash Rescues Marx From History’s Dustbin.” Some Black Lives Matter activists have taken up the mantle of the Black Panthers, whose vision of socialism confronted centuries of racist exploitation. Newfound engagement resulted from attempts to describe what was happening to us, and Marxism—which describes a system designed to produce expropriation at the bottom and growing windfalls at the top—suddenly seemed more convincing than liberal fumbling to explain how Democratic policies generated by people such as former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers could have contributed to the disastrous crash.
The socialism we envision, and toward which we take some first steps toward describing in this book, is one that prizes democracy, striving always for the sort of mass redistribution that makes individual human flourishing possible. Our goal is an economic democracy that produces more freedom than we could ever hope for under our current system.