This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The Radical Future of our Climate Is Now
Senior, Harvard College, and StudentNation contributor
I am 22 years old, and I have been a climate activist for ten years. My call is for a radical future now.
I look into my future, and I am scared. I know that climate change will define my life no matter what. I also know that this is true for everyone on our planet, especially the global poor on the front lines of fossil-fuel use.
Meanwhile, millions of people around the world unite to protect what they love. We insist on new institutions that respond to the climate crisis, enabling humans to prosper within Earth’s limits. We fight for a government that sees beyond short-term self-interest.
This future embodies different values that enable the turn away from a carbon economy and address root causes of the crisis. Equity, justice, life and empathy are at the core. Perhaps we can never fully achieve these values. Knowing that does not diminish their necessity. We must learn to value one another and our Earth in a different way.
If we relegate new values to an abstract, theoretical future, then they will always remain there. In the future. My radical now tries to bring this new moral framework into the present. Wave to the car that lets you cross the street; wave more vigorously at those choosing to take buses and trains to work; reach out to a friend whom you haven’t seen in a while; listen to all the voices in the room. The big things are equally important: create fiery campaigns that allow for all interests and levels of involvement; build a movement driven by “love for” not “fear of.” What we love can’t wait for the future.
* * *
A Last Stand for Public Education
Junior, Columbia University, education reporter and StudentNation contributor
The struggle over “education reform” in this country is a last stand. Public education is one of the last great public assets in this country, not to mention one of labor’s last strongholds. Having taken almost everything else, Wall Street investors–turned–“education reformers” are increasingly looking to loot our community schools.
America’s public education system has always been rife with inequality, segregation and top-down management. But public schools have also historically been sites of community organizing and mobilization. At its best, public education has gone beyond mere job training, pushing students to work with each other to imagine a fairer, more equitable world. Thus it is not surprising that in schools being cut to the bone, from Chicago to Philadelphia to Newark, students are walking out and rising up.
These students are fighting so that the generation after them will know what it means to have recess, to discuss topics that may never appear on a standardized test, to engage in a truly democratic process. This struggle over “education reform” will determine whether students should be shaped into human capital or should shape themselves into active democratic agents. We cannot afford to lose.
* * *
Our Only Chance Is Organized Resistance
Student at Goddard College, author of a forthcoming book on learning for Doubleday and StudentNation contributor
We want to one day live in a country that is not at war, occupying foreign lands, overthrowing democracies, bankrolling apartheid states and dropping bombs on civilians in the name of “protecting our freedoms.” We want to live in a country where poverty, hunger and homelessness are extinct. We want to live in a country that distributes wealth more equally. We want to live in a country that puts an end to mass incarceration of and police brutality against people of color. We want to live in a country with a public education system that is not based on coercion and control, but freedom, trust and autonomy.
We want free higher education. We want a universal basic income, so we can “have a life.” We want climate justice. We want affordable housing and healthcare. We want more worker cooperatives.
Our only chance at such a future is if we put our “bodies upon the gears,” as the late activist Mario Savio once declared—engage in organized resistance. This change cannot solely happen in the halls of Congress, the courts or at the ballot box.
My peers are primed for this struggle. Many of us have been the catalysts behind Ferguson, Occupy, Fight for 15, People’s Climate March and United We Dream. We will never stop dreaming and organizing and marching for a better world.
* * *
A Precedent for Student Workers
PhD student at New York University, organizer with GSOC-UAW, the union that represents NYU’s graduate students, and StudentNation contributor
Private institutions like nyu depend upon the ready, available pool of highly skilled graduate workers who carry out world-class teaching and industry-standard research throughout the duration of their studies. At NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, hailed as the “Silicon Valley of the East Coast,” graduate workers earn as little as $10 an hour, with no benefits, conducting work in projects that help bring NYU around $20 million a year in grants. Years of organizing have yielded innumerable stories of workers who sleep on floors in laboratories, forgo essential medical treatments, are forced to live apart from their families. These are no longer temporary sacrifices by students on the way to attaining degrees. Such privation increasingly constitutes the permanent condition of academic labor. Institutions like NYU seek global expansion based on a corporate business model, while low-wage workers uphold the core values of quality teaching and learning.
It took eight years to win back recognition of our union, GSOC-UAW, at NYU. We stayed organized and refused to back down—and in December 2013, we won! NYU is the only private university to have collective-bargaining rights for graduate employees, and our contract will set a precedent for other workers who face similar struggles. Having a union means we can demand better wages and benefits and recognition for the valuable work we do.
* * *
A Moral Order Defined by Bodily Integrity
Sophomore, Amherst College, and StudentNation contributor
The late conservative intellectual Russell Kirk argued that “the great line of division in modern politics” is “between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all.” Kirk specifically intended for a religious code to reign supreme, but his general framework is nonetheless useful in contrasting a much-needed human-rights politics with the amoral politics of nihilistic violence.
Although decent Americans across the political spectrum have long agreed that a meaningful “moral order” requires accountability for bullies who torture and kill the innocent, the American government has spent more than a century providing cover to human-rights abusers all over the world. Under both Democrats and Republicans, our government has cozied up to dictators like Suharto, whose murderous cleansing of East Timor is hardly a blip on most Americans’ political radar, and General Pinochet, whose thugs brutalized, assassinated and raped innocent Chileans. At the School of the Americas, the Department of Defense instructed Argentines in the “art” of torture, and in Iraq, the American military apparatus collaborated with other Western powers to unleash chaos in a ruthless and illegal war.
If there is in fact an unyielding moral order, then respect for bodily integrity certainly defines it. In the radical future, we must use the political mechanisms available to us to stop state-sponsored torture and murder and to hold power brokers accountable for their complicity in gratuitous violence.
* * *
Our Future is Dependent on Reaching Back
Senior, Ithaca College, Emmy Award–winning documentary filmmaker and former Nation intern
We’ve all heard the adage, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I’ve become a firm believer in the fullness of that truth—our future is dependent on reaching back. But in a society so heavily invested in the acceptance of its own brilliance and denial of its brutality, how do we create a future unlike our past? We are constantly told to observe the lessons of history in order to promote a more just and equal future, but many of us are torn between the legitimacy of our Constitution and the very visible contradictions in our communities. The idea that only the oppressed are on the losing side of our national narrative is the greatest myth of the American story. For too long, there has been a complete denial of the depths of our scars by those who wish to maintain a climate of complacency. But shackled hands wove the very fabric of our nation, and we can no longer ignore the wounds that provide our sense of freedom. To be radical, as Angela Davis has said, simply means grasping things at the root. And America’s future belongs to those who are willing to dig.
* * *
A Clean Environment is Our Right
Reporter for Newsweek and former Nation intern
Does every generation feel like the world is ending? Suddenly time scales are collapsing in on themselves. Geological time is becoming human time. The power plant is in your town, and now the global climate and your little brother’s asthma have something in common. The sea is rising, the forests are burning, and we keep tripping over tipping points and shrugging, swallowing the latest lost species or UN report whole, swallowing hard, clearing our throats so we can move on. But what if we had the capacity to deal with a problem so huge? What if we—at the level of our politics, and at the level of our individual imaginations—were able to face this? What would enable a politics that genuinely addressed the health of the environment? What would it look like?
It would begin, I think, by reorienting the way we talk about our rights. Environmental pollutants (and indeed the environment itself) have a deep physicality—we ingest them in our food, we breathe them in—but the issue is presented as a political externality: something that we only feel in the abstract, through the cold detachment of party platforms and campaign speeches.
Does the protection of the environment require the invasion of our individual rights? Most of our Congress would say it does. But “invasion” and “rights” are woefully misaligned here; the environment already invades us. Our bodies are full of it.
Our culture of rights-language is a mixed inheritance: it stems from an anxiety about the role of the state—anything that might threaten individual autonomy is met with reflexive outrage. But “Don’t Tread on Me” politics—democracy understood as the inalienable right to be left alone—leaves room, I think, for a more powerful form of environmental politics.
We may not have the cultural grammar to understand the environment in terms of reciprocity and stewardship, but insomuch as it clearly crosses the border into our sovereign selves, it is our right, then, to ensure that the invader be pure, clean and in service to our health. Maybe, once we’ve embraced that, the scale of the problem might collapse back into something far more human. Something we can actually do something about.
* * *
Humanity Without Fear or Apology
Third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and former Nation intern
When I was first asked to contribute to this collection, I felt honored and unworthy. Then, I thought about my disappointment over Debo Adegbile’s blocked nomination to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and said to myself: “What are the possible professional ramifications of being featured in a section called ‘Radical Futures’?” I especially wondered what those ramifications could be for a black woman. I thought about the connotations of the word “radical” and how that might lead people to categorize me in the future.
I was immediately ashamed. Such a thought was not characteristic of me at all. I had recently told a classmate not to worry about being viewed as the “angry black woman” when expressing her feelings over the Ferguson grand jury decision, because she was entitled to her opinions and emotions without having to manage other people’s expectations. However, while momentarily weighing the consequences of being associated with the “radical future,” I suddenly realized the subtle ways in which the prospect of entering the legal profession has changed me. I was forced to ask myself how a profession that I had seen as a vehicle for freedom and change had managed to make me feel constrained before I’d even entered it.
My friends tell me this realization is a normal concern of professionalism. They are young teachers and journalists and entrepreneurs who have said that they too are more wary of what they tweet or blog about. Still, I do not think that their concerns are the same as mine. There is a difference between managing your social-media presence and being afraid of having your views or career choices, or what may be characterized as your views or career choices, used against you as a strategy or a roadblock.
So, for me, a radical future for the legal system means one in which humanity is not a threat to order or justice. It is one where all people—professionals, citizens and noncitizens alike—feel free to be all aspects and degrees of who they are, with dignity, respect, access and opportunity—and most important, without fear or apology.
Students and Workers Can Build a Radical Future Together
Labor and education writer and activist, editor at StudentNation
In 1968, members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit took over South End, Wayne State University’s daily newspaper. Under the League’s direction, the paper distributed half its copies at factories, hospitals and other off-campus locations and added a new subtitle, “One class-conscious worker is worth 100 students.” The new South End remained committed to student issues—but also saw itself as a vehicle to build power for all people, in particular workers in the face of auto management and established union leadership. As the authors of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying put it, this was one way that the league channeled the hot summer of 1967 into “a political force capable of restructuring society.”
For so-called millennials, Detroit’s militant autoworkers outline the future better than they could have predicted. The boundaries that divide us—students, workers, and everyone in between—are becoming blurred. Workers need more credentials, at higher cost, in order to work; students have to work increasing hours in order to afford school; many are criminalized and cut off from the school-to-work pipeline entirely. Meanwhile, as the intersections of exploitation and oppression become more pronounced, struggles for liberation are driving struggles to reclaim the institutions that we inhabit, from the fast-food movement (“I AM A MAN”) to Berkeley (as one sign read at an occupied building in November, “FROM FERGUSON TO GAZA… YOU CAN’T PAY TUITION IF YOU’RE DEAD”).
On campus and off, what can we build together, not just as inheritors of preexisting movements but as makers of new ones that reflect new conditions? And, with South End as a guide, how can we take our stories and visions into our own hands?
* * *
Reconstructing the meaning and mechanism of American Democracy
PhD candidate in sociology at New York University and former Nation intern. His first book, The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, was recently published by Oxford University Press.
My generation has come of age at a time when democracy has been subordinated to the diktats of the markets. It is this reality that has fueled the rise of youthful social movements and their calls for radically democratic futures. If we are to answer those calls in this country, we will have to reconstruct the very meaning and mechanism of American democracy.
A first step would be to restore the social and civil rights that make it possible to fight for the others: the right to assemble and the right to organize, the right to strike and the right to vote. A next step would be to guarantee the other 99 percent of Americans, not just the rights, but the conditions they need to meaningfully participate in political life.
This, in turn, would require the public provision of public goods that give us the means to so participate: free healthcare and childcare, housing and higher education, a freer press and an open Internet. It would require the deprivatization of the political process itself, from the private investments that sway our elections to the public-private partnerships that police our protests.
We can only envision a democratic future for the United States if others in other countries are able to envision one for themselves. If we act together, we stand a fighting chance to demilitarize our international relations, to democratize and decarbonize the fossil-fuel economy, and to end, once and for all, the dictatorship of the markets over democratic publics.
* * *
As the Radical Knows, the Future is Happening All Around US
Journalist, co-founder of Full Stop magazine and former Nation intern
The radical is considered such because they are playing a much, much longer game than the masters of the world. The radical realizes that presenting a solution palatable to the powers that be is no solution at all, and would be only a slight rearranging of the furniture (if that). The radical knows that an election cycle is simply the void calling them up, breathing heavy and hollow. They don’t call back. They know that they’ll never have the money, the airtime, or the freedom to win this game. Even as they are pushed ever further to the margins, they do not despair. The margins, they have found, make for great company.
The radical knows that the current global political and economic system is a suicide pact, and that the idea of there being a future beyond it is an idea to stay awake for. It’s something to plan for, to engage with, and to dream of. If the rules are now enforced by endless permutations of fear, then the future the radical lives for is one marked by empathy. To be a radical, and to keep believing in that future, is to know that the future is already happening all around us — you just have to look for it. If the future is right fucking now, then there’s not a second to lose.