There’s probably no bigger sin in American politics than to imagine a world without war, inequality, and capitalism. Actually, imagining just a kinder, more equitable version of capitalism, one in which the existence of elite wealth is tempered by the peoples’ right to health care, a college education, affordable housing, strong workplace unions, full reproductive rights for women, and an end to racial discrimination is enough to be dismissed as a utopian ideologue by the high priests of the corporate media and political establishment.
Indeed, it’s probably easier as some observe for most media pundits and mainstream politicians to envision the climate crisis bringing a cataclysmic end to all human civilization than to imagine the end of capitalism. To advocate the socialist vision of a world beyond capitalism, where the human needs of all prevail over the private profits of a few, is the quickest route to the trash dumpsters parked in the alleys outside the headquarters of CNN, MSNBC, and other corporate purveyors of news.
Of course, this near-sighted outlook is intrinsic to establishment politics. But it’s also increasingly out-of-touch with the outlook especially of many younger Americans. Consider one recent poll that shows about 70 percent of U.S. millennials (between the ages of 23 and 38) would vote for a socialist presidential candidate. Similar pro-socialist sentiment exists among teens and college-aged youth. Earlier this year another Gallup poll revealed 43 percent of Americans embrace the idea of “some form of socialism” as a positive direction for the nation. As well, a 2018 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found a majority of young people support “democratic socialist” policies for health care, education, and jobs.
Significantly, among young adults (ages 18 to 29), the Harvard survey found majority support (56 percent) for a federal jobs guarantee and at least $15 an hour with paid family/sick leave and health benefits. There was also majority support for eliminating tuition and fees at public colleges and universities for anyone from a family earning under $125,000, with free community college for all income levels. Single-payer health care was supported by 55 percent of young Americans. There was also support (37 percent) among young adults for the idea of “building a militant and powerful labor movement…rooted in the multi-racial working class.”
The Resurgence of Socialism
This new openness to socialist perspectives is part of a dynamic shift in the political landscape at work at least since the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011. The Occupy protests grew out of the disappointment of many youth with the Obama administration’s failure to confront in any meaningful way the demoralizing reality of growing wealth inequality in the United States.
In turn, there has been a long, slow decline of American living standards, driven by the embrace of the ideology of “free market” neoliberalism by both established parties. Neoliberalism is the barren ideology of contemporary corporate politicians of all stripes, millionaires most of them, an opportunist scourge of ideas and policies that have been stealing hopes for the future from ordinary working people for more than four decades now.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) 2017 report, Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us, the wealthiest 400 Americans now have combined wealth greater than the bottom 64 percent of the U.S. population. That’s 400 people vs. 204 million people! Additionally, three corporate CEOs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett, now own more wealth than 160 million Americans combined. That’s three people versus half the population of the entire United States!
How is it even possible to pretend a healthy democratic society exists when such extreme wealth inequality prevails? The United States might better be described as a “hereditary aristocracy of wealth and power,” as IPS concludes, citing French economist Thomas Piketty’s assessment.
A society dominated by the normalization of wealth inequality, where political democracy is just another prop for class rule by elites, is also a society highly vulnerable to the rise of far-right demagogues, the counterfeit populists who crawl out of the political sewers with loud promises to “shake up” the status quo. Their targets are never those with wealth and power, but always the most victimized and oppressed people.
Unfortunately, in the absence of a genuine mass political opposition, organized to compete in elections, support worker’s strikes, and build social movements in the streets, there is little to prevent the rise of these lieutenants of the far-right from raising their ugly salutes to the worst cruelties imaginable under the rule of capital.
Today, there are millions of Americans apparently ready to believe any idiotic nonsense oozing out of Donald Trump. This corrupt, racist, misogynistic, lying, greedy narcissistic businessman turned far-right politician is a blight on every decent impulse in the human condition. Trump and his Republican defenders in Congress are rank enemies of human rights, social justice, and democracy. As for their supporters in the general population, they are largely miseducated plebeians of a dying social system, too naïve or maladjusted to know that their wealthy “leaders” could care less about their well-being. They are unwitting stage props in an unfolding dystopian nightmare.
Capitalism Resists Reform
Fortunately, there are millions of others who want something better. From the Occupy Wall Street protests to the more recent wave of national teachers strikes, the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his “democratic socialist” campaigns for the presidency, the success of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant in Seattle and more, socialism is no longer a forbidden word in the American political vernacular.
What’s especially notable is the particularly strong support among younger voters for Sanders “socialist” presidential primary campaign. For example, one recent Emerson poll among voters ages 18-29 showed 45 percent support for Sanders. The Vermont senator also just won the endorsement of the California Young Democrats, swamping his closest primary contenders with 67 percent of the votes in one of the state party’s largest caucuses.
Of course, the Sanders idea of socialism is basically a modernized version of the old 1930s New Deal liberalism. This isn’t the socialism of Karl Marx or Eugene V. Debs. There’s no vision of an actual anti-capitalist revolution on the Sanders agenda, no vision of workers control of industry and production. This is not the socialism of mass economic democracy, with the top-down authoritarianism of the modern corporation turned on its head and decision-making powers put in the hands of the workers themselves.
The Sanders vision of socialism is more one of the kinder, gentler social-democratic model of capitalism that has long existed in parts of Europe, where social benefits like longer vacations, paid family leave, free public health care, and other social supports have in the past helped to stabilize capitalist economies. This is less a vision of labor in power than one of labor in partnership with capital, sharing a seat at the decision-making table.
Under Sanders-style socialism, the Wall Street dinosaurs could breathe a sigh of relief. They won’t be divested of their private wealth and investments and sent packing to some uninhabited South Pacific island to live out their days playing pretend capitalism among themselves. But they might be forced to pay more taxes and follow more worker-friendly regulatory rules.
The progressive reforms Sanders proposes are hardly a bad thing, but whether it is enough to save society is questionable. In fact, the rule of capital is increasingly toxic to social development. Those with vested interests in perpetuating this dying system cannot allow themselves much in the way of latitude, even for reforms in the people’s interests based on old social-democratic models. As Glen Ford recently observed in Black Agenda Report, “late stage capitalism is relentlessly eviscerating the European model and has no intention of allowing a replica to be erected in the United Corporate States of America, the global headquarters and armory of the Lords of Capital.”
Ironically, the political center in the United States has shifted so far to the right that the New Deal-style politics Sanders espouses are now perceived by establishment ideologues as some sort of way-out, radical vision rather than a program entirely within the purview of the capitalist order. Tellingly, the day after Sanders’ enthusiastic New York City rally of more than 25,000 people with speeches by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Michael Moore, and others, NBC News featured a story with this headline: Bernie Sanders struggles to rebound: Staffing, strategy, health.
In late-stage capitalism, Wall Street and the corporate media consider a return to even the New Deal programs that Sanders espouses, and which saved capitalism in the 1930s, a now intolerable option. Hence, their ongoing efforts to deflate the public’s enthusiasm for Sanders “democratic socialist” movement. Hence, the attempts by candidates Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and basically the whole DNC crowd to undermine the Sanders vision of progressive change, such as Medicare for All, free college, and other popular reforms. These ostensibly liberal candidates essentially proclaim to the world that the United States, the richest global nation, can’t afford far-reaching progressive change, only permanent war spending,
Yet even with a malignant far-right crackpot in office like Trump, most of the national leaders of the Democratic Party persist in the illusion of restoring the old respectful bipartisan collegiality of the Republican-Democratic partnership, where everyone agreed to disagree as long as service to Wall Street remained the implicit definition of “legitimate” politics.
For many young people, those days are over. As Ford acknowledges, it is “the youth of all races who know that capitalism has nothing to offer but endless economic austerity and war.”
Running Out of Time and Democracy
In an interview last summer with FOX News host Tucker Carlson, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) referred to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) the “Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse.” A former Democrat turned Republican, the “folksy” Kennedy dismissed the congresswomen as “left-wing cranks” and “the reason why there are directions on a shampoo bottle.”
Kennedy claimed Omar and colleagues believe America has always been a “wicked” and “evil” country. What to do about these America-haters? “This is not China, this is America,” declared Kennedy. “And in America, if you hate our country, you’re free to leave.”
Apparently, the old Vietnam War-era shibboleth of “love it or leave it” is now held up as a gesture of magnanimous tolerance on the part of right-wing authoritarians. But perhaps we should be grateful. After all, the rhetorical thuggery of these right-wing clods is giving everyone with a grievance about the high cost of healthcare or college education, low wages, assaults on reproductive rights or other injustices a chance to get the hell out of here before the nation’s upstanding patriots demand the hammer of government repression be brought down upon their ignorant skulls.
That is where all this is leading. How long now before the crude, bullying rhetoric of Republicans in power eventually turns to their own Bolivian “solution” applied to the dissenting streets of the United States?
Enough! The clock is ticking on the capitalist system, both in the United States and globally. The present system with its unfolding climate crisis is leading us into a social and environmental abyss where a raw and brutal, even fascist future, is not out of the question. Now, there is only so much time for the mass of humanity to get organized politically, to seize the reins of society from the right-wing demagogues, corporate polluters, Pentagon militarists, and Wall Street elites who have brought society to the brink of disaster.
To save society and the planet, we don’t need billionaires named Bezos or Buffet to bless us with their largesse, as long as we recognize the sanctity of their extreme wealth. Actually, the entire alphabet of billionaires from A to Z are unnecessary to civilization’s survival. Social hierarchies based on class, wealth, and armed power are a brake on human development. What we need now is more mass social protest, more criticism of the limits of the two-party system, and perhaps soon the first bold steps toward creation of a new, mass independent socialist party.
The sooner the capitalist profit system can be relegated to history’s proverbial dustbin, the sooner our species can get on with the work of discovering what it actually means to be fully human, fully alive. For now, there is little room for the perspective of anti-capitalist revolution in the current U.S. elections debates. Nonetheless, the choice of a socialist future, or no future, hangs in the balance.