Considerations | Disillusioned and Digging It!
The most important thing to understand about the ascendance of socialism among American youth is that it was inevitable. Inevitable because, as Marx theorized, capitalism has no choice but to cannibalize itself thanks to a wealth of internal contradictions that make for a wholly unsustainable system. These contradictions manifest themselves in rampant wealth inequality, wage stagnation, rising debt, ecological devastation, labor alienation, and, on occasion, market crisis and collapse. Capitalism is not subject to crisis, capitalism is crisis in itself. Through the explosion of communicative technologies, inability to respond to catastrophe, and the development of new and alienating conditions of labor, capitalism itself has rendered socialism’s rise with the youth unavoidable.
The primary tool utilized by the powers that be, especially in the 21st century, has been the mass media. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky outline the mechanisms of media as a propaganda model in their book, Manufacturing Consent, but, having been released in 1988, it just predates the singular force that has been able to challenge, as well as amplify, its total power over reality: the Internet. In a presentation at the University of Windsor’s conference on “20 Years of Propaganda,” former PR Watch editor Sheldon Rampton stated that “The emergence of new communications media challenge the propaganda/ broadcast model by increasing the number of channels through which information reaches the public, and also by lowering the costs of entry to previously-excluded voices. On the internet in particular, blogging, virally-distributed email and collaboratively-written wikis have changed the traditional distinction between “broadcaster” and “audience.” Instead of relying on “one-to-many” broadcasts, people can now get information through “one-to-one” and “many-to-many” systems in which they themselves choose and create their own media from diverse sources.”
With the advent of the internet, the hegemony of information distribution has been irrevocably fractured, and from those fractures have sprung forth the saplings of class consciousness, and with it, the continuation of the progression of American history. If, as Francis Fukuyama claimed, the fall of the Soviet Union signified the end of history, then the ascendance of the Internet as a communicative tool has harkened its resurrection.
Mass information has eradicated the barrier of entry. Discussions of new dimensions of racism, sexism, gender experience, homophobia, transphobia, ability, police brutality, and many other oppressions experienced by the working class have become available to anybody who can access the Internet, while the Internet simultaneously becomes more and more accessible to people at the bottom of the class hierarchy as communicative technologies become cheaper and cheaper.
As social media networks evolve, they become more and more powerful as a tool for communities around which to form specific ideas. Platforms such as Facebook, with a heavy emphasis on the cultivation of networks, exemplified by the recent explosion of Q-anon related conspiracy groups, and Tumblr, with a heavier emphasis on “microblogging” and the distribution of content, as well as networks of users who mutually follow each other that grow organically over time, are often utilized in combination, creating greater trans-website spheres of influence, revolving around culture, media, passions, and politics. Now, you can find entire politically energized communities of users on one of many Bernie Sanders meme Facebook pages, each forming their own little communities.
When I first began using social media as a pre-teen in the early 2010s, the only real networks one could join revolved around video games, music, films, and other forms of entertainment media. I remember being recommended The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander on a gameinformer.com forum, years before I was ever again exposed to the concept of systemic racism in a college-level English class. I remember reading firsthand accounts of being transgender in America from my friends, years before Bill Nye tried to explain the concepts on Netflix. But most importantly, I remember one of my friends on Tumblr reblogging a post about socialism which completely shattered the false perception I had from years of indoctrination. These experiences were the first time I had been exposed to good-faith discussions of socialism. The impact was profound.
Given that socialism is the inevitable result of the working class articulating and realizing their common class interests, what we are seeing isn’t the resurgence of an alternative ideology to capitalism per se, but rather the working class re-learning the language of class consciousness that has been beaten and shamed out of the left’s prior generations through the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s traumatic collapse, and the following wars in former Eastern Bloc satellites, like Yugoslavia.
As the stock argument against socialism that relied on a degree of belief and faith in America, and by extension capitalism, was fundamentally undermined, the traumas of 9/11 and the Great Recession proved both of these concepts to be fallible. Every step of the way, the establishment on both sides were complicit. Democratic supporters of the 2002 Iraq Resolution reveal a who’s-who list of present day establishment leaders, including Clinton, Biden, Feinstein, and Schumer. In 2008, months before taking the presidency, Obama voiced support for, and eventually voted for, the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, ensuring not only that there be no consequences for the recession, but the institutions that caused it would be given back control over what they had just destroyed. The neoliberal agenda had been set, and was being acted into reality by the establishment. There was nothing anyone outside of the closed circle could do. History echoed Thatcher’s grim slogan, There is no alternative.
After all, if there really is no point believing in anything, then there must necessarily be no point believing in nothing. In a world of nightmares, what else is there to be done but try to dream? Perhaps the rediscovered ability to dream heralded the unprecedented success of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. Sanders, at the time a marginalized independent senator from Vermont, was one of the few politicians in American history to openly embrace the term “socialist” and still hold public office. For the first time, perhaps, since the close of the 19th century, the energy Sanders conjured from a disillusioned electorate resulted in the term “socialism” stripped of its exclusively pejorative association. The sea change had been set in motion, Sanders was just one of the few Americans willing to be the right person at the right time. His message was clear; The system is not failing, the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.
For many on the left, there was a fear that Sanders might just be a flash in the pan. For the pessimist, momentum begets insecurity. This insecurity was shattered by the historic defeat of 10-term incumbent Democratic representative Joseph Crowley by 28 year-old Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th congressional district. If Bernie’s success was considered a fluke, there was absolutely no denying the gravity of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, or her subsequent success in cultivating an efficacious social media presence. She had set the political sphere on fire.
Her success, however, was shared with a number of new organizations within the progressive realm, as she was endorsed by MoveOn, Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, Black Lives Matter, and Democracy for America. It is imperative to remember that political revolutions are rarely the doing of single figures, but rather the result of broad coalitions working towards a common goal. The existence of these organizations, and their coordination, signals the structural basis of a new, consequential left wing in American politics.
The ascendance of firebrand “dirtbag” leftist comedy podcast Chapo Trap House should be considered in this canon, too. Born from the online cultural landscape, completely inundated with its bizarre vernacular and bombastic, more-than-occasionally intentionally offensive comedic stylings, the hosts themselves largely attribute its unexpected success to the timing of its establishment during the 2016 primary election. By their own observation, the two largest explosions in listenership came with Hillary securing the Democratic party’s nomination, and her subsequently losing the general election. What defined Chapo Trap House, in opposition to other center-leftist media sources, was not the glee with which they mocked right-wing opposition, but their palpable contempt for the centrist Democratic party itself which they hold to be completely ineffectual and adversarial to leftist ideals. The politics of Chapo Trap House present themselves primarily as an antithesis to liberalism rather than conservatism, and this ideological conflict is where they burn up most of their energy. In many ways, the rise of Chapo Trap House can be seen as indicative of the failure of liberalism. Special mention should also be paid to the semi-associated subreddit, /r/chapotraphouse, where a broad and active leftist online community has coalesced amongst listeners of the podcast.
The aforementioned historical context of the mid-aughts and 2010’s aims to explain aspects of the psychological state of millennials, but importance should also be placed on the labor conditions of the young generations. Labor in America, historically defined by the glaring absence of political collectivization and globally notorious amongst industrialized nations for the anemic state of unions, has only become more and more alienating to the working class, especially the youth.
One example of this is the explosion of the “gig economy,” an abhorrent neoliberal ideological project meant to unmoor employers from the responsibility of the well-being of their employees. This new “revolution” of labor is presented with promises of unprecedented flexibility, freedom, and agency for workers, but it only serves to illustrate how the neoliberal promise of freedom itself is anything but. What we are being set “free” from is our ability, as a working class, to unify. The gig economy has “freed” its employees from the concepts of benefits, job security, and unions. Ideology drips with every facet of the new power dynamic, down to the language used in this new realm of labor. Uber, the quintessential example of this new paradigm, refers to its armada of drivers as “partners.” Under this new dynamic of labor, workers and consumers only stand to take on the risks and costs that traditionally fall under the purview of employers.
The psychological effect of the gig economy cannot be understated. When living in New York, I took on a job working for the theatrical transportation union, helping unload trucks for concerts at sports stadiums, theaters, and occasionally festival grounds. Before I could gain the job security of being in the union itself, I had to work on-call as a casual worker. This meant that, frequently, I would not know whether or not I was working more than 24 hours in advance, and was strongly warned at the beginning of my employment that I was not to turn down a single work call, or risk never getting contacted again. Gradually, you begin to lose the ability to even conceptualize the future further than a few days out. I could not shake the feeling of being completely trapped within a temporal vortex, unable to see past the veil of tomorrow. For all intents and purposes, I was less free than if I had a 5 day a week, 9-5 full time employment somewhere I could at least ask for time-off from.
Fortunately for us, it would appear that Newton’s third law seems to be in action. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For however alienating and exploitative labor is becoming, the dormant titan of collectivization, and class consciousness, becomes more and more disturbed in its slumber. Now, more than ever, we are seeing a resurgence of the picket line, with Uber drivers acting specifically as the vanguard. Some of the most highly publicized labor demonstrations in recent memory have come courtesy of Uber drivers, the most recent one being only a few days prior to the time of me writing this. With each successive strike, generations of anti-labor collectivization propaganda dissolve, indicated by the vigor with which online communities support these demonstrations. However unlikely the strikers are in having their demands met in the face of such a comically powerful industry titan, there is no mistaking that the tides are changing. Though Uber isn’t likely to tell us exactly how hard they were hit, the political impact is clear in the gig-work bill currently moving through California’s legislature, which would classify rideshare drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. The strike also illuminates a troubling insight into these app-based rideshare companies. Uber can’t stop losing money, despite paying drivers near-poverty wages. Without the collectivized action of a driver’s strike, this aspect of the problem might not have been as consequential to their Initial Public Offering, which by all markers has been a massive flop so far. Once valued at $120 billion by private investors and opening at a $45 IPO price, the value has already tumbled to $37 after just 2 days of trading. CNN theorized that it might be the biggest IPO bust in Wall Street history. Although this may be more adequately explained by the disconnect of private and public valuations endemic to other Silicon Valley-brands like Amazon and Facebook, the controversy surrounding the labor conditions, and the noise generated by collectivized workers, mustn’t be disregarded.
The left, though artificially stunted for the past century and beyond of American politics, is finally awakening to the challenge, as more and more working class Americans re-learn the language of class consciousness, while the far-right mobilizes its base and appeals to an innate fear of the “other”—be that immigrants, and people of color. All the while, the ecological clock of climate apocalypse continues ticking, the existential threat it poses energizing both sides of the spectrum. Notably, the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shooter in March made specific reference to “eco- fascism,” a recent variation of neo-fascism which recognizes and attempts to utilize the context of the looming climate catastrophe to justify its desire to establish an ethnostate. But that battle will come at a later date. Today, the left must reckon with the center, where the empire of capital has deeply dug in its heels in a last-ditch effort for self- preservation. The struggle ahead will be long, it will be maddening, and it will be brutal. We must, however, embrace this. We must not cede a single inch. We must progress, and we must dream. We must imagine ourselves as Sisyphus, and in the words of Albert Camus, we “must imagine Sisyphus happy.”