Socialist ideals gain support from millennials


Nikol Slatinska

More than seven decades ago, a wave of chaotic apprehension struck America over the seemingly growing threat of communism. By the late 1940s, the nation was in the midst of the Cold War, a tension-filled conflict with the Soviet Union, the home of the detested economic theory.
U.S. politicians and citizens experienced paranoia over who around them may or may not have been a “Red.” These suspicions only increased when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy began keeping a list of suspected anti-capitalists. Victims of McCarthyism faced intense questioning by government officials, the potential of losing their jobs and even imprisonment. Even as Cold War tensions began to ease during the late 1970s, capitalist beliefs still dominated America, and terms like “commie” were considered grave insults.
Fast forwarding to recent years will show that, in the opinion of many millennials, there are much worse names to call someone. A large number of people under age 30 agree with the ideals of socialism, or what sophomore Ammaar Firozi, who aligns with certain aspects of the economic theory, refers to as “diet communism.” A 2015 survey conducted by Reason-Rupe reported that 53 percent of citizens age 30 and under view socialism favorably. Another poll by Gallup found that 47 percent of Americans would vote for a socialist presidential candidate. A number of factors influenced this significant shift toward leftist beliefs. For Firozi the most recent presidential election was particularly enlightening.
“The 2016 election was one because that opened my eyes to a bunch of political theories; you see far left, far right, up, down, sideways, diagonal, whichever way you want to go,” Firozi said. “You see a lot of conflicting theories out there, and I just wanted to find one that’s the best of both worlds. I’m sort of like a third party myself, so not too left, not too right, somewhere in between.”
To Firozi and many young voters, candidate Bernie Sanders was an inspiring advocate for free college tuition, increased social security and other socialist reforms. Widespread dissatisfaction with how the U.S. economy operates goes further back than 2016, however. Duncan Foley, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research, explained that people under 30 have lived their entire lives under a less progressive economy in which gains in productivity and income go to the top one percent. In fact, a study by the Economic Policy Institute showed that top one percent earners pocketed 85 percent of income growth in the five years following the 2008 recession. In addition to that, Foley said career opportunities for everyone else have diminished to various forms of underemployment, such as part-time jobs or low-paying service jobs.
While capitalist economies provide a high average standard of material life and offer some people interesting and fulfilling lives, both the material and moral advantages are extremely unequally distributed due to the statistical laws governing monetary exchange,” Foley said. “It is not too surprising that young people, who are less committed to institutions and practices received by the past, would question these side effects and want to look for something else, in particular a system committed to equality in the distribution of social goods.”
One particular group questioning the validity of capitalism is the RBHS Democratic Socialist Club, which Firozi is part of. While everyone in the club identifies as a socialist to some degree, Firozi expressed that since the theory involves a spectrum, his views don’t align perfectly with those of the other members. He said his relatives don’t fully acknowledge his stance, arguing against it with statements like, “You never share, how do you think you’re a socialist? All you want is free college.” Through his involvement in the club, however, Firozi tries to show that his beliefs involve action.
“We’re currently trying to make a podcast, and we’re also trying to do something rather than just sit around and be a collective organization of people that have the same ideals,” Firozi said. “We want to actually strive to do something, like volunteering [at City of Refuge] downtown. We’re trying to help around and spread our club and just overall be active.”
Despite this proactive attitude applied not just by RBHS students but by many millennials, Ben Ward, a former professor of philosophy and methodology of economics at the University of California – Berkeley, believes young people fail to realize that socialism is only a good system in theory. He said everyone goes through phases of adolescence and maturity, during which impractical ideas feel like the right solutions. An example Ward utilizes to express his point is a quote attributed to a number of different speakers that says something along the lines of, “If you’re not a socialist when you’re 18, you have no heart; if you are a socialist when you’re 28, you have no mind.”
Another quote: ‘Capitalism is clearly a terrible way to do things, until you look at the alternatives.’ This one, from Churchill, more or less gets at the heart of the problem,” Ward said. “We learn daily about the many and varied ways in which people are screwed over in our capitalist society, but no socialist society exists, so the comparison is extremely biased. Also, the societies that have claimed to be socialist went to some lengths to keep everybody, including their own citizenry, from finding out what was actually going on.
Gerald Friedman, a University of Massachusetts – Amherst economics professor, however, believes the last 40 years show just how ineffective capitalism is when it comes to unmoving wages and narrowing employment opportunities. As for the nonexistence of socialist societies, he points to Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, which employ policies such as high income taxes and equal access to health care and constitute an appealing lifestyle. Whether or not America can institute policies such as these depends on the stigma surrounding socialism, Firozi believes.
People should have a better definition of what [socialism] is. That’s one of the problems… we don’t really have a standard of education,” Firozi said. “Education plays one role, but there are also parents who are completely against socialism, like, ‘Why are you teaching my kids this? No.’ So education is one of those touchy things because it also gets into political theory and what [you should] teach a kid about what’s right and wrong about the world rather than them figuring it out for themselves.”
Another problem with trying to implement a socialist system Foley brings up is that there is no definite way to replace the decentralized method of monetary exchange with a system that promotes the division of labor but avoids the financial inequalities brought on by capitalism. He said the Soviet Union was an example of how it is seemingly impossible to centralize the control of resources without provoking political corruption and tyranny, and that the goal for socialists today is to create an alternative structure of economic organization that avoids such problems.
I think capitalism inevitably spawns its own critics because of the life experience it imposes on people. This criticism is likely to take a broadly socialist form, in the sense of advocating for a system based on meeting human needs rather than profitability,” Foley said. “Different generations are going to formulate these ideas in different ways, as the Old Left did in the 1930s, the New Left in the 1960s and socialist currents now. The particular form socialist criticism of capitalism takes may be subject to trends, but the core issue is not going to go away.”