Who are the new socialist wunderkinds of America?

Every time I’ve come home to the US from my home abroad over the past four years, I notice a trend among people of my demographic: they have become increasingly politicised – and increasingly radical.

I met Rachel Rosenfelt on one of the first cold days of this year and it was chilly in her office, a small room crowded with three desks stacked high with books and papers in a converted warehouse space in Brooklyn. Rosenfelt, who kept her leather jacket on and sat on her feet to keep warm, is the editor and publisher of The New Inquiry, an eclectic and exceedingly intelligent online journal and monthly magazine of essays and criticism, much of which engages with radical feminist, Marxist and anarchist thought. I have been reading The New Inquiry for a few years and thought that maybe Rosenfelt could help me to understand something.

Every time I’ve come home to the US from my home abroad over the past four years, I notice a trend among people of my demographic: they have become increasingly politicised – and increasingly radical. The stereotype of the apathetic hipster has given way to a new kind of well-educated, middle-class twentysomething who rails against the prison-industrial complex, who talks about wages for housework, who throws around words like “imperialism” and “exploitation” with a growing sense of comfort. Occupy Wall Street may have something to do with it, but what is happening now in America feels more like a moment than a movement.

What is going on? “When I was first starting the New Inquiry and I had these ideas about this moment,” she told me. “Everyone said, ‘Rachel, write an essay about it!’ And I thought, ‘What if I just did it?’” She launched the magazine in 2009 with two friends, starting it on a Tumblr. Four years later it has only grown.

And Rosenfelt isn’t alone. Something is brewing in Brooklyn, something far more inspiring than another batch of artisanal organic ale. There is a revival of left-wing intellectual thinking on a level unseen since the 1960s. Young people are starting magazines and engaging in serious, substantial critique of the status quo. In addition to The New Inquiry there is Jacobin, “a magazine of culture and polemic” launched in late 2010 with an avowedly socialist perspective. Dissent, a socialist journal founded in 1953 has seen a revival, with a new crop of young staff. The hip literary magazine n+1 has also taken a decidedly political turn in recent years. And while many people launch publishing projects with earnest enthusiasm only to seem them fail quickly, this new crop of journals seems to have enjoyed unprecedented success. At the same time, a new cohort of journalists has emerged, young and enterprising reporters devoted to covering labour, poverty and inequality, and they see interest from the old guard of left-liberal magazines peaking.

“There are a lot of wonderful kids – people in there 20s and early 30s – who are really refreshing,” says Doug Henwood, a veteran leftist journalist and commentatorof a different generation. “There’s an intellectual seriousness without a narcotic earnestness. I find it very encouraging.”

It’s impossible to pin down a single explanation for this revival but a few things make sense: capitalism offering few opportunities to young people, a formal political structure that is paralysed and seems to ignore the concerns of most people, the internet providing new opportunities for intellectuals to find each other. Where it is going, what it means in terms of formal politics, the future of social movements in the US, or the overall intellectual climate are hard to predict.

One very likely effect, though, is a widening of the American political discourse. Earlier on the same day that I met Rosenfelt I sat at a posh pub in rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the other side of Brooklyn with BhaskarSunkara, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Jacobin, a journal that claims to take the mantle of Marxist thought of Ralph Miliband and a similar vein of democratic socialism. “One of our main goals is to be an openly socialist voice, to be a left wing voice. That in and of itself widens the spectrum. In America you have a few steps to the right but not many steps to the left,” said Sunkara, a speed-talking 24-year-old socialist.

Articles on the website and in the quarterly print journal often delve into serious policy specifics on topics like transport workers’ strikes or the political economy of the Oslo AccordsJacobin has received much attention in the mainstream and liberal media for a bunch of self-declared radicals. Jacobin authors have been cited by columnists in Bloomberg, on the reliably liberal, pro-Democratic Party TV network MSNBC, and elsewhere in the less-than-radical-spectrum. That’s because, Sunkara said, “We intentionally engage with liberals.”

It’s tempting to assume that this is all the province of a privileged cast of the educated, urban and young. That assumption may carry some truth. (For what it’s worth, Rosenfelt and Sunkara both went to elite private universities, as did most of the people I now hear talking socialism.) But there is evidence that something bigger is at play: A 2011 poll found that 49 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” while 47 per cent have a negative reaction to the word “capitalism.” Among the population as a whole 50 per cent view capitalism positively and 60 per cent view socialism negatively. The sample, needless to say, are not all living in Brooklyn and working in the creative industries. Moreover, both Jacobin and The New Inquiry say that their readers come from all over the US (and other countries), suggesting that the enthusiasm for this is not limited to New York. And although Occupy (now three years ago) began in New York, it quickly spread across the country, if that is any indicator.

What accounts for this? An answer that sounds straight from Marx’s mouth might be the most obvious one: capitalism is in crisis. People in their late 20s and early 30s graduated university and entered the workforce in the worst economy since the Great Depression. GDP growth has stagnated since the financial crisis began in 2008 even under the “recovery”. Long-term prospects don’t look great, either, with some economists even suggesting that the era of growth might be ending in the US. Young people have been especially hard-hit by the downturn. Unemployment rates for people aged 18 to 29 are around 11.8 per cent compared to 7.3 per cent for the economy overall. And many economists warn that the prolonged unemployment will have lasting effects, permanently reducing incomes for thiscohort.Seventy percent of students in the US graduate with debt, and the averagedebt load is more than $35,000. 

If that’s not enough to convince you of a turning tide, then consider that inequality in the United States has reached astounding levels. In the current recovery, 95 per cent of the gains have gone to 1 per cent of the people. It isn’t surprising that people are asking more systemic questions and attempting to imagine alternate futures, even futures that don’t include capitalism.

The current political situation in the United States doesn’t give cause for much optimism in the status quo. Even before the debacle of the government shutdown last month, American politics has been less than inspiring. The millennial generation voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008. Young people led many of the campaign activities, hoping for a more equitable and more peaceful world, repudiating the war-mongering and free-market fundamentalism of George W. Bush. Obama ran on slogans of hope and change but the end result wasn’t quite the level of change many may have hoped for: Deportations of undocumented immigrants has skyrocketed, spying on citizens continues, inequality grows worse as the Democratic Party pushes an austerity-light agenda to counter the radical austerity of the Republicans.

Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal commentator, recently predicted that because of the harsh economic conditions and liberal social values of younger generations, this generationwill push American politics in a left-ward direction. Beinart points to the election of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a fierce advocate of the working class, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a man who once described himself as a democratic socialist, as evidence. If Warren emerges as a national figure in the Democratic Party, perhaps running against Hillary Clinton in next year’s primary, that would further Beinart’s thesis.

That may only be part of the story, though. “Liberals can’t get anywhere unless they’re the real reasonable alternative to some more threatening force,” said Henwood.That’s precisely what Sunkara is hoping for with the openly socialist platform at Jacobin. A resurgent socialist movement, even a small one that finds its strength in the realm of ideas rather than action of party politics, may be one step toward transforming the US political and intellectual landscape.

At the moment there is intellectual ferment but only vague flickering of action. And there remains tremendous ideological and intellectual diversity, even if the publishing and thinking world is the most visible manifestation of the current moment. But it was the anti-Stalinist left, much of it based in New York, much of it centered around magazines, that helped to lay the groundwork for the New Left of the 1960s. What happens next remains entirely unclear.

 “We’re also trying to figure out the moment,” Rosenfelt said of The New Inquiry and its cohort. She was certainly not referring to elections. “And the limits of what we’re doing aren’t determined by the limits of our imagination.”

Occupy Wall Street protesters picket during a May Day rally in front of the Bank of America buidling on May 1, 2012 in New York City. Image: Getty
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.