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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.

Occupy Wall Street protesters picket during a May Day rally
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

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.”