Socialist Alternative

Who’s Going To Save The World?

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Joe Biden and Donald Trump are neck and neck in a race no one asked them to run. Groceries are 30% more expensive than they were before COVID, while portion sizes shrink. The US is bankrolling the genocidal onslaught in Gaza to the tune of billions while millions of Americans struggle to find stable housing. And amidst all this, once progressive political leaders have completely retreated from the spotlight. 

Many young people today are experiencing profound despair and wondering if society will always be this way. In charting a path forward for a world free of oppression and exploitation, we need to look at how we got here.

Living Through An Age Of Disorder

The profound instability in the world today is not the product of any celestial event or bad decision. It’s a product of tectonic shifts in the bedrock of global capitalism. 

Capitalism has gone through many phases in the past 100 years. Each era of capitalist history has looked quite different, from the Great Depression to the post-war boom to Neoliberalism, the system adapts to changing economic and social realities in order to ensure its survival.

The 1990s and early 2000s were defined by a new global order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history” as capitalism triumphed. Sure there were shocking world events even then, but a unipolar world was built around the apparent stability of US capitalism.

Then, the Great Recession hit in 2008 and Chinese capitalism emerged as runner up to the US in the race to rule the world. This competition for dominance between these two imperialist behemoths has become the axis around which nearly every shocking and mundane world event revolves.

A quick glance at a map of COVID vaccinations makes this point quite clear. American-made vaccines blanket the UK, wealthy European countries, and parts of the Middle East, while African countries received almost exclusively Russian and Chinese vaccines which were “donated” in an effort to shore up regional alliances.

From climate politics to the war in Ukraine, the fingerprints of the new cold war between the US and China are everywhere. This seismic shift in world relations has had a profoundly destabilizing effect. Capitalism today faces increasingly global problems, from wars to pandemics to climate disaster, but unlike during the era of globalization, there are no international systems capable of addressing them – even shallowly.

No More Heroes

Teenagers and young adults who are coming of age in a post-COVID world are desperate for change. A combined 78% of those ages 18-29 believe the system needs either major changes or to be torn down entirely. Millennials, those between 30-44, aren’t far behind at 76%.

There is a lot that these two generations have in common. Millennials were the first generation to be worse off than their parents, Gen Z has continued that trend. Millennials grew up during the Great Recession, Gen Z grew up during the COVID-era economic crash. Both generations marched for Black lives, in 2014 and again in 2020, and both generations graduated from high school with nothing to look forward to but low wages and mountains of debt. 

However, every problem that confronted millennials when they were coming of age has only deepened for Gen Z. It is not a surprise that, given the hideous state of the world, far fewer Gen Z-ers feel they are “thriving” when compared to millennials at the same age.

A crucial difference that no doubt contributes at least in small part to this increase in hopelessness is the political landscape facing teens and young adults today. When millennials voted for the first time, it felt like there was someone to vote for. Bernie Sanders burst onto the scene in 2015, igniting a fire under millions of young people who were desperate for a political revolution.

During Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns, it felt like system change was on the ballot. People were marching and rallying in the tens of thousands for a transformative, left-wing political alternative to the rotten two parties of big business. 

And it wasn’t just Bernie. After the Democratic Party establishment conspired to crush him in 2016, leading to Trump’s first election, political options sprung up left and right for young people. AOC, a young socialist bartender from the Bronx, defeated a lifelong political operative. The Democratic Socialists of America ballooned into a dynamic organization with tens of thousands of members.

There was a world in which these figures and organizations could have completely transformed the political landscape in the US. However, their willful captivity in the Democratic Party, and their unwillingness to fully break with the establishment, led them to the doorstep of irrelevancy. 

This is the political world Gen Z has now been forced to inhabit. Where the world is burning around them, and there’s no hero to be found.

Where Do You Go When You Want Change?

Despite the fact that Gen Z is widely credited with being very progressive, this generation’s political outlook isn’t as clear-cut as some may expect. The absence of any left-wing political option for young people has created a barren political wasteland where the options are Trump who will bring reactionary chaos, and Biden who will keep working-class people in an endless downward spiral.

78% of young people want major change or to tear the system down. 55% believe Donald Trump –  if elected – will make major changes or tear the system down, 13% believe Biden will do the same. This doesn’t mean that Gen Z are all of a sudden MAGA-heads, far from it. But it does reflect a political disorientation experienced by the youngest voters who are desperate for change, and have nowhere to turn. 

If Cornel West had really seized the opening to build a major left wing campaign for president this year, it would have made a huge difference, but unfortunately the weaknesses of his campaign far outweigh the positives. Jill Stein may be the most viable left alternative on the ballot –she has correctly campaigned against the war on Gaza and US imperialism and was arrested alongside campus anti-war protesters, but her campaign lacks the type of electricity that could turn the political tide for young people. While we need to build the broadest vote for these alternative candidates, there’s still a desperate need for a new broad left party based on the interests of working people to give voice to the desire of tens of millions for progressive change. This would be a gamechanger.

But for the most radical young people, the greatest antidote to despair will be a revolutionary socialist vision for the future. While American schools do not teach us this history, the system has been torn down before, and it’s been rebuilt – for a time – in the interests of the working class and oppressed. 

The united working class has incredible power to shut down the system. Under capitalism, which has concentrated and globalized production, workers hold the lever to bring the entire economy to a grinding halt. Today, workers across the US are beginning to rediscover our power – the powerful all-out writers’ strike last year, the strong demands of the UAW strike, and the ongoing movement to organize the unorganized in Amazon, Starbucks, and beyond are examples of this. This is exactly the power that can bring the systemic change that young people are desperately seeking. 

Just over 100 years ago the Russian working class led all exploited and oppressed people in smashing the Tsarist dictatorship, overthrowing landlordism and capitalism and laying the basis for a society owned and planned by the people.

In the decades that followed, working people the world over have attempted to take power. In the wake of World War II a revolutionary wave swept the globe. In 1968, millions of French workers and students united to shut down society, culminating in a general strike of ten million and the fleeing of the French president. In 1974, the political uprising of workers and youth overthrew fascism in Portugal, ushering in the beginning of a social revolution. 

While these revolutionary struggles did not succeed in delivering us to worldwide socialism, they show what is possible. Profound, revolutionary change is not a pipe dream, it’s where we come from. As the world gets darker, with war and militarism, climate disaster, and an ascendant right wing, we need to get organized as revolutionaries. As people who believe that a better world is possible and can be fought for.

For young people striving to understand how we got here, and how we can tear the system down, it’s time to join a revolutionary socialist organization like Socialist Alternative.

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