Why Socialism Is Back

Joel Kotkin

Editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University


Even as Venezuela falls deeper into crisis, and the former Soviet bloc nations groan under its legacy, socialism is coming back, and in a big way. Its key supporters are not grizzled pensioners yearning for Marxist security, but a whole new generation, most of whom have little memory of socialist failure.

Although the trend is a-historic, it’s not happening in a vacuum. The primary driver is the global ascendency of neo-liberal capitalism, which in virtually all countries has accelerated inequality. This is particularly true in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the gaps between rich and poor are greatest among developed, democratic countries. In these nations, socialist politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn (pictured) are now political rock stars among young people.

In the 2016 presidential primaries, Sanders outpolled Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton put together among younger voters, and is now the nation’s most popular politician. His supporters are gradually taking over much of the Democratic Party, state by state. Corbyn, widely portrayed in the media as a walking time electoral bomb, secured for his party 61 percent of the vote among those under 40 in the recent parliamentary elections. It is increasingly possible that this once-marginal figure could someday occupy 10 Downing St. If the 75-year-old Sanders were a decade younger, he would also have an excellent chance of ascending to the White House.

A Different Kind of Leftism

Although neither Sanders nor Corbyn can be labeled classic Stalinists, they do represent a radical departure for their respective parties. Both adopt what are generally seen as far left positions, with Corbyn even suggesting that people displaced by London’s Grenfell fire occupy expensive, but unoccupied units, in the city’s rich precincts. Sanders has called for national health care, massive tax increases for the top income earners — with rates upward of 90 percent — and a ban on new fossil fuel development on federal lands.

This marks a major departure from past progressive politics in both countries. Democrats and Labour have done best by adhering to the center, and calibrating reforms with the demands of the capital markets. Even President Obama, although revered by progressives, was hardly a radical on economic issues. He did little to stop the consolidation of tech industries — which were also key supporters — as his Justice Department failed to press the anti-trust button. He also supported the expansion of free trade codified as Democratic Party orthodoxy during Bill Clinton’s presidency and which are favored by corporate and commercial interests. Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, also consistently embraced neo-liberal ideologies and courted support among London’s financial elite.

In contrast, Sanders, a Senate “independent” for most of his career, is a committed socialist who took his honeymoon in, of all places, the communist Soviet Union. He has adopted positions on trade and special visas for tech workers that are closer to those of Donald Trump than Clinton’s. Corbyn’s leftism is even more extreme than Sanders’, embracing long discarded notions of nationalization of industries, massive re-distribution of income as well as a distinctly pro-Palestinian, pro-Third World view common among European leftists.

The ‘Precariat’ — the Modern Proletariat

The “Bernie Bros” who made Sanders such a sudden and unlikely political force in 2016 were disproportionately young white voters who swelled the ranks of the precariat — part-time, conditional workers. The numbers of such people is destined to grow with the emerging “gig economy” and the digitization of retail, which could cost millions of working-class jobs. Even university lecturers in Britain, notes the Guardian, fear that their jobs will be “Uber-ised,” a phenomena also seen at American universities.

For most Americans, the once promising “New Economy” has meant a descent, as one MIT economist  recently put it, towards a precarious position usually associated with Third World countries. Even Silicon Valley has gone from one of the most egalitarian locales in the country to a highly unequal place where the working and middle class have, if anything, done worse (in terms of income) than before the tech boom.

For its part, the precariat has rational reasons to embrace socialism, particularly if capitalism seems unlikely to meet their needs. The notion of getting a steady, well-paid, full-time job has vanished for an increasing number of young people. Most millennials are not doing as well as their parents did at the same age. The idea of buying a house — once a sure sign of upward mobility — has declined in much of the U.S. for the current generation, particularly on the coasts, and even more so in the U.K., where house prices are higher and incomes lower. The Grenfell fire was not just something that happens to the poor; it could be the future for many young people who may never live in anything much better.

How Capitalism Is Failing

“Capitalism,” Lenin noted, “begins in the village marketplace.” Yet Americans are increasingly loath to start a business. There are now more businesses failing than being born, very different than the pattern of the 1980s and 1990s. The dream of starting a business has often been the way out for people with modest educations and means. Without the societal steam valve of entrepreneurship, the alternative for many millennials is in blue-collar or service jobs, where wages have been falling over the past decade.

Even in the tech world, which represents the largest opportunity for younger people, start-ups have become increasingly rare. This reflects the growing consolidation of the technology sector, which reduces opportunity even in new fields. As one recent research paper demonstrates, “super platforms” such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple depress competition, squeeze suppliers and drive down salaries, much as the monopolists of the late 19th century did.

These tech behemoths assert that their success is based utterly on merit, but they have also exploited their structural advantages, as the most ruthless of moguls did. Companies like Amazon have been able to attract investors even with scant profits, an advantage not enjoyed by their competitors, as investors await the rewards of a near-monopoly. Apple and other tech companies have also become adept at avoiding taxes in a way almost impossible for a business on Main Street. As occurs in corrupted systems, insiders usually do best, almost no matter how well they perform; Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer earned $239 million over five years — almost a million a week —  despite failing to revive one of the net’s earliest stars.

Intersectionality: The Problem Facing Neo-Socialism

On the surface, the analytics look good for a socialist revival, particularly in the wake of the almost certain failings of Trump’s ersatz populism. A large number of young people, in both Britain and America, have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. They never witnessed the failures of the past and they are reeling under present conditions. And given that many older people feel their children face a diminished future, building a majority for socialism is not inconceivable.

Yet the neo-socialists face a challenge because their potential coalition is fraught. On numerous policy issues, modern progressivism’s interests diverge starkly from those of potential adherents. Corbyn’s multiculturalism and desire to allow more refugees into Britain may win praise on campuses and in left-wing media, but how attractive is this prospect to British working-class voters, many of whom supported Brexit to help cut back on immigration.

Similar dynamics exists in the U.S. For example, in discussing politics at the Utah AFL-CIO (where I recently spoke), the local president, Dale Cox, suggested that many parts of the progressive agenda — he specifically mentioned opposition to fossil fuel and mineral development — directly threaten the livelihoods of union laborers. Similarly, police unions also feel alienated from progressives who embrace the agenda of groups like Black Lives Matter. Far better, Cox suggested, would be for progressives to focus on improving the lives of working people in ways that really matter, such as expanding opportunities for business and home ownership, health care, and tax reform.

These economic positions could gain a majority, but not if the progressives maintain their   polarizing embrace of the most radical aspects of social identity and environmental policy. This in particular threatens to undermine working-class support, particularly in the interior states. The leftists’ thinly disguised distaste for how most Americans live in small towns and suburbs does not help make their case. Until the left decides to focus on the everyday issues that matter to people outside their bubble, the dream of the socialist revival will remain a fantasy.

This piece originally appeared on Real Clear Politics.

Cross-posted at New Geography.

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