Thirty years ago socialism was dead and buried. This was not an illusion or a temporary hiccup, a point all the more important to emphasize up front in light of its recent revival in this country and around the world. There was no reason this resurrection had to happen; no law of nature or history compelled it. To understand why it did is to unlock a door, behind which lies something like the truth of our age.
Some will say I exaggerate. But it’s best not to mince words about such things if you want to grasp or even to glimpse how the world really works—something more and more people are interested in nowadays, even as that world spirals beyond the reach of the ideas they’d previously used to understand it. And there is no greater obstacle to understanding than euphemism. So again I will insist: probably in 1989 and certainly by the time I was born in 1993, socialism was at an end.
There are a thousand ways to tell the story of why and how this came to be so. But the best—because the most concise and spiritually invested in the matter—remains George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the fairy tale I read about it when I was fourteen.
You can read it for yourself in a weekend and probably did at some point for school. But if you haven’t, the story goes like this: Once upon a time there was a revolution. It began spontaneously—things were bad and could not go on as they were, and the people revolted in order that they could at last have freedom and equality and be the masters of their own fate. But after the old tyranny was overthrown, one group within the revolutionary movement consolidated power for itself. With this power came the inevitable corruption. Soon only one man ruled the whole country in the name of the very revolution that was supposed to put the people in charge. Speech was controlled and inconvenient views suppressed until all dissent was outlawed; surveillance and political murder by secret police became the norm; hysterical lies about the past were circulated as fact; the people became impoverished and lost what little say they ever had while the new rulers got all the riches and power; and in the end, the supposed revolutionaries produced a dictatorship perhaps only distinguishable from the old one by being even worse. Or, as a classic rocker once put it: Meet the new boss—same as the old boss.
The stories we tell each other fundamentally shape our social world. I can’t overstate the centrality of this particular story to our cultural ideas about revolution and thus socialism. If I were to say the word “revolution” all by itself, I’d bet this particular narrative sequence would pop into your head almost point by point. Practically every film, every novel, every comic, every song, every joke—in short, every story—dealing with revolution is either a plagiarism of Animal Farm or a reaction to it. It has transcended cliché (though it’s of course that too) and become regarded almost as an axiomatic truth: If a revolution happens, it’ll go down like this. Typically it’s then implied that this is precisely why we shouldn’t have one. Push too hard against the status quo and you’ll get something worse.
Of course this ridiculously influential story about what happens when you try to change society turns out actually to have happened. After all, it’s nothing less than a description of the very real failures of socialism in the twentieth century—a calamity that is rightfully condemned by historical posterity and, in the eyes of many, fundamentally discredits the attempt to create any sort of post-capitalist society.
Yet here we are, living through a time when none of those old truths are certain anymore. A time when more of the young have positive associations with the word “socialism” than “capitalism”; when the radical left and the extremist right are winning or about to win political victories across the world; when grassroots movements outside the electoral arena are in some ways driving what happens at the ballot box; and when what is most vital in politics wherever one looks is the rejection of an elite political consensus that not long ago people could—without irony!—call the “end of history.” And here I stand before you—a socialist, but also an artist and a fellow humanist, as full as you are of hatred and contempt for the last century’s dictatorships—imploring you (in what until recently would have been considered a most unfashionably sincere manner) to believe me when I say that only some sort of democratic socialism can preserve anything like democracy in our global society.
How can I explain myself? In a sense, only by trying to explain everything. Because to think like a socialist is to see even yourself, that pure and irreducible individuality you might find described in a novel by Virginia Woolf, as a brief but significant swell in the waves of history. It means understanding that the Trump election and the rise of fascism, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of socialism, Occupy Wall Street and the rebirth of socialism, the sordid career of neoliberalism, the recent evolution of culture and the broad contours of one’s own life—in all the profound solitude of its lived experience—are not only connected but interdependent; that a meaningful story can be told about their relations. All of us are the products and also the prime movers of these vast social forces. They make us who we are, and we in turn contribute to their further transformation. Even more than my politics, it’s this way of looking at the world that I feel the burning need to communicate to you—in the hopes, I think, that by looking at our society as I have learned to see it, you might be in a better position to understand your own story, what you stand for, and what you will act to see endure in the world.
I was born at the end of the last century in New Jersey to upper-middle-class immigrant parents from Puerto Rico and Colombia. Both were born working-class, though branches of my mother’s side had been wealthy at various points (they lost everything—twice! the story goes—through the antics of various gambling philanderers). My father’s side are all jibaros, which is Boricua for peasant—though most of them now have access to TVs and unemployment insurance courtesy of America’s past civilizing jihads. But despite their class of birth, my parents were quick to climb the social ladder. They both studied on Pell Grants back in the days when those actually paid for anything, became engineers, did research at Bell Labs before it was broken up, and eventually peaked at middle management in sizable corporations and a comfortable existence in the suburbs.
This was their gift to me. I mock it, there was a time when I despised it—and there is much to despise in it still—but I recognize it now as the struggle of generations. Without getting into details, it suffices to say that many sacrificed much for me to be able to turn my back on that petit bourgeois upbringing. And it is because of the comfort of my origins that I’ve been able to pursue a career as a writer.
Why was I thrown into this situation? Why my particular experiences and not those of poverty, humiliation and deprivation? Dumb luck is one answer, but it’s hardly enough of one. From almost the very start I’ve known this is a political question. This is not due to any great genius of mine. Colombia has spent the better part of the last century in a civil war, and Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States whose rulers desperately want its people to forget that. Politics in my household was what people talked about around the dinner table, as is the case with many immigrant families from poor countries, for whom it’s trivially obvious that politics is what accounts for the distribution of resources—who gets what sort of job and why, who can boss you around or censor your newspaper, who lives in a palace with servants and who starves. Only in what is called the “developed” world, where day-to-day politics seems to revolve mostly around taxes and social issues, do large numbers of people have the option to tune out. (And even then, as we’ll see, our poor only do because they’ve more or less entirely been shut out of the whole conversation.)
Which isn’t to say that I was given any sort of radical education. Quite to the contrary. My parents’ materialism had much more to do with Dolce & Gabbana than with Marx & Engels. When you’re poor your life consists of seeing things you can’t have; should you stumble into money, your resulting values will hardly be anything bohemian. My parents mortgaged a McMansion they couldn’t comfortably afford in a suburb that made most of us miserable in different ways in order to achieve the life they believed they had earned. They voted Republican when it kept their taxes down and, more rarely, Democrat when it meant the same minus the racism. (That Mom and Dad are sort of Bernie bros now, weirdly, is itself a sign of the times.) At the same time they told me—with a fervent belief coexisting somewhat uneasily alongside their immigrant political instincts—that in America things were different, that everything we had was due to the political freedoms available here. Some of my earliest memories consist of being spoon-fed myths of rugged individualism—not just the usual Reaganite stuff, but also Catholic Cold War tales of Pope John Paul II and the miraculous prophecies of Our Lady of Fátima concerning the sins of Russia.
And in all these stories, seemingly inexplicably, the spectral villain was always a justly vanquished communism. It was the Nineties, after all. So to understand anything, we have to begin with thinking about the nature of these strange dead societies that haunted my childhood after their demise.
Animal Farm is often praised for the way it follows, in minute detail, every major development of Soviet politics from 1917 to 1945. The precision of Orwell’s satire is legendary. Soviet dissidents, wrongly assuming he couldn’t possibly know as much about the situation in Russia without knowing the language, once sent him a letter in Russian asking for permission to translate and distribute an underground edition.
But a careful reader will notice that the true structure of the book is shaped not so much by these historical events as by the escalating betrayals of the Stalinist pigs—the steady increase in their power and privilege, and the subsequent erosion of the lived ideal of equality among the animals. First the pigs get milk, with which to make the animals’ favorite kind of mash only for themselves. Then they get to sleep in beds. Before long they’re drinking alcohol. And finally, toward the end of the book, they’ve taught themselves to walk on two legs. The various purges, murders and changes to the revolutionary Seven Commandments follow the accumulation of power and privilege and only serve, after the fact, to defend it.
That this mirrors the Soviet experience—even very early on, in the supposedly freer Lenin years—is borne out by every major eyewitness account. The socialist writer Victor Serge, who supported the Party at first and later became a dissident, paints the grim scene in his novel Conquered City:
The half-empty slums were hungry. The factory chimneys no longer smoked, and when by chance one started smoking, the women, huddling in their rags at the door of a communal store, watched that bizarre smoke climb with bleak curiosity. “They’re repairing cannons. They get extra rations…—How much? How much?—four hundred grams of bread a day; yeah; but it’s not for us, it’s only for them…”
This passage is set shortly after the Russian Civil War, and things only got worse afterwards. The broad sweep of Soviet history shows that the Party elites’ ability to command labor and resources by force grew with time. Once established as temporary necessity, their total control grew into an eternal virtue.
Even the relatively egalitarian achievements in the USSR at its economic peak in the Sixties were tarnished by this rigid hierarchy. For instance, the Soviet Union did actually lower income disparities to a level comparable in some ways to Scandinavian social democracies. However, unlike in those societies, the combination of total nationalization of industry and the control of those nationalized resources by a tiny elite meant that the relatively equal incomes did not buy relatively equal goods. Why? Because money wasn’t what got the goods: the class position of the ruling Party bureaucrats meant they could funnel goods to themselves through central planning that were unavailable to ordinary people.1
Why do the pigs get all this power? In Orwell, it’s because it turns out only the pigs see themselves as prepared enough to govern. They study economics and agriculture to make sure they can run the farm just like the capitalist farmers did. Some try to teach the other animals—Snowball, the Trotsky pig, sets up a whole bunch of committees to this end—but fail because while many animals do learn to read and engage in other new techniques, many of the “stupider animals,” in Orwell’s blunt phrasing, simply never do.
We shouldn’t disregard that cruel adjective. Animal Farm is a book where every little detail means something, after all. If so, this seems to bode badly for its message. It apparently suggests that the working class was congenitally incapable of running its own affairs and so would always need leaders to serve in its best interests. But this hardly makes sense given Orwell’s lifelong political commitments, which he held to his dying breath: his support for workers running industry, with Barcelona under the anarchists as his prime example (in his book Homage to Catalonia) of a town where “the working class is in the saddle” and proof that socialism was actually possible. How, then, do we reconcile such democratic-socialist views with the satire of the novel?
The pertinent bit is that regardless of the actual talents and proclivities of the working class, this is what the Stalinist pigs believed. In fact, more than that, it was their justifying ideology. Consider this argument by one of the pigs about why they need to monopolize decision-making power:
“Comrades,” he said, “I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon [Stalin] has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where would we be?”
For good measure, the same pig later adds a warning about what will happen if the pigs allow the other animals (who aren’t “brain workers” like him) to make their own choices: “Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones [the capitalist] would come back! Yes, Jones would come back!”
If this sounds absurd, again, it too has its counterpart in Soviet society. As the Yugoslav dissident socialist Milovan Djilas points out in his classic book The New Class, the Party elite created a “legal fiction” to justify their rule. The idea was that, in exchange for total and everlasting command over all aspects of society, the Party of the proletariat would govern in its interests, raising living standards and leveling the economy in exchange for general acceptance of the one-party state. Yet the very lack of constraints on those rulers, the total control over decision-making granted to them so that supposedly they could do what needed to be done to create equality, assured instead that they wouldn’t.
The distance between the egalitarian dream and the oligarchical reality never closed, and the result was a slow decay. In the absence of a civil society where the Party’s rule could be openly contested, people resigned themselves to their reality without really believing in it; in the absence of any serious movements for social transformation, Party elites soon stopped paying even lip service to the ideals which were the justification of their power. In his documentary HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis puts it succinctly: “The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real … But everybody had to play along and pretend that it was real because no one could imagine any alternative.” And it was this gap between the lie of what “communist” society promised and the obvious grim reality its citizens were surrounded by that made its overthrow also, in a sense, inevitable. A dream deferred for too long must eventually explode.
This happened as a series of peaceful revolutions at the end of the Eighties, the immediate trigger for which was deteriorating economic conditions in the core “communist” countries: rising prices and decaying infrastructure due to foreign debt and a failure to innovate in industry, respectively. But the revolts’ rapid spread even to “communist” countries that were doing comparatively well economically showed something more profound was at work. A society can only survive if its inhabitants believe in its animating myths. So far had the experience of life as actually lived diverged from the Party’s “legal fiction” that the Soviet people came to reject not only their dictatorship but the whole premise of that system—the idea that an egalitarian society was, in any substantive sense, possible. And it was in this way that socialism died. The reality had diverged so much from the ideal that it no longer seemed desirable or even possible to strive towards it. In the end this failure was so profound that it caused untold damage to the ideal of equality itself, not just in the Eastern bloc but around the world.
Over the course of several years, beginning with the moment I picked up Orwell at fourteen, I began to read about these things. Slowly from my isolated suburban perch—usually my room, and sometimes the public library—I began to understand how even revolutions undertaken by ordinary people so often ended in brutal and repressive societies. It reminded me of the stories my mother and father would tell me about “nuestros países.” I began to wonder about my own place in that history.
How lonely those suburbs were. Part of the reason I retreated into the stream of my reading was no doubt the shrunken and crippled vision of life that was my upbringing, for all its material prosperity. Here I was amid the vast sprawl of the American provinces, in a town which was not a town but a series of strip malls and cul-de-sacs connected by state routes—nowhere to go, and no way to get there without a car. The strip malls all had the same big-box stores and franchise restaurants as every other town, the televisions all blurted the same mind-melting crap from the national channels, the towns themselves had no politics but the bickering of local busybodies over signs and traffic lights (the real politics having been pushed up to the state and federal levels with their corporate and machine politicians), and in fact the towns all blurred into one another such that it was hard even to tell when one stopped and the next began, leaving only an enormous network of beige and gray despair stretching across the immensity of a continent.
Here there lived people who were hostile to anything which could not be shown to produce money, even if it wasn’t an idea or an activity but a person, even indeed if it was human life itself. The working classes—who were just called “the poor” or, more disparagingly, “moochers”—were dismissed as parasites who out of laziness or a stubborn refusal to learn “useful skills” had consigned themselves to a poverty which anyway they deserved. Power worship of the most naked and shameful variety reigned. No matter what we were taught in church and in children’s cartoons, it was generally understood that morality of too demanding a sort was for any normal person something to be outgrown in favor of the general acquisitiveness and drive to domination. You were good because you were strong; if you were strong, it was proof you were good. Hence the admiration even among the worst off for cutthroat CEOs, or at any rate cheap TV imitations of them played by the likes of Donald Trump; and hence, too, the general approval of the American empire, the bizarre and cultish worship of “our troops” at football stadiums and the endless parade of trivia about nukes and military hardware in books and documentaries devoted to science and history.
As for how I fared, as a clever brown kid who wanted to be an artist, it’d be fair to say I was met with a mix of incomprehension and hostility. To sum it up in two examples: most of my classmates in the Catholic high school I attended on a merit scholarship told me repeatedly my academic success was the result of affirmative action; and a family friend who once heard me say I’d be a writer suggested that, since writing was not a job but a hobby, I should become a day trader instead while the going was still good.
In short, everything I was surrounded by and everything I experienced seemed to be brainwashing me into believing a single truth: things had always been like this; they would go on like this; and they would be like this forever. It hardly mattered that none of it made sense, that books existed that suggested we lived in history, and that history clearly presented alternatives. The past was something that belonged to artists and professors and other useless undesirables, and the future was to be an endless dictatorship of the present—a sprawling, flavorless, thoughtless capitalist eternity which deserved to persist because it was both the best of all possible worlds and the only one.
At the time I had only the vaguest idea, hardly more than an instinct, of the forces that had created this Potemkin utopia. What I also didn’t know at the time was that already things were changing. But for those who might have been paying close attention—and I was certainly not yet among them—that system had already begun to show signs of fraying at the edges.
One of the most interesting details of Animal Farm comes at the very end. In the rest of the book we’ve seen in painstaking detail the dangers of a society where the few rule the many, the horrors of a politics without democratic rights. We know by now the pigs have betrayed their ideals and changed the text written on the side of the barn to hide this fact. Their dictatorship, once established, seems unassailable. But the final and essential twist of the novella is the extent to which the pigs represent not so much a new evil as an old one.
As the animals look on in horror through a window, finally realizing what has happened to them, Napoleon the Stalin pig holds forth at a dinner with the old farmer-capitalists. These are the same monsters who once enslaved his people, who invaded Animal Farm multiple times to stop the revolution in its tracks. But now they’re all sitting around the same table, drunk as can be, congratulating Napoleon on his efficient production techniques and the strict totalitarian discipline with which he runs his farm. Indeed, so low are the wages (in food) and so high is the output that the farmers “had observed many features which they intended to introduce on their own farms immediately.” And why not? After all, “Their struggles and their difficulties were one. Was not the labour problem the same everywhere?” Napoleon, for his part, describing the farm as a firm owned by the pig elite, promises years of sound business relations to come, and otherwise acts no different from the humans who had been his mortal enemies. And it is in this context, crucially, that the book delivers its final punch:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Here, at the moral center of a book so often deployed as a weapon by Cold Warriors, we find ourselves confronted by what remains to our society an unspeakable truth: Soviet-style “communism” was reprehensible precisely to the extent that it was similar to capitalism. For Orwell, in this passage, they’re practically indistinguishable.
This is the thread that, once pulled, unravels a whole hidden history. We can only touch on a few aspects of that history here2, but without some basic understanding of it, the events of the past twenty years—not to mention the past two hundred—are impossible to comprehend. In a phrase, one can sum it up as the ongoing battle between capitalism and democracy.
At the start, it might have been possible to see capitalism, too, as part of a leveling project. A set of institutions and practices for structuring the labor process and distributing resources that had first begun to develop in early modern cities, it only really took off in the societies freed from hereditary rule by the English, North American, French and Latin American revolutions. The liberals who fought these revolutions did not see themselves as capitalists. Rather, they thought they were founding republics—polities run on the basis of merit rather than inheritance, by reason rather than traditional superstition and by elected parliaments rather than priests, aristocrats and kings. While some of these liberals wanted to limit decision-making to the “better kinds of people” and restrain the powers of those deemed unworthy, the most radical of them (like Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Simón Bolívar and Giuseppe Garibaldi) saw such new states as being democratic, or rooted in the idea that everyone should have an equal share in power. The goal was to build a society based in liberty, equality, fraternity and certain inalienable rights.
The problem was that one of those rights threatened to undermine the others. On paper, liberal democracy allowed everyone to think, write, assemble and otherwise do as they please—and everyone’s right to own property, using and abusing it as the owner pleased, was to be perhaps the most important in guaranteeing the people’s freedom. Yet as monarchies were neutered or beheaded and republics began to spread, some of the democratic liberals began to notice that treating property as an absolute and unquestionable right, and the largest property-owners as the absolute sovereigns of all they owned, had the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than guaranteeing liberty for all, it subjected the majority to the tyranny of a new minority who justified their exploitation and domination of others through the very property rights which were supposed to have been the basis of everyone’s freedom.3
As the big owners secured control over the flow of resources through consolidation, monopoly and dispossession, a contradiction became increasingly apparent. The capitalist “legal fiction” insisted private property rights necessarily connected the prosperity of the rich to the advancement of the rest of society. Yet in practice this translated into the freedom of the rich to render the poor permanently destitute and subservient. Ordinary people became human resources to be exploited like the rest. One stream of cheap labor, for example, flowed from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to plantations in the Americas that supplied British textile factories with cotton. And in turn, the wages system in England meant workers there had no choice but to accept starvation wages to work in what William Blake dubbed the “dark Satanic Mills” where the cotton was woven. (Not for nothing did this system come to be called “wage slavery.” From the owners’ point of view, chattel slavery and wage labor were just two different ways of acquiring coerced human bodies to pick their crops and tend to their machines.)4 This was the system that turned proud republican experiments in North and South America into slavocracies and plutocracies run by the idle rich; created poverty amid the possibility of plenty in Europe’s cities and countrysides alike; and justified—as putting the resources of “savages” to “more productive use”—the genocidal colonization of India, Africa, China and the American West.
It was in this context that socialism emerged out of liberalism. The socialists were those liberals who realized that the goals of the democratic revolutions could never be met if the tyranny of the kings was merely replaced by the tyranny of the big owners. Their program to extend a form of common ownership over the key infrastructure of society, giving everyone a say in the decisions that affected them and meeting the basic needs of all, eventually came to be called socialism, and its reason for existing is clear from its other and earlier names: it was a form of labor republicanism, an attempt to create an industrial democracy.5
This is why, despite what some may conclude from Animal Farm about the relationship between socialism and democracy, in nearly every country where a socialist movement was born, the socialists fought for democracy; in every struggle to expand democratic rights, there were socialists to be found among the most radical elements.6 And although the socialists did not succeed in overthrowing capitalism in many modern states (and often created dictatorships when they tried), they did force capitalists to offer concessions to their democratic principles. Indeed, the history of the battle between socialism and capitalism could—until recently, at least—be credibly presented as a progressive story of accommodation. In this story, this battle culminates, in the rich Western countries, with what American historians call the “postwar liberal compromise.” This was the thirty-year period between 1945 and 1973 defined by the emergence of mixed economies where capitalists remained in charge of industry but were forced to share political power with unions and economic planners, accede to high tax levels and regulations, and allow the construction of a robust welfare state. Utopia was off the agenda, but to many social democrats of the generation that came of age during the Cold War, following the horrors of fascism and World War II, this humbler compromise represented the best humanity could do.
My friends and I call this the “Tony Judt Story,” after the famous historian who expounded it in his book Postwar. But the French name for those decades is more revealing: les trente glorieuses, the golden age of capitalism. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century provides a number of economic indicators about the period’s record growth and rise in living standards, but the most telling part of the book is a graph charting inequality by tracking the income share of the top one percent. The now-notorious figure is crowned by two peaks—one stretching into the pre-1913 past, the other from 1973 into our dismal present—but at its center is a massive valley of relative equality.
Some wish this social-democratic compromise could have gone on forever. It didn’t. A lot rides on the question of why. Perhaps the turn back to a more rapacious style of class rule was inevitable in a society still in thrall to what Marxists call “the laws of capitalism.” Or maybe the Reagan-Thatcher revolution was a contingent political development that might have been avoided, had social democracy been better defended. What’s clear is that it didn’t last. The regime that succeeded it is most often referred to as neoliberalism.7
Neoliberalism is a set of policies and institutional arrangements defined by the elimination of postwar labor protections and regulations on capital, the privatization of public goods and services, the export of jobs to countries whose workers can be forced to work under sweatshop conditions, and the extension of for-profit market relations into most facets of human life. But like any successful political economy, neoliberalism is also an ideology—a story about who we are and what kind of world we live in, which once ingrained becomes a kind of unexamined common sense. The neoliberals preached that, as Margaret Thatcher famously remarked, there’s no such thing as society, only families and individuals. They believed that citizens and workers should see themselves as self-interested consumers, in politics and culture as much as in shopping malls. And they held that history had been leading us here the whole time, to a world where markets were the final arbiter of all value and human worth.
It’s no exaggeration to say these people created the world I was born into and the fairy tales I was told to explain it. In school, on television and at home, the message was the same: Orwell’s pigs had been slaughtered and the result was a blessed age. With the defeat of “communism” and the discrediting of the socialist ideal, free societies were sprouting up all over the world where people could finally live as they pleased. With the free market finally “unleashed,” they could buy and sell whatever they wanted or needed while trusting their elected representatives to mind the knobs of policy. Some societies might be healthier and more developed than others, to be sure, but we were all headed to the same destination of capitalist democracy. Which happened to look a lot like the suburb where I lived.
Some probably felt the falseness of this fairy tale even then, but eventually the statistics would tell their own story about what had really been happening all through my early life. In the forty years since the end of the postwar compromise, in the United States as in all countries that implemented neoliberal policies, the experiment in an unfettered capitalism had proven disastrous. By 2016, Oxfam estimated that not only did the top one percent of “earners” own more wealth than the rest of the human population put together, but “62 individuals had the same wealth as 3.6 billion people—the bottom half of humanity.” Likewise, 147 corporations owned the vast majority of the companies in the world. At the same time, and not surprisingly, wages have stagnated massively compared to productivity, even though they had kept up with it all through the social-democratic period. Union membership plummeted during the same time frame, while the combination of outsourcing and automation has left the landscape littered with the desiccated ruins of what were once our factory cities, and marred with new ghettos and tent cities of the wandering homeless. Conditions were even worse in developing countries around the world, which were saddled with sweatshop labor, massive debts to the IMF and the privatization of even basic resources like water.
Of course, I knew none of that back then. It took time for anyone to fully understand it. Yet all through the end of the last century and the start of this one, the story Americans had been told—which my parents and their neighbors had tried to live—was growing ever more distant from the promised reality. Eventually the gap would become wide enough that I would see, in my own lifetime, another kind of dream explode.
When do we move from merely reading about history to having entered it? Each generation has a different event—World War II, Vietnam, 9/11—when it becomes clear to them how much their individual lives, seemingly so private and contained, are part of a larger story. For my generation, that moment was the 2008 financial crash. Even the headlines, with their horrifying images of economic chaos around the planet and their endless talk of “the worst recession since the Great Depression,” seemed to confirm what I’d suspected ever since I’d first picked up Orwell: that the hermetically sealed bubble of the suburbs was an illusion; that it concealed the true condition of most people in society; and that the world of bread lines and carpet bombings, of rationing and five year plans, of revolutions and dictatorships was not nearly so far away as everyone imagined.
It didn’t get quite that bad, of course—and, in at least one way, the crash seemed at first like good news. There was a feeling in the air that the crisis had discredited all the old dogmas. The same pro-capitalist policies that had made a handful at the top of society so rich in the boom years of my childhood had caused the crisis, pushing ordinary people even deeper into bankruptcy and precarity. Popular magazines were discussing Keynes and even Marx, while politicians were talking, seemingly seriously, about nationalizing the banks. It seemed likely—to me anyway—that the tax cuts and privatizations and union-busting and welfare abolition that had dominated both parties since Reagan would soon become a thing of the past. What would replace them, I assumed, was a renewed commitment to the social-democratic compromise that had created the good decades after the war.
Obama’s election in particular was—as the cliché he established goes—a moment of enormous hope. Although I was not yet old enough to vote I fought hard for him, canvassing door to door in hostile neighborhoods, handing out literature I printed out myself at shopping malls, giving potted speeches to the other kids at my reactionary Catholic high school. Like so many people across the country I was inspired by the promise of a black president, and more specifically what that meant: that America was not in some robust sense a white country but rather a country of all colors, where latecomers like my family were just as important a part of the social fabric as anybody who’d come in at Ellis Island or off the Mayflower.
But I was also inspired by Obama’s message about the economy. All through high school I’d thought of myself very seriously as a “Tony Judt social democrat,” and during his campaign it appeared that Obama, in the wake of a world-historical recession, was planning to steer us in that direction.8 Instead, immediately upon getting elected, Obama appointed a number of neoliberals to key positions in his government, the most prominent of which was his choice of Wall Street insider Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury. The policies they pursued ultimately extended a recession that, contrary to the Panglossian reports of the business press, has never really ended.
I could quote many statistics to prove this: for instance, living standards and consumer demand have not substantively improved since the crash, while the jobs that have been created have largely been low-paying dead ends. But perhaps the most damning and astonishing comment on the period was recently released by the Centers for Disease Control, who announced in a 2018 report that American life expectancy has undergone the deepest and most sustained decline since the start of the twentieth century—which is to say, since they began to rise wildly for ordinary people during the postwar compromise.
What resulted was a lost decade. And with it, the beginning of a generation’s loss of political faith.
Like a lot of earnest young left-liberals, I experienced the Obama years as a massive disappointment. If I’d previously believed, based on my reading, that moderate social democracy was all human beings in our fallen state were capable of, what I witnessed in the wake of the crash seemed to prove we were incapable even of that. What then were we capable of, and what did we deserve? For all the cracks that were beginning to show in the social order, nobody could yet see what lay behind its image—least of all me. All I had to go on were hints from history, and I began to wonder if these were bringing me any real insights or if I was just trying to role-play as Orwell or another of my dead socialist heroes.
It turned out that 2011—much like 1848 and 1968—was an auspicious year to be having such thoughts. I’d only just arrived at college to find the world suddenly rocked by a global revolutionary wave. The Arab Spring kicked it off, but copycat revolts took place over the next few years in many different countries: the 15-M movement of self-described “indignados” in Spain, the anti-austerity demonstrations in the U.K., the Pots and Pans Revolution in Iceland, the Snow Revolution in Russia, the public transit protests in Brazil, the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, Euromaidan in Ukraine, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. Each was grounded in local circumstances, but there were also strong common themes: the public’s right to public space, the rejection of neoliberal economic policies, and the desire to replace rule by elites with one or the other form of direct rule of the people over themselves, something many of them embodied in their famously “horizontal” forms of organizing. Their propensity to kick off with the occupation of plazas and public squares gave them their name—internationally minded activists have referred to them collectively as the “movements of the squares.”
The American iteration of this movement, Occupy Wall Street, began in September of 2011. It was launched by, of all things, an email to subscribers of the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters calling for America to mount “its own Tahrir.” Led by an eccentric conglomeration of avant-garde artists, graduate students, community organizers, unions and representatives of nearly every crevice of left-wing activism, a thousand people arrived on September 17th at a park in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street to protest the rule of what they famously called “the one percent.”
The occupation of Zuccotti Park and similar spaces across the country lasted until the middle of December, when there was a coordinated crackdown by the national counterterrorism apparatus.9 What everyone remembers about the activists at Occupy was the same thing the mainstream media often emphasized at the time: that the protesters had no specific agenda. This, like so many other things that are “known” about the encampment, is false. “As one people, united,” the collectively drafted “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” announces that “corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”
They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage. They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses. They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. … They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions. They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right. They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay. … They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
It goes on and on like that, and even adds a helpful footnote: *These grievances are not all-inclusive. Perhaps not, but it’s remarkable how well the statement can still stand, nearly eight years later, as a digest of the causes uniting this country’s radical left.
That said, it is true that Occupy wasn’t all about its agenda. People sometimes ask me how this short-lived movement could matter so much to people my age. And when I answer them, I don’t read them the declaration. If I had to cram the answer into a thesis statement, it would go something like this: Occupy was ultimately an attempt to reclaim public space, and in so doing it reclaimed our ability to create new worlds.
I should admit that I missed Occupy proper, instead monitoring it online from my freshman dorm. I was only able to make it to my first Occupy events on May Day 2012, after the initial Occupiers had been evicted from Zuccotti Park. Even so, I was able to experience some of the occupation’s ecstatic, almost carnivalesque character. The air of the camps vibrated with chitchat and soapbox speakers and human microphones and the famous din of the drum circles. One educational event I attended, called the Free University, filled Madison Square Park with little circular groups led by teachers (some amateurs, some college professors) who gave talks on subjects as varied as the history of May Day, deep ecology, a protest songwriting workshop and something called “Occupy Algebra.” Occupiers were obsessed with a kind of street-theater performance-as-protest—inspired by the Situationists as well as by conceptual artists like Banksy and Ai Weiwei—to which I was subjected and, to my infinite shame, even once participated in myself. There were the bizarre and vaguely obscene hand gestures they tried to use in the general assemblies. I even had my first kiss there, from a business student I met at Occupy May Day who took me back to his NYU dorm to make out. (A big deal for me, as I was still in the closet.) That, too, was the sort of thing liable to happen among the Occupiers.
It’s a commonplace in urban studies that architecture has a way of structuring consciousness: we construct spaces that are the embodiment of an idea, and these in turn shape the people who later find themselves within them. “The ideal city,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in her essay collection Wanderlust, “is organized around citizenship—around participation in public life.” Yet under the neoliberal regime what we find all around us is the opposite: spaces segmented and divided in accord with the dictates of those who own them. The suburbs where I grew up were an extreme example. But even New York, the city I loved and where I now live, is on closer examination a series of vacuum-sealed enclosures. For decades the parks have closed at night out of fear among those in charge that junkies, hobos, criminals and homosexuals would assemble there. Ordinary people’s rights to assembly are hardly guaranteed, either, given the widespread privatization of public spaces. Neighborhoods are rigidly (if informally) segregated by race and class, their boundaries enforced by police patrols that harass poor people in the “wrong place.” And since the political bribes of the real-estate conglomerates guarantee that rent controls will remain a distant dream, crystal towers full of the empty second or third apartments of hedge-fund managers will continue to be built while sixty thousand people live in the streets and freeze to death in the winter.
Such spaces are not only the symptoms but the creators of our social malaise. To live and work in them is to lead a stunted existence. But what if we forced our ideal city into existence? What if we clawed back our rights to assembly and association from the owning class, the laws drawn up by their hired politicians be damned? This was the prospect of Occupy—strangers who came to regard each other as siblings, shopkeepers who donated free food to the encampment in solidarity, professors at nearby colleges who opened up their lectures to the wide public, people discussing philosophy under the tent of the People’s Library full of donated books. The overwhelming feeling was of a whole bustling little world, and indeed that was the point. “We are the 99 percent” was just the slogan that got things started: the real motto, which encompassed what it was all actually about, insisted that “another world is possible.”
The genius of the thing was that the crazy bastards figured out how to do it. Sure, they were crushed before they could iron out the kinks. But the basic principle was sound. And not only that, but it addressed a crucial question: How can you build a socialism that avoids falling prey to the Stalinist pigs—a socialism where the people are really in charge? The Occupiers answered: by building a democracy of assemblies.
It wasn’t a new idea—it had long been the anarchist answer to the question. But there are truths that every generation has to rediscover for itself. And this truth in particular is one best learned through hands-on experience. I probably couldn’t convince you with an argument—at any rate not without difficulty—that assembly democracy is the way we ought to run our workplaces and communities. But a well-ordered assembly is its own best propaganda.
Once in assembly you quickly realize how rarely we ever deliberate directly with others, exchange ideas, come to compromises and collectively make decisions. Think about how few opportunities you’ve had to do such a thing in your life, if ever. People don’t even know how to, really, at first, but it’s like riding a bicycle: you learn by doing it. In an assembly no one is the boss, and once the matter is settled everyone agrees to do it. Then, when the thing gets done, you become a fanatic. You start to ask yourself, “Why can’t we do everything this way?” Why not run our companies, our cities in assembly? So often, the answer is “It hasn’t been done.” Which is a filthy lie, when you look at the long history of direct-democratic institutions: tribal and village councils, town-hall meetings, workers’ cooperatives, syndicalist trade unions, the Athenian polis, the Haudenosaunee Confederation, anarchist Spain. But we also give the lie to it when we construct such institutions ourselves—as so many people have done in the wake of Occupy, keeping its flame alive by trying to build what they found there into a more lasting reality.
I counted myself among them, even if my campus at Princeton was hardly the most hospitable setting for such an experiment. Notoriously conservative even by the standards of the other elite schools, with an undergraduate culture defined predominantly by careerism, the campus would seem to have killed anything like Occupy’s spirit on arrival.
Contrary to the image of the bellicose social-justice warrior that’s emerged since, the typical Princeton student in that age of drowsy consensus was someone focused on having a great time for four years until they got their piece of paper certifying them for a spot in finance, consulting, Silicon Valley or a top professional school. This was reflected as much among the activists as anywhere else. If most people were apathetic, the activists had pet causes. They hung out at officially sanctioned pseudo-political events, or else their little organizations—the College Dems, the greening campus people, the mental-health awareness club—would attract five to fifteen people at meetings and draft feel-good petitions that ended up in some administrator’s drawer.
More daring movements—for divestment from fossil fuels, for prison reform, for working with local townies to block the school’s unpopular and anti-democratic development plans—were even smaller. They were also pitifully funded, frequently stonewalled by officials and mocked or reviled by other students. Still, they had their activists, and gradually, through the undergraduate magazine and radio show I worked for, I began to meet them. Even within this group a distinction could be made between those who seemed most interested in resume padding for a future NGO career and the more radical kids: you could tell who they were because they said “queer” instead of “gay” and added “neoliberalism” and “capitalism” to the litanies of -isms recited at the start and end of a meeting.
It wasn’t long before a group of us came together. We were a pretty diverse set as far as Princeton goes—various kinds of immigrant kid as well as whites, several flavors of alternative sexuality, a relatively even gender split, and even several people from working-class and first-generation college student backgrounds. As college students are uniquely suited to doing, we were looking for answers to the fundamental questions: How had things gotten this way? Could we build something different? If so, how? Our organization, the Princeton United Left, became infamous for three things: its radical anarchist-inflected socialism, its excellent pre-games and its general assemblies.
We began to develop a critique of past socialisms. The failure of Soviet-style “communist” dictatorships was our basic starting point. But the mid-century Western social democracy most of us initially admired was hardly exempt from critique. Yes, its achievements needed defending from the neoliberal assault, particularly its relative equalization of the classes. But we started to notice that the reassertion of capitalist control hadn’t come from nowhere. If anything, elites had become more resilient in the postwar period through their influence on economic planning—a centralization of decision-making which made it easier for that same elite to dismantle social democracy when they saw their chance.
The postwar grand bargain had also left many people out: ethnic minorities shut out of the welfare state by discrimination, women and queer people forced into positions of subordination to men, people of colonized nations whose cheap raw materials and luxury goods fed the rich countries’ social democracies. Empowered by the new freedoms and bargaining power granted by the postwar order, these groups made their own movements in the Sixties, which collectively came to be called the New Left. They taught us a lot. From the critical black tradition and postcolonialism we learned to be suspicious of white saviors and that around the world people of color had created and led emancipatory movements. Feminism taught us not only the history of male domination and female resistance but also how to create spaces where the sexes could meet again and live and work together as equals. And queer liberation reminded us that only a world where people could explore and express their gender and sexual desire as they pleased was one in which they could truly become what they always wanted and needed to be, beautiful and free.
But the history of the New Left also contained more practical and sobering lessons—particularly about the persistence of hierarchy. Here was a left that had begun the Sixties with organizations—most prominently the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—grounded in nonviolence, free speech and participatory democracy, a left devoted to avoiding the mistakes of “communism” and social democracy alike. And yet by the end of the decade this left had fractured into competing neo-Stalinist sects clustered around charismatic leaders and cults of violence.10 How had this happened? Still grappling with such questions in our reading, we were soon to learn some lessons from our own experience as well.
As on many other campuses, Princeton’s political revival came in 2014. Quietly, since at least the murder of Trayvon Martin (and in many places before), the first rumblings of a movement led by working-class people of color against police brutality had been stirring. After the cop Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed boy named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, mass protests led by some of the poorest people in America seized the city before being suppressed with military-grade equipment by the National Guard. Allied demonstrations emerged over the next year, in New York over the killing of Eric Garner and in Baltimore over the killing of Freddie Gray. When Wilson was acquitted in November, Ferguson erupted again in protest. It also woke Princeton from its stupor.
An ad hoc emergency committee formed and quickly disseminated a call that spread through email lists and group chats across campus: there was going to be a march. Hundreds of students came out, many of them black, nearly all of them previously apolitical. By nightfall, at the vigil, my activist friends and I were ecstatic. Black Lives Matter had been founded by queer black women and it was putting a number of crucial intersecting issues back on the table. People were talking about a black liberation movement that wouldn’t throw women and queer people under the bus (as the old one often had), about how the only path out of structural racism required a massive rollback of capitalism, about how radical democracy was the solution to a whole basket of problems.11 Here at last, we thought, was the opportunity to create a movement that built on Occupy and moved us beyond it.
The very existence of a group devoted to black liberation in the wake of Ferguson energized the whole campus. This included the racist frat boys calling black students “animals” on the popular anonymous message board Yik Yak, which only further motivated those of us in the activist community to show solidarity. The group’s next goal, after the vigil, was a “die-in” protest where people would walk out of classes and play dead in a public space to commemorate the victims of police murder. This sounded pretty cool in my book.
Yet there were also things that troubled me from early on about how the movement was being run and organized. The first was the radio silence surrounding what would come after the initial vigil. There was no organization to join, no coordinated group except that one online chat from the spontaneous march—which required a private invite. Eventually a poster spread announcing “a post-Ferguson movement at Princeton.” The meeting room was the one where Einstein used to lecture, or so the tours liked to say. It was packed with people, many of them black and brown, and at the front were the kids from the group chat. They’d dressed in coordinated leather jackets and black clothes. That wasn’t their only difference from the rest of the crowd. There was a very clear distinction between us and them, and it wasn’t racial: if you were in the little group of half a dozen people in the front, you were giving the orders; if you were anyone else, you were there to listen and obey.
Early on, the fruits of this new hierarchy on campus manifested itself in examples that sound silly now—such as one acrimonious back-and-forth I was involved in over whether it was okay for activists from outside the inner circle to help create a Facebook page for racial-justice activism. It manifested itself more broadly in the group’s refusal to put out educational materials or hold public events, opting instead for a year’s worth of private negotiations with school administrators. The clique refused to work with the prison-reform group—which was fighting to remove the box on Princeton’s college application that asks about previous felonies, disproportionately affecting working-class applicants of color busted on drug charges—or indeed with any group they didn’t themselves direct. And there were also ugly power struggles within the clique itself. At one point the little group met after a long absence and two non-black organizers who’d been there since the beginning—two girls, one Jewish and one Latina—were present as always. After a Nigerian girl said the presence of whites was causing her emotional distress, they were asked to leave and discouraged from attending any future meetings. (Some on campus called this “the Purge.”)
Things came to a head when, after a year of near-total inactivity, the group occupied Nassau Hall. Their main demands were for the university to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the policy school, institute sensitivity training for professors, and create “affinity housing” and other safe spaces on campus where only people of color would be allowed to live or hang out. It was an incredibly brave act that made national news—not since the Seventies had anything this radical happened on campus. It was also the culmination of their top-down organizing style: a more or less closed group had planned the action and drafted the platform with no input from people of color in the broader campus community, and their supporters didn’t so much argue for its proposals as try to shame people into accepting them. The last demand for no-whites-allowed spaces was particularly controversial, even among the activist community.
Desperate to show my support for the movement, I made arguments in the dining hall in defense of affinity housing, as much to convince myself as others. Then I saw a Chinese student get screamed at and denounced in what was by now the customary manner for asking, not particularly confrontationally, what the difference was between affinity housing and segregation—a question I’d been thinking to ask myself. I felt my last bits of sympathy with the clique evaporating. What was so dispiriting was not our disagreement about affinity housing—surely we could have agreed to disagree—but their attitude that the debate over the issue could be settled by fiat. That even wanting to discuss the matter was proof you were allied with white supremacy. (As if all black and brown people on campus were in agreement.) This sort of thing was the sign that whatever the new reality the group was seeking on campus, it would be imposed on us just like the old one: from above.
I’ve described the post-Ferguson racial-justice movement because that’s where this approach manifested itself most clearly on my campus, but such behavior could be found in feminist, queer and other identity-based spaces as well in those years. It remains a major problem in academia and the left-wing press. People talk a lot about the toxic influence of “identity politics,” but this is imprecise. The problem isn’t the fight against sexism, racism, homo- and transphobia, and other forms of identity-based repression, but rather a particular set of assumptions that have become conventional in many of the movements advocating for these issues today. These include the assumption that whole ways of looking at the world are inherent in particular racial, sexual or gender identities; that only people with an oppressed identity know the truth of their oppression; and that there are unbridgeable gaps between the epistemologies of people with different identities. Often described as identitarianism, this story mandates that moral and even political authority can be conferred to individuals by virtue of group oppression. Furthermore, since speech can be a form of violence on a spectrum with the physical and sexual kinds, disagreement on identity issues in itself constitutes a form of abuse. Thus, discourse must be regulated in order to ensure the safety and protection of minorities and to impede the spread of ideas and discourses that create discomfort. (No great loss, since “free speech” is always policed anyway, just usually in the interests of the powerful as against that of the oppressed.)
Identitarianism has had a noxious effect on the many spaces where, in recent years, it has become prominent. As autocratically enforced dogmas often do, it’s also created currents of backlash and resentment. Certainly this was their effect on me. It was all too easy for me as a brown writer to resent the suffocating atmosphere created by identitarianism, which treats anyone of a minority background who refuses to wear its straitjacket as a pariah. For several years following my campus experience, I was so upset by what I saw as the disingenuous manipulation of identity on campus that I was likely to regard somebody even just using the jargon with suspicion and contempt. I became snide and vicious in mocking their excesses, stewed in resentment at the power they seemed to wield online or in publishing, and even began to feel myself considering them an enemy to be vanquished.
I continue to worry today about the influence of identitarianism on left-wing organizations and spaces. But I’ve also come to worry about the reaction to identitarianism on the left. I saw in my own case the way that contempt can harden into its own kind of authoritarian intolerance. My anger towards the identitarians was causing me to lose sight of the very real experiences of prejudice and oppression out of which their ideology had sprung—even when I could identify with those experiences myself. Throughout the activist world, in the years that would follow, versions of this battle—often framed nowadays as being between identitarians and “class reductionists,” who see only economic issues as being “universal”—would play out, most notably in the 2016 primary season between the followers of Hillary Clinton and those of Bernie Sanders. The problem with the debate is not that it’s stupid or irresolvable. (Quite to the contrary, I believe it’s both essential and complex.) The problem is that, because of the refusal of either side to engage in good faith, it threatens to create new hierarchies in precisely the spaces that claim to be devoted to the ideal I had seen made flesh at Occupy—the ideal of a radically democratic world, of a world without rulers.
Memory, when it isn’t merely vague, is temperamental. Memoir is by turns a genre of lies and speculations. The dirty secret of autobiographical nonfiction is that, having forgotten most of what’s ever happened to us, we’re left only with what survives in records (journals, publications, other people’s stories about us) and the vague sensation of whatever, maybe, it felt like to live a certain life. Nevertheless, there are moments of our lives that remain in high definition. Often they aren’t of any importance—the record of some petty triumph or embarrassment. A few, however, remain significant beyond ourselves. This is because they connect our personal experience to the larger transformations of our time. For me, one such experience was the May Day events at Occupy. Another came toward the end of my time at Princeton, when I attended my first meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America.
I’d arrived at a squat brick building of a few stories in Brooklyn. At first I thought I’d come to the wrong place, since this was clearly an Episcopalian church. (I’d learn later it was actually two churches—the Spanish-language parish, which owned the building, also let an English-language congregation of hipster Anglicans led by a female vicar use the space after they got kicked out of the bar in whose back room they’d previously worshiped.) On further examination, I found a sign on printer paper attached to one of the side doors: LOOKING FOR SOCIALISTS? —> THIS WAY! It was decorated by what is now a historical artifact: the rather clunky old DSA logo from before Remeike Forbes’s 2016 redesign, affectionately known as “the rose and gardeners’ gloves.”
The whole trip was on something of a whim and mostly a kind of favor to my friend Russell, a soft-voiced Quaker from New England who I met while interviewing him about socialist politics for my college radio station. One night I was subjecting Russ to one of my rants. All the old left-wing distinctions were fading! Why couldn’t people just open their eyes! What we’ve needed since Occupy is a broad-based movement devoted to a shared idea of socialism as radical democracy! That sort of thing. Russell, probably tired of hearing my slogans for the twentieth time, said I might be interested to know such an organization already existed. “The DSA?” I said. “Aren’t they the reformists who get people to vote Democrat?” “They used to be that,” he replied in his friendly commonsense way, “but now it’s different.”12 Mostly because he insisted, I coughed up the $33 for the train and went to find them.
As I got signed in by a homely bearded fellow at the little registration desk, a surge of emotion distracted me from filling out my forms. I felt almost lightheaded. There was the overwhelming sense that I was somewhere familiar, the repetition not as in déjà vu of a moment in time but of a kind of space. The texture of the table and the uneven wood floor reminded me of places I’d been in before, a particular sort of place with certain features and certain ways of moving through them. It was only when I looked up that I remembered.
I was in a salón. That was the word that came to mind, and not its English equivalent. It can be approximated as “hall,” as in “meeting hall” or “assembly hall” or “union hall.” The word feels less old-fashioned in Spanish, maybe because for Latinos—or at least the ones I grew up with—such halls have a contemporary function. Namely, a religious one.
Despite growing up in the Jersey suburbs, my parents took me every Sunday to attend Mass in a small brick church of Latino Catholics in New Brunswick, a university city and pharmaceutical company town with a heavy immigrant population from around the world. Such immigrant churches, like so many houses of worship which double as community hubs, had little meeting halls attached to the main building in which to house festivals, teen socials and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I grew up calling our version of this place “el salón” because that’s what I was taught to call it. But it exists in many societies under many names. I can remember filing out from under the square redbrick steeple and through the alley between the church and the house of the priest and heading through the parking lot—trying not to stare at the junkies and homeless who sometimes loitered outside the Catholic Charities—then entering a kind of annex building, climbing its narrow stairs, and coming into the open space of the salón. The tile floor tracked enough dirt to become permanently stained after rainy days. Catholics always find an excuse for a party, and Latinos even more so. There was a festival every month, sometimes two: parties to commemorate every visitation of the Virgin or hillbilly saint the clergy ever beatified to stave off a peasant revolt. The most important was el Día de la Hispanidad in September, when each of the shitty little fold-out plastic tables lining the walls was manned by parishioners of a different nationality, decorated with their home country’s flag and decked out with big cheap aluminum food warmers stuffed to the brim with homemade cuisine. Not only as a child but long into my teens I resented the interminable get-togethers: the grown-ups stuffing their faces and catching up and invariably by nightfall dancing to music so loud it often blew out the speakers, while I slinked away to a corner with my Nintendo, trying to avoid the flirtations of church girls whose interest I was incapable of reciprocating and of whose discernment I was deeply afraid. Years would pass before was I able to look back upon the salón with affection and nostalgia, because only then was I able to understand what it represented.
And now, in distant Brooklyn among what I thought would be strangers, I found myself in the salón once again. The same folding chairs and tables, the same bad insulation, the same subtle echo of your voice in the air. It was different, of course. The tablecloths were decorated with variations on the rose logo, and topped not with Latin American home cooking but sign-up sheets and free magazines and posters and socialist-feminist pamphlets. The building was not an annex to the church but run by a radical collective as a leftist events space. The denizens were socialists and, famously, predominantly white (with various exceptions, however, not least myself).
The Occupiers had taught me that space is a thing we construct together, something shaped by our forms of social life which shapes them in turn. The arrangement of an office, a park, an apartment, a garden, an assembly, a salón is a choice we make about the kind of world we want to live in. What then exactly is the sort of world that builds a salón, the world a salón builds?
Previously I’d encountered two kinds of activist spaces with two kinds of people. In academic activist spaces, and particularly “radical” ones, everyone was trying to one-up each other on how subversive and edgy they were, deploying warmed-over yet somehow also hip Foucauldian queer theory to “critique” and “problematize” anything within arm’s length. In crusty old Marxist circles—your typical Trotskyite reading group—you’d get some old guru starting a cult of personality around himself and training disciples in the appropriate exegesis of the sacred texts (the Manifesto, the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Das Kapital Volume One, etc.). At the DSA meeting, by contrast, I found people who fit neither into a scene nor a cult: nurses, teachers, students, ex-truckers who’d become union reps, as well as lefty mainstays like journalists and grad students. And they talked about concrete problems. I remember the girl who was worried about her mother’s immigration status under then-president Obama’s record deportations; recent college grads telling me about the jobs with pitiless hours they’d had to accept to pay off their student loans, or about the yearlong hunt for one that had depleted their savings to nothing; a thirtysomething bisexual adjunct professor suffering from increasing depression as he barely scraped by on his pathetic wage; the middle-aged NGO worker whose sister had been foreclosed upon in the 2008 crash and was still living with him years later. When these people talked about socialism, it wasn’t as an eccentric literary pursuit or a parlor game but as a solution to the practical problems created by the structures we all inhabited—a socialism of common sense.
I think, too, about the people who hung around behind the various tables between conference events. There were action-based working groups (Racial Justice, Labor, Bernie 2016) but also identity-based ones (Socialist Feminists, Black Socialists, Religious Socialists)—and, most surprisingly of all, a group called the Left Caucus representing all groups to the left of the social democrats. Russ had told me they existed, but two things about them struck me. One was that they were allowed to table at all alongside everyone else despite being an openly ideological formation. The other was that their own materials explicitly spelled out their commitment to the “multi-tendency” nature of DSA, openly advocating for their shared positions while acknowledging the possibility of disagreement.
That above all was what inspired me. If what I’d found in the salón in Brooklyn was a socialist church, it was not the high church of popes and cardinals who lived in palaces and commanded the laymen to kiss their rings, but the low church of ordinary people united in a shared communion—Quakers at their friendly meetings, the campesinos leading their own liberation theology masses in each other’s homes—the church that revolted against the clerics. Nor was it a church with a single absolute truth, deviation from which leads to excommunication. There were no bosses here, and no one mastered anyone else. It was what the Zapatistas of southern Mexico—political heroes of mine, as they were of many anarchists—called “un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos,” a world where many worlds fit. At some point someone passed around a sign-up sheet, and I paid my dues on the spot.
In short order, tens of thousands of people across the country would do the same. This was only partly due to the Bernie effect. Contrary to popular belief, the Sanders campaign in 2016 led to a respectable but only modest growth in DSA’s membership, from 6,500 to about eight thousand on the eve of the election. At a DSA event in New York around that time I heard Bhaskar Sunkara, the ever-savvy editor of Jacobin, tell us something like “There are only about five thousand socialists in the U.S. right now. I’m hoping maybe by the time I die we’ll reach Debs’s hundred thousand.” It’s easy to laugh at him now, but not for the reason he would have expected.
Above all, it was Trump’s victory that woke tens of thousands of progressives out of their dogmatic slumber. It wasn’t just the fact that a dangerous charlatan, backed openly by fascists and white supremacists, had ascended to the White House. It was also what this event revealed: that neoliberals like Hillary Clinton, and the decades of Democratic Party consensus that she represented, had become part of the problem. As they blathered about the national debt and solicited campaign donations from Silicon Valley billionaires, the country was falling into political and economic crisis.
I have it secondhand that, in the days after the election, the national DSA office was so flooded with membership requests that it had to hire a new staffer on dues money it didn’t quite yet have just to keep up. Even if that’s not literally true, it captures the spirit of the time: manic, hysterical, chapters sprouting up across the country, battles with fascists and police in almost as many streets, new campaigns, new victories, new defeats, a high point of despair as well as hope, a time when the monsters of the past returned as well as its heroes. By the summer of 2017 there were 25,000 DSAers. Today, we stand at over sixty thousand.
What does the DSA want? A common enough idea is that, ignorant of the dark history of the Soviet Union and other “communist” countries, we desire a society where every aspect of the economy and culture is planned from the top down by a single Party. I’ll grant there may be some of us, a tiny minority, who envision such a thing. But the organization’s own commitment to pluralism in the democratic process—all those working groups and ideological caucuses—speaks to something rather different. DSAers themselves repudiate the centralization and authoritarianism so often discussed by the critics of socialism, and much of what defines the new socialism is an acknowledgement that the tradition we’ve inherited is one strewn with traps. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that all DSA wants is a return to Tony Judt-style social democracy of the sort I admired in the pre-Obama years, where a basically capitalist system is leavened by a few socialistic elements like welfare or universal health care. Socialists generally see Bernie Sanders’s platform as the springboard for the movement, not its horizon.
The various socialisms within DSA are united in the realization that the world has changed and socialism must change with it. For one thing, previous socialisms coexisted more easily than many would like to admit alongside racism, heteropatriarchy and imperialism; much of the identitarianism debate consists of the movement’s attempts to figure out just how it can truly ensure these are things of the past. There’s also the ecological crisis. While some past socialist movements played a role in raising awareness of environmental problems, on the whole socialism has tended to put its faith in industrial development as a way to raise living standards and achieve democratic mastery over nature, with pretty devastating consequences: “communist” countries were often even bigger polluters than capitalist ones. In light of the apocalyptic scale of climate change, today’s socialists are all effectively eco-socialists, and the need for green economic planning on a scale neoliberalism simply can’t provide is among the most important things attracting young people to the left.
Above all, though, is a change in the way socialists think about democracy. In this regard, not only the Soviet-style dictatorships serve as a cautionary tale, but also the paternalism of the social-democratic period. The postwar compromise did show how an industrial economy could serve the needs of the many, distributing the fruits of capitalist production more evenly than ever before. But the manner in which it did so—as a top-down technocracy—ended up, ironically, laying the groundwork for the later neoliberal takeover. I think back to the suburbs I grew up in in the Nineties. People said we lived in a democracy, but what was meant by this was that my neighbors and I would show up every two to four years at some lower-school gymnasium filled with booths where we’d push a button to choose a leader from options pre-selected by the country’s ruling-class oligarchy. Never were we trusted to deliberate over matters that affected us or participate robustly in civic life. The anarchists had always emphasized that no socialism was possible without citizens being directly in charge of production and investment decisions, and this is no longer exclusively their idea. Not only the redistribution of resources but the redistribution of decision-making power is a central concern of the new socialism. That is why we are obsessed with the creation of spaces like cooperatives, worker-run trade or tenants’ unions, community-controlled housing and neighborhood councils—spaces where real resources are placed directly in the hands of ordinary people self-organized into democratic assemblies.
At its best, DSA itself is such a space. Regardless of its founders’ intention to make it a pressure group on the Democratic Party, “the org”—as DSAers affectionately call it—has become a laboratory for experiments in democratic living. It is best understood as a little society within society with its own vibrant and independent press, its own celebrities, its own legal and political structure, its own heated controversies and de facto political parties. Its practices emulate the future it wants to create. The autonomy of its local chapters to determine for themselves how they’ll run things has led to a proliferation of constitutions and other experiments in how to structure decision-making, many of them putting directly into practice reforms the movement advocates for—such as single-transferable voting, proportionality and quotas in representation, digital democracy and direct democracy (whether by online referendum or confederations of assemblies with mandated and recallable delegates). In cities, towns and rural areas across the country, a DSA chapter is not only a hub of activist activity but often a mini-revival of culture and community in areas largely devoid of communal associations of any sort. They organize not only strikes, rallies, campaigns and mutual aid networks but also festivals, talent shows, movie screenings and comedy nights.
This is why most of DSA’s members furiously defend the rights of themselves and others within the organization, with arguments around class, race and gender focused overwhelmingly on what is more fair, more democratic and more pluralistic. Opposing opinions not only exist but thrive; there seem to be more of them every day, and they duel and shout and advertise in a messy, earthy clamor which feels a lot more like what democracy was supposed to have been like than anything that I ever saw in my hometown or on C-SPAN. Besides my little chunk of Occupy, a fleeting and half-remembered dream by comparison, DSA is the only time in my life where anyone has tried to figure out what it would look like for the people themselves to be in charge of anything. Shockingly, to a large extent, it works. And inasmuch as I can, in DSA parlance, “trust the process”—that is, paraphrasing Mill and Dewey with beautiful concision, hold faith that if we’re democratic then we’ll eventually grope our way to the right answers—it gives me hope that some of the techniques and forms of life being developed within it can heal the wounds festering in our larger culture.
Yet this hope, which helps get me out of bed in the morning instead of giving up and rolling over, is in the end a fragile thing. Often enough it’s paired with its opposite. Because I would be lying if I said that I only saw the seeds of socialism—the democratic society of free producers—in DSA. Sometimes I look at our organization and see the beginnings of the Party that Orwell taught me so much to despise. Not just because of the presence of identitarians. They do exist, and they have a way of getting up to their old tricks: demanding people be “canceled” for having “bad politics,” trying to frame certain issues such that having the wrong opinion on them means you’re an oppressor and thus can’t even be engaged or convinced but only ejected, tying everything back to identity in loose ways as a pretense for discrediting somebody they dislike for other reasons.
To my surprise, though, their most extreme elements have largely been driven off, or else defanged and integrated into the larger DSA culture, due to the surprising robustness of our democratic norms. Critiques of identitarianism by Adolph Reed, Angela Nagle, Sarah Schulman and Asad Haider circulate widely and get extensively debated with a surprising degree of nuance (though not without vitriol). When articles in DSA-adjacent media cause a controversy, the norm is not to revoke them but for someone to publish an angry reply—in some cases, even in the same publication. DSA meetings and official online spaces are invariably prefaced by a recitation of “civility norms” that anticipate many of the common identitarian formulas and put them off limits, and members in chapters that have had such problems have created sophisticated guides for ensuring pluralism and civility. All this has made identitarianism less powerful in DSA than just about anywhere on the left, including the little magazines and the radical press.
The bigger problem right now is that the battle against identitarianism has come at a cost. A chunk of the movement, whose thinking on these questions was formed in the 2016 Democratic primary, sees “IDPol” as little more than a neoliberal plot to deflect from economic questions and promote the careers of “woke” minority professionals in media and politics. For these class reductionists, it increasingly seems, anyone who so much as brings up the issue of patriarchy and racism within the movement must be engaging in “purity politics.” Seen through this lens socialism becomes entirely a matter of “class struggle,” so that making any demands other than purely economic ones is at best a distraction and at worst actively alienates “the workers.” Anyone who engages in these “subcultural” behaviors is a “wrecker,” and, should softer methods prove inadequate to the task of ridding the organization of “wreckers,” authoritarian means are perfectly legitimate. (Chillingly, “wrecker” is a legal category under which Stalin persecuted dissenters.)
Bolstered by such arguments, a small faction in DSA called Momentum,13 closely associated with Jacobin magazine, has consolidated power around itself through increasingly brazen anti-democratic measures. A recent report for the New Republic by journalist Miguel Salazar skimmed the surface of the situation, mentioning their “dismissive” attitude towards critics and their “top-down structure” where “general meetings are infrequent and subcommittees are limited in their scope.” This is the tip of the iceberg. The truth is that Momentum has spent the past two years on something like a crusade, alienating vast swaths of the organization who agree with their politics on paper but object to their behavior. Believing that their analysis is the only correct path to socialism, Momentum have thrown themselves entirely behind Medicare for All and Bernie Sanders, using backhanded schemes in the spaces they control to prevent members from participating in any other initiatives while retaining an iron grip over those projects they do support. In extreme cases, they’ve blatantly violated DSA’s bylaws or misused them to punish lower-ranking critics, turning the handful of chapters they control into the effective equivalent of one-party states. They’ve been allowed to get away with it because they have a plurality on DSA’s National Political Committee—at least until the convention this August, when they’re up for reelection.
From Momentum’s point of view, all this is supposed to prevent “identitarian wreckers” from steering the organization away from “working-class” interests. But I know brave organizers, many of them far more legitimately working-class than either myself or the Momentum crew, who’ve been driven to leave DSA due to this treatment, or at least consider it. One woman, a single mom from a low-income rural area whose main DSA work is on health care, spoke out against a proposal for a Medicare for All march on the floor of the last convention—and had a lighter thrown at her by a Momentum chapter leader in the hallway afterwards. Other organizers, some of them black and brown, have tried to organize creatively in Momentum-controlled chapters and committees to speak to issues that affect working-class communities in their area—tenants’ unions to fight landlords and gentrification, occupations of ICE offices to protest the creation of concentration camps for migrants, and so on—only to have leadership try to shut their operations down or refuse to lend them any publicity in DSA channels on the grounds that these were “particularist” rather than “universalist” demands. Such behavior has already begun to drive smart and dedicated organizers into the arms of identitarian hardliners, imperiling precisely the multiracial working-class coalition Jacobin has been harping on about creating for years.
But the conflict also imperils something else: the commitment to pluralism and democracy at the heart of DSA. Both the identitarians and the class reductionists today gain much of their strength from their projection of total moral certainty that they’ve reached the single correct line—whether intersectional or universalist—on all political issues, as well as the equal certainty that by following this line we will arrive at our own Sugarcandy Mountain of “fully automated luxury gay space communism.” In each of these cases one finds the same implicit assertion: if you have the right interpretation of the sacred texts, you know the occult truth about the universe and the path to earthly paradise; thus, to dissent from these views is to become a heretic. Buying into such a theology is liable to make you a fanatic eager to go hunting for apostates—which is the first step towards the kind of authoritarian turn we’ve seen all too often in the history of the left.
I have no doubt DSA contains the germ of a better society. But in my heart I know that it has other possible futures. In a way these are even more likely, to judge from history. Every socialist with a moral backbone knows exactly what I’m talking about. You know the sort of people the movement can attract in spite of its noble aims: the ones who see others not as human beings but as resources to be managed, who have no compunctions about means so long as the ends are justified, whose sense of their great personal destiny comes from their conviction that the winds of history are at their back. Today they’re an annoyance. Tomorrow…
Well that’s just the thing, isn’t it? You don’t know. It may be the infrastructure you’re helping to build, the network of committees and groups and constitutions and procedures, is really the beginning of a truly free society. Or it could be that, whatever your intentions, it is nothing more than a machine designed to take over the state. And then what has happened to so many socialist do-gooders before you will happen to you: some schemer will take over your little dream and force you to live inside their nightmare. No more talk of democracy and decency. No real talk anyway; the words will by then have become their opposites. Engines of liberation turned into instruments of slavery. One ruling class replaced by another. And it’s not like they didn’t warn you. Could the philistines have been right all along? It’s an irony, but so predictable by now it seems more like a logical deduction: you set out to save democracy, therefore you ended up killing it for good. Maybe clichés exist to preserve primal truths, like cockroaches in amber. Maybe no better world was ever possible. You’re helping to assemble the dictatorship that will censor your poetry. Your favored regime will stick you in a labor camp—maybe your friends will be the ones to do it—or else you’ll end up some bitter exile, your friends all dead and abandoned, with nothing left to do but write self-exculpatory novels, or become a neoconservative.
These are moments of hysteria. They come and go. There’s a good chance, to say the least, that DSA won’t prove so important for good or ill in the end. But don’t think it’s nothing, either. Whatever’s coming will likely have the texture, the flavor of these hallucinations, if not their content.
There was a time when I thought I would conclude by saying that in spite of everything, socialism—a true and democratic socialism, one that can live up to the aspirations of those who first dreamed of it—is our greatest hope. That far from being impossible, its individual components have already been brought separately into being. That schemes for the universal provision of health care, education and housing as human rights—which is to say, on a communistic basis—have already been developed in social-democratic countries and proven to work. That we’ve already begun to build, in places like Occupy and DSA, the systems of assembly democracy that will be both the means and the ends of our liberation. I would have told you this, banishing my doubts by chanting my convictions, and then in a fit of bravado I would have ended the essay with my favorite Orwell quote:
All the considerations that are likely to make one falter—the siren voices of a Pétain or of a Gandhi, the inescapable fact that in order to fight one has to degrade oneself, the equivocal moral position of Britain, with its democratic phrases and its coolie empire, the sinister development of Soviet Russia, the squalid farce of left-wing politics—all this fades away and one sees only the struggle of the gradually awakening common people against the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers. The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later—some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years.
I might have tried to ironize it. “Perhaps on insufficient grounds” is a subtle, devastating phrase. And one doubts we have anything like ten years to waste, much less ten thousand. Or maybe I’d have let the quote stand alone. Either way, that’s what I would have told you. And it would have been true. But it wouldn’t have been honest. It’s what I believe. But it isn’t all that matters.
It’s true enough that the ideology I was raised in—the pretty story where free markets and capitalist democracy, rugged individualists and innovative entrepreneurs, would lead us to the end of history—no longer captivates as many as it once did. Nowadays it’s hard to find anyone under thirty who believes that story at all. (Some might, in the manner of one losing their religion, continue to recite the slogans out of habit—if only to reconvince themselves.) But that hardly means we can be certain of a better future. Our movement, after all, was formed from the ashes of failed socialisms. And for all our renewed idealism we are also haunted by a sense of our own belatedness—the suspicion that the time to act may have passed us by. As fascist regimes march across a planet that more and more seems to be dying, it’s hard not to wonder: Have we come too late? The sometimes-grating earnestness and fervor you may pick up in our voices is a result of the fact that, for us, the question is no abstraction. The grim world that is today being made, and not the hopeful one into which we were born, is the one where we will spend the rest of our lives.
That’s why we socialists have tried to tell a new story, one that can preserve the things we value from this world—and help to create a new one. We’ve said: Only a socialism that internalizes the lessons of the twentieth century and puts pluralism front and center can win. We want a socialism where democracy permeates every aspect of our lives. We want this not because it would be a perfect world or even in all respects a nice one, but because collective participation in civic life and the extension of that participation into the economy on the basis of equality and human dignity are the only insurance of our individual and collective freedom—our only way of waging war against the dictatorships of today and those of tomorrow.
Maybe you think our story is dangerous or foolish; I can see why a serious person might. And you may say that plenty of people aren’t calling for the heads of the ruling class, which is true for now. But it’s not the point. People’s life stories must, conceivably, take place within a greater story. And right now that means we’re all responsible for choosing a story about what’s gone wrong and how to fix it. This means that everything, for better or worse, is back on the table: socialisms, fascisms and forms of social life yet to be given names. I’ve only waited a few years for this reckoning to arrive. The world has waited much longer. And now that it has, let me be perfectly honest about it: I can hardly say I’m confident the collapse of the old order has proven to be a good thing at all, except perhaps insofar as it opens up a space for the possibility of a better world in our time. Yet only insofar, and no further.
Art credit: Rob MacInnis, “Opening Night,” 2010. Courtesy of the artist.