Two Roads

by Tim Horras on February 4, 2015


This is the text of a speech Tim Horras, chair of Philly Socialists, delivered at Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, in early November of 2014, days before grand juries in Missouri and New York refused to indict the killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. Tim is the Chairman of Philly Socialists, a locally-based multi-tendency socialist group.

Two roads


When I was growing up, in the long-ago time of 1990s, I believed a number of things about how the world worked.

These ideas were held by everybody I met, echoed in the media, and by figures of authority in our society – everybody from politicians to college professors. Even critical and dissident voices basically accepted certain underlying premises of how our world worked, and how the future was going to shape up.

Allow me to present you with a snapshot of American ideology from ten or twenty years ago:

The world works like this: You go to college, earn a degree, and get a middle class job. You make $40,000 a year starting out, and earn more every year after that. You work 40 hours a week every year until you retire, just like your parents did. You will have kids of your own, and they will grow up to work 40 hours a week, as will their children, and so on and so forth.

The political system alternates between Democrats and Republicans, but these are mainly cosmetic differences, and don’t have lasting impacts on a fundamentally strong economy (the greatest in the world!) which will deliver more and more people into ever-broadening circles of prosperity. Sure, some bad things had happened in the past (slavery, Jim Crow, women’s oppression) but that was a very long time ago, and that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more (at least in America).

In this America, there are three classes: the rich, the poor, and the middle class. I was, like everybody else, in the middle class. I say “like everybody else” because a majority of Americans, then as they do now, believe themselves to be in the middle class, whatever that means. As a friend’s high-school civics teacher used to say, “The great thing about America is that everyone can be middle class.” Everybody can be in the middle? It’s a good thing he wasn’t teaching math.

According to common sense, capitalism would lift everybody out of poverty eventually (even poor people in third world countries) in an economic theory known as “convergence theory.” The middle class would grow all over the world and consume the other classes, so that the whole world would be middle class. At that point, I’m not sure what this class would be in the middle of, but maybe a better term would be the “central class” as in the class that comprises the center of the universe. Eventually there would be no more rich or poor, and we would live in a classless society with a shopping mall in every village and a big screen TV in every hut.

This view had it that capitalism wasn’t perfect, but it’s the only option. Sure, there was the Soviet Union, but that had collapsed because it didn’t work. And if it was the case that it indeed it actually did work for quite a while, everybody knows it was really terrible when it was working, and anyway isn’t everybody much better off in Ukraine and Russia today since they have blue jeans over there? Socialism, from this perspective, was a temporary deviation from a pre-ordained road every civilization must traverse from primitive society to history’s final stage: American-style capitalism.

Of course, you and I know that there is always more than one road to walk

The general sentiment was essentially, whatever hiccups were encountered – a war here, a recession there – we were all going down the long slide to a consumer utopia like free bloody birds.

This was the “common sense” of the time and place I grew up in. This is what my parents believed, this is what my teachers and my friends believed, and this is what I believed.

It’s a comforting story, and one you may have heard of before. But there’s something not quite right here. There’s a song from the great mid-2000s band Postal Service which sums it up: “I know you’re wise beyond your years, but do you ever get the fear / Your perfect verse is just a lie you tell yourself to help you get by?

There’s no mention in this story of a world in the midst of one of the six mass extinction event in world history (scientists call our current period the “Anthropocene defaunation” or the great die-off of the human epoch). There’s no room in this narrative for a world wracked by climate change, or for classes and nations at war with one another.

But there were two holes in this otherwise all-covering warm ideological blanket.

One was my introduction in college to the ideas of Karl Marx. By chance, one of my favorite literature professors in college was a cranky old Marxist (the better or worse for me, I’m still not sure). Marxism presented me with a view of the world in which conflict was seething just under the surface of a seemingly placid landscape – class struggle, the motor-force which propelled forward all human history, now open, now hidden away.

Like the theory of plate tectonics, this deep, subterranean mashing together would sometimes erupt and shake everything to its very foundations – like an earthquake striking out on a balmy California afternoon. But to me these were only ideas; words that existed mainly in my interaction with books.

The other hole in the story – of much greater consequence – was reality. I graduated in 2008, right as the world economy was going into freefall. Nobody thought this was possible (well, nobody except maybe my cranky old Marxist professor). Me and all my friends graduated college; nobody could land a job. Everybody was broke, in debt, trying to make ends meet, or just giving up and moving back in with their parents.

In the years since the beginning of the crisis, the political class has gotten back on the horse. We’re told the economy is recovering. And even if 95% of the gains of the recovery went to the top 1% of income earners, at least employment is edging back toward pre-recession levels, am I right?

So where does that leave us today?

I want to argue that you can believe only one of two mutually-exclusive perspectives about the future of the United States. Two futures, two roads. Let’s call future one “stability thesis.” The other one, let’s call “Disruption thesis.”

Stability thesis holds that in the coming decades, the social, political and economic trends in the U.S. and worldwide will be toward more (or equal) levels of stability.

Economically, it’s predicated on the idea that GDP growth will trend upward, jobs will start being created in large enough numbers to decisively tamp down on unemployment, and that employees at these jobs will make enough money to reinvest in the overall economy.

Politically, it will mean pretty much the status quo: moderate, consensus politics as political parties vie to win over “moderate” voters, who are turned off by polarizing political rhetoric and want good, common sense centrist policies. Ecologically, it means that environmental pressures don’t unduly impose themselves on the workings of the system.

I won’t go into detail on this perspective, since I pretty much laid out my view of this thesis in the previous section. You’re all smart people. You can guess my opinion about the veracity of this thesis. Moreover, you can go talk to any of your professors, coworkers or friends and they will marshall plenty of evidence to support this thesis. For that reason, I hope you will forgive me if I avoid spending too much time on it.

The other thesis – disruption thesis – posits the coming decades will be consist of several important trends.

Economically, it means our economy lacks the kind of self-correcting forces that could restore an adequate level of demand, it will only be capable of generating low to negligible levels of GDP growth, and whatever wealth gets created will be immediately sucked up by the 1% of income earners (the capitalist class).

Politically it means the disruption of governing coalitions, what the New York Times refers to as “intractable conflict among elites resulting in the inability of either side to enact a durable agenda” – which means on our end the formation of new political coalitions, organizations and parties, and possibly regimes.

Ecologically it means growing disruptions to our way of life from climate change and a cascade of other, human-generated environmental effects.

Let’s look at the political situation first.

Americans today are more conflicted ideologically – polarized between left and right – since any time since the Civil War. And the trend is unmistakably toward greater polarization. Americans can either become more or less politically polarized, and unless any of you see any reason that a great and soothing moderation is in the works, we can expect the partisan conflicts we’ve seen in our political sphere become even sharper and more vicious.

Consider the crisis of legitimacy in our government. Since the 1950s, Americans’ trust in our government has declined from a high of 77% of the population, to levels as low as 19%. This begs the question: what has been the American system’s basis of legitimacy among its population, and does this basis still exist? People have to believe the system works for them, right? Otherwise they have no reason to pledge their loyalty, and the government loses the consent of the governed.

Think for a moment on the following figures from the Public Religion Research Institute:

Only roughly 4-in-10 (42%) Americans say that the American Dream—that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead—still holds true today. Nearly half of Americans (48%) believe that the American Dream once held true but does not anymore, and 7% say the American Dream never held true.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans believe the economic system in the country unfairly favors the wealthy, compared to 34% who disagree.

Only one-third (33%) of Americans agree that the government is run for the benefit of all the people, while nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans disagree.

A particularly interesting phenomenon and one I believe we will see a lot more of in the future is the rapid shift in public opinion — not only rapid in terms of frequency but in the size of the shifts as people grapple with alternatives ideas and the question which way that society should go.

Can the status quo be maintained under such conditions? Well, in the past five or six years we’ve seen the fall of governments in places as far flung as Iceland, Egypt, and Burkina Faso. Is America really so exceptional that it can take a holiday from history?

What about the economy?

Here I’m going to stick very strictly to mainstream news sources; I’m not going to talk about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, socially-necessary labor time, the transformation problem, or any of that. If you really want to understand what’s going on though, you have to study Marxism.

Anyway, last year, Larry Summers – who here has seen the movie The Social Network? – if you’ve seen the Social Network, I’m talking about the guy who was the President of Harvard in the film. He wasn’t just the President of Harvard but has also been the Chief Economist at the World Bank, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and most recently was on the Obama transition team.

So Larry Summers was at the International Monetary Fund and he pretty much came out and was like, “What if we don’t bounce back from the Great Recession? What if the American economy goes the way of Japan, with a “lost decade” of falling GDP, falling real wages, and stagnant price levels?” This shook up a lot of people in the establishment, economists who were already on edge after their predictive models failed so spectacularly to predict the 2008 financial crisis.

Summers was raising this specter because the unemployment rate has remained on the high side even though the Federal Reserve held interest rates near zero for much longer than anyone initially thought possible, the government has pumped trillions of dollars to prop up the housing market, corporate profits and stock prices are at all-time highs but economic growth is sluggish, and wages – after having lost ground in the crisis – wage growth is basically flat.

There aren’t a lot of ideas on how to reinvigorate growth in the American economy. Policy-makers are already using most of the monetary fixes they can use, and direct stimulus to the economy is politically out of the question. Republicans and the far right are enamored with austerity – cutting government services – and they appear to have a mandate for this agenda for the foreseeable future. As I see it, austerity and secular stagnation are on the agenda for the near future.

As for the environment, you can go look into the science yourself, but let me just mention a paper presented in the journal Science in March of last year, which noted that: “If emissions continue as currently predicted, global temperatures will rise well above anything we’ve ever seen in the last 11,000 years.”

So where do you all fit into this?

So, what does all this mean for me? you might be asking yourself. How are the changes rocking the world going to impact you, personally?

You’re all a bunch of bright students. You’re getting a world class education. At some point, you’re going to stop being a student, and you’re going to find you’re suddenly very popular. Your phone is going to start ringing off the hook! Unfortunately these calls will be bill collectors. They’ll be calling you to request you start paying off all those wonderful student loans you’ve taken out.

Based on the neoliberal reconfiguration of higher education, most of you will be graduating with a significant amount of student debt. Drexel doesn’t divulge it’s average student debt numbers (at least to a lowly mortal like myself) but the most recent figures I could find, was $54,432 for graduates of 2004-2008, according to data compiled for Forbes by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

That’s quite a millstone around your neck.

After graduation, a lot of you will be moving back in with your parents. The number of 18 to 34 year olds who live at home has risen from 24% in 2000 to 32% in 2012. Finding a job will be tough.

Many of you will, like me, be working what the philosopher David Graeber calls a “bullshit job.”

Roughly 44 percent of recent graduates are in a job that does not technically demand a bachelor’s degree. What’s more, recent grads, working in jobs that don’t require a college degree, are in occupations that pay far less than in the past.

It used to be that more than half of young workers would find themselves in “good” jobs — meaning that they’d pay at least $45,000 in today’s market. Today, less than 40 percent do. Meanwhile, more than a fifth of this group were in low-wage jobs, meaning they paid $25,000 a year or less.

What about the lucky 40% of you who are able to secure gainful employment? While your financial situation will put you heads and shoulders among your peers, you’re going to find yourself increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. You’ll be working long hours, feeling increasingly cut off from the rest of the world.

Our high wage workers today live in a forced seclusion on college campuses and office parks – Google even has a special bus that will drive you to work! What you make in wages will be taken from you in an increasing disconnection from the rest of your friends, your family, and the rest of humanity.

This is the terrain, the lay of the land. The critical question each of you will have to find the answer to is how you fit in to what’s going on. What do you value, and how do you stay true to those values? How do you live out your most deepest-held convictions, and prevent yourself from slipping into a comforting fiction, a warm and fuzzy lie which gets you off the hook with your own conscience?

The answer to this question is something only you can decide.

On the need for organization

Okay, so let’s just assume you’re not unsympathetic to my argument thus far. “So what? What do I do?” For me, there’s only one logical solution, and that’s to become a revolutionary militant.

Some of you may consider yourselves activists, or activist-scholars. You may have done some social justice work or attended some protests.

Maybe you supported Occupy Wall Street. Or maybe just a few months ago you were marching in the streets against police terror, in solidarity with Mike Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the murder of our nation’s black youth by police. Perhaps you may be thinking, “Sure we need change, but we can achieve our goals through structureless, leaderless, decentralized, networked protests.”

Unfortunately this isn’t true, at least from a historical perspective. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the “leaderless movement” of the 99% was crushed by the state, and now exists in tatters, where it exists at all. It’s not a comforting thought to think about, but we who would speak truth to power must be willing to turn this truth-seeking lens on ourselves to measure our own shortcomings.

We can take some consolation from history. Consider one of the last great popular upsurges in American history: the Civil Rights movement. This movement was spearheaded by a number of mass organizations: the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the NAACP, SNCC…

Some of you probably know this already, but Rosa Parks was not just a random, tired lady on her way home from work when she was arrested in that bus. Alas! Her feet were too tired. In reality, she was an organizer. She was a long-time employee of the NAACP. She was trained in a socialist training school in Tennessee. This was an assignment she chose intentionally.

Incidentally, this was the same organizing school that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to. This was well known at the time. In fact, the KKK used to put up billboards with a photo of Dr. King at the Highlander Center with an arrow pointing to him saying “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.” The KKK came to find out this was only driving people to inquire how they too could attend this training school, so eventually the billboards were taken down.

In our own time, the latest round of global upheaval really kicked off with the Arab Spring in 2011. If you compare outcomes from places that had a strong organizational presence in the protests that toppled their regime versus those that did not, you’ll find totally different outcomes based on the level to which protest leaders were embedded in mass organizations which could spur the movements on and consolidate the gains of the revolution.

In Egypt, protesters consciously avoided forming political parties and mass organizations, feeling they would be co-opted by the government. What happened instead was when the military initiated a counter-coup, the progressives found themselves sidelined and military rule was restored, with some cosmetic changes in who was in charge.

In Tunisia, by contrast, the revolution unleashed a whole wave of creative democratic experimentation with the formation of new political parties, and the merging, collapse and dissolution of old ones. Tunisia remains a democracy today – they drafted and passed a breakthrough constitution guaranteeing women’s rights, and their most recent election decisively rejected the conservative Islamist parties, no small feat for a region seeing violent reactionary extremism.

A Party for the 99%

Sociology tells us that political conflicts are not simply the results of individual choices – nasty rabble-rousers like me are hoodwinking everybody else – but rather that there are systemic pressures and the unpredictable concatenation of events which create radicalized individuals in their hundreds of thousands.

I myself am one of these radicalized individuals. There are many more like me, and I expect there will be even more in the future. Occupy Wall Street and Ferguson rebellion are the beginning, not the end. I believe the next decade will witness the rise – seemingly from out of nowhere – of new mass social movements, new leaders, new political parties and new governments and political regimes. Like it or not, ours is the epoch of revolution.

The key, critical question – the question that matters the most – is can we coalesce this widespread opposition to the status quo into an organizational form capable of keeping us going through the low ebb of the struggle, and providing leadership to secure the gains made by the movement during the high tide of mass participation.

Look at Spain. In 2008, their housing crisis was even deeper and harsher than our own. Unemployment reached double digits. Out of this crisis emerged a new social movement: the Indignados or “the indignant ones” an Occupy Wall Street style mass movement which preceded Zuccotti Park by several months. Our own Occupy movement was a weaker echo of what was happening in Barcelona.

Since that time, the youth are no longer camping in their masses in the squares of Madrid. But something totally unanticipated by the political establishment has instead taken place. These “indignant ones” formed, from scratch, a totally new political party: Podemos.

Podemos was founded in January of this year. January. As of one week ago it’s polling as the most popular political party in the nation, beating the liberal and conservative parties, who have jointly alternated sharing political power since 1982. As one of the Podemos leaders, Pablo Iglesias put it, “The two parties used to come to us protesters and say if things were really so bad, we should run for office. They don’t say this anymore.”

These young people have a long way to go, but they’ve already done quite a lot. Americans should take some lessons from their experience.


This is the world I see around me, and the way I see things going. Our future can take one of two paths – a stable status quo or a time of turmoil. You all are going to believe what you want to believe, but me? I believe ours will be a time of troubles.

The good news is that tumultuous times are also interesting times. More positive social change is possible in the next several years of your life than were possible for many decades leading up to now, and probably for several years afterward.

As the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin is reputed to have said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” In the next several years, we have a window of opportunity to fundamentally recreate American society into a more humane and decent one.

Socialism, the historical counterweight to capitalism, is supported by young people in figures ranging from 33 to 42 to 49 percent, depending on whose polling data you use, and that figure appears to be rising. Events no doubt will accelerate this change.

There’s a new politics in the making. I urge you all to learn more about it, look into your own hearts and hold fast to what you believe, then go out there and change the world.

Thank you.


“A world in the midst of one of the six mass extinction event in world history…”

Bjorn Carey. “Stanford Biologist warns of early stages of Earth’s 6th mass extinction event.” Stanford Report. July 24, 2014.

“Even if 95% of the gains of the recovery went to the top 1% of income earners…”

Emmanuel Saez. “Some 95% of 2009-2012 Income Gains Went to Wealthiest 1%.”

Wall Street Journal. September 10, 2013.

“We can expect the partisan conflicts we’ve seen in our political sphere become even sharper and more vicious…”

Thomas B. Edsall. “Nothing in Moderation.” New York Times. October 28, 2014.

“Americans today are more conflicted ideologically – polarized between left and right – since any time since the Civil War…”

Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hetherington. “Look how far we’ve come apart.” New York Times.

“Since the 1950s, Americans’ trust in our government has declined…”

“Public trust in Government: 1958-2014.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. November 13, 2014.

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the economic system in the country unfairly favors the wealthy…”

American Values Survey. “Economic Insecurity, Rising Inequality, and Doubts about the Future.” Public Religion Research Institute. September 23, 2014.

“So Larry Summers was at the International Monetary Fund…”

Matthew Yglesias. “Secular stagnation: the scary theory that’s taking economics by storm.” Vox Media. October 28, 2014.

“If emissions continue as currently predicted, global temperatures will rise…”

Ben Brumfield. “Global warming is epic, long-term study says.” CNN. March 8, 2013.

“The most recent figures I could find, was $54,432 for graduates of 2004-2008…”

Hana Albert. “Deep in Debt.” Forbes. August 1, 2010.

“The number of 18 to 34 year olds who live at home has risen from 24% in 2000 to 32% in 2012…”

David Dayen. “Yes, Millennials Actually Are Living in Their Parents’ Basements.” The New Republic. July 9, 2014.

“Many of you will, like me, be working what the philosopher David Graeber calls a bullshit job…”

David Graeber. “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Strike! Magazine. August 17, 2013.

“Roughly 44 percent of recent graduates are in a job that does not technically demand a bachelor’s degree…”

“How bad is the job market for the class of 2014?” Jordan Weissmann. Slate. May 8, 2014.

“In Egypt, protesters consciously avoided forming political parties and mass organizations…”

Cihan Tuğal. “The End of the Leaderless Revolution.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology.

“As of one week ago it’s polling as the most popular political party in the nation…”

David Roman. “Left wing party Podemos surges to lead Spanish opinion polls.” Wall Street Journal.

“I believe the next decade will witness the rise – seemingly from out of nowhere – of new mass social movements, new leaders, new political parties and new governments and political regimes…”

Srecko Horvat. “Europe’s New Left Parties can make the Dreams of 1968 Come True.” The Guardian. November 6, 2014.

“Socialism is supported by young people in figures ranging from 33 to 42 to 49 percent, depending on whose polling data you use…”

“Millennials: The Politically Unclaimed Generation.” Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey. July 10, 2014.

“Little Change in Public’s Response to Capitalism, Socialism.” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. December 28, 2011.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Thom Prentice February 4, 2015 at 7:58 pm


Thousands of local offices and a couple of state — NJ, Virgina and LA if I am not mistaken — have offices are up in 2015. People should RUN for these offices, raising OUR issues, not responding to THEIR issues. On the local levels: municipal, school board, community college, water board, whatever…OR in special elections, say, to fill a vacant state legislative or congressional seat.

Most local offices require no petitions or filing fees or the number of signatures or amount of the filing fee is modest. THAT WILL CHANGE once “the establishment” figures out that we, like Pablo Iglesia/Podemos, start running for office! They will try to raise that bar as high as it is in Texas.

In Texas only the Libertarian and Green parties have ballot access in addition to the two Capitalist parties, and a bill has been introduced to make these candidates for office in these two parties pay the high filing fees the corporate parties’ candidates have to pay — which would almost certainly wipe out the Green party and who know about the ‘tarians.

It is far EASIER in some states to run for office; in others more difficult.

Socialista! Zapatistia! Chavista! or just “Socialist”. Or (d)emocracy socialist.



Wayne Price February 5, 2015 at 1:04 am

Pretty good essay on the kinds of things that can open people’s eyes to the need for radical change. However, Horras’ perspective is pretty clear in his referring to the Soviet Union as having been “socialist” and perhaps in his citing of V.I. Lenin. Apparently he has never read any anarchist literature or at least does not cite any.

In particular, he warns of the danger of “structureless, leaderless, decentralized, networked protests.” But he does not say what he is for. Centralized vanguard Leninist parties? Are these the only alternatives? Can we be for socialist organizations which are radically democratic and federated? His example of the Civil Rights movement is way off the mark! Actually there was a lot of grass-roots, local, self-organizing going on throughout the South and elsewhere. King would usually come in only when invited by local activists. In fact the movie Selma is correct is showing that there was some conflict between local organizers, involving SNCC and others, and King’s top-down methods. But both were used and useful in the overall movement.

To Thom Prentice: not only the Democrats and the Republicans but also the Libertarians and the Greens are capitalist parties, supporters of the overall system. Anyway, few positive changes have ever been won in this country except through non-electoral mass movements.


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