Why is There Still No Socialist Movement In the US?

by Cleatus Bohecker on October 29, 2013

A Reflection on Neoliberal Culture and Technology

This article was inspired, fittingly, by another socialist’s comment- article on Facebook, and I posted it as a response. What is most noticeable and positive to me is the way the discussion occurred  “Why is the socialist movement still so small in the U.S.?” was raised in that forum by a leading member of a large and well known American group (the International Socialist Organization). The ensuing discussion proceeded exactly as strategic debates about phenomena, direction, and developing strategy ought to: publicly, with group members and non members, and with full transparency and freedom of debate.

As a way of introduction, the present writer was a member of the ISO for eight years from 2000 to 2008. He supports much of the organization’s tradition, politics, as well as past and present membership, however he shares the concerns of the Socialist Outpost group ( http://www.socialistoutpost.com/ ) . He is encouraged by the level of transparency and accountability now demanded of all organizations, thanks to the internet, and looks forward to a collaborative future.

Over the last several months one big political question has been on my mind: Why hasn’t the socialist left in the U.S. grown substantially during the past five years? I’m sure this question has been–in one way or another–on the minds of others. I have some partial answers, I think, to this question but I’m putting it out there to hear what other people have to say… This is undoubtedly the greatest crisis of the capitalist system since the 1930s. The political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, mass struggles across the globe against austerity, the rise of SYRIZA in Greece, the Occupy movement in the US, and the Chicago Teacher’s strike are all examples of this…However, the crisis of the broad socialist left in the U.S. continues….


I know of no other period in US history where the capitalist system was mired in such deep crisis, and its governing institutions held in such contempt, yet, the socialist left continues to struggle for members and a larger audience. The real rub here is that it is not for the lack of hostility to capitalism or an interest or sympathy for socialism.
-Joe Allen

Economics and struggle in the Neoliberal era

Besides economic ones, the neoliberal era has been accompanied by several other trends that have hitherto been under appreciated. Neoliberalism is not just a corporate monster gobbling up living standards that, according to good modernist thinking, will inspire the immiserated proletariat to revolt. Here and there, that does happen, as evidence by the fast food workers strikes, the scattered walkouts at Walmart, the teachers’ strike, or the occupy movement. However, all these revolts are notable for being *exceptions* to a general condition.

If there is any Marxist left who entertains the illusion that a decline in living standards automatically results in people revolting, I would highlight the past five years as worthy instruction, where we saw phenomena similar to the first 4 years of the Great Depression. Many people in both cases didn’t fight back. Both economic crises were, to those worst effected by them, significant life altering events. But depression and self blame was as much a result as anger against capitalists, and where people didn’t have traditions of struggle (and even in some places where they did) personal solutions were often the first things looked to. We see echoes of that now, with people planting their own vegetable gardens, or moving from job to job or state to state.

This past winter I was celebrating having just quit an exploitative seasonal job by watching MTV’s “16 and Pregnant.” I remember a scene, I think from the first season, where a terrified 16 year old father to be can’t find a job and is supposed to be out looking for one. While searching he stops by a hardware store, and despite living in a state with poor geologic potential for discovery he buys a gold panning kit for $90. Is he making a rational choice? No. But he’s responding to pressure by investing in illusions and hope.

That tendency is highly, and more disturbingly, salient among the many neo-survivalists and apocalypse dreamers who have come to influence a lot of cultural production, and who have their political origins both on the right and the left. By investing in guns or dry food, by dreaming about solving their problems by shooting people, by wishing to see a confusing and unfulfilling society collapse at great social cost, they are choosing to invest in satisfying fantasies rather than unfulfilling activism. Whether you a racist rural white southern Obama hating Tea Party supporter, or an Obama voting, gay marriage supporting urban liberal young person who’s obsessed with Zombies, you are both living in the same fantasy world. This tendency isn’t new, but in times past was responsible for numerous unexpected cultural responses to crises of modernity. In this country the rise of Christian fundamentalism comes to mind.

As far as activism among people in their 20s, student loans are perhaps the biggest culprit for destroying civic engagement, and that’s the material part of neoliberalism’s successful assault on activism. People in debt need their jobs and might wind up speaking their mind (much less striking or forming a union). The other thing is that the economy has been restructured in a way that doesn’t just change the economic basis, but also changes habits of work. In the service, retail, and food industries, turn over is much higher than it was in the old mass production industries. Where you aren’t ever likely to be promoted or given higher wages (especially for tipped employees), people move job to job a lot more. That makes workplace organizing a lot more difficult, even though everyone at a job much complain about the management a lot, or sympathize with (or participate in) movements like Occupy.

Among students, the material shift resulted in many more individuals juggling part time jobs while studying hard to keep their grades up to keep a partial scholarship. There’s a far less time then to participate in the promised social life of college, and students’ existence is a lot less conducive to participation in controversial causes than it was in the 1960s, when legend has told me one could pay for an entire year of tuition by working a summer job. Instead of going to marches, starting a radical newspaper, or putting together a teach in in their free time, today’s students are far more likely to be up all night on caffeine and Adderall finishing their papers after working for eight hours after class.

When I was in college 2002-2006 (and joined, founded, and convened an ISO branch) I noticed this tendency undermining my work significantly. The people among whom class politics resonated the most with didn’t have the time to contribute that we were asking them for. Likewise the people with the most free time who were interested in social issue activism tended to be a bit further away from working class identities and pressures. I began to notice activism was becoming something for people who “have time” for it… I also felt we as an organization nationally set the bar too high on demanding large quantities of time from people which didn’t result in tangible results. In 2002-2003 when we thought we might actually stop a war, or at least build a movement that could later end it, it made total sense to dedicate everything to the struggle. But after that, people couldn’t justify the same amount of sustained participation, not through the course of an entire semester.

That’s not to say that factory workers in the 19th Century formed unions because that had a lot of leisure time. They didn’t. But I think there’s a perception (with roots in reality) that most political activism in America is about caring about altruistic and distant causes, rather than directly improving one’s own material condition with concrete, visible results. A lot of people who want to get back on their feet will concentrate on moving across the country to somewhere there are more jobs (ex: the Michigan diaspora), or going back to school, before they ever consider politics or activism as something that will actually help their own situation. Trying to build a protest isn’t seen too different from getting people to pay you to run a few miles to fund breast cancer research. It sounds like a nice thing to do, but it’s hard to get a lot of other people to join you in it.

Neoliberalism is also a process of cultural atomization

It is important not to limit our analysis of neoliberalism to a process of economic restructuring, say, from mass production industries to service sector, or wealth transfer (from the bottom to the top). It’s also been a period of cultural transformation. This is as important for us to understand, and in doing so we can take Gramsci’s theory of Hegemony into account. The ruling class uses ideas, rather than state repression, keep so many workers from revolting. It’s not all just economic cause and effect. But the ideas most people have aren’t just shaped from reading books. A lot of leftist intellectuals don’t understand that, and their own level of hyper activity in small circles of abnormally well informed people often works to prevent them from appreciating it. Most people don’t form their opinions about the world from reading books. They form it from their life experience. It’s not just that the church, the schools, and the media have brainwashed people. Public opinion polls show they haven’t. But people’s own lives have led to disassociative patterns that have led them to highly disempowering political conclusions.

Perhaps one of the biggest factors driving cultural transformation into a an antisocial direction is technology. I doing think anyone on the left has appreciated this enough, though a few people have started to talk about it, and several recent articles have influenced my own thinking on this subject.

Here’s one interesting one, about  how in Japan people have “stopped having sex”.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex

Does people in Japan having less sex, or getting married less, explain the lack of enthusiasm for joining revolutionary organizations among the American Working class? Of course not. But what that article does highlight is the way that both economic insecurity, and technology, are significantly changing the way people interact, live, and plan their lives. Those trends aren’t limited to Japan but global, particularly in societies of technology users in industrialized countries.

Returning today to the university setting after an absence of seven years, I’m seeing a lot of differences from how students interacted when I was in their shoes 11 years ago. Most noticeably, when I was in college people talked to each other before class. Now there’s this eerie silence as everyone stares into their smart phones before class starts. I even have to ask people to stop looking at their phone during class. Students sitting right next to me will be doing this. I think they are to an extent addicted to constant communication, which is partially fuelled by a deeper need for validating human contact that neoliberalism has in the material world done much to eradicate.

Does technology, such as Facebook, help ideas get shared among people? Of course it does. That is extremely revolutionary and awesome. But, it also does so through a socially alienating method. At the time of writing this article, I haven’t left the house in three days except to buy some groceries at 3 AM. Yet I’ve talked to several people on the internet while taking breaks from writing and reading for class. But is that the same as feeling human touch, or having a personal conversation, or actually going outside and trying to get strangers’ attention to talk about things? Is looking at pictures of beautiful places the same as sitting on the grass, breathing the fresh air, and watching the sun go down? No, of course not. So while a collective political discussion might exist between people in a way that is amazing, it is coming at the expense of reshaping our congnitive and social development as isolated individuals, rather than the modern “crowd”.

This tendency is only going to increase. When I see people walking around with those iphone earbuds in their ears I think about the plugs in the back of captive humanity’s brains from The Matrix. Google is currently developing glasses with heads up displays on them that tell you everything about where you are going and what you are seeing so you don’t have to actually think about it, much like iphone GPS lets you pay less attention to landmarks or cardinal directions when finding your way around a new city. When I was in Tucson last week we needed to find out where to go and I said to the guy in the car next to me, “let’s just pull over here and ask somebody.” He reminded me we had a GPS thing and didn’t need to. I think there’s a lot of that going around… for pretty much any social need. How many times have you had interesting and educational social interactions in a new town just by asking people for directions or advice? I certainly have a lot.

The effect of technological addiction among “millennials” (who rightfully hate being called that… Perhaps there’s just too much expectation wrapped up in that word) has been severely underestimated. This expresses itself in different ways. For one, there’s an aversion to doing anything political that involves leaving the house and talking to people, though the same folks will read stuff all day and talk about them online. I remember at Occupy SLC, everyone who was actually there at the Park and doing stuff was really confused and a little pissed off that the movement’s Facebook page had well over a thousand supporters and active discussion, but none of those folks were actually there at the park doing anything. In that whole movement I think there were maybe 12 to 20 people who actually planned things, and about 30 who actually did stuff. Then there were about 60 more people there, mostly homeless folks who supported the movement politically. But there were hundreds of faces we never saw talking about it like they were part of it. On the day of the evictions some of the activists got arrested. I didn’t, but spent my time trying to salvage some of the park’s gear and giving some homeless folks rides to other places they could stay. The day after this, I remember hearing that the self appointed spokesperson for movement talking about it on the radio had never been at the park once.  I’m  sure at other Occupys, the divisions between online political discussion, and on the ground activism, may have also been significantly unstructured and problematic.

The aversion to actually participating in social settings is also well illustrated by the decline of voice communication. Among “millenials” it has been well documented that many people prefer to text or send emails to ask questions about things, but they will avoid picking up the phone as much as they can.

One charge that has often condescendingly been hurled at us, but which I think has a kernel of truth, is that we are “narcissists”. What is true is that people’s conceptions of themselves, via digital reality, are becoming more important to them than the reality of their life in the material world. Part of that is technological addiction, but part of it is also a semi-rational response to a material reality in which people have little feelings of control, validation, or reward. People are more interested in building identities as a video game character, a “band” (which maybe never plays live shows and consists of one person), a photography website, a facebook profile, or some other personal project that they hope will validate them somehow than they are with material conditions. This phenomenon gave us the “hipster” circa 2000-2005, which had its own set of problems but which was at least grounded in reality, defining itself by what it wore, what bike it road, what job it had, etc. But now the same phenomenon that led hipsters to flee suburbs and strip malls in search of authenticity in thrift stores is leading a slightly younger, and more digital group of people to seek it without ever leaving their homes.

To conclude, I don’t think that any of these observations should make us hopeless. In trying to draw attention to the importance of economic, technological, and cultural shifts on human interaction I’m not suggesting that we reject economic determinism in favor of cultural determinism. On the occasions that people do “unplug” and interact socially, technology can be a better organizer and mobilizer than any mimeograph machine, kinkoes account, or print newspaper ever has been. In the apolitical context, that potential is usually forced on social events. But when things suddenly change politically, we see a lot of potential for more meaningful mobilization. Check out this event I created after the government shutdown closed river access to the Grand Canyon:

https://www.facebook.com/events/301320423339776/

People who had invested tens of thousands of dollars in that trip and taken three weeks off work to do it suddenly had a barricade in front of them and no compensation for their losses. That event, and other things like it, got several hundred calls made and emails sent to state senators, the Arizona governor, and even the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park. Similar parts were effected other wise by pressure. Today the parks are open, and the call in campaign played a big role (before the national funding tap was turned back on Arizona’s Republican governor had been convinced, and succeeded, in getting the park reopened with state funds). However, what if the shut down lasted longer? What if the call in campaign didn’t work? In that case, the same mobilizing potential may have brought people out of their isolation into the streets to do some direct actions.

In many ways, technology can help the struggle. But it has also changed the way that many people interact with each other and approach reality, and we need to take that into consideration. The iphone is everywhere, in the pockets of fast food employees as well as fine dining customers. Neoliberal culture isn’t going away. The challenge for us to learn to work with it.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Douglas M October 29, 2013 at 8:50 pm

This post gets at two important issues that the left is going to have to grapple with to be successful: (student) debt and social media. Both have aspects that can drive people to action but largely debt and social media are forms of social control that lead to passivity.
The point about OWS is interesting. I, admittedly, had just my toe in the water in NYC, however, many people I work with and know followed much of it online. For instance, people watched live streams of some of the demonstrations online. I was flummoxed — why not join what you are watching? However, the usual response was a mix of timidity, not feeling connected as an individual, and then the fear of what would happen to their job if they were arrested or photographed and appeared on the web. These issues factor into peoples’ passivity, along with left meetings’ tendency to be being dreadful and long.

Reply

Christian October 29, 2013 at 10:01 pm

One significant weakness of this article is the lack of statistics cited. The reason for this was haste and an incomplete transition from its origins in an online discussion to a polished piece of analysis. However, I do think the arguments are still valid and quite useful. If anything, the writing may have “bent the stick too far” in the direction away from the formal academic approaches most marxist theory is written in.

However, I also believe we suffer from an overabundance of theoretical language that makes our theories inaccessible, and finding other forms to popularize them (poems, cartoons, memes, podcasts, youtube clips, litterature, and conversations) will be crucial to their ability to become relevant. In that sense, the approach of the article has its place. In drawing on personal political experience, and being self reflexive about it, theory is considered within political experience in a refreshing way.

In an effort to provide more data, and for those interested in learning more about the topics raised, here are some links for further reading:

“Is Social Media Sabatoging Real Communication? Forbes, April 2012.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/susantardanico/2012/04/30/is-social-media-sabotaging-real-communication/

“Is Facebook Making us Lonely?” The Atlantic, May 2012.
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-making-us-lonely/308930/

—-

“Why Smartphones Come With Psychological Costs.” Visage, 2013
http://visagemobile.com/mobilityblog/2013/01/07/why-smartphones-come-with-psychological-costs/

“South Korean Doctors Warn Smartphones Cause Digital Demensia” Digital
Journal, June 2013. http://digitaljournal.com/article/353047

“Your Smartphone is Destroying Your Memory.” Times of India, Oct 2013.
http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-10-29/health/38345901_1_smartphone-kem-hospital-declarative-memory

“Cellphones, Social Media, and the Problem of Identity.”
http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/41304_10.pdf

“Obsessed with the Apocalypse” Al- Jazeera America, Oct 2013
http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/the-stream/the-latest/2013/10/4/obsessed-with-theapocalypse.html

“What does our Obsession With Zombie Stories Tell us About our Politics?”
http://www.alternet.org/story/155783/what_does_our_obsession_with_zombie_stories_tell_us_about_our_politics

“The Apocalypse Market is Booming” NY Times, Sept 2013
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/magazine/the-apocalypse-market-is-booming.html?_r=0

—-

“Degrees of Debt, A Generation Hobbeled by the Soaring Cost of College” NY
Times, May 2012.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/business/student-loans-weighing-down-a-generation-with-heavy-debt.html

“Student Loan Debt Affects College Lives: Study.” Huffington Post, August 2013.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/13/student-debt-social-lives_n_3748631.html

Reply

Andrew Coates October 31, 2013 at 2:00 pm

There are some extremely good socialists in the US – as proved by this blog.

But, where there is a socialist movement, how to begin?

We had a meeting last week in Ipswich for the People’s Assembly, which involved the leader of the Labour Group on the local council, postal workers, manual workers’ unions, the leading figure in the local teachers’ union, Greens, feminists, socialists, Marxists, and we have got the backing of the anarchists. It was held in the UNITE (trade union).

Reply

Carl Davidson November 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm

If all the socialists reading this blog, and others like it, would simply join and help build one of existing socialist groups (you can pick out that allows multiple tendencies if you have a unique view to promote), it would make a big difference in getting us toward some ‘critical mass’ to move on to bigger and better things. Otherwise, if you’re a socialist insists on remaining a socialist by yourself–no fun, and something of an oxymoron–just ask yourself WHY?, and you’ll get at least one of the important answers for the main question posed on this thread.

Reply

Abraham Marx November 3, 2013 at 2:25 am

is this really a question?
because unlike people on the right, who have an eleventh commandment, we spend nearly all of our time accusing each other of ‘deviations’ or chauvinisms.
and, we do so in a jargon almost incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have a liberal arts education.
which plays into all the old tropes about eggheads, which means that the tea-party, which is ‘right’ on a gut instinct level, gets to feed all the wrong ideas and ‘ideologies’ to people who are desperate for an opposition to the status quo.

Reply

Aaron Aarons November 3, 2013 at 7:04 am

People in the U.S. who consider themselves leftist or socialist are rather diverse in their backgrounds and life experiences, so If what you say is true, and I’m not saying it is, the question becomes, why do people on the left, in the United States in particular, act in the way that Abraham Marx claims they do? Perhaps if you could come up with a materialist explanation for that alleged fact, you would have partially, but only partially, answered the question at the start of this page.

Reply

Abraham Marx November 4, 2013 at 12:05 am

I don’t believe it’s my job to explain a self-evident fact. The fact that most leftists are in the academy – and thus have every workplace incentive to exaggerate differences of theory- spills over into the political movement.

Compare this to the right, composed of all different kinds of christians, libertarians, and yes, even businesspeople who are ACTUALLY COMPETING AGAINST EACH OTHER in the marketplace for profit – and yet they all coalesce around common policies.

Reply

Aaron Aarons November 4, 2013 at 4:30 am

(1) in my experience, the majority of U.S. radical leftists are not in “the academy”. And my experience is slanted towards an academic environment by my having grown up in the Jewish petty bourgeoise and having lived most of my adult life in Berkeley, California! Even with that bias, the majority of activists to the left of the Democratic Party that I have met have, at most, a bachelor’s degree, and many never finished college.

2) If what you say about “the left” were true, there would still be a need for a materialist explanation of the relative lack of socialist (and other radical leftist) activity among those outside “the academy” — relative, particularly, to the experience in other industrialized countries.

Reply

sartesian November 3, 2013 at 3:09 am

I don’t buy any of the explanations. “We” are not powerful enough to either create a socialist movement, nor disrupt the creation of such a socialist movement, at this moment.

The issue is why isn’t the working class spontaneously in motion, acting in opposition to austerity, why it isn’t demanding some sort of massive response. Without that “class impulse” there’s no basis for a socialist movement.

The answer I think is twofold– for one, the US working class has had the veritable snot knocked out of it for about…….oh let’s just say 35-40 years; as for two–racism has been and still is the paralyzing agent in the nervous system and the muscles of the US working class.

Until such time as the US working class mobilizes against racism specifically, and against the variants thereof– as in categorizing workers as “legal” and “illegal,” migrant and “native”– there is little chance for a socialist class conscious movement. Racism, whether against blacks pre and post Reconstruction, or against Chinese and Asian workers as in California, has always been the means for securing the allegiance of white workers to capitalism.

Reply

Aaron Aarons November 3, 2013 at 6:51 am

But the problem is not just in the heads of white workers but in their material privileges — diminished recently but still very real — as racially favored citizens of the militarily, and therefore financially, strongest imperialist power. A strong socialist or class-struggle movement among non-white workers can win over part of the white working class, while others of that stratum can be expected to struggle to defend “the American dream”, i.e., their presumed “exceptional” rights as whites and U.S. “Americans”, and move in a fascist direction.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 46 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: