This piece by Michelle Goldberg is the first I’ve seen to notice the Marxist renaissance among young intellectuals, and does a great job telling the story without an overly skeptical frame. I think the renaissance was already under way before 2008, but the combination of the crash and the failure of Obama was, as Goldberg and her subjects argue, crucial to the radicalization of a generation.
The thing that struck me most came at the end, in this quote by Benjamin Kunkel (co-founder of n+1 and now self-described “Marxist public intellectual”):
It might seem grandiose, but it also suggests a cultural optimism that’s otherwise in short supply these days. “It was easy to feel in the nineties that everyone knew what was going to happen,” says Kunkel. “Many people thought it already has happened, and now we just wait for McDonalds franchises and liberalized capital markets to spread across the globe.” Now, looking at the Marxist resurgence among young people, he says, “It’s very exciting to me. In a strange way, it also makes me want to live a long time, knock on wood, because I’d like to see what’s going to happen.”
It’s good to hear someone else express the optimism, however dark, that I feel. I think a lot of people feel this way: there’s a sense that the inability of a twice-resoundingly-elected liberal president to change anything, to fix even the smallest of our structural problems has to mark some kind of end of the fantasy of liberal reformism. Radicals have always accused liberalism of never being able to deliver on its promises of reform—of always insisting we accept the pain without ever delivering the payoff. The Obama years have excruciatingly illustrated that critique for a new generation of politically-engaged young people. It’s always compromise, capitulation, and cuts. When the president finally digs in and refuses to accept more cuts, the entire government comes to a screeching halt. The fact that the “safe,” establishment-endorsed political positions are delivering nothing but chaos and catastrophe means we all have less and less to lose to by embracing more radical ones.
Though the establishment political world goes on as usual following the play-by-play from the Hill, you can feel the futility seeping into even the best liberals. Ezra Klein on this Slate podcast is a great example: he hammers home the fact that there is no solution to this crisis—that none of the usual strategies from the liberal playbook will be able to fix it. His tone is heavy; he truly has no idea what to say about the future of this system, how to talk about it like it even has a future. True, maybe people like Klein and Chris Hayes just think a few structural fixes to American democracy would fix the chronic dysfunction, but neither one of them has any delusions that those structural fixes are possible. The pessimism about what liberalism is capable of has to be at its lowest point in my lifetime—despite, incredibly, two consecutive elections of the most liberal president the U.S. has had since Kennedy. The problem is obviously not just a few crazy right-wingers who put together a movement and took the perfectly-fine American system hostage; it’s something that’s always been there, pushed to its breaking point.
If there were any lessons the new radicals learned from 2008, it was that there will have to be a breaking point—that staging the break is a crucial part of any acceptable solution. It’s obvious in this crisis, as in previous ones, that some sort of traditional give-and-take deal to keep the status quo afloat would be almost as bad as a default, in much the same way that a solution like TARP papered over the abyss and saved the banks from any real reckoning. We’re at a point where government is in such a state of meltdown that crisis is the only way action happens—the only portal to a different future. There isn’t going to be any incremental fix here; it will either be barbarism or something else. The “something” that happens could always be worse, but there’s also the significant possibility it could be better.
That’s what I think Kunkel is getting at, and why I also feel optimistic. Of course, there is the possibility—even the likelihood—that temporary status-quo deals will keep the state hobbling along, the way the rest of us are hobbling along under catastrophic unemployment and wage stagnation. That’s what Klein and other liberals clearly feel—that crisis and misery are the “new normal.” But the ongoing discreditation of liberal governance is good news for socialism. If severe, intense pain is what it takes to finally wipe out all the accumulated platitudes of the Cold War and the Reagan years—well, we’re all increasingly aware that severe, intense pain is what we’re going to get anyway. And thanks to the crisis, a new generation of young intellectuals will be ready to meet the chaos with bigger ideas than have been allowed in American discourse in a long time. How can we not at least hope that something better will be on the other side?