There is an increasing urgencyâ€”though not yet an extreme urgencyâ€”for young people in the United States involved in various social struggles to take our broader struggle for social and economic justice a big step forward.
Though its implications are not yet exactly clear, the Iraqi rebellion has shattered an impasse, and the affects reverberate far beyond its borders. Sunnis and Shiites are marching under a single bannerâ€”that of getting the occupiers outâ€”and bonds of solidarity are being forged between them through a collective recognition of common struggle that transcends sub-divisionsâ€”a development that was unthinkable by many only a few weeks ago. Flocks of disenfranchised Shiites and Sunnis from the slums of Baghdad and Sadr City broke through occupation lines to organize a convoy to their besieged brethren in Fallujah, where US brutality is so appalling that members of the interim Iraqi government are resigning in disgust. The inexhaustible lies coming from the Pentagon are contradicted by events, one by one: that the resisters are a small band of thugs with no popular support; that the occupation forces are attacking the resistance in order to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqis. The perennial assurance from Paul Bremer that everything is under control is sadly humorous. Just a few days ago a battalion of the new Iraqi army refused to aid the Marines in Fallujah. Their reason: â€œWe did not sign up to fight Iraqis.â€ The emergence of a visible, united, and unapologetic rebellion, the symbolism of ordinary people rising from the ashes of decades of war and sanctions to throw their bodies into the gears of the mightiest of empires, has shaken the balance of forces. The Iraqis are on the front line of the struggle against the US global juggernaut, and we in the heart of the empire itself are positioned strategically inside the apparatus of the machine. Hardly ever before has a greater and more imminent imperative been placed on a people to take care of their responsibilities at home. Given the nature of the global economic, military, and political configurations, our own struggle in the USA is objectively connected with the struggles abroad in a very deep way, and so our ability to organize and pressure our government is also, even foremost, a capacity to provide international solidarity that any decent people owe to the other inhabitants of the world.
The fiasco in Iraq is only one of the many burning problems our generation faces. Domestically, the situation for most people in the US is continuing in its terminal decline, whether weâ€™re talking about the attacks on social security, education, and healthcare; inner-city wastelands, joblessness, and the insanity of the prison system; the weak state of the workersâ€™ movement and the consolidation of the media; and the calculated degeneration of mass culture. Beyond our borders, the affects of war and neoliberalism are too devastating to tally up here.
As bad as the circumstances weâ€™re facing are, the activist scene has picked up strongly, and in some cases (such as in anti-war activity), skyrocketed. Taking the trajectory of American society and the landscape of left politics together, I think thereâ€™s some real openings for the youth movement in the USA (for now, letâ€™s just define the youth movement as the web of major struggles and activities that young people, students specifically, are involved in. Weâ€™ll flesh this out some more below).
Some of our biggest advantages lie in the already existing poles of activity. Youth activism of recent years has already taken root in the most crucial areas of political contention, ones that involve the central tensions and contradictions of US capitalism. Letâ€™s look at the most visible and strategic of these hubs:
Economic/class justice: living wage campaigns, campus-labor alliances, graduate student union movements, the Students Against Sweatshops movement
Anti-imperialism: campus anti-war coalitions and intra-campus anti-war networks, justice for Palestine organizing, movements for campuses to divest from Israel; various global justice organizing
Anti-racism: struggles against police brutality, the death penalty, and the prison-industrial complex; defense of affirmative action and immigrant rights (the latter often being tied to worker/union struggles and education (such as teaching English))
Environmentalism: various groups and networks fighting for fair trade, environmental justice and safety, against the ills to the environment intensified by neoliberalism
Weâ€™re on the right track and feeling the pulse of the times pretty clearly. Naturally, the areas of activism I delineated above are not isolated from each, and all different kinds of issues and struggles interweave with each other. This is not to say that they are integrated enough; as Iâ€™ll discuss below, one of the major tasks ahead for the youth movement to bring these struggles together under a broader organizational framework and plan of action for fundamentally challenging the key power structures in the United States.
In addition to the youth struggles above, inklings of another are beginning to show: a movement against the devastating budget cuts to public schools and universities. It seems that this trend is only going to intensify as public funds are increasingly transferred into the hands of the rich through various means. Furthermore, we are witnessing the increasing corporatization of schools and universities as cost-cutting devices. The result is a lower quality of education, greater promises of accumulating a staggering debt, and increasing workloads on teachers with less prospects of success and security. All this, it should be added, with diminishing chances for finding decent paying and satisfying work after finishing school.
As this issue of the right and accessibility to an affordable and quality education is increasingly fringed upon, it has the potential to galvanize young people in a rare way because it both affects them on a personal level and clearly illustrates the inability of the current set-up to solve basic problems of human need. The issues at the core of the education crisis are doorways to an increased understanding of and a broader, systematic critique of US capitalism. This is because the contradictions are so open and explicit: huge sums of money are readily available for war and the wealthy, and yet educationâ€”professed to be a priorityâ€”is steadily degraded. The connections that students will make of all this to other sectors and services of society that are suffering the consequences of this stripping of the public will be readily made. Sane and reasonable solutions will be proposed by the movement and rejected by the state, exposing the absurdity of the present relations of power in our society.
Obviously these are speculations, not certainties. I don’t have any special insight into the future, but the tensions around this issue seem to be coming out of latency with little hope for reversal. If this is so, we need to be where the battle is brewing, active and organized. You can never be sure about what will spark off a mass movement and galvanize people into collective action. We need to try to be keenly aware of knowing where to be and what to do next to best capitalize on opportunities to push things forward, however slowly, towards our ultimate goals.
A new youth movement would have some other substantial advantages. One of the most important is the experience and lessons of the 1960s. There are so many urgently relevant lessons, issues, examples, and mistakes that are bundled up in the history of that period and its aftermath that we couldnâ€™t possibly spell them all out here in the detail they need and deserve. But with close study and scrutiny of the sixtiesâ€™ movements will have a very practical list of doâ€™s and donâ€™ts to consider for our times. We know we donâ€™t want the sectarianism, the rigid hierarchy, the sexism and gender roles, and the narcissistic substitution of a narrow and short-term student movement for a broad and patient movement of the American people. Largely because of the legacy of the Sixties, we have made tremendous progress in organizingâ€” anyone who has been involved in campus activism knows the attention paid to representation of diversity, special attention to avoid sexism and gender imbalance, etc., and organizing effective demonstrations and campaigns are now widely accepted and widely spread occurrences. Itâ€™s important to also remember that the sixties generation itself is still alive and active. We can be sure that many of its fighters will support us with enthusiasm and have much advice and insight to offer, and this living continuity will be very important. In the other direction, perhaps a new youth movement could rouse other generations into a higher level of activism that throws of some off the inertia and baggage that has been accumulated.
There are some other real advantages we have. Thereâ€™s never been a wave of struggle in the US that had a tool like the internet, and we can be sure it will accelerate our capacity for action and organization, as well as give us previously unheard of means to network, educate, communicate, and debate (just look at what the anti-war movementâ€™s been able to do!).
The most important advantage we have going for us, however, is that we are operating in a new period where no false prophet is authoritatively claiming the mantle of opposition to capitalism. Specifically, the Soviet Union, for better or worse, is gone, and thus there is no formidable boogeyman that the ruling class, media, and government can pin us with to obscure our ideas and scare people away from us (trying to make the identification between a popular American movement for social justice and a band of Al-Qaeda terrorists just wonâ€™t hold up). It will be much easier for us to pose socialist ideas and to find acceptance of them.
I said above that it will be easier to pose socialist ideas, and this brings up a crucial point: when and if the youth movement moves towards greater organizational unity, weâ€™re going to have to decide what type of movement it will be politically. Obviously weâ€™ll be engaged in many of the same struggles we are now, but the point of coming together would be to coordinate and organize our activity under a more sweeping vision of what the US should look like. Should a new youth organization be a vaguely defined radical youth network? An all-encompassing anti-capitalist organization? A serious socialist movement? These are questions weâ€™ll have to decide for ourselves. As for me, I think it will important for any serious youth organization to be based on strong socialist ideas completely antithetical to the key economic and social features of modern US society. It will also have to be unapologetically independent of the Democratic Party and very involved in working with the labor movement and working class communities (in addition to continuing to stir up public sentiment around the central problems and injustices of our times, which has been a strength of the Left). Weâ€™ll have to be very conscious of the fact that a youth movement, especially a student movement, is not an end in itself, not a solution. But we will have an important role within the broader struggle to change things.
As Iâ€™ve said above, I think weâ€™re entering a new period of radicalization, though what that means concretely and who it applies to isnâ€™t exactly clear. Young activists are going to gravitate towards each other as the central problems of our time are increasingly laid bare. Sometime in the futureâ€”hopefully the near futureâ€”weâ€™re going to have to come together to collectively address the big questions and define, as a generation, our moral and political vision, in the tradition of similar past instances (the Port Huron statement, for example). While never belittling our diversity, we need to emerge on campuses, in communities, in civil society, and in American politics as a distinct movement with a broad, confident, and inspiring vision that can galvanize our sisters and brothers into action. This is an important step ahead of us, and one which I think there is a latent and widespread hunger for.
If weâ€™re talking about a new and unified youth movement thatâ€™s tackling the big questions, then itâ€™s a real sketchy notion. â€œYouthâ€ are also workers, feminists, environmentalists, and union organizers, so who really knows what a â€œyouth movementâ€ arising from the current national landscape would look like? I hope that it wouldnâ€™t try to substitute itself for a serious, broad based grassroots movement of all people living in the USA. I would also hope that in addition to jolting the public scene with a new and confident wave of protest that will draw in othersâ€”something already in bloomâ€”that a new youth movement wouldnâ€™t see itself as a vanguard, but rather as part of a broader movement, interweaved with other struggles and efforts (some much more important, like the workersâ€™ movement). We need to be a movement that is consciously in it for the long run, that views the world through the eyes and interests of the most oppressed, and that will put its energy, idealism, and time to efforts that are meaningful to peoplesâ€™ lives and that will simultaneously contribute to building a political movement that can make steps towards seriously challenging capitalism and its institutions.
To do all this, we youth activists are going to have to come together soon, through hooking up over the internet, networking with each other, and initiating regional and national conferences to hammer out a plan of action. Weâ€™ll have to do this on the premise that we are in a era with new opportunities that, if they are to be seized, require us to move beyond much the infighting and schematic thinking that has been a problem for the US Left in the past (and in many cases still is). It is easier for a new generation to do this than it is for older generations, and this is another reason why young people really have a responsibility to pave the way towards progress in this next wave of struggle.
We are coming of age in a historically unique and urgent era. Unlike the situation a few decades ago, the US is not thriving in an unordinary post-war economic boom, nor do the basic democratic issues such as the ending of racism and sexism in civil society present themselves as being solvable (as they did before, with the obvious need to attain basic civil rights) without serious structural changes in economic and power relations. Most of the key struggles for democratic rights that American capitalism can integrate into its framework are exhausted (though some do exist, like the fight for gay marriage). Thus, many of the core systematic contradictions that are central to the American systemâ€™s functioning are being laid bare, as they were a century ago. The struggles that are next on the agendaâ€”against war, unemployment, institutionalized racism, poverty, budget cutes, disparities in wealthâ€”necessitate radical solutions that go beyond the limitations of our current system.
In this spirit I encourage all young people interested in pushing the youth movement forward to become involved with Left Hook: write for it, participate in the discussion list, spread the word. With this project we have an opportunity to make some strides in developing greater unity and understanding amongst us, which can hopefully contribute towards the type of organization and action needed to advance the fundamental changes we need in the US and the world (this is, after all, the point of Left Hook). In this spirit, I encourage you to check out the two recent articles below, written by two youth activists who are trying to engage some of the organizational dilemmas we face today. Itâ€™s the type of discussion that is needed, and that is surely to increase down the line.
Some Thoughts on Anti-Capitalist Strategy Pankaj Mehta
Democracy on the Floor Shemon Salam
(Derek Seidman, 23, is a co-editor of Left Hook (www.lefthook.org). He encourages all young people who are down to work together to move the struggle forward to check out the website and get involved)
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