What explains the rise in warm feelings toward "socialism," especially among younger Americans? Several things, including a basic misunderstanding of what socialism means, the memory of the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession, and a near-total lack of appreciation for how rapidly the material conditions of American life have improved. Given Karl Marx's emphasis on historical understanding as a vital pre-condition to political change, that last part is deeply ironic.
A poll earlier this year found that respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 had a more favorable response to the term socialism than to capitalism (61 percent to 58 percent). For folks between 25 and 34, capitalism won, but by a relatively slim margin (58 percent to 51 percent). Overall, respondents overwhelmingly preferred capitalism to socialism, 61 percent to 39 percent, but other polls find that socialism is viewed much more positively than in the past. For instance, Gallup notes that in 1942, only 25 percent of Americans agreed that a socialist economy would be a "good thing." In 2019, that number had increased to 43 percent.
What gives? Part of the trend, especially among younger people, is surely based in confusion. Back in 2014, a Reason poll of millennials found that that cohort liked socialism but couldn't really define the term with any precision. Forty-two percent told us that they liked socialism even though only 16 percent could define it correctly as state ownership of the means of production and 64 percent wanted an economy managed by the free market (only 32 percent wanted the government to be in charge). Part of the pro-socialism trend is likely a response to the 2008 financial crisis, which cratered economic growth for years and solidified a sense that capitalism has in some profound way run out of steam. Even as we are in the midst of the longest uninterrupted period of growth in a century and record-low unemployment in 50 years, the economy feels sluggish and precarious and we're constantly being told that a recession (or worse) is just around the corner.
And then there's the lack of interest in or knowledge of history, both recent and ancient. The Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, who helped popularize the term "late capitalism," has long insisted that the first rule of serious critical analysis is "Always historicize!" Drawing not just on Marx but on figures such as Walter Benjamin, whose hugely influential essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" talks about the need to recover the specific economic, cultural, and geographical conditions and class relations that produced masterpieces we now view independently of time and place, Jameson rightly emphasizes that we tend to take the status quo as a given or a fact of nature, rather than a moment that can be radically altered and changed.
I think Jameson is right to stress that any given moment in time is contingent and open to radical change and that our understanding of our time benefits from deep understanding of history. But he's wrong to think that historical knowledge will lead to change in a socialist direction. As the firebrand cultural critic Camille Paglia puts it in a new interview with The Wall Street Journal's Tunku Varadarajan, Americans take our unprecedented freedom of choice and wealth of consumer goods for granted. They are desperately in need of a richer, deeper context for the very era they are denouncing.
"Everything is so easy now," Ms. Paglia continues. "The stores are so plentifully supplied. You just go in and buy fruits and vegetables from all over the world." Undergrads, who've studied neither economics nor history, "have a sense that this is the way life has always been. Because they've never been exposed to history, they have no idea that these are recent attainments that come from a very specific economic system."
Capitalism, she continues, has "produced this cornucopia around us. But the young seem to believe in having the government run everything, and that the private companies that are doing things for profit around them, and supplying them with goods, will somehow exist forever."
In the interview, Paglia sounds reminiscent of the Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the term "creative destruction" and praised capitalism's inherent tendency to subvert established social and economic hierarchies. In this, Schumpeter explicitly invoked The Communist Manifesto, especially the passages that praised the ways in which "the bourgeois epoch" and the Industrial Revolution shook things up:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Paglia argues—convincingly, to my mind—that we've forgotten even the relatively recent past.
"Our parents were the World War II generation," Ms. Paglia says, "so they had a sense of reality about life." Children now "are raised in a far more affluent period. Even people without much money have cellphones, televisions, access to cars. They're raised in an air-conditioned environment. I can still remember when there was no air-conditioning." She shudders as she sips her cold beer, adding that she suffered horribly in the heat….Ms. Paglia asks me to note that it was "because of capitalism" that her forebears "escaped the crushing poverty of rural Italy," emigrating to Endicott, N.Y., to "work in the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories, whose vast buildings, tanning pools and smokestacks dominated my childhood."
Schumpeter similarly worried that wealthy people take their fortune for granted and set the stage for their demise. When Marx argued that capitalism would destroy itself because a smaller and smaller number of super-wealthy people would arrogate all wealth to themselves and literally starve the working poor who produced all goods and services, Schumpeter rightly observed in the 1940s that this was empirically wrong. "The capitalist achievement," he wrote, "does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls." Yet he feared that capitalism destroys itself by creating a class of intellectuals that denigrate material progress and individualism in the name of a common good (that the intellectuals would define and organize) and workers who take for granted those supermarket shelves groaning with fresh produce (as Paglia mentions). Essentially, we grow fat and lazy, Schumpeter and Paglia contend, and become obsessed with the distribution of wealth rather than the grounds upon which its creation is predicated.
That seems to me like a pretty good read of contemporary America, especially a country with relatively anemic economic growth (for most of the 21st century, annual growth has averaged below 2 percent, compared to 3 percent or more for the period from the late 1940s through 2000). But Paglia isn't an uncritical booster of capitalism and she lays out a challenge to libertarians and what some folks abjure as "market fundamentalists":
"While I believe that boom-and-bust capitalism is inherently Darwinian and requires moderate regulation for the long-term greater good," she says, "I insist that capitalism has produced the glorious emancipation of women." They can now "support themselves and live on their own, and no longer must humiliatingly depend on father or husband."
What sort of "moderate regulation" would the modal Reason reader stand for? That's an interesting question, and probably one that will create as much controversy among the laissez-faire crowd as Paglia's defense of capitalism does among democratic socialists and academic feminists.
Still, the lessons of history and economics—and the experiences of our parents, grandparents, and older ancestors—have a lot to teach us not just about the past but about our possible futures, too. We'd all do well to read our Paglia and Schumpeter (along with Marx) more carefully than we have been.
Reason has interviewed Paglia many times over the years. Here's a 2016 Q&A in which she discusses the decline of the university system.