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US youth turning to socialism as anger at Trump admin boils over

"Another world is possible," chant young people attending the closing ceremony of the "Socialism 2018" conference at a hotel in Chicago in the midwestern United States, on July 8, 2018. (Mainichi)
A meeting of socialists organized by Sean Stalley, back left, attracts young people in Mobile in the southern U.S. state of Alabama, on July 28, 2018. (Mainichi)

CHICAGO/MOBILE, Alabama -- With the Republican administration of President Donald Trump continuing its hard turn to the right and the opposition Democratic Party appearing powerless to stop it, young people in the United States -- that bastion of global capitalism -- are increasingly looking to socialist ideas to reset the political landscape.

"We are urgently needed to figure out alternatives for the sick and barbaric system called capitalism," a presenter emphasized as young people in T-shirts raised their fists in support, chanting, "We are unstoppable. Another world is possible."

This was the scene at a session of the "Socialism 2018" conference held at a hotel in the midwestern U.S. city of Chicago from July 5 through 8. Subjects covered at the event included the revolutionary theory of Karl Marx, and know-how to organize people behind socialism.

According to the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which organized the event, some 1,700 people attended from all over the United States -- one of the largest crowds the conference has ever attracted.

Some 170 meetings with names like "The Future of the Socialist Left" and "What Will It Take to Defeat the Far Right?" were offered during the event that started at 9:30 a.m. and went as late as 11:30 p.m. Those on hand called each other "comrade" in the way of socialists and communists, and their goal was nothing less than the reform of society through mass mobilizations such as general strikes and demonstrations.

Apoorvaa Joshi, 29, joined the conference for the first time from her home state of Michigan in the U.S. Midwest. A nonprofit organization worker, Joshi said that water, food, shelter, and health care are basic rights. "We should not make profit out of them," she said angrily.

Ryan Nanni, a 27-year-old Los Angeles videographer, asserted, "We will either have a successful revolution and a radically different society or humanity faces extinction due to proliferation of nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, and many other threats to our species due to the conquest for profit (and) global domination by (the) 1 percent."

The Democratic Socialists of America (DAS), the largest socialist organization in the United States, now has about 49,000 members, marking a 10-fold increase from the fall of 2016, when President Trump was elected. Many new members of the organization and other socialist bodies are millennials born in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

And socialism is getting popular in politics too. Leftist candidates are enjoying greater support than before in the upcoming midterm elections for the U.S. Congress. In the primary race for the 14th district of New York state, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Democratic Socialists of America beat Democratic heavyweight Joseph Crowley, 56, for the Democratic nomination. The winner campaigned on national health insurance and free university education to topple the mainstream Democrat, who had been expected to lead House of Representatives Democrats in the next congressional session.

But why is socialism attracting young people? Dave Zinin, 44, a longtime ISO member and a magazine writer, explained, "It's (a) reaction to Trump. His approach to immigration, attacks on women's right, workers, LGBT made young people mad. At the same time, he made them want to fight."

Moreover, young people who didn't witness the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have no preconceived views about socialism. Paul D'Amato, author of "The Meaning of Marxism," said, "Socialism is not a dirty word anymore. It's cool to be a socialist now." D'Amato added, "The people are radicalized from struggle. When there are more struggles, more people are radicalized."

The contest over who would represent the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential election came down to a close race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist. And that had an impact on the minds of youth, experts said.

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Even in southern states of the U.S. where people are said to be more conservative, socialist groups are being born one after another. One of them is in Mobile, Alabama.

Beneath a blazing sun, young people are tilling a field in 33-degree-Celsius heat. The farm is run by five people including Boman Williams, 30, a self-proclaimed socialist. They grow peas and tomatoes, and distribute their surplus harvest to nearby residents and teach children how to farm.

They started this self-help enterprise with no government help two years ago, believing the Trump administration would cut back on social welfare and more people would need food.

The Maysville district where the farm is located is poor, with some 63 percent of residents below the poverty line. Some of the five young people running the farm were unemployed, and they insisted that the government did not care if people starved to death.

One of them, 26-year-old Sean Stalley, said, "There will be a breaking point. There is only so much heath care you can take away from people. There's only so much degradation of (the) environment that you can do." He joined the DSA in October 2016, after Senator Sanders lost his bid to top the Democratic ticket for the presidency.

If it is impossible to get things done through the election, he thought, there is no choice but to seek a workers' uprising through general strikes. "I do not know if revolution can be in my lifetime, but you need to prepare for it," said Stalley.

A company employee with a master's degree, Stalley has had a tough life. He had a hard time paying back his $40,000 student loan. He lived in his mother's house and used half his salary on debt payments, but it was not enough. Eventually his mother mortgaged her house to pay back her son's remaining debt.

Stalley even makes the rounds of local residents to pitch socialism. "Even someone who voted for Trump will listen to me. They know something is wrong."

His father was an engineer, and his mother was a judge. Young people like him who were born to middle-class families have trouble designing their future plans. Driven into a corner, this generation is beginning to think that they should turn to radical socialism rather than trying to correct capitalism's unfair conditions.

According to statistics from the Federal Reserve, the richest 10 percent of the population possess 77.2 percent of the wealth in the United States, leaving just 22.8 percent to be shared among the remaining 90 percent. Clearly, the middle class that has sustained America is shrinking. And a May 2016 Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of those aged between 18 and 29 favored socialism as an economic system. The overall ratio was 35 percent.

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The recent increasing number of socialists among young people seems to be affecting the selection of Democratic candidates for the November midterm elections for the U.S. Congress. According to the Brookings Institution, a total of 81 self-proclaimed "progressives" won primaries in 31 states, more than double the number for the 2016 election.

But many of the young socialists have a common trait: A deep distrust of the Democratic Party.

Stalley said he had no intention of voting for the Democrats in the future. He explained that the left has to counter the right, but the Democratic Party cannot do that because they choose middle-of-the-road positions to attract independents in elections.

Ryan Nanni of LA said the right wing has answers to the capitalist crisis. "They want to close the borders, raise trade tariffs, get rid of refugees, use racism." Those are "wrong answers," but a lot of people voted for the right because "Democrats didn't have anything to offer," he continued.

In the United States, political power has long been monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties. However, both have a tendency to implement policies desired by their major donors, such as big businesses or the rich. Young people cynically think they are both "corporate parties" that don't care about their opinions.

"Elections don't get us what we need. We have to do something else," said Nanni, a sentiment echoed by Stalley. Now their goal is a replay of the May 1968 "revolution" in France including the capital Paris. General strikes and demonstrations compelled the government to make policy changes. The young people in the U.S. are furthermore encouraged by recent victories by teachers and others who demonstrated for pay raises and educational budget increases in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma.

How are these movements affecting American society as a whole?

Yascha Mounk, a Harvard University lecturer on government who has warned about declining trust in democratic institutions in the U.S. and Europe, said, "The idea that anybody could successfully pull off a general strike in the United States today is laughable" as the ratio of workers in labor unions has dropped to a historic low of 10.7 percent.

Mounk also pointed out that the rise of the radical left "is going to embolden the far-right, drive some people towards the far-right." He added that without the backing of socialist youths, the Democrats will not be able to win back the House of Representatives in the November midterms -- in which they are supposed to have the upper hand -- and democratic institutions will deteriorate further under the Trump administration.

(Japanese original by Sumire Kunieda, New York Bureau)

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