By Parthav Easwar (He/Him) and Abby Sharkis (She/Her)
Once again, this country has had to reckon with its many flaws. It has had to reckon with once-in-a-hundred-years hurricanes and fires. It has had to reckon with systems of oppression which until now have not even been recognized by the vast majority, let alone addressed or solved. It has had to reckon with a global pandemic that it was never prepared to deal with. These crises, one after another, have often been touted in the public conscience as coincidence—as isolated events which have unluckily led to the unfortunate year of 2020. Nonetheless, there is, in fact, a very real reason for the year of tragedies that we’ve faced: capitalism. This is a year where all of the flaws in our society—in its systems, its mindsets, its beliefs, and its decisions—have been laid bare. We’re now seeing the culmination of oppressive systems and ignored problems that have been allowed to continue unabated for centuries. We’re seeing how our institutions bowing down to corporate interests and ignoring cries for help from the marginalized has ultimately bottled up the popular interest in fixing these changes, resulting in uprisings throughout the country.
As leftists, we are constantly vindicated in our critiques of capitalism and how it has damaged our most critical societal structures and hurt our most vulnerable communities. Yet, still, our voices are minimized, lumped in with liberals (as if they even seek the goals that we do) as merely “left-wing,” and ignored by the political mainstream. The sad truth is, left-wing politics don’t even exist in the U.S. at all. In pure terms, considering broader understandings of the left, right, and center of politics, the U.S. has a political landscape that is heavily distorted to the right. That means that, compared to the rest of the world, our national political center sits about halfway down the right-wing of the spectrum. Republicans range from “moderate conservatives,” who are right of the U.S. center, but are in truth solidly right-wing, while the most conservative Republicans are proto-fascists and white supremacists. Take Trump, consistently implying he’ll run for a third term, the openly racist comments of Steve King, or the number of Republican politicians, and influencers who make Islamophobic and anti-Semitic comments regularly. On the other side of the American political center are the Democrats, a so-called “big tent” party, which extends from conservatives like Joe Manchin, to all varieties of liberals, to a unique group of “progressive” politicians just left of the actual political center. This last variety of Democrat is still fairly rare, however, with only a few notable cases—Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example. They’re often lumped in with the leftmost of the more traditional liberals, like Elizabeth Warren, in mainstream political discourse. While some of the aforementioned politicians, the social democrats, have both been called, and call themselves, socialists, they are nothing of the sort. Social democracy is a political philosophy that tries to minimize the harms of capitalism by placing many restrictions on it, but without actually abolishing it. Further, American liberalism and conservatism are truly cut from the same cloth. They both stem from the political philosophy of classical liberalism, a philosophy that values free markets and (theoretically) personal freedoms, the two purported guiding principles of both of the USA’s major parties. Of course, oftentimes party rhetoric questions these principles, but they generally hold true in both parties.
To the left of the social democrats are what we call leftists. Contrary to the popular understanding of the term, it is not a synonym of liberal, even if liberal is often used to refer to anything that is vaguely considered left-wing in the U.S. Leftism describes an incredibly diverse group of political ideologies that all agree on one thing: the necessity for capitalism to be abolished and replaced with a better system. For the purposes of this story, just note that virtually all leftists agree that capitalism is an inherently immoral system and want to abolish it, seek to give workers autonomy over their work and workplaces, and see many oppressive social systems as inherently attached to capitalism and which therefore cannot fully be tackled until capitalism is abolished.
While the umbrella term of “leftism” means different things to different people, it is important to have a base definition of what it means in today’s context, and how it is different from liberalism. The major differences between liberals and leftists regard economics. Liberals want to reform capitalism whereas leftists are anti-capitalist, meaning that they want to completely change economic systems; some examples of merely reforming capitalism would be passing higher minimum wage laws, breaking up monopolies, and advocating for safer workplaces. Liberals also believe that major change can be achieved through electoral politics, that one can vote their way out of oppression. Leftists have little to no faith in the American electoral system, and understand that both parties have no intention of tackling the root causes of poverty, the existence of class distinctions, and how capitalist society handles wealth. While people use the terms right and left interchangeably with Republican and Democrat, the Democrats are not the left. The Democrats are the embodiment of liberal ideology. While they recognize issues in our current system—lack of healthcare, racial inequity, poverty, etc.—the Democrats do not provide systemic solutions. In fact, the reason they cannot provide systemic solutions is precisely because the systemic issues are inherently tied to a major institution that Democrats support: capitalism. Democrats have often fed the American public empty words, a “desire” to want to solve the climate crisis, for example, but refuse to support ending fracking or the use of fossil fuels by 2030, even as doing both is necessary to prevent catastrophe worse than what we’ve already seen.
To make the flaws of liberalism clear, let’s look at the story of how one of the authors of this piece, Abby, came to be a leftist.
I am not going to sit here and say that I read one Marx quote and suddenly decided that I was an anti-capitalist. Everyone’s political journey is unique, nuanced, and not something that should be glossed over. Because leftism is not broadly and accurately described in the media, it takes a lot of personal research and reflection to come to these conclusions about our current systems. For me, politics goes much deeper than what candidate’s sign you stick in your yard. Politics is a physical manifestation of our morals, empathy, and beliefs about the world. I pride myself on being able to justify any of the beliefs I outwardly support. If I say something, I will stand by it, or, when presented with new evidence, I will acknowledge my growth and defend my new position. When toying with the idea that, just maybe, we should not just passively accept the injustices of capitalism, I had no one to use as an example for the ideological switch that I would be making. The few leftists I did know seemed deep into the movement, and I was intimidated; people were throwing around terms like vanguard party, the proletariat, and class solidarity when I had no idea what any of them meant. What follows is an honest conversation on where I started, a staunch Democrat who was afraid of being “controversial,” and how I got to where I am now.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge the role anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist tendencies played in my recent political development, but let’s start at the beginning. From a very young age, I never enjoyed blindly following authority or abiding by meaningless rules. This seeped into my views regarding imperialism and war, both integral parts of American history. I had a great deal of respect for Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes during the Mexican-American War. I thought it was admirable that he saw something his government was doing, didn’t agree with it, and took action. The Mexican-American War is one of the clearest examples in this country’s history of military aggression and imperialism. Around 40,000 people died in the name of manifest destiny and expansion, and countless more at the hands of the colonialism that created the environment that allowed those ideas to thrive. I have always and will always be a supporter of diplomacy and peace-first relations. I was also never particularly nationalistic either. I enjoyed living in America, but felt uncomfortable during extremely patriotic activities like the pledge of allegiance. I lived in America but never felt like it was an indispensable part of my identity.
Discounting the first five years of my life, Barack Obama had always been my president. My parents took me to see him speak in 2008 when I was 5, and I grew up with him as the only reference point for what a president should be. While I was young, I knew Obama as the president that oversaw the legalization same-sex marriage, gave people healthcare, and fought ISIS. Consuming politics when you do not yet have the critical thinking skills to come to your own conclusions can be very problematic. It was not until recently that I became aware of the massive amounts of deportations, drone strikes, and other immoral things that he did while in office. My disillusionment with the Democratic Party only grew when I began to further educate myself.
During the most recent Democratic primaries, I realized my personal goals and what I thought would get a candidate elected diverged greatly. In terms of my personal morals, I agreed with a lot of the issues that Bernie Sanders raised, but was hesitant to support him because I was not sure he could actually win. This caused a huge amount of cognitive dissonance when I was deciding who I was going to stand behind. I discerned that my personal beliefs did not correspond with those of the Democratic Party anymore. I also noticed that I was tired of making marginal gains toward a more just society. I was exhausted with the huge fights that broke out when trying to secure basic human rights like universal housing, healthcare, and racial equity. The hypocrisy within the Democratic Party contributed to my shift to the left as well. They believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (the woman who accused then-presumptive Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault) but not Tara Reade (the woman who accused the then-presumptive Democratic nominee of sexual assault). They also called Trump a predator, but had former President Bill Clinton give a keynote speech at the 2020 DNC when there was ample evidence that he was deeply involved with Jeffrey Epstein.
Critiquing the Democrats is not a popular move where I am from: a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My community was made up of white, upper-class, college-educated liberals who thought Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in in 2016. If you drove 30 minutes in any direction, in the shadow of the infamous “Hell is real” sign, you would be in prime Trump territory. This juxtaposition made many people I know feel automatically superior to the “silly farmers voting against their own self-interests.” Because we “knew” we were better than the rural Trump worshippers, we never stopped to reflect on our own party’s politics. Looking back, a lot of the divide was rooted in classism, which I misguidedly participated in, witnessed, and let continue. One of the things capitalism does so well is deflecting blame and furthering division. Instead of blaming the system that oppresses them, the working class will often be encouraged to scapegoat other marginalized groups. A popular conservative anti-immigration argument is that immigrants are taking jobs from real Americans. To succeed in capitalism, your goal is to lower your costs and raise your profits; the easiest way to do this is to lower your labor costs. As a business owner, if I hire an American citizen, legally speaking, I would have to pay them minimum wage, abide by OSHA regulations, and might have to bargain with their union. When employing an undocumented immigrant, by contrast, I can pay them whatever I want, in whatever working conditions I want, because I can always threaten to turn them in to the authorities should they protest. People have the right to be mad that they are losing their jobs, however, that anger is often misdirected. People get mad at the immigrant who is putting their life on the line in order to feed their family, instead of the capitalist that screwed everyone over. Even though I had started recognizing these issues, I had no idea what to do about it. By voting blue, I thought I was doing my part. I thought I was standing up for marginalized communities, but I was just putting a band-aid on the problem. I never identified the root of these injustices, which I now know is capitalism.
However, being an anti-capitalist is still very unpopular, as Red Scare animosity is very much alive and well. Socialism, Marxism, etc., were taught to me as something that the Soviets tried out, but Stalin killed a lot of people so, in a nutshell, communism is always bad. Of course, hardly any high schools in America actually talk about anti-capitalist theory in any meaningful sense beyond claiming it is only good on paper, or whatever other (generally misguided) ideas of leftism they talk about. This lack of education leads to the continued silencing of left voices. Without my own research and investigation, I would have never given any system besides capitalism a second thought: but if I grew up in such a liberal, pro-capitalist, environment, how am I here writing an article about leftism? Well, for me, this pandemic changed my entire worldview.
Before COVID-19, I was not a Medicare for All supporter. I liked the policy, but never believed that it could pass. When the U.S. economy effectively shut down, it made me realize how dangerous it is to have healthcare directly tied to employment. I don’t trust business owners to design insurance policies with their workers' best interests at heart. I am also incredibly uncomfortable with healthcare being left up to the free market. As we have already seen, Americans pay astronomically higher prices for drugs, like insulin, than countries that have nationalized healthcare. Additionally, I began to understand that healthcare should not be treated as a commodity. Having good healthcare is an essential need for everyone. It is absurd that in the wealthiest country in the world, there are people who cannot obtain proper medical care. My views on healthcare also extend to other essential needs like food, water and shelter.
This pandemic also showed just how many people in this country were living in poverty. Missing one paycheck was damning to countless thousands, if not millions, of working-class individuals across America, and I had never come face-to-face with that before. This situation in particular highlighted how out of touch our current government is with people. Sending out $1200 stimulus checks was nowhere near enough. Additionally, millions of people are facing evictions and the government has been at a standstill. While I am aware that the Democrats were pushing for larger stimulus packages, you should not have to hope the government comes to an agreement so you can stay financially afloat.
Amidst the global health crisis, I also solidified my decision to attend American University. I have connected with so many queer, disabled, and non-white intellectuals who have explained to me that standard establishment politics hurt them every day. Simultaneously, the Black Lives Matter protests were beginning, and I realized that I wanted actual systemic change in terms of policing and racial justice. When millions of Americans took to the streets asking for change, the Democrats kneeled while wearing kente cloth and nominated the author of the 1994 Crime Bill for President. The Democratic Party didn’t even promise to legalize marijuana on its 2020 platform when 66% of Americans support it. Marijuana criminalization is a policy that has been proven time and time again to disproportionately affect the Black community. But even if the Democrats attempted to tackle some of the modern manifestations of racism, it would still be a prevalent force in our society because capitalism both relies and feeds into it.
I did a lot of reading on the relationship between capitalism and racism during that time. Capitalism rewards those who exploit. Business owners will stop at nothing to lower their labor cost. If they don’t, they’ll be run out of business by companies which will easily and ruthlessly cut labor costs to make more profit. Of course, back in the day, capitalists were happy to reduce those costs to zero by instituting and engaging in slavery. Before the slave trade began, slaves were people you captured during war; race had no impact on this. The assertion that slaves constituted an inferior race was totally and completely made up by colonizers. They created these racist beliefs to justify the inhumane conditions they supported so that they could make more money. Many racist beliefs in our present-day medical systems, like that Black people feel less pain, also stem from slavery-era myths designed to make white people feel fine about subjugating an entire race to make more profit. It is sickening to think about the amount of resources and scientific research that were devoted to upholding the idea that Black people were inferior and therefore should be enslaved. Even once slavery was abolished, sharecropping and tenant farming kept Black people in a place of economic disadvantage. It is also important to note that the 13th Amendment did not make slavery illegal (it kept it as a punishment for a crime), and post-slavery America did not get rid of all the racist literature and botched “evidence” that Black people were supposedly “subhuman.” The Black community still experiences extensive state-sponsored racism and violence to this day. Racism is just one way that capitalism deflects the blame onto the impoverished classes. The notion that BIPOC and poor people are “lazy” or “living off welfare” is yet another way we are deceived to accept that poverty is caused by individual choices and not the system.
No matter how many restrictions we place on capitalism, we can never turn it into a moral or ethical system. Additionally, no matter how much reform goes on in the United States, we can never control the other countries in the world. Even with current labor laws, many companies exploit workers in the Global South, where they can pay workers pennies, ignore environmental restrictions, and line their pockets with even more cash. Almost all of our current problems—racism, poverty, climate change, etc.—relate back to the contradictions within capitalism, which are why I now identify as a leftist and am anti-capitalist. Liberalism, including social democracy, will only take us so far. Reform can only get us slight improvements. As long as the wealthy and their mechanisms of power exist, systemic problems like racism will always exist. That’s the unfortunate truth. Even in the upcoming election, Biden’s ascension would be, at best, a stop-gap minimization of capitalism’s impact on the poor and powerless both within and outside of the U.S. This isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t vote for him, but come January, regardless of who is President, we need to continue to educate people on why leftism is necessary, and people need to be made aware as to why it has to be implemented now. We need to build support for finally changing the systems of oppression that have existed for far too long. People often are afraid of leftist thought. Decades of propaganda have convinced the public that leftism is somehow tied to authoritarianism, doomed to fail, or a bringer of death. Those not afraid of leftism, but are unconvinced of it, often argue that a revolution is impossible, unlikely to succeed, or dangerous. Our response is simple: what other choice do we have? For too long, we’ve lived in a society that values some lives over others. We’ve lived in a society willing to kill to make the rich richer. We’ve lived in a society where human rights are a political issue. Do you think I’d want an overhaul of our system if it ever worked in the first place? We don’t live in a society that is broken: we live in a society designed to allow death, abject poverty, and discrimination as long as it doesn’t inconvenience the wealthy. Our society is working as intended, and that’s exactly the problem. That’s why we need you to join us, educate yourselves, those around you, and your communities about what needs to be done, and how they can help. That’s why we need you to help us organize and attend protests and direct actions. That’s why we need leftism. That’s why we need revolution.