Jacobin - September 16, 2021
Just call it the summer of billionaires.
In July 2021, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson preened for the cameras before blasting off into space, beating fellow billionaire Elon Musk to the punch. In separate trips, the two peered down at the blue planet, suspended above us mere mortals, experiencing weightlessness for an ethereal few minutes. It was “the best day ever,” enthused Bezos, he of the $190 billion net worth. Musk, perhaps nursing a bruised ego, salvaged the summer by winning a $3 billion contract from NASA over the howls of Bezos’s space-exploration company, Blue Origin.
Workers, meanwhile, have been consumed by more prosaic concerns this summer: Fear of eviction. A deadly new coronavirus variant. Lethal heat waves, floods, and wildfires.
This disconnect — workers struggling to get by, the uber-rich struggling to get to another planet — sums up our new Gilded Age, where the organizing principle seems to be that granting the rich extraordinary say over our economic, political, and social life will ultimately benefit the rest of us. As Bezos acknowledged in his most recent letter to shareholders, he considers Amazon and himself the true wellspring of social value — the rightful rulers of the world, in so many words.
But is this really all we can hope for? To cheer on the billionaires from the launchpad, clapping like seals while we earnestly await what they might bequeath to us next?
Another summer, 120 years ago, a radical new party laid out a very different view of what fosters freedom and human flourishing. The organization: the Socialist Party of America. Its standard bearer: Eugene V. Debs.
“The capital of the country is held in the hands of a few,” Debs declared that summer on the Fourth of July, speaking at a park in Chicago. “And these few, though untitled and uncrowned, wield greater power than crowned kings and despots.”
He may as well have been talking about Jeff Bezos and company. In Debs’s eyes, and the eyes of many socialists of the day, the rise of industrial capitalism had spawned a new form of bondage, where workers toiled for bosses and plutocrats controlled the political system. The sovereignty of the people — that democratic dream of the dispossessed since the French and Haitian revolutions — had been dipped in the acid bath of capitalism and come out a disfigured, mutilated effigy.
Later that month, on July 29, 1901, delegates gathered in a four-story hall in Indianapolis, Indiana, and formed the Socialist Party of America. Their cause — dethroning the Bezoses of their day and empowering ordinary workers — proved surprisingly successful in the laissez-faire United States. By 1912, party membership had soared to 113,000 (from less than 20,000 in 1904), and Socialists boasted hundreds of elected officials across the country. In Western mining camps, midsize industrial towns, and immigrant working-class districts in major cities such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and New York City, scores flocked to the Socialist banner. Oklahoma Socialists built the strongest state party in the nation (attracting tenant farmers by the thousands), and Socialist newspapers honeycombed the country (led by the folksy Kansas-based Appeal to Reason, whose peak circulation reached 760,000).
For the party’s poor and working-class supporters, the Socialists explained why their lives were often-dispiriting trials of toil, hardship, and humiliation. The problem, according to the party, was the despotism of capitalism: the system turned workers into bosses’ underlings — forced to work or starve — and made the political arena a fetid square of ravenous corporations and bought-and-paid-for politicians. ...
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