Published in l’Humanité on Thursday, May 2nd, 2019
At a moment when Bernie Sanders is the only Democrat primary candidate to declare himself a socialist, we have this interview with Cathy Schneider, professor at the American University of Washington D.C.
With the entry in the electoral list of former Vice President Joe Biden, the list of Democratic Party nomination candidates for the November 2020 presidential election is now complete. It’s as long as a day without Donald Trump tweet. It also reveals a diversity like never before in the history of one of the two major parties: six women and five members of “minorities”. Above all, the political positions of the ones and the others announce a very left-wing primary. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 undoubtedly helped to change the party’s centre of gravity. The millennials – born between 1981 and 1996 – were the driving force behind its political emergence. Young people like the senator in his seventies find themselves united by a word: socialism. What exactly is the situation?
Huma: How do you explain that a majority of young people say, according to a survey, that they prefer to live in a socialist country than in a capitalist country?
Cathy Schneider: Capitalism has been brutal for the younger generation. The New Deal years, like the Glorious Thirties in France, gave great benefits to the working and middle classes between 1933 and 1973. I often tell my students that I paid $500 in university tuition fees, while in the university where I teach, the fees are $58,000. Students carry the burden of a huge debt when they leave university, and many other young people cannot even enrol. At the same time, governments have cut investment budgets in higher education by several billion over the past decade. In the United States, universities are state-funded and many of them have been taken over by Republicans, during the past decade. Even the Democrats began to become “fiscal conservatives”, especially from the Clinton years onwards. Both parties were running for election on a program of tax cuts, which obviously had an impact on investments in education, infrastructure, employment, health and early childhood.
Huma: Has the financial crisis shaped their perception of capitalism?
Cathy Schneider: Many young people left university in 2008 when the economy collapsed ,and they had to repay very large loans as jobs became scarce. Many of their parents had lost their homes or seen the value of their homes, in which they had put all their savings, plunge. In short, this generation has faced a lot of precarity. It was born at a time when trade unions represent less than 9% of employees and have found themselves under attack from the states and the Supreme Court. Finally, there is climate change. This is a generation that will suffer the most from its ravages, and it fears inheriting a world where islands are submerged and severe droughts lead to hunger and migration. For many young people, capitalism is a system characterized by a high concentration of wealth and rampant precariousness, inequality and injustice, mass incarceration and police killings, tax cuts for the rich, as the youth struggle to pay their student loans, try to find affordable housing (almost impossible in cities). All my students are now working. Some of them part-time. Others full-time. None of them know what I have lived, being able to devote myself solely to studying.
Huma: How did we move from opposition to capitalism to the promotion of socialism?
Cathy Schneider: First, Occupy Wall Street mobilized young people. Then Obama. But it has disappointed many because the recovery of the economy has mainly benefited the richest. The young people who mobilized for hope and change were disappointed. Then came Bernie Sanders. He tackled all these problems and particularly the influence of money, banks and large companies. And he defined himself as a socialist. Young people were born after the Cold War. Unlike their parents, they do not associate socialism with the USSR or China.
Huma: What kind of socialism dominates in people’s minds?
Cathy Schneider: They see socialism as my parents saw the New Deal: as a way to regulate capitalism, to put the interests of the people first, to tax the rich and use taxes to protect the environment, to create jobs in a “Green New Deal” (as proposed by the very popular socialist New York MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), to put in place a universal health system. Not surprisingly, then, that they prefer socialism to capitalism. Bernie says that Scandinavia and Roosevelt’s New Deal are his models. His definition of socialism is closer to social democracy, although he defines himself as a democratic socialist.
Cathy Schneider Professor at the American University of Washington D.C.
Interview conducted by Christophe Deroubaix