US: Anger flowing into radicalisation

PRESIDENT GEORGE W Bush summed it up best during a recent speech when he said: "These are historic times". The last few years have ushered in a new era of poverty, war and frustration for American youth. Everyday life is becoming political. More and more young people are now looking for alternatives to Bush and the system he represents.

The economic recession and growing stratification of wealth is at the top of the list of troubles young people are facing. Gone are the days when we could fully rely on our parents to cover expenses and basic needs. Part time jobs are becoming necessary, especially for those of us attending universities. The rising cost of tuition and housing is forcing many students to take two or more jobs just to get by.

I have to find some way to pay an almost $800 tuition balance with only $200 in my bank account, on top of rent, bills and food. (My plan at the moment is to keep incurring debt and late fees until I can save up enough and get a small loan from my parents, who are also struggling even though they both work as full-time teachers).

A former co-worker of mine worked days at the university book store for $6 an hour, in addition to attending classes and at night worked as a security guard for an apartment building for about $8 an hour. His hours as a security guard were from around 9pm to about 5am, leaving him precious little time for sleep.

The job market is becoming scarce for youth with little to no experience or training. Those of us lucky enough to have a part-time job work without any sort of benefits or job security. Wages and hours are set and changed at the will of the bosses. Almost none of these workplaces are unionised, so those who complain are quickly thrown out into the street.

Poverty is affecting young parents and they receive little help from aid or welfare. One young woman I know, with a two year-old child, attempted to get financial aid to continue her education. She was told by the official where she applied for aid: "Education should not be your priority." She was denied any aid and I’m not sure what she’s doing now.

Education budgets are being slashed. We are being cramped into smaller classrooms under ceilings filled with asbestos and who knows what else. At the same time the super-rich are busy buying new mansions and yachts.

Corporate interests are weaselling their way into the classroom. Many cafeterias are now replaced with McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Coke and Pepsi vie for exclusive vending and advertising rights. Some elementary school textbooks even suggest using M&Ms to teach arithmetic.

The military have also been invading the educational and cultural space of young Americans. Nearly every university in the country has a large office devoted to military recruitment. In high schools the military fills the hallways with booths to pass out recruitment leaflets and literature (this is usually forbidden for student groups.) Recruitment advertisements have also filled the airwaves of youth-orientated networks like Comedy Central and MTV. The army even recently produced a video game!

The housing situation for young people is despicable as well. Recently, a low-income student house near the University of Minnesota burnt to the ground, killing the three residents who were inside.

The building was privately run, but the school had recommended it on its website. The investigation discovered that the landlord hadn’t tested or replaced the smoke alarms in years and the insulation and wiring were shoddy. The windows, through which the students trapped inside could have escaped, were painted shut.

The landlord of the building was fined. In the aftermath, the university and the city initiated housing inspections in student neighbourhoods. Hundreds of life-or-death violations are still being found. Instead of really punishing the violating landlords in any meaningful way, they are given a small fine and the residents are kicked out into the cold.

There has been a move by the city to build new apartment developments in the university neighbourhood, however these are fancy, almost luxury, apartments that cost nearly $1,000 a month. (sometimes more)

Since the dormitories are usually full, working-class students are stuck in ramshackle housing, never to be entirely sure if they will burn to the ground because the landlord was too preoccupied with profiting to make sure the house is up to code.

Racism and harassment are having a huge effect on the lives of young Muslims and immigrants. Some have also had the horrendous experience of seeing neighbours and family members being secretly carted away in the night by the FBI and immigration services.

Anger is flowing into a growing radicalisation. Socialist Alternative [the CWI in the USA] has seen an influx of interest and membership from these people in the last few months.

This is indicative of the growing politicisation of youth in general. Young people have been the most enthusiastic organisers of the anti-war movement. On Day X innumerable high school and university students walked out of class to protest against the Iraq war. On 25 October in Washington DC, an overwhelmingly young crowd of 50-100,000 people came into the streets to protest.

This new mood of anger and energy is also being directed into support for strikers and movements for better-quality education. There is a potential for a youth movement in the US to rival that of the 1960s and 1970s.

However, it’s important to ask where this new militancy will lead. Many young people are viewing the contradictions of capitalism as simply results of the Bush administration.

Large sections of youth are mobilising under the banners of Democratic Party candidates Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. These two are seen as maverick peace-lovers, or at any rate, better than the current administration.

Howard Dean is neither peace-loving nor left-wing. He has actually proposed a doubling of troops in Iraq! Dean also instituted pro-business policies during his stint as governor of Vermont.

Dennis Kucinich is only slightly better. He did vote against the war, and often uses working-class and leftist rhetoric. However, the corporatised Democratic Party leadership will never allow Kucinich to become their party’s candidate. His real role is to herd radical activists back to the party fold and has openly stated one of his key goals is to bring third party supporters back to the Democrats.

Neither of the candidates even comes close to fundamentally questioning the system in which they operate. While Bush and his goons are without a doubt the most vulgar expression of corporate greed, they are not at the root of the tribulations we face. The "lesser of two evils" still resigns us to the evils of capitalism.

The only way to finally and completely solve the problems is to break from capitalism and the politicians that represent it. Young people must unite with workers to form a new mass party and a united movement towards a future free of war and poverty: a socialist future.

Socialist Alternative the CWI in the US

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November 2003