Kelli D. Potter: Young people understand capitalism. That’s why they are turning to socialism.

Today’s college students are not as susceptible to Cold War ideology.

(Mark Lennihan | AP photo) In this March 8, 2017, photo, the Fearless Girl statue faces Wall Street's Charging Bull statue in New York.

In a recent Deseret News opinion piece, Jennifer Graham laments the fact that not one but two of her children might be socialists. And she’s not the only one worried about young people becoming socialists.

As someone that has been involved in socialist politics since the 1980s and teaches about Marxism in university courses, I can attest that college students’ attitudes towards capitalism and socialism have changed dramatically over the last two decades. Graham’s question is why?

She implicitly suggests that one reason is that young people don’t understand how socialism and capitalism work. Speaking of one daughter, she writes:

“She came home at the start of the pandemic, toting, among her other possessions, ‘The Marx-Engels Reader.’ For Christmas last year, she gave everyone in the family a copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ — ordered from Amazon with unintentional irony. [My emphasis]

And then speaking of another daughter, she is more explicit:

“Her transactions with her favorite restaurant down the street — a sushi spot run by a local family — represent capitalism in its simplest form: voluntary exchanges between individuals that improve the lives of each party. [My emphasis]

Graham’s article reveals her ignorance rather than her children’s. Today’s young people do, in fact, understand capitalism and socialism. Capitalism is not merely an economy that involves transactions between individuals. Trade existed long before the beginnings of European capitalism in 15th and 16th centuries. And, in every socialist country, trade has been part of the economic process. In some socialist countries such as the former Yugoslavia and The People’s Republic of China open markets have been permitted. Markets and trade pre-dated capitalism and they will outlive it.

Graham’s view of capitalism’s nature is a relic of cold war ideology. Today’s college students are not as susceptible to this ideology for a variety of reasons, not the least being the availability of vast amounts of information about Marxism and socialist countries online.

Today’s students are often aware of the fact that capitalism is a class-based system with owners who increase their wealth by accumulating profit and workers who sell their labor power for a wage. Even before I lecture on Marx’s complicated argument that capitalists necessarily exploit their workers for profit, often my students already believe this. Indeed, it is obvious to them that Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and (even) Mitt Romney didn’t earn the vast amounts of wealth that they hoard.

Moreover, since the Reagan and Clinton era of neo-liberalism — with the gutting of social safety net programs and a shifting of the bulk of the tax burden to the middle class — there has been a dramatic increase in wealth inequality. Children can no longer hope for a better life than their parents had. In fact, they are lucky if they do half as well.

They see (and live) the hellscape that capitalism has produced in the U.S., with increases in unemployment, precarious employment, homelessness, poverty and starvation, while capitalists buy yachts and private jets and fund private space tourism. What is more, my students don’t buy the myth of meritocracy as an explanation for this radical inequality.

Another big factor in the raising awareness of the evils of capitalism is its primary role in the climate change catastrophe. Capitalism requires an endless increase in production and exploitation of natural resources. It is inconsistent with sustainable civilization on a planet with finite resources. My students understand this situation and they are worried about their future.

Finally, today’s young people are not as naïve about the dark side of U.S. history. They know that they have been lied to in the past. They understand how capitalism led to the use of slaves and the theft of land from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They see the prison and criminal justice system for what it is: a brutal, institutionally racist system designed to exploit free labor and disenfranchise the black and brown populations (as well as poor whites).

Of course, the fact that I am a socialist and a professor at a local university raises the concern that I am indoctrinating students with Marxism. And some might offer indoctrination as the reason for the increase in young socialists. However, this view casts young people as automatons that can’t think for themselves. And I assure you that they can think for themselves. I wouldn’t know how to indoctrinate them even if I wanted to do so.

On that note, let me end with a quotation from David Bowie’s song “Changes”:

And these children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds

Are immune to your consultations

They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through

Today’s young people are quite aware of the capitalist hellscape they’re going through and they are turning to the vision of a rationally planned socialist economy that is not beholden to profit because it offers them hope in a world of war, suffering, exploitation and destruction.

Kelli D. Potter

Kelli D. Potter is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Humanities at Utah Valley University.