For me, Dartmouth occasions a kind of personal crisis. At its core the College functions as a center for the intellectual defense of corporate capitalism and for the propagation of the logic of a so-called free enterprise system that enables transnational companies to fasten their tentacles more firmly upon the globe. What is the role of the radical intellectual in such an environment? Amid profound wealth and privilege, how does one make relevant and meaningful one’s teaching and scholarship about the struggles of the oppressed? Is it possible to pursue social justice while serving an elite establishment that reproduces hierarchy and breeds an acquisitive leisure class? How complicit am I in the preservation of a capitalist system that today generates spectacular inequality across America and extraordinary misery throughout the world?
Addressing such questions requires purposeful introspection and analysis; self-flagellation without systematic critique leads only to narcissism and stagnation. As a humanist and a materialist, I must struggle toward political clarity and self-knowledge. I must seek to forge into a political weapon the tremendous privileges that I, too, enjoy. I must candidly assess the ways in which my class position complicates my political vision and compromises my efforts to resist capitalist hegemony. I must strive to recognize both the constraints and the possibilities for social transformation within my critical sphere of activity—the production of knowledge. As I seek a more effective praxis (the confrontation of external contradictions), I must grope toward self-awareness (the confrontation of internal contradictions), facing the weaknesses that impede my development as a democratic intellectual. Today, the cause of social progress demands that conscious workers and students—including the modest population of Dartmouth undergrads most concerned about the economic suffering now ravaging our democracy—rededicate themselves to their own journeys of self-discovery and liberation.
Doing so will not be easy. The children of the 1990s represent the Quiescent Generation, a generation characterized by a level of social conformity and political inertia unparalleled since the depths of the Cold War. This generation’s paralyzing conservatism is the product of the consolidation of a counterrevolution that has spanned the last 60 years. It has taken that long for the forces of reaction—led by multinational corporations in collaboration with agents of militarism, fundamentalism, racism, nativism, misogyny and homophobia—to effectively suppress challenges to racial capitalism and to the white, western world unleashed by World War Two and intensified by the social movements of the 1960s, including antiwar and environmental crusades and campaigns for the liberation of the poor, women, and racial minorities. These struggles helped extend to subaltern groups democratic rights that labor upheavals and anticolonial movements began to secure for the dispossessed in the 1930s and 40s. The 60s and 70s witnessed a crescendo of rebellions against the ancien regime, the modern order defined by a white, male, western owner-class whose domination rested upon the economic exploitation and political subjugation of the global majority.
By the 1980s, however, the empires struck back. Having absorbed or crushed the revolutionary tide of the postwar years, the elite classes that we now describe as “the one percent” launched a stunning counteroffensive, overseeing a massive, international transfer of wealth to the rich. The Reagan Revolution accelerated the raid on the poor and on the public sector, and furnished this process of redistribution with a coherent ideology. The collapse of the corrupt and overextended Soviet Union facilitated the onslaught of global capital, whose predatory expansion was now presented as the inevitable triumph of a superior and universal system. The Age of Neoliberalism and its gospel of privatization ensured the proliferation of sweatshops and oil wars while decimating the democratic mechanisms of taxes, regulation, trade unions and social welfare. The ruling class had finally mastered the management and suppression of popular dissent.
Born into this new reality, the children of the 1990s remained largely oblivious to the dramatic transformations that shaped their lives and that configured the modern world. Several developments deepened their political dormancy. The financialization of the economy intensified inequality in the overdeveloped countries, producing societies in which talented college grads collected unprecedented material rewards for entering the most depraved firms and industries. Constricting political pressures significantly increased amid the post-9/11 normalization of surveillance, torture and suppression of civil liberties. Meanwhile the runaway costs of higher education imposed spiraling private debts, almost guaranteeing that the brightest collegians would sell their souls to the Wall Street concerns and banking interests whose criminal practices eviscerated the middle class. A small segment of young people explicitly resisted globalization and militarism, but most of their peers seemed unaware of the possibility of viable alternatives.
So what is to be done? How can that slender minority of Dartmouth students who hear the call of history overcome the political torpor of their generation and pursue a genuinely democratic agenda for social change?
They must recognize that they contain the ideological seeds of their own demise. Corporate capitalism has etched its principles so firmly into their subconscious that only a forthright program of scientific study and political struggle can restore their moral intelligence and critical thought.
They must challenge the received wisdom that casts the capitalist marketplace as a benevolent, immutable force and as the ultimate arbiter of human relations and behavior. No society constructed upon this principle can peacefully sustain itself or meaningfully fulfill democratic principles and human needs.
They must rewrite the social contract, accepting the political and moral responsibility to design a world that distributes vital resources like housing, healthcare, energy and jobs not in the name of corporate profit but according to human needs. They must determine where such a society falls on the continuum between social democracy and democratic socialism. They must resist authoritarian or rigid ideologies while affirming the reality of class conflict, the dignity of labor, and the need for expropriation of the corporations and oligarchs that have confiscated our nation’s wealth and sequestered it in offshore accounts.
They must strengthen alliances with labor, immigrants and the poor. As they develop a more critical consciousness they will come to recognize that few of their privileged peers are willing to sacrifice the prospects of huge financial rewards in the name of a seemingly distant and ethereal vision of egalitarian democracy (though the cannibalistic system that currently exists will surely victimize many Ivy League graduates, as well).
They must reject the inane fantasy that electoral politics within the existing system is capable of providing real alternatives to corporate hegemony, environmental devastation and endless war. Voting may play a minor role in a larger strategy for progressive change. But young leftists must emphasize the far more powerful, expressive and radical practice of prefigurative politics, a grassroots approach (like the Occupy movement) that exposes the illegitimacy and moral bankruptcy of the two-party system, and that seeks to replace the corrupt mechanisms of power with more credible apparatuses of governance.
Finally, they must find the courage to transform; severing the chains of conformity and capitalist orthodoxy; conquering political fears; and confronting contradictions and false consciousness. Dartmouth progressives and leftists must step forward and be counted. They must cultivate themselves internally while organizing and agitating publicly, even as many of their classmates ignore, ridicule or actively oppose them. In the aftermath of Occupy, they must craft a new, organic language and practice of struggle, uniquely suited for the current historical moment and broadly attractive to a substantial segment of their generation. As they do so, they will surely begin to recognize many of their own personal and political crises as further symptoms of the global catastrophe of capitalism.
~ Russell Rickford