The Kids Are All Left
BuzzFeed News spoke with Sarah Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara, editors of The Future We Want, about the decline of unions, the rise of alt labor, and why so many young people are backing Bernie Sanders.
Most twenty-somethings will never belong to a union — and may never know anyone who does. But many are in need of a job (unemployment for those under 25 is 18%), and many more are sitting on student loans, which total more than $1 trillion nationally. And now, plenty are favoring a presidential candidate who identifies as a democratic socialist.
The Future We Want, a new collection of essays by and for this demographic looks at the future of organized labor and the left, with debt strikers, Black Lives Matter, and other movements leading the way forward. BuzzFeed News spoke with the collection’s editors — Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at the Nation, and Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of political quarterly Jacobin.
Given that a lot of people in our generation may never belong to a union, how do you see them engaging with the labor movement?
We’ve definitely seen the fits and starts of organizing of a generation that didn’t grow up with unions. But one of the reasons the Sanders campaign is so successful is because a number of movements have laid the groundwork for thinking about problems socially. And that’s a bigger change than sometimes we remember today.
A number of years ago, a Tumblr got started that allowed people to post their debt online. People would share photos of themselves, often with a piece of paper over their faces, saying, “I have this much medical debt. I have this much school debt. I’m really ashamed.” It brought people together in a way that literally allowed us to view their debt as collective — in one big stream. Whereas before everyone thought that they were doing something wrong, that they’d screwed up somehow, that they were stupid. And that’s a really insidious feeling.
You’ll never struggle over something you feel you deserve to suffer. But if you feel like this is a social problem that has been unfairly, structurally imposed on society, then you have something to fight over.
The only maybe downer note I’ll add to that is — it’s not even just a matter of raising consciousness. Most people, let’s say, don’t try to start a union not because they’re not aware of this as an option. But also because they’re just too smart to try to start a union.
We’re in an era where there’s high real unemployment, and there is not a strong labor movement. Say you manage to be stably employed — your best bet is often to try to keep your head down, and if you need to cover any debts, you’re going to go to your friends, your family, or maybe you’re going to take out some credit card debt. That’s often a more viable route.
So I think we need to understand how much the deck is stacked against ordinary workers. Not to be defeatist, but to take stock of the number of steps it will take to get to a point where collective action is going to be a viable thing for most people.
The collection focuses on the relationship between race, gender, sexuality, and class. Could you talk about the book’s intersectional lens on the labor movement?
People experience the lack of power in their lives in many different ways, and it’s important to talk about those experiences so we can do coalition-building — to be able to say, “I feel ground down by my boss, but you also feel ground down by the police, and for you those are equivalent problems.”
Often I think this kind of stuff is poorly labeled identity politics, in a dismissive way. I think it’s better to call it the old-school way: anti-oppression politics. One thing the book drives home is that any viable anti-racist or anti-sexist agenda has to have a class component. That’s not to say that just class is enough, but if you try to present an anti-racist or anti-sexist program without class, it’s definitely not enough.