Who would benefit from a socialist America?

socialism: Off to the first battle


Read on one side

The other day something happened in New York that you will probably tell yourself about in decades. The question is how. Maybe as the beginning of a revolt. Or as a single anecdote whose punch line is: Sometimes the little ones win against the big ones - but it doesn't change the big picture.

So recently, Amazon, one of the most valuable companies in the world, wanted to build its second headquarters directly on the East River. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had promised billions in investments, 25,000 new jobs would be created, and an entire neighborhood in Queens should be turned inside out. Fresh money, new drive, urban upgrading and a booming economy were promised. Even the Queensbridge Houses, a huge social housing complex next door, should benefit from Amazon, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced "extraordinary synergies". Subsidies amounting to three billion dollars would have been worth the settlement to local politics - and the de facto destruction of the existing neighborhoods, even if they are not the most presentable.

But after three months of intense protests by residents, activists and local politicians, the online mail order company made a decision that not even the most optimistic opponents had expected: Amazon gave up in mid-February. In its corporate announcement, the company blamed resistance "a number of local and state politicians" for abandoning its headquarters plans. According to Amazon, surveys have shown "that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investments."

Amazon did not name a source for this number. In fact, in the run-up to the decision, two widely cited surveys - one from Quinnipiac University and one from Siena College - showed significantly lower approval rates among New Yorkers for Amazon's plans: 57 and 56 percent, respectively. In the Quinnipiac University survey, 41 percent of those questioned feared negative consequences from the Amazon plans: on the housing situation in New York, the traffic, the quality of life itself.

In the broadest sense, these are the needs of city dwellers who have felt powerless to be exposed to the laws of the market for years: barely affordable housing, stagnating salaries, rising costs, for example for looking after and educating their own children. These people can be found in booming cities all over the world. In the New York case, one could mistake them for the potential constituency of the progressive wing of the Democrats, which rallies around symbolic figures such as Bernie Sanders and, more recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC for short) from New York. You are using the word, which is new for the United States, of democratic socialism. Even if the corresponding political demands according to European standards often resemble old social democratic ones.

System criticism has made it into prime time

But not only people of the urban middle class (or those who would like to belong) in the USA seem to distrust the promises of the free market in the meantime. Anti-capitalist thinking, it looks like, is being normalized in America right now. Anyone watching US news channels or spending too much time on Twitter could even get the impression that the country is on the verge of an upheaval. There is talk of socialism and revolution, and not just in Brooklyn reading circles or on Marxist blogs, but in Parliament and on CNN. System criticism has made it into prime time. And the example of Amazon is so concise because the new fundamental criticism of capitalism is often associated with an equally new unease with the business models of American tech companies and their possible social consequences: with "surveillance capitalism", like the retired Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls the contemporary economy.

In fact, at least in the media, it seems as if an increasing part of the American population is now longing for alternatives - and is not afraid of more radical ideas. So can it be that Amazon is only the first major case of sustainable development in which a population successfully opposes capital, here that of a tech billionaire and his corporation? In the USA, of all places? Or should one rather ask: where else if not there?

A few years ago, such a successful resistance as against the Amazon plans in Queens would have been interpreted as a singular event. It's different today. The social scientist Frances Fox Piven, who taught at the City University of New York for more than 30 years and has written numerous books on the socio-political shifts in the US, speaks of a new "era of protest movements" for which the withdrawal of Amazon is only one of many circumstantial evidence. "The ideological status quo is increasingly being called into question in the US," says Piven. "And this questioning leads people to name the alternative socialism."