What can I know? What must I do? What may I hope?
I can know that my particular life cycle falls in a period during which the United States has become the sole imperial power in the world. I was born at a time when that was not so, and I have lived through both the decline of the British empire, and the rise and fall of the Russian empire. I don't like the fact that the United States is currently the dominant world hegemon; indeed, I would much prefer that there be no nation with that sort of monopoly of military power. But it is a fact, and pretty clearly when I will die it will still be a fact. I also know that I live during a time when international financial capitalism flourishes and is unchallenged by any alternative, another fact I regret but that I know will still be so when I die.
I know that income inequality and social stratification have characterized the United States during my entire life, and that by all measures that inequality has increased rapidly in the last quarter century. But I also know that this increase in inequality, which I view with great disapproval, is in part the result of deliberate governmental policies that it is at least possible to reverse.
I know that during my lifetime a number of legal and social barriers to equality have been successfully contested and to a considerable extent removed -- barriers against people of color, against women, against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. I know that the removal of these barriers was the result of deliberate and forceful struggle, sometimes violent, sometimes non-violent. And I know that these social and legal changes are still resisted by large segments of the American public who would, if they could, re-impose the disadvantages and oppressions that struggle eliminated.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I know that major change, whether economic or social, results from the organization of countless millions, not from the intentions, however admirable, of the few. I know that merely electing public officials who share one's goals or principles is never enough, by itself, to effect salutary change. Electing those officials is the necessary, not the sufficient condition of desired change. I know that during my lifetime, the most effective instrument of collective action -- the labor union -- has been suppressed, eviscerated, and disempowered, and I know that this too is the result of deliberate governmental policies that it is at least possible to reverse.
All of these things I know, and they narrowly circumscribe the possibilities that offer themselves at this moment in my one and only life cycle.
What, then, must I do? First, I must choose, in the words of the old union song, which side I am on. [Which side are you on?, by Florence Reece, 1931, written during the Harlan County coal miners' strike.] There is no argument that can establish with objective validity the correctness of such a choice, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls to the contrary notwithstanding. I must decide who my comrades are as I live out the cycle of my life, from boyhood to old age. I have made that choice. I have chosen as my comrades the exploited, the oppressed, the down-trodden, those who labor but are not fairly compensated, those whose work creates and recreates the fabric of our society. As the Occupy Wall Street Movement would have it, I chosen as my comrades the 99%, not the 1%, although that hyperbole overestimates considerably the numbers of my comrades in the United States.
Having made that choice, I must, it seems to me, do two things that may seem incompatible with one another but in fact are inseparable parts of the same struggle. First, I must throw my support behind the national political party farthest to the left that has a realistic chance of winning national elections, which of course means the Democratic Party. That it has become a centrist party with little of the working class bias and reformist thrust of earlier years is deeply regrettable but a fact that must be faced. The failure of Obama supporters to turn out in sufficient numbers of hold control of the House in 2010 unleashed an assault on women's reproductive rights, indeed on women's sexuality, that was simply appalling. A Romney victory, which fortunately will not occur, would result in further devastation to the economic and social needs and aspirations of those with whom I have chosen to make common cause.
But an Obama victory simply creates the possibility of the real work that must be done -- a ground level effort, by millions upon millions of men and women, to strengthen labor unions, recapture state governments, and organize to support any efforts that have even the slightest chance of success to rein in the imperial ambitions of America and the depredations of financial and corporate capital.
What may I [reasonably] hope? Not that I will live to see the socialism for which my grandfather fought. That will not happen in what is left of my life, and very probably will not happen in the lifetimes of my sons, although I may at least go to the grave hoping that my grandchildren will see that day, and will themselves fight to bring it about. Nor may I reasonably hope to see the end of imperialism in the world, for it is virtually certain that when American imperialism passes from the world scene, as it will, another nation will step forward to take its place as hegemon, one no more likely to place the well-being of the billions of men and women over its own desire for world control.
This is where I see the world and myself in relation to it, as the years of my eighth decade wind down. I do not think I can say, with Wordsworth, that to be alive in the dawn of my life was bliss, nor that to be young was very heaven. I came upon the scene as the hopes of my grandfather were being dashed, and there have been more disappointments than moments of triumph along the way. But there have been many, many life cycles that offered less hope and more disappointment, and I imagine that after I pass, there will be many more.