Like most young people of my generation, the first political event I was really aware of, at the age of nine, was the 2008 financial crash. The word “crisis” seemed to be everywhere, looming like a spectre over the news and the conversations my parents had.
The crisis infected every aspect of my life, and it seemed to be all anyone talked about. Even though, at that age, I couldn’t grasp the intricacies of the stock market, it was enough to look around me and hear what people were saying to understand that there was something profoundly wrong with the system. My teachers went on strike regularly to protest their pay being cut, while more work was being demanded of them every week; shops and small businesses were going bankrupt, and across Italy (where I grew up) a veritable epidemic of suicides began to develop around 2012.
These tumultuous events made me realise that it wasn’t just a question of mild inequality, of some people in society being slightly richer than others because they worked harder: it was much more serious and frightening than that. For every smiling tycoon, like Italy’s then Prime Minister Berlusconi, there were thousands if not millions of ordinary people who were suffering and who could see no future except one of attacks on their living and working conditions by a ruthless ruling class.
Thanks to this first political awakening, when my family decided to move to Sweden in 2014, I was looking forward to seeing what I had grown to understand was a fairer and more equal system. I understood that through higher income taxes, the Swedish state financed an extensive net of public services and social welfare benefits. When I enrolled in high school, I received a brand new Macbook that I got to use free of charge for three years, as well as a monthly government stipend of 1,000 SEK (approximately £85).
In my naïve eyes, this so-called ‘Swedish model’ was a much kinder and more sustainable version of the capitalist system than the dog-eat-dog world I had come to associate with more market-friendly states like the US. The fact that Sweden’s economy was faring well and displayed indicators of a healthy startup culture seemed to prove that there was indeed a way to balance the seemingly diametrically opposed aims of equality and efficiency under capitalism, and the Scandinavian countries had found it.
So what happened? How did I go from being a cheerleader for ‘Scandinavian socialism’ to a convinced Marxist?
Sweden is the OECD country where income inequality is growing the fastest. Average household debt is approaching 200%, fuelled by the massive increase in house prices (15% increase in 2017) and the negative interest rate (-0.50% as of 2018). There are gaping holes in the welfare system, due to cuts that began in the 1990s and continue to this day. When more and more of the education and healthcare systems, not to mention transport and other public services like the postal service, fall into private hands because the government budget is in deficit, this increases the pressure on workers. More and more is demanded of them as the capitalist class tries to squeeze every penny of profit it possibly can from sectors that used to function in the interest of working people.
The illusion I had previously held, that it was simply a matter of politicians and the state managing and redirecting society’s resources in the right direction, collapsed like a house of cards. I could not believe that the Social Democratic Party, supposedly a pro-working class force in Swedish society, was cutting and privatising the same welfare system it claimed as its crowning achievement.
I was full of anger and confusion. I was convinced that there was something fundamentally rotten in the system, in the same way I had begun to realise it at the age of nine: blindly and intuitively. But I lacked a precise method that would help me understand why this was the case and, even more importantly, how to fight it.
This is the series of events that pushed me towards Marxism. I began to understand capitalism not just as an aggregation of individuals in society, some bosses and other workers, but as a global system based on the exploitation of the many by the few, and rife with contradictions. When capitalism is in crisis, it can no longer afford reforms. On the contrary, that is when the working class suffers the most as the capitalists are forced to slash wages and working conditions in order to defend their profits. No amount of political goodwill on the part of well-meaning social-democrats can alter this fundamental truth.
Fast-forward to September 2017, when I moved to London to start university. What I saw here no longer surprised me. I had learned the bitter lesson that the capitalist system is kind to no one except the very few exploiters at the top. Everything I have said about Italy and Sweden can hardly be shocking to anyone who has lived in the UK in the recent period: in fact, the harsh truths of growing inequality and falling living standards apply more or less to the entire world today.
Why do I fight? Because no matter which country I move to, I see the suffering caused by the capitalist system we live in, and the inability of those who are unwilling to break entirely with it to solve any of our fundamental problems. We cannot wait any longer. We must break with capitalism once and for all. That’s what I’m fighting for.
by Dora Dimitrova, UCL Marxists