THE LUXURIOUS quinceañera after a field trip to the slums. The bus packed just with women—all domestic workers—heading back from the rich part of town. The school employees who called us children “doctors” out of deference. You didn’t have to be particularly disadvantaged to find social injustice in Brazil. It was everywhere.
My leftism was born out of moral indignation. It felt immoral that I could get a tech internship at age 16 and make more money than half the country. It felt immoral that I was guaranteed a spot in college, while many paulistanos didn’t even know that the University of São Paulo existed. At some point, I realized that Brazilian society demanded radical wealth redistribution. And so, I became a socialist.
At first, my socialism was wholly about solidarity—I had nothing to ask for myself. I had the luxury of spending my free time reading about Brazilian history, just because I thought it was the most interesting thing in the world. I could teach myself to code, just because I found it fun. Not unlike an aristocrat, I had the freedom to go wherever my inclinations led me. The problem was: most couldn’t.
Something changed, though, as I started applying to US schools. Then, I discovered that knowing history was not marketable to admissions officers. That having superficial markers of success was more important than doing meaningful things. That I had to measure myself through others’ expectations if I wanted to get anywhere. And at that moment, a large part of my freedom was taken away.
I let it happen, because I thought I would get it back soon enough. With a degree from Stanford or the like, I figured I’d be set for life. But once I got in, it didn’t feel that way. It was hard to ignore money when CS majors were making more in their first jobs out of college than an academic ever would. It was hard to ignore prestige when it led to opportunities I wouldn’t get otherwise. I felt guilty for not networking enough, and I had anxious, sleepless nights after choosing to become a student of history. It seemed wrong to spend days in the archive when aspiring CEOs appeared to be out “changing the world.”
But at least history was an option for me. Others had to choose whatever brought money home: they had to drop classes to work toward paying off loans and tuition; they had to turn down a personal project for a prestigious internship. Dialectically, this turned out to be liberating—at the end of the day, it was better to be in the system than exiled to its margins.
And yet, being in was not enough. Even those at the top of the stairs of meritocracy were short on freedom. They still had to cede to their parents’ demands. They still turned down activism for Stanford in Government. They still wrote applications instead of poetry. The chains of “generating value” bound them just as tightly—psychologically, if not materially.
There is some justice to these psychological chains. They seem to stem from fair competition—something that I’d never really faced at home. And maybe that’s the reason I came to see meritocracy as alienating. But even this slight bit of fairness should not console us. We must not be satisfied with a system that is, at its best, fairer in its distribution of misery. We must not be satisfied with a world in which you climb to the top only to decide how others should be spending their time. We must not be satisfied with a society in which, in Marx’s words, “man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him.”
Socialism demands that anyone be able to do “one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” And it is our goal to ensure that everyone achieves this freedom. Some lack it more than others, and we at Stanford have it more than most. But just the same, all of us need it.
Socialism is for you, too. The Sphere is here to show you it’s still worth fighting for.
Daniel “Bob” Ferreira
Picture: Homeless people with the University of São Paulo Law School in the background. (Credit: Lalo de Almeida/Folhapress)