Is Seattle's Socialist City Council Member Going to Show Us How to Ditch the Two-Party System?
Kshama Sawant is going to try, at least.
Kshama Sawant rallying her Red Army in Seattle last month. Photo via Flickr user Shannon Kringen
Good news, comrades: Socialism is in vogue again. Since the financial crisis exposed our national economy as little more than one very large shell corporation, left-wing protest movements—Occupy Wall Street chief among them—have popped up around the country, feeding on public opinion that has been steadily shifting away from capitalism and in favor of the red alternative.
Occupy stubbornly refused to engage the elctoral system, a tactical choice that arguably contributed to its speedy flameout in 2012. But one avowed Marxist who doesn't shy away from getting her hands dirty is Kshama Sawant, an Indian-born economics professor who stormed to a seat in the Seattle City Council as an avowed member of the Socialist Alternative Party last November. She's focused on making tangible changes now even if the endgame is more fundamental upheaval later: Her signature issue these days is a plan to institute a $15 minimum wage, which would quickly make Seattle one of the best places to work in the country. (For frame of reference, President Barack Obama's much weaker $10.10 national minimum wage proposal has divided his own Democratic Party.)
Rather than branding her as a fringe figure, Sawant's loud and proud left-wing views have earned her massive grassroots support—a show of force that has turned heads among local political insiders.
"I'm sort of amazed at how far she's gotten," said Seattle Democratic political consultant Cathy Allen, before qualifying that assessment with a reminder that the S-word is still an explosive one: "I got my very first 'Let's go recall this woman!' letter the other day."
Apparently Change.org, that nefarious repository of pseudo progressive astroturf, is going after Sawant under the guise of a group called Sustainable Wages, which wants to chill out and cut a deal with local business leaders. I called Sawant up to ask about the minimum wage fight, what it's like to be socialist in a country where that used to be a bad word (and kind of still is), where she sees her career going next, and whether it makes sense to vote for Democrats.
VICE: How have you been received as a socialist in the City Council so far in general? Any weird vibes?
Kshama Sawant: For a long time—and this is nothing unique to Seattle—city government and state government and indeed the federal government have been places where despite the differences between the Democratic and Republican Party, people carry on business as usual. And even well-meaning people who get into politics because they want to make a change ultimately bow down to the logic of business-as-usual corporate politics. And so from that starting point, it's definitely a sea change in Seattle to have not only an avowed socialist but a socialist who is not simply talking about socialism as a philosophical construct but really using the political analysis as a socialist to actively work toward change today.
What's really bringing about a shift is not so much that I'm a socialist but the fact that I'm unambiguously fighting for the working class, for $15 an hour. It's been a great opportunity to show that it's not only possible but extremely important for the working class to have our own representatives in government whom we can hold accountable to our interests. It's a good challenge to this artificial dichotomy I don't subscribe to [the view] that you can only work on a movement and to enter electoral politics automatically becomes corrupting. We need to build a strong mass movement around issues like $15 an hour, but also need to run independent candidates who push for our interests, and aid development of our movements. It's inevitable that I'd ruffle some feathers, but I think if I wasn't making some people uncomfortable, I'd wonder If i was doing the right thing.
What's going on with the minimum wage campaign? Mayor Ed Murray held a press conference the other day basically saying he needed more time to hash it out, right?
He had indicated several times that he would announce a recommendation that he would take to the City Council, but at the press conference he did not announce anything, and [instead] said that he had got a majority of the committee to agree on something but he would have peferred to have a supermajority and he would rather take longer and get it right than rush it and get it wrong. He refused to talk about the specifics of the proposal, which was confusing to me because as I understood it the community had already had a meeting before his press conference. I was not informed or anything like that. And also he said in the press conference that there was broad agreement on certain principles, and some of the principles I really don't agree with.
How did you first get involved with politics?
I grew up in India, in Mumbai, and my family was not rich by any means, but we were also not desperately poor. And the earliest memory I have of my childhood—and most vidid—was a just logical question of why there should be poverty when there's clearly so much wealth and so much technological capability in human society. That just did not make sense to me. And all the answers I got were so completely unsatisfactory. It was clearly something that was happening because a certain set of forces was causing it. And that in a nutshell is what a Marxist would describe capitalism as, except I was too young and didn't have that vocabulary.
When I came to the US, I was so struck by how even in a wealthy country there's so much poverty, and even basic things like mass transit are so undeveloped. It would shock me that I would have to buy a car to get a loaf of bread or a carton of milk from a grocery store and that I couldn't walk or hop on a bus. I was just struck by how much homelessness and misery there is. So that was the next state of my understanding: Clearly this is something international.
I went to get an economics PhD, little knowing that economics under capitalism was really intellectual acrobatics to justify capitalism. But it was a early solid grounding for me to prepare for arguing against capitalism and its spokespeople. When I came to Seattle it was just a chance encounter that I went to a meeting where a socialist organizer was speaking, and it was like, Boom! That's it! That was five years ago.
How would you describe your personal political style and ambitions?
First of all I would say that there's a big difference between how we conduct political campaigns in the Socialist Alternative—Marxist revolutionary campaigns—and bourgeois, corporate, conventional politics, where campaigns are initiated by an individual wanting to have a political career. In Socialist Alternative, that's not how we perceive it. The starting point is having a finger on the pulse of political events and getting what we need to do for the working class. We fight for reform under capitalism without any illusions that that will be enough.
Would you ever run for mayor or higher office?
The question of the candidate comes afterward, the candidate is something that is voted on, not something that I personally choose. This is something that I have to do because it is my duty and it's been decided by the organization. What we do going forward will be decided in a similar fashion. If we want to run—we do—we talk about running more candidates. We're open to working with other forces on the left. So the decisions about what I will do are not up to me, they're up to SA and what we decide collectively. We have to stay accountable to the working class. I take home only $40,000 out of $117,000 that the City Council pays. The rest is put into a solidarity fund for the socialist movement.
How can the broader left-wing movement build on your success and get more people in office, especially outside big cities like Seattle?
It won't be an exact replica of what we did. But one thing is clear: There's an opening nationally for left-wing candidates to run anti-corporate campaigns against big business and against the parties of big business, which are both Democrats and Republicans. It has to be openly defying the Democratic Party and Republican Party, and calling people to action on that basis. I don't know what that will look like. The opening, the possibility of running a campaign is everywhere, because people everywhere in the US are completely disgusted with the two parties. And it's important to do that, because the Democratic Party is starting to realize there's massive discontent among the people they rely on for votes: young people, people of color, immigrants, and so on. And there will be forces in the Democratic Party that will try to co-opt the new energy. We on the left have to be viligant about that and explain to people that putting all your eggs in the Democratic basket is not the solution no matter what you hear from them. We have to build our forces independently.
Is there a reason leftists should vote for Democrats? For example, Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren are emerging as populist leaders, inspiring hope the party will find some kind of soul again.
First of all I would make a distinction between someone like de Blasio and Warren. I have enormous respect for Warren, I think she's sincere, but I would say that precisely because she is genuine, she needs to become an independent as a challenge to the Democratic Party. If you look at every single example where the left tries to work within the Democratic Party and push the debate in the interest of the environment or the interest of the working class, it hasn't worked. How is it that environmentally-minded people were a big part of the base that put Obama into power and he has no response [to global warming]?
If you look at what happened with the healthcare issue, the majority of the people who were Democrats wanted single payer or a strong public option. Those progressive causes, the true agenda of social justice, gets thrown by the wayside and we're always told this is not the right time, don't rock the boat. It's never the right time. As far as de Blasio is concerned, he ran a populist campaign, he had a populist message, he won 70 percent of vote. It shows that people are hungry for change and they're tired of the establishment. While that's a very important first step, notice the fact that at his inauguration he had the Clintons [in attendance].
As a strategy, working from within the Democratic Party has proven to not be of much use. It's also insidious in some ways because it ends up channeling a lot of the movement-building energy into the Democrats. Look at what happened to the labor movement. Teachers unions have been pounded away at, and yet year after year labor leadership goes in with millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers in one [Democratic] campaign after another. It's been proven to be a failed strategy. We have to run independent candidates.
If you ask a random person walking on the street, "What do you think of the political system?" they'll tell you they're frustrated. But if you ask them, "So what about this Democrat, what about Hillary Clinton?" they might sound excited. The reason you have this disconnect between overall disgust with the political system and excitement about part of the establishment is that people don't have the experience of real alternatives. It's that feeling of low morale that makes people put their faith in establishment figures like Hillary Clinton. You feel like there's nothing else out there. Which is precisely why we need to run genuine independent candidates—not just independent by name—and run against the DemGOP agenda. We took no money from big business, we ran an unabashedly pro-working class campaign. We took on the might of big business in Seattle, and while we were doing that we tried to build a movement.
The other source of confusion is identity politics. People tend to think Obama is African American and that's a positive thing, Hillary Clinton is a woman and that's a sign of progress. On one hand, yes, women had to fight to get the right to vote, and we continue to struggle against racism, so if you see a woman or person of color in a leading role, it appeals to activists who fought for that. But unfortunately Hillary Clinton is not representing those interests, Obama is not representing those interests. It's a question of which class they are loyal to.
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