Capitalism is a “dirty word”: America’s new socialist council member talks to Salon

Newly elected, America's first big-city socialist council member in decades speaks to Salon

Topics: Kshama Sawant, Socialism, Seattle, elections, left, Democrats, Democratic Party, Barack Obama, Unions, Environment, Keystone XL, Minimum wage, interview,

Capitalism is a "dirty word": America's new socialist council member talks to SalonKshama Sawant (Credit: AP/Ted S. Warren)

On November 5, Seattle voters made Occupy activist and economics professor Kshama Sawant the first avowed socialist city council member in their city’s history – and the country’s first big city socialist council member in decades. In an interview Thursday – one day before her vote count lead spurred her opponent to concede the race – Sawant slammed Obama economics, suggested she could live to see the end of U.S. capitalism, and offered a socialist vision for transforming Boeing. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

It appears you’re on the cusp of winning a major city’s council race as a socialist. How did that happen?

I think the basis for everything that’s happening in Seattle, and everywhere else, is the fallout of the economic crisis … In Seattle, we are seeing a city that is very wealthy but is very unequal, and has become unaffordable for the vast majority of people …

Along with our [state Legislature] campaign last year and [city council] this year, we’ve seen a movement towards $15 an hour through the fast food movement … workers have courageously gone out on one-day strikes … The workers of [nearby airport city] SeaTac and the labor movement, they put a $15 an hour minimum wage initiative on the ballot for SeaTac city, and that is now leading …

All of this is happening in the cauldron of the economic crisis and the burden placed on the shoulders of working people … The conditions that shape people’s consciousness in Seattle are not different from anywhere else. And in fact, there is a deep frustration and disgust with the political system … This is the background in which our campaign has had a resounding echo.

After the 2008 financial crash, were you disappointed that there wasn’t more of a left turn in U.S. policy at the national level?

I think it’s been it’s been demoralizing for the left for a while. But at the same time, I think what we’re seeing is a slow but steady change, and the Occupy movement was a really significant expression of the disenchantment from the system that we knew that everybody was feeling…

In the absence of movements, especially mass movements, people tend to feel atomized, and everybody is privately thinking that “the system is not working for me.” The Occupy movement, what it did was it ended that silence and people were more openly talking about the economic crisis, the fact that the banks got bailed out and the rest of us were left with unemployment, low-wage jobs, and an epidemic of foreclosures and evictions. So I think, contrary to what people thought…It’s really been a period where newer, small but new movements are starting to rise up. There’s been the Occupy Homes campaign in Minnesota, which has actually prevented several foreclosures…And there’s been sort of initial eruptions of the environmental movement.

…Now, what [the] Left has to do is to recognize that there is an opening here, there is a hunger among people in the United States, especially young people, young working people…In reality, what has become a dirty word is capitalism. Young people can see that the system does not offer any solutions. They can see that a two-party system is not working for them. But what is the alternative? We have to provide the alternative…

Boeing workers…rejected this contract that has been forced on them by Boeing executives [who are] holding the state hostage to their demands…Every few years Boeing demands a massive corporate giveaway from the state, and the state each time gives into it – and this is a Democratic governor of the state who was leading this effort. For Boeing workers, it’s very clear that neither of the two parties is going to stand by them. And so the signal that it sends to the labor movement is that we have to have our own political organization.

So what is the most likely path in your view to making the United States more socialist?

I wouldn’t call it “more socialist,” in the sense that it doesn’t make sense: It can be either capitalism or socialism. But what we can do, in the journey toward making the economy into something that works for everybody: We have to fight for major reforms under capitalism … We are going to be pushing forward for $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle in 2014 …

The only way we can get that any of these demands to be fulfilled is if we have mass movements of workers and young people coming together in an organized way and demanding these reforms …

But we also have to be honest … That’s not going to be enough. Because the system itself is a system of crises … Capitalism does not have the ability to generate the kind of living wage jobs that will be necessary in order to sustain a decent standard of living for the majority … So we have to have a strategy where we not only fight for every reform that we can get, including single payer healthcare, but … It can’t be in isolation from also thinking about fundamental shift in society …

In all this discussion, we cannot ignore the questions about climate change that are looming large in terms of this. And capitalism has shown itself completely incapable of addressing this crisis. And in some ways that’s as compelling a reason as any to think about a fundamental shift.

Do you believe that capitalism can or will end in the United States in your lifetime?

I can’t give a definitive answer to that because it will depend on what role we play – you know, we as in working people, young people, older people, people who have a stake in changing society, you know – it’s in our hands … We have to point the way forward, and that is the responsibility of the left, and we’re trying to do that. But we need other forces to step in.

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We need the labor movement to play a huge role in this. And you know, one of the things that the labor movement can do is it can join hands with the environmental movement … The other thing the labor movement needs to do is run their own candidates, independent of the two parties, independent of corporate money, and show that it’s possible.

I mean, our campaign has shown that you don’t have to obey the rules.

In the best case scenario for you, the day that capitalism ended in the United States — how would that happen, what form would that transition take?

It would be difficult for me to lay out a blueprint of that. But … we can think about what it will require …

Capitalism is a system where it’s extremely productive, and productivity rates are at an all-time high, but the gains of the productivity are delivered almost exclusively to a very tiny elite at the top …

Boeing has an enormous factory, [as well as] all the auto factories that are lying defunct right now in the U.S. — they all have enormous capacity for production. And there’s any number of workers with the skills, and people who have the potential of learning those skills. And instead we have a situation where, because we don’t have a say in the production, either the machines are lying idle, or the machines are being used to produce destructive machines like drones.

So what we need to do is to take the machines and the factories into democratic, say, democratic ownership — and the workers can contribute rail cars or buses, something like that, something that is beneficial to society. And that’s something that creates jobs — it will create living wage jobs …

That’s the kind of system that we need, where the decisions on what to do with resources, and what to produce, how much of it to produce, that is made in accordance with democratic principles, and in accordance with what human society needs, not because the Wal-Mart CEO needs to make 2 percentage points more profits this quarter.

Under that vision of socialism, would there still be a Seattle City Council?

Absolutely. There has to be elected representation. There would still be unions. There has to be accountability.

What will change is how democracy actually functions. I mean, today we have a certain level of democracy — I mean, when you look at the vote, that’s true. And we are running within the system. But it’s a very limited form of democracy. You know, in order to get your message across, if you are a campaign with loads of corporate money, it’s easier for you. If you’re going against the status quo, it’s harder … And voters themselves are disenfranchised in so many ways …

Democracy is nonetheless absolutely the bedrock of socialism. In fact, I would say that democracy is absolutely critical for this vision to come alive. And in fact democracy is antithetical in many ways to capitalism. And in fact this democracy that we have is something that allows us to do a little bit within the system, but that’s not what the capitalist class want. I mean, they do not want us to fight for $15 an hour, they don’t want to give that. But we’re able to fight for it within the system. But that’s despite capitalism, not because of capitalism.

President Obama told the Business Roundtable – speaking of “the capitalist class” – in his first term that he’s an “ardent believer in the free market,” and that he sees three roles for government: to create rules for a level playing field; to provide things that individuals can’t do for themselves; and to provide a social safety net. What do you make of that kind of politics?

First of all, I think Obama is being quite honest … he believes in capitalism. And so for people to have the faith that he is going to really fight against those ideas … there is no basis in reality for that …

I would say that the “free market” is basically free for the super-wealthy, and extremely un-free for the rest of us. Because they dictate the terms. And so this idea that the free market can generate conditions where social programs can thrive and a level playing field can be created — it is an oxymoron. Because what the capitalist market does – and that’s what they call the “free market” – is that if you are a big player, like one of the oil companies, then you are in the best position to consolidate your wealth even further … One of the systematic, statistical realities under capitalism is intergenerational transmission of wealth and intergenerational transmissions of poverty …

I often ask my students, “What do you think is the best way of making money under capitalism?” They often give me interesting answers, like maybe [creating] an app for an iPhone … I tell them, “Look, the best way of making money under capitalism is to have money in the first place” …

You also hear people saying, well, it’s “crony capitalism” or it’s “disaster capitalism” or some other capitalism. Well, the fact is, you know, they’re all dancing around [that] this is capitalism … It’s not built into the system that the goal is to ensure that socially responsible life is possible. The goal is to maximize profits for those who already have wealth …

The reality is that capitalism rewards the biggest corporations and it tends toward monopoly. That is what capitalism is.

If you end up on the city council, how different is your agenda on the council and your voting record going to be from the liberal Democrats on the Seattle City Council?

Most of them are typical, homogenous block of more pro-Big Business conservative advocates, although in name they’re all Democrats … Seattle, like most major cities of the United States, is ruled by the Democratic Party establishment. And all of the problems that we see here, you know, crisis of affordable housing, low-wage jobs and all of those things, lie at the doorstep of the Democratic Party …

One [example] was a vote on whether the city should allow regulated homeless encampments … a very necessary stopgap measure to protect families from the ravages of homelessness. And my opponent … was the fifth vote that crushed it …

Another example — this is also politically really instructive — is the paid sick leave for Seattle workers  … That was possible because rank-and-file workers and the labor movement took it on themselves — I mean, they were the ones who championed it. They were out on the streets demonstrating and demanding that the council pass a paid sick leave initiative … That, in combination with the fact that there are one or two more progressive voices on City Council who took that on and pushed for it, ensured that basically the issue was passed … My opponent [cast the] sole vote against it. That one thing should be enough for people to not elect him again, because that was a completely unconscionable thing to do…

When we launched our campaign, and it was early this year, no one else was talking about $15 an hour except for us and the fast food workers, and all the corporate candidates — including the mayoral candidates — were very, very carefully avoiding it … Ultimately, it was impossible for the corporate candidates to ignore, and toward the end of the campaign you had both of the mayoral candidates putting on paper that they support $15 an hour …

What I can do on the City Council as one socialist is really far more than what people imagine it to be. Because it won’t just be my voice … to talk to other council members, but it’s also going to be to continue to really encourage and to invite public pressure into it. Which is how this camp succeeded.

Are there countries that you look to as good examples of socialism?

There is no real full example … but there are elements of what we are talking about in our vision for a future society …

In the United States, the creation of the welfare program in the first place. The creation of Social Security. All the advances that have been made in women’s rights and LGBT rights — a lot of this is well within the vision of what I would consider a really humane society in the future, and what I consider socialism … The gains that we have today are very consistent with our vision for a socialist society, and also they came about because a lot of these movements were headed by socialists.

And there are elements of socialism or socialist society in many other countries as well. So if you look at Finland and the funding for public education, how strong the teachers’ unions are, the full funding for healthcare in Cuba, also education. These are all elements that we would want to see put in place in a future society.

But at the end of the day, it’s not possible to have socialism in one country … If resources are organized globally along capitalist lines, it’s just not possible to provide that really high standard of living that some people have to everybody else  …

[A] small section of the working class has attained a really good standard of living. But first of all, that was not delivered to the vast majority. And secondly, and more importantly, those kinds of living are starting to disappear … It’s a politics of austerity in Europe, and all of these programs are under major assault. And so that shows you that you can’t have socialism in one country, and you can’t stop at social democracy. You can’t stop at having reforms … We have to have a fundamental shift.

In the past few decades, has the United States been moving closer toward that ideal of socialism, or further away from it?

As far as what has been happening broadly in the economy, no, it hasn’t been moving closer to socialism. And in fact what’s been happening is that some of the gains of the post-Second World War era, the creation of the middle class, for example, the funding for public education, a lot of these things are under attack … You don’t have to be a socialist economist for someone to admit that the middle class is fast disappearing. You know, Paul Krugman talks about it. So that’s going in the wrong direction.

What it shows is that, you know, when there is a major crisis in capitalism, the people who are going to be squeezed are working people.

When did you become a socialist and what brought you to socialism?

Consciously, I became a socialist when I came to Seattle, and I just happened to attend a meeting where somebody from Socialist Alternative gave a speech. And for me, there was — that was exactly what I was looking for. And I haven’t looked back since then.

But I would say more accurately that I have always been a socialist, but less consciously. From my very childhood, it was just the experience of growing up in Mumbai, India, and seeing just the ocean of poverty and misery all around me. And for me, it was not simply a question of outrage or fellow-feeling. Of course that’s the starting point, but for me it’s a logical question as well. Which is: How is it possible that there is so much wealth in society, and you can see that there are so many wealthy people who are just wealthy beyond measure, and you have such unimaginable poverty and misery, and just absolute horrendous conditions that human beings are living in …

It just seemed very, just unacceptable to me logically that that situation was a natural one. I mean, I could see that it had nothing to do with resources or productivity. It was clearly a political obstacle to eliminating poverty.

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