There's a way to defeat the billionaires: Kshama Sawant has been doing it

Jeff Bezos and the Democratic Party are devoted to stopping Kshama Sawant. She has her eyes on a bigger prize

Published June 1, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared at ScheerPost. Used by permission.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative (SA) party have, for nearly a decade, waged one of the most effective battles against the city's moneyed elites. She and the SA have adopted a series of unorthodox methods to fight the ruling oligarchs and, in that confrontation, exposed the Democratic Party leadership as craven tools of the billionaire class. Her success should be closely studied and replicated in city after city if we are to dismantle corporate tyranny.

Sawant, who lives on $40,000 of her $140,000 salary and places the rest into a political fund that she uses for social justice campaigns, helped lead the fight in 2014 that made Seattle the first major American city to mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Following a three-year struggle against Jeff Bezos, one of the world's richest men, she and her allies pushed through a tax on big business that increased city revenues by an estimated $231 million a year. She was part of the movement that led to Seattle's successful ban on school-year evictions of school children, their families and school employees. She was one of the sponsors of a bill that protects tenants from being evicted at the end of their term leases, requiring landlords to provide tenants with the right to renew their leases and a bill that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent if the rent was due during the COVID emergency and the renter could not pay due to financial hardship.

The billionaire class has targeted her since Sawant assumed office in January 2014. It has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a corporate PAC called "A Better Seattle" and saturated television and digital platforms with negative advertising. Sawant and the SA have been denied ads by Google, YouTube and Hulu. Amazon alone spent more than $3 million to defeat her when she ran for re-election in 2019. In December, Sawant defeated a well-funded campaign by the city's business community to remove her in a recall vote. The Democratic Party in Seattle is currently trying to gerrymander her district to separate her from working-class supporters.

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You can watch my full interview with Sawant, who has a PhD in economics from North Carolina State University, here. Below I have summarized some of her guiding principles.

Always be on the offensive

The billionaire class orchestrated a recall vote last year which they expected would put Sawant on the defensive and remove her from office. Rather than let the oligarchs define the themes of the recall, she and her party used it to collect 15,000 signatures to establish rent control. She rejects the attempt to placate the centers of power by resorting to "moral persuasion and prioritizing peaceful" opposition. This, she says, is a recipe for failure. She is not interested in "cordial relationships" with big business, establishment politicians, the Democratic Party and business lobbyists. They are the enemy. We will not succeed, she says, by "talking nicely" to "convince rich people to hand a little bit of crumbs to those of us who don't have any."

The capitalists, she says, along with the media outlets they control, promote the idea of cooperation so that the public is "lulled into this idea that we're all on the same side, this is a shared situation, that COVID was a shared sacrifice." This belief disempowers working men and women.

"The very essence of capitalism is that the very wealthy at the top make this enormous profit at the expense of ordinary people," she says. "The only way to address the class war is through class struggle."

The Democratic Party cannot be reformed from the inside

Sawant is one of nine city council members. The other eight are Democrats. The Democrats often rhetorically support progressive reforms, but as is true nationally, they have little intention of implementing them. Sawant's radicalism has exposed the Democratic Party's duplicity. The Democratic Party has repeatedly joined forces with the oligarchs, many of whom are their donors, to destroy Sawant. The self-identified progressives in the Democratic Party, she says, play "a role which is contrary to the interests of working people. Every step of the way they have placed obstacles in the path of winning these victories." She notes that every victory she and her allies achieved, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and the renter's rights laws, "has come about despite the overt or backroom opposition and tactics by the Democrats." These victories were won not by appealing to the Democratic Party leadership, but by mobilizing union members and workers to fight for them.

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"One of the first things that happened when I took office was these two prominent Democrats, Democratic council members who came into my office, sat me down, and said, 'Well it's all well and good' — I mean, I'm paraphrasing, obviously I don't remember the exact words — but paraphrasing, 'It's all well and good, you roused the rabble and got elected as a socialist, but we're here to tell you that City Hall runs on our terms,'" she says. "'You are not winning any wage increase, let alone $15 an hour.' And less than six months later, we had won the $15 an hour minimum wage. So that about sums it up for the Democrats."

Sawant is one of nine city council members. The other eight are Democrats. As is true across the country, they rhetorically support progressive reforms, but have no intention of implementing them.

"The Biden administration has completely failed," she says. "You don't have to take the word of a socialist. You can see the approval ratings for Biden are as low as they've ever been throughout his presidency. It's not just him. The Democratic establishment, including his regime, has completely failed in passing any kind of progressive program, whether it is $15 an hour or Medicare for All. He promised to cancel student debt and not even a fraction of that measure has been carried out. This is exactly the reason why now we are staring into potential clobbering of the Democrats by the Republicans and by the right wing in the midterm elections."

If radical New Deal-type reforms are not implemented, right-wing populism and Christian fascism will flourish

Sawant and the SA have not only been targeted by the billionaire class and the Democratic Party but by the extreme right. Campaign volunteers have been harassed and threatened. The former police union president Ron Smith, who like many in law enforcement is sympathetic to the extreme right, called for Sawant to be handcuffed as Seattle police actively worked to have her removed via the recall vote. The best way to battle the extreme right, she argues, is to implement reforms that ameliorate widespread suffering. If this is not done, the extreme right will grow.

"The extent to which right populism succeeds is a testament to the failures of the Democratic Party and the infancy of the left, the U.S. left," she says. "How much the right succeeds, and how much of a clash there will be, is dependent on how the balance of forces adjusts itself. If the agenda for a living wage adjusted for inflation, for Medicare for All, for canceling student debt, for a real Green New Deal policy agenda, if all of this were put forward by the Democrats, they would be able to win over a big section of the voting population that ends up either staying out of the elections or voting for Republicans and the right wing. There is a genuinely dangerous and reactionary current on every continent, but to the degree to which they get traction, that entirely depends on what else is on offer."

"Working people in America right now are searching for answers," she says. "It is because of the disappointments in the electoral arena, the disappointments from ... being unable to deliver on the promise of this enormous Black Lives Matter movement that happened in 2020, because of all these reasons that young people are testing the avenue of labor organizing. It's amid this complete failure and disarray that the Democrats are in, that the workers at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island were able to win the first-ever union in Amazon. And the reason they were able to win is precisely, again, because they used class-struggle methods to convince their co-workers."

Identity politics will not win over the working class

The Democratic Party and the liberal class have replaced a genuine political agenda with what Sawant calls "woke soundbites." 

She describes this tactic as "dangerous" and argues that most of the American working people "are already won over to the ideas of a society that genuinely respects everybody around us." Two-thirds of Americans, for example, support the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which is likely to be overturned any day now. The barrier for progressive change, Sawant argues, is not racism but the leadership of the Democratic Party, including the "Squad," the labor movement and the leadership of social movements such BLM. Identity politics "is not the way to win over working-class people," she says. "That is handing a weapon to the right wing on a golden platter."

Be wary of labor leaders allied with the Democratic Party

Sawant warns that most labor leaders, along with social activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, who are allied with the Democratic Party exist for photo-ops and to "co-opt our movements."

Amid the "complete failure and disarray" of the Democratic Party, she observes, Amazon workers on Staten Island were able to win a union contract.

"We should be wary of them," she says. Our best hope lies in the mobilization of rank-and-file workers. She points out that the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) succeeded at the JFK warehouse "because they did not use what I would call business unionism, basically the conventional ideas that have existed in the labor movement, in the Democratic Party, and even among social movement and NGO leaders, that the way to organize for change and even to win a union election or to win a good contract is to think about the margins — this mythical idea of a few labor leaders at the bargaining table, and not mobilizing the rank and file."

The ALU "led with concrete demands and "didn't talk about the union as an abstract entity," Sawant says. The ALU focused on winning a $30-an-hour starting wage, job security, a say in scheduling and the ability to work full-time if desired. "The other thing that they did right was to make it very clear that the bosses are not on your side. They didn't cultivate illusions that somehow they could convince management and Jeff Bezos to be nice just by making morally persuasive arguments." 

Political campaigns must be organized around demands, not personalities

Politicians, even self-identified progressive politicians, she says, have "made peace with the capitalist system." They falsely believe they can negotiate with the billionaire class and barter for a few progressive reforms. This tactic, she says, has failed. "The Biden administration is in shambles precisely because that approach does not work. And it also calls into question how far we are going to aim to change society."

"If you look at the data on the climate crisis, it is very clear," Sawant says. "We have a very small window in which we need to make a fundamental shift away from capitalism. And for that, we will need mass movements of workers. We will need mass revolutionary struggle led by working people, ordinary people, to bring about that kind of change. That kind of change, flowing from the needs of the planet itself, cannot happen through elections."

"If we look at the data on the climate crisis, we need to make a fundamental shift away from capitalism. For that, we will need mass revolutionary struggle led by working people."

"Campaigns need to be organized around demands, not around personality politics," she says. "The way to run a strong electoral campaign is to, as I said, completely reject personality politics, completely reject careerism and build political organizations like Socialist Alternative. Except we need far bigger organizations where we can hold our elected representatives and other leaders in the organization accountable in the program of demands that we are fighting around. This becomes the central focus, not those individuals who could then use those positions to build their own careers by making themselves useful to the ruling class. That's what we need to reject."

Focus campaigns on the 80 million people who do not vote

Sawant and the SA reject the Democratic Party's tactic of focusing on centrist or likely voters. They mobilize those who are often part of the 80 million eligible voters who don't cast ballots, including immigrants, those living in public housing and marginalized communities. She and her party distribute campaign material in eight languages. This tactic has built a new political base. In one heavily East African building in Seattle, for example, turnout was nearly 10 times what it was in the general election.

The Democratic Party, she claims, lacks a commitment to disillusioned and disenfranchised voters. Its "primary task is to be useful for the ruling class under capitalism, but the way they do it is by speaking from both sides of their mouth. For example, they will talk about $15 an hour. Every so often you will see Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweet out saying it's time for Medicare for All. But then, when it comes time to fight for it, they will use their progressive status to give cover for the Biden regime." They do not, for this reason, have any interest in mobilizing workers. "We would not have won our elections had we not mobilized a whole section of the population that is typically disenfranchised. Not because they don't have the legal right to vote, but because there's nothing for them to vote for." 

The engine for change will be a militant labor movement independent of the Democratic Party

Sawant expects the Democrats to take "an absolute shellacking" in the midterms.

"The prospect of a Trump resurgence is also a very real one, unfortunately, at this point," she says. "That's how dangerous the whole debacle of the Biden regime has been. The only way to cut across that and create a genuine alternative to right populism that could unite most working-class people in America is through working-class politics."

New labor leaders, she says, will need to rally workers around a common working-class based program in defiance of traditional unions and the Democratic Party. She points to the labor uprisings by teachers in West Virginia in 2018 "who won an enormous victory by standing up not only to the Republican-led legislature in the state, but also to the leaders of their own unions, who were not willing to take a fighting approach to winning a strong contract, and to maintaining solidarity across the board among public school employees." She is also encouraged by the example of Starbucks workers now in nationwide unionization drives in hundreds of stores. "All of this is telling us the way to push back against corporate politics, to push back against the failures of the Democrats and to defeat the rise of the right wing is to build struggles of the working class where we're able to unite a majority of working people on a common working-class-based program."

None of this, she cautions, is going to be automatic. "We need a courageous rank and file leadership to make that happen. A labor leadership that is tied at the hip to the Democrats is not going to be the force of change. The force of change will be a revival of the militant labor movement."

Read more on progressives and the Democratic Party:

By Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a columnist at ScheerPost. He is the author of several books, including "America: The Farewell Tour," "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" and "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." He previously worked overseas for the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR, and hosted the Emmy-nominated RT America show "On Contact."

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