INTERVIEW: Kshama Sawant, Newly Elected Socialist City Council Member

The following provides a brief look at an interview with the new Seattle City Councilor Kshama Sawant as it appeared in SALON:

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.

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.

The full interview may be found on SALON at http://www.salon.com/2013/11/18/capitalism_is_a_dirty_word_meet_the_nations_new_socialist_councilmember/

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