- Interview by
- Meagan Day
On election night last month, Seattle’s socialist city council member Kshama Sawant trailed her opponent. The results seemed conclusive: Sawant had lost. The Stranger ran a piece under the headline, “Maybe Amazon Bought the Election — or Maybe Voters Were Sick of Sawant.”
Days later, Sawant had miraculously rebounded. She officially declared victory standing before a giant banner that read “Tax Amazon,” saying, “It looks like our movement has won, and defended our socialist city council seat for working people against the richest man in the world.”
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Sawant about the forces aligned against her in this recent city council race, the necessity of a socialist analysis for elected officials picking fights with corporations, and her counsel for socialists seeking office.
What concretely were you up against this past election? Who was your opponent, and what forces were being marshaled against you?
We’ve been in City Hall now for six years. In that time we’ve successfully used our office to win the historic $15 minimum wage. Seattle was the first major city to do it, and it has since gone nationwide. We then built on that victory by building a fightback of renters and those who want an affordable city. Seattle is deeply unaffordable and has an unprecedented and escalating homelessness crisis, and at the same time the number of millionaires and billionaires is growing.
So in the context of our unambiguous fight for working people and the marginalized, it was no surprise that our second reelection campaign came up against the entire might of the capitalist class in Seattle. The trillion-dollar multinational corporation Amazon led the charge in the attempt to defeat us. But we were also up against the entire Chamber of Commerce, the real-estate lobby, which is deeply opposed to our movement for rent control in Seattle, and all the large corporations that are bitterly opposed to being taxed in this city, with the most regressive tax system in the entire nation.
We also have a much more vocal right-wing element in Seattle, which has been emboldened by the Trump election and which has been peddling anti-homeless rhetoric. This element has been joined by big business interests who say they care about homeless people but oppose any rational and humane solution to the crisis.
And our opponent himself, the actual candidate who ran against us, was backed by these same corporations. His campaign donations versus our campaign donations reflect the deep class divide in the race. He got all the billionaires and the multimillionaires and the VPs and the CEOs of big tech and other corporations. Our campaign was being funded by ordinary people. In fact, if you look at the top five professions of donors to our campaign, it was tech workers, teachers, students, baristas, and bartenders.
So this was a fight between regular working people and the entire business class. The business side also included the Democratic Party political establishment, which was completely opposed to us, whereas the rank and file of the Democratic Party was supporting us from the beginning.
Last year you introduced a big business head tax proposal, which was intended to raise revenue to house the homeless. Amazon and others fought back hard then, too, and in that case they won the battle. What does that story tell us about the leverage that the capitalist class has over the state?
Yes, that’s very important. What happened with the Amazon tax struggle last year has a lot to do with the way the election shaped up this year — and I should say to begin with that we will be renewing the movement to pass this tax.
As I mentioned before, Seattle and Washington State have the nation’s most regressive taxes. Extremely wealthy households pay two or two-and-a-half percent, as opposed to the double-digit taxes that working people pay. And meanwhile, big corporations like Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft not only pay nothing, but when we add up all the subsidies they get because of the shady corporate subsidy laws passed by the state legislature and the Trump tax cuts, we see that these corporations are actually getting money back. Giving gifts of millions of dollars in cash to these corporations, it’s like almost like saying, “Thank you for exploiting us.”
Seattle is a booming city, but this is the story of capitalism — that boom has benefited only a very few at the top, whereas the rest of us are struggling to get by. You can see this manifest in the housing and homelessness crisis. There has been a construction boom in the city, but at the same time housing has become less affordable, not more affordable. We’ve seen two economic studies in peer review journals that reveal that there is a deep correlation between rent increases and increases in homelessness. For every hundred-dollar increase in the average rent, you see homelessness increasing by double digits.
A profit-based housing market makes more money for the venture capitalists, the big banks, the property management corporations, the corporate developers. But despite the construction boom, we are seeing unprecedented homelessness. Meanwhile, so many apartments are vacant. This is the perversity of capitalism.
This was the context in which there was overwhelming support in Seattle for taxing large corporations, not only because it’s a lopsided and deeply unfair tax system, but also because raising taxes on big business will allow us to raise the revenues that we will need in order to put in place a massive expansion of social housing, meaning publicly owned housing. Tenants in social housing would not pay any more than 25 or 30 percent of their income, no matter what their income is. That was one of the main components of why we fought for the Amazon tax.
And as you correctly pointed out, Amazon and Jeff Bezos led the charge against our tax proposal. At first our movement was strong enough to change the balance of forces and win a unanimous vote on the tax. But Amazon and other companies threatened to move their jobs, and less than a month later the majority of the council members and the mayor had moved to repeal the tax, saying that we are under threat by big business and proposing to reconsider with a referendum this year.
The story of the Amazon tax repeal has rich lessons for our movement because it should help put to rest this mythology that if only you talk to big business nicely, if only you try to bring Jeff Bezos to the table, somehow things will work out. Absolutely not. In fact, they will fight tooth and nail. They will go to war against an entire city if they have to, to defeat any attempts to change the power imbalance and the deep economic inequality in our society.
Capitalism as a system is set up in such a way that the vast majority of wealth is created in society by millions of working people going to work every day, all the way from industrial workers to librarians, to public school employees to warehouse workers and tech workers. But that wealth is siphoned off to the top, causing political clout and power to greatly consolidate at the top. In the absence of ordinary people fighting back, there is no clash. The status quo quietly chugs along in favor of the large corporations and the billionaires. But if you have a clash you can see business’s talons coming out. Their true nature, against the interests of working people, is forced out in the open.
This an example of why we need a socialist political analysis. The day I voted against the repeal, I told people that my vote reflects our overall politics as Socialist Alternative. Some of the well-meaning progressives voted to repeal it. They are not rotten, but they buy into this idea that we have to give in to bullying by Amazon. A socialist analysis says that’s the exact wrong thing to do in the face of a corporate bully. The answer is not to back down. The answer is to fight. Maybe you will be defeated. Maybe you will win. But regardless, backing down is not the answer.
Capital disinvestment is one of the primary threats capitalists hang over elected officials. And elected officials think, rationally in a way, that if there is capital disinvestment then the economy is going to tank, and then people will turn on them and they’ll lose their careers. This is a typical thought cycle even for well-meaning progressives. But what you’re saying is that we need to actually call capitalists’ bluff — and in calling their bluff, there are new political potentials that can be generated.
Absolutely. Socialists are not saying we should take these threats lightly, because we know the capitalist class has the power and the clout. However, the way to counter that is to not capitulate, because that means only one thing: a race to the bottom in city after city. And so unless we are asking working people to sign up for an endless and chronic race to the bottom, then we have to offer a fighting solution.
Amazon is a good example of how the billionaire class operates, but in Washington State, the company with more history is Boeing. Boeing has held our state hostage with the same concept, saying, “If you try to end the corporate loopholes or place any taxes on us, we will take jobs elsewhere.” In 2013, right after I came into office, the machinists’ union was shamefully sold out by the Democratic governor and the Democratic state legislature. They bought into the idea that if they don’t give Boeing what it wants, which at the time was a $9 billion corporate tax handout and setbacks on pensions for the machinists’ union, Boeing would take jobs away. So they gave them what they wanted, and Boeing moved jobs anyway to South Carolina.
Capital is always going to be in search of greener pastures. As long as there’s another group of workers in another city, in another state, in another country, in another continent that is more desperate and more willing to take less pay and fewer protections as workers, or is willing to forfeit their rights to form a labor union, the corporations will find them. The only way to push back against this global race to the bottom is for workers to understand that across national boundaries, across race, across language and ethnicity differences, we have a common thread tying us together, which is that we are all collectively being exploited by the system and the billionaires who have an interest in keeping the system intact.
We can choose a race to the bottom, or to fight back. In 2014, soon after I was elected, we began fighting for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, and business threatened us then. They said, “If you pass $15 an hour, we’ll be forced to close or take our jobs elsewhere.” None of that happened. Study after study has indicated that actually the economy was never affected by the minimum wage increase. Instead, what happened was the $15 movement that we initiated here went nationwide, and now twenty cities have won $15 an hour. That represents a transfer of $68 billion from bosses to the workers.
You were elected before the current socialist electoral wave. Since then the socialist movement has swelled, and many socialists are already running for office or considering it. What should socialists expect to be up against?
We in Socialist Alternative decided to run in the wake of the Occupy movement because we recognized that there was an opening for genuine left politics and even socialist ideas. We ran as openly socialist at that time, and this was before Bernie Sanders running for president in 2016 as a socialist. We saw the incredible impact his campaign had on consciousness, on the willingness of ordinary people, especially young people, to come out to the forefront of US politics.
The first thing I would say is that winning a campaign as a socialist will be hard, but the real challenges come when you take office. Just the act of taking office as a socialist doesn’t mean that the balance of power has shifted yet in any meaningful way. The whole point is to be unapologetic fighters for the people who are left out, and the fight will begin immediately.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it well when she said, “The halls of Congress are no joke. It is no joke. Standing up to corporate power and established interests is no joke. It’s not just about standing up and saying these things, but behind closed doors, your arm is twisted, the vise pressure of political pressure gets put on you, every trick in the book, psychological, and otherwise is to get us to abandon the working class.” I think that really eloquently captures the intense pressures you will come under as somebody who is genuinely fighting for working people. And that should not be underestimated.
A few weeks after I took office two of the leading Democratic Party establishment council members, who were thoroughly corporate politicians, came to my office, sat me down, and said, to paraphrase, “It’s all well and good that you roused the rabble and got yourself elected, but we’re here to tell you that City Hall runs on our terms, and you’re not going to pass any minimum wage increase.”
It’s not like when you get elected and start to fight for things like a $15 minimum wage the politicians will say, “Oh yeah, you’re actually right. Why didn’t we think of this? Let’s do it. Let’s make sure that the poorest workers are lifted up.” We immediately came up against this wall of opposition from big business and also from the party establishment. This is Seattle. We don’t have a Republican establishment to speak of. In reality, the political elite are represented in the Democratic Party, and those elite are tied to big business interests. The only reason we were able to win — and again, this is why socialist analysis is so important — is that we created a movement of ordinary people to fight with us against that Democratic Party establishment.
If you win, you will be told, “Okay, you ran a radical campaign. It’s not our preference, but it’s fine. Now you’re elected, and you need to stop being an activist.” Every socialist who gets elected is going to hear some version of that, presented as a truism. But if you believe it, it’s fatal. If you take that advice and think it’s time to stop being an activist and start being a respectable politician, you will limit yourself and your power. Being an elected official means lots of private meetings. You don’t have the working people who supported you and got you elected there. They don’t have a seat at the table. If you allow the powers that be in those meetings to exert pressure on you without building your own power outside the halls of power, you will be completely at a loss.
The whole strategy has to be building a base to change the balance of power, so we are not marginalized. As Bernie Sanders says, if it’s class warfare, which it is under capitalism, then we better start pushing back because it’s like aerial bombardment from the top. The only way to push back is to recognize where your power comes from, and to never stop organizing and mobilizing ordinary people, on the basis of building unity in the grassroots, around concrete demands.
And at the same time we must provide a critique of capitalism, so the fight isn’t just about winning reforms, but moving toward a new kind of system. For this, I think we’ll need a crystallization of another idea, which is the necessity of a new party for working people. Because I’ll tell you one thing: had I run as a Democrat, I would have been under intense pressure from the Democratic establishment to tone down my politics, to not be divisive as they say. Having Socialist Alternative as an actual organization with me is a big reason why I have been accountable and successful, and that offers a sort of template for the idea of a new party.
I should also say that if you win, you should be mentally prepared for hard work. One major component of holding local office is what’s called constituent work. Many ordinary people who live in your district or city will need things to be responded to, which you may not immediately see as political or politicized. But it is important to respond to people’s concerns if they’re genuine, because it’s the right thing to do no matter what, and on top of that it builds confidence in the minds of working people that socialists are actually trying to fix their problems. This kind of work requires a lot of time and effort, and is necessary to help transform political consciousness.
And finally, the battles you will be taking on will require courage. Physically, you are often by yourself, and you have to remind yourself that you’re representing the interests of working people. In that sense, they’re always there with you. You have to speak for them, and resist the pressures of the people who are around you. You’re not there for friendship with your colleagues. You’re not there for fun. You’re there to fight for working people.