Perhaps no other elected official on the Left in the United States is more polarizing than Seattle’s socialist city councillor, Kshama Sawant. She embraces the controversy that comes with bringing class conflict to the arena of electoral politics, and her forthcoming book is reportedly entitled The Most Dangerous Woman in America.
Sawant has attracted wide media attention since her stunning election victory a year and a half ago. She has energized grassroots movements in Seattle and beyond, as shown by the remarkable spread of the 15 Now movement for a higher minimum wage.
Czech writers Lukáš Matoška and David Rakušan spoke with Sawant about a range of issues, including migrant justice, Black Lives Matter and the challenges facing the 15 Now, or Fight for 15, campaign. Asked about the prospects of the U.S. Left, Sawant argued that young people especially are fed up with the two-party system and open to radical and anti-capitalist alternatives.
How did you become a socialist?
I grew up in India. My oldest memory is the breathtaking contrast between a few people owning the vast amount of wealth and the majority of people living in poverty and misery, while the marginal middle class struggled to make a living. This state of society was always a logical question to me. It was very clear that this inequality was systemic.
I realized that it had everything to do with the way capitalism works. So I rejected all the old ideas that poverty is inevitable. Then I asked myself, how can we find an alternative way of organizing society to get a sustainable economy and a society in which rich natural resources are used to provide a high standard of living for everyone? It was clear to me that we need a system based on democratic ownership by the majority of people: in other words, socialism.
How did you achieve victory in the 15 Now campaign for a higher minimum wage?
We launched the 15 Now campaign soon after I was elected to the city council. The idea that we need to empower grassroots worker movements — not the existing unions — was crucial, as well as the idea that low-waged workers can come together and build a powerful mass movement in order to put pressure on both political and business establishments.
In the end, the establishment was no longer able to ignore the demand of $15 per hour because the campaign obviously had the support of the majority of people in Seattle. The campaign was based on the workers’ confidence. The bosses were trying to strongly oppose it, but they lost.
A couple of months have passed since the approval of the $15 per hour minimum wage. Is it possible to say how many people actually benefit from it?
It represents a transfer of $3 billion from the bosses to the lowest paid workers in Seattle. So it will be a huge increase in the standard of living for workers. There are about a hundred thousand workers in Seattle who used to make less than $15 an hour, so it is affecting all of them positively.
A socialist website in Oakland claims that the Seattle law "opens the door to all sorts of diversions – training wages, exceptions for exactly some of the low price leaders as far as low wages (franchises like McDonald’s), encourages businesses to hire and fire repeatedly, etc."
Politicians on the city council represent big business, corporations, the Chamber of Commerce and the super wealthy. These politicians push through corporate loopholes in the $15 per hour ordinance.
We were fighting against those corporate loopholes. At the end of the day we were not able to prevent some of them from being accepted.
We have to fight for absolutely everything we can get, but at the same time this is a reminder for us that we need even more powerful forces of the working class to win completely. It is also a lesson for campaigners from other cities who also started the 15 Now campaign, such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia.
What can a socialist representative do as a city council member? What are the limits?
We were able to win more than $1 million for city workers in order to raise them all to $15 per hour this January. In addition, we also won funding for transitional homeless encampments and shelters for homeless women.
It is possible to bring about concrete reforms in the interest of the working class. But it also raises the question of what the American Left is going to do in response to the broad political awakening of the people.
The U.S. may not be the best place for socialist politics. This is true historically — there has been strong propaganda against socialism.
But we live in a new period. A lot of people, especially the younger generation, see their lives unfold during the deepest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression. They do not see any future. This does not mean that they automatically become conscious socialists, but they are more open to alternative ideas of organizing society around the needs of the people.
At the same time, most Americans are completely disgusted with both the Democratic and Republican parties. Those on the Left, however, mostly end up voting for the Democrats because they do not see any alternative.
The real question is what the American Left will do. There is tremendous anger among people against income inequality as well as rage against big banks, hedge funds owners, and against all people who pillage our economy.
Our task is to channel all this anger into building massive political campaigns all around the country and to provide an alternative to the Democratic Party, because as long as people are tied to this party, they are implicitly tied to capitalism itself. If the American Left is serious, it needs to discuss an alternative to the big business parties and propose political structures in which the working class would have leadership.
In Seattle, I attempt to show how far one can go as a socialist elected official in winning reforms and raising the banner for alternative politics.
You mentioned the amount of popular anger against the system. On the one hand there was hope in the Occupy movement, which you were involved in, but it seems to me that this movement has partly disappeared. At the same time, reactionary movements such as the Tea Party are on the rise, and there are several frightening initiatives against migrants. So what are the real proportions of anger in the United States now?
People are completely fed up and frustrated by the political dysfunction of Congress. If the Left does not build a working-class movement, then, as in the case of the Golden Dawn in Greece, forces from the Right will try to exploit the anger.
The only way in which you can combat the rise of the Right is precisely to build forces of the Left by showing workers that the most effective approach to social change is to establish movements based on solidarity among various layers of the working population undivided by race, gender, and nationality.
People need to recognize that our real battle is not against each other but against a system that exploits us all.
You advocated a moratorium on the deportation of ‘illegal’ migrants. Migrants today are one of the most endangered groups. How do you address this issue in the Seattle city council and what is the situation of migrants in your constituency?
There are really incredible activist groups in Seattle and Vancouver, as well as networks of activist organizations in the U.S. and Canada that are working on the ground but also coordinating the struggle against deportations. They are fighting to empower immigrant communities.
Here in Seattle we are working in solidarity with the immense number of detainees in immigrant detention centres just outside Seattle. Detention centres here are, like many others, privately owned — corporations make a profit from imprisoning immigrants.
The process of detention and deportation completely breaks up families and affects children the most. We have to stand strong against this. We are calling in the city council to divert its funds from corporations that profit from holding immigrant detainees, often without charges.
But we are also in solidarity with activists who work with detainees inside those detention centres. Many detainees in detention centres are amazing political activists. They have carried out hunger strikes and we have been supporting them.
Another place of our involvement is in eastern Washington, where a lot of farming is done by immigrant workers. They are berry and fruit pickers struggling with really rough conditions and exploitation, and they have been involved in really courageous campaigns to unionise.
Well, the situation of migrants has a lot to do with racism. The world has been shocked by the level of racist police brutality in the United States. Is this also the case in your constituency?
Regardless of whether it is something that affects my constituency, it is crucial to have a strong position against racial injustice and racial bias policing.
But it is also the case in Seattle. The Seattle Police Department is currently under consent decree by the U.S. Department of Justice precisely because investigations revealed a systematic racial bias in the police department.
So it is also important here to stand with the black community and the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the demands of the black community we fully support is a democratically elected body that would have full control and oversight of the police department.
What are you planning in the coming months?
Obviously, a lot of work needs to be done. Seattle is a wealthy city situated in the wealthiest country in the world. But there is a massive income gap, and if you look at the statistics for the black community, it is disgraceful that such a wealthy city leaves so many people in poverty and without a basic infrastructure.
One of the most urgent campaigns that we need to fight this year is for housing justice. Skyrocketing rent is increasing beyond any imagination, because of the so-called free market.
But Seattle has the strongest GDP growth from all the metropolitan areas in the U.S. You cannot cross two blocks without seeing construction cranes. We have a construction boom going on and yet very few affordable housing units are being built, because this has been fuelled by speculative investment.
So there is an urgent need to build a campaign for housing justice. We have to continue fighting for tenant rights, for city dollars to be allocated in order to build affordable housing units, and for rent control.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.