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United States: How socialist Kshama Sawant defeated her capitalist opponent

Click HERE for more on Kshama Sawant's election campaign and those of other socialists.

January 5, 2014 -- Black Sheep Radio -- Just a few weeks after Kshama Sawant was victorious running as a socialist for the Seattle City Council, and on the eve of her inauguration on January 6, 2014, we interviewed Anh Tran, Sawant’s assistant for the campaign. Tran also served as the volunteer coordinator for Sawant when she ran for the Washington State Legislature in 2012, so talking to Tran we were able to get a sense of the wider arc of the Seattle election.

For the interview, our main focus was trying to obtain a clear understanding of the campaign for the wider public; the Sawant election seems to have the attention of a wide swathe of US radicals (with greatly differing impressions) and it seemed important to have some basic interaction with the campaign to understand what was happening. One thread that continues through the interview is a discussion trying to understand how the campaign worked and why the participants thought that it was able to succeed.

* * *

Andrew Sernatinger: Why you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Anh Tran: For this last campaign, I worked as Kshama’s assistant. I came on because I was on the last campaign as the events coordinator and the volunteer coordinator. I started as a member of Socialist Alternative. I’m also a former student of Kshama’s when she taught macroeconomics as Seattle University.

AS: Can you tell us about what you did in the campaign this time around?

I was in charge of managing Kshama’s schedule, politically preparing her for her speeches, interviews, debates, and pretty much all of her public appearances. I would accompany her to many of them, just to make sure she was getting everything done that she needed to. I made sure she took care of herself, took care of any extra tasks that she had that would be overwhelming to her, kind of like being her right-hand person.

Tessa Echeverria: I was curious because the last time I heard of Kshama’s campaign she was running for state assembly and came out here to Madison to give a talk about that. How did this campaign for city council come about?

I would have to start by talking about how the last campaign started. When the Occupy movement was winding down, we wanted to continue the spirit of the movement somehow, so we wanted to take Occupy to the elections—it was a presidential election year and all eyes were focused on the elections. We thought, “Why not Occupy the elections?”

We brought the message of Occupy to the Washington State House of Representatives race. We usually don’t run campaigns, its not what Socialist Alternative has traditionally done, but we felt that there was an unprecedented opening that existed for third-party politics to be built and for the ideas of socialism to spread on a mass scale, beyond small study groups or whatever we’re all used to.

There was an unprecedented success and we got a historic vote for a socialist. Because of that, we felt that we had a responsibility to the movement to continue another election to build working class politics this year. It was a responsibility to the success we had last year to continue.

There were a bunch of immediate needs in Seattle that we wanted to address as well. The burgeoning fast-food struggle nationwide was very vibrant in Seattle, so we have played a very critical part in that in terms of raising the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage. We had that demand in the last election before it became cool, and that demand kind of took on a life of its own and we felt like we had to bring that into the forefront of the debate in Seattle politics.

There have been unprecedented cuts to public transit in Seattle: metro’s facing 17% cuts. Rents have been rising at about 6% every year, which is one of the highest rent hikes for all metropolitan areas in the US. The campaign also started because of the context of a prolonged economic recession, the betrayal of [US President Barack] Obama and the Democrats, and I think the situation was really ripe for the spread of socialist politics as an alternative to the two-party system. That was what really drove the campaign, the immediate needs and the broader context.

AS: When I talked to Kshama a year ago, what she said was that the reason she ran for House of Representatives was because no one was challenging the seat and it seemed like a good opportunity to “occupy the space”, as you were saying. Can you talk a little about why after that race against Frank Chopp you guys decided to get involved in a city council race? You had said that you don’t really get involved in elections, so how did this come about? Why do this?

The city council elections were happening where the mayor of Seattle was going to be elected, so it was going to be a big race. Seattle is a city of over 600,000 people, so there was a very broad audience that we would have access to and we didn’t want to miss that opportunity to talk about the ideas of socialism.

There were also a lot of incumbents on city council who have been warming their seats for a very long time. Our opponent Richard Conlin has been on the council for sixteen years and he did nothing during that time. We wanted this to bring a new sort of debate into the political discussions that were happening, to bring the $15 demand into the race and some other issues as well.

TE: Getting into some of the mechanics of this, was the seat citywide or was there a particular ward or district that you had to run in? How did the actual votes go?

The Seattle city council elections are citywide races. We were the only campaign that gathered signatures in order to get on the ballot in the primary election. On election night, it definitely looked like we were going to lose. There was a very small chance of us being able to regain the wide margin of over seven percentage points that we had “lost by”.

What was really amazing about those results was that the capitalist media actually spun our “loss” as something really positive: “Wow! Look at what this small, grassroots, openly socialist campaign was able to accomplish! In many ways, the real victors in this race are the socialists!” They never said like, “Hah! You lost!” or pointed the finger at us. It was more like they were saying that we changed the political debate, made the two mayoral candidates come out in favor the $15 demand (in words, not with any substantial action).

With every single ballot drop after election night, when it seemed that all hope was lost, our numbers kept rising. We did mathematical analyses of these trends and we saw that if the trends were to continue where we’d get 53% of the votes of every subsequent ballot drop from the election night, we could win the election by a slim margin. A recount could still be possible, or Richard Conlin could challenge the votes, but it would still take us over the top.

What happened was that for every ballot drop after, we’d get like 53%, 55%, and 58%. A couple days later, we went over the top and got past 50% and that was when the tables completely turned. Last time I checked, we’re up by over 3000 votes, which are about 93,600 votes total—almost 51%. So our victory was really drawn out!

Every other campaign fell out of the media spotlight after November 5, but the media stayed on us throughout the election. We had dozens of media requests a day for interviews with Kshama, and we had to eventually start turning people down because she was double or triple booked. We got covered by every major capitalist news outlook: Associated Press, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, Washington Post, New York Times, Fox, MSNBC, and a bunch of independent media sources. The coverage has been mostly positive so far, but I don’t think that will always be the case especially as the ruling class starts to feel more threatened when Kshama takes office and we move beyond the rhetoric and prove that we’re going to put these things into action.

TE: What I’ve been very curious about from afar is how you’re actually running the campaign on the ground. I know you guys ran as outwardly socialist, so what tools did you use to engage and reach out to people to get out the vote?

Our main outreach strategy was door knocking. We estimate that we knocked on over 16,000 doors. We spent a lot of time in the central district, which is the base for a lot of immigrant and people of colour communities, and that’s where our campaign office was located. We had a massive "Get Out the Vote" campaign during the last week of the campaign, where we tried to organise one hundred mini-rallies across Seattle. We did massive phone banking, robo-calls, mailers, anything we could. The last weekend vote drive was decisive, because so many last minute votes came out in our favor.

When it looked like we could win but it was still a close call, we went ballot hunting for all the disqualified ballots—ballots that weren’t counted because they weren’t signed or used the wrong ink or something. We got a list of those ballots from the city and tracked down the voters and made sure that their ballots counted. Our opponent didn’t really do that.

The real key was to mobilise our base, which comprised of workers, students, immigrants, people of colour, etc. And people who don’t usually vote because up til now they didn’t have an actual choice, they couldn’t feel enthusiastic about anyone. I think this was the key, to mobilise the people who are usually disenchanted.

AS: I’m going to back up for a second and ask you some practical questions just to lay this all out. You said before that you didn’t really have any corporate funding. Can you talk about what kind of funding you did have? What was the funding balance between you and the opponent, and where did that come from?

At the beginning, we set what we thought were very ambitious goals at the time, and we kept meeting them. At the end of the campaign, we had about $120,000—which is really fantastic for a grassroots campaign. The vast majority of our contributions were under $100. It came from ordinary workers, unemployed people. We had a lot of donations from enthusiastic people from around the country. We had to turn down international donations because of election rules.

Conlin raised about three times more than we did. His contributors included the biggest real estate developers; he had contributions from Amazon.com, especially because he’s been working with them to re-zone to benefit them; he took the maximum donation from coal train companies. He had many more maximum contributions that we did.

AS: As a campaign initiated by Socialist Alternative, how did you balance having your own organisation with people coming from outside?

Our campaign was initiated by Socialist Alternative, yes, but over time it wasn’t really our campaign anymore. It was the campaign of whoever came to work on it or supported it. In finances, Socialist Alternative and the campaign were completely separate. If people were interested in joining our organisation, we absolutely took the opportunity to talk to them. But a lot of people were just interested in the campaign.

So they were like two separate things. There were a lot of Socialist Alternative people working on the campaign, but more so there were not. A lot of daily decisions had to be made on the ground, and whoever was there would handle it, whether they were in SAlt or not.

TE: I’m interested in how you guys made the decision to run as a socialist campaign as opposed to a progressive campaign, or something seemingly less threatening. I’ve worked on political campaigns in the Midwest and often that decision is framed as whether you’re running a protest campaign or you’re trying to actually win the seat. Would you say that you guys started in more of a protest campaign strategy that actually turned out to be a winnable campaign, or were you always using “socialist” as a label and trying to win the seat?

We ran in order to win, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that we thought it was a very likely chance that we were going to win. The point wasn’t precisely to win when we started, but was rather to spread the ideas of socialism on a wider scale than socialist groups are usually used to having access to. We wanted to spread the idea of working class, third parties running in elections. We wanted to talk about the issues that have been on the minds of ordinary people in Seattle that don’t get talked about by elected officials.

We have always highlighted our socialist banner throughout the course of the campaign. Kshama did a really great job of tying the reforms we want to see with the need for a more fundamental social change. Every opportunity that she had she would try to raise the ideas of socialism and talk about the deficiencies of capitalism. I thought that was really good that we tried to keep socialism in the conversation instead of watering down our politics.

A lot of our campaign platform wasn’t necessarily radical, but because we tied it to system change it became so. We did want people to know that these are socialist ideas that we are raising, so we were very open about that. In terms of unionising these big Seattle corporations like Starbucks, Amazon and Boeing, Kshama has been taking a lot of flack in the capitalist media for calling for a workers’ democratic public ownership of Boeing! That’s really been causing ripples.

AS: Let’s pick apart some of what you guys did in your campaign that resonated with people. The campaign broke from the two parties and was socialist, yeah, but it had to deal with stuff that people care about in their everyday lives. Can you talk about some of the other issues that you raised that jumped at people?

Our main campaign demand was the $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers. We wanted affordable housing to be built and rent controlled. We talked about a millionaire’s tax in order to fund mass transit and education. We also talked about police brutality a lot, because there have been some recent extrajudicial killings and racist beatings by the Seattle Police Department, so we called for a democratically elected civilian oversight board with full power over the police. We wanted to put a ban on the use of drones by the police, because they recently passed this thing to buy drones for surveillance.

We have been fighting against the coal train, which would be on the top ten biggest causes of climate change. We called for a moratorium on coal train passage through Seattle, and steps towards making Seattle coal-free. We called for no deportations and an end to foreclosures in Seattle.

TE: You talked about how the campaign came out of Occupy and the general position we came out of in the country as well as the specific situation you guys are facing in Seattle. What made Seattle the right place for this type of campaign?

It was probably easier to run this campaign in Seattle than in say the rural Deep South. But this message was resonating with people across the world. It shows that the objective condition is extremely ripe for the spread of socialist ideas. The problem is that there aren’t as many people to step up and to champion these ideas as there needs to be.

AS: Obviously you guys were very surprised that you won. So what happens now? What you do when you’re campaigning is pretty different from what you do in office, and now you have to figure out how you make some progress on these things that you’ve talked about. Can you talk about your thoughts on what to do now? I mean, its not just up to you, Kshama will be one seat on the council. How do you do that without getting into insider politics or horse-trading? How will you resist the conservative pressure that comes with being in office?

That’s a really good question. Something Kshama has said in response to similar questions is that we are the ones that need to promise her that we won’t just disappear now that she’s won, because she will need the mass public support to do what we set out to do. This campaign was an activist campaign and it will continue to be so after Kshama takes office.

There are things we have to compromise on, but there are things that we cannot afford to compromise. We have to democratically discuss the concrete issues as they come up with members of Socialist Alternative and our allies in the community, so it’s not just a thing where we can make blanket statements. It really depends on the concrete situation that arises. We absolutely need the involvement of community groups and other left groups—we want input, we need input, we need to be help accountable.

We have good relationships with some people on city council, who are more progressive than others, but they’re still within the Democratic Party and they will face pressure to sever their ties with us. Ultimately, it is up to the involvement of ordinary people, our base of workers, youth and forgotten communities in order to stay involved in Kshama’s work and to keep the pressure on in the streets, like it is with any elected official.

Kshama is only taking the average worker’s wage, which is about $35,000 and donating the rest to whatever social movements arise that need the financial resources. She’s still accountable to our organisation and our allies. Her position is a tool and a resource to initiate social and political movement, and support them where they arise. In many ways, our victory was easiest part of this—the real fight lies ahead, because we actually intend on doing all the things we said we wanted to do.

AS: Obviously we’re really sympathetic to the challenges of office, and I don’t think anyone believes she’s just going to sell out. It’s just that the system is built to marginalise these kinds of efforts. Do you guys have priorities? Is there something you hope you can really pull off while in office?

The first thing we plan on doing after Kshama takes office is to propose an ordinance for a $15/hour minimum wage citywide for all workers; the city council has the authority to pass an ordinance anytime they want. With the help of our community allies, we’re going to draft this ordinance, put it on the table, and if the other council members try to stall, delay or water it down, we’ll put it to the people as an initiative for a ballot vote.

TE: Do you have any plans to run other campaigns or try to win other city council seats to make some of these efforts easier?

We can’t do it on our own. One of the things we wanted to get out of this campaign was to inspire other groups to run strong and vibrant campaigns of their own. We’re looking at a kind of “left alliance” of groups who want to run candidates in the future. One of the biggest victories we could get would be to inspire other groups to do that. Ultimately, the real important thing is to use all this to build social movements, because the real change happens in the streets, in the workplaces and in the schools.

[Anh Tran is a member of Socialist Alternative based out of Seattle. Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria are independent socialists based out of Madison, Wisconsin and produce the podcast Black Sheep.

Creative Commons License
Black Sheep Podcast by Andrew Sernatinger & Tessa Echeverria is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.]

 

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Interview with Minneapolis socialist candidate, Ty Moore

An interview with Ty Moore on his run for Minneapolis City Council as an independent socialist.

Ty Moore with sign
Ty Moore for City Council / Facebook

The election of Kshama Sawant, an economics professor and member of the Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative, to the Seattle City Council has drawn significant headlines recently. But in Minneapolis, another Socialist Alternative city council candidate, Ty Moore, also came close to victory.

Moore won 42 percent of the vote in Minneapolis’s Ward 9, just 229 votes behind Democrat Alondra Cano, who netted 47 percent of the votes in a 6-way ranked choice election. For the past decade, Moore has been a major figure in the Minneapolis activist scene, organizing young people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and military recruitment in schools, and more recently helping to found Occupy Homes MN, one of the most successful groups to emerge directly out of the Occupy movement.

Moore was interviewed for Jacobin by Anthony Rizutto, a union researcher in Washington, DC.

Why did you decide to run for City Council?

We [Socialist Alternative] ran because we felt a strong campaign here could lay the basis for wider left and working-class challenges to the two corporate parties in the years ahead, both in Minneapolis and nationwide. For us, building a broad new party, emerging out of social movements and labor struggles, is the key task facing the US left and the working class.

After Kshama Sawant’s challenged Washington State House Speaker Frank Chopp in 2012 and got 30 percent of the vote, we concluded that there was an opportunity to win broad electoral support for serious socialist candidates in dozens of cities across the US, and certainly in Minneapolis.

You didn’t win, but you came close. What do you think explains the success of your and Sawan’ts campaigns?

Running a viable campaign as a socialist isn’t just a matter of audacity, clever tactics, and the right program (though those are all crucial). You need to have built up some kind of base in advance. Over the last ten years, Socialist Alternative in Minneapolis dug roots into working-class communities and built important relationships with other serious activists. Our work in the anti-war movement, where we had led some big student walkouts against military recruitment; education justice campaigns, where we played a big role saving North High from closure; most recently, Occupy Homes, where SA was widely recognized as part of the leadership — all that groundwork was the basis of this election campaign.

So I was confident from the beginning that we could run a serious campaign, and that it was even possible to win. In fact, the leadership of Socialist Alternative initially felt it was more likely we would win in Minneapolis than in Seattle, given what appeared to be a much more favorable situation here. We have thirteen Wards, whereas Kshama Sawant had to run city-wide for one of nine Seattle City Council seats. With only 30,000 people in Ward 9, and 12,500 registered voters, we mobilized enough volunteers to canvass most voters several times over. And Ward 9 was an open seat, since the would-be incumbent ran for mayor instead.

In Seattle, Kshama Sawant chose to run against the poster boy for green-washing corporate politics, 16-year incumbent Richard Conlin. She chose Conlin not because he would be easiest to beat, but because running against him gave us the clearest target to challenge the Democratic Party and corporate politics as a whole.

In Minneapolis we didn’t get to choose our opponent. Our race was complicated because the Democratic Party nominated a left-liberal candidate, a Latina woman with an activist background, to run against us in the most heavily Latino Ward in the city. As it became clear we had a viable campaign, she veered even further left, adopting much of our messaging and themes — sometimes almost verbatim except without our specific demands. At the same time, she emphasized that she would be the first Latina elected to Minneapolis City Council, which understandably appealed to many of the progressive workers we were also targeting.

We came within inches of victory despite the whole Democratic Party machinery and big business interests swinging into action behind our opponent. We built a powerful coalition, raised over $55,000, and built the biggest volunteer base of any council race in the city — all behind an openly socialist campaign. It was painful coming just 229 votes short, but we are qualitatively stronger now than we were one year ago, so in that sense this is a huge victory.

Similarly, Kshama and Socialist Alternative had built a profile as serious activists in Seattle, particularly through their leading role in the Occupy movement there. Our 2012 campaign against Chopp meant Kshama entered the 2013 City Council race as a popular figure that people took seriously. In Seattle, we succeeded in making the city council race a referendum against not just Conlin, but the entire political establishment — against politics as usual. By linking up with the fast food walkouts and the call for a $15 an hour minimum wage, we tapped into the deep anger at class inequality, the rising cost of living, and unbridled corporate profiteering with the complicity of government.

Through these campaigns, we were constantly analyzing how people were reacting to our program, our slogans, and our explanations, and then refining them. There isn’t a conscious socialist majority, but there is a majority who want living wage jobs, affordable housing, taxes on the rich to fund schools, and good transit. There is a majority who recognizes that big business has deeply corrupted our political system, and wants some kind of alternative that puts people over profit. Our campaigns tapped into that. We were able to convince many others that this anti-corporate majority exists, and that it can be won over if offered a viable, unapologetic, fighting working-class political alternative.

You got the endorsement of the SEIU Minnesota State Council, among others. What made them to decide to endorse you over your opponent? Do you think this has broader implications for union endorsements in local races elsewhere?

The SEIU State Council endorsement stands out as among the most incredible aspects of the campaign. I don’t think there is an equally significant labor institution that has backed an independent socialist candidate in a very long time. Their endorsement doesn’t signify a generalized break from the Democratic Party, but I think it does reflect deepening debate over labor’s traditional political strategy and a growing openness to experiment.

During the last three contract battles and strikes of SEIU Local 26, Socialist Alternative played an active role in the solidarity committees helping to build support. Our members, including me, have been arrested in civil disobedience actions with SEIU members and leaders. Through Occupy Homes, we deepened our relationship by fighting to save the homes of SEIU members and organizing joint actions against the banks.

We never hid our disagreements with the SEIU leadership, particularly their support for the Democratic Party. Other SA members and I have had plenty of debates with SEIU members, staffers, and leaders on this and other questions. I’ve written articles criticizing SEIU nationally for their attempt to channel Occupy Wall Street into backing Obama. But this was always done in a spirit of solidarity.

So when our campaign began picking up steam, these pre-existing relationships were crucial. It was active SEIU members and staffers who led the successful charge to get the endorsement of the SEIU State Council, which includes four locals representing 30,000 workers. This was a major boost. All the locals donated the $300 max contribution, helped advise our organizers, and many members put in long hours with us.

You also got the endorsement of a number of Latino community organizers. Why did they endorse you over your opponent (who is now the first Latina ever elected to the Minneapolis City Council), and what role did immigrant rights play in your campaign?

From the beginning, we understood there existed real political divisions – class divisions – in the immigrant community and the immigrant rights movement in Minneapolis. Our Democratic Party opponent, Alondra Cano, had been at the center of many political fights within the movement. Her faction had been working for years to build a Latino political block within the Democratic Party, and a left wing had partially crystalized in opposition to them.

We won early support from a leading figure in the Centro de Trabajores Unidos en Lucha [a Twin Cities immigrant workers’ center that has led strikes by janitors at Target stores], who felt that our opponent had no real program to address the needs of immigrant workers. We called for city action to create a moratorium on deportations, a $15 an hour minimum wage, city support for unionization, and voting rights for all residents in city elections, regardless of immigration status.

Twenty Latino community leaders, most of them labor and immigrant rights organizers, signed a letter supporting my campaign, published in the three main Spanish language papers. We had two dozen Spanish language volunteers out multiple days, discussions with church groups, radio interviews, etc. The Democrats leaned heavily on appeals to identity politics with no class element, so having a very visible base of support among immigrants was crucial to helping us present a clear appeal for working-class solidarity against corporate politics.

Many on the Left argue that election campaigns take away resources from building movements, and thus resources should be directed elsewhere. What was the discussion around this issue like in the groups you’re involved in, and what was the effect of your campaign on social movements in Minneapolis?

Most of the time, when we are talking about electing progressive Democrats, it’s true that orienting movements into electoral politics means there’s pressure to lower our demands, avoid combative tactics that might compromise “our” candidate, and generally demobilize the real organizing work. We set out to model a completely different type of politics, one rooted in the idea that movements are primary for the working class and that elections should only be viewed as a tactic to help build workers’ class consciousness, independent organization, and self-confidence. This is a model with deep roots in the history of Marxism in the US and internationally, but forgotten by many activists today.

In Minneapolis, our campaign was widely seen by Occupy Homes activists and residents fighting foreclosure as a tool that helped elevate their struggle and put pressure on city hall to adopt their demands. In practice, during the entire election period, our demand against using police resources for evictions was de facto in effect. With only a couple exceptions, the Mayor’s office clearly aimed to avoid any confrontations with us during the election campaign, and so in practice we bought a lot of time on a number of occupied homes.

Our campaign helped push other politicians, including the new mayor, to publicly embrace the work of Occupy Homes, and give lip service to our demands including no use of police resources for evictions and using eminent domain to force the banks to renegotiate with underwater homeowners. Our campaign dramatically raised the confidence of activists from many struggles, and I’m confident this will bear fruit in the future.

In Seattle, we are about to see in an extremely vivid way how electoral politics can be a key tool in the class struggle. It appears likely we can pull together a broad coalition in the coming weeks to put a referendum on the ballot next November for a $15 per hour minimum wage in Seattle. It will take a huge movement to overcome the tens of millions big business will spend to defeat us, but this struggle will represent a dramatic expansion of the movement initiated by fast food worker strikes earlier this year.

* Reprinted from Jacobinmag.com

On Kshama Sawant, Elections and the US Left

On Kshama Sawant, Elections and the US Left

by Andrew Sernatinger on February 10, 2014

http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11935

At this point, most people are pretty familiar with Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council. Sawant first ran for the Washington State House of Representatives in the fall of 2012 and used her notoriety and unexpected positive reception to run again at the municipal level in 2013, defeating her opponent Richard Conlin in a tight race.

In the weeks that followed her victory, very different parts of the US left have weighed in on what the election of a socialist to office in a major US city means. As Nate Hawthorne has pointed out, most observers have fallen into two camps: those who welcome Sawant’s victory and look to it as a model for the future struggle, and those who are skeptical or even suspicious that this is a cooptation of radical ideas and working class anger. The core debate is really not that new and these positions play forward age-old debates, but they take on a special kind of importance because for the first time in recent history Sawant represents a measurable impact of the radical left.

Since I think its fairly self-evident that you’re not going to vote socialism into power in the United States, I’d like to spend the bulk of this article talking about why I’m generally supportive of the Sawant campaign and respond to the criticisms posed by Black Orchid Collective and others. After interviewing Sawant and her campaign assistant Anh Tran, I’m convinced that the campaign is genuinely interested in using elected office to build movements, that Sawant and Socialist Alternative have no delusions about the role of the capitalist state, and that the Sawant victory was the result of revolutionaries taking advantage of an opening in the political system and not an accommodation by capital.

The Political Crisis Since 2008

Part of what has caught everyone’s attention about Kshama Sawant winning as an open socialist is that it represents something very different in the political culture of the United States. We are used to entrenched anticommunism and Tea Party right-wing populism, so to see a socialist woman of color win an election should throw up a red flag. So what happened to make this possible in the broader political climate?

As we know, the financial crisis in 2007-2008 created widespread anger. The big debate on the left at the time was what would happen in the aftermath. Some hoped that Obama would create a kind of New New Deal, others expected to see worker backlash like in Argentina in 2002, and many radicals hoped for a growth of a new radical movement and something akin to the formation of the CIO. Apart from some pockets here and there, that didn’t happen.

Capital’s response to the crisis has been unified in pushing for austerity and gutting social programs. Naturally, this pisses people off: polls show overwhelming disapproval of Congress and a lower opinion of both parties than usual. The institutions that have typically represented the working class however have been totally disoriented when dealing with a regime that has no interest in negotiation. Without political expression, popular anger manifested in the semi-spontaneous movements of 2011: the indignados, Arab Spring, Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy. Those movements were resoundingly defeated in 2012, and in the US political energy returned to its regular rhythm and the pragmatism of a presidential election year.

This to me is an important political duality: on the one hand you have a popular rejection of austerity and immiseration represented by Occupy, but on the other hand you have elections that present no substantial alternative and in fact naturalize the process. For most people, both standpoints exist simultaneously and unevenly, which Gramsci referred to as dual-consciousness and Marx explained by saying, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” What’s more, people learn political lessons from experiences in their lives: if you struggle hard and don’t see a result, most people feel powerless and think that struggle wasn’t worth their valuable time. On the other hand, if you see an indisputable victory, it makes you bolder and want to fight for more.

The curious absence of a sustained popular movement in response to the crisis and austerity is part of why these conversations are so important. Black Orchid’s explanation to this phenomenon is that capitalism develops “shock absorbers” in the institutions of “social democracy”, trade union bureaucracies, NGOs and the like that soak up the natural growth of anger and revolutionary fervor. If only that were true, our lives would be much easier.

Instead, the problem is that the neoliberal period has seen the withering away of organic communities, popular institutions and what Alan Sears calls the “infrastructures of dissent”, which allow conscious reflection, analysis and planning for more methodical struggles. Richard Seymour has infamously characterized the neoliberal conjuncture:

[W]e have to face is the serious diminution of the left’s infrastructure over the decades. I don’t want to rehearse what we all already know — the decline of trade unions and their bureaucratisation, the decline of the Labour Left, the disappearance of several left-wing organisations and publications. And it’s not just the Left; there has been a general withering of popular voluntary associations, the decline of politics as such, and an increasing privatisation of social life. You know, we can talk about the rise of social movements, and I agree that has been an extremely important fact of the last forty years or so. But the striking thing about these movements is that they rarely leave much behind. They rise, there is a moment of euphoria, of expanded possibilities — and then the ruling class, the state, the police and so on, adapt, change tactics, find ways to shut it down, and there’s little to show for it. None of the successes are institutionalised, while the losses leave a psychic residue that warns people off.

Rather than having a high degree of struggle that’s  coopted or suppressed by “shock absorbers” on the left, the period seems to be characterized much more by fewer, more episodic struggles with low capacity and less left behind. The situation seems to become only more desperate as austerity policies grind working people even further while creating a sense that these are individual rather than class problems.

Politics in Seattle and Washington State

This is where Kshama Sawant comes in. With Occupy in decline, Sawant and Socialist Alternative decided to “occupy” the political space reserved for elections in American society rather than retreat with the movement and wait for the next uprising. They presented an intelligent, charismatic candidate who was part of a popular movement and created a savvy campaign interpreting the message of Occupy for specific issues in Washington State. Sawant addressed economic issues that were invisible in mainstream politics and presented alternatives that were bold but realistic — they ran under a socialist banner, but they weren’t caricatures of socialists comically calling for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Electoral rules were arguably more favorable to Sawant in Seattle than they would be in other US cities. Officially, Seattle has nonpartisan elections, which force races to be only between two candidates after a primary but don’t require party sponsorship for ballot access — a rule that routinely prevents third parties from making the lists. City alders are elected at large so Sawant was able to run for any seat that became available, rather than waiting within her district. She could then campaign throughout the whole city, making her candidacy a larger issue and rallying more of the city to her side. In terms of the actual voting process, ballots in Washington State are mailed directly to voters giving them a longer window to cast their votes (days rather than hours) without having to worry about scheduling around the working day or waiting in lines. This last point became important in the final days of the vote count because the results were staggered by mail-return, and it gave activists more time to track down disqualified ballots in their favor, awarding them the election.

But while Sawant and the Seattle elections are part of the general mood may be a microcosm of the national mood, the specific political arrangements in Washington State I think are what made this victory possible. 

Back in 2012, Sawant pointed out that there is a delicate balance of power in Washington State. The Democrats have been the singular ruling party for years (though Eastern Washington is Republican ruled). In Western Washington city politics are essentially no-contest races; the only real races are primaries within the Democratic Party. Sawant made that point to explain that the liberal Democratic Party with ruling power has not done anything to address needs in Washington, which was the starting point for a strategic socialist election campaign.

People in Seattle may be unhappy with Frank Chopp, Richard Conlin or any other Democrat, but given their predilections they aren’t going to penalize them by voting for a Republican. Electorally, this situation creates a kind of liability when there’s no “guard” against voting to the left of Democrats, but until Sawant it hasn’t been an issue that’s seriously needed to be addressed; does it need to be pointed out that there is a dearth of serious left candidates? In Seattle, Sawant could not “spoil” the election for a Democrat and award it to a Republican, as would be the case in most US elections, which is the greatest protection against left candidates.

Dan La Botz has also pointed out that both Kshama Sawant and Ty Moore in Minneapolis ran in cities with a higher concentration of young people. Polls consistently show that young people have more liberal or even left wing views, so these candidates were able to draw upon a pool of voters potentially more inclined to vote for a left candidate when given a fair opportunity.

When someone like Sawant is able to present themselves as a legitimate candidate in these conditions, addressing issues people actually care about without the threat of “making things worse”, they can take advantage of this opportunity and potentially win against the establishment. However, contrary to some of what Socialist Alternative has said, these are important factors for determining whether similar campaigns could be successfully replicated in other parts of the country.

The (capitalist) state

What’s interesting in the whole discussion about Kshama Sawant is that no one doubts her character or her intentions. Often when progressives or left-leaning candidates run for election, they have very uneven positions, contradictory worldviews or conflicting interests that mean we have to put them at arm’s length. But Sawant is an avowed revolutionary socialist, and even for her critics on the left they don’t doubt that she means to do what she says and isn’t running for her own personal interest.

The problem that anarchist and autonomous-leaning leftists have with Sawant tends to be more of a structural or strategic nature: using “the state” will coopt movements in struggle, corrupt leftists in office, and ultimately can’t deliver revolutionary transformation. There are nuggets of truth in these criticisms, but for this situation I think they are more misleading than actually helpful.

Starting with the concrete, we have to look at the Sawant election in its time and place. For all intents and purposes, the Occupy movement defeated by the end of 2012 when the camps were cleared. The left retreated with the movements since the environment of mass struggle quickly disappeared. Morale dropped, activists hunkered down, returned to ongoing projects or hoped for a next upsurge; many far left groups that oriented themselves to the higher degree of struggle that Occupy seemed to embody started to splinter or fall apart when this episode concluded and things went back to “normal”. And with the lower movement energy, the election calendar did what it always does and eclipsed popular dialog for pragmatic politics.

With this in mind, I’d argue that the Sawant campaign did the best thing for the movement as a whole. In their own words, they “took the message of Occupy to the elections”, using the political space typically reserved in elections to not only preserve the common sense that came with Occupy but even to extend it into concrete proposals for Washington State. Sawant’s campaign for Washington State House of Representatives was the testing ground, and when it was more successful than they expected they ran again for Seattle City Council less than a year later. Their campaign linked with the $15 Ordinance for the nearby city of Sea-Tac, with Boeing workers fighting the company’s threats to move, and then became a kind of national icon as an alternative to austerity politics, which has since birthed copycat campaigns in other cities. Given that the movement was in a low ebb and that the oppositional class consciousness brought out by Occupy could have been lost, it seems to me that for the moment it was in Sawant’s election was the best thing to foster social struggles in Seattle and the US.

But then there’s still the deeper issue of relating to the capitalist state. The critics are right to point out that you’re not going to vote socialism into power in the United States — the rules of the political system are in fact designed to keep government positions in the hands of ruling elites. Even if we somehow imagine radicals winning the majority of the government, I agree that the form of the capitalist state isn’t suited to revolutionary transformation. Lenin, following Marx and Engels, tried to explain that this was the reason that the capitalist state needed to be smashed in the course of a revolution and that new, actually democratic institutions should be erected in transitioning society.

On its face that presents a contradiction: if you can’t win power through elections, if the capitalist state has a history of seducing movement people, and if you can’t use the state for revolutionary transformation, why bother with elections? The simplest answer is because you can’t ignore them. Elections and positions of office are real to most people, including activists, even if we understand them to be social relationships in the absolute sense. Policy, laws, taxes and all the rest have actual effects on the lives of working people and as a result working people have a material interest in engaging with what decisions will be made, even if they understand the whole structure to be broken — it’s a pragmatism that helps reproduce the social order.

Movements on the ground shape mass consciousness, but they can’t go on forever and will eventually need to have something to show for all their effort. Without victories, capitalist hegemony tends to be reinforced — the sense that there isn’t an alternative starts to solidify and the time we put in the movement feels like a waste when you think about how you could have spent it on survival activities (working more; reproducing yourself; enjoying your free time; whatever).

Revolutionary socialists trying to navigate these waters I think look at elections as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Breaking the political monopoly the Democrats hold isn’t so that there can be a new political duopoly with a socialist party, but it is to dismantle the pragmatic chokehold the Democratic Party has over working class issues. Changing the political system and forming an independent party are conceived of as a precondition to allow for more struggles and more victories, just as smashing the state is a precondition for socialism.

Revolutionary movements develop when workers and the oppressed understand that change cannot come through existing channels and that the whole order needs to be overturned; part of running in elections shows that its not the problem of any individual politician but the organization of society that is the issue itself. Therefore, even while its critical to deliver some gains in office, the larger goal is to educate about the system and build greater organization. The point of having revolutionaries in office is to lend the credibility, legitimacy and resources the office holds to movements that are ignored, demonized or suppressed and act as a guard against maneuvers by state officials when possible, recognizing that ultimately mass movements will bring about social change and not political offices.

Sawant and Socialist Practices in Office

The last part of this equation is the effect that actually being in office will have on a person. Unfortunately, there seems to be more visibility for former New Leftists who have, to borrow BOC’s formulation, become Democratic Party officials, union bureaucrats or heads of NGOs. What’s to say that something similar won’t happen with Kshama Sawant?

After interviewing her, seeing her tour and watching some of her speeches, I’m reasonably convinced that Sawant is acting in the older communist tradition rather than the Popular Front “insider strategy” that the Communist Party adopted in the late 1930’s and that Maoists later took up as well. Rather than seeing the state as an abstract, absolutely corruptive force, you start by looking at the structures or practices that the capitalist state deploys to seduce elected officials, revolutionary or no. There is more to say on this than a single essay can really do justice to, but for the sake of argument we can name out some of these features that create a corruptive environment: a complex bureaucracy; undemocratic appointments; high wages that make officials stop identifying with working people and see the post as valuable in itself; a military/police force without public accountability.

Historically, revolutionaries have sketched out this machinery to begin to develop political practices to address it and Kshama Sawant seems to be following in this tradition almost to a tee. Like communists in the old CIO unions or socialists in some European parties, Sawant intends to take only the average worker’s salary and donate the rest of the money to movements. Seattle pays its city councilors the second most in the country after Los Angeles, where a typical councilor would make over $117,000; Sawant will be accepting only $40,000 of that sum. (Whether Socialist Alternative will be the main beneficiaries of the rest of that money is another question…)

The parts of her platform that don’t relate directly to economic issues like the $15 minimum wage, rent controls, or public transportation are actually about confronting some of the worst state practices in Seattle. Sawant has called for a moratorium on drone surveillance and for a citizen review board over the Seattle Police Department in large part to confront the SPD’s extrajudicial killings. These seem like fairly clear cases of the things revolutionary socialists have typically done at their best, and seem to only have shaped a common sense of what’s right and what should be done for people in Seattle and anyone who’s followed the case across the US.

Even if the surface pressures of office prove ineffective on Sawant, she will still have to deal with the institutional pressure of effectively delivering for her constituency while being an opposition candidate on the city council. If other councilors and major investors in city development decide that Sawant can’t be worked with, they could decide to isolate her, withhold financing or use her as a scapegoat for new problems the city will inevitably face. Sawant has not been explicit about this particular dilemma, quite possibly because its terrible propaganda, but she does seem aware that the success of her position rests with the activity of workers and social movements — if Sawant can reasonably state that she has no choice but to hold fast because of the militancy of her constituency, she has a greater capacity to withstand these institutional pressures and remain a steadfast advocate.

Conclusions                                                  

I’ve tried to analyze the specifics of the Sawant election to show what its value has been for movements at the present moment and for shaping the common sense about what people deserve and what can be done. I’m not a member of Socialist Alternative and I disagree with many of their ideas and pronouncements, but whether or not you agree with their politics isn’t the point here if we look at what they’ve done and the effect its had.

It seems to me that Sawant and Socialist Alternative constructed lively campaigns that drew on the energy from Occupy and kept the movement from being pushed into the annals of history. The cities in which they’ve run campaigns have all had a much younger demographic, potentially with fewer structural ties to the Democratic Party. In Seattle, the Democratic Party was probably at its weakest due to its electoral rules, movement activity and political history that left it without a right-wing guard, which would render Sawant a spoiler and prevent her from being a serious candidate. For those reasons, I don’t think that Sawant’s campaign will be very reproducible in other cities, but there does seem to be a growing interest in independent political campaigns, such as the labor candidates in Ohio and the Chicago Teachers’ Union political initiative. Given that each US state has very different rules and political cultures, those initiatives will have to look different place to place to suit the needs of the time and place.

While most of the criticisms and concerns about Sawant’s election have focused on the corruptive influence of holding public office, I’m reasonably confident that Sawant has taken the proper precautions to guard against being seduced by the position and its absurdly high pay. What seems like a greater issue to me will be whether she will be able to make enough progress on the issues that got her elected. Sawant is one city councilor among nine, and an open socialist who regularly denounces the Democrats and the way city business has been handled. The danger seems to be that the other eight officials and the mayor will attempt to encircle her and frustrate her attempts to introduce legislation in order to pressure her into accepting compromises and deliver the message that only Democrats can get things done in the city. Given how much what a symbol she’s become, Sawant’s successes or failures will have a greater impact on the left and independent politics.

Luckily, Sawant as a revolutionary socialist has been very clear that ultimately the most important factor in social change will be workers in their workplaces and movements on the ground. The best-case scenario is that winning some of these reforms will embolden movements, give them the confidence to demand more, develop more militant struggles and form new and stronger organizations.

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