In this week's episode of "Scheer Intelligence," Robert Scheer speaks with Kshama Sawant, the second socialist (and the first within one hundred years) to hold a seat on Seattle's City Council.
Sawant, currently in her second term on the council, discusses her upbringing in India and how inequality in America ultimately led her to embrace socialism. She also explains how socialism, as a label, is becoming less controversial and is being embraced by millennials. Sawant also provides specific examples of how Seattle has benefited from her political ideology.
Adapted from Truthdig.com
Read the interview below:
Robert Scheer: Hi this is Robert Scheer and we'll be getting to this week's Scheer Intelligence shortly but the election has thrown a bit of a hook at us. When I interviewed Kshama Sawant the independent socialist member of the Seattle city council an advocate of economic social justice, I did as most pollsters and commentaries assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the election. Some of the questions preceded on that basis. As everybody knows, the improbable ,the impossible happened and a poorly trained, demagogue a neo-fascist in my eyes because of the way he has inflamed passions against Muslims and Latinos and so forth. Nonetheless he is the president of the United States to be.
It is instructive because one response certainly of my view and Bernie Sanders said something very similar, but others have noticed is that the real issue in this election was one of, how do we deal with the people who've been hurt by the recession, that is to say the average working people. Exit polls showed that even among women from working class and middle class families sided with Trump despite all of his negatives. I think the real issue was the response to the recession and the fact that the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was perceived as I think accurately as being too close to Wall Street, too close to the banks and particularly the three sessions where we got three quarters of a million dollars for coursing up to Goldman Sachs.
Given that you had a right wing populist as a Republican candidate, the left wing populist Bernie Sanders had been defeated by Hillary Clinton. This became really a election between the candidate of the status quo and the candidate that despite being a billionaire seemed to be the voice of those who feel deep resentment over the way things have gone. Let me turn to someone who is the opposite side, much closer to Bernie Sanders and ask Kshama Sawant what she makes of the future of going forth in terms of the economy and the issues that need to be raised. (Music)
Welcome to Scheer Intelligence, my guest today is Seattle city council person Kshama Sawant, thanks for joining us and my expectation is of course the intelligence comes from the guest, not from me. Let me begin by first of all saying by way of introduction that you have done something I think quite impressive. Not only that you are, I believe the first socialist candidate to get elected citywide in Seattle since Anna Louise Strong ran a 100 years ago I believe. In any case you and these high tech city of Seattle, known because of the sort of avant-garde face of American capitalism, and multinational corporations. You represent I believe the third district which is downtown Seattle?
Kshama Sawant: That was the re-election last year that was district-wide but the first election we won was in 2013 which was a citywide election.
Robert Scheer: You've become, for me anyway but I think for many people a symbol of the possibilities of politics. Much was made of the fact that Bernie Sanders was identified as a socialist of some sort and we can see some reflection of that in the positions he took on Wall Street and others. You've gone beyond that you're actually involved with a movement called Socialist Alternative. You've taken a more vigorous position on some foreign policy issues than Bernie Sanders. You've insisted that the local is not only national but also international. Let me begin by asking you about the use of the word socialist, what is its relevance, why is it significant?
Kshama Sawant: I think you used a really interesting phrase that Seattle elected a socialist and then reelected a socialist, but Seattle also happens to be the tech capital, right now, it is as you said the avant-garde face of 21st century American capitalism. That's a really interesting metaphor to begin with because that symbol of capitalist growth is juxtaposed against the fact that Seattle while its wealth is booming is really becoming more and more and more unequal. At the same time that you see Seattle becoming the construction crane capital of the nation, you also see homelessness rising at a stunning rate. Rents are skyrocketing and the city is basically unaffordable not just to the lowest income people but also the erstwhile thriving middle class now is finding it extremely difficult to maintain a foothold in the city.
I think that is the context in which we are discussing the idea of an alternative to capitalism. I think what is striking about today, the times we live in but especially the consciousness of millennials, younger people, people in their teens, 20s and 30s, what we're seeing is a disenchantment with what's on offer right now and that means corporate politics. That means the economic future which they see correctly as very bleak and just completely marred by student debt and low wage jobs, and really not the prospects of the American dream that every child is promised here. This is not to mention all the other issues we see in terms of racial inequality, blatant racism, police violence against black and brown people.
In all these context what you're seeing is a rejection of the status quo and many young people are also seeing that that status quo is not incidental to the capitalist system but this is what happens under capitalism. More and more in polls you're seeing younger people, those who are aged 18 to 29 years old being open to socialism. What I mean by socialism is an economy, a society that is able to put all its resources, all its wealth to the objective of delivering high standards of living to all people. A living wage job, a decent neighborhood to live in, high quality housing and healthcare and education. Protecting the planet because we can't discuss a future society without a real fightback against climate change, and move away from fossil fuel use.
I think that while I strongly believe that most ordinary people will subscribe to that vision of society what younger people are also realizing is that such a society is out of grasp as long as we accept the domination of corporations and the domination of Wall Street and the multibillionaire class and that is why you saw the rise of the Occupy Movement which put forward this idea correctly that it's the 99% of the population pitted against the 1% that owns all the resource. I think that's the context in which socialism is being discussed and the fact that Sanders made such a huge headway in the heartland of America with his call for a political revolution against the billionaire class, only demonstrates how much openness there is to discussing an alternative to this very sort of sick society.
Robert Scheer: I should point out to people that we are recording this on Thursday before the Tuesday election and I'm going to assume for the sake of this discussion that Hillary Clinton will have won by the time people listen to this podcast. Simply using the word socialist, can even define a reactionary or repressive position. We know European socialist parties have betrayed workers with the same abandon as others and we know in some parts of the world socialism is identified with totalitarianism but I don't want to get hang up on these words because what you're really talking about is challenging the power of these massive multinational corporations and their control over our political system.
That's something Jill Stein asserted as did Bernie Sanders. I want to point this is not just a pie in the sky, the fact is this $15, minimum wage long long overdue. We didn't even account for inflation with the minimum wage which you did in Seattle and it was compelling in some ways because the whole argument against it is it's going to hurt business, it's going to hurt prosperity even. Seattle does it, then others can do it. The first community to follow that I think, a certainly large community was where we're broadcasting from and I'm in Santa Monica now but LA county and before that the LA city council, the city of LA followed your example and made that law. In response to a lot of the pressures you talked about in Seattle that people working there can't afford to live there, can't get by on their wages.
That's true in every American city now, it's actually true through much of America, so this destruction of the middle class begins with defining most of the people who work as people who are near poverty. Whether they're serving coffee or cleaning restaurants and up to the level of teaching students, in this underfunded school system. If I could just concentrate a little bit more on past the labels and the let's talk about the liberal label. Really what happened to liberalism and instead of Washington this is all before Microsoft, before the tech boom of course, going back to the '50s and '60 and so forth, was the identification of the democratic party and the liberal wing of the democratic, more progressive democrats. With a big war budget, with a big emphasis on national security.
My own feeling is that Hillary Clinton and the democrats now are poised to do that. She seems quite hawkish, her own memoir of being secretary of state positions her considerably to the more hawkish than Barack Obama, we know she favored the intervention in Libya and Syria. This may seem to listeners as an odd question to put somebody who is on a city council. As you have made a point, these issues are connected and I think you are one of the rare public officials with any label who had the guts to criticize U.S. policy on Israel for example. You took some heat for that.
This is an issue in which Hillary Clinton seems to be particularly beholden to a sort of blind support of the hawkish position and whatever Israel wants, it gets. Do you want to comment on that?
Kshama Sawant: Sure I'd love to. If you don't mind I'll also comment a few things on the various points you mentioned. In your question I felt like there were many other aspects that are worth responding to. On the question of the statement that I issued to my office about the Israeli attacks on Gaza, I think that's very important that you pointed out. Also as you said correctly that there shouldn't be an artificial distinction between local politics and national politics. Even indeed international politics.
I think that we as those of us I'm assuming, everybody who is listening to it is quite concerned about the state of the world and is feeling disturbed and has a desire to bring about some change. For us which I believe are the majority of human beings on this planet who are concerned about what's happening. I think we have to understand that these ideas that, well if you're a local politician or a local activist don't bother yourself with national or international issues. I think these ideas first of all we have recognized them as artificial separations but also I think more importantly understand that these are ideas that are given to us by an elite. The corporate media is part of that, even to some great degree academia is also a way that the ruling elite exert their domination and domination has to come through controlling the thought process as well.
We are given these ideas that, you shouldn't worry your head about larger issues but that is actually completely wrong for us to buy into, because it is through building movements on local issues and also on national issues locally that we are able to make change. The right to an abortion wasn't won by women and men supporting them because we had a benign supreme court. As a matter of fact it was primarily a republican appointed supreme court during Roe v. Wade and the reason it happened and the only reason it happened, by the way that was under Richard Nixon, it was in a Nixon White House. The only reason that that was won, that victory was won because working women, working class women everywhere in all the cities around the United States were marching on the streets fighting for abortion rights.
First of all we have to completely reject the separation from local and national. The other thing I can share with your listeners from our experience, this is a real life experience we've had, the first election that we won to the city council in 2013, we run against a 16-year powerful democratic incumbent and we had nearly 95,000 Seattleites vote for an open socialist and that tells you something about how much people are hankering for a change.
Last year when we won our reelection and we won a decisive victory against a corporate democrat who was running against us and they ran a black woman against me to confuse voters on the race question because I'm a brown skinned Indian immigrant woman and the voters refused to get confused. The point being, about last years' reelection campaign is that the democratic party establishment in the city and in the region went to war against us and put every tool out from their toolbox to try and defeat me.
I mentioned this to make the point that if we have this idea that somehow the democratic party establishment is going to let alone, leave us alone to build left radical politics locally but they just get annoyed when you run left candidates at a national level, that's a completely false idea. Wherever the left tries to build itself, wherever workers and young people try to build radical movements, the establishment and their representatives which is democratic party and republican party establishments will work against us. We have to understand who is with us and who is against us.
The other point that I would like to mention also is you talked about labels and socialism has for many decades been an incendiary label, but I think what's most important to understand right now is that we're in a different era completely. This is not the cold war era and most people who are active in politics now haven't grown up in the cold war era, and so this vilifying of the word socialism is not something that makes sense to them. So I would say more appropriately the C word is a dirty word right now for young people, which is capitalism. Because they see that this system is completely failing them.
Robert Scheer: After a break we'll be right back with Scheer Intelligence and my guest Kshama Sawant.
Robert Scheer: Welcome back to Scheer Intelligence. I'm speaking with Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant. You are absolutely right about not only the younger generation but where we are now. For the longest time and as economist you know this, for a long time that profession and generally the whole academic world assume the class issue had been solved. When people like Micheal Harrington and [Gay real Koko 00:17:59] back in the 1960s were writing about poverty and income distribution. Their conventional wisdom even in the academic world was, "Oh it's over." As people get older they get better jobs, they make more money.
Now we've seen a reversal of that. In a city like San Francisco, Oakland, go through the whole country it's pretty difficult for anyone to live in any level of comfort with their family if they're a teacher, school teacher. That's another marginalized profession, or if they're not out gulching on the stock market and making money. I don't want to leave the idea your message is not appropriate, that's why we're doing this podcast.
Let me raise another question, for the purpose of the podcast, I'm doing this because I like to find what I call American originals and of course I put you in that category. It doesn't mean they're originals by virtue of birth, it means they're originals because we have this crazy cult of ethnic and religious and racial mixture in America through immigration, and conquest and what have you. I just like to talk a little bit about that, you said your a brown skinned Indian woman and did you get your sense of this need for a progressive socialist perspective from your upbringing before you came here or after here witnessing. Is this a worldwide concept that requires application or is it something that the American experience throws up?
Kshama Sawant: Thank you for asking that question because I think my personal experience will probably resonate with most people because there is nothing unique about it but it is something that people feel isolated on because we don't often articulate these thoughts and feelings about the state of the world. We each of us feel like maybe it's just me, I'm feeling this way and others don't. Yes, to answer your question I had a sense, deep sense of a feeling of injustice from the very beginning not for my own personal situation. My parents were not wealthy or even rich by any means but we, my generation, my sisters and my generation, we were the beneficiaries of some of the programs that were put in place by the post independence Indian governments which were not socialist but they were socialist leaning.
As you correctly said it was socialists who were on the front lines of all the gains that we have made even under capitalism like the 8-hour work day, like the End The Child Labor. Similarly in India the push for women's literacy, making schooling entirely free for girl children. The putting in place of public health vaccination programs. I'm personally a beneficiary of those kinds of public programs and in fact while we're on that subject, it works. There is just so much evidence that public investment in basic needs absolutely works and nothing works like it. No private entity is going to be able to provide the kind of services that we could provide on a public basis, because a public basis is a nonprofit basis.
So as soon as you put the profit motive, private profit motive in the picture all is lost. For me it was not a personal thing but it was an observational thing, observing the extreme contrast between the wealth of very few people. This was in India as I was growing up, as I was a young child. The extreme poverty on the other end of the masses, literally hundreds of millions of people just in deep suffering not to mention the way the caste system operates. For me my whole childhood was a process of awakening not from something that I had believed in but a sense that I never believed in the system and I was convinced while I didn't know the theory of politics in any way because I grew up in a very [math 00:22:07] oriented household which was not political at all.
I did have a sense that I was completely right that this is systemic. That there is nothing in the human being's DNA that means that the society has to be so messed up. There must be an actual reason in the way society functions, that outcomes are like this. What was interesting to me is that all the while there, I had this imagination that maybe things are different in other countries and maybe we need to learn why the United States for example is so developed. It was quite revealing to me to have ... I came to the U.S. at the age of 22 and it was quite startling, really stunning for me to see that even in the richest country in the world I could see homeless people on the streets.
I could see a mass transit system that was decades behind the mass transit, I was used to in Mumbai. Understanding that this is happening at a global level, the failures of this system are not incidental or geographic but they are global and they are endemic to the system. I started connecting the ills of society to their root cause, which is the system itself. I think you hit the nail on the head, it's absolutely, it's a global system so the fightback has to be global. That is why as a member of Socialist Alternative I'm also a member of an international organization called the Committee for Workers International or the CWI which is based in in 46 different countries including my home country India.
We all build our movements, our membership and our fightback in our local district, so for example we fought for 15 in Seattle but we remain connected to our sister organizations precisely because we recognized that this is a global fightback and workers' movements need to grow everywhere. You see this action at all times. The Arab Spring and the courageous revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia directly inspired the public sector apprising in Wisconsin in early 2011, and the Occupy Movement later that same year. You see these connections but I think these connections exist for capitalism as well and I think you mentioned a very very important point that should be expanded on which is that, no longer is the system able to deliver the kind of standards of living that it was able to deliver to at least a section of the society.
As you said, wouldn't you think that a system in its own interests, capitalist system in its own interest would provide a measure of benefits to ... I don't mean like literal benefits at the workplace, but something in terms of a decent standard of living to a larger section of the population just for its own survival. So that it can create spokespeople for itself. That's a very important point to consider because while the creation of the middle class in the past few decades, two or three decades between the end of the second world war and the end of the 1970s that's where the middle class was created.
While that was not a widespread thing let's remember black poverty wasn't really addressed in any significant way by that either but still there was a significant creation of the middle class and that is not happening anymore. That is not because the system has suddenly gone off the rails but it is very much tied to the nature of capitalism and you saw the economic crisis happening in 2007/2008. The global system is still in a process of unraveling and there isn't any real solution in sight for the system itself.
Robert Scheer: I do want to throw out finally as we wrap this up a somewhat different perspective. My own view is that this country is in trouble yes, for all of the of the reasons you described. We've been taken over by a particularly stone deaf repetitious capitalist grouping now. I interviewed people like Nelson and David Rockefeller in the past. There was at least a part of their brain was focused on what would happen three/four generations up the road. Particularly with Franklin Delano Roosevelt who came from wealth and a recognition that capitalism would not be preserved if it did not provide minimal support.
When I went to college, a city college in New York and Collin Powell was in the same class, the idea of free education was taken for granted and there had even been free textbooks for much of that history of those schools. What we now broadcast here at KCRW part of NPR from Santa Monica College a community college, you taught at a community college in Seattle. The very idea that even on a community college level and then a state college level and even many of the private institutions that students have to go broke.
I have to be put into debt for something that as a kid I took for granted a 4-year publicly subsidized college education. It strikes me that we have a particularly venal, short run, stupid, exploitative form of capitalism now, and that it is providing the seeds of its own destruction much more rapidly than would otherwise be necessary. I want to conclude on this questioning you but I think the very fact that Trump could run a significant campaign to my mind indicates ... because he swept aside the whole republican leadership. He gained it in the case that among white workers, among his base and the republican party, there is a great deal of pain.
You had a neo-fascist populism blaming immigrants and blaming the vulnerable for the problem, we know what that is. Yet on the democratic side the strength for Bernie Sanders again showed a great pain and he had a progressive alternative. I want to ask finally for your appraisal of Hillary Clinton and what you expect from a Clinton presidency. Here is the woman we now know from her Goldman Sachs speeches, who was as cozy as you can be with the people who created the great recession. Do you really expect ... might it in some ways not be the worst of worlds right now that we're entering.
Kshama Sawant: I think that first of all just to make it clear I don't have any illusions in Hillary Clinton while I see the difference between Trump and Clinton and we shouldn't make a false equivalence between Trump and Clinton, or indeed within republican and democratic parties. They have certain differences but ultimately they serve the same master which is Wall Street interest, and the interest of multibillionares. There is no question about that, it's just a question of how they relate to consciousness and they do it in different ways. The republican party has had a long record of bigotry and anti-immigrant ideas. Trump to some degree did not come out of nowhere.
Yes, the republicans are busy distancing themselves, or trying to distance themselves from him but the reality is that he has stepped onto a podium that was created by the republican establishment and by the democratic establishment. What I expect from a Clinton presidency, just from her being the representative of Wall Street as you mentioned, all the money that she's taken from Goldman Sachs and also just the myriad of facts that form the quote of what she has been in the last 30 years. There should be no surprises, she is who she is and that is why there has been so much anger against corporate politics because both the establishment have served corporate interest.
I would expect her to do exactly what she feels she's meant to do, which is served her corporate interest and that would mean TPP, that would certainly mean not leading on minimum wage issues. The decisive factors whether in how the future several years are going to be shaped is going to be what we as ordinary people, as young people, as activists, as members of the labor movement the decisive thing is going to be what we do in order to fight against the corporate domination of politics. Ultimately it's not only just a question of what she will do but also what she will be able to get away with.
You talked about FDR and I want to come back to FDR in a second but I thought it would be interesting and instructive to talk about another president, Richard Nixon who is not celebrated in the history books. He was a misogynist, racist, real bigot but on paper Richard Nixon is perhaps one of the most progressive if not the most progressive presidents to occupy the White House. Under his regime, the Vietnam War ended, the Roe v. Wade supreme court verdict was passed. The environmental protection agency was formed. The occupational safety and health act was passed.
This was all not because of him, it was despite him. The movements that were building at that time, native American rights movement, the antiwar movement, the women's rights movement and the workplace rights movements. These were all starting to coalesce and really present a threat to the establishment and that is how many of these progressive outcomes were achieved. I don't think the moral of that story is then it doesn't matter who is elected. Of course it very much matters who gets elected but it also matters perhaps far more greatly that we build movements independent of the democratic and in republican establishments and that point connects to the FDR history as well. In conventional history Roosevelt, FDR has been deified as the real messiah for workers and for the marginalization-
Robert Scheer: No, the savior of capitalism is what I said not the messiah for workers.
Kshama Sawant: You're not calling him that but most people are given this message that we need presidents like FDR and the reality is that as you correctly said, he was the savior of capitalism and as a matter of fact the gains that were won under the new deal in his era were only because of the labor movements actually were militant and radical militant. I mean in a political way, really understanding that the establishment is stacked up against them, and because they were led for the most part by socialists or as you said socialist leaning people and there were 3 general strikes that happened in the 1930s that paved the way for the new deal. In reality FDR had a completely different record, he ran his campaign on fiscal conservatism and then you see him putting together the new deal that's because of the power of social movements.
As a matter of fact FDR holds the dubious distinction of having called the national guard far more times than any other president. So ultimately yes, it matters who gets elected but it is not that this era is particularly tone deaf. The Rockefeller's of that era were carrying out massive repression of their own workers and some of the basic gains of workplace rights were won at that time despite them, not because of them but once we win these gains, the ruling elite say, "Well we were going to do it anyway." That's what they say about 15, "We are benign we were going to do it anyway."
Robert Scheer: That's a important corrective, by the way one of the forces operating on Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Eleanor Roosevelt and I'm afraid to say I don't know that Hillary Clinton will follow in that tradition, but let me say this is it. We've run out of time for Scheer Intelligence, intelligence coming from our guest Kshama Sawant. My producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney and our engineers here at KCRW Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. Listen again next week.