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  November 17, 2013

First Elected Socialist Seattle Council Member in a Century

TRNN speaks with Socialist Kshama Sawant about her vision of an alternative to capitalism.
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Kshama Sawant is the first open socialist to be elected to Seattle City Council in over a century. She is an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College and a member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789. She was an activist in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and is a fighter for workers, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants through her work in the organization Socialist Alternative.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

For the first time in more than a century, the city of Seattle elected a socialist City Council member. Her name is Kshama Sawant, and she joins us now from Seattle.

Kshama is an Occupy activist, union member, and economics professor. And as I mentioned, she's the first open socialist to be elected to Seattle City Council and the country's first big-city socialist councilmember in decades.

Thanks for being with us.


DESVARIEUX: So, Kshama, I read a great Q&A on Salon recently, and you mentioned how young people can see that the two-party system does not offer any solutions. It's basically not working for them. Well, what is the alternative? What kind of alternative are you offering?

SAWANT: Okay. So, first of all, yeah, I just wanted to say that it's absolutely true that young people don't see a solution. And, you know, a Pew Research poll recently showed that people who are aged 18 to 29 years of age, in that age group, a much greater number of them see socialism favorably than capitalism.

And in order to understand what kind of alternative we need, I think it helps to look at what kind of system we have today. You know, we have the capitalist system, around which the global economy is organized. And what capitalism offers is a recession every five and a half to seven years. And once in a while, one of those recessions will be a full-blown devastating recession like this one, the one we are in, the Great Recession. We started in 2008. And there is no solution to this great recession anywhere on the horizon as far as the capitalist system is concerned. And instead what we're seeing is that the the burden of the recession is being placed squarely on the shoulders of working people, elderly, disabled. And young people in some ways are going to bear the brunt of this collapse, because they are just entering the job market, they are just starting out their adult life, and what they have staring in front of them is a bleak future of low-wage jobs, tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and a slashing of social programs. So, you know, new young parents are going to have very little support in terms of child care, health care, and any prospect of, you know, building a retirement or pension cushion for their old old age.

And look at the devastation that it has wrought in many cities like Detroit. You know, entire auto plants that could be really productive have either been moved to the South, where there are workers who are poorer and more desperate enough to accept jobs that are lower wage. And on top of that, you have lots of machines staying idle while lots of people out there are looking for jobs.

And, you know, when people say that capitalism is an efficient system, I would argue very strongly against it. Capitalism has made possible tremendous technological achievements. The human race is capable of, you know, many kinds of brilliant innovations. But in reality, at this moment, capitalism is a deeply inefficient system which has tremendous resources lying idle while people are struggling to put food on the table and to put a roof over their head.

DESVARIEUX: Can we talk a little bit more about your platform as a socialist? How do you see sort of turning this tide?

SAWANT: Yes. I was getting to that. And the only way to turn this tide is to find ways to improve the standards of living of all the people who are being, you know, pushed to the bottom.

And that's why concretely our campaign has been fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle. And I don't think we should have any illusions. Fifteen dollars an hour is not a living wage in a city as expensive as Seattle. But it will be a significant improvement in people's lives. And there is a huge momentum to fight for $15 an hour. And that's the main variable we have to go down to, that if we want to make any kind of social change, even within capitalism--I will talk about what alternatives I have for capitalism itself--but even if you want to make any slight bit of change within capitalism, that will require a mass number of workers and young people and other people to come together in an organized movement.

And so, for example, we are not going to get $15 an hour in Seattle unless we have a mass mobilization of working people to demand for it. And throughout history, in every example where the labor movement or social movements or women's rights and, you know, people of color rights and so on, if they were able to gain any victory, it was by fighting against the capitalist system, not with it, because capitalism does not offer those solutions. And so we have to be fighting for those reforms within capitalism.

However, it's not going to be enough, it is not going to be enough to fight for $15 an hour, because even if we get it, the value of that wage will be eroded over a couple of generations, and then will be back to very where we started. And so we have to find an alternative to capitalism itself. And the alternative we are fighting for is democratic socialism, which is a way of organizing the human economy and society globally on the lines of economic democracy, meaning that all the resources, the tremendous natural and technological resources that we have in our society, all the capability, innovative and creative capabilities that we have, all of that should be harnessed for social good, not for the profit of a small elite, which is what capitalism offers. And that has to be done in a sustainable way. And that is another reason why we are fighting for our socialism, because capitalism has proven itself completely incapable of fighting against climate change and ending the use of fossil fuels. So how [crosstalk]

DESVARIEUX: Okay. I want to get a sense from you how you work within this current system, because, as I stated before, you are the first open socialist to be elected to Seattle City Council. How do you plan on working within that paradigm? Are you going to be--how's your agenda going to be different or the same as liberal Democrats, for example?

SAWANT: No, the agenda is going to be, you know, you know, completely different than liberal Democrats'. Liberal--and it's not just a superficial label when I call myself socialist or when we say we're a socialist alternative organization. We don't--it's not simply a nominal label that we where. We are socialist because we reject the function, we reject that the only possible economic system is capitalism, and so you have to work within it.

But, you know, this is what liberal Democrats believe in. I mean, they except the limits of capitalism. So in spite of the fact that many rank-and-file Democrats are very genuine and many of them have ended up supporting our campaign, when you accept that capitalism is the only option you have, then you end up, even though you don't want to, you end up accepting the logic of big business and the super wealthy.

And what does that mean concretely? That means that, you know, I'm on City Council and I'm fighting for $15 an hour, if I was a liberal Democrat, I would easily get coopted into the agenda of big business, because all big business has to do is to schmooze me, you know, take me out to dinner, say, you know, I really like your passion, I admire your passion, you're doing great things, but look, we can't push for it in such a dramatic way; you know, it has to take time, you have to invite big business to the table; and, look, let's do this over several years, and, you know, maybe not let's start with $15 an hour; let's say let's do $11 an hour for now, and let's just target it at some businesses, and we'll take it slow. This is how the Democratic Party functions. And you can see how miserably it has failed, because the Democratic Party does not offer an option to the--an alternative to the Republican Party, which is--you know. And then the reason they don't offer an alternative is because they accept the same system the Republicans do.

Look at what happened with single-payer health care under Obama. People voted for Obama in big numbers because they hoped that he would bring single-payer health care, which would ultimately, you know, which would finally bring decent health care provisions for all Americans in the wealthiest country in the world. I mean, look, it's high time that happened. But that wasn't possible under Obama, because Obama, when he comes with the mandate of big business, when he is a candidate that has historically high campaign funding from financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, when he's in the White House, he has to serve their interests, because they're not stupid. They're not going to get him into office and then let him do whatever else he wants to do for working people. So what happened with single-payer health care? All the people who were calling for single-payer health care, including Dennis Kucinich, were shut out from the debate. And who was invited to the table? It was insurance companies, CEOs, and pharmaceutical Corporation CEOs. And they finally delivered this rotten public option, which may have a few positive characteristics to it, but on the whole is going to fail the needs of working people. That's a concrete example of how the liberal Democrat approach works out in the end.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Kshama Sawant, thank you so much for joining us. This is just the first part of our interview. In our next part of the interview, we'll discuss the contract dispute between Boeing workers and executives and we'll get into what's at stake for workers after Boeing received a record state corporate tax break of $9 billion. Please stay tuned for that.

Kshama Sawant, as I said, thank you again for joining us.

SAWANT: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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