Update: Sawant lost the below-mentioned election for State Legislature, but she just won a seat on the Seattle City Council. To the best of our knowledge, everything else she said in this interview from last year is still true.
Kshama Sawant is a pretty cool lady.
She’s a socialist who won the opportunity to challenge entrenched State House Speaker Frank Chopp to represent the 43rd Legislative District as a write-in candidate in the primaries.
She teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College (she’s got a PhD!) And she’s a great example of how third party candidates aren’t all variations on that Goodspaceguy.
She has a dog named “Che,” makes fun of Marxists (“they all talk too much”) and has a uniquely socialist perspective on the Globalist-y aspects of the upcoming local elections.
She’s also super laid back about things not going according to plan.
I first heard of Sawant through the bright yellow and pink “Vote Sawant” posters I’d seen all over Capitol Hill. When I found out she had grown up in Mumbai, India I figured the Seattle Globalist had to meet her.
We agreed to meet at B&O Espresso for a coffee. But when I arrived there I couldn’t get my 1990 Cutlass Sierra Oldsmobile to turn off (seriously, the key just wouldn’t turn!) and had to introduce myself – the Cutlass idling around the corner – with “Hi, I’m Sarah Stuteville, you must be Kshama, any chance you know something about cars?”
She didn’t, but she was eager to help. She jiggled the key, banged on the dashboard and ultimately looked up the nearest mechanic on her smartphone.
Embarrassed, I offered to reschedule our interview but Sawant was up for the adventure. Once the car was deposited with a head-scratching mechanic and we’d found a new cafe, Sawant opened with proof that she sees the political in everything, “I could not make a better case than this for fully functional public transit.”
I knew I was in for an interesting cup of coffee.
What international perspective do you bring to these local elections?
I grew up in India. I didn’t grow up poor myself, but I wasn’t rich either and one all-consuming question that I was consumed with from a very young age, maybe 8 or 9 was ‘why do we have so much inequality and poverty?’ The answers I got were so dissatisfying, ‘oh this is fate or they didn’t work hard enough,’ it’s the same kind of nonsense in the US.
On first arriving in the US:
When I came to the US I expected it to be very prosperous, but what was most telling to me as an international person was to come here and see the same problems here but to a smaller magnitude… and really that’s what led me to have more of a critique of capitalism.
Are we experiencing an international moment of capitalist critique, especially among young people?
The issues in Egypt and Tunisia were sort of universal, they were unemployment, youth dissension, look how common this theme is right? It’s running throughout the globe.
Students are dealing with the double whammy of bleak job prospects and huge debt. There are cracks appearing in the American Dream and young people are realizing ‘I’m going to have a worse lifestyle than my parents, who already had to work so hard to get what little they had.’
Why didn’t you go into politics in India? Why the US instead?
The reason I did not go into politics there was because none of the political options I saw [were what I was looking for]. They only play lip service to the issues that people care about, they co-opt [people’s] movements and use them for their votes but otherwise disregard them.
Is Socialism as stigmatized in India as it is in the US?
In other countries Socialism is not tarred with the same stigma that it is here in the US. The US is a special case…but I would say that the younger generations in the US are now moving away from that stigma and actually seeing the system collapse around themselves.
On a Socialist future:
In a future world I don’t think there should be any borders. Nationality has no place in human society…I know it sounds like an extreme thing, but the point is that nationhood and national pride and patriotism is often being used to take young people to war–mostly young poor kids to fight the rich man’s war.
As long as you’re thinking about these things in terms of America or India then you’re not able to see that ‘hey, I have my brother and sister in India that are facing the same conditions and we need to come together.’
It’s great to come to a place like Seattle because you fit right in, because there are people from everywhere, everyone fits in and that’s what we want the world to be.
Sawant is willing to think about how radically different the world could be, not in the sound bites and platitudes of your usual politician, but even in the concrete terms of our own city.
She says that there are intermediate steps required to move a society towards socialism (she cites ending budget cuts, racial profiling, the “racist war on drugs” and addressing homelessness as concrete examples) but walking around Capitol Hill after our coffee (my car problem still far from solved) Sawant openly muses about how Seattle might change under socialism.
She points out that coffee shops (because they’re a kind of public space) never have the stunning views of wealthy homes and high-powered offices and imagines the old mansions of Millionaire Row publicly owned and turned into shared housing.
“When things are exquisitely beautiful and rare,” she argues, “they shouldn’t be privately owned,”
She has me imagine how my own life might change (more shared labor, more healthy food, less anxiety about how to pay for those car repairs) and laughs saying, “Seattle is so beautiful, all it needs is Socialism.”
This post was produced with support from CityClub. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of CityClub.