You might be a socialist if… An interview with Kshama Sawant

Fliers for Kshama Sawant, a socialist candidate running for state legislature, are plastered around Capitol Hill (Photo courtesy votesawant.org)

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.”

Sawant sports her Socialist Alternative colors at the 2012 Slutwalk Seattle (Photo courtesy votesawant.org)

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.

A young Sawant supporter hands out literature on Capitol Hill. A rare grassroots write-in campaign earned her over ten percent of the primary vote. (Photo courtesy votesawant.org)

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.’

On Seattle:

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 and a supporter at the 2012 Seattle Slutwalk. (Photo courtesy votesawant.org)

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.

20 COMMENTS

    • Hey Vince Hosea, you can sign up on the right-hand side of the site where it says “subscribe via email” or you can leave your email in a comment here and we’ll do it for you. Thanks!

  1. Lovely interview of a fascinating individual who has given me more hope for the future of Seattle and Washington State, for politics as unusual. More like this, please.

  2. Even as government further encroaches into our lives and we continue to erode what made this country great, people like Sawant still immigrate here because the US is the beacon of liberty and prosperity the world over. Please stop biting the hand that’s fed you.

    • I’m not quite sure what you mean by your statements… please clarify, & who is “stop biting” directed to?

      If you’re referring to Sawant, it sounds as if she’s learned well from the system — which, as you note, needs help — and it sounds as if she’s trying to make it better. That, I believe, is what makes our country great.

      • Sure, “stop biting” is directed at socialists or anyone who thinks we should move towards a system of forced collectivism. This country, the wealthiest most innovative in the history of the world, was founded on a system that rejected forced collectivism in favor of individualism and voluntary exchange.

        And you are correct, the system does need help, but only to the extent that free-market capitalism is allowed to flourish and crony-capitalism is squashed.

        • eh, I beg to differ Tyler. The US was built on the most extreme form of “collectivism” – slavery! when it was abolished, it was replaced with a less crude version called wage slavery.

          And as for your comment about innovation, let me remind you that that champion of free market innovation, Fortune magazine named Enron “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years from 1996 to 2001.

          But hey, lets not go there, right?

  3. Some very small problems with socialism:
    It cripples economic growth, creates a massive moral hazard where it’s easier to be lazy and take the uncompetitive pay and benefits than to work hard, causes an entrenched corrupt oligarchy, and eventually devloves a genocidal tyranny.
    Other than that, it’s great.
    Anybody who votes for this pollyanna ditz needs to grow up and read history.

    • Written a 100 years ago, but as true today:
      BUT THE SOCIALIST PROPOSALS, THEY SAY, WOULD DESTROY THE INDIVIDUAL CHARACTER OF THE WORKER. HE WOULD LEAN ON THE COMMUNITY, INSTEAD OF UPON HIS OWN EFFORTS.

      Yes: Giving evidence before the Old Age Pensions Committee in England, Sir John Dorrington, M.P., expressed the belief that the provision of Old Age Pensions by the State, for instance, would do more harm than good. It was an objectionable principle, and would lead to improvidence.’

      There now! You will always observe that it is some member of what an Irish revolutionist called ‘the canting, fed classes’, who is anxious that nothing should be done by the State to give the working class habits of ‘improvidence,’ or to do us any ‘harm.’ Dear, kind souls!

      To do them justice they are most consistent. For both in public and private their efforts are most whole-heartedly bent in the same direction, viz., to prevent improvidence – ON OUR PART.

      They lower our wages – to prevent improvidence; they increase our rents – to prevent improvidence; they periodically suspend us from our employment – to prevent improvidence, and as soon as we are worn out in their service they send us to a semi-convict establishment, known as the Workhouse, where we are scientifically starved to death – to prevent improvidence.

      Old Age Pensions might do us harm. Ah, yes! And yet, come to think of it, I know quite a number of people who draw Old Age Pensions and it doesn’t do them a bit of harm. Strange, isn’t it?

      Then all the Royal Families have pensions, and they don’t seem to do them any harm; royal babies, in fact, begin to draw pensions and milk from a bottle at the same time.

      Afterwards they drop the milk, but they never drop the pension – nor the bottle.

      Then all our judges get pensions, and are not corrupted thereby – at least not more than usual. In fact, all well-paid officials in governmental or municipal service get pensions, and there are no fears expressed that the receipt of the same may do them harm.

      But the underpaid, overworked wage-slave. To give him a pension would ruin his moral fibre, weaken his stamina, debase his manhood, sap his integrity, corrupt his morals, check his prudence, emasculate his character, lower his aspirations, vitiate his resolves, destroy his self-reliance, annihilate his rectitude, corrode his virility – and – and – other things.

  4. If she doesent win send her up here to Anchorage. Seems like all the politicians here want to privatize as much as possible. Its not enough that there are no taxes we have to pay buisinesses to come here and rip us off.

  5. Another socialist pushing the envelop in Seattle this year is Christina Lopez, running for US Vice President as a write-in candidate of the Freedom Socialist Party. Check her out at VoteSocialism.com. She’s been in the front lines of organizing against budget cuts in Olympia, for immigrant rights and challenging the rigged electoral system.

    • You mean the oxymoron party. “Freedom” and “Socialism” are mutually exclusive. Gov’t produces nothing. Before it can provide for some it first has to take from others. Taking by force is the antithesis of freedom. Earning through the voluntary exchange of goods and services with others is freedom.

  6. Tyler please read about the nordic welfare model. You would consider it to be socialism and yet it provides more marketing freedom than in the U.S. USA is not the richest country in the world “per capita” and you have the biggest loan on the planet. As most of the americans you are brainwashed by the system, which fits the richest people well. You contribute to their standard of living. It’s not freedom when 1 % of your people own 40 % and 10 % own 80 % of your total BNP. It is a monetary dictatorship and it is cruel and primitive. The only thing your right wing knows how to say is less taxes and work harder. Don’t you see? The poor is considered to be lazy in most cases and should just work harder that is not an option for everyone and is only making the inequality greater and that is exactly what the richest people want you to say and think. Capitalism doesn’t stand for freedom, it only divides people into classes. That’s not freedom !. For me is the best county in the world to live in the nordic countries and I am sure when I say this that I speak for the general nordic point of view: We don’t want to live in USA and we don’t think you are the greatest country in the world nor the richest or freest. Just the most ignorant. Of course this doesn’t apply to “all” americans. I think you are slowly waking up from the invisble chains by your cooperative media and american mentality. We all and rest of Europe hope Obama will deliver some of the change he promised. For your sake and for our sake, because I want my grand children to grow old aswell.

  7. It was late at night when I first found this, a little before Xmas. But I just couldn’t pass on commenting about government producing “nothing”, or about capitalism being such a great generator of wealth. First, Marxists (which both Kshama and myself are) see the government – the state – as defending the interests of the predominant class in society, and in the U.S. that’s the capitalist class. So posing “the government” versus “the market” is a false dichotomy. But the U.S. government has produced plenty, such as *THE INTERNET*; that was a project of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the DoD) that started in 1969, and they had a working prototype called ArpaNet by the late 1970s before turning it over to the for-profit sector. I could go on about the interstate highway system, the basic/secondary/higher education system, the library system, the funding of public institutional research on climate/oceans/medical drugs/basic science, the smidgen of regulatory scrutiny not yet captured by industry that keeps industry from killing us with their products, etc. But I don’t have the time to list everything, and anyone who isn’t convinced of the government’s capacity to create things after thinking about all that I have listed isn’t being objective. But almost every country on the planet (save for Cuba, which still has an undemocratically planned economy) has some form of capitalism, “crony” or otherwise. And in most countries, capitalism is an abysmal failure. Take Indonesia, where a few rich people exist alongside vast poverty, and the main “crony” (Suharto) was put there after a CIA-sponsored slaughter of about 1 million Communist Party members/supporters in 1965. Or Mexico, where capitalism is such a “success” that millions of people risk death crossing over to the U.S. to work some below-minimum-wage job so they can send money back to their family (the #2 source of legal income for the Mexican economy); but oh yeah, Mexico’s capitalism is a BIG success for Carlos Slim, the richest person on the planet. Or Nigeria, which would be a net creditor nation if capital outflows to the imperialist countries were counted. Basically, the places where capitalism is failing are the non-imperialist countries. The places where capitalism is “succeeding” are the countries (like capitalist China) that have huge investments in the non-imperialist countries; in other words, the imperialist countries. This is saying that it isn’t capitalism that’s producing so much wealth, but rather *imperialism* … for the imperialists, that is. And there’s no other way for that to be, since the very existence of profit – the sole motivator for capitalism – guarantees that capitalist economies have to grow above population growth just to *maintain* both profitability and the 99%’s living standard. If a capitalist country grows to the limit it can within its own borders, it then either flounders forever or grows beyond its own borders – in other words, becomes imperialist. Or the whole lot of them can start a world war, destroy millions of lives and tons of infrastructure, and then restart their growth cycle. Not a very appealing option to the vast majority of humanity. Capitalism has to go, and all socialism asks is that the economy be democratically planned; if you’re against socialism, you’re against democracy – you’re against yourself (unless you’re a member of the 1%).

Leave a Reply