Why is there no socialism in US national politics? This question has haunted historians and political analysts since the German sociologist Werner Sombart raised it more than 100 years ago in an effort to explain an apparent anomaly: The United States was the only nation in the industrial world that did not have an organized labor movement directed toward socialist goals. In fact, socialism itself was regarded by most Americans at the time as a foreign idea, which helped to explain why there was no socialist party functioning on a national level, but instead only sectarian left groups at the local level.
Sombart’s explanation for the absence of socialism in the United States as a vital alternative path to the organization of the economy along capitalist principles and values was attributed to capitalism’s own vitality and what he regarded as the love affair that US workers had with the free enterprise system. For all practical intents and purposes, he might have also included anti-intellectualism, as US culture was not hospitable to intellectuals, and socialism could not have been what it was without the influence of the intelligentsia.
In the present day, while socialism has yet to establish firm roots across the United States, new political and social developments may herald more promising things to come for the spread of the socialist vision in US society. Turn-of-the-millennium developments such as the rise of the anti-globalization movement and the emergence of the Occupy movement have both been fueled by late capitalism’s growing tendency to create economic bubbles and to concentrate wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Meanwhile, the appearance of Bernie Sanders on the national political stage and the re-election of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, an avowedly open socialist, are highly important developments for the future of socialism in the United States.
The case of Sawant seems to be of particularly great significance because it shows that political candidates do not have to make ideological compromises in order to get elected. In fact, Sawant’s radical political message ensured her re-election in the state and local elections of November 2015, as she revealed in an exclusive interview with Truthout.
C.J. Polychroniou: Your re-election to the Seattle City Council has to be seen as an even more important step for the advancement of the socialist cause in the United States than your election in 2013, when you ran on a platform advocating a $15-an-hour minimum wage and were of course the first independent socialist elected in a major US city in decades. What was your message to voters this time around?
Kshama Sawant: Well, let me start by saying that the city of Seattle and the state of Washington are home to some of the world’s wealthiest corporations, and there is an economic boom going on here for sometime now. At the same time, however, wealth is highly concentrated, many young people are left behind because of unemployment and the lack of decent jobs paying decent wages and salaries, and the working population and retirees in general are experiencing declining living standards, which is of course the general pattern throughout the country. In addition, we have the most regressive tax system in the nation. So my re-election campaign focused specifically on those issues: affordable housing, funding education and transportation, and progressive taxation.
Tell us specifically about the housing and homeless crisis in Seattle.
Rents in the city of Seattle have been rising faster than in any other major US city. Working people and people of color are being driven out because they cannot afford the high rents. In addition, we have a very serious homeless crisis, which only last year increased by 21 percent. The housing crisis is a real and deep crisis in Seattle, although neither Democrats nor Republicans have been willing to tackle the issue in any meaningful and effective way. They are against both rent controls and raising taxes for the rich.
Obviously, people responded to your concerns about the housing crisis and your message about economic inequality and did so while you ran a campaign as a socialist. Aren’t you the least surprised about this?
Not really. Take for example young people who were very supportive of my re-election campaign. They are aware that they won’t see the middle-class living standards of their parents. So they understood what my message was all about. Same goes about retirees and people of color. My support came precisely from those constituencies that are most directly affected by the inequalities and injustices produced by the capitalist system. My campaign mobilized over 600 volunteers. And I did run, of course, as an open Socialist Alternative candidate.
How were you treated by your opponents and the mainstream media in general?
Naturally, I was attacked by my opponents for being a socialist and the mission of the mainstream media was to discredit me, especially since they did not take us seriously the first time out. The Seattle Times, an establishment newspaper, was particularly vicious towards me. I was also attacked for caring about international issues and not merely local issues. The socialist vision is an anathema to the establishment.
I intend to find out what socialism means for you, but first I would like to have your views on capitalism. For example, you have said that capitalism is not working. Yet, many will rush to challenge this view by pointing out the recent economic “success” of nations like China and India that have moved away from a command economy and, as result, have experienced historically high rates of growth and growing middle classes. Do you question this “fact”?
It is true that capitalism has raised the standard of living in China and India and did so in many Western countries in the past. But we must not forget that the gains under capitalism have been achieved for the most part through class struggles. This is the case about the eight-hour workday, the unionization of workers, social benefits and so on. But capitalism is no longer achieving growth that benefits even slightly the working-class populations. Under finance capitalism, we have bubbles, volatility and chaos. Under finance capitalism, there is a tension between a booming economy and young people.
I believe that capitalism cannot offer a sustainable future. Human needs are simply not in congruence with a capitalist economy, which thrives on the maximization of profit. As for the financialization of the economy, the transition from industrial capitalism was made precisely because the system was no longer sustainable and it needed new profit-making venues. Now, every aspect of society is wrapped around financialization, making the many poor and the few ever richer.
Austerity has emerged as the official economic dogma pretty much throughout the advanced capitalist world. In your view, is austerity a response to sovereign debt and deficits or something more sinister?
Austerity is being imposed by the financial elite and the banksters, who, of course, control much of the political process. It is a means for the capitalists to generate more profits and to rollback working-class gains. It is a rational process, an excuse to sovereign debt and deficits, and I think most people understand that. The problem is that few politicians are willing to speak out on behalf of the people and against the elite.
You were involved in the Occupy movement. What do you consider to be the most important aspect of Occupy?
Occupy brought to the forefront the reality of economic inequality and made it a central component of political debate in the country. Occupy went further than previous resistance movements by naming an enemy: the richest 1%, the financial elite that buys politicians and gets itself bailed out by the government while the rest of us, the 99%, are paying for the costs of the bailouts and getting ripped off by those at the top of the economic pyramid.
However, figuring out a strategy for change requires that we get to the root of the problem of inequality, class and power in society. It requires a deeper understanding of the political economy of capitalism. Working people produce the vast wealth of society, but we only receive a small part of that in wages, while the capitalists extract huge profits from our labor. So the challenge is the re-emergence of the labor movement as a serious force in US society. A labor movement that sees the working people as a central force to change the world and end all forms of oppression and exploitation. So the task is of a double nature: to promote unions, as they are the strongest organizations we have to improve our living standards, and to fight to transform unions. Rebuilding unions as fighting organizations requires, again, building an alternative to the present dominant structure. [It requires] vision and strategy in labor.
What is socialism for you?
Socialism is the vision of a global society that allows a high standard of living in a sustainable manner without oppression and exploitation. Socialism is by definition an international project as it is nearly impossible to be established and thrive in a national setting. A socialist nation in a capitalist sea will result in the deformities that socialism experienced in places like the Soviet Union. So, as socialists, we must always work for the spread of socialism throughout the world and not confine our activities to our own local or national setting.
Are you implying then that the trend toward world socialism is a prerequisite for the realization of the socialist vision?
Yes, because no single country can have all the necessary resources to sustain itself and run a socialist economy. The history of socialism teaches us that capitalist countries will do everything in their power to strangulate a socialist nation. But, obviously, socialism has to start from somewhere. And this is what we are trying to do in Seattle for the United States.
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