Seattle’s Socialist councilwoman on why capitalism offers nothing for young people

Editor’s Note: Kshama Sawant is a Seattle councilwoman. And a Socialist. She was elected last fall on a $15-an-hour minimum wage platform.

That wage, which is 62 percent higher than this year’s inflation indexed state minimum wage of $9.32, already the highest in the nation, comes from what researchers at the University of Washington have calculated as the wage it takes to be self-sufficient in the area.

The Seattle suburb of SeaTac, home of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, narrowly approved a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative last fall, but as we recently explored, most airport workers have yet to see a raise because Alaska Airlines has challenged that vote, arguing that the city cannot dictate what private employees at the airport can earn.

And now the fight for a higher wage has spread to Washington’s major city. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee has been split between business and labor over just how to bring a higher wage to the city. Sawant has been pushing for the city to adopt a higher minimum wage that would cover tipped workers, although she seems willing to give small businesses and nonprofits a three-year phase-in period.

Originally from Mumbai, Sawant earned her doctorate in economics from North Carolina State University, where she wrote her dissertation about people working “until they die” because there are few or no retirement options. “For most people my age or younger than me,” she says, “there’s no retirement. Our early retirement plan is a mass movement to reverse the race to the bottom.” That view that the middle class is shrinking has informed her political activism and inspired her to fight for labor rights in Seattle.

She appears in our segment on Seattle’s minimum wage battle, below, and Paul Solman’s extended conversation with her, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

When did you become this political?

I think I was always political. In my earliest memories from my childhood, I had an obsession to understand why it was necessary for poverty and oppression and misery to exist in human society when I could see that society is completely capable of solving these problems. I mean, if you look at the amount of wealth that exists in society, it’s very clear that poverty doesn’t need to exist. However, it does, and so it was clear to me that there is some reason this was happening. It wasn’t like an act of God or inevitable or that poor people are lazy. That’s an absurd explanation because you can see with your own eyes, some of the poorest workers are some of the hardest workers.

What’s happening is that there is something in the system that generates this sort of wealth gap where no matter how much you work, you never make enough and the bosses you’re working for get wealthier and wealthier. Basically, that’s capitalism.

So at what age did you become a Socialist?

I would say that I was unconsciously a Socialist all my life, but consciously only recently. I knew that we could have a different system. I just didn’t have the word for it because I came from a household that was mostly math and engineering oriented. We were not political, but I was, and I was looking for that answer.

Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels noted this in 1848, in the “Communist Manifesto,” that capitalism delivered the goods. … We are vastly better off than we were at the start of the Industrial Revolution, even in India, and certainly in a place like the United States.

Well, what Marxists have pointed out, including Marx himself, is that capitalism ushered in a tremendous step forward relative to feudalism and slavery. But while capitalism delivered the ability to mass produce at a very low cost and harnessed technology (compared to feudalism, this was definitely a step forward), it could not have done that without massive exploitation of the worldwide labor force. And there you see colonization and imperialism.

So when people think of imperialism and colonialism as a separate process from capitalism, that’s inaccurate. It all went together. Capitalism is incapable of surviving without the rapacious exploitation of natural resources and a massive exploitation of labor, meaning extracting work from labor for very cheap and sometimes next to nothing.

And so our attitude should be that capitalism at one time had the ability to harness technology for this, but it has long since served any social purpose other than for the very wealthy, for the billionaires. So capitalism generates more poor people every year and more billionaires every year. It’s time to reject capitalism and go towards a future that actually ensures a decent standard of living for everybody on the planet in an environmentally sustainable way, which is possible, but not under capitalism.

But we’re looking at a future now, at least conceptually, where machines and computers will replace workers. Soon enough, there’s not going to be exploitation of people under capitalism. Machines can produce virtually everything and do pretty much everything we want.

The people who own the machines will have all the wealth. What about everybody else? So first of all, I don’t agree with that scenario that everything will be done with technology. Bosses will mechanize more and more jobs, that’s for sure, but it can’t be all true. If you have potholes on the street or if you want to get to a sewage pipe, somebody needs to drive the jackhammer. You know somebody needs to clean the toilet, somebody needs to serve food, somebody needs to clean the hospitals, make sure patients are safe. For every job that can be mechanized, I can tell you a thousand jobs that cannot be.

Or a thousand jobs that are not being done.

Not being done or cannot be. It’s also a question of what mechanization yields to the bosses. For them, it’s a calculation of cost and risk. They’re not doing anything out of good intentions or anything like that. It’s purely of a mercenary calculation.

But I think for the workers and the people questioning social injustice and capitalism, the real question is what capability does human society have, to not only ameliorate, but to actually eliminate the massive suffering and misery that just envelopes this entire planet.

Capitalism is not that kind of dreamy, wonderful situation that the billionaires might want us to think. They might want to believe that because it’s working for them, but for the vast majority of the population, capitalism unleashes untold suffering. And what’s happening in the U.S. is just a microcosm of what exists out there in the entire planet.

And I’ll give you a very simple statistic: a study released by Oxfam recently showed that 85 individuals on this planet own the same wealth as half the planet’s population: Eighty-five people own the same as 3.5 billion people on this planet. Even if you were to argue that capitalism is delivering the goods, as you said, which is completely untrue, but even if it were true, it is not in the interest of those billions of people to sustain the system because it isn’t working for them. So no matter what virtues you might pull out about capitalism, the reality is that it’s not working for anybody.

The biggest argument to move towards a different system is the question of climate change. Even if people aren’t concerned about social justice, which most people are, the fact that capitalism has no solutions to the problem of climate change is in itself a compelling enough reason to move towards a completely different economy because the clock is ticking.

But wait a second: you look at a place like the United States or Europe — nobody’s starving, nobody’s freezing, whereas hundreds of years ago, plenty of people were. I understand Mumbai is a place where there are still people who are in desperate poverty, but capitalism hasn’t done a good job of delivering us from material despair?

Look at the fact that in the wealthiest country in the world, the United States, one in six people is under the poverty line. And the poverty line itself is grossly deficient. So when you say that in the U.S., around us, people aren’t hungry or freezing, that’s completely untrue. The number of homeless people is skyrocketing. Every single day I see new people who are homeless who weren’t homeless the day before. And you know who is predominantly affected by homelessness? It’s youth — young people who have no future. Capitalism has nothing to offer the younger generation.

We are going through the worst recession since the Great Depression. There’s been a small recovery, but this recovery is very shallow and it’s momentary. There is an abyss waiting for us around the corner, and don’t take my word for it. If you listen to what the IMF is saying, if you listen to the World Economic Forum, if you saw their discussions, they are all correctly afraid that the crisis is not over and there is no end in sight.

The reason they are afraid is not because they care about the people, but they are wise enough, the more intelligent among them, to understand that if they don’t find solutions to this crisis, then people are going to revolt, and that’s what they’re afraid of. And the fact that we had this major demonstration with hundreds of people coming out and demanding $15 an hour, it is not just about $15 an hour. If you ask any of these people here, their anger is deep. This anger is about an overall economic and social injustice and a realization that the system is not working for us. Whether they call it capitalism or not, people are understanding, people are not stupid, people get it. The question is, are we going to be able to rally a mass movement around these things? That’s the question.

You are personally helping subsidize this movement?

Yes. Through the city council I’m paid close to $120,000, and I’m keeping only $40,000 of it. The rest I’m donating to social justice movements, and one of the movements I’m donating to is “15 Now.” From this year’s salary, I’ve donated $15,000 through that movement.

There’s no question, though, that at some point, raising wages will make businesses think it’s cheaper to get a machine or go offshore, right?

They cannot offshore restaurant jobs. We have a Dick’s Hamburgers right here, which survives on the business from the school students; you couldn’t offshore those jobs. There are limits to how many jobs can be offshored. But you’re asking a really good question — yes, this is capitalism, and the bosses are looking out for their own interests.

Well they’re supposed to.

Yes, they’re supposed to, but I don’t want to cloak it with some kind of halo of moral purity or anything. They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing — that’s capitalism; that is precisely why workers have to rally around their own interests and fight for their interest. Yes, it is a class conflict, and ultimately, we have to understand, as we tirelessly point out as Socialists, that it will be not enough to get $15 an hour.

Even if we get $15, bosses will take their revenge in different ways. Of course, housing will go up, there’ll be a tax on public education, and our standards of living will continue to deteriorate in many different ways. $15 is not even a living wage, let’s remember that first of all.

Victory in the fight for $15 an hour will mean a substantial improvement in the standards of living of working people in Seattle. It will also be a beacon of hope for working people outside Seattle, everywhere in the nation. But much more than that, a real class struggle like the fight for $15 in Seattle, will energize and empower workers, raise their confidence and morale and make them realize that this is what we need to do. We need to build massive movements of working people everywhere in the world in order to fight against the injustices of capitalism. The fight for $15 is not going to be enough; we need to do more.

But what if businesses that shift toward mechanization don’t employ as many people if the minimum wage goes up?

This is just pure speculation. The minimum wage has gone up many times throughout history in the last 10 or 20 years, and this apocalyptic scenario that you are painting has never happened. It’s not so easy for the bosses to mechanize; mechanization requires capital investment, you know?

Yes, it is a prospect that we will have to worry about over decades; that is why we are saying that fighting for $15 will not be enough. But this idea that if we get $15 an hour, somehow all the jobs are going to shut down, that’s nonsense.

What do you make of the attention you’re getting?

I think we’re doing a fantastic job here. I think these are the beginnings of a movement that you haven’t seen in decades, and if it weren’t energetic, if it wasn’t passionate, we wouldn’t be in a position where all the eyes of the nation are in Seattle.

Why is Bloomberg writing about me? Obviously we are having an impact. We’re having an impact, deep enough that the right wing and conservative business publications are starting to talk about it. That’s an indication.

But Socialism? After the fall of the Soviet Union, China becoming a purely capitalist country, Cuba not having succeeded — Socialism, really?

Well, if you look at the younger generation, the youth are facing a bleak future with low-wage jobs. They’re going to be saddled with the ball and chain of student debt and nowhere to go. Why is it that more and more jobs at McDonald’s are filled by young people who have some college education? Minimum wage workers today are better educated and lower paid than they were 50 years ago. It shows you that the capitalist economy has very little to offer in the coming years, with that change happening already. The younger generation today is the first generation in America’s history that is going to be worse off than your parent’s generation, so if you look at the opinions of young people everywhere in the nation, polls will tell you that a majority of them are questioning the system.

But it’s not just young people. People everywhere are questioning the capitalist system. The Occupy movement was a sign of that anger. So while the Cold War propagandized against Communism, a lot of people are rational today, especially the ones who weren’t around in the Cold War.

So there’s no stigma associated with Communism or Socialism now?

The only reason you’re talking to me is because an out-and-out Socialist got elected in a major city in the United States with nearly 95,000 votes. There’s no stigma; it’s time for working people to lose their shackles and march ahead.