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Want to Rebuild the Left? Take Socialism Seriously

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As the sun set on the Occupy Seattle encampment in December 2011, the question “What next?” hung in the air, as it did over Zuccotti Park in New York City. The tents were gone, our spirits were dampened, but an awakened sense of empowerment prevailed.

The movement had given voice to a widespread fury at big business and a recognition of the gaping class divide. Key to Occupy’s success were the thousands of young people who had helped elect President Obama and had completed their own first steps toward achieving the American Dream, only to see their college degrees translate into crushing student debt and poverty wages.

Inside and outside the encampments, discussions about the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street began to evolve into questions about the viability of capitalism itself. A revived search for an alternative had begun.

Socialism has been declared dead many times. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing collapse of the “communist” regimes in Eastern Europe, the global capitalist elite launched an unprecedented ideological offensive. The obituary was written not only for socialism, but for the basic ideas of collective struggle by the working class.

Now, after three decades of virtually untrammeled neoliberal policies, with class questions again brought to the fore by unprecedented levels of inequality, we have been witnessing a renewed interest in socialist ideas. Half of the young Americans surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 viewed socialism positively, according to a Pew Research Center poll in December 2011.

The winter of Occupy sparked a debate in my own organization, Socialist Alternative. Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential-election year and the inevitable pull of corporate politics, Socialist Alternative called for independent candidates representing the 99 percent to run across the country.

Here in Seattle, I filed in a race for the Washington State House as a socialist “Occupy” candidate. The Democratic Party establishment has virtual monopoly control over Seattle politics, as it does in most urban centers. The city has increasingly become a playground for the wealthy, with the nation’s fastest-rising rents and a rapidly gentrifying urban core. My campaign was a referendum on corporate, neoliberal politics: I flatly rejected cuts to education, mass transit and social services, while calling for taxes on the rich and a $15 minimum wage.

After receiving one of the highest votes for a socialist candidate in decades, I ran again in 2013 for the Seattle City Council. Once again, my campaign made bold anticorporate demands—for rent control, a “millionaires’ tax” to fully fund social services, and a citywide $15 minimum wage. Running independently as a Socialist Alternative candidate helped me tap into voters’ anger at the status quo of corporate politics. In Seattle, the council members pay themselves $120,000 a year, the second-highest council salary among the nation’s forty largest cities. I accepted no corporate donations and pledged to take only the average Seattle worker’s wage of $40,000. I also promised to use the rest of my salary to help build social movements.

The campaign attracted more than 400 volunteers, mobilized support in the labor movement, established a foothold among left-wing Democratic Party activists, won the strong endorsement of the city’s largest alternative newspaper (The Stranger), and developed an unstoppable momentum for action on the minimum wage. None of this would have been possible had I been aligned with corporate interests. All the other candidates in the city elections—most of them Democratic Party members—scrupulously avoided the issues raised in my campaign. As a testament to the power of grassroots movements, however, most politicians were forced to respond in the election’s final weeks, professing tepid support for the increasingly popular call to raise the minimum wage.

This time I won the election, receiving nearly 95,000 votes to defeat an entrenched sixteen-year incumbent. The Seattle City Council now has nine council members: eight Democrats and one socialist.

***
The prospects for creating a majority coalition on any of the issues raised in my campaign would be nonexistent without massively mobilizing people outside the council chambers. Yet holding even that single seat in city government has provided an indispensable platform when it comes to winning real gains for ordinary people.

A few weeks after my election, Socialist Alternative and I launched 15 Now, the grassroots campaign that worked with the Seattle labor movement to build support for a $15 minimum wage. Last April, after three months of intense campaigning and movement-building with a citywide network of neighborhood groups, 15 Now filed a “charter amendment.” Business leaders, fearing that the ballot measure could end up being passed as a voter referendum in November, decided to limit their losses by crafting a weaker $15-per-hour ordinance—and then fought to undercut that with loopholes.

The loopholes (including a longer phase-in period, a tip credit, and subminimum wages for teens and persons with disabilities) reflected the strength of the corporate counteroffensive to our movement’s efforts and the complicity of the Democratic Party. But the final result will be a $3 billion transfer of wealth over ten years from corporations to Seattle’s 100,000 lowest-paid workers.

This same process, with the relative strength of movements measured against that of big business, played out on issue after issue in my first year on the council. We organized a “People’s Budget” coalition and won increased funding for social services, including year-round homeless shelters for women and basic services for homeless encampments. We also won $1.6 million in raises for low-paid city workers and strengthened the enforcement of labor laws. We fought alongside tenants and community organizations to defeat an Orwellian attack on low-income housing called “Stepping Forward,” forcing the Seattle Housing Authority to back off from plans to begin 400 percent increases on rental rates over five years. Organizing with indigenous activists, we established Indigenous People’s Day (on the day celebrated federally as Columbus Day), putting a spotlight on the brutality and genocide unleashed under colonialism, and on the need to fight against the continued poverty and marginalization of indigenous communities. We have also helped publicize and support campaigns against regressive taxation, rising rents, climate change and the school-to-prison pipeline.

***
All of these gains are only a taste of the fundamental change we need. While successfully defending low-income housing was a victory, we also need to build thousands more units. While raising funds for social services is a real step forward, we need tens of millions more just to address critical needs. Genuine socialism means planning the entire society and economy on a rational, democratic and sustainable basis—delivering a high standard of living to all while protecting the environment.

Any attempt to develop socialist municipal policies will inevitably come up against resource and technological constraints, as well as political attacks from outside the locality. This can even be seen in the fight for the $15 minimum wage, when Seattle’s victory was immediately threatened by potential statewide initiatives aimed at outlawing local minimum-wage laws. Socialists can overcome these challenges by drawing strength from the interdependence of working people nationally and internationally.

The American left will have to build outside the Republican and Democratic parties, whose leaders have repeatedly demonstrated that they will go to any lengths to defend the superwealthy and protect the capitalist system. Progress can happen only by building independent working-class power.

This year will see continued struggles against economic inequality, racial and gender oppression, police brutality and climate change. As we confront these challenges, I hope that my experience in office can serve as a useful example of socialist politics in action, with practical relevance for rebuilding the American workers’ movement.

Our victories will depend on whether the left champions the interests of working people and the downtrodden—and does so no matter how much this comes into conflict with what is acceptable to the ruling elite or compatible with capitalism.

That is the essence of a socialist approach to politics.

Kshama Sawant is a member of Seattle’s city council, and in 2013 was the first socialist in nearly a century to win a seat on the council.

This article appeared in the April 6, 2015 edition of The Nation.

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Top US admiral bristles at criticism of ‘woke’ military: ‘We are not weak’

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Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, rebuffed pointed interrogations by GOP lawmakers who grilled him over his decision to recommend sailors read a book deemed by some conservatives as anti-American.

The U.S. Navy’s top admiral also defended moves to address and root out racism and extremism in the forces as well as its efforts to bolster inclusion and diversity, which have prompted criticism from some conservatives and Republican lawmakers.

“Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked Gilday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, referring to a passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which argues capitalism and racism are interlinked.

Banks continued to interrogate the admiral over specific quotes from Kendi’s book, which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller in 2020, and statements he had made elsewhere in the past.

Visibly distraught, Gilday fired back:

“I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” he said. “This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy, as weak, as woke.”

He added that sailors had spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits — the longest deployments the Navy has done, he said.

“We are not weak. We are strong,” Gilday said.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also challenged the admiral by citing specific quotes from the book and asked him how those ideas laid out by Kendi would further advance or improve the Navy’s power.

Gilday responded by arguing the importance of transparency and open dialogue about racism.

“There is racism in the Navy just as there is racism in our country, and the way we are going to get out of it is by being honest and not to sweep it under the rug,” he expounded, adding that he does not agree with everything the author says in the book.

The key point however, he said, is for sailors “to be able to think critically.”

The exchange was the latest in vociferous complaints from some conservative leaders and lawmakers who suggest the armed forces are becoming a pawn for the country’s culture wars and “wokeness” ideology, as the military takes steps to address issues of racial inclusion, extremism, racism and white supremacy.

And only last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Kendi’s book, which Cotton said promoted “critical race theories” at a different Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.

Days earlier, Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — two combat veterans — launched a “whistleblowers” online platform to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.

“Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said in a tweet.

Also in February, Austin instructed a one-day stand-down across the Defense Department pausing regular activities to address extremism and white nationalism in the ranks — an issue Austin declared as a priority after a number of rioters at the U.S. Capitol in January were found to have military backgrounds.

The stand down completed in April was an effort to better understand the scope of the problem of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a briefing then.

Earlier, Austin had revoked a ban on diversity training for the military.

More recently, in May, a U.S. Army animated ad focused on soldier diversity — featuring the real story of a soldier who enlisted after being raised by two mothers in California — drew criticism and political backlash from some conservative lawmakers.

“Holy crap,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . . .”

Cruz was referring to a TikTok video that compared the U.S. Army ad with a Russia campaign that showed buff soldiers doing push-ups and leaping out of airplanes, adding that the contrast made the American soldiers “into pansies.”

The confrontation Tuesday is also the latest in reproaches by Rep. Banks, who is a Naval Reserve officer, and other GOP members over Gilday’s recommendation to include Kendi’s book in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.

In February, Banks sent a letter to Gilday arguing that the views promoted in the book are “explicitly anti-American” and demanded Gilday explain the Navy’s decision to include it on the reading list or remove it.

Gilday responded to Banks in a letter obtained by Fox News saying that the book was included on the list because “it evokes the author’s own personal journey in understanding barriers to true inclusion, the deep nuances of racism and racial inequalities.”

Lamborn and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, D-Mo., also wrote a letter to the admiral to convey their concern about the inclusion of Kendi’s book as well as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Jason Pierceson’s “Sexual Minorities and Politics.”

The GOP lawmakers argued the books “reinforce a view that America is a confederation of identity categories of the oppressed and their oppressors rather than a common homeland of individual citizens who are united by common purposes,“ Lamborn and Hartzler wrote, according to Fox News.

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Looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021

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Our understanding of events refines with time. New developments reframe the issues, and prompt reassessment of the solutions applied, their design and outcomes. What does looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021 tell us?

For three decades, India celebrated and criticised the 1991 reforms. The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout. The reforms, they insist, were ‘home-grown’. In the years leading up to 1991, technocrats in government had been thinking and writing about how India’s economic policies had been blocking the country’s rise to potential and the structural changes needed. If the broad range of reforms—including tearing down the industrial license permit raj, an exchange rate correction, and liberalising foreign direct investment and trade policies—could be launched within a matter of days of a new government joining office, they argue, it is because the blueprints were ready, waiting for the go-ahead from the political leadership.

The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout.

At least two well-regarded technocrats that were important in the 1991 reforms disagree—publicly and in off-the-record conversations. In a media interview last month, one of them, the economic adviser in the reforms team, Dr Ashok Desai, suggested that if there were any reformers in government before the IMF “forced” India to liberalise in 1991, “they hid themselves very well”. According to him, after the BOP crisis was resolved, finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned “dead against reforms”.

The multiple versions of the reforms story make it difficult to separate fact from romance. It cannot be disputed, though, that the 1991 BOP crisis was a turning point for the economy. India had tided over BOP crises earlier with loans from the IMF, repaid them prematurely, and avoided going through with the bailout’s conditionalities. 1991 was singularly different because India was on the brink of default, which is likely to have forced politicians to set politics aside and listen to technocrats. Any default on external obligations would have meant hurting India’s credibility grievously and an inescapable sense of national shame. The government probably took the view that there was no choice other than to take corrective steps. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao named Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been a technocrat in government and was well regarded in global policy circles, as his finance minister. Dr Singh clearly had the Prime Minister’s, his party’s and the IMF’s trust. Records irrefutably show that the Congress party’s acceptance of the reversals in the interventionist economic policies of the first four post-Independence decades was not secured by the Prime Minister. He had delegated the task of tackling doubts and resistance within the party to his ministers, in particular, the finance minister and the commerce minister, and an aide in his office. The finance minister defended the reforms on the floor of the house in Parliament.

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Taxpayer-funded NPR mocks ‘CaPitAliSm,’ prompting calls to ‘defund’ media outlet

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National Public Radio (NPR) ignited a social media firestorm Thursday night over a tweet that appears to mock capitalism, despite taxpayer dollars accounting for much of the organization’s annual budget.

The outlet posted a story titled “And Now, Crocs With Stiletto Heels” that explores a curious new collaboration between luxury fashion brand Balenciaga and Crocs, the rubber slipper company responsible for fashion faux pas among the millions of comfort-clinging owners nationwide.

The caption accompanying the article, which was written in both uppercase and lowercase letters, appears to mock the collaboration: “CaPitAliSm bReEds InNovAtiOn,” it reads. 

The tweet’s language sparked outrage on social media, with figures like conservative Tim Young calling out the irony in NPR’s three-word post.

“You wouldn’t exist without capitalism, clown who is tweeting on behalf of NPR,” he wrote.

“Job at public news station wouldn’t exist wo capitalism,” another user echoed. “Are you guys ok?”

“Our tax money shouldn’t pay for this,” one person expressed.

“It’s still a hell of a lot better than communism at breeding innovation, even if some of the products are silly,” one woman fired back.

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