Episode 41 - A Socialist Alternative (w/ Kshama Sawant)Bad Faith
- 860 views
- 28 Jan 2021
So, we've talked to Marxist economists, DSA members, workers, communist hip hop artists, and union leaders about the lefts' path forward. But what if there were another way? Not a third way, but an organization that offers a somewhat different, more adversarial theory of change than the one proposed by the DSA and adopted by much of the left? This week, we spoke to Seattle City Council member and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant -- the first socialist to win a city-wide election since 1916. We talked about her political evolution, alternative theories of change, and how she managed to do what the left often struggles to do: win. We also covered her campaign to fight efforts to recall the results of her 2019 reelection, and force her off the Seattle City Council. Learn more about Sawant's solidarity campaign to unite against the recall here. Learn more about the Socialist Alternative here. Subscribe to Bad Faith on Patreon to instantly unlock our full premium episode library: http://patreon.com/badfaithpodcast Subscribe to Bad Faith on YouTube to access our full video library. Find Bad Faith on Twitter (@badfaithpod) and Instagram (@badfaithpod). Produced by Ben Dalton (@wbend). Theme by Nick Thorburn (@nickfromislands). Outro song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vr2xMRSObto
She is a member of Socialist Alternative, a member of the Seattle City Council, since two thousand fourteen, the first socialist to win a citywide election in Seattle since 1916. Shamos want. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for having me.
I was telling you a little bit before you came on how excited I was to talk to you.
And part of the reason why is because you are really unique, especially in our political sphere, among elected officials for really living and breathing in the politics.
Many of us, including on the left, espouse, but don't necessarily always follow through either in our personal lives or in our political commitments. When it comes down to brass tacks, can you tell us, just as an introduction to the audience a little bit about how you came to your politics?
Absolutely. And first, might I say also it's a real pleasure and honor to be talking to you as well. I came into a political understanding from my whole experience of growing up in India and observing just the contrast between a sliver of very wealthy people and then a section of working class and middle class people like my parents who were not homeless, but also clearly worked hard all the time just to get the basics for their children. And then, on the other hand, you had this absolute ocean of poverty and misery and suffering.
And for me, not only was it a moral question and a question of compassion, obviously it should be. And if it's not, then you know what humanity does want to have. It was beyond that. It was also it was a scientific question for me. It was clear that the human society had reached pinnacles of technological achievement and creativity to a degree where it seemed completely unnecessary for any such basic problems to exist. Know, it seemed to me that humanity is now capable of completely ending hunger, malnutrition, anemia among women globally.
The list is endless. So it was clear to me that there's clearly something systemic about this, not this is not karma or this is not all. People did something bad in their previous life, which are the kind of ridiculous answers I received from some people when I came to the U.S. I just happened to and when I moved to Seattle, I just happened to meet people from Socialist Alternative whose analysis, Marxist analysis was exactly what I was thinking. And I thought maybe I was crazy for thinking that, but I realized I wasn't.
But I never had the idea that I would run for office. And I think in that sense, to your point about why this has been a unique example, I think it is obviously personal characteristics matter. Your personal courage does matter in these situations, but it's also the fact that it was never something that I launched on my own socialist alternative as an organization that is democratically taking the rank and file opinion into account. We collectively decided in 2013 that there was an opening for a socialist election campaign.
We didn't think that we were going to win when we ran. But clearly history shows that there is a huge opening on the left nationally.
So I want to I want to come back and get into the nitty gritty of what you think about people running an alternative party lines outside of the Democratic Party structure, because that has been such a focus of the online debate over the past few weeks.
But I want to stay with this point a little bit about your politics, because I empathize with that.
As someone who grew up as an expat in Kenya for much of their childhood and the dissonance of understating the standard of living for expats versus many of the people that you see locally coming back to the states is an idea or, you know, late in high school and living in Manhattan and looking around and seeing the dramatically different ways people live, visiting family members, working class family members in Ohio who are living in another economic standard of living, the kind of narratives you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is, whether it's karma or deserve in this or all these other kinds of things, they get weaker, they get more fragile.
The level of unfairness, I think, is a nice feel so unjust that we we all just kind of collectively suppress it.
And I think part of what happened in 2016 with the prominence of Bernie Sanders campaign was that he talked about the way the world is in a way that wasn't didn't seem absolute and fixed. And it felt like he gave us permission to think that we could do things differently. And that is an incredibly powerful shift. But I think it's difficult to put back in the bottle. But people sure as heck are trying.
I'm curious about how you move to Seattle and you just randomly came across a pamphlet from a Socialist Workers Party. How did that happen? Were you just in a cafe and you thought stuck up among the bad posters there? Well, you know, I think. Part of why it happened, and I'll tell you exactly why it happened to but part of why it even came into being my contact with any political organization was my own evolution as somebody was thinking about politics.
I think it's fair to say that from the very beginning, as long as I can remember, as far back as I can remember, I think it was an obsession with me, too, to understand why the world is the way it is and everything you're relating about your own evolution. I think I can relate to that because these are serious questions why the world is the way it is. And I think the power in this is that it's not just a few of us, but tens of millions of people are questioning that, and especially the younger generation is questioning that.
And I think that's what you saw with the Bernie Sanders campaign. I mean, it electrified an entire generation, his message of running or a political revolution against the billionaire class. It immediately captured the imagination of ordinary people. And I think that was part of my own evolution as well. You know, just really like a dog with a bone not letting go of these questions. And so that led me to look at different political organizations to understand where they stood.
I didn't even understand. I actually, to be honest with you, I mean, when I look back now, I am somewhat embarrassed at my own naivete. I mean, I came from a very academic, very math oriented background and all my whole family's engineers. I myself was an engineer and I enrolled into a program in economics thinking, oh, that's going to be that's going to give me the answers on what poverty did in a way gave me the best possible grounding.
You argue against economists who use their intellect to defend the indefensible system. So in that sense, I did prepare me in many ways, but it didn't give me the answers. I was looking what I was looking for was really a Marxist analysis of capitalism, which is understanding that it has the problems we see around us that make us born with the sense of injustice, have everything to do with the way the system is organized, where even though billions of people go to work every single day and break their backs, they have barely anything to show for it.
While in the middle of the pandemic, billionaires are enriching themselves to the tune of more than a trillion dollars. And just that's just in the US. And if you put that together globally, you can see how stunning the contrast is between the wealth accumulated of the top versus the rest of the society. So I think that was what led me to do look at various political organizations. But I was very clear I didn't want to join an NGO. For me, it was not about a single issue.
It's about an actual analysis of the system. And then what do you do about this is for me, it was not about intellectual navel gazing and I had to be involved in something was part of a change. And that's what socialist alternative offered me.
Walk me through how you first came into contact. I saw online you said you saw you literally saw a pamphlet. So you picked up a pamphlet, decided to go to a meeting. And what did you what did you hear?
This was in late 2008. Early 2009, I was going to various political meetings. And it was also a time when Obama was elected. I remember hope and change clearly. As I said, I was very uninitiated in politics, but I just knew instinctively that this this wasn't making sense to me. But just because a new Democrat has been elected, just because he's black, but he's still part of the Democratic establishment, how could this represent? I was looking for an answer to that.
And yes, I did pick up written material from Socialist Alternative. But I also attended a political meeting where speakers from Socialist Alternative, alongside other speakers on the left, were speaking. And it was one of the many meetings I had attended at that time. And the analysis that was put forward by the people from Socialist Alternative really made sense to me. And I went and talked to them and we just ended up chatting about what does it mean to be part of a political organization like Socialist Alternative, where we take history and analysis very, very seriously, but we use that in order to inform our actions.
So it was not like an academic group. However, it is intellectually just as serious, if not more, as being part of an academic group. So in that sense, that really appealed to me. The scientific seriousness of the organization really appealed to me. And as I said, everything that I heard, it was immediately I mean, I remember a moment where somebody was trying to explain to me, like, you know, really trying to convince me.
And I was like, you don't need to convince me. I just need to know what what my role could be in this organization. And and I also share this. And this may sound sort of true to a lot of your listeners. When somebody from Socialist Alternative asked me to join, my first response was, I'm not a joiner. And I realize now, looking back what my response was, but. Very much a product of the message that the corporate media, the intelligentsia, the academic world that I was coming from, you know, really in an entrenched way sends to ordinary people.
And that and that is a very conscious process because it benefits the capitalist system for every person to think that you are an individual, you are not part of a bigger phenomenon, and it's useless to be part of a bigger phenomenon because the left is all just terrible. You know, people are just fighting amongst themselves. You know, if you're respectable, you go get your engineering or your economics degree. You go back, get your tenure track position in university, and that's the respectable thing to do.
So there used to be this whole aura of not being respectable. If you were an activist and you had a political table outside a grocery store and you were talking to people with your newspaper, you know, and that's a reaction a lot of people in my world had. You know, I had just gotten my Ph.D. and I just joined Socialist Alternative. And I remember one of my cousins asking me, what are you doing? I said, I'm going outside the grocery store with the Socialist Alternative newspaper.
That didn't make sense to people. But you know what? A lot has changed since then. And in fact, if there's any danger the left is facing, it's missing how deeply hungry young people are for political activism.
I mean, if I can speak for myself for a moment as someone who's very new to this and has not read as many leather bound books as a lot of other people on the left, I will fully and freely admit that what I found in the course of my journey down this path is I'm just asking questions. I'm just asking questions. And the answers that I find sometimes are unsatisfactory because they're not wedded to anything that's action oriented or solution oriented. So I'm happy to be told that the solution to all of our problems is that we need more organizing and that we need to build our labor force.
But I also need you in the context of that conversation to tell me how about how we go about doing that? Is that enough for you to just tell me that we have had decades of labor law retrenchment that makes it more and more difficult to strike and more and more difficult to unionize. I need you to take this conversation to the next step and tell me what we need to do about it. It's not enough for me to hear that the Democratic Party is corrupt and that it's very difficult to change things from the inside.
I want to talk to people like yourself who have managed to say, well, maybe they want to run outside of the two party system. Maybe I can figure out how to make it work.
So how did you make it work? The answer to that fundamentally lies also with the fact that this wasn't a campaign by one individual. It seems self-evident, but it's also one of the hardest nut to crack in terms of what the preconceived notions that people have because of the way the media portrays politics and when it's in the interest of the ruling class. While the real test of whether you will survive in politics or not from their standpoint is how loyal you are to Wall Street interests and how much in line you'll fall with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
But that's not what's presented on the face. I mean, on the face. It's presented as a personality contest. We don't agree with a certain left politician like Bernie Sanders. You will portray him as this angry old guy. You will use the fact that he is white against him in this you know, in this environment of very toxic identity politics that is weaponized by the ruling class against those very people, you know, against the black community itself.
And so as an example, I'm just used as an example. You can say the same thing about what happens with women. You know, what we did was told the rule book out the window and present a totally different kind of politics. And we did that with an understanding that it was never going to be about that one campaign. And it was certainly not about me. It was about actually testing the waters to see if there was an opening for left agenda.
And this was, you know, in the wake of the public sector uprising in Wisconsin, the Occupy movement, it was, you know, three, four years after Obama had been first elected, there was something in the air, you know, the the delayed reaction to the complete injustice of how the burden of the Great Recession was put on ordinary people and not on the big banks.
I mean, the foreclosure crisis will go and say so all of that was in the end for us collectively in socialist alternative, it felt like it was the right moment to test the waters. And I'll be honest with you, when we launched our campaign, we had no idea that we were going to win. But it was a question of pushing, as you said it was. It is exactly what you said, Brianna.
It was a question of showing what the steps are towards social change, not just talking endlessly about what was wrong, but what can we do. And in answer to this and so when I say we threw the rulebook out the window, one of the rules was you can't run as not a Democrat. And I had any number of Democratic Party people who are now powerful Democrats actually elect Democrats who told me you have to be a registered Democrat.
How can you run as an independent? Seattle is a Democratic Party city. Well, you know what, there's a big chasm between what rank and file Democrats are looking for and what the Democratic establishment is willing to provide. And so there in lies the space for the left. And so not only was not running as a Democrat, not a barrier or running openly as a socialist, not a barrier, it actually energized people to see a different kind of campaign.
I remember this incident where I was at one of our campaign tables and this woman, older woman, looks at me from a distance with a piercing gaze. And I thought and she started walking. She starts to walk towards me. And I thought, I'm mentally preparing myself for a difficult conversation. And instead she came up to me and said, Are you for real? And what she meant was, is this really a campaign that is making it about working people and not about the candidate?
Are you actually pledging that if you get elected, you are taking going to take home the average worker's wage and donate the rest of your salary for a solidarity fund and not as a question of charity, but as a question of accountability and rooting yourself in the lives of the working class. Are you actually saying that you will fight against a Democratic establishment and you are saying fifteen dollars an hour as a minimum wage? Really? You know, this was in 2013.
Look how far we've come, right. Where even the Biden administration is being forced to take that up and we'll see where it actually goes. And I don't think it's straightforward because the Chamber of Commerce is going to fiercely oppose it. My point is that at that time, the reason we were successful is precisely for the reasons that the Democratic establishment says you want to be successful, which is actually connect with what working people want.
Well, were there no structural barriers at all to you running as an independent in terms of fundraising or because the argument goes, OK, maybe as you can do it in Brooklyn and Queens, maybe you can do it in Seattle. But this isn't the kind of politics that can work on a national level for myriad reasons.
What do you say to those people? There is a lot for success on the left to be said about strategy and tactics. So I would certainly not make the claim that there is a carbon copy waiting to happen everywhere. Obviously, the political terrain, if you're if you're seriously building left movement, then you have to take strategy and tactics seriously. So in other words, if you're talking about a different city in a different year, you have to take into account the specific features of the political terrain and then decide what kind of campaign makes sense.
What is it that working people are looking for? What do you think will energize them? What are the concrete demands that will bring forward tens of thousands of people around that demand? In that sense, it is as much a question of political strategy as it is about doing the right thing. You know, everything is screwed up under capitalism. But the question is, are you going to run on 15 because you think that is going to actually capture the imagination?
Would that be the right tactic? Well, we showed it was the right tactic at that time. We made fifteen dollars an hour, the most prominent demand on our campaign. So when people express skepticism, I would say no, it can be done in many places, not just Brooklyn or Seattle. And for that matter, I'll tell you, when we were running our campaign in Seattle, most people didn't think it was going to happen. I remember a conversation that I will never forget with some leaders of a very prominent union when I asked them to endorse our campaign in 2013 and very few unions did at that time.
I remember the exact words from this union leader. They said to me, we don't see a path to victory. In other words, we agree with everything you stand for, but we don't see you defeating the establishment. And of course, our argument at that time was, I don't know if we will win this campaign or not. You know, it would be foolish of me to say, yes, I'm running against an entrenched 16 year incumbent.
This was a 16 year incumbent we ran against. You was the most powerful Democrat at that time in city hall. No, I can't claim that I have a crystal ball and they're going to win. What I can tell you for sure is that the strategy of forever giving in to Democratic establishment politics is not working that much. I can tell you with Clouted, it's not working. What do working people want? Not one NGO leader, what some NGO leaders and some entrenched leaders want who want to maintain a peaceful relationship with the establishment.
No, it's not a question of what you want, what the working people need. Don't working people need a really fighting approach? Wasn't the entire labor movement itself built on that kind of militant organizing where if if the only labor leaders had accepted, accepted the rules of the bosses at that time, no unions would ever have been formed, let alone the rich history of the American labor movement, which united immigrant black white workers together. So that's the approach we used and we showed it can be done.
And we also I think what's important now, eight years later, what we have shown is that it's not a one off. It's not about the heroism of one person. If you have a consistent. Understanding of how to politically connect with the rank and file and energize them and use your position to build movement, you can make the impossible possible.
Honestly, sometimes it feels like the left is so used to losing and being perceived as unserious that they are more concerned about the optics of losing so much so that they won't even try anything. And not to mention, first of all. But I did feel like some of it was about that. Like, you know, the downside seem relatively minor. People can debate that. But the idea that the very idea that that the left could try something and fail, that the squad could hold out for concessions and maybe not get exactly what they wanted or that the media would frame them in a negative light as though they don't you know, that the left doesn't get framed that way already was enough to make people feel like, well, we're not going to try for this thing, which for the past four to eight years we've been talking on the left, was the most important ethical issue of our time.
Oh, sixty eight thousand people die every year from health. A lack of health insurance. Oh, we're in the middle of a pandemic. It's like, did these things matter enough to take a risk and at least make an effort or did they not? And then the other thing that compounded that frustration for me is we talked a lot in the context of the campaign and this broader movement about how appealing these ideas are, because they are kind of these fundamental humanitarian like very core as essential concerns for working people.
And we said if we bring these issues to the people, they will come. If we present these options, that people will come. And that was the whole Bernie pitch instead. Certainly in the context of these kind of new internecine fights, we have leftists arguing that, well, people don't really like Medicare for all that much. The polls aren't really that accurate. And it's like, holy smokes. If you actually believe that, then what are we even doing here?
Are we actually on the same team? And what is your political plan? Because the left the only thing that really does empower us, in my view, is how appealing our message is and how many people are so oppressed that they have a deep, deep need for it.
That's more of a comment and a question.
No, no, I think I think that is extremely important. You raised Briona and also I really agree with the the last thing that you said, which is that so many are oppressed under capitalism. That is the power of the left. Bring it bringing that that collective voice together. And that's what we have. And that's what I mean when I say that we have shown a fundamentally different approach of politics, which is that we and this goes to the fourth question, which I want to come into in a second, but that we reject this idea that the quote unquote, political capital that people talk about can be measured or should be measured on the basis of what this one elected person can do with their office.
We reject this idea.
We believe that the best and only way, best and only way that a left elected representative like myself, for example, can hope to successfully push back against the absolute onslaught of opposition from the Democratic establishment and big business.
And believe me, it is a David versus Goliath situation, and you cannot hope to change that completely ruthless status quo of balance of forces unless you have something on your side. Who are you going to have on your side? It's going to be working people. So unless elected leaders understand that their primary and indeed best task, best contribution to the social movement has to be to use their office to build those larger movements, we are not going to succeed.
I mean, I said in a recent article that I wrote about, first of all, is that as long as our leaders on the left believe that it is about parliamentary arithmetic and insider tactics, it is going to be a death knell for the movement. You know, if we don't understand that, really what it is about is building those larger movements. I mean, I don't agree with the people who say that. Well, first of all, in the past, let's not talk about.
No, it is precisely what we should talk about, because in our minds at least, and from socialist alternative and standpoint, it was never about that one question, that one moment, that one vote in it really represented a deeper question that the left needs to seriously grapple with, which is at the end of the day, what is the strategy for the left to break the stranglehold on politics, the power that the Democratic and Republican establishments have?
And we are speaking in the wake of the January 6th attack by the far right on the Capitol building. And it's a grim reminder for us that the Trump may have been defeated by Trump ism. And right populism has not been far from defeated. And the most urgent question for the left is over 70 million people voted for Trump. How are we going to. In the vast majority of them, and it is how are we going to win them, it's precisely by building a fight back on the demand that will build solidarity on a principled basis around Medicare for all around green New Deal jobs, around the question of that that has angered so many people who have turned to Trump because there is nothing else on offer.
And that's why when Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race, that's what happened.
I mean, unbelievably, as unbelievably as it sounds, Donald Trump, after four years of being president, once again was able to pose as the alternative con man that he is. He was once again able to pose as an alternative. And so really the question is how concretely how are the squad, which is now a greater number? We have Jamal Bowman and Corey Bush have joined them. How are we going to use those? How are they planning to use this position that they have inside the Democratic Party?
And unless they have a serious understanding of how they need to be in conflict with Nancy Pelosi not going along with or voting for, we are not going to have those answers on the left. And that is why we would connect those questions of what the squad should do also with the question of a new party, because clearly you cannot avoid that question.
So that's exactly what I wanted to ask. I wanted to ask you what you would advise strategically going forward from forced the vote. Obviously, that particular moment of leverage around Nancy Pelosi's speakership has dissolved. But we do still have a very narrow margin in the House in which progressives could continue to try to vote as a bloc, extract leverage. And there's this other question of how much emphasis the left should be putting on third parties, given the reluctance we just saw for the people who are Democrats in the House, at least to be oppositional or as antagonistic as some on the left would like to see them being.
Yeah, I think that that is very much the question that is also connected with the other looming question that we were talking about earlier, which is how do we defeat the far right? How do we bring people who are otherwise left to the right wing, ordinary working people who could be won over? I think the terrain we're going to see is that obviously, as we seeing the Biden administration will will offer some substantial global relief. They're also talking about the minimum wage.
I think more than anything else, it shows the tremendous pressure that they are under, just given the heightened expectations from ordinary people that while we voted against Trump, now you need to show how you're in contrast to that disastrous regime and also because the sheer scale of the crisis of capitalism that they are going to be presiding over and and it's not isolated what Biden is doing.
I mean, we are living in the era of a historic crisis in the global capital system that the World Bank and the IMF are telling governments around the world that you need to tax big business. You know, they're talking about their own. They're not obviously they're trying to shore up the system. I want a different system. But the point is that that's the kind of crisis the Biden administration is facing. So we should expect that kind of change. At the same time, we should also expect that the Democratic establishment will not use their majorities to actually fight for working people, ordinary people, and will, for the most part, carry out once again a pro corporate agenda and fail to resolve the massive crises facing people.
And all of that is going to end up increasing the legitimacy of right. Populist ideas. And so given that, the question is, how are we going to present a different approach to it? And I think the question of whether or not the squad will will go up against Nancy Pelosi and the entrenched establishment, I think is very much related to the question of a new party, because this speaking from the Seattle standpoint, no doubt that if you are a member of the Democratic Party and if you were to fight like I have fought, yes, you will face a real pushback inside the party.
I mean, it will be extremely difficult. I mean, you saw how even days after the election, actually, AOC, well, in an interview with The New York Times said, you know, she almost wants to drop out of politics. That's the kind of hate and opposition she's faced from the Democratic establishment.
But that itself should be telling. I mean, this is the party's leadership is not on the side of working people. So, yes, you are going to be in conflict with them. There is no there is no space. There's no universe where you can be at peace with the powerbrokers of the establishment and yet win victories for working people. Such a thing is not going to happen. If you want to win victories for working people, you are going to have to take on that conflict.
So it's a yes or no question. There's no middle ground in that sense. But I can also tell you from my experience in Seattle that even if you are not a Democrat, you I'm an independent socialist. I'm one socialist in city. All the rest of the eight are Democrats. They're part of the Democratic establishment. You will. We will face that same pressure, so on the one hand, yes, we seriously have to talk about a new party because without a new party, we are not going to be able to break the stranglehold, the Democratic establishment.
At the same time, we have to prepare ourselves mentally. I'm not going to be all roses once we have a new party. It is going to be a tremendous struggle against the establishment and against the forces of capitalism. And we do need, as you were saying earlier, Brianna, serious accountability structures to hold our elected officials accountable and nobody can be above criticism.
Well, I want to ask you about that in the context of 15 dollar minimum wage, which is an issue that your fight for it in Seattle helped make a national issue, which is now front and everybody's mind for obvious reasons. People have been frustrated and, you know, calling Biden out over the past few days over the realization that we're talking about a five year window. We all know that even today, 15 dollar minimum wage is an adequate if it had been compared with what it would be compared to the 1960 minimum wages haven't kept up with inflation.
I think it would be twenty five dollars today. So there are a lot of people who are trying to figure out how do we hold the Democratic Party accountable in this moment and how should we frame the ask? Because what I've noticed is already a bunch of folks who are liberals, even some on the left, who see calls for more as an attempt to undermine Joe Biden and somehow help the right. And so the people who could be part of this accountability mechanism to quote unquote, push right and left are even abdicating their responsibility in that regard.
So how politically do you think we should best go about making the case for not only a 15 dollar minimum wage, but more and also some of these other broader support packages, whether it's two thousand dollars a month recurring, two thousand dollars a month, extended unemployment benefits, housing moratoriums, et cetera, et cetera?
I think there's a question of general understanding of how we go about in this in this kind of political question. Did the same thing would apply for 250 dollars an hour or any other question, which is it's not our job to give any legitimacy to any particular Democrat, including Joe Biden. It's our job to fight for working people the best we can and do the most that we can and leverage whatever potential we have on the left. So in that sense, I would say while there are a lot of people, as you said, liberals and even on the left who want to make this about whether or not we are standing with Joe Biden or anything like that, I think we have to understand that for us.
For us on the left, it is a question of what working people need. And that means that at the end of the day, it is a question of how we are willing to fight both the Democratic establishment and the leaders who tell us that we cannot do this or that or that we need to protect certain leaders. I think what we need to point out is exactly what I was saying earlier, which is that the best way to fight the right is not to make excuses to Joe Biden for Joe Biden had the best way to fight the right is to unite ordinary people on a common fight back.
And I think Medicare for all is a very important question that cannot be put aside for several reasons. One, obviously, we're in a pandemic. So strategically speaking, it is crucial that we that the left really build on on that. And that's why I don't think the question of forced the vote was a one off, because it does raise an important question of how are we going to win something like Medicare for all? We are not going to win Medicare for all by an insider strategy where you think your political capital depends on whether or not Nancy Pelosi is happy with you.
Well, Nancy Pelosi is never going to be happy with you if you are going to fight for working people because Nancy Pelosi is not on the side of working people. It's as simple as that. But Medicare for all is also important for another reason, which is that I think you were indicating this earlier. The vast majority of Americans support Medicare for all, including a majority of Republicans. Right. How could this not be an important question for the left?
Know this is absolutely crucial.
Well, so many people I mean, you've mentioned a couple of times the idea of persuading some of these Trump voters.
And I got to tell you, when you say something like that, there are a lot of folks who just recoil at the notion that these people are redeemable in any respect. So we had all this discourse about the Obama to Trump voters. So people like intellectually understand that there is some fluidity there that, you know, voting for Trump doesn't mean that your mind is like clinically. The morphology is such that you are constitutionally unable to ever have voted for a Democrat.
But when you talk about going back in the other direction, there's frankly no conversation and people who make those kinds of arguments are described as traitors or somehow trying to pander to their racist basic instincts, as opposed to some of these economic appeals that I think, frankly, worked for Obama. We didn't know that he was misrepresenting what he was actually going to do, but he ran in many ways, like a populist. It's also really interesting to hear you as a woman of color, not allergic to talking about reaching out to this community.
I feel very similarly as a woman of color, like I don't it doesn't help me to not talk to racists. To me, everybody is racist. So I know why we're picking and choosing now.
Like and it really boggles my mind that there seems to be this opposition to converting more people to the left, including some people. Yes. Who are trumpeter's and as well as independents and nonvoters and all of that that is often championed.
The people who leap at that argument are often white folks who use the idea of anti-racism to keep us locked in this system, where the only way the Democratic Party can grow is to hope that more brown people exist, that immigration favors us, and that the new new Brown people are going to naturally be Democrats and that we can rely on these overworked doorknockers in places like Georgia and Detroit, largely black, to just pull out the stops last minute and help the Democratic Party squeak by.
You know, how can we start to have a better conversation, a more useful, productive conversation about getting some of those Trump voters back without it descending into a fistfight over who cares about racism or who's a better anti-racist?
I think, yeah, those are very important questions, especially with the rise of what we've seen. You know, what I would call new liberal identity politics, where identities of individuals who are in lockstep with the establishment are weaponized against any argument for working class unity. And I think we have to be going to be very open about these debates. I mean, I'll I'll I'll start by first saying that, of course, there is a current of very, very dangerous, far right and reactionary ideology in America.
There is no question about that that exists in my home country, India as well. We've seen the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, extremely dangerous ideas. And we have to be crystal clear, of course, and have a 100 percent principled approach against sexism, against racism, against xenophobia, against oppression. I would say about myself. How can you be a socialist if you are absolutely not against all kinds of oppression? Because you're you're fighting for a vision of society that is free of oppression and exploitation.
So I think that is precisely why we have to be bold and unabashed about opposing the agenda of the Democratic establishment, because the vision that they offer is a few people from the people of color, communities or immigrant communities will be appointed to important positions. But at the end of the day, they are they have been appointed there precisely because they are willing to uphold an agenda that is deeply detrimental to the vast majority of oppressed communities.
In other words, when the new Democrats going from Clinton and then now to Obama attacked. Funding for public education attacked welfare, who was the most which were the communities the most disproportionately destroyed by those actions? It was the black community. It was a you know, it was immigrant communities, but it was working class people as a whole. So in other words, not only does the left have the great potential to unite people on a genuine, principled working class basis, fighting for Medicare, for all, fighting against these cuts to public education, it's also true that that is necessary because identity is used as an excuse to carry out these deeper and bigger attacks that end up destroying the same communities that we say we want to protect.
I mean, look at Biden's cabinet. I mean, look at whom he appointed as a special advisor on the question of fossil fuels. Cedric Richmond, the biggest recipient of fossil fuel money. He's black. He's from Louisiana, his district. He presides over some of the most environmentally affected tracts in the United States.
Neera Tanden, she's South Asian American like I am. She has fought viciously against fifteen dollars an hour, has been shoulder to shoulder with Biden in decades of attempts to cut Social Security benefits. So whom are we going to trust? Are we going to trust people who look a certain way or are we going to put them to a deeper test on political agenda? And that's what working people want. And in fact, I'll tell you this. And on this one, what terrified the ruling class about the George White protest was not only the fact that it was the largest protest movement in U.S. history, which, of course, is earth shattering, but it was a genuine, multiracial working class solidarity against racism.
Cities in states like Idaho, which had never seen anything like a Black Lives Matter protest, had protest. But they were only white people who were protesting against racism, against police violence. That's the incredible potential for working class unity. And that is precisely what scares the working class. I mean, the ruling class. And that is precisely what the left should be doing.
And the media try to make the the existence of predominantly white marches, even if they were in predominantly white cities, some kind of indictment of it, like it's not authentic or this is like they were arguing that it would undermine the cause, which is incredible. This is deliberate. It's part of the very longstanding and systematic divide and conquer strategy that the capitalist system uses because it needs to because that is working class unity, the legitimacy of their system is more easily threatened.
And so it is precisely because. Of that, that they will there's a systematic message in the media, as you said, yeah, exactly like saying all white people are protesting against racism, that somehow usurping black territory and that being brought up the question of who who are the genuine protesters who are allies? Some people have asked me sometimes and I say, you know, I'm a fighter against racism and we all have to be fighters against racism because we all have a stake in fighting for a society that is free of oppression and look at the different kinds of oppression that exist under capitalism.
You and I are both women of color. How many identities are wrapped in this? We cannot make this up competition of identities. We have to make this a question of how we can build the maximum possible solidarity on a principled basis.
So I'm going to cross out this question about how proud you are of Kamala Harris as our first black and South Asian states. And I have to ask you about what's going on in Seattle with this recall effort. Can you lay the stage for folks about what what's going on right now with you?
Yes, as a consequence of the fighting class struggle approach that our office has used, that socialist alternative has used the success that we have had with building movements that are won victories like the 15 dollar minimum wage, like the Amazon tax, which incidentally, which we won at the height of the Black Lives Matter protest last summer, the whole series of renters rights we have one which has incensed the corporate landlord lobby. We are facing a recall campaign from the right wing and from big business on the recall petition are for completely false charges against me.
And it's no coincidence also that two of those charges are related to my role in the Black Lives Matter movement. And it really shows that when the left when ordinary people have the audacity to get organized, to fight back and to win, you know, if you have the temerity to build successful movements, then the ruling class will come after you. So there is no as I said, there's no universe where you can make social change happen. And for this conflict to not happen, you know, capitalism, fighting capitalism and winning the reform, let alone any kind of deeper change, will involve class struggle.
And if we are shy of class struggle, we will not win. And so what we are seeing is what we would have predicted in retaliation. And the reason they are going after us with this recall campaign, with all these completely trumped up charges, is because they were unsuccessful in defeating us in the election in twenty nineteen. So in many ways this is like a do over of what they couldn't win in twenty nineteen.
So in twenty nineteen. Am I right to say that Amazon helped to fund your opponent to the tune of one point five million dollars. Yes.
And and that is aside from I'm laughing because it's you know, the reason I mean, mainly this is this make me laugh is because it's also it sort of puts the lie in this false dichotomy that we hear from the Democratic Party and also from people on the left. Sometimes that, oh, well, you know, it's difficult to run left campaigns nationally. You know, you should just support Biden, forget Bernie Sanders, but locally, go for it.
You know, more power to you. Right. I think the Democratic establishment is just going to leave you alone. All right. Did you build radical movements and when? No, our experience is completely putting that hypothesis to shreds. In reality, wherever working people will fight back at whatever level, whether it is a legislated legislator office like mine, whether it is elected leaders in the labor movement who dare to fight back or not, elected leaders of social movements who dare to actually represent the rank and file in the movement, we will face this pushback everywhere, no matter what.
And so it really brings up the question of left solidarity. And that's why I'm glad you're talking, because we need the solidarity of the left nationally and internationally to fight against this recall. And why? Because we all have something at stake. If if the ruling class wins this recall against us, they will absolutely use it as a template to go after other socialist, go after other leaders on the left. And the reason they go after individuals is because that's an easy way to tear down the movement as a whole.
So we have to remember, this is not this recall is not an attack against me individually. It is against the idea of working people getting organized and having the courage to fight back.
So what is just so we understand better the basis of the recall effort? What are they accusing you of doing that's in violation of whatever code you're supposed to adhere to in your position?
Well, as I said, the charges are, first of all, factually false and on top and I'll mention a couple of those charges are on top of that. We're also facing an. Shows how everything is stacked against working people in the government system is that the RICO law in Washington state is very much structured to favor a ruling class and establishment politicians and go after working class representatives because the law says that the truth of the charges does not even have to be proven for the record to go to the ballot.
Literally, I mean, people say, how can this be true? But this is actually the letter of the law. The truth of the charges does not have to be proof. All that the Washington state Supreme Court is going to decide this on is whether the charges have been described well enough or not. So if that makes sense to you.
So in other words, one of the charges I'll give you an example, one of the as I said, two of the four charges are related to my involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. And one of those two judges said that I led a protest to Mayor Jenny Durkin, who is a hated mayor. She is Amazon's mayor, really, and she oversaw the massive unleashing of tear gas and rubber bullets and blast walls against peaceful protests. And so there was a protest somewhere near the vicinity of her house.
And I spoke at that protest because I was invited to speak and I would do it again. But the recall charge says that I led or I organized that protest. That is completely false. I mean, I won't take credit where it's not deal with what the protest was organized by the family, but it was organized by the democratic socialist America and the families of those killed by Seattle police over years. And they wanted to protest near the vicinity of the mayor's house.
And they invited me to speak and I spoke. So the charge that I led or organized is completely false. But the court is not going to decide on the veracity of the charge, just whether it's described fully enough or not. So you can see that the law itself is written to benefit the ruling class, benefit the status quo.
And furthermore, the law does not give me any opportunity to go to court to defend myself. I don't get to defend myself in court.
So what happens procedurally? Procedurally, all that happens is the Supreme Court judges will decide whether this goes to the ballot or not.
OK, so and then there's another vote.
Yeah, the recall itself, the if if the judges decide if the Washington State Supreme Court decides that the recall charges have been described well enough so that they can go to the ballot, then there will be an actual recall campaign. So in other words, it really is what the ruling class wants, which is a second reelection, second election campaign. It's a do over of the election that they couldn't win against us in twenty nineteen.
And do you anticipate that you would be going up against your Amazon funded opponent from twenty nineteen, or do they have other people waiting in the wings?
There won't be any opponent that's going to be that's the that's going to be even more confusing for ordinary people who understandably are not tuned into every detail of all politics because the ballot is not going to have an opposition candidate. It's just going to have showed you recall Chamizal want or not. Oh, wow.
OK, I didn't realize that.
That's all it's he had the whole thing from start to finish is set up to be hostile to working class interests. And that's precisely why we haven't let grass grow under our feet. You know, as soon as this recall campaign game against us, we launched the Shumba Solidarity campaign because we don't we don't believe the courts are on our side any more than the police are on our side. It's made to uphold a system that is hostile to working people. And so we have to fight in the grassroots just like any other election campaign.
So just for the sake of completeness, I just want to talk about at least one or two of the other accusations that people just understand the context of what you're being accused of. There's this incident where you're being accused of letting people into the city hall during the course of one of the Black Lives Matter protests.
You talk about that? Yes. We had an incredible protest that was organized by my office alongside many other organizations, including some of the Black Lives Matter organizations that we. Had open air and then as a show of force for the Black Lives Matter movement that was fighting not only for obviously George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and the whole question of police violence, but also the specific questions of us in Seattle. Twenty eight people, 28 black or brown people have been killed at the hands of the Seattle police since 2011.
And not one Seattle police officer has been brought to justice. There's a lot of anger, justifiable anger building up in the community. And so it was a show of strength for the peaceful protest to go to city hall for an hour. Everyone was massed.
We were using all precautions. Everybody was very aware of how we needed to be there for a short time. We did a speak out at an assembly General Assembly speaker, but everybody came and spoke. There was even a political debate during the General Assembly about which demand should Black Lives Matter movement adopt that sort of thing. So it was a genuine sort of democratic engagement by ordinary people. And in fact, I'll tell you, one of the things that I remember the most is this black woman activist, LGBTQ activist who was very prominent in the local production of really self sacrificing.
She was walking alongside me. And when she came into city hall, she broke into tears because, as she said, with a thousand Black Lives Matter activists coming in as a single group, you know, as a collective into city hall. And with the city hall lobby reverberating with the chants of the movement, including the chant attacks Amazon to fund housing for black community people. For her, it was moving because she never felt that powerful that we could come here.
And this is the people, city people and I have never been here before, is what she said. And today I'm here with a thousand people. I feel like this space belongs to me. That was how important that moment was for ordinary people. And we completely reject any kind of false equivalency between that and the violent actions by the far right.
I was going to ask you I was going to ask you how you feel about the kind of parallels, because I know a lot of folks on the left and I will cop to this as reviled as the motives are for the insurrection. The spirit of wanting to reclaim the people's house and the idea that it hadn't been sufficiently representative and wanting to occupy that space and that there was so much energy behind it, it's not a direct parallel, but there's something that I almost envy about the spirit of the thing that exists on the right that doesn't seem to exist on our side.
Obviously, it does to a certain degree. Obviously, you're talking about this march on City Hall in Seattle that happens.
But I found it difficult to talk about that without seeming to wanting obviously not wanting to validate.
The violence, the people that were killed at the capital and the obviously the racist, hapless motives of the people involved, it is it's difficult because there's a condemnation of the event that could end up being a condemnation of the kind of revolutionary actions that arguably need to happen more broadly, including some of the crackdowns on speech that we've had people come on the show and talk about as well that are of concern to the left. How do you pass those differences?
I think we have to be very clear on every angle. We we should not equivocate about condemning the far right and also pointing out the dangers, the incredible dangers. Everything in history shows us what the kind of destruction and I don't mean property destroyed, I mean destruction of society that they are capable of. We know what a terrorizing force, the KKK and all the law enforcement agencies that that went in lockstep with them have been for our black community for decades.
I mean, that was that was real. And not to mention the fact that even though lynchings weren't legal, there wasn't a court in the country that would that would prosecute any of the lynchers. And so as the left, we, first of all, have the responsibility to never, never equivocate on that. But we should also not equivocate on the fact that the left, the labor movement, the actions that were taken to abolish slavery, all of that was composed of peaceful and militant acts by genuine people that we should always uphold.
I mean, the idea of a sit in strike was developed in the cowardly militant labor movement in the United States, in the GM factories. It was by auto workers, by socialists and by left leaders in the labor movement. And that's also a reminder for us. And as the ACLU has correctly taken a position against this, that as a response to the far right action, the Biden administration is talking about even more stringent laws that, as the ACLU has correctly said, will actually be used to come after the left right.
And we saw how the laws in the in the past were used to come after communists and socialists and leaders on the left. And so we we absolutely do not want that. And at the end of the day, it is I think it is completely possible and it's our responsibility to while being very clear about being against the far right, but also not allowing the ruling class to condemn all acts of protest. No, we don't accept that. In fact, we are we not only have the right, but we have the working class has a historic responsibility to to fight back.
I mean, I'll just give you a concrete example. We just heard in the news that the amount of melting on the tonnage of ice that has melted in the Arctic and conforms to some of the worst estimates that climate scientists have come up with, we have no time to lose.
We are going to have to go into battle against the fossil fuel industry. And how are we going to do that unless we have a militant mass movement, in fact, global solidarity of working people to really raise the question of taking those big corporations into democratic public ownership by workers, by the community, to retool them, to actually begin the end of the use of fossil fuel and have clean energy usage and a flourishing of green jobs. We're not going to be able to do that without militant tactics of sitting in the factories, without, you know, having massive actions on the streets.
We should not be shy about claiming the rich history of movements that that we have inherited while speaking out against far right. And I will say I will go even farther than that. I will say that that is precisely what will defeat the far right and right. Populism is the rise of a genuine left.
You did mention earlier that when you were first running, you didn't have the support of local labor leaders.
I'm curious if that changed at all once you demonstrated your ability to win and what role you think Labor should be playing in this moment as we're fighting for broad covid relief and bigger programs that you could try to push through in this shock doctrine, any kind of a moment in what you think the failures might be of the labor movement more broadly to take advantage of this opportunity?
First of all, in Seattle now, we have several very progressive and even fighting left unions like UAW 41 21, which is composed of. Membership, you know, their graduate student workers at the University of Washington, we have a new physicians union on the same campus who not only supported us in the reelection campaign in twenty nineteen, but also are supporting us, our solidarity campaign against the recall. They're part of the solidarity campaign. But I think that on the whole, what we have done is become I don't think this is what the left needs to be broadly a polarizing feature where it really put to the test, where people stand, where different leaders stand, when different organizations stand and show you.
What do you what do you see in Seattle is somewhat of a microcosm of what we have seen in the labor movement nationally. And this goes to your question also, what is what are the historical responsibilities of the labor movement? I think in the many decades where the labor movement has been pushed back by neoliberalism, by the forces of capitalism, what we have seen is a decline of the the militant and class struggle based approach that was used by some of the leaders of the labor movement without which we wouldn't have unions and much more of a rise of what I would call business unionism.
And in myself, very much part of the labor movement of being part of a teacher's union for years. And I've been very active in the labor left here in Seattle. And I think inside the labor movement, there is a battle that is waiting to fully unfold, a battle of ideas. What I mean between the ideas of business unionism, which seeks to make even some genuine people, you know, seeks to make compromise with the bosses, with the Democratic establishment and a more militant left wing that is starting to emerge, especially among young members, younger members, young workers or members of unions worried that they're rejecting that and wanting to chart the course that the early labor movement started, which led to some of the major general strikes, which is why how we got the New Deal.
It wasn't FDR, it was the militant labor general strikes that really paved the way for that. And I think a very important and indeed glorious example of this is the West Virginia teacher strike that happened just a few years ago where there was there was a clear difference between some of the more prominent state level leaders of the teachers union and the local rank and file leaders who rejected the compromise deal that the top leaders had made and decided to continue fighting. And that was the reason why they won such spectacular and historic victories.
And I think that that has to happen nationally. But we are also seeing that in Seattle in a bigger way and in some ways socialist alternative in our office and the approach we have used, a class struggle approach we have used has become a catalyst to further that debate. And I think but I don't think it is just limited to how the labor movement reacts to us. It's also it's a bigger question. This is going to come up in the question of climate.
How do we fight climate change? We are not going to be able to fight climate change unless we actually build solidarity inside the labor movement and win over workers in the fossil fuel sector on the basis of fighting for just transition and making sure that we are all in this together to let the labor movement has a historic role to play, but especially in the pandemic. More urgently, the the labor movement has as a clear role to play in pushing for comprehensive covid relief Medicare for all and green jobs.
So if people want to get more involved with the socialist alternative or your campaign against this recall effort, how can they do so?
I would really welcome people to look at socialist alternative energy, which is the website of socialist alternative. You could Google my name and find out more information. And also, most urgently, of course, is our solidarity campaign against the recall. We need the left to be united against it. As I said, we all have a stake in defeating it. And so please go to Shumba Solidarity dot org. That's my first name, JSH Imee Solidarity dot org curiosity.
Has there been any solidarity with the broader Black Lives Matter movement bringing attention to your Solidarity campaign since so much of what you're being accused of? So much of the justifications for recalling you is rooted in the protest over the summer?
I think that's a very crucial question you're asking. And I think we we have a long way to go to have that kind of solidarity. But I will tell you that on the ground, the rank and file, the ordinary people who are involved in the protest very much understand that this is not just an attack on me, but it's an attack on Black Lives Matter more broadly and against left movements ultimately. But I do think we have a long way to go in ensuring that more prominent leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement also understand that this is a threat against all of them as well.
Yeah, well, thank you so much for being so, so generous with your time. I thank you, but I wanted to meet you for so long and I'm so glad to have been able to have this kind of sprawling conversation with you. You're always welcome back. I would love that and likewise, it has been a real honor and privilege to be in conversation with you all. Thank you so much.
All right, there you have it. That was the episode, I confess, that I've been wanting to meet Sharma for so for a really long time.
And as I was preparing for this interview and reading about her, that desire grew even more, because can I confess to sometimes feeling like my naive and squishy and granola and stupid for, like, caring about stuff sometimes or like feeling self-righteous or, you know, like not wanting to always say what's on my mind or because it feels like it feels like I'm being a ridiculous crusader. And so I. But then you read about someone like her.
I mean, she literally she's foregoing the bulk of her salary, her city council salary, which is one hundred seventeen thousand dollars, according to Wikipedia, and has pledged to live on forty thousand dollars of it because it's the average worker salary. I mean, that's the kind of commitment to principle. But honestly, it's just a real like like self check. To me and Firas Media, what are you trying to say here? I'm telling you to give up all your patience.
Now, obviously, I don't mean it in a literal sense, but it is it is wonderful to have people who can still challenge you to be better in myriad respects. Or is it a challenge, your politics and your ideals, even now that, you know, whatever Bernie has gone.
Absolutely done. Burnie's. Wait, wait.
What happened is no longer running for president. Oh, OK. Right. Right. Well, you know, for a while Shamos want was, you know, the most notable socialist elected official besides Bernie in the country. Yeah.
She in Social Sultanov came before the kind of DSR moment in twenty eighteen.
I wish we had had time to talk more about just socialist alternative as an organization because I confess I don't actually know very much about it.
I don't either. I know they're around. I'm interested. You know, I'm really moved by the notion that she immigrated to Washington State, you know, is finishing her PhD, becoming a professor, and in the meantime, shopping around political organizations to consider becoming affiliated with. It's like I just I wish I had more of that sort of a mindset kind of earlier in my life.
And I am really looking forward to trying on more hats at this stage because there can be such a kind of like finality to this moment that we're in on the left.
But when you talk to people like her and you realize there all these alternatives out there, socialist alternatives out there, frankly, is like galvanizing.
Well, that does it for this week's episode. Sorry, no stock advice in this week's episode on maybe, just maybe, maybe just one. You know, you're going to want to buy stocks that are going up, but buy low.
Sell high again up there, I don't know, probably buy Amazon stock. They seem to be doing well.
Hey, this Jeff Bezos guy is always making money. So, you know, maybe you want to catch that. Get on that train.
If you buy Amazon stock, you have to donate to Chamas Solidarity campaign against the Amazon bigwigs who are trying to kick her out of office.
All right, Ben, it's telling me that for legal reasons, I have to say this is not financial advice. Well, I don't know what to call it then. And it's not. This is legal advice.
There you go. All right. We're safe now. OK, that's that's a that's it for this week's episode.
But that's not it for the show, because there are other episodes, many of which are premium subscriber only episodes that you can unlock right now by going to Patriot dot com slash Bad Faith podcast. It's five dollars a month. You'll get weekly premium's exclusives just for you loot crates of content.
Indeed. And I will also reply slowly but surely to all of your messages on the page on account.
OK, well, OK, well, that's a bold promise. There's a lot of messages.
A lot of people think they can talk back. Don't like it. They don't appreciate that sort of thing.
I will I pledge to not reply to any of the social solidarity Virgile. Also, you could write an episode of this. You could find this episode on YouTube at YouTube, Dotcom Slash Bad Faith podcast. Check out our YouTube channel hit Subscribe. Hit the Bell. The bell is an important component.
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And as always, keep the event just.
Things are moving. Your feelings are right up to the. Waiting for some big.