A specter is haunting Seattle—the specter of socialism. And no, we're not just talking about Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant, who is challenging Democratic house Speaker Frank Chopp in Seattle's ultraliberal 43rd Legislative District. Sure, some have ridiculed Sawant for running as a Socialist this November. But most people don't even know what socialism really is (particularly those Tea Partyers who toss the word at the president). A Stranger investigation has revealed that socialism is already everywhere in Seattle!
It is in our schools. It is in our churches. It is in our very homes. Even as you read these words, socialism is silently running every tiny detail of your modern technological life.
Of course I'm talking about Seattle City Light, the 110-year-old publicly owned utility that has proven to be a triumph of the socialist ideal.
Socialist City Light?
As Merriam-Webster defines it, socialism is the "collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production." As such, City Light is socialism in spades.
Yes, through our ownership of City Light, the people of Seattle don't just own the means of production, we own the means to the means of production. Founded in 1902 by a seven-to-one citywide vote in order to break the monopoly of Seattle's overpriced private power supplier, City Light proved so popular, efficient, and successful that it eventually became a monopoly itself.
And our cheap power is not just an accident of geography. It took the central planning and collective resources of government—both City Light and the Bonneville Power Administration—to build the hydro infrastructure that generates the carbon-free electricity that powers our homes and industry. Unbeholden to shareholders and their demand for short-term profits, City Light's leaders and the elected officials built the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project in the 1920s and the Boundary Hydroelectric Project on the Pend Oreille River in the 1960s. "It was visionary," says City Light communications director Suzanne Hartman.
It was also socialism.
And this form of socialism is helping business.
"Electrical power represents the main energy cost for most businesses," writes the pro-business Washington Roundtable in its May report "Benchmarks for a Better Washington," a study that proudly notes that Washington boasts the lowest electricity rates in the nation.
So when Sawant's critics ridicule The Stranger for our straight-faced embrace of a candidate who outrageously advocates for the collective ownership of industry, they do so while pounding away on keyboards powered by Marxist ideology.
And while City Light may be the most extreme example of the mainstream application of socialist principles to everyday civic life, it is far from the only one. Indeed, outside of police, military, and foreign affairs, much of what our government does can be fairly described as socialist to some extent or another.
Social Security? Hell, it's got the word "social" right in its goddamn name.
Obamacare? Not nearly as socialistic as it would've been (had the Democrats had the balls to implement a single-payer system or a public option). But when Republicans decry Obamacare as "socialized medicine," well, if by socialized medicine they mean dramatically expanding access to affordable health care through government subsidies, planning, and regulations, the GOPers kinda have a point.
And the list goes on. Unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, family and medical leave, food stamps, TANF, WIC, EITC, CHIP, and the rest of the acronyms that weave together our wide if fraying social safety net? Socialism all. And it's not just the poor, the elderly, and the disabled who benefit; commerce also enjoys the warm, nurturing embrace of the social welfare state. From farm subsidies to deposit insurance, from the Small Business Administration to the Export-Import Bank to the Federal fucking Reserve—these pro-business subsidies, programs, and agencies are all classic examples of the sort of centralized economic planning that is supposedly antithetical to free-market capitalism.
And then of course there was the Wall Street bailout. "Privatize the profits, socialize the risk." Well, no ideology is perfect.
Even public parks are socialist. Public libraries. Public schools! My god, what could be more contrary to the free-market pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps spirit that allegedly defines America than the government-imposed indoctrination of our children? And yet no less a champion of individual liberty than Thomas Jefferson was one of the earliest and most passionate advocates of a state-sponsored "system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest."
Even the Tea Party's favorite founding father had a socialist streak. Who knew?
For all the knee-jerk ridicule hurled at any candidate who dares to define herself as a "Socialist," there really isn't all that much of a difference between Sawant's socialist platform and the so-called progressive platform of the King County Democrats.
At a recent Stranger Election Control Board interview, we asked Sawant's opponent Chopp for his position on a number of the core issues listed on Sawant's campaign website, and there was hardly a policy disagreement between the two. Federal and state jobs programs to provide living-wage jobs? Check. No cuts to social services? Check. Raise the minimum wage? Check. Impose a moratorium on home foreclosures? That's one of Chopp's pet causes.
On issue after issue, from civil rights to immigration reform to public transit, the Democrat Chopp and the Socialist Sawant are in total agreement, at least in principle. It was only when we got to the final plank in Sawant's 14-point platform that Chopp definitively balked. It turns out that despite City Light's outstanding track record under collective ownership, Chopp doesn't support Sawant's advocacy for taking local economic mainstays like Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon "into public ownership under democratic workers' control to be run for public good, not private profit."
The unprecedented 12 percent of the vote Sawant garnered in the August primary as an undeclared write-in candidate doesn't augur a coming proletarian era or anything, and she's no more likely to seize the means of production from Jeff Bezos than the Republicans are to achieve their implied goal of executing abortion doctors and imprisoning their patients. The truth is, like all modern industrialized nations, we have a "mixed economy," a blend of free-market capitalism and the socialist policies needed to rein in and mitigate its abuses.
No, what Sawant brings to the political debate isn't the hope of victory, but a desperately needed dose of ideological balance in a city that laughs at the "socialist" label while powering its iPads and espresso machines off the purest incarnation of its philosophy.