For the first time in my life, I will vote for a candidate who actually holds my political views. Her name is Kshama Sawant. She is running for the city council seat held by Richard Conlin. She, like me, is a socialist. She, like me, sees no future, in environmental terms, for a capitalist market system that's not regulated by democratic institutions, and believes that the solutions to many of our social problems (lack of real police accountability, lack of meaningful investments in public modes of transportation, and lack of adequate protection from financial and other job- related risks) will be found on the open terrain of class struggle.
When I turned 18 in Zimbabwe, I had no reason to vote, because the president of that country, who claimed to be a Marxist, was in fact a tribalist, a dictator, and really quite mad. (The joke at the time: You can vote for Bob, Bobby, or Robert Mugabe.) As for the US, after I became a citizen in 2005, the politicians I voted for were loosely or distantly committed to core socialist principles. Patty Murray, Barack Obama, and even Mike McGinn were on the left of American politics, but none were deaf to the loud and constant demands of the rich and their moneymaking mania. (Socialism ultimately means, to use Karl Polanyi's words, "the subordination of the economy to society.") Obama really does believe in the greatness of a free and competitive market, Murray helps Boeing obtain defense contracts, and McGinn (though far better and more liberal than Ed Murray) is at the end of the day a deficit hawk who has and will cut jobs to balance the city's budget.
None of these politicians would be in power today if they, like Sawant, were members of an actual socialist party. Indeed, Sawant's rise in the local political world has the potential to generate international attention. During a recent phone conversation I had with Leo Panitch, the editor of the Socialist Register, a journal that was cofounded by none other than Ralph Miliband (yes, the father of the current leader of Britain's Labour Party, Ed Miliband—unlike his father, Ed is no socialist), he expressed great amazement and enthusiasm when I shared the news that an actual socialist had a chance of winning a significant political position in Seattle. "Wow, that's just fantastic... That's phenomenal," said Panitch. Now why would a world-famous and influential socialist like Panitch, who recently coauthored an excellent book, The Making of Global Capitalism, published by Verso (the most highly regarded radical leftist publisher in the English-speaking world), be so impressed with what appears to be a minor political achievement of a virtually unknown economics professor? To appreciate the answer to this question, we need a little historical background.
Let's begin with a British economist named John Maynard Keynes. At the end of World War II, Keynes provided Western governments with a great solution to the real internal and external threat of socialism—internally in the form of the labor movements (that were radicalized by the Great Depression) and externally by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (which emerged from the war as a new superpower). Keynes's solution: Give workers higher wages, reliable social welfare programs, and a real shot at the middle class, and basically they will shut up and be nicer to rich people. This solution, which is called social democracy (or Keynesianism or demand-side economics), was implemented and in 1947 initiated in the US, Europe, and Japan a long period of great economic performance that's now called the Golden Age of Capitalism.
Socialism in the West could not compete with social democracy, and it also wanted to distance itself from the USSR, whose leaders turned out to be nothing more than criminals. But then something bad happened to social democracy in the early '70s. The rich became convinced that the high wages being handed to workers were exerting greater and greater downward pressure on their profits. This belief, which was not in fact correct (but that's another story for another time), led to the rise of a new economic program, neoliberalism (or supply-side economics), that basically attacked labor, aggressively privatized state institutions, and ripped social services to pieces. Keynesianism was eventually replaced by neoliberalism in the early '80s. In the US, this moment is called "the Reagan revolution."
After the fall of the Soviet Union in the late '80s, Margaret Thatcher's famous declaration, "There is no alternative" (also known as TINA), became a fact of life. Social democracy, socialism, communism, it was said, had all been tried and failed. Concern for workers' rights and wages proved to be a bad foundation for economic policies. From now on, the rich would be the real job creators. "Adolph Reed [a black American political scientist and contributor to the Nation] described [this] situation as capitalism in a moment of no working-class opposition," Sam Gindin, the coauthor of The Making of Global Capitalism, explained to me during a phone conversation.
But check this out: Because capitalism became our only reality, all people ever saw in the papers, on TV, and on the internet was the devastation and misery it causes. There was the Mobutu-level corruption of Enron, the expensive wars for oil and Halliburton's stockholders, the spectacular rise of student debt, the Hurricane Katrina mess, the crash of 2008, the bailout of the rich, the foreclosures in poor and middle-class neighborhoods, and so on and so on. Everyone has forgotten the propaganda images of bland food, ugly cars, and long lines in the former Eastern Bloc. But everyone can easily recall the images of a major capitalist corporation spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and creating an oil slick that was visible from space.
Suddenly, calling someone a socialist seemed not as bad as calling someone a capitalist. Teabaggers could throw the word socialism at Obama or Obamacare, and it just did not stick or have much of an effect. Occupy protesters, however, could call Wall Street bankers capitalists, and the word not only stuck, but hurt. Indeed, in 2010, the Texas Board of Education voted to replace the word "capitalism" in school texts with the much friendlier term "free-enterprise system."
It is in this context that Sawant, who is a member of a real-deal socialist party, the Socialist Alternative (which is also running a competitive candidate for a council seat in Minneapolis, Ty Moore), has risen from obscurity to the mainstream of Seattle politics. True, the Socialist Alternative party is running a smart campaign, and Sawant is a smart candidate, and the idea to focus on tangible campaign agendas such as pay increases, rent control, and taxing the rich is proving to be efficacious. And true, Socialist Alternative's program has the kind of political pragmatism that many find absent from the Socialist Workers Party—a local group that has a reputation for promoting ideas and programs that even most on the left find downright kooky.
But the Socialist Alternative savvy is also being rewarded by a political climate that is less hostile to socialist-leaning programs like universal health care, progressive taxes, and affordable higher education. Indeed, many basic government programs like Medicaid and Social Security are by their very nature socialist. It's no accident that the period of the greatest economic growth in the US was between 1947 and 1973, the peak moment for social democracy.
For the past 30 years, we have given capitalism everything it wants—low taxes, low wages, budget cuts—and in return, all we got back are demands for even lower taxes, lower wages, and deeper budget cuts. What if for once we just stopped giving capitalism anything? How bad would that be? TINA? There is an alternative. Her name is Sawant. Vote for her.