Kshama Sawant: Seattle’s Socialist Councillor
By Tyson Kelsall, Culture Editor
On 6 January 2014, Kshama Sawant became the first elected socialist city councillor in Seattle in almost a century. Sawant is a former Occupy activist and an Indian immigrant. She teaches economics,and previously worked as a software engineer. Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, was also active in the movement towards a minimum wage of $15 for city employees, and has already begun taking to the streets to demand a $15 minimum wage for all workers in Seattle, which she called a “major city in the heartland of global capitalism” in her inauguration speech.
Sawant, on Democracy Now, credits the Occupy Movement for “breaking the silence” on the two-party domination of American politics. She claimed that she will never make a back-room deal with an unethical corporation for political ascent, and that she wears the “the badge of socialist with honor.” Sawant is making the argument that America is the richest country in history, yet the working people are being swindled. She argues that average corporate CEOs are making seven thousand dollars per hour, while workers are constantly rejected a fair wage.
This wage inequality is not unique to America. On 2 January 2013, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a study that clearly showed that the average pay of the top 100 CEOs in the country was as much in two days as what the average Canadian worker makes in an entire year. The gap between rich and poor is becoming wider in North America, whether fair or not.
A heavily criticized point in Sawant’s campaign is her stance on rent control. Most economists agree that rent control is a horrible idea. In fact, in 1992 the American Economic Association produced a survey and found that 93% of economists find that “a ceiling on rents reduces the quality and quantity of housing.” Although it may be a good thing that Sawant is bringing the issue of unaffordable and inaccessible housing prices to the forefront, rent control is unlikely to help the city’s sustainability; when prices go below market value in a capitalist economy, supply will stop increasing. Historically, a symptom of this type of shortage has also been a lack of maintenance to shelters, and has left cities in disarray. Famous Swedish economics professor and so-called post-socialist Assar Lindbeck, PhD, once said, “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.”
What kind of role can a socialist play within a capitalist economy? In the simplest sense, her election win indicates that many Americans are open to a change in the political discourse. The country has a long history of Democrat versus Republican parties. For Sawant, it means reforms will give the labour class self-determination, and the ability to live a good life in a system that, theoretically, is not working for them. It certainly gives her a soapbox to stand on when she rallies for things like a higher minimum wage and environmental restrictions, such as her opposition to a new coal terminal. Her campaign showed people that it is possible to be a grassroots activist and win against the goliaths of American politics. By the end of her first term, it is unlikely that all the cities’ workers will own their means of production through municipal reforms, but perhaps she is creating a safe-place within a capitalist country for the average person to be heard; perhaps the soapbox is not only for her, but for all the working people; all the 99%. In any case, a self-identifying socialist city councillor in Seattle will offer a glimpse to one of the alternatives to the current political discourse in North America.