Kshama Sawant and Capitalism’s Shock Absorbers

“While you waitin’ for the mention in the pages of ‘The Stranger’

You can find me in the basement makin’ heaters for later…

we’ve been living in conditions we’re tired of

Come on and rise up”

– Blue Scholars, “North by Northwest”

Intro: the shifting political terrain

The years since the financial crisis have not been boring, especially here on the West Coast. Through  strikes, occupations, demonstrations, and blockades, tens of thousands of us have created social possibilities with few precedents in recent history.  However, all of these developments are fragile; we will forget what we’ve learned unless we keep putting it into practice.  We need to stay dynamic, dodging the new obstacles that the system will encourage us to put in our own way.

An increasingly hollowed out state apparatus is having a harder time coopting street-level turbulence using the old carrots and sticks.  The capitalist ruling class is finding itself unable to forge a consensus among its own members about how to stablize the system.  This is both a cause, and an effect, of the actions we have engaged in here, and the rebellions that are breaking out around the world.

imagesThis shifting political terrain has made it possible for Kshama Sawant to win her recent election to Seattle city council.

But what does all of this mean for those of us who want to end capitalism altogether?  What does it mean for those of us who want to nurture the fragile blooming of autonomy, communistic creativity, and direct democracy that has begun to emerge over the past few years? 

Sawant’s election was only possible because the old systemic shock absorbers have worn thin and the ruling class has not yet reached consensus about how to build new ones.  However, they are hard at work on this project, and we need to strike strategically against their prototypes as they try to build them. 

If we want to do this, we will need to go much farther and deeper than Kshama’s campaign has gone (footnote 1).  To facilitate that, I suggest we revisit some of the moments in the Decolonize/ Occupy  movement that gave birth to her campaign in the first place (footnote 2).   These moments are some of the horizons  the next movement will need to exceed if it wants to remain un-cooptable.

This kind of analysis is not a matter of abstract political commentary.  My goal is to make sense of the day-to-day political climate here in Seattle, a climate that may be emerging in other cities as well.

The day before Kshama’s opponent conceded the election, I was food shopping, and as I was checking out I chatted with the teller.  Recently, he’s been talking about  blue collar rebellion and was pissed that his union leadership just botched a potential strike.  He knows I’m a member of Seattle Solidarity Network, which he respects because we fight  bosses who don’t pay their workers, and we don’t ask any lawyers or union officials for permission.  The minute I walked into the store, he shouted “Did you hear about Sawant? Looks like the king is dead”.   He explained how he sees Sawant and Seasol as alternatives to the failed strategies his union has been pursuing.

seattle_skyline_at_night-wideThis is the political climate in Seattle right now – people casually debate the merits of socialist and anarchist strategies in our daily lives. As a teacher, I walk into class some mornings and my students are discussing  demonstrations they saw on the news the night before, demonstrations I couldn’t make it out to because I was busy organizing other demonstrations for the following week.

In a situation like this, where do we focus our limited energies?  Here in the emerald city, there are a lot of glimmering political possibilities, but many of them could turn out to be empty spectacles.  We need to choose carefully.  But those careful choices we make may (at first) seem dangerously reckless –  even to our friends, coworkers and neighbors who are beginning to consider themselves anti-capitalists.

Demoralized radicals lost among all this restlessness

Kshama’s election seems to be disorienting or frustrating many of us whose actions have helped catalyze the development of this new climate.  A lot of people who went through Decolonize/Occupy Seattle with Sawant seem to have nothing to say about her election besides sarcastic jokes,  crass personal attacks on her, or abstract denunciations of electoral politics.

jq_pd-300x232My comrades’ skepticism about electoral politics is certainly warranted. We’ve had to cultivate an anarchistic distrust of all politicians in order to accomplish what we have accomplished the past few years.  We’re used to politicians like Jean Quan in Oakland trying to stop us.  We’re used to dealing with the Rainbow Coalition of former Leftists who sold out and became Democratic Party operatives, invoking their movement credentials to justify repressing our direct actions.

These soft-Lefties mobilize grassroots armies of nonprofit and union bureaucrats to stand with their backs to the police and their faces to our crowds.  They tell us to go home, to stay calm, and to air our grievances through the proper channels.

We’re used to dealing with politicians and progressive media outlets that paint us as outside agitators, or as violent criminals, justifying police brutality and state surveillance against us in the heat of the moment, then claiming our work as their own once we are successful.

After dealing with this shit over and over again, it’s no surprise that many of us have begun to sympathize with the anarchist call to burn the bridges these misleaders are trying to build with “the community”.  We have seen first-hand how these bridges are usually constructed for the propose of smuggling trojan horses into any dynamic movement.

This arsenal of co-optation was deployed against the Oscar Grant rebellions in Oakland, and against the uncompromising trajectories of the Decolonize/ Occupy  movement in Oakland, Portland, and Seattle. This is what we think of when we hear about electoral politics.

In Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle in particular, we were constantly on the lookout for democratic party operatives and opportunists who tried repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – to coopt the movement.

And here’s the strange, new thing: Kshama Sawant was not one of those operatives or opportunists.  In fact, early on in the movement, Sawant and I worked together, alongside hundreds of radicals, socialists, anarchists, and others who tried to prevent Mayor McGinn and the Democratic Party from containing the energy that was exploding in the camp and on the streets – I’ll tell that story below.

In fact, Sawant emerged out of a faction that many of us saw as an unlikely place for a new politician to start a career.

I think our experiences during those heated months in the fall of 2011 shed light on why Kshama’s campaign has been so successful – they highlight the fact that tens of thousands of people share our desire for autonomy from corporate party politics and they saw her as a symbol of this stubborn independence.

However, they also illuminate how the state and it’s co-optation mechanism are changing, and how we need to adapt if we want to continue to push the limits like we’ve been doing the past few years.  Future co-optation attempts might not just come from the Democrats,  and they might not come in the forms we’ve seen in recent years.

But before I get into that, I’d like to do a quick detour to flesh out the deeper and more long term-bases for why many of us are skeptical about electoral politics.

Socialism is not a political party; it is the first stage of communization

Part of the genius of the Decolonize/ Occupy movement was our instinctual sense that the state can’t really control the capitalist market.  In fact, the state helped create this market by colonial force and it has now been devoured up by the forces it unleashed.

Instead of appealing to politicians to reel in capitalism and make it work for us, we tried to attack capital directly – we  occupied Wall St. and  “Wall St. on the Waterfront”.   As we said during the Dec. 12th, 2011 port shutdown, the Wisconsin-style attempts to occupy capitol buildings had failed to stop the politicians from passing austerity measures.  So why not start occupying the capital of the corporations that buy the politicians in those capitols?  Why not disrupt their ports, factories, etc.?  This could be the first step of a broader effort – where employed workers, unemployed folks, union members and non-union alike could unite to occupy and seize the means of life – the farms, rail lines, schools, grain elevators, etc. that we need to survive and thrive.

As I argue below, existing capitalist states are so hollowed out and dysfunctional that they can barely control the market enough to keep capitalism functioning smoothly.   So it seems utopian to expect them to control the market enough to redistribute wealth equally, or to avert ecological catastrophe.

I think this means the capitalist state cannot be reformed to gradually become more and more socialist; they tried that in Europe, and it failed.  All the so-called “socialist” parties there are imposing austerity measures, gutting things like free education and health care.  They tried it in various countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and they either ended up in debt-bondage to the IMF, imposing austerity on their own people –  or they were isolated, invaded, and overthrown.

Without an accelerating revolutionary movement in the streets, workplaces, and neighborhoods, I think that Sawant will be pressured into one of these corners.


I’m not saying we should abstain from politics in order to focus on building subcultures that “drop out” of the system.  These subcultures often end up reproducing oppressive and capitalistic social relationships themselves.  And without taking back all the wealth we’ve created through our labor, we won’t have enough resources to actually meet each other’s needs and desires.  Everything the state and the corporations have we made; we may want to destroy the nuclear weapons and surveillance systems and other aspects of control, but we can probably recycle the machinery, distribution networks,  buildings, etc.

Some Leninist supporters of Sawant might agree the state can’t be reformed through elections, but they might see her election as a strategic step toward popularizing a party that can eventually overthrow it by force.  But if we look at the 20th century, I think we need to be honest about the dangers of professional political classes, even progressive ones created by insurgent vanguard parties or guerrilla armies.  They’ve consolidated power on the backs of the workers, citizens, peasants, or whoever else they claim to serve.  They’ve also imposed state-capitalist economic plans that have pushed the planet further toward climate catastrophe.

I’m particularly skeptical of attempts to take over a state like the U.S.A., whose roots are in the colonial settler republic of the 1700s and whose branches spread as an increasingly incoherent coordinating committee for the global capitalist empire; in fact, its roots and branches don’t always work well together, pushing this state into increasing contradictions like the recent government shutdown.  It will probably take a world revolution to bring down this state, and if that becomes possible, I hope we aim a lot farther than the creation of a Soviet States of America.

 I think a revolution will need to thoroughly smash this capitalist state and this empire, immediately starting a long-term process of communization: creating what we need and want, freely producing for each other.

images Socialism is simply the word that Marx used for certain initial attempts at communization, for the moment when the workers’ movement begins to take over and the working class begins to abolish itself as a class, unleashing our pent up creative powers to build a classless society.  This is a contingent, reversible moment where people either continue to make the revolution or allow it degenerate into state capitalism. Or, they fail entirely and a  wave of fascist rebels  or warlords start filling the vacuum.

We have to admit that none of us can really guarantee the success of  this communization process – especially if it has to happen under conditions of  rising sea levels, pandemics, food insecurity, the proliferation of drug cartels,  etc.  If we had these answers, “communization ” would be debated in occupied factories right now, not in graduate school bars and suffocating, navel-gazing “ultraleft”, “left communist”,  and anarchist scenes.  We are not sure how to avoid the fates which have swamped so many past revolutions.  But that’s exactly what we need to figure out.

 I think we can learn from the emphasis on direct democracy  that many anarchist and indigenous movements have implemented-  face to face decision making about what we want to create, about how we want to reorganize our society in ecological ways, or how we want our kids’ to learn and grow.

Breaking the System’s Shock Absorbers

However, I think we can also learn from the autonomist Marxists’ recognition that the current capitalist state is not monolithic or static.  The state is the product of contradictory class forces, and since classes are constantly being composed and recomposed, the state can change and adapt, especially in response to pressures from below –  from people like us.

capitalism_firm_grip_on_wheelCapitalism and the state are currently in a moment of crisis and transition.  They are having trouble governing.  This does not automatically mean that revolution is around the corner, and even if revolution happens this does not automatically mean the outcome will be anarchistic communization.  But we need to recognize that the current state has its own set of problems, and that our enemies are not always united in some grand conspiracy. 

Local and federal governments are allowing various corporations or ruling class factions to prioritize their own short term profits rather than investing in captalism’s longterm stability.  We see this especially with the investments in trains carrying coal for export, instead of high speed passenger trains that could start to replace cars.  We see it in the destablization of public education which allows various crackpot social entrepeneurs to market new products to “save” the system even while their products harm youth and make it more difficult to train the next generation of workers for the system.

We also see this tendency when companies replace workers with machines, even though this eventually causes their rates of profit to fall and creates a potentially rebellious population of unemployed people.   We may see it in drastic form if the Trans Pacific Partnership is passed,  reinforcing multinational corproations’ ability to sue local governments that try to regulate them.  This could close off a whole range of reformist political strategies such as lobbying,  petitioning, collective bargaining.  Why lobby someone who doesn’t have the power to give you what you want?

 All of this  leaves the state and ruling class with less leeway to reproduce the illusion they represent some social contract or common good.  That reality is both a cause, and an effect, of the creative rebellions that are happening here, and, more intensely, around the world.

“Grassroots” groups like unions, nonprofits, etc. that used to be locked into stable relationships with the state  may increasingly find themselves having to freelance.  This creates a new political terrain and we will need to learn to navigate it.

We will find ourselves betrayed, isolated, and crushed if we don’t remain independent of Sawant and the progressive union bureaucrats and social entrepreneurs who backed  her election.  But we will also find ourselves isolated and crushed if we abstain from future Occupy-like movements just because the last one produced a new socialist politician.

I’m noticing a number of my comrades are trying to maintain their anarchist credentials by flippantly dismissing Kshama as just another progressive Democrat.  I think they’re bending facts to fit their dogmas.  It is obvious that Sawant is sincere about fighting the corporate-controlled Democratic party machine; this is evident in her call to seize the Boeing factories and to put them under democratic workers’ control, and in her refusal to take corporate donations.   But breaking from the Democrats alone is not enough to replace capitalism and the state with total freedom, and it creates new problems for us at the same time as it solves old ones.  We can’t solve the new ones by claiming Sawant is just an old one.

We need to remember that the corporate status quo is not maintained solely by the two parties of the 1%.  In fact, it isn’t maintained solely by the state bureaucracy.  It is a product of social relationships that run throughout society – relationships that are continually reproduced and reinforced  by hierarchal “grassroots” organizations like unions, nonprofits, religious groups, and activist groups.  These shock-absorbers channel rebellious energy into safe cul-de-sacs where it won’t threaten the stability of the system.

 The state doesn’t simply rule through brute force – if it tried to crush every oppositional movement, this would just piss people off even more and we’d rise up to overthrow it.  I know the grand juries and all the killer cops can make it seem this way, but I doubt we are on the verge of martial law or general suppression of all radical activity.  The state still rules through hegemony and counterinsurgency – through winning the hearts and minds of potential opponents, rendering them a loyal opposition.  Some radicals call this tendency “social democracy”.

kanye no church in the wildI’m not saying there is some grand conspiracy going on to brainwash us.  Hegemony is always partial, tentative, contradictory, and dynamic.  If  the state aimed for total mind control it would become corny, obvious, and easier to mock.  Usually it’s more subtle, and actually relies on everyday people creating new forms of incomplete rebellion ourselves, forms that can then set trends, allowing the system to market new, “edgy” commodities we can consume to blow off steam – everything from Kanye West’s appropriation of Black Block imagery to the corrosive proliferation of academic postmodernism through anarchist and activist subcultures.

Also, not all of these cooptation efforts are centrally coordinated and calibrated to effectively maintain the stability of capital as a whole.  Again, some of them are simply efforts of various factions of capital to make a short term profit, and at times these short term motives will actually undermine overall capitalist stability by popularizing a culture of rebellion (e.g. movies like Elysium or the Hunger Games).

Other times, they undermine the overall hegemony by coopting a movement in a  clunky way that is effective enough to avoid short term profit loss but not effective enough to prevent people from drawing radical conclusions over the long haul.  Still other times, they attempt to directly make a profit off of people’s grievances, such as all the corporate education reform movements that promote Pearson, Inc.’s standardized  testing products as a phony solution to the very real  racialized inequality between Black students and white students in the public schools.

The most classic forms of hegemony are patriarchy and white supremacy – things like the sexual violence in the Occupy camp that fractured the movement,  or the failure of majority white longshore workers in Seattle to support the majority African port truckers when they went on strike here in 2012. These are not just imposed from above; we re-generate them in how we relate to each other on a daily basis.  The system convinces us to internalize the shock absorbers that allow capitalism to run right over our antagonistic gestures.  When we see this happening, we shouldn’t fall into an abyss of guilt and conclude that we’ve failed and that no alternative is possible.  All of this is part of living in a capitalist society, and we’re not exempt from it just because we’re radicals.  But that’s also exactly why we want to destory capitalism.  Race and gender oppression are social constructions, and like any construction site, they can be sabotaged.

For capitalism’s hegemony to work, the people who build the shock absorbers actually need a bit of leeway, breathing room to experiment at the grassroots level.  Not every nonprofit worker or union organizer is a conscious social democratic hack.  Some of them might be sincere revolutionaries, and others might just be good people trying to help out their neighbors.  But at the macro level, these institutions operate by intertwining these good intentions with the constraints set by the system.  In times of crisis, otherwise good people from these milieus are  recruited into action to rapidly generate peace treaties that de-escalate struggles between the oppressed and the oppressors, the ruling class and the working class, the state and the ungovernable crowd. At that point, they become our opponents.  

So, what all of this means is that if  we want freedom beyond the two party system, we’ll need more than militant action in the streets. We’ll also need more than socialists in office.  You can’t smash  a social relationship like people smash windows.  You also can’t vote it out of office.

We’ll need to break through these shock absorbers in a strategic and thorough way -and it will be a messy, impure process since the shock absorbers are intertwined with our daily lives and our very sense of who we are – so breaking through them is as much an act of social self-creation as it is an act of destructive transcendence.  If we don’t do that, then any Leftward shift among elected politicians will remain largely symbolic and hollow, and militant actions in the streets will be easily isolated and contained.

In Seattle, the Democratic Party would have lost control back in the ‘60s or earlier if it hadn’t forged a mutual alliance with shock absorbing institutions like nonprofits, identity-based activist organizations, and unions. Sawant represents a break from the Democrats. But does she represent an erosion of these more diffuse forces of hegemony, or is she going to reinforce them in new ways?

Opposing the Dictatorship of the Dumpies

Kshama  has cultivated an edgy charisma based in the radical role she played in Occupy Seattle. Occupy was certainly a moment where everyday people started to shock the system by acting in unpredictably rebellious ways, and for a few months the system could not contain it. It wasn’t the first time that’s happened, and it won’t be the last.  Kshama worked with many of us to help defend that dynamism, but as I will argue below, she only went so far, and future movements will need to go a lot farther.

pict25In the early days of Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle, the police had torn down our tents at Westlake but people refused to leave, sleeping out overnight on the concrete in the rain with nothing but tarps and sleeping bags.   Every time the cops tried to clear us out of the park, angry people would swarm them and block their maneuvers, so instead they resorted to prison-guard tactics, shining lights in our eyes, trying to keep us up all night, trying to provoke us to get irritated with each other.  The backbone and nerve center of the movement those nights were the houseless youth who absolutely refused to leave.  For some of them, Westlake was their home before all of the the downwardly mobile urban professionals (dumpies) started showing up.

office-space-employees-smashing-printerThose dumpies are people who imagine themselves as part of the Seattle’s world-famous “creative class” of educated, progressive professionals.  The problem is, the 2008 economic crisis dumped them out of their American dreams.   Instead of moving up the food chain at Microsoft or wherever, they were thrown into the working class, disoriented and confused.  Some of them found themselves sleeping next to the homeless youth at the Occupy camp, ready to fight together for a life worth living.  They became comrades.

Unfortunately, other dumpies thought that their managerial skills and education entitled them to run the movement.  If they couldn’t make their mark as part of the creative class, they could make it here in the streets as social entrepreneurs.

I was part of a core of several hundred people in the movement who constantly had to challenge these dumpies’ attempts to manage the movement in general, and the homeless youth in particular.  We confronted them when they tried to call the cops on homeless youth for smoking weed,  or when one of them insisted we make general assembly decisions via an iphone app he was marketing (as if everyone has an iphone!).

Since then, some of those dumpies have gone on to staff various union, nonprofit, and activist efforts, solidifying Seattle’s civic image as a bastion of progressivism, and reinforcing some of it’s systemic shock absorbers.

During the height of the occupation, some of those people naively thought they could work with the Mayor’s office to cut a deal legitimizing the movement  in the eyes of the city’s leaders.  Mayor McGinn came down to the camp bringing coffee one day.  He also offered space at City Hall if the camp were to move there, vacating the Westlake location where we were disrupting business and generally tarnishing the city’s image as a safe place to invest.

Emerald-City-320x250We were sending a clear message: we are the people who keep the emerald city running, who serve its coffee, care for its elderly and infants, and carry its baggage.  Only now we were squatting in it’s core, throwing all of the social decay that eats at us right back into the faces of the city’s elites.  The mayor kept insisting “don’t pay attention to the people behind the curtain”, but we were unavoidable.

We knew that was our strength, and if we moved to City Hall, we would lose it.  People were attracted to Occupy because we did what was necessary to fight against the 1%; we didn’t bend to what was considered possible or acceptable by the stale, or by the timid political class who had failed to prevent the economic crisis in the first place.

So, instead of moving to City Hall, we helped organize the Night of 500 tents at Westlake  and the eventual move to Seattle Central Community college, where the camp remained a hub of wildly independent, anti-systemic activity.

Sawant and her party were part of both of those moves, and she worked closely with anarchists and other socialists at those moments.  All of this helped shift the political conversation leftward; what was first seen as impractically radical became the new normal.

Those of us who opposed working with the Democrats won out in several other political battles, some of which Sawant was a part of, and some of which she abstained from.  For example, folks in the people of color caucus prevented Democrat county councilman Larry Gossett from using their event as a platform for his party politics.  Nick Licata and other Democratic Party bigwigs hosted an Occupy event at Town Hall where they were trying to steer the movement into two- party electoral politics.  Several of comrades from the movement had been invited to speak on the panel with Licata, the head of the state labor council, and other big-wigs.  Instead of articulating vague populist politics that could be steered and shaped by the professionals, they took a clear and decisive stance defending the movement’s independence from the party and from the political and legal constraints of the current system.  In retaliation, for the next 6 months the Stranger and other progressive mouthpieces kept attacking us as out of control, too toxic to touch, unable to work with our “natural allies”.

As far as I remember, Kshama supported all of that, and during the first few months of the movement she never denounced us for being too radical.

I’m not saying her track record in Occupy was one of unbounded revolutionary glory. Some claim she functioned as a figurehead in the general assemblies without putting in enough work to actually carry out the decisions she would propose.  I hear where people are coming from, since there was a split between mental and manual labor on the movement.   But I think this criticism is overblown since  Kshama put in roughly the same amount of  work as hundreds of other people who claim the movement as part of their biographies.  Not everyone had the capacity to live in the camp 24/7 or be at every work group meeting.  If everyone else in that situation can claim to be movement veterans, why can’t she?

More importantly, I’d like to question the notion that someone only has a right to speak about the movement if they sacrificed their life energy doing work for the movement.  This is a recipe for burnout, and, more ominously, it can play into authoritarian suppression of critical thinking.  Finally, don’t we want to abolish alienated labor?  If so, that means creating ways of getting things done that don’t involve guilt tripping individuals into doing more than they are wiling to do.

Kshama’s party, Socialist Alternative,  did put pressure on me to play a  figurehead role alongside her, representing “the radicals” in the General Assemblies because they thought we both had sway with the movement.  I though this would undermine our efforts to build up a horizontal movement with multiple voices. I firmly declined and explained that I’d be more effective acting collaboratively, rotating through multiple roles, and encouraging other comrades to rotate in and out of the spotlight.

But the key point here is that Sawant is not lying when she said she was a part of the movement, and that she fought the Democrats within it.

The Shock Absorbers Recalibrate a bit to the Left

I don’t think Kshama’s campaign would have been possible if we all hadn’t risked political marginalization in order to defend Occupy Seattle from being swallowed into the Democratic party.  That kind of swallowing is exactly what happened in other cities where activists were more cautious.  We created a “new normal” in this city precisely because we were so out of control.

A segment of progressives who usually trail the left wing of the Democratic party started brainstorming how to operate in this new environment, and it seems like some of them are starting to grope toward the possible formation of a 3rd party, or at least a kind of Left-wing Tea Party inside/ outside approach.

I think that’s the story behind why the Stranger, some trade unions, and other forces that originally opposed Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle’s fierce independence are now supporting Sawant even though they denounced her when she was out in the streets with us.  They are tentatively open to “socialist” independence from the Democrats, promoting a kind of “militant reformism” that I will analyze below.

 If this is an accurate assessment of the situation, it means they will probably end up offering  support not only to Sawant, but also to more of us if we want to play ball.  For example, check out the Stranger’s recent article where they listed Seasol on their list of the “smartest people in Seattle politics”, the people who are actually driving policy forward.   Again, all of this opens up as many problems as it solves.

The Port Shutdown, the Unions, and Sawant’s Party

In the face of this flattery, we should all keep in mind that we had to risk loosing support from these forces during Occupy in order to achieve what we did, and we’ll have to do it again.


port shutdown in Seattle

The port shutdown of Dec 12th, 2011 is  a key horizon in this regard.   Decolonize/Occupy Seattle blockaded all container traffic in and out of the port on that day, in retaliation for the state repression of the Occupy camps, in opposition to austerity budget cuts, and in support of  port truck drivers.  This was part of a West Coast port shutdown that disrupted Wall St. on the Waterfront.  It brought the Occupy movement closer to rank and file workers who were fighting against corporate tyranny in Longview, WA, in the farms of E. Washington, and in short-haul trucking up and down the coast.

The international bureaucracy of the ILWU, the longshore union, opposed the action, out of fear it might bring down legal repression on them, and out of concern that we were challenging their turf.  The media picked up on this to spread all sorts of distortions about our plans and intentions.

We were attacked not only in the mainstream media, but also in the progressive and socialist presses.  We pulled it off anyway.  Without any support from labor bureaucrats or nonprofits leaders, we rallied the rank and file members of various unions, rank and file nonprofit workers, hip hop artists like Geo from the Blue Scholars, and many others.

All of them joined the backbone of the movement who were pushing it all forward: the precarious children of the Great Recession, folks who work in service industries,  who are unemployed or underemployed, who hate the fact that they are exploited on the job but don’t necessarily identify with the old labor movement and its affirmation of what it means to be a worker.  These are many of the same people who are now fighting bosses and landlords through Seasol,  who are fighting deportations in Who You Callin Illegal, or who are organizing on their jobs for a 15/hr minimum wage.

Through this, thousands of participants in the port shutdown gained a sense of confidence in our ability to create ruptures –  new situations previously deemed politically impossible.  We learned we are capable of organizing significant, large, well-coordinated actions and campaigns without the support of the shock absorbers and their organizations.

Despite their earlier defense of the movement’s independence, Sawant’s organization, Socialist Alternative, did not learn this lesson fully.  Instead, they let themselves get disoriented by all the attacks against us in both the mainstream and the socialist press.   In their own newspaper, Social Alternative affirmed that we were right to go ahead with the action despite the opposition from the union leadership, but they criticized us for not trying to coordinate the action with union leaders.  This shows a lack of understanding of the real-time dynamics of the action.  If we had tried to organize this in conjunction with the unions, the union leadership would have shut it down before it got off the ground.   (For more on that, see this article and the comments in this one).

This makes me wonder, does Socialist Alternative fully understand the limitations of the “progressive” bureaucratic forces that have since swung into action to support Sawant’s campaign?    Their stance on the port shutdown seems to show an openness to the seductive appeal of these organizations: the claim that they can somehow help us reach and mobilize millions of people if we just moderate our message and our actions enough to “meet people where they’re at.” 

In reality, these organizations often do not know where people are at.  They are often out of touch with their own social base, and they actually need us in order to mobilize people for their own ends – which is why they are even talking with us in the first place.

The unions and the demand for $15/ hr

 1238821_517387551676210_1438772175_n.sm_aThe core demand fueling Sawant’s campaign is the call for a 15/ hr minimum wage in the city.  This is something I support, because it is a struggle that workers themselves are fighting for, not simply an abstract leftist slogan raised to make a didactic point.   However, winning it will probably require escalating strikes, blockades, occupations, and other illegal and semi-legal actions at a scale even larger than the port shutdown.

 Sawant would probably agree with that statement.  But the question remains: how do build that kind of momentum?  Will the union bureaucracies do it, or will they get in the way? 

As we learned during Occupy, large numbers of people only take risks like that if they are able to generate, spread, and shape the action themselves.  People don’t like to be stage-managed in scripted demonstrations, especially when our lives and our freedom are at stake.  And that logic of independent growth-through-struggle doesn’t mesh well with the logic of city hall politics, even socialist politics.  It also doesn’t mesh well with the bureaucratic nature of most unions.

To be clear, I am not siding with the corporate anti-union forces, who I am fighting as a teacher.  I’m also not polemicizing against organization here, nor am I worshipping short term flash-in-the pan direct action without a strategy. I just think that workers’ self- organization is held back by the current array of labor laws and the unions that obey and reinforce them.

When workers set clear goals for ourselves, we will certainly build various kinds of formal and informal organizations to sustain our activity toward these goals over time, and we will certainly debate and execute various strategies.   But resilient, dynamic, and emergent organization in the era of horizontal mass communication requires an open-source proliferation of self-organization – not top-down, rigid bureaucratic structure.  People need to be able to take an idea, a strategy, or an action, make it their own, adapt it as needed, and run with it; they then need to be able to assess the successes and failures of these efforts so others can learn from this and can evolve.

I would wager that most people simply will not join something risky and difficult if they do not have this freedom, which is why I think that most existing unions and socialist political party organizations are outdated. You can’t just mobile people like chess pieces; that might work when you win a few exciting victories, but eventually the honeymoon effect wears off.  People need to be able to mobilize and organize themselves.  And when that happens, all sorts of seemingly impossible scenarios can become realities.

We’ll need that kind of dynamic in order to win the 15/hr min wage, to stop the coal trains, to stop racist suspensions in the public schools, to stop deportations, to shut down the county’s plans for a new 210 million youth jail, or to do any of the other things we want to do.  This is a fact that the Stranger and other “creative class” supporters of Sawant miss, because they are ignoring the recent history of this city – a history they failed to make because they were too busy sniping at us from the sidelines.

They are also ignoring basic facts about the political economy of this region that indicate how hard some corporations will fight to prevent the emergence of things like a 15/hr wage. The economic boom here in Seattle is fragile and brittle, just like the capitalist system as a whole.  It is based on the exploitation of low-wage precarious workers, and the racism that undergirds this,  just like the capitalist system as a whole. And the corporate leaders will fight hard to keep it that way.

The relative economic boom here is NOT fueled by a highly educated stratum of knowledge workers – that’s precisely the kind of Clintonian mirage that the 2008 crisis should have dispelled.  Demanding a living wage will not automatically elevate more people into the so-called creative class.  Not everyone is going to start working at Starbucks for 15 bucks /hr  while they save up to go to UW and start their career at Microsoft or Amazon.  In reality, they’ll be competing for that restaurant job with recent UW grads  or older dumpies who can’t find work elsewhere.

Low wage workers keep the floors swept and the packages moving at Amazon and Microsoft.  They also keep the tech workers fed, clothed, and housed relatively cheaply, allowing these tech workers‘ own employers to pay them relatively little to support a “competitive” standard of living in this supposedly livable city.

If low wage workers start to demand higher wages, the corporations that exploit them will threaten to move out of the city, like Boeing is doing because its own workers are refusing to be pushed down into the ranks of the precarious workforce.  Or, the creative class will have to pay more for their lattes and Priuses and they’ll start to move to the Bay Area, creating a labor shortage at Microsoft, Amazon, etc. which could make it easier for the tech workers who remain to demand more autonomy and control on the job without getting fired – a kind of Office Space rebellion.

So if we really want a living wage in Seattle, we need to build a movement that is prepared to occupy corporate businesses to prevent them from leaving, coupled with direct material solidarity with workers in other places around the country and around the world who the corporations are trying to move to exploit.

bringthemhomeThat kind of movement for 15/ hr could be sparked by the sleeping giant that is currently waking up: the communities of folks who are undocumented and unafraid, many of whom are also working in low-wage industries like food service.  Across the continent, undocumented youth are starting to take militant action independent from the Democratic Party.  Groups like the National Immigrant Youth Alliance  are infiltrating and organizing inside detention centers, and they are doing actions at the border against detentions.

If these folks end up taking the lead in a movement against low wages and deportations,   it might look less like a polite conversation about socialism in a Seattle Starbucks and  more like the old school movement for the 8 hour workday (the movement that gave birth to May Day), or the  IWW timber and shipyard strikes that culminated in the 1919 Seattle General Strike.

But that’s precisely when all of the contradictions will reach a breaking point.   I just don’t see the SEIU or UFCW union leadership being okay with any of that, nor do I see the Stranger endorsing it.  If the unions were to organize in ways that encourage that kind of self-mobilization, it could easily get out of their control.  People might demand more than simply a wage increase and SEIU union recognition under the existing labor laws – they might start organizing against capitalist control itself, like what has started to happen in labor and anti-austerity insurrections in other countries.  This would also create a political crisis for the ruling class because they’d have to choose between their “liberal” / “social justice” credentials and their commitment to maintaining a favorable investment climate here.

So if SEIU and the Stranger decide they’re  going to try to reign in workers’ autonomy, or other insurrectionary moments that might emerge, what would Sawant do?

She might decide that she is going to break with these forces, and  with the other progressives who support them uncritically.  After all, members of her campaign have told me that the unions didn’t even want to fight for the 15/hr demand that hard, and that her campaign pushed them on this.  Maybe Sawant will do more than simply propose living wage ordinances.  She might even do more than getting symbolically arrested in some stage-managed civil disobedience on a picket line, where the cops and the SEIU leadership coordinate ahead of time to make sure everything goes according to plan.   She might encourage rank and file workers to go all-out, letting them know that she will back them even if the union leaders bail on them, even if they break the law, even if they determine their own strategy without her party’s input, even if they threaten to alienate all of the well-placed social entrepreneurs who backed her campaign.

But her party’s stance on the 2011  Port Shutdown, and their lack of clarity on the role of the trade union bureaucrats in the Occupy movement leave me unwilling to assume she will do all of that simply because she is a socialist.  So I think we should prepare to do it ourselves –  with her, without her, or against her.

Revolutionary growth vs. militant reformism

Kshama is right though: something IS changing in Seattle.  There has been enough independent, rebellious energy the past few years that socialist organizations, trade union and nonprofit leaders, and progressive journalists are talking about riding the wave of rebellion instead of trying to just contain it like Jean Quan did in Oakland.  They’re becoming more flexible.  The ethos of the progressive nonprofit worker , the progressive trade union staffer, and the class struggle anarchist  are starting to merge into a new  type of activism – what some call  “venture syndicalism”.

We will probably see more and more of this.  Unions like SEIU will take lessons from Seasol and will start taking action outside of the framework of collective bargaining and the constraints of union recognition elections under the National Labor Relations board.  Politicians like Sawant will get arrested, maybe even at rebellious, ungovernable demonstrations.

But the question remains:  what does success really look like in these actions?  For militant reformists, success looks like winning specific policy changes, like the 15/hr minimum wage, by any means necessary.  It is Saul Alinskyism on steroids: everything is about the win.   “By any means” might involve breaking the law, but it might also involve sacrificing the growth and self-activity of movement participants at the altar of short-term tactical efficiency, the execution of strategy decided upon by centralized movement leaders.

For people who want to create a revolutionary new society, success looks like learning through struggle.  It looks like building up the confidence, capacity, and collective wisdom of the millions of people who we hope will eventually bring down capitalism, starting with ourselves and those around us.  For us, every strike, every blockade, every occupation, every uprising is successful if it catalyzes the emergence of an intelligent, dynamic, unstoppably appealing multitude of people.  It is successful if it helps us become the kind of people who have the confidence and knowledge necessary to reverse the climate catastrophe, to build direct democracy in every workplace school and neighborhood, to create to meet each others needs, not corporate profits.

Where to start?

How do we relate our immediate actions to these long-term goals?

One thing we can do is to start creating our own media networks that can narrate our own struggles without relying on the corporate media or the mainstream “progressive” opinion makers like the Stranger.  I’m not talking about some stale Leninist paper that looks like it was written in 1917 or 1971.  I mean something that learns the lessons of hip hop – something that is beautiful, that communicates in multiple registers at once, that remixes past discourses into new syntheses, and that appeals to millions.

I think efforts like Hip Hop Occupies, Tides of Flame, Creativity Not Control, the Seattle Community Media Lab, High Gods Entertainment,   All Power to the Positive, the W.I.S.H. Plan A zine, and Christy X’s new movie about our comrade Dede’s struggle against deportation are good experiments moving in this direction, but we’ve got a long way to go.

If we develop media networks then we will have something tangible to offer when we meet groups of people who are active in various struggles – against coal trains, deportations, suspensions, abuse on the job, etc.  We can connect with those “militant minorities”, or “intermediate layers”, the groups of people within each of these struggles who want to go further than the shock absorbers within the struggle would allow, and can put our media at their disposal.  We’ll find new comrades and build new communities with these folks, in ways that break out of the stifling, narrow activist scenes, without falling into vague and demoralizing hype about moderating our message in order to “meet the masses where they’re at”.

We can support the efforts of these “intermediate” groupings/ tendencies, mobilizing our own networks to combine with theirs when appropriate, helping them convince the majority of the people in these struggles to break through the shock absorbers holding them -and all of us -back.

We don’t need to teach people to strike, to occupy, or to demonstrate – more and more people who we’ve never met are doing this more and more often.  With the rise of militant reformism, direct action might become commonplace.

While direct action is almost always better than polite rallies and petitions, we need to keep in mind that there is nothing automatically revolutionary about it.   We should participate in these struggles for sure.  But instead of working ourselves to death trying to substitute our activity for the activity of millions by amping up our own intensity to win demands,  we should focus our energies on  breaking through those shock absorbers so that more and more people can unleash their own creative, rebellious energy  – so that there will be more of “us”, and eventually we will no longer be a militant minority, but will become the majority.

Of course, a  key part of this should involve organizing our own campaigns in ways that are bottom-up, direct democratic, based in direct action, and independent from the politicians.  Groups like Seasol, Who You Callin Illegal, the More4Mann coalition, and Washington Incarceration Stops Here are good examples of this, and they inspire others to take up similar types of organizing, formally and informally.  These struggles share important skills, like how to make collective decisions under pressure, how to work through differences with each other in comradely ways, etc. – skills that all of us need to develop further if we want to become resilient and dynamic enough to overthrow the system.

The biggest danger of the Sawant campaign is that the people who would otherwise be doing all of this might start trying to take shortcuts, thinking that you can simply project demands like 15/hr through political and mainstream media campaigns, and then workers will respond to your call and will start fighting for it.

I have no personal hostility to Sawant. Maybe that means I’m condemned to anarchist hell by the  gods of insurrection.  But she hasn’t tried to stop me and my comrades from doing what we want to do- at least not yet.  If she does, we’ll have to  break through the obstacles she creates.  If she doesn’t, then I’m not interested in  wasting energy calling her out just for the sake of reaffirming abstract anarchist principles.  I’d rather focus on putting the principle of autonomy into actual, physical practice.   We all knew Kshama  was a pro-electoral socialist when we first met her – why is everyone acting so surprised that she is not for the immediate destruction of the bourgeois state?

That being said, I am worried that comrades will get disoriented and will stop doing what needs to be done, putting their energies into supporting future socialist campaigns instead of building up our independent capacities to make a revolution.  Since capitalism already chews up most of our lives through paid and unpaid labor, we have preciously little time and energy left over when we clock out , and I hope we put it towards activities that will develop all of our capacities over the long haul.  Without getting big headed about it,  we need to remember that all the hype around “Seattle Socialism” would not even exist if we hadn’t been out here doing our thing all these years.

pink bloc bannerBy the height of the Occupy movement, the most popular chants in the streets became “Everything for everyone, the revolution has begun” and “politicians, we don’t need ‘em, all we want is total freedom”.  It was this fierce independence that gave birth to the Kshama Sawant moment.

So when the election  honeymoon is over, what are we going to do next?  I know that a bunch of us will stay in the streets, the neighborhoods, the schools, and the workplaces fighting shoulder to shoulder, and learning how to make a revolution.  I hope you join us and refuse to leave, whether the Stranger and the new socialist(s) at city hall praise us, or whether they attack us as dangerous dreamers.  If it comes to that, just keep in mind that we already redefined politics in this city once, and we can do it again.


1) Unless I specify otherwise, when I say “we” in this piece, I am not referring to any of the specific organizations, tendencies, or circles I’m a part of; I’m referring to the tens of thousands of people who have taken actions over the past few years that have pushed beyond activist business-as-usual.

2) When I say “Decolonize / Occupy ” I am not referring to a specific tendency within the movement; in Seattle, many radicals used this term to refer to the entire movement and to the process of creative rebellion in general; it signified our desire to align ourselves with the anti-colonial struggles being waged by indigenous peoples here and across the continent.


About mamos206

Mamos is my pen name. My writings can be found at these sites, along with the thoughts of friends I collaborate with: https://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com http://creativitynotcontrol.wordpress.com http://overthrowingilluminati.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Communism, Ecology, Gender, Immigration, Labor, Media, Organizational Practice, popular culture, Race, Strategy and Tactics, Theory, What's up in Seattle and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Kshama Sawant and Capitalism’s Shock Absorbers

  1. dreamsinsunshine says:

    Kshama Sawant is a speaker, a public speaker. I know of no other activist from the left who has persisted in the practice of public speaking like she has. The left, with all its tendencies, lacks the soapbox oratory of decades past. People write, … and write and write, and take lots of pictures, and even make some documentaries, but produce speakers who can hold a crowd’s attention. No. This entertained country always responds well to an impressive presence. She has an impressive presence, one that appears would fit well in any government office probably anywhere on the planet. Her dress and hairstyle probably offends no one. She has credentials, a Ph.D. in Economics, a discipline I find closer to astrology than physics, but, nevertheless generally respected, and putting her lateral to, or above, any local politician. With her years of experience using her advanced degree to deliver lectures on money, she would even beat out Jim McDermott who has never practiced his profession. These things are eschewed as unimportant by true revolutionaries, except for one thing: They make a difference when you are seeking greater than 50% of the public trust. As for her presence at Occupy Seattle, SA had some, but not nearly so much at assemblies if you were there for most of them. She did put out efforts to work with the administration at SCCC, which was appreciated, but SA itself pretty much held separate meetings and its own march even, which is what other groups did too and diversity was more than welcome. It confused city ‘authority’.

    Kshama’s remarkable win was like a probe into the changing hearts and mind that has been happening these past 14 years. It happens that when a change is made in a society, i. e. when the pans on the scale move into the reverse motion, the people in them take a while to be aware of what is happening. The Bush administration’s wars woke up a lot of people who talked politics and followed politics with more attention then they had since the Vietnam War, and the country became severely divided, something else not seen since the Vietnam War. Liberals changed their identifier to ‘progressives’ to fit a self-proclaimed more passionate move to the left than previously. Then came the Obama fiasco, and the left independent segment, was growing. Occupy gave this side visibility, a space to experiment, and power, and the great fun Occupy looked like it was having, was infectious even among people who didn’t come out. All these simple things, went far to open average minds to more possibilities. Kshama, no doubt driven by a passion for her socialist principles, stepped in to a well-prepared city, and won.

    And now what we have, if you and I can get over the fact that one tendency is taking an electoral path, is a pleasant revelation: the left has increased both its size and its rhetorical field. Last week’s Seattle Times front page column on Kshama’s treatment of the Boeing question has got to be concerning given the sensibilities of the paper’s owners and major contributors at the mention of the merest re-distribution of wealth. It is probably also concerning to some of those who voted for her, who campaigned for her, who went out on a limb and publicly backed her while still trying to keep their straight-ass day jobs. All of this is really lovely. She’s swinging that balance in a new direction, and everyone gets to THINK about it… each time she speaks publicly.. I feel like I can hear the minds stretching. I am enjoying this.

    Now she will not satisfy all those tendency holders out there, but that is good. It is a great time to start plunging in their and expand the field some more. Debate these things in letters to the editors of our few papers. Do call-ins to the radio stations who bring up her ideas.

    We can blog each other, but that’s no fun. Carpe diem.

    • mamos206 says:

      I agree that she is a good speaker, and that we need to develop ourselves as better speakers over time because that does matter. I also agree that this is a time where all of us could be out there “plunging in” to “expand the field some more”. You and I have talked about this in real life, and I think we both share the desire to break out of the suffocating limits of the “radical scene”. And that’s been happening in interesting ways, especially with the Africatown/ Horace Mann struggle, the NIYA speaking tour, WISH’s organizing and the prison hunger strike support this summer, the steady growth of Seasol, etc. At this stage, I still think narrow scenesterism is more of a danger than electoral reformism. But that could change. The way we “plunge in” is important. If the expectation becomes that we all need to tone down our message or grow inoffensive hair styles or get PhDs in order to reach the masses, then I think that we’ll be shooting ourselves – and each other – in the foot. And that wouldn’t be very fun at all.

    • dreamsinsunshine says:

      I don’t expect any styles to change. I would probably find it hilarious. Each, or most, of these efforts/projects you list are growing on their own. For example, WISH (Washington Incarceration Stops Here) has been steadily signing on organizations to its points of unity as it develops and executes its other strategies. My point is that I am talking about a different, specific kind of growth that is an opportunity lost if we let it go by. There are many radio talk shows, including stations that reach large audiences beyond the Seattle metropolitan area, that will be reporting on her ideas. It is amazing to me that people in this column are responding to the $15/hr campaign she ran and haven’t picked up on her takeover of a big part of Boeing. She has stepped it up right away. We should step it up right away, and in the same media. The conversation is opening. It is a matter of stepping into that space with creative suggestions where we could only get to limited audiences before. For instance, even aside from Sawant’s win, there is a high increase in programs addressing the law enforcement/judicial/prison issues. These can be brought far left now, because people are obviously open. This election is providing a new ‘permission’ among the electorate. They will not be thought of as crazy like they may have been before. While appearing crazy matters little to revolutionaries, : ), it means a great deal the majority. There is a chance to create ‘abolition friendly’ and ‘abolition curious’ listeners, and certainly people can be given an opportunity to become ‘friendly’ and ‘curious’ about all sorts of changes: exploring direct democracy, monthly paid hours off for citizen caucuses, …. It is our voices in those spaces that I am saying needs to be the change. : ) Keep your hat.

    • mamos206 says:

      That’s a great point, I agree. Let’s keep brainstorming how to do that and where to start. I’ve been thinking similar things in terms of the work we’ve been doing to support the More4Mann/ Africatown struggle and the education organizing more broadly.

  2. anonymous says:

    Thanks for a much more nuanced critique than the knee jerk reactionary more radical than thou crap people have been passing off as radical analysis.

    I still however don’t see how Kshama’s victory doesn’t create more space for popular struggle and give birth to more radical activists. It doesn’t have to be an either or between electoral and radical organizing strikes and occupations. Elections are one tool we can use for our objectives.

    I also don’t see any compelling path forward being proposed here beyond more organizing and direct action. The difference between the two paths is a dogmatic rejection of electoral strategies.

    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks. You’re right, I’m not advocating a “compelling path forward”, because I’m saying that there are multiple paths and we we will need to experiment with several of them to see what works. What I am saying is that we should not automatically assume that Kshama’s victory = “more space for popular struggle.” It MAY lead to that. But that entirely depends on how all of us act, on how the bourgeoisie acts, and how the new and the old shock absorbers act. Her election may also lead to a decline in popular struggles, especially if activists start confining themselves within the limits set by her trade union backers. I’m warning against any kind of mechanical/ linear approach that says “we won a city council seat. Check. Now let’s leverage that to win 15hr. Check. Now lets….” I think if folks start taking that approach then it will actually close off the kind of political dynamism that we’ve seen the past few years, and that many of us are struggling to keep developing in new forms, in the face of repression and co-optation attempts.

    • Doug Nielson says:

      It seems to me the really existing working class has very little experience flexing it’s muscle and so has little awareness of it’s own strength. The working class has just seen, in the Sawant campaign an example of what a little organization and boldness can produce. Among people I work with her victory has had a salutary effect. There is a risk she will sooner or later be co-opted, but from what I have seen so far it’s later. The fact that she got any support at all from Labor was remarkable but from what I could tell she didn’t really get very much. I wouldn’t think she is particularly beholden to any mainstream institutions at this point, other than possibly the “Stranger”.
      The electoral machinery is very cumbersome and indirect but the voters have elevated her voice. If she wants to remain an authentic voice of the people she will have to continue to rely on the “grass roots, or “masses” to support her and not be tempted by quick fixes or shortcuts through the mainstream. At this stage of the game I would say she is doing very well, exerting more influence on the right than it is exerting on her.
      There will always be extreme pressures on her to conform and very little in the way of direct democracy to push her back. Hopefully she and her party will maintain their compass, but there is no magic formula or guarantee. A healthy skepticism is good but so far, I can’t see much to complain about. Sorry, I’m a little late to the discussion–as usual. Labor backer,

    • mamos206 says:

      Doug, I’m glad to hear that her election is prompting conversations about organization and boldness among your coworkers. I would say that the Occupy movement that she rose out of is an even stronger example of how everyday people can change the political terrain with a little horizontal self-organization and tactical boldness.

      I heard that your union local endorsed her campaign. Is that accurate? If so, did that come from the rank and file, the leadership, or both?

      I agree with you that the main issue right now is people developing confidence to struggle together. It’s not always a situation where there is a surging working class movement being held back by union bureaucrats (that was the case momentarily at UW a few years ago, and was the case in Longview ILWU local 21, but it’s not always the case). Part of the issue is lack of confidence, heavy unresolved contradictions around race, class, and gender, and lack of solidarity among workers and everyday people, including many of “us” who are against capitalism. Any kind of collective action that can build up that confidence has at least some potential to lead to something uncontrollable, free, and creative, even if at the same time it risks being coopted by the shock absorbers.

  3. David McDonald says:

    Hi, I’m new here, picked up your blog from a (very useful) Google Alert for Kshama + Sawant.
    I agree both with the comment above and your, i.e. mamos206’s, remarks.

    I think the important thing is to not be bystanders in this process. If Kshama elects to pursue and inside/outside strategy for securing the $15 minimum wage (BTW, I would like to offer up the slogan of “$15 is Fair” as a way to short-hand an awkward and lengthy phrase. It will fit nicely on leaflets, T-shirts and wherever) she will need to be able to mobilize people in the streets to show that she means business and that the $15, from the city council’s point of view, can come the hard way, through a popular initiative, or the easy way, through a vote by the city council. The key is, in the words of the immortal Stonewall Jackson (he was on the wrong side, but WTF), to get there first with the mostest. In this instance, that means to jump out quickly, without denouncing anybody in particular, no need for that and no gain from it either before the 1%ers show themselves to be exactly that, to begin a popular initiative to put the question before the people in November 2014. Kshama has already called, as you know, for a rally of 10,000 to be organized in the early part of 2014. An excellent idea, especially is she uses the the organizing effort to bring the rally about as a way to re-mobilize the forces who spearheaded herf election campaign and MOST IMPORTANTLY to expand those forces to many, many people and organizations that ought to be in favor of a $15 minimum wage and ought to be willing to mobilize their constituencies publicly to make a stand for $15. Union, churches, social justice groups, anti-racist groups, housing activist, transit activists, just plain old people in any of the low wage industries who take fire because they think something might happen — you get the idea.

    And before you think, yeah, just another rally, who gives a fuck, consider the possibility of making the rally the actual beginning of a campaign to petition to get enough signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. That is, directly recruit and begin organizing volunteers RIGHT THERE at the rally for the signature campaign. Of course, that means a lot of organizing work would have to be done BEFORE the rally to prepare such an initiative, but so what?

    If Kshama takes such bold steps and makes it obvious that she intends to proceed, and that she has x number of people already organized, who are prepared to take this to the streets, NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT it will be clear to everyone that it was Kshama and the people who made it happen, not the City Council. She doesn’t have to call anyone any names or do anything but smile sweetly during council meetings as long as the popular juggernaut breezes along. This is also the only way to keep the City Council and the 1% from watering the proposal down to nothing, i.e. to make them fear that the people will endorse a radical actual $15 proposal while they whined and caviled and did nothing. Not good for their 2015 re-election campaigns.

    I hope you see that this approach has nothing to do with sitting back and hoping that Kshama can pull something off, and everything to do with how we can organize the regular people of Seattle to make this happen.

    Let me know what you think.

    • mamos206 says:

      This is interesting – I passed your suggestion along to Kshama and other members of her organization. Ballot initiatives seem better than city council resolutions because they involve people directly mobilizing instead of relying on politicians- they’re the aspect of the bourgeois electoral system that are closest to some kind of direct democracy. But at the same time, they’re often done through top-down professional operations where people fundraise then hire canvassers to gather signatures. I wonder if there would be some way to do this in an open-source, bottom up way that would encourage self-organization and direct action in workplaces across the city? Like people form groups in their workplaces to collect signatures from their coworkers and send them in, while also meeting to discuss taking action around particular issues they face in their workplaces? Is that what you mean by the rally being like a mass meeting to initiate organizing around this ? What do other folks think about this? My main concern is that the extra-parlaimentary Left in Seattle probably doesn’t have the capacity to pull this off. Maybe Kshama’s organization can do it? I don’t have a good enough sense of what kind of capacity her campaign activists currently have – e.g. how many of the people who mobilized for her election would continue organizing around something like this?

  4. a dude says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I seriously shed a tear. I was getting to be convinced that anarchists in the northwest were no longer capable of thoughtful commentary that looked beyond sectarianism. It was utterly crushing me and I feel as though a weight has lifted from my shoulders.

    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks. I’m just curious, where were you getting that impression from? I mean, on the Internet there have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions, but in person I’ve heard a lot of thoughtful strategizing from northwest anarchists, some of which influenced this piece. The Left/ post-Left scenes always look worse on the internet then they do in real life. I think a lot of people have a lot of groundbreaking ideas and practices they’re experimenting with but they’re hesitant to put them out in writing because they know there are always people out there who will try to rip them down before they even get going.

  5. Nate says:

    hey Mamos,

    Good piece, thanks for this. I think we need more of this kind of analysis, combining analysis of forces among the state and capitalists and on the left, and looking at the world we live in.

    I have some respectful quibbles. You write that “An increasingly hollowed out state apparatus is having a harder time coopting street-level turbulence using the old carrots and sticks. (…) existing capitalist states are so hollowed out and dysfunctional that they can barely control the market enough to keep capitalism functioning smoothly. (…) All of this  leaves the state and ruling class with less leeway to reproduce the illusion they represent some social contract or common good.” I’m not convinced that’s true. I think the state’s definitely much nastier and the economy’s bad for working class people, but I don’t know if the state’s really all that constrained. I think ruling class politics have a lot more of a role in what all’s going on.

    I agree when you say “the old systemic shock absorbers have worn thin and the ruling class has not yet reached consensus about how to build new ones.” But for at least some of them, they wore thin because the capitalists and the government wore them down. Like look at the NLRB, and the efforts to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, that’s not because of objective constraints, it’s about the lack of consensus. There’s also not a consensus that they need those shock absorbers. I think that could change in the face of social movement pressure, and if it does, it will draw on city level and state level (state in the sense of Washington, Oregon, etc, not in the sense of The Government) experiments. I think there are a number of instructive examples of how this has played out in the past (I got into some of them here – http://libcom.org/blog/after-next-storm-passes-07022012).

    To borrow your metaphor, I’d summarize the historical trend like this: capitalists and their governments discard the shock absorbers when there are less shocks they need to absorb. Once movements from below begin to get more disruptive, capitalists and their governments start to debate how to respond. Some forces propose renewing old shock absorbers and/or creating new ones. If those forces win, they look around for promising experiments to draw from, including innovative city and state level shock absorbers. (Of course who wins is up in the air, no outcomes are guaranteed.) Your points about a hollowed out state implies that there’s not much room for or resources for building shock absorbers, if the capitalists and government start to want them. I apologize if I misunderstood. If that is what you meant, I’m not convinced that’s true. I think right now we’re in the ‘discard shock absorbers’ and the ‘rising pressure from below’ phases.

    As you put it in your piece, there still exists an “arsenal of co-optation.” I think your piece is more on point when you say “the state and it’s co-optation mechanism are changing (…) Future co-optation attempts might not just come from the Democrats,  and they might not come in the forms we’ve seen in recent years.” That’s more convincing than the “hollow state” point. I think the events in Madison a few years ago are instructive here. They started in part because the state government was ‘hollowed out’ in a sense. The Wisconsin Republicans basically tried to steamroll the Wisconsin Democrats, but couldn’t quite pull it off. The Democrats got fed up and broke quorum in the legislature, putting the budget bill on hold for about three weeks. That gave the forces from below the time to gather. That three week window was really important. Of course, social movements also helped facilitate the Democrats doing that action. In the end, the bill passed and the movement was sidetracked into a recall election – so the trajectory was from hollowed out state to movement mobilization to renewed political shock absorbers. (Also, on the changes in state mechanisms, I think we should all be reading sections 5-7 of the chapter on the working day in Capital, where Marx analyzes the English Factory Acts, it’s all about this kind of change, and how it happened in England through movements and state politics, despite the wishes of English capitalists – and how in the end it was for the good of English capitalism. I think at the time, prior to those laws being passed, the English government probably looked pretty hollow.)

    Getting back to these lines… “An increasingly hollowed out state apparatus is having a harder time coopting street-level turbulence (…) this leaves the state and ruling class with less leeway to reproduce the illusion they represent some social contract or common good.” Connecting that to the Sawant campaign: do you see the election as co-optation? It sounds like it when you say “the state and it’s co-optation mechanism are changing (…) Future co-optation attempts might not just come from the Democrats.” To put it another way, you talk about the Sawant campaign and election as arising in response to a breakdown in capitalism’s shock absorbers. I think the thinning out of shock absorbers is definitely a factor in the creation of the Sawant campaign, because it was a factor in the creation of Occupy. (I wrote about some related dynamics in Minneapolis here – http://libcom.org/blog/occupy-vs-eviction-radicals-reform-dispossession-22062012) But I think the campaign/election may also be a source of renewal of those shock absorbers. I’m very interested in knowing if you agree. Again your language about changing mechanisms of co-optation makes it sound like you do but I can’t tell for sure.

    Finally, I think this is really, really great:

    “For militant reformists, success looks like winning specific policy changes, like the 15/hr minimum wage, by any means necessary.  It is Saul Alinskyism on steroids: everything is about the win.   “By any means” might involve breaking the law, but it might also involve sacrificing the growth and self-activity of movement participants (…) For people who want to create a revolutionary new society, success looks like learning through struggle.  It looks like building up the confidence, capacity, and collective wisdom of the millions of people who we hope will eventually bring down capitalism, starting with ourselves and those around us.”


    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks Nate. I’m glad we’re tag-teaming to get this conversation about militant reformism going, I think we’re really gonna need to develop clarity on this in the upcoming years to make sure we don’t just burn ourselves out being shock troops or a rent-a-mob for militant union bureaucrats.

      If I’m hearing you right, you’re asking: is the system unable to use its old shock absorbers or is the ruling class simply unwilling to use them? My hypothesis is that they are both unwilling and unable.

      I think there is plenty of empirical proof that they are unwilling. I don’t have enough information to prove they are unable because that would require understanding the dynamics of global capitalism at a much deeper level than I am capable of right now. But I would point to developments like the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations as hints that the ruling class might be experimenting with forms of trans-national governance that could actually undermine the resilience of local state apparatuses, making them less flexible and less able to coopt local movements. For example, if corporations can really sue local governments for lost profits in private trans-national courts then it will be much harder to push for things like 15/hr or for ecological demands through traditional reformist means. Those who really want those things might start pushing for them through more militant means (mass strikes, blockades, etc.). In that case, the system would be unable to use the old shock absorbers – when things start to get dangerous for them, they can’t just say “okay, you win… we’ll agree to your demands for a while then quietly erode them once you demobilize”.

      I am certainly open to counter-evidence on this though.

      If it turns out to be true that the local state is hollowing out, then this would have major strategic implications for revolutionaries – we would have to assume that a growing number of people who would have become reformist activists a generation ago might go home demoralized, might become revolutionaries, or might become fascist rebels. And all three of those moves would have profound and immediate consequences for all of us and would require us to make some decisive strategic reorientations.

      I’m somewhat at an impasse in terms of what forms of organization I think we should build right now because I don’t feel I have enough evidence to justify taking the necessary steps involved in preparing for the world I just described, yet the possibility of that world emerging poses enough of a risk/opportunity that it makes the old strategies we used to pursue seem ineffective.

      If your or anyone else reading this has enough knowledge about the global system to make a well-supported prediction/ guess on this, I’d appreciate hearing it.

      Also, I think it is possible that the system might be capable of making reforms, just not enough reforms to credibly support a shock-abosrbing ideology like social democracy which at least rhetorically claims to be about universalism and equality. Instead, they might offer highly strategic and selective concessions to certain groups to buy them off or pit them against others – a kind of “lifeboat ethics” approach. (Really this is what social democracy always was anyway, but they did it at a large enough scale that it could mask itself as equality).

      Nate, I think the answer to your second question is dependent on the first. If the bourgeoisie has enough leeway to start rebuilding social democracy through meaningful concessions then they might invite Kshama to be a key part of this effort. But if they don’t, then they will probably try to sabotage her in various ways.

      In either case, the grassroots shock absorbers (unions, militant reformist activist groups, etc.) might orient toward supporting her, and this itself could help reinforce the system’s hegemony and could create new forms of co-optation. Perhaps they might even create forms that Sawant and Socialist Alternative oppose or fail to foresee.

      For example, the big capitalists might try to undermine her, but the local grassroots shock absorbers might be able to contain mass movements by saying “anyone who opposes her and her program are siding with the right wing attacks on her”.

      We could see a kind of authoritarian, cosmopolitan “anti-fascism from above” emerge, kind of like what Don H. talks about. It would be kind of like what we heard from the Democrats in terms of defending Obama from the right, except with Kshama it would be a lot more credible because she will probably actually try to do some of the things people wanted Obama to do.

      I’m worried about the geographic implications of this sort of thing, e.g. folks in Eastern Washington being mobilized against the “socialist” urban coastline and then Leftists here adopting an urban chauvinist hostility to people,snobbishly looking down on them as “rednecks”, instead of trying to reach out to rural working class folks against a common enemy. All of this is tied up with possible secessionist tendencies as well, e.g the Cascadia movement here on the coast, and the remnants of fascist secessionists in the eastern part of the state. Undocumented workers would be key in a moment like that because they have the potential to fight in both the cities and the rural areas around closely related labor and anti-deportation struggles.

      That’s one more reason why I think we need warn the Left here not to get comfortable operating in a socialist bubble – we need to build a solid base here but we also need to develop our capacity to connect with folks in small towns on both sides of the Cascades. If people just start focusing on running political campaigns in already progressive cities, then this kind of work will be downplayed because it won’t be seen as “sexy” enough. And that would leave us very vulnerable later on if things really start to heat up.

    • Nate says:

      Thanks Mamos. This is thought provoking stuff. (On that, sorry to go on at such length here, I feel a bit like the guy at the party who talks over people, it’s just that your piece and comment turn wheels in my head and I’m rambling about this stuff because it helps me think.)

      Related, if you have time, these are two academic articles about the theory of “social structures of accumulation” which is sorta marxist but politically like left-keynesian I think.

      Click to access Reconcep_SSA_Th_09_01.pdf

      Click to access McDonough2008.pdf

      They’re dry and their authors are social democrats, but the core points are interesting I think. I think what you’ve been calling capitalist shock absorbers (I like that term) are a big part of what these authors call a social structure of accumulation. The basic theory is that actually existing capitalism requires institutions to operate, and those institutions change over time. Broadly, this theory argues that in US history we shifts back and forth between periods of relatively high economic regulation and relative deregulation (to put it another way, we might say that these are tied to shifts in the relative power of the left wings of the capitalist class and right wings of the capitalist class). I would say that in periods of deregulation we see less shock absorbers and the repressive arm of the state gets more prominent (and maybe more politically powerful in relation to other parts of the state, I’m not sure about that.) I would characterize the current efforts like Fight For Fifteen (and before that, the push for the Employee Free Choice Act) as efforts to revise some of the institutions making up the existing structure of accumulation, in order to renew the possibilities for capital accumulation. (Again here sections 5, 6, and 7 of the chapter on the working day in Capital volume 1 are very relevant in my opinion.) I’m not sure how the Sawant election and things like it fit into this, except that I agree that they’re made more possible by the decline in use of existing shock absorbers. (These authors would call that the decay of a social structure of accumulation.)
      Right now the capitalist class and governments are in a protracted turn away from unions and other redistributive institutions. I think this is part of what makes some people think the unions are more left than they are – they’re an institution on the outs within the current order, and they’re willing to fight hard to get back in on the game. And the redistributive institutions like unions are more humane than austerity is.
      My hunch is that we’re going to see/we’re currently in an initial phase where the armed wings of the state and the political forces around them (the right, generally speaking, but not exclusively, also the various executive wings of government) take the lead. There will probably be conflicts over what they do (like for instance there was some federal legal action against the Oakland police), and there will be confusion and experimentation among different repressive forces. That could get even uglier than the present.
      If that phase comes to an end, then we’ll see the friendlier forces take the lead – social workers and so on, and more leftish social policy, as part of constructing new shock absorbers, constructing a new social structure of accumulation. Here too we’ll see conflict and experimentation. In both phases, various groups in struggle will shape developments – reformist unions that mobilize may shape new labor law, mobilization by gay rights activists might further shape marriage policy, etc. I don’t know how any of this will play out but I think it’s likely that things like municipal and state/province-level experiments will be important. If something works well in Seattle (like if they pass the $15 an hour wage law, or like the introduction of single payer health insurance in Vermont) then it may spread. Smaller locales are laboratories for experiments that inform national policy, in response to class struggle. IMHO this is what happened in the history of the development of the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA was passed in response to the strike wave of 1934, and what it did is took techniques that were experimented with at the state level and made it into a single national institution – so, from shock absorber at a smaller scale to a national-level shock absorber. If something like this does happen in the present, I think it’s likely that leftists (militant reformists, even if subjectively revolutionary) will play a role in shaping/building the new institutions of capitalist governance, if things get to the point of getting past the police-heavy phase.

    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks Nate, this is a really interesting conversation. I strongly agree that we need to be on the lookout for something like mid 20th-century white supremacy to function as a selective shock absorber, in tandem with repression. This might involve the re-strengthening and revamping of old forms of white supremacy, or it might involve something relatively new. I’m thinking it’s more likely to be the later, because I don’t think the system needs a large layer of semi-skilled white workers in North America like it did in the mid 20th century; it can’t afford to offer social democratic privilege to everyone just because they identify as white – some people will need to be cut out of the white club. The TV show “Justified” depicts how that is being navigated in Appalachia in the wake of mine closures and mountaintop removal. At the same time, the rulers will need to selectively incorporate some of the folks who have come here from south of the border or they could eventually have a serious contingent-wide movement on their hands. They already seem to be trying, with the whole “good immigrant” vs “bad immigrant” divide encoded in the discussions about comprehensive immigration reform. Finally, all of this is probably going to vary on a region by region basis – like you said, they’ll experiment locally then scale up if something works. So we need to be careful not to make generalizations and need to listen carefully to what is happening around us in our specific locations, without falling into localism or anti-outsider perspectives.

    • Nate says:

      hey again, sorry, I wrote my comment offline and pasted it here in the wrong order. Sorry. This is the first half, the other bit is the second half. My fault. I hope this makes some sense, still.

      “is the system unable to use its old shock absorbers or is the ruling class simply unwilling to use them?”
      That’s a good way to put it. I’m not convinced that agreements like the Trans-Pacific one limits local governments in that way. I’d want to see the specific treaty language. I know that stuff like international human rights treaties don’t limit local or state government. They technically limit the federal government, and they create a framework within which the federal government can be required to act on local governments. It could be something similar in this case. Like you though, I don’t feel like I have a grasp on any of it. So I’m hesitant to say either way what could or couldn’t happen. I mainly think we should be careful about ruling out any possibilities. 

      About social democracy, I’m not sure where I read this, maybe in Race Traitor, but I read somewhere that white supremacy was the closest thing to social democracy the US got, or that white supremacy is what the US got instead. Anyway, my point is that I don’t think there needs to be a universal and egalitarian reform in order for a reform to serve as a shock absorber. It just needs to be something that benefits enough people to demobilize enough of them. Actually if it benefits some people and not others and so divides the class, that’s in capitalists’ interests. The GI bill worked that way, benefitting white men above all, and it’s my understanding that the Social Security Act did similar. So I would say that to “offer highly strategic and selective concessions to certain groups to buy them off or pit them against others” could be a kind of shock absorber.

      About Sawant and social democracy, I guess I’m partly asking what are the possible/probable trajectories for that election and similar ones if we see more of them. It seems to that basically either these efforts produce gains and institutional reforms, or they don’t. I think the possibilies of what happens if they don’t is worth talking about. But I think we shouldn’t rule out what happens if they do, what’s the function of those kinds of gains? I don’t think Sawant has to be invited into the rebuilding of shock absorbers in a subjective way, she could remain subjectively oppositional but still play that role ultimately. Parts of the state enter into real conflicts with each other sometimes, though highly mediated ones. It’s similar to how the capitalists compete and conflict with each other while also acting together as a class sometimes.

      I agree with this: “the grassroots shock absorbers (unions, militant reformist activist groups, etc.) might orient toward supporting her, and this itself could help reinforce the system’s hegemony and could create new forms of co-optation.”

  6. Nate says:

    hey again, sorry to post twice, but if you haven’t seen it here’s an analysis of a similar election campaign in Minneapolis, also someone from Socialist Alternative – http://betterproblems.blogspot.com/2013/11/socialism-in-minneapolis-thinking-about.html I think it’s a good analysis and one that compliments yours.

  7. I think this article brings out some clear issues.

    I was very much involved in Occupy Oakland and, in fact, was one of the three who put forward the motion for the general strike after the first police raid. How you described the internal tensions within Occupy Seattle really rang true to me as far as Occupy Oakland, especially around the time of the general strike and later. Like missionaries leading the way for a colonial power, a layer of “socialists” descended on Occupy here as the advance team for the union hierarchy. As a long time former union member (expelled from the carpenters union for having led a wildcat strike in 1999), I am all too familiar with the role of the union hierarchy, including their “socialist” missionaries.

    In fact, on the day of the general strike a middle aged couple approached me and asked if I could help them. At first, I thought they were some tourists who had gotten lost. But then they showed me a letter from their union – the UFCW – in support of Occupy. They were furious, not because they didn’t support Occupy, but as the wife told me, because while these union leaders supported Occupy these same union leaders were screwing the members. (My response was to get them up on the platform speaking.)

    In the following days and weeks, this layer of “socialists” helped give the union bureaucracy a base within Occupy, especially thought the “labor outreach committee” (which should have been called the Bureaucracy Inreach Committee.) I say all of this not to attack socialism, since I consider myself to be a socialist and a Marxist.

    Nothing is guaranteed in any movement. Occupy was a first step forward, but it had some weaknesses. The commitment to no program and no leadership structure meant that a small layer of individuals were able to control things from behind the scenes, including impose their (unspoken) program. I think the election of Sawant can be a healthy corrective, especially if it is followed up by the campaign that Socialist Alternative calls for for 200 “left” anti-Democrat candidates next year. Yes, there are dangers in that, just as there were in the Occupy movement. But as they say in poker, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

    For anybody interested, I have put together a short little video of Occupy Oakland that includes some comments on the mistakes made there. It can be found in the “videos” section of oaklandsocialist.com.

    John Reimann
    former recording secretary and expelled member, carpenters Local 713

    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks John. I think it’s really important that we document our experiences with Occupy, and in particular with the co-optations efforts we had to combat. That way the next movement won’t have to reinvent the wheel and we can push further. I have a feeling that the kind of story you told about the couple might be more common than we think. There were quite a few union members active in Occupy who didn’t necessarily operate AS union members for various reasons. So the whole debate about Occupy Vs. the Unions neglects the fact that the workers struggle is not identical to unions.

  8. Pingback: Voting for Socialism: A debate - Recomposition

  9. Pingback: Socialist electoralism and the capitalist state

  10. Pingback: Socialist electoralism and the capitalist state | Beyond Resistance

  11. gdb says:

    I don’t get it. All these gripes and complaints against capitalism written with the use of computers and disseminated via the use of the internet and other technologies. Do you honestly believe you would have these tools had capitalism not made them possible? Really?

    • mamos206 says:

      having access to a computer and wordpress doesn’t compensate for the fact that capitalism has also created nuclear bombs, plutonium waste, global warming, prisons, concentration camps, and brutal workplaces that grind people’s life energy into a pulp. Or the fact that the computer I’m typing on was made in one of those factories.

    • Sure, capitalism played a role in developing the forces of production. But now it’s destroying far more than it’s developing. Can you say “climate change”?

  12. Pingback: On Kshama Sawant, Elections and the US Left

  13. Pingback: How to Become a Vanguard: Learning from Socialist Alternative

  14. Ben Seattle says:

    Hi folks,

    I have put together a draft of a proposed joint statement concerning what our attitude should be toward Kshama Sawant, the campaign for $15/hr minimum wage, and the need to strengthen the independent character of our movement [1]. I believe the need for clarity on these topics is sufficiently great, and the need for activists to work together to maintain a focus on the independent section of the movement sufficiently important–that an effort to put together a joint statement is called for.

    The draft statement is pasted as text below. Unlike the earlier Joint Statement [2] which Art Francisco and EJ Jones and I approved shortly before Kshama Sawant’s election, this most recent statement was written to be acceptable to a wider circle of activists–while still including what we consider to be the most essential political principles. Both Art and I believe that this current draft may not be good enough to be the final version–but that it is good enough for wider discussion. So we have posted it on our blogs [3] and would like to ask you to circulate this draft for discussion within your own circles and also to post it on your blog or facebook page. We would expect that you would preface the post with a comment that you are currently studying it and that posting it on your blog or facebook does not necessarily imply that you agree with the statement in its current form.

    Art and I are asking activists to let us know if this draft, or a substantially similar draft, might be something that they or members of their circles would be comfortable signing. We are quite interested in hearing your thoughtful concerns, objections or suggestions.


    (Proposed) Joint Statement on Kshama Sawant,
    the campaign for a $15/hour minimum wage and
    the independent class movement of the proletariat

    We are activists with a spectrum of views on some of the most important questions of our time. We have witnessed, following the dispersal of the Occupy movement, nationwide and in Seattle, the development of the campaign of Kshama Sawant, who is widely described as a “socialist”, and the movement for a $15/hour minimum wage.

    We believe that these new developments are sufficiently important, and sufficiently complex, that our movement needs clarity concerning what is happening. We intend to contribute to this clarity in the form of this joint statement.

    We note that the campaign of Kshama Sawant, as well as the campaign for a $15/hour minimum wage, has benefited from support by a section of local trade union bureaucrats and, most prominently, one of the most popular newspapers in Seattle, the Stranger, with a weekly circulation of nearly one hundred thousand.

    We believe that all activists should support the campaign for a $15/hour minimum wage as it will lead to better conditions of life for some of the most oppressed sections of the workforce, as well as experience in struggle and, above all, increased confidence in what can be achieved by struggle.

    At the same time, we understand that the development of the movement of the working class and oppressed goes beyond the struggle for partial demands and, in particular, must develop independently of support from trade union bureaucrats and institutions such as the Stranger—as these kinds of bureaucrats and institutions have proven, in the past, to be false friends of the movement—with a history of withdrawing their support at the most critical possible moment.

    We believe the most important contradiction within the movement of the working class and oppressed is between:

    1. The dependent section—the section of the movement which is based on support from trade union bureaucrats, sections of the press, the non-profit industrial complex, and a host of institutions and professionals who tend to gravitate in and around the left wing of the Democratic Party, and

    2. The independent section—the section of the movement which is determined to develop in a way which will remain independent of the bureaucrats and professionals described above.

    We believe the most important section of the movement, the core which will push things forward, is the section which is determined to develop in a way that remains independent.

    We want to encourage activists, including activists who are involved in the campaign for $15/hour, to develop or maintain an interest in the independent section of the movement—which is focused on a world which is not ruled by the one percent—and which is not limited by the perspective of struggling only for those reforms which are acceptable to our current ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

    Of course, even the most servile puppets of the one percent will claim to be “independent”. Therefore, in order to separate fact from fiction, and to encourage activists to support the development of the independent section of the movement, we resolve to encourage discussion and an exchange of experience and knowledge of the deepest problems of the long-term development of the our movement—including(1) how can we get from where we are now (ie: a world of imperialist war and deepening austerity) to where we need to go (ie: a world without classes that is not based on commodity production)—and also (2) what kind of organizations does our movement need and how can we create these organizations.?

    We therefore intend to encourage this necessary discussion by supporting the following forms of democratic information, knowledge and experience sharing:

    ► public discussion
    ► public debate
    ► public meetings
    ► public joint statements
    ► public exchanges of space (blogs, facebook, etc)

    We believe that democratic information sharing focused on the decisive questions will, over the course of time:

    (1) Create clarity concerning who is who (ie: which people and which trends are committed to the development on the independent movement of the working class and oppressed) and

    (2) Assist those trends and activists (who are committed to the development of an independent movement) to: confront the deeper problems of the movement—and overcome the religious sectarian divisions which undermines our movement by keeping us isolated from one another.


    [1] PDF version (formatted better) is online here: http://warforquadranttwo.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/2014-03-23-proposed-joint-statement-on-kshama-sawant-and-independent-movement.pdf

    [2] Earlier Joint Statement:
    We Need An Alternative To Socialism-On-A-Leash
    (http, etc) warforquadranttwo.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/joint-kshama/

    [3] Posted this draft on our blogs:
    (http, etc) warforquadranttwo.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/proposed-joint-statement/
    (http, etc) struggleforunifiedtheory.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/sut-14-3-23-proposed-joint-statement-on-kshama-sawant/

    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks for this. I’m sorry we haven’t been able to respond to you yet, we’ve had our hands full with the anti-deportation actions going on. In the meantime, I hope folks read this and discuss it here.

    • mamos206 says:

      Yeah thanks Ben this is helpful. I agree about the need to remain independent and to encourage democratic discussion among independent forces.

  15. Ben Seattle says:

    Hi Mamos,

    I just posted this on my blog concerning the “15 Now” campaign and the compromises which they may be pressured to make in the near future. I would be quite interested in your thoughtful criticisms, questions or comments.

    The 15 Now Campaign May Soon Be Facing Some Hard Choices

    This letter (with new graphics) is intended to be a summary of what Art and I learned at the “15 Now” organizing group meeting yesterday, as well as related observations we have made.

    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks for the info Ben. I haven’t had time to follow the campaign because I have my hands full with education, labor, and immigration related organizing. But from your letter it sounds like they may be falling into some of the pitfalls I was worried about when I wrote my piece.

    • mamos206 says:

      Thanks for the updates – please keep them coming, I’m sure many people reading this blog appreciate the kind of on-the-ground critical reporting. A number of people have asked me where the 15/hr movement is at right now and I haven’t had much time to engage critically because I have my hands full with other organizing. So if anyone else has perspectives on the 15/hr movement and Sawant’s interventions please feel free to post them here and to use this as a forum to dialogue and debate with each other. I’m very curious what folks in Socialist Alternative think about the critiques that Ben raises here.

  16. cc says:

    Overall I like this article, but I laughed at this sentence:
    “We will find ourselves betrayed…if we don’t remain independent of…the…social entrepreneurs who backed her election”
    The reason I thought this was funny is that this is about me, last I checked I was Sawant’s single largest backer:
    The article then goes on to heap contempt on the downwardly mobile urban professional. While I’ll own the title “urban professional,” whether or not I’m downwardly mobile remains to be seen–but why the scorn and contempt? Does anyone want to set me straight and explain to me why I’m part of the problem?

    • mamos206 says:

      By social entrepreneurs I was referring to the Stranger and the union bureaucracy and was criticizing them for their strategies and actions and their role in trying to coopt the class struggle. Since I don’t know you I have no idea whether this critique applies to you or not. Why don’t you decide – if the shoe fits, wear it. If not, no need to take it personally.

    • mamos206 says:

      I see “dumpies” (downwardly mobile urban professionals) as potential allies if you all side with workers, unemployed folks, prisoners, undocumented folks, homeless folks, etc and join movements against the system. If you try to control us because you think you should be a manager of the movement then that’s gonna be a problem. And that’s exactly what many people from your class background tried to do in Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle. That’s what I was criticizing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s