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We spoke with socialist and Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant about the repeal of the ‘Amazon tax’ in Seattle by business-friendly city councilmembers, Amazon’s proposed second headquarters in New York, and how we can free ourselves from the mental prison of capitalist logic and reject corporate bullying.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MFU: Can you briefly lay out why and how the Amazon tax was brought about in Seattle and later repealed?
KS: Seattle, like many other cities around the nation, is experiencing a sharp housing affordability crisis. This crisis is not only reflected through the increasing number of homeless people on the street, but also by the fact that half of renters in our city are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 25–30% of their income on rent. And in fact 23,000 households pay over half of their income on rent, which means it’s completely unsustainable. Tens of thousands of families are one rent increase or one small financial crisis away from potentially being evicted from their homes, being pushed out of the city, or in the worse case, facing bouts of homelessness. And it was in the context of this huge crisis that the question of social housing came about — which is publicly-owned, permanently affordable housing — and that question came about because Seattle is a poster-child to show the complete failure of the for-profit housing market’s ability to address housing needs. There’s been a housing boom for nearly eight years now and during this period, rather than housing becoming more affordable and more accessible, it has had the opposite effect. Under capitalism, a for-profit market does not address housing needs, it creates profit and it creates greater profits in a housing boom for Wall Street speculators, big developers, big property owners, property management corporations, and so on. And so we need an alternative to the for-profit housing market and that was the background behind taxing big businesses to construct homes on an ongoing basis. Last year around this time, a budget movement which I’ve spearheaded since I was first elected in 2013, built around the demand of the Amazon tax, was voted down by the majority of the city council. But the pressure of the movement was so strong that as they were voting they had to make pledges that they would come back to the tax next year, which is this year, and this year the movement grew even larger, even stronger, and through that we were able to pass the Amazon tax. But as other socialist organizers and I predicted, this was not going to be something big business would take lying down. And predictably, Jeff Bezos/Amazon came out openly as corporate bullies and threatened the entire city that if they passed this tax, which is like pocket change for Jeff Bezos, but if ordinary people had the humanity to pass a small tax to make this city a little bit affordable for ourselves, then big business was going to come swinging against it. Amazon and Bezos made the threat of closing down construction projects and laying off 7,000 construction workers. But rather than turn outward and really build a city-wide movement as I was recommending, seven of the nine councilmembers decided that the response to corporate bullying should be to repeal the tax. And that’s how it got repealed, which was one of the most shameful moments in Seattle’s city council history and one of the moments it was nakedly visible the difference between someone like me, who is a workers’ representative and completely tied to and involved in social movements, and every other politician in this city — many of whom are out-right rotten politicians, but some of them are well-meaning but they base themselves and their strategy on doing whatever is acceptable to big business and other politicians rather than basing themselves on what is needed for working people to survive. So the lesson out of all of that is that we cannot rely on these politicians. We have to build our own movement on the streets. And since then we’ve seen three cities in California pass big business taxes to fund housing and infrastructure, which shows that we’re hardly alone in this. Everywhere working people are struggling against the race to the bottom, and our response to this race to the bottom should be to fight everywhere; that’s why I’m really glad that working people in Queens are also fighting back against Amazon’s domination.
MFU: What is your response to people who say that communities must cater to big business or they’ll move elsewhere?
KS: If you look at the example of Boeing in the state of Washington, decade after decade the executives of Boeing have said to democrats and republicans that if you don’t give us this corporate handout, or that corporate tax cut, or some cash grant, or some subsidy, whatever it might be, then we’re going to have to move jobs elsewhere. And decade after decade the state legislature, both republicans and democrats, has in an ongoing craven manner given Boeing every sweetheart deal that they’ve ever wanted, including incorporating city borders in such a way that Boeing can evade city of Seattle taxes. And what has happened every time that the state legislature has given Boeing its way on everything? What did Boeing do? They took their jobs away anyway. To give you a concrete illustration, in 2013, in the same month that I was first elected as a socialist to city council, the state legislature gave Boeing a 8.7 billion dollar corporate handout, which was the single largest corporate handout in US history. The governor, Jay Inslee, a democrat, called a special session of the legislature; they never called a special session to fix the broken public school system, or to address the question of healthcare, or to fix the crumbling infrastructure, but they called a special session to openly give Boeing its nearly 9 billion dollar handout — because again, on the idea that if you don’t, they’re going to move jobs away. Well what happened? They moved the jobs anyway. And so if you look at the decades long experience of the state of Washington with Boeing, they moved thousands, thousands, and thousands of jobs. And the reason that that happened is because capitalism is not just American, it’s a global system of economy, and because capitalism is international it means that as long as there are workers or a class of workers who are poorer and more desperate than workers in other geographical regions, and hence who will accept worse labor conditions and allow corporations to make more profits than they could in the places where the labor laws go further, as long as you have capitalism in the United States and globally, jobs will move from Washington to South Carolina if the companies can help it, jobs will move from South Carolina to Mexico, jobs will move from Mexico to Bangladesh, and jobs will move from Bangladesh to Ghana. So in other words, the only thing we’re offered through capitalism for workers is not just a national but an international race to the bottom. But my point here, and this is the operative point here, is that that is going to happen regardless of whether you pass a tax on big business or whether you refuse to give a corporate handout. Do you think that if we hadn’t fought for the Amazon tax somehow Amazon would have ensured that no jobs would move anywhere? No, of course not. They’re going to do that anyway. On the question of a scientific process, we have to first recognize what’s happening here, which is this is the process by which capitalism operates. This is why taking scientific ideas seriously is so important; it frees you from the prison of this idea that our hands are tied because that’s the way that it has to work. Well who says that’s the way it has to work? That’s the only way it works under capitalism, yes, but who says it has to be capitalism? Capitalism is not something that existed throughout the history of the human race. I mean if you brought up the history of Homo sapiens on a graph, capitalism has a miserable blip of time. So who says capitalism should have the final word? It’s just another system, the system we were born into, but there’s no scientific reason why the system can’t change to something else. Freeing ourselves from that prison of capitalist ideas actually helps us fight in the here and now because even though in a moments notice we can’t transform into socialism, what it does help us recognize is that today, even under capitalism, we should not be accepting a race to the bottom. The only response to the inevitable race to the bottom is to say, well, we have to build movements everywhere. Rather than workers in South Carolina and Washington competing for jobs at lower and lower wages with less and less union density, we should be building unions in both South Carolina and Washington to tax big business, to tax the super wealthy, to fund public education, to fund public green jobs programs, to fund the construction of social housing. Because if you push back against corporations everywhere, that’s when you can stop that logic which otherwise seems inevitable. A counterexample to Boeing is the Fight for $15. When we fought for a $15/hr minimum wage in Seattle we were up against the same mythology, that there was going to be businesses moving and nothing short of the economic apocalypse. But what actually happened was that because of the successful movement in Seattle, working people in other cities were empowered to fight for the same. And so LA fought for $15/hr, DC workers fought for $15/hr, Minneapolis workers fought for $15/hr, St. Paul just won $15/hr, Bernie Sanders made $15/hr a big part of his campaign, which Hillary also picked up but quickly dropped once she was out of the race. But the point is that Bernie Sanders forced $15/hr on the agenda and now it is on people’s minds, and so that’s how you push back against what is otherwise going to be a race to the bottom regardless of whether you tax big business or not.
MFU: We saw San Francisco recently pass Proposition C which will generate funds for homelessness and housing services by essentially taxing the gross receipts of high-earning companies. How does this tax initiative differ from the initiative put forth by Seattle activists and would something like that be more likely to pass in Seattle?
KS: Well just technically speaking, yes. As you said Prop C puts a tax on the gross receipts of any corporation, whereas the tax we were talking about, the Amazon tax, was a tax on the business per employee. But I want to be clear — we don’t want a tax on the employees themselves, it’s a tax on the business, meaning it’s a tax on the billionaires to pay for employees. And obviously gross receipts taxes are also already existing in Washington state, but to do that, and we could do that in Seattle, we would have to take it to the voters. It could be a ballot measure just like Prop C. But what we did was also a totally viable and legal measure and as an economist I can tell you that there is no data to show that that would have had any detrimental consequences at all. And as far as your question is concerned about would a tax on gross receipts have been more likely to pass, I can tell you again with complete confidence it is not a question of what the legal or technical mechanism is. That is not the value. When a movement has a set back, like the Amazon tax repeal, understandably people have questions. I will say though that the absolute bottom line is it’s not about whether it’s gross receipts or a head tax, it is a question of can we actually have a movement that’s strong enough to change the balance of power.
MFU: Your presence on Seattle’s City Council has been transformative for the community, but you’re outnumbered by councilmembers serving big business. Are there any promising campaigns to elect other leftists and/or socialists soon to the council?
KS: That’s politically a very important and really pertinent question. I’m glad you asked me. Next year seven of the nine councilmembers will be up for reelection, including myself, and that is absolutely the question we are raising. Big business has many representatives on the council — how many representatives do ordinary people have? We will be fighting to release the banner of a program of demands, the issues that matter to people like affordable housing, rent control, social housing, taxing big business to fund housing, street transit for everybody, rejecting regressive taxation like road tolls, local municipal voting rights for everybody, and an elected office to address sexual and other harassment questions in work places around the city. What we want to raise is the banner called the city we need — what kind of city do we, as ordinary people, as working people, need? Around that program of demands we want to see if we can have other candidates run in solidarity. I don’t know if they will or not, but that is the question that we will be raising. And I hope that all of the setbacks but also the rich experience that people have received from what has happened this year, where these politicians have been exposed so thoroughly, that that experience will lead people to say okay let’s build a real struggle on the ground and use the election year to run candidates who will stand 100% on the side of ordinary people. In addition to that, tying the campaign to the prospect of an ongoing struggle is important, understanding that elections themselves are not the most friendly game for ordinary people because there is such a deep imbalance of power between us and the super wealthy, big business, and the corporate and political elite. In order to change that and really win serious reforms, like a fundamental shift in the system, we’re going to need to build an ongoing movement that goes beyond running candidates. And one lesson I hope people have seen through our work in Seattle is that when the left and when working people win in elected office, you can use that to not only not sell out but also to not be marginalized and become insignificant. We have won such serious historic victories since we were first elected. We made Seattle the first major city to win $15/hr, and that went nationwide. We just saw St. Paul win $15/hr and that was through the 15 Now Campaign in St. Paul that Socialist Alternative and I launched here in Seattle. We have won numerous things for affordable housing and homeless people, we stopped a $160 million police bunker from being built and we diverted a big chunk of that money for affordable housing, we have prevented the Seattle Housing Authority from carrying out rent increases and creating a pipeline to homelessness, we were the office that ended the Columbus Day celebration in Seattle and put in Indigenous People’s Day, we won permanent funding for that celebration, and the list goes on and on. And the reason we’ve won that, despite having just one elected office among nine, is because we use our office as a conduit for social movements, as part of building a movement, and when you use your office in that way you can move mountains.
MFU: What is your response to people who say that the wealthy deserve their wealth because they ‘created it’?
KS: I think it is very clear to an increasing number of people that wealth and productivity — which is immense under capitalism — is created by hundreds of millions of people going to work every single day, and the reality of capitalism is that the vast majority of the wealth generated by everybody working goes in the hands of a very very small proportion of people at the top. A sliver of human beings at the top takes home trillions and trillions of dollars of wealth, but on the other hand billions of people around the world are living in completely different conditions, it’s like a different planet. And a small proportion of those billions have what you would call a middle class standard of living, but even that is being fast eroded on every continent, and the rest of humanity lives in various shades of misery. You can see some of the absurdities — not just the outrages and injustices — but the absurdities under capitalism, where even though there is such enormous productivity and creativity and talent in human society, you have people on entire continents not having access to clean water, to nutritious food, to safe housing and neighborhoods, to basic technological amenities like washing machines in order to eliminate the drudgery of daily life, which especially falls on the shoulders of women on so many continents. When you have a system which is incredibly productive but you have statistics like, for example in the US, where only three billionaires — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet — own more wealth than the poor half of the entire population of the US, you can see that there is something fundamentally problematic. So if you accept the logic that they deserve their wealth, the logical extension of that statement is that those who don’t have wealth deserve what they have, meaning if you’re poor you deserve that. If you say that the wealthy deserve their wealth because they worked hard, or because they are talented, then can you extend that logic to every person in the US who is struggling to get by is somebody who is devoid of talent, somebody who is lazy, somebody who is a bum? That just simply doesn’t flow, you can see immediately the complete absurdity of that logic, and real life shows you that’s not how it plays out. Furthermore, we’re not even talking about the incredible wealth that is nearly inherited. There’s a whole range of billionaires and millionaires who are not in the news but they are wealthy nonetheless simply because they inherited it. And from an economic standpoint when you look at wealth you can see that a big portion of wealth is explained by intergenerational aspects, meaning if you’re born poor you’re very likely to struggle with poverty all your life and future generations are likely to as well, and if you’re born wealthy then it’s likely you’re going to stay wealthy and future generations are likely to be wealthy or wealthier. So given the intergenerational nature of wealth under capitalism, that also shows that the logic that the capitalist uses to defend their system doesn’t work.
MFU: Kshama, thank you for speaking with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KS: Let me give a real shout out to the working people in Queens for refusing to go along with shameful behavior from De Blasio and Cuomo. I mean, how horrid of Andrew Cuomo to say I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if it will bring Amazon here. Shame on him. But workers are saying that we’re not going to accept that — we want Queens and New York City to be cities that are affordable for ordinary people, that sustain a thriving culture of small businesses. And so I only want to extend my solidarity to them, and I appreciate that congressmember Alexandria Ocasio Cortez from Queens has joined those protests. That’s exactly what she should be doing.