Kenny Fuentes Interview: Jesse Lessinger on Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative and The Two Party System (AUDIO)


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Socialist Alternative

Kenny Steven Fuentes is a freelance actor/director, activist, and blogger who currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. His work can be seen on ‘The Activationist’ blog at TheActivationist.com, and periodically he will also be sharing his ideas here at SmellsLikeHumanSpirit.com. Check out Kenny’s appearance on the podcast in Episode 74, follow him on Twitter @activationist, and enjoy his latest interview below!

Says Kenny:

On Tuesday, November 19th, I sat down in the freezing cold of the back patio of Bar Chord in Brooklyn, NY with Jesse Lessinger of Socialist Alternative. Jesse is an organizer with Socialist Alternative based in NYC and recently returned from Minneapolis where he served as campaign manager for Ty Moore’s run for City Council. Socialist Alternative recently made news and history after electing Kshama Sawant, economics college professor and Socialist Alternative candidate for Seattle City Council, beating 16-year incumbent, Democrat Richard Conlin.

MP3 DOWNLOAD (Right Click, Save Target As to Save): http://smellslikehumanspirit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/JesseLessingerSocialistAlternative.mp3

Tell us a little about yourself and Socialist Alternative. How did you get involved?

I’ve been involved with Socialist Alternative for over 8 yeas now. I was in high school when Bush was elected. That got me angry, and a lot of other people too. And the wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan broke out and I became disillusioned with the whole system. Not long after that, I felt I had to become active and joined the anti-war movement in college. That’s where I met people in Socialist Alternative. I was probably always sympathetic to the generalized idea of socialism in a more egalitarian type of society. That’s where I was introduced to the ideas in a more serious way.

It clicked. I believed that war was rooted in capitalism, that the for-profit system drove countries towards war. Wars for oil, for making the rich richer, that made a lot of sense to me. If we want to fight for a world without war, we had to fight capitalism. If you want to fight capitalism, you need an alternative to capitalism. Hence, the name of our group, Socialist Alternative.

We see the world we live in today and we say, “Why is there global poverty? Why is there poverty in the US? People without healthcare, discrimination, education problems, racism, an environmental crisis?” We try to link those basic struggles to wider movement to fight capitalism and replace it with democratic socialism.

So you’re a Bolshevik is what you’re saying?

Well, we do look back at the lesson of history and say, “What can we learn?” The ideas of overthrowing capitalism and fighting for an egalitarian system predate the Bolsheviks, and predate Marx. There were what Marx called utopian socialists during the French revolution that wanted a more equal society, but Marx put down a more scientific foundation for why capitalism is the way it is, why it doesn’t work, why it always goes into crisis, and what needs to change about it to transform it into a socialist system. Then Lenin and the Bolsheviks took those ideas and brought the working class to power for the first time in history, maybe aside from the Paris Commune in one city for two months. But…

People always forget about the Paris Commune.

People do always forget about the Paris Commune! [The Russian Revolution] was an attempt to overthrow capitalism and a start towards a socialist transformation of society, which had potential had it gone global. But it remained isolated. There were attempts at revolution in parts of Western Europe and other parts of the world that failed, and the Soviet Union remained isolated and underdeveloped.

In that framework you had a bureaucracy arise which created a distorted version of socialism. The tradition of our movement always defended the planned economy over the chaotic, for-profit system of a free market capitalist economy. But at the same time said that a planned economy can’t survive in a single country or without a workers’ democracy. We called for political revolution in the Soviet Union to keep the planned economy, but with a workers’ democracy and to link up with workers around the world to do the same. But that’s another issue.

There are entire careers devoted to answering the questions of the Russian Revolution and what came of it.

Right.

Socialist Alternative ran 3 candidates for city councils nationwide this year. In Seattle, Kshama Sawant won a city-wide election by over 3,000 votes. In Minneapolis, Ty Moore came within a couple hundred votes of victory. While independent political parties can learn from your victories, what lessons can we learn from defeats, both close and not-so close?

I think a lot of people were sort of shocked at the results. Especially in today’s political climate, which is dominated by a dysfunctional two party system with the Republicans and Tea Party getting so much attention in the last years. The idea of socialism being thought of ideas of the past, I think people were surprised to see a socialist be elected, especially in the heartland of capitalism, the US. The whole electoral system is not set up to favor socialists or people who will genuinely fight for the interests of working people. The electoral system as people see is completely dominated by corporate influence, by corporate money. The mass media is privately run for profit and is connected to the corporate establishment, which has an interest in maintaining the profit system. They are not favorable to challenges to that system. Also, one of the problems in Minneapolis was that people liked a lot of what we said when speaking at their doors, but going to actually vote is something that many didn’t bother to do because they’ve lost faith in our electoral system, and with good reason. They’ve seen politician after politician, election after election, and very little change for them, little meaningful improvement in their lives. And so there hasn’t been much, there has been a historic low of struggle in this country which means there’s very little confidence that demand of working people can be fought for and won.

It’s not favorable to rain for us. You can ask the question “Why do we bother?”

Why do you bother?

(Laughs) Because it’s still a place where political energy and thought and debate take place. And working ordinary people, some of them don’t pay attention but some of them do. When you start raising ideas that they want to hear, like the $15 minimum wage, they pay attention more. From our perspective, we think why should we leave the political discourse to the representatives of big business, two parties, that keep people in the dark about what’s going on, what’s possible, who offer no meaningful change.

What are some of the lesson that the various campaigns can teach us? In Seattle, you have a defined victory beyond previous expectations: Kshama Sawant running as a socialist against a safe, incumbent Democrat and winning. But in Boston, Seamus Whelan wasn’t able to make it past the primary. In the Ty Moore race in Minneapolis, you have results in between. Not a victory, but a major achievement. What do you think were the factors that lead to these results? What can we learn?

I think it shows that jumping into elections with a left-wing working class program doesn’t mean automatic success. The reason we ran three candidates, more than we’ve ever done, is because we saw a general opening across the US. People are very fed up with the current system, both parties. They’re open to alternative ideas, but end up voting for a lesser evil or not at all because that alternative doesn’t exist. We thought that the Occupy movement broke through the silence of what some of the real problems in our society are: The massive inequality, the tremendous wealth and power amassed by a tiny elite. They identified that, demonstrated tremendous frustration. That voice had potential to be given a political expression, and we think it wasn’t just for socialist Alternative, it was for other working class organization like Unions. If they stopped spending so much money on trying to get Democrats elected, the so called friends of labor who aren’t, and spent some of that money running our own candidates, I think they could have even bigger success. But again, the question is how do we do it strategically. It’s not automatic that it’s going to take off. Our mixed experience demonstrates that.

There are specifics to each city. In Boston the mayor of 20 years was no longer running. That opened up a clamor for the mayor’s office, which led to a number of open seats on city council. There ended up being 19 candidates running for 4 at large seats. Seamus Whelan, the SA candidate was one of them. But even in Boston we were raising some of the similar things like the fight for 15. Where we were able to campaign, that got a great echo. That demonstrated the potential. We run in elections not simply to win. We want to win, of course, but we want to generally build support for ideas that working people deserve. $15 an hour minimum wage, we should tax the rich, there should be affordable housing, stop the budget cuts, expand social programs, we want to get those ideas out there. You can do that even without winning. You can build a profile for these ideas and for your organization, a basis to run in the future. There are reasons to run even if you think you won’t automatically win. Some socialists groups have a very routinist approach, where you run because that’s what you do regardless of the impact that you potentially have. That to me doesn’t make any sense. You want to enter into elections strategically.

Let’s talk for a minute about the people who disagree with you. The Tea Party movement is criticized for actively advocating policies that would cut funding for food stamps and other programs crucial to regular, working people. And yet, a huge chunk of the Tea Party electorate are not wealthy and often from working class backgrounds, some from communities that were once union strongholds. Do you see this as a failure of political organizing on the left? Do you think it’s possible to organize these communities and workers in the near or long-term future?

Absolutely. I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of part of the reason why the Tea Party was able to get so much success is that there is a very big political vacuum since the economic crisis of 2008-2009.

People are very angry about the bank bailouts and also very worried about their future. They are worried about their jobs and the value of their homes, their pensions. They are angry and upset with the government and for good reason. There was no voice on the left. The democrats were supporters of the bank bailout. They backed up the financial system they didn’t bail out working people. There was no organized voice on the left tapping into that frustration and giving it a left wing expression. In the absence of that, it is a common political phenomenon that right-wing forces would step in.

Look at Greece. You have a sharp economic crisis and we’ve seen the rise of a neo-Nazi party. Golden Dawn. They’re going around beating immigrants and attacking protestors. They are fascists in the classical sense. That’s in some ways a warning. I’m not saying we’re heading that way in this country in the immediate future, but it’s a similar trend.

I think, going back to how they started, everyone was angry at the bank bailouts. Then Obama was elected and he proposed a stimulus program, which included some money for home foreclosure relief that didn’t end up helping people. We know that, because in Minneapolis we’re part of the Occupy Homes movement fighting against foreclosures, and that was one of the issues we campaigned around. We got support because no one was fighting the banks. Even [Obama’s] limited gesture prompted some pundit on, I think it was CNBC, to say, “Why should you, taxpayers, pay for someone else’s mortgage” and actually called for Tea Party protests. It’s interesting what he did there. He took anger “Why should pay for bank bailouts? They’re the ones who spent beyond their means” and blamed working people.

There’s also a racial element too. Many of the people hit by the sub-prime loans were black and Latino families. Now you have a black president and it fits into the right-wing narrative that’s been going on for some time. A big government that’s looking out for poor people, often black and Latino, giving them handouts, while hard working middle class people don’t get what we deserve. In reality, the government is screwing everyone. They cleverly took that anger at that banks and turned it against working people.

I think there is absolutely potential to connect with them on some of the angers and fears. As socialists, we don’t want a big bureaucratic, undemocratic government. I know that’s what people associate socialism with. We don’t want that either. I agree with the Tea Party people on that. We don’t want a big overbearing bureaucracy.

But the Tea Party conflates that with basic social programs. It became an AstroTurf movement due to huge flow of money from big business and the Koch Brothers, in order to push budget cuts. I think there’s an opportunity to connect to some of these people. Some on the left just denounce them “You’re racist, you’re backwards, you’re fascists, shut up, we don’t want to talk to you!” Actually, in 2010, we held a debate. Socialists vs. Tea Party. People asked, “Why are you giving them the attention?” We didn’t give them attention! Fox News gave them attention. But no one was challenging their ideas. We debated them. They didn’t agree with us, but there was a common thread, a starting point, to cut the edge off their anti-socialist, anti-social programs.

You created a venue for some level of discussion…

A dialogue!

…between people who don’t normally hear each other’s ideas, who don’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, but from political slogans and various media outlets of choice.

To be honest, sometimes I have more problems with liberals

I know what you mean!

They say, “yes I agree with you on that, but $15? That seems like a lot” or “Yes all those things are great, but do you really have to call yourself a socialist?” They’re more afraid of it than most regular working people. The polls show that socialism isn’t a dirty word anymore.

Many women, people of color, and GBLTQ persons continue to support Democrat candidates out of a justifiable fear of what would happen under increasingly white, cis-male dominated Republican Party rule. At the same time, establishment Democrats are increasingly hawkish, corporation friendly, and arguably just as culpable in the creation of a national surveillance state as George W. Bush. How do fight the Democrats without throwing women, people of color, and GBLTQ people under the bus?

That’s a great question. I think people’s fear of the Republicans is 100% justified in terms of the vicious anti-LGBT, anti-women language and proposals that they talk about openly. They have to be stopped. We have to organize to stop them. The question that I try to pose is does voting for the democrats actually achieve that? Can we have faith in them as being strong defenders of basic rights? Women, immigrants, LGBT, people of color, voting rights. The truth of that is that they haven’t been reliable. In fact, in 2011, under Obama, that a record number of attacks on women’s reproductive rights took place at the state level, way more than under Bush. You can argue it’s at the state level, it’s Republicans in charge of state legislatures. But with the most prominent elected position in the country, one of the biggest platforms you can hope for politically, Obama certainly could’ve been a tremendous force pushing against that, and he wasn’t. I think there’s plenty of other examples you can see where the democrats, even though they say they’re against what the Republicans are for aren’t actually defending our rights. What does stop the Republicans in any attack on working people is organized pressure from below, social movements. It’s how we won these rights in the first place.

They weren’t handed down by benevolent leaders of the Democratic Party; they were organized from below and forced. The Nixon Administration was more progressive than what Obama has done. Integration of schools in the south. OSHA, the Environmental Protect Act, the end of Vietnam takes place under Nixon. He even proposed something close to a Universal Healthcare system. Contrast him to Obama, who has ongoing wars, bank bailouts, no improvement for working people, black people, a disastrous healthcare system. It will help a little bit, but it’s far less far reaching than what Nixon was proposing. It doesn’t have to do with the politics of the party in power as much as it has to do with how much pressure there is from below.

The media coverage of the Sawant and Moore races focused on liberal criticism and opposition to socialism or socialist ideas. However, there are also elements within the militant or revolutionary left that have criticized Socialist Alternative for taking a reformist approach through the electoral system. What are your thoughts regarding that criticism? 

It’s nothing new within the left. There’s a lot of debate, which is healthy and necessary. We need debate and to raise critiques of each other. It’s a fair enough question to ask. Getting involved in elections, institutions set up in a capitalist democracy, pose dangers for the left to be coopted. There’s tremendous pressure to tone down in order to win. There are a lot of people who support us who said “We love what you say, can you just not say you’re socialists?”

There’s a lot of pressure. It’s very common for groups who would say they’re fighting for revolution to find themselves trying to work within the system for basic reforms. We in Socialist Alternative feel that the struggle for reforms is key. But you have to struggle for reforms in a revolutionary way. Fight for everything possible to win in the system in a way that points to the limitations of the system and doesn’t stop, but offers an alternative. For example, people say, “look how close they are to the Democratic Party”. Working people are close to the Democratic Party. They vote and some are part of it to the extent you can be a part of an un-democratic organization. We want to win those people to the idea that we need a new party in this country, for working people, that’s independent of the two party system and independent of big business and their money. Clearly fights for the interest of working people, which means challenging capitalism. But to do that, to reach the people who haven’t reached those conclusions, you have to work with them. We attacked the Democratic Party in a skillful way to make it clear that we’re not attacking the people who vote for the Democratic Party. We want to say, “Join us!”.

Many people in Seattle probably voted for Sawant and for the Democratic candidate for Mayor. It shows what we would call a contradictory consciousness. People who voted for socialists aren’t necessarily fully socialist yet. Our task, the most revolutionary thing, is to go there into the muck, into the confused consciousness, connect with people in a real way, and point them into a direction away from the two party system, away from capitalism. I think that’s what we do when we connect the fight for $15, rent control, and taxing the rich to fund social programs, to the need to bring major corporations into public ownership and democratic control.

Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Democratic Party of the United States?

(Laughs) I’m proud to say that I have never been a registered Democrat.

Many people who identify as socialist start off believing in the two party system, but you never did? 

I didn’t, but I understand why people do because what the hell else is out there? And hey, we don’t want the republicans, so this is the next best thing. I understand that kind of thinking. I feel like though it’s time to say, “it’s getting us anywhere.

I was hoping you’d say you used to be a Republican.

I grew up in a left leaning household. In fact, my grandparents were members of the Communist Party here in Brooklyn. I didn’t know that until after I became political, but somehow through osmosis that passed down. My parents are essentially left-liberals who vote democrat. Bush was elected three months before I was eligible to vote. By the time it came to 2004… I didn’t want… the anybody but Bush mentality that swept the nation, I understand, but Kerry? Bush-lite? “I’m going to kill the terrorists better than bush.” That was his line! I voted for Nader.

To come of age around that time sets the stage for the rest of your life. It was such a surreal time

It was.

In a weird way, and I don’t seriously think this, I almost kind of miss the Bush years. At the time you knew who the bad guys were. I’m one of those people who started as a far-left, progressive democrat. That transitional period from having some doubts, to becoming disenchanted, to straight up rejecting the Democratic Party, was very traumatic. It almost makes me wish the bush years when it was a little simpler.

In a sense it was easier because there was a clear target. But also, there was the support of the democratic of movements like the anti-war movement, which radicalized and politicized people like me, but directed the movement towards the Democratic Party, which buried the movement. All the hopes were put into 2006 elections and Obama in 2008. That took all the air out of the anti-war movement and really shows the connection between movement and elections. Movements are political and when elections happen that energy can be redirected towards elections and into a system that waters down and demobilizes movements- (Loud plane engine passes by.)

I’m pretty sure that was the CIA coming to render us to Romania. There are the hazards of trying to conduct an interview in the patio of a bar at 10:25PM. 

(Laughs) The bush years radicalized and politicized many people, but also were a time of defeat. The stealing of the 2000 election was a defeat. 9/11 happened and was used to crack down on opposition. That was a defeat. The anti-war movement rose up for a brief moment, but was beaten back. That was a defeat. Then an economic crisis with bank bailouts. There was hope and change in Obama, and that was a defeat too. I’m a little envious of people who ware ten years younger than me, teenagers coming of political age now, a couple of years into the crisis, with the backdrop of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, mass movements in Turkey and Brazil, the Occupy movement being the first experience for many.

Dang, it’s a good time to be young and politically active and hungry for radical change. I am very excited for the potential going forward.

One of Sawant and Moore’s major platform positions called for a $15 dollar minimum wage. When the Fight for 15 movement began nearly a year ago, it seemed like a pipe dream. A year later, we see fast food and retail workers nationwide organizing around a $15 dollar wage. The 8/29 strike alone hit nearly 60 cities nationwide. Do you believe Socialist Alternative’s electoral gains this year occurred in part because of this movement? How has Socialist Alternative organized around this issue in the past, and where do you see it’s future?

I think that the fight for 15 and electoral success of socialist alternative are routed in the same process in this country. It became most vocal, most clearly, in the occupy movement, which busted the lid on the political staleness of mainstream debate and discourse. Occupy came along and said, “We’re fed up with the political system and parties that aren’t doing anything. The 1% is the problem; the 99% has something in common. We’re all suffering and looking for real change”.

It was not a truly mass movement in scale, but it had mass support because it tapped into the unspoken thought process of millions of people. That was a very new, young movement without a lot of experience. But I think what you see with the Fight for $15 still has the flavor of Occupy in its boldness. It’s not going for a traditional unionization drive, majority strike action. It’s saying if there are enough of us who are fed up, we’re going to take the lead. We’re going to go out there and walk off the job. They figured out how to do it for one day and getting around legal retaliation. Though they still face retaliation.

It’s a new tactic in a way, a minority strike. The idea of a strike is shutting down a business because you can’t get heard otherwise and hitting them where they care, the profits. Not because you want to but because you have no choice. But a minority strike doesn’t try to do that, it’s about getting attention, drawing people’s attention to an issue that people care about. And it’s true; initially it seemed out there. But at the same time, it seemed impressive even if it was just a handful of them in one city. And I think that’s why it spread to 60 cities a year later.

I think it’s taking off because people can’t get by. Here in New York, Fast Food Forward’s slogan is “We can’t survive on $7.25!” And that’s the point, people can’t take it anymore. What’s interesting is that they’re not just asking for an extra dollar or two. They say they want double, because that’s what they need. That’s important because some people say that’s too much too fast, but on the other side people say “Hell yeah!”

They’re more inspired if there’s more to gain. I think what we’ve done with our electoral success in Seattle, but also Minneapolis, is tap into that same feeling. Saying the things that people aren’t saying that people need to hear. The two party system is broken and politics doesn’t work for working people. We aren’t going to be satisfied with little promises, we want free universal healthcare, massive expansion of transit, funding for education, $15 minimum wage. Socialist Alternative has in the past fought for union struggle, defending wages, better benefits. In fact, we tried to organize a union in your hometown of Brockton, MA.

City of Champions!

Right! FedEx package handlers in the warehouse were in terrible conditions, not just a question of wages. Incredible heat in the summer, lifting hundred pound packages without proper equipment. It’s dangerous, they’re beating up their bodies, but they have to do it. There’s no job protection. They’re looking for a voice. They needed someone to speak up.

A fast food worker in New York told me he was shorted $200 on a check and when he spoke up, he was suspended for a week. He didn’t get his pay and was retaliated against just for raising his voice! Wage theft is a huge problem. I just read that there’s more money stolen from working people in low wage jobs than stolen from banks, convenience stores and gas stations combined. On top of being low paid, wages are being stolen!

These are the sorts of wage theft activities that employers tend to get away with. In these industries like retail and service, there is the assumption that people won’t fight back, they’re powerless. Now that we have this “job recovery”, this very slow recovery that the news freaks out about every month, you have all these college educated workers, middle class people, who are going into service and retail jobs. One of the things I wonder about is what does the future have in store when you have people from several generations of the underclass working alongside people who don’t think of themselves as the underclass, who expected more.

There’s that which fueled the occupy movement. Downwardly mobile middle class youth saddled with college debt working $8 an hour and living in their parents’ house. Not where they expected to be 5-10 years out of college. When reality doesn’t meet their expectations, people move into action sometimes.

The other factor is that you have is that fast food jobs are alleged to be a stepping stone to a better job, mainly just for young people looking for extra money. In reality, the case is different. The average age in fast food is 28 years old and 32 for women. This is not young people looking for pocket change, this is people working for a living. There are no opportunities for better jobs because the so-called job recovery doesn’t exist. The only recovery that exists is the recovery of huge profits for big business. They’ve continued to make record profits while inequality grows.

Look at the percentage of working age adults employed, it hasn’t increased. Anytime there’s added jobs, it doesn’t match the number of people entering working age and it’s undercut by people who leave the job market, who give up. After six months, they’re not counted in labor statistics. The real situation is massive unemployment and underemployment. Low wages, not enough hours. Looking at that situation, the frustration with the political establishment, there is huge potential to organize from basic demands of working people. Better wages, better conditions, better jobs.

That’s what we plan to do with our electoral success. We’re not simply looking to fight for minimum wage laws, not simply by negotiating with politicians. We want to build real power base to put pressure on the establishment from below.

What do you believe 2014 and the future has is store for Socialist Alternative, leftism, and popular social movements?

In Seattle, our first order of business is to propose a minimum wage ordinance for $15 an hour. We’re gunna fight like hell for that. There’s already people who have come to us since the election and say, “We want to join you!” The hundreds of volunteers, more people, new people who have come into our office saying “we want to join the fight for $15 struggle!” We want to build this nationally. We exist in other parts of the country, and we want more national days of action. Maybe this May Day, my idea, and you heard it here first…

Oo! Exclusive!

…is to have a mass, national day of action for $15 minimum wage. That and there’s tremendous potential to continue to build a new voice for working people. I think what our election campaigns really show is that we don’t have to be satisfied or accept the two party system.

So many people are fed up, they are ready for an alternative. Now they see it’s possible to run election campaigns outside the two party system and win. Raise issues that the two parties don’t raise, and win! We see an opening. There should be hundreds of candidates in 2014, 2015, that are challenging the two party system, raising the same issues and basic working class ideas as a step towards building a new party for working people in this country. I think there’s potential to build a socialist movement, there’s clear potential.

I think capitalism has become the dirty word. Young people in particular, the polls show it, our campaign shows it, are very open to socialist ideas. I think there’s potential to build workers’ movements, to build an independent political voice and new party for working people. And I think there’s potential to advocate and organize around socialist ideas, to arm these movements with an alternative to the system of capitalism which can’t provide the reforms people want to fight for. I’m very excited about the future for Socialist Alternative and the worker’s movement in this country and around the world. Because this is part of an international phenomenon of working people around the world beginning to rise up and challenge the system and challenge their political institutions. So it’s a new chapter of history opening up. I would encourage people who are fed up to get involved and make that history.

If people want to learn more about Socialist Alternative where should they look?

The best place is www.SocialistAlternative.org where you’ll find info about who we are and what we stand for. Contact information and a join page if you want to get active and join the fight for socialism.

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