Chris Hedges: How to Defeat the Billionaire Class

Many of these tactics have been pioneered or refined by Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative party in Seattle.

Original Illustration by Mr. Fish — “How to Defeat the Billionaire Class.”

By Chris Hedges

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative (SA) party have, for nearly a decade, waged one of the most effective battles against the city’s moneyed elites. She and the SA have adopted a series of unorthodox methods to fight the ruling oligarchs and, in that confrontation, exposed the Democratic Party leadership as craven tools of the billionaire class. Her success is one that should be closely studied and replicated in city after city if we are to dismantle corporate tyranny.

Sawant, who lives on $40,000 of her $140,000 salary and places the rest into a political fund that she uses for social justice campaigns, helped lead the fight in 2014 that made Seattle the first major American city to mandate a $15 an hour minimum wage. 

Following a three-year struggle against Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest men, she and her allies pushed through a tax on big business that increased city revenues by an estimated $231 million a year.

She was part of the movement that led to Seattle’s successful ban on school-year evictions of school children, their families and school employees. She was one of the sponsors of a bill that protects tenants from being evicted at the end of their term leases, requiring landlords to provide tenants with the right to renew their leases and a bill that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent if the rent was due during the Covid emergency and the renter could not pay due to financial hardship.

The billionaire class has targeted her since she assumed office in January 2014. It has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a corporate PAC called “A Better Seattle” and saturated television and digital platforms with negative advertising. She and the SA have been denied ads by Google, YouTube and Hulu.

Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant in 2019 with seniors appearing before her committee to demand Mayor Jenny Durkan protect the Central Area Senior Center and Byrd Barr Place for public use. (Seattle City Council, CC BY 2.0)

Amazon alone spent over $3 million to defeat her when she ran for re-election in 2019. In December, Sawant defeated a well-funded campaign by the city’s business community to remove her in a recall vote. The Democratic Party in Seattle is currently trying to gerrymander her district to separate her from working-class supporters.

You can watch my full interview with Sawant, who has a PhD in economics from North Carolina State University, here. Below I have summarized some of her guiding principles.

Always Be on the Offensive

The billionaire class orchestrated a recall vote last year which they expected would put Sawant on the defensive and remove her from office. Rather than let the oligarchs define the themes of the recall, she and her party used it to collect 15,000 signatures to establish rent control.

She rejects the attempt to placate the centers of power by resorting to “moral persuasion and prioritizing peaceful” opposition. This, she says, is a recipe for failure. She is not interested in “cordial relationships” with big business, Establishment politicians, the Democratic Party and business lobbyists. They are the enemy. We will not succeed, she says, by “talking nicely” to “convince rich people to hand a little bit of crumbs to those of us who don’t have any.”

The capitalists, she says, along with the media outlets they control, promote the idea of cooperation so that the public is “lulled into this idea that we’re all on the same side, this is a shared situation, that Covid was a shared sacrifice.” This belief disempowers working men and women.

“The very essence of capitalism is that the very wealthy at the top make this enormous profit at the expense of ordinary people,” she says. “The only way to address the class war is through class struggle.”

Democratic Party Cannot be Reformed from Within

Sawant is one of nine city council members. The other eight are Democrats. The Democrats often rhetorically support progressive reforms, but as is true nationally, they have little intention of implementing them. Sawant’s radicalism has exposed the Democratic Party’s duplicity.

The Democratic Party has repeatedly joined forces with the oligarchs, many of whom are their donors, to destroy Sawant. The self-identified progressives in the Democratic Party, she says, play “a role which is contrary to the interests of working people. Every step of the way they have placed obstacles in the path of winning these victories.” She notes that every victory she and her allies achieved, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and the renter’s rights laws, “has come about despite the overt or backroom opposition and tactics by the Democrats.” These victories were won not by appealing to the Democratic Party leadership, but by mobilizing unions members and workers to fight for them.

Tenant rights rally in Seattle, December 2017. (Backbone Campaign, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

“One of the first things that happened when I took office was these two prominent Democrats, Democratic council members who came into my office, sat me down, and said, ‘well it’s all well and good’ – I mean, I’m paraphrasing, obviously, I don’t remember the exact words – but paraphrasing, that ‘it’s all well and good, you roused the rabble and got elected as a socialist, but we’re here to tell you that City Hall runs on our terms,’” she says. “‘You are not winning any wage increase, let alone $15 an hour.’ And less than six months later, we had won the $15 an hour minimum wage. So that about sums it up for the Democrats.”

“The Biden administration has completely failed,” she says.

“And you don’t have to take the word of a socialist. You can see the approval ratings for Biden are as low as they’ve ever been throughout his presidency. It’s not just him. The Democratic Establishment, including his regime, has completely failed in passing any kind of progressive program, whether it is $15 an hour or Medicare for All. He promised to cancel student debt and not even a fraction of that measure has been carried out. This is exactly the reason why now we are staring into potential clobbering of the Democrats by the Republicans and by the right-wing in the midterm elections.”

Radical New Deal-Type Reforms, or Else

Sawant and the SA have not only been targeted by the billionaire class and the Democratic Party but by the extreme right. Campaign volunteers have been harassed and threatened. The former police union president Ron Smith, who like many in law enforcement is sympathetic to the extreme right, called for Sawant to be handcuffed as Seattle police actively worked to have her removed via the recall vote. The best way to battle the extreme right, she argues, is to implement reforms that ameliorate widespread suffering. If this is not done, the extreme right will grow.

“The extent to which right populism succeeds is a testament to the failures of the Democratic Party and the infancy of the left, the U.S. left,” she says.

“How much the right succeeds, and how much of a clash there will be, is dependent on how the balance of forces adjusts itself. If the agenda for a living wage adjusted for inflation, for Medicare for All, for canceling student debt, for a real Green New Deal policy agenda, if all of this were put forward by the Democrats, they would be able to win over a big section of the voting population that ends up either staying out of the elections or voting for Republicans and the right wing. There is a genuinely dangerous and reactionary current on every continent, but to the degree to which they get traction, that entirely depends on what else is on offer.”

“Working people in America right now are searching for answers,” she says. “It is because of the disappointments on the electoral arena, the disappointments from many of the BLM leaders being unable to deliver on the promise of this enormous Black Lives Matter movement that happened in 2020. It is because of all these reasons that young people are testing the avenue of labor organizing. It’s amid this complete failure and disarray that the Democrats are in, that the workers at the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island were able to win the first ever union in Amazon. And the reason they were able to win is precisely, again, they used class struggle methods to convince their coworkers.”

Identity Politics Won’t Win Over the Working Class

The Democratic Party and the liberal class have replaced a genuine political agenda with what she calls “woke soundbites.”

Sawant calls this tactic “dangerous.” She argues that most of the American working people “are already won over to the ideas of a society that genuinely respects everybody around us.”

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Two-thirds of Americans, for example, support Roe v. Wade. The barrier for progressive change, she argues, is not racism, but the leadership of the Democratic Party, including the squad, the labor movement and the leadership of social movements such BLM. Identity politics “is not the way to win over working-class people. That is handing a weapon to the right wing on a golden platter.”

Wary of Labor Leaders Allied with Democratic Party

Sawant warns that most labor leaders, along with social activists such as Al Sharpton, who are allied with the Democratic Party exist for photo-ops and to “co-opt our movements.”

“We should be wary of them,” she says. Our best hope lies in the mobilization of rank-and-file workers. She points out that the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) succeeded at the JFK warehouse “because they did not use what I would call the business unionism, basically the conventional ideas that have existed in the labor movement, in the Democratic Party, and even among social movement and NGO leaders, that the way to organize for change and even to win a union election or to win a good contract is to think about the margins, this sort of mythical idea of a few labor leaders at the bargaining table, and then not mobilizing the rank and file.”

Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, holding microphone, during celebration of the vote to unionize at a Staten Island, New York, facility. (Amazon Labor Union)

The ALU “led with concrete demands and “didn’t talk about the union as an abstract entity.” The ALU focused on winning a $30 an hour starting wage, job security, a say in scheduling and the ability to work full-time if desired.

“The other thing that they did right was that they made it very clear that the bosses are not on your side. They didn’t cultivate illusions that somehow, they could convince management and Jeff Bezos to be nice just by making morally persuasive arguments.”

Organizing Around Demands, Not Personalities

Politicians, even self-identified progressive politicians, she says, have “made peace with the capitalist system.” They falsely believe that they can negotiate with the billionaire class and barter for a few progressive reforms. This tactic, she says, has failed. “The Biden administration is in shambles precisely because that approach does not work. And it also calls into question how far are we going to aim to change society?”

“If you look at the data on the climate crisis, it is very clear,” she says.

“We have a very small window in which we need to make a fundamental shift away from capitalism. And for that, we will need mass movements of workers. We will need mass revolutionary struggle led by working people, ordinary people, to bring about that kind of change. That kind of change, flowing from the needs of the planet itself, cannot happen through elections.”

“Campaigns need to be organized around demands, not around personality politics,” she says.

“The way to run a strong electoral campaign is to, as I said, completely reject personality politics, completely reject careerism, and build political organizations like Socialist Alternative. Except we need far bigger organizations where we can hold our elected representatives and other leaders in the organization accountable in the program of demands that we are fighting around. This becomes the central focus, not those individuals who could then use those positions to build their own careers by making themselves useful to the ruling class. That’s what we need to reject.”

Reaching the 80 Million Non-Voters

Sawant and the SA reject the Democratic Party’s tactic of focusing on centrist or likely voters. They mobilize those who are often part of the 80 million eligible voters who don’t cast ballots, including immigrants, those living in public housing and marginalized communities. She and her party distribute campaign material in eight languages. This tactic has built a new political base. In one heavily East African building in Seattle, for example, turnout was nearly 10 times what it was in the general election.

The Democratic Party, she claims, lacks a commitment to disillusioned and disenfranchised voters. “[Its] primary task is to be useful for the ruling class under capitalism, but the way they do it is by speaking from both sides of their mouth. For example, they will talk about $15 an hour. Every so often you will see Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus tweet out saying it’s time for Medicare for All. But then when it comes time to fight for it, they will use their progressive status to give cover for the Biden regime.” They do not, for this reason, have any interest in mobilizing workers.

“We would not have won our elections had we not mobilized a whole section of the population that is typically disenfranchised. Not because they don’t have the legal right to vote, but because there’s nothing for them to vote for.”

Militant & Independent Labor Movement

Sawant expects the Democrats to take “an absolute shellacking” in the midterms.

“The prospect of a Trump resurgence is also a very real one, unfortunately, at this point,” she says. “That’s how dangerous the whole debacle of the Biden regime has been. The only way to cut across that and create a genuine alternative to right populism that could unite most working-class people in America is through working-class politics.”

New labor leaders, she says, will need to rally workers around a common working-class based program in defiance of traditional unions and the Democratic Party.

She points to the labor uprisings by teachers in West Virginia in 2018 “who won an enormous victory by standing up not only to the Republican led legislature in the state, but also to the leaders of their own unions who were not willing to take a fighting approach to winning a strong contract, and to maintaining solidarity across the board among public school employees.”

She is also encouraged by the example of Starbucks workers now in nationwide unionization drives in hundreds of stores.

“All of this is telling us the way to push back against corporate politics, push back against the failures of the Democrats, and to defeat the rise of the right wing is to build struggles of the working class where we’re able to unite a majority of working people on a common working class-based program.”

None of this, she cautions, is going to be automatic.

“We need a courageous rank and file leadership to make that happen. And the political clarity that a labor leadership that is tied at the hip to the Democrats is not going to be the force of change. The force of change will be a revival of the militant labor movement.”

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR.  He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”

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9 comments for “Chris Hedges: How to Defeat the Billionaire Class

  1. Mark Stanley
    June 2, 2022 at 20:14

    Good comments here. Originally from South Seattle, I’ve been aware of this lady since she was elected. Her district includes Capitol hill, where the voter base is hyper-liberal. Even though I do not feel aligned with all of her ideas, I admire her spunk. She has taken on the ‘cool’ Seattleites who are theoretically liberal as long as they are comfortable–an admirable task indeed. That attitude always kept me from living in town.
    Sawant’s focus is on the local. As Richard Coleman has pointed out here, her knowledge of international affairs leans towards ignorance. Also, I must add that when a politician talks about ‘workers’ they are typically not referring to themselves. Even though they may claim to be, at the end of the day they think of themselves as above that–intellectuals or whatever.

  2. ChrisHerz
    June 2, 2022 at 05:10

    The first duty of socialists is opposition to war, the best tool in capital’s hands by which they grow their power. So it is possible to say no to Russia’s campaign in Ukraine but more important by far to do everything possible against the real perpetrators of world violence — our own malefactors of great power in Foggy Bottom. Including advocating the defeat of their Ukrainian proxies.
    Disappointing Sawant seems willing to unite with the Establishment on that important issue.

    • Richard Coleman
      June 2, 2022 at 15:55

      A couple of comments:

      First of all, the duty of socialists should be to oppose IMPERIALIST war.
      (If the US attacked Cuba, would we chastise Cuba for fighting back?)

      Second, I would say that the PRIMARY duty of socialists is to overthrow capitalism which is the cause of all war.

    • Don
      June 2, 2022 at 19:27

      Yes, it’s more than a blind spot, it exposes the superficiality of their understanding of history — still, I guess it could be considered a start, but I find it hard to trust them: Are they a Socialist Alternative or just a Tribal Alternative?

  3. Richard Coleman
    June 1, 2022 at 14:14

    I support 100% and agree 100% with Chris and this article. Until recently, I judged SA was the best of the left groups out there. Been a Socialist since 1976.

    But then….

    In a recent statement of policy by Kshama’s parent organization, International Socialist Alternative, “War in Ukraine, The New Era and the Crisis of Capitalism”
    (International Socialist Alternative (ISA) – April 11, 2022) (with which she agrees), we read:

    “We completely oppose RUSSIAN IMPERIALISM’S INVASION of Ukraine which was preceded by Putin’s speech where he blamed the Bolsheviks for Ukraine’s existence and essentially denied the historic reality of the Ukrainian nation. PUTIN’S UTTERLY REACTIONARY invasion has already created a humanitarian catastrophe with over three million refugees fleeing the country and over six million internally displaced.” [Emphasis added]

    While there is a brief nod to Zelensky’s “leaning on the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and his regime has rehabilitated World War II Nazi collaborators” and a perfunctory opposition to “the agenda of U.S. and Western imperialism which through NATO has moved to encircle Russia and helped create the conditions for this war” the primary thrust of the article is clear: opposition to Russian “imperialism” and its action in Ukraine.

    Let me be clear: I totally and without reservation support anybody fighting Nazis. Any time, any where, any how. ANYBODY. Even if it’s a rival so-called “imperialism”.

    SA and Kshama are wrong.

    • mgr
      June 2, 2022 at 08:38

      Richard: Thank you for that. I too agree with the socialist agenda. Obviously, the “profit above all” capitalism practiced in extremes by the US has driven the US into constant conflict around the world and now the world itself to the brink of environmental catastrophe, in the face of which the engines of this capitalism cannot even slow down. It is no longer enterprise, it is addiction.

      And while progressive in terms of a better society and economic system that works for all, the SA leaders seem to have fully embraced the “immaculate conception” view of events in which all history suddenly begins sans even a nod to cause and effect and at a convenient spot for a particular narrative and without a correct understanding of events, there is never a solution. That is a fatal stupidity. It demonstrates no insight nor courage.

      Socialism of some sort is a great and likely even a necessary idea for a sustainable future for all, but with the embrace of such a shallow and facile perception, SA is a complete non-starter for me. Great ideas but with no integrity nor courage to make them work beyond local interests. Sadly, that just joins a whole parade of false promises and dead ends. Even great ideas in themselves accomplish little until there are leaders that can implement them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, is now long behind us. Remember his courageous stand against Vietnam and the whole US military machine? It seems, at least for now, that America has lost its ability to produce leaders of real integrity, competence, courage, and compassion, and there is no future without it.

      Nonetheless, as Mr. Hedges points out, there are certainly good lessons for organizing to glean from their experience.

  4. Gregor Sirotof
    June 1, 2022 at 11:13

    I’m not an expert but this sounds very good and correct to me. It all makes sense. Lately, it seems we haven’t gotten anywhere with Democrats, even the so-called, ” Squad ” of which most seem to be more concerned about their careers and getting re-elected than actually accomplishing anything concrete for working people. Chris Hedges has argued for this for years, ever since his support of Ralph Nader. He took a lot of flack for making the Corporate Democrat Party lose to Republicans. But how long can we be led through the wilderness, arriving nowhere by corporate Democrats and false progressive prophets? People like Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative seem to accomplish concrete positive things for people, with no begging or selling out.

  5. mgr
    June 1, 2022 at 06:23

    The ironically named “Democratic Party” is a tool of America’s oligarchy and elite power structures. It pretends and markets itself otherwise which is its main difference from the GOP – style – but it also makes the “DP” more dangerous, and now we see, extremely more dangerous. As an example of this, I think it would have been much more difficult for a “Trump” administration to drag the EU into the conflict in Ukraine. Joe Biden’s supposed “integrity” gives EU leaders cover for their own preferred venality.

    I knew the “DP” was a lost cause thanks to HRC. I looked for reform after 2016 and instead we got Russiagate. The “DP” is both diabolical and incompetent, at least so far as the people of the nation are concerned. This of course is just like all neocons, and now neodems (the same thing, just different marketing). It’s the ideology that drives the neos that makes them stupid in thought and action. I predicted that with the election of Biden the “DP,” and perhaps America, had lost its last chance to reform itself (Sanders would have been a change, I don’t know how much), rather than being reformed “from the outside” (like Nazi Germany in WWII). I think that outside readjustment is now underway. It did not have to be; “profit above all” is a nation and culture killer. I said that the “DP” would become irrelevant with Biden’s election. This is certainly coming true. This doesn’t mean the GOP is the answer, but in these insane times it may be more of one than the current “DP” which at this point I find completely insane and irredeemable, not to mention utterly sickening. Flush it down the crapper and seal the lid.

    The bottom line is that the “DP” is not a good partner for the people nor for the hope of a decent future for America. Pretending otherwise is a recipe for even worse to come. Shatter the illusion of the “good” Democratic Party and we are halfway to a solution. The other half is the solidarity of ordinary people. After all, the only way that the oligarchy stays in control is by keeping the rest of us divided. Right now, our two political parties offer no substantive solutions. They function only for themselves and to hold the people, the legitimate protagonists of the nation, down.

    In our new age, which will be defined by dealing with the real effects of climate change, cooperation between people, locally and internationally is the only way that our species will survive on this planet. Whom and what ideology will lead the way to that? Certainly not what we have at present.

  6. Marvin
    June 1, 2022 at 05:23

    “The very essence of capitalism is that the very wealthy at the top make this enormous profit at the expense of ordinary people.”

    Exactly, and going after the ordinary landlord does nothing to challenge the billionaire class. Rent control penalizes seniors who bought a few properties in the 1970s-90s when real estate was affordable, many of whom rely on that income to pay their medical expenses later in life. Billionaire landlords like the Kushners oppose rent control but they can afford it with the property tax breaks they get for their massive apartment complexes, whereas small-time landlords with single family residences can’t.

    When the homeowner defaults on the mortgage and loses their home, why are banks allowed to hold the properties, reducing inventory and inflating home prices? Why are billionaires and their investment firms permitted to buy up so many residential properties, reducing inventory, inflating prices and making it unlikely for tenants to ever purchase homes? Why are billionaires allowed to let their prime real estate sit vacant when they are not living in it?

    There’s plenty of room for displaced tenants in the Hamptons and Billionaire’s Row. They could also take in thousands of migrants while they’re at it. Let’s start a new program – Every politician who votes for war adopts a migrant. Also, if wages kept up with housing costs, rent would be more affordable. Until these problems are addressed, not much progress will be made towards solving the housing crisis.

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