bezos grin

The Amazon Empire Strikes Back

On November 5, there will be City Council elections in Seattle, Washington. Amazon, the fourth-largest US corporation, is directly intervening in these elections with a view toward defeating council member Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative, who is running for a third term.

Karl Marx explained that elections in a bourgeois democracy amount to choosing which agent of the bosses will dominate the working class for the next period. Like the American ruling class in general, Amazon believes it should have a government completely beholden to it. One of the main reasons it has tried to buy “its own city council” is because Sawant proposed a bill that would have it and other large corporations pay a “head tax” to fund affordable housing. This would have raised an estimated $50 million in the first year for such projects.

In 2018, Amazon had gross revenues of $232.9 billion, so $50 million is just pocket change for them. But the bourgeoisie hate to give up even a single penny. Like Darth Vader after the destruction of the first Death Star, Amazon decided to launch a vicious counterattack against any attempt to lay public hands on the money it has accumulated from the exploitation of its workers. Moreover, the company has clearly succeeded in getting a section of the right-wing pro-capitalist leaders of the Seattle labor movement to oppose Sawant. In spite of this, many unions are supporting Sawant in her reelection campaign.

Amazon’s principal owner is Jeff Bezos, currently the world’s richest individual. He also owns the influential Washington Post. The New York Times reports that Amazon has flooded the political action committee of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce with $1.4 million. It also reported that top Amazon managers have contributed more than $16,000 of their own money to her rival, Egan Orion.

We believe that Sawant’s campaign offers an important opportunity to clarify the differences between a reformist and a revolutionary socialist approach. / Image: Seattle City Council via Flickr

We unequivocally stand with Sawant against the capitalists and encourage readers of Socialist Revolution and Marxist.com who live in her district to vote for her against Amazon’s candidate. We also believe that this campaign offers an important opportunity to clarify the differences between a reformist approach to electoral politics and elected office, and a revolutionary socialist approach.

Reformism without reforms

Seattle has seen its homeless population skyrocket and rents have escalated dramatically for the vast majority of workers. About 47% of renters in metropolitan Seattle paid more than 30% of their income on rent, with 22% of renters paying more than 50%. It used to be considered the norm that people would pay no more than 25% of their income on rent.

Kshama Sawant proposed the aforementioned “head tax” to the Seattle City Council as a way of bringing in some revenue to fund affordable housing programs. Sawant is the only socialist on the council, but she was able to convince some Democrats to vote for this and it passed. Amazon immediately threatened to pull its operations out of Seattle and used this blackmail to get the City Council to repeal the head tax—which they quickly did. Capitalist politicians always follow the orders of their bosses!

A small tax on the largest corporations to fund more housing is more than reasonable. Marxists support any and all measures which would lead to improving the lives of the working class. But we understand that reforms are a byproduct of the class struggle. Reforms are won only after a tough fight, even in a boom period of capitalism. In a period of capitalist decline, such as the one we are living through today, the fight for reforms becomes that much more difficult.

seattle homeless camp
Marxists support any and all measures which lead to improving the lives of the working class. But we understand that reforms are a byproduct of the class struggle. In a period of capitalist decline, the fight for reforms becomes that much more difficult. / Image: Joe Mabel via WikiCommons

A Marxist elected to public office should clearly explain this. The role of a Marxist on an elected legislative body should be to use this position to organize the working class and clarify the tasks and fights that lay ahead. Marxists should view themselves as the workers’ opposition to the big-business-dominated legislative bodies they are elected to, constantly exposing their function as defenders of the capitalists.

It should be explained that real change cannot happen as long as the capitalists’ political parties control the city, state, and the federal government. Real change can come about only through the building of a mass working-class socialist party and the establishment of a workers’ government, which would nationalize the top 500 companies—including Amazon—to be run under democratic workers’ control and management.

Marxists support even small reforms but should explain why these are unlikely to be passed and implemented by a capitalist-controlled government. Only enormous pressure from the working class can force serious concessions. But if political and economic power is left in capitalist hands after the movement ebbs, the reform is only temporary and will always be in danger of being rolled back. This is why Marxists should keep the long view in mind at all times, using any elected position to help build the infrastructure of what could become a mass, independent working-class party fighting for socialism. While supporting struggles for reforms today, we should also warn the working class not to have illusions in a quick fix to their present problems.

What should our priorities be?

Getting a Marxist elected to office can bring many benefits. An elected official can access resources and mass media that allow for political ideas to be spread to larger sections of the working class. However, if a worker or socialist is elected to government, they inevitably come under enormous pressure from the enemy class. In the course of the last century, how many elected labor candidates, socialists, and communists have been either bribed, intimidated—or both—into betraying the working class?

Experience shows that before planning to run for office, a Marxist organization should first build a strong base. This base can anchor the elected comrade to their organization and help connect with the class as a whole. This is crucial in order to defend the comrade when they come under the attack of the class enemy and its sycophants.

While it is absolutely true that an organization can gain new members and supporters through such campaigns, we believe that Socialist Alternative made a mistake in this respect, and were looking for a shortcut. They ran to win when they had not yet built up a sufficiently solid base among the broader working class. They wanted to elect someone first and then build a base on the basis of that position. As a result, Kshama Sawant came under pressure from the capitalist class even before she took office, and began moderating her views accordingly.

Socialist Alternative’s look for a shortcut quickly turned into a slippery slope as they felt the pressure to “deliver results” to constituents who were not yet committed to an all-out class struggle for socialism. This led to mistakes, for example, on the question of the minimum wage. The “$15 Now” campaign became “$15 rolled out over several years,” and yet, it was presented as an unalloyed victory for socialism. And to win votes on certain proposals, Sawant was compelled to “make deals” with Democratic Party council members who are ultimately hostile to a socialist program. All of this has left her with much less of a base with which to defend herself from the ongoing assault from the ruling class.

Sawant has been compelled to “make deals” with Democratic Party council members who are hostile to a socialist program. All of this has left her with much less of a base with which to defend herself from the ongoing assault from the ruling class. / Image: Seattle City Council via Flickr

As another example, DSA is the largest socialist group in the US, claiming 60,000 members. However, in the context of such a massive country, even they are not yet a mass force. We believe DSA should have its elected members break with the Democrats and run for reelection as independent socialists, on a socialist program, campaigning on the need for the working class to have its own party. Any DSA members who run in the future should likewise run independently and on the same basis.

Build for a socialist future!

It is clear that, sooner or later, we are heading for an economic slump. The crisis of capitalism is felt throughout the US and worldwide in Lebanon, Chile, Sudan, Iraq, Ecuador, Hong Kong, Haiti, and beyond. Colossal opportunities will open up for us. In preparation for this, we believe the main task at this time is not to win office for the sake of winning or to “pressure the Democrats,” but to use these campaigns to build an organization of dedicated Marxist cadres. This alone can provide a rock-solid political and ideological framework for the future mass socialist party of the working class.

Part of the process of recruiting and training such cadres necessarily involves participating in the movements of the working class and the oppressed. But we must be frank and understand that serious and lasting victories can result only if we connect revolutionary Marxist ideas with the advanced sections of the working class and then the broader masses. There are no shortcuts to this and no solutions within the limits of capitalism.

We hope to see Amazon suffer a small defeat on November 5. It would be great to see the look on Jeff Bezos’s face if Sawant wins this election! The struggles in Seattle over the last few years offer many lessons and are a point of reference for socialists around the world. Win or lose, the serious task of building for a socialist future on solid foundations remains—the IMT and its supporters are working hard to make this happen.

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